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Music And Muslims: The 'Cat Stevens' Effect

WATCH: Tajik singer Mehrubon Ravshan gave up his successful pop career in favor of religious music.

By Kristin Deasy

Mehrubon Ravshan is the Cat Stevens of Tajikistan.

Ravshan is best known for hit songs like "Az Mani" ("You Are Mine"), but now that the 30-year-old pop singer has become a more devout Muslim, he's changed his tune.

One last goodbye concert, "then only religious songs"
Conversion to Islam can make for a nearly 180-degree career change, as seen with popular British singer-songwriter Cat Stevens. Stevens changed his name to Yusuf Islam and largely abandoned his musical career after converting to Islam in the late 1970s.

Ravshan's transition pulls him into a centuries-old, ongoing debate among Muslims regarding the morality of music and what the Koran says -- or doesn't say -- about it. In many ways, the debate over music mirrors the larger debate over the direction in which Islam, the world's fastest-growing religion, is moving.

"Globally, I would say that we have very strong groups of musicians who say there is no problem with music and Islam," says Ole Reitov, the program manager for the international musicians' advocacy organization Freemuse. The exception, he explains, are some religious conservatives and radicals who "believe that music is completely out of the question, that it should be totally banned."

Nothing Specific In The Koran

"One of the biggest misunderstandings is that the Koran should say anything specific [about music]," he says. "It doesn't."

Many moderate Muslims around the world are open to various forms of music, provided they don't offend basic Islamic moral values. These scholars emphasize "niyya," a word meaning "intention," when it comes to musicians and those listening to their music.

Such thinkers generally accept most forms of music but push for its moral development, arguing against popular music that is focused primarily on sexuality (especially female). Followers of Islam's mystical Sufi tradition, meanwhile, have a rich musical history, with dancing an integral part of their worship.

Music As 'Sin'

Those following more conservative strands of Islam tend to be more restrictive, arguing that music can have a sinful effect on society. One example is the 1994 book "Tahrîm âlâta" ("The Prohibition Of Musical Instruments") by the Jordanian Islamist scholar Muhammad Nasir ad-din al-Albani. Some extremists, notably the Taliban, support a ban on nearly all music -- even some religious music -- on the grounds that it is a worldly distraction of a kind discouraged by the Koran.

Ravshan is one of many musicians whose work has been fundamentally changed by his interest in Islam. He joins a growing number of devotees as the religion booms worldwide. In 1990, Muslims constituted around 20 percent of the world population; today, they make up an estimated 23.4 percent; in 2030 that figure is expected to rise to 26.4 percent.

Ravshan says he decided to stop singing popular songs after he went on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

"I want to hold one goodbye concert and then sing only religious songs," he says. "I will do this step-by-step, and everything is in God’s hands."

Good Marketing

But Tajik music specialist Mahbub Ganjali cautions that some artists might be converting to Islam for marketing purposes.

“Our singers try to touch on popular issues, and some of them use these issues in order to make money," he explains. "Earlier, labor migration was a big issue, so we saw lots of songs on that. Now Allah and the Prophet Muhammad are important, so we're seeing more songs about that."

While singers in Tajikistan might be concerned with how best to cater to a growing Muslim audience, musicians in areas controlled by Islamic fundamentalists find their very lives under threat.

In Pakistan's tribal areas, the rise of Islamic extremism has Khyal Mohammed, a legend among Pashtuns for his Ghazal music, virtually in hiding in his Peshawar home. Female vocalist Ayman Udas was shot and killed in the same city right after her first television appearance three years ago.

Usman Ulasyar, the president of Pakistan's Swat Arts and Cultural Society, says artists in these volatile regions need better government protection. "Especially now that the region has been affected by militancy," he says.

"Many artists have been left with no other option than to give up singing," he says, adding that many different kinds of artists feel under pressure in the area. "I don't think religion is against such forms of art, and provides artists with safety, but there are some that [presumably] misuse religion for their personal benefit," he says.

“I believe the fact that many singers have stopped singing and performing other arts is principally the government's failure," he adds.

Iran's 'Dylan'

Meanwhile, a concert by Mohsen Namjoo, known as Iran's Bob Dylan, was canceled at the last minute a few weeks ago in Malaysia on the grounds that Namjoo's music was "demeaning to Islam and the holy verses of the Koran."

Namjoo came under fire from the Iranian authorities a few years ago for a song that blended verses from the Koran with traditional Persian music.

Mohsen Namjoo's music was seen as demeaning to Islam.
In places like Iran, the complex role of music in Islam gives the country's Islamic rulers an opportunity to advance their own -- sometimes hypocritical -- agendas.

For example, authorities routinely crack down on Western-style pop and rock music, but many critics of the regime say the Iranian government actively supports a local pop industry to address the needs of the country's huge youth population -- without helping stoke opposition. Many Iranian musicians, like Namjoo, have left their native country in order to continue practicing their art free of pressure or threats.

Rock and heavy metal groups in Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, are forced to hold their concerts underground, despite the fact that Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal owns the Arab world's largest record label, Rotana.

In secular countries with majority Muslim populations, the situation is even more complex. Uzbekistan recently produced a damning documentary of Western-style music -- not because such music was un-Islamic but as an attempt by the country's authoritarian regime to discourage youth from exploring Western ideas and values.

Musicians in many Central Asian countries struggle with the combined pressure of conservative Muslim societies and politically repressive governments.

"There are a lot of artists who have recently faced big problems in Turkmenistan, in Uzbekistan, even in Kazakhstan, but often political problems," Reitov says. "Obviously, there is an increasing interest in radical Islam in that part of the world. Again, is that due to political repression or is that due to the missionaries from Saudi Arabia and even from Egypt? Difficult to say. I think it's a lot about identity."

What Is A Good Muslim?

The issue of identity goes to the heart of a larger debate gripping the Islamic world: What does it mean to be a good Muslim?

Mutah Wassin Shabazz Beale, formerly known as Napoleon, used to be part of the American rap group Outlawz, founded by the prominent rapper Tupac Shakur. He converted to Islam in May and now tours the world speaking to young Islamic audiences.

"As a musician," Beale says, "you don't just release an album and sit in your room. You have to go on tours, you have to perform, you have to be around certain areas, you have to be around a certain crowd, you have to put yourself in a situation that the religion of Islam calls you to stay away from that type of lifestyle.

"You know, the religion of Islam calls to everything that is upright and good."

Mirzo Salimov and Iskander Aliev of RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Ahmad Bashir Gwakh of Radio Mashaal, and Sharifa Esmatullah of Radio Free Afghanistan all contributed to this report

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