by Thembisile Dzonzi
In a community where listening to music is prohibited, the melodic sounds of the nasheed genre are a popular alternative in Islamic households. However, even in this religious genre of Islamic praise music there are contending views as to what is halaal and what is haram.
Seductive, explicit, harmful, shameless, vulgar, promotes vice, is not to be listened to or haram (prohibited in the Qur’an). These are some of the terms used by the observant Muslim community to describe Western styles of music.
Within the religious constraints of the Muslim community that prohibits music, nasheed is an alternative option. The genre has been popular in the Arab world for centuries but has also drawn a lot of debate in the Muslim community.
To unfamiliar ears, nasheed sounds like a combination of humming sounds sung in a variety of tones and melodies. It comprises various pitch formations and harmonies that sometimes mimic the sound of instruments. Nasheed can also be accompanied by a percussion instrument such as the daf, a traditional Islamic drum. It is traditionally sung in Arabic or Urdu.
In South Africa’s observant Muslim community, nasheed is sung in English and the use of instruments such as the piano have been embraced, particularly by the Muslim youth.
For Mayfair resident Junaid Bata, music played an integral part in his adolescent life. “Many years ago I was very involved with music. We used to play around on guitars and enjoy ourselves with music,” Bata says.
In Surah Luqman, Verse 6 of the Qur’an, it states “And of mankind is he who purchases idle talks (i.e.music, singing, etc.) to mislead (men) from the Path of Allah without knowledge, and takes it (the Path of Allah, the Verses of the Qur’an) by way of mockery. For such there will be a humiliating torment (in the Hell-fire).”
This reading in the holy book is one of the reasons Bata changed his opinion on music. He says, “In our religion we are not allowed to use musical instruments, and being young we were naughty.”
As Bata matured, listening to the rock and roll of the 1960s and ’70s became a distant memory of boyhood. “When I got married I quickly moved away from the wrong things and music was one of those wrong things,” Bata says.
Bata, like many Muslims, now leads a life without Western-styled music. Sharing in the orthodox belief that all music is haram and should not be listened to. For Bata walking away from music was an easy choice based on faith.
For many observant Muslims like Bata, the sounds of nasheed have to be on par with their religious values. Keeping the sound and its content clean is a priority.
The nasheed genre is popularly associated with international artists such as Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens) and South Africa’s Qari Ziyaad Petal and Zain Bhikha.
Depending on their preferred school of thought, nasheed artists share varying perspectives on the religious boundaries of the nasheed musical process. Some artists prefer to take a traditional approach and only perform nasheed using nothing but vocals and Arabic, while others are experimenting with English lyrics and various instruments such as the daf and piano.
For Qari Ziyaad Patel, following orthodox dogma in relation to song is an important part of Islamic teachings. “My first and foremost priority is reciting the Qur’an. This is what differentiates me from other nasheed artists,” says Patel.
For Patel, nasheed can be described as a form of Islamic poetry made with soothing sounds that are accompanied by meaningful Islamic text. These are often sung in traditional tunes that have been passed down many generations.
“We all do know and we always follow the teachings of the noble Prophet Muhammad where he has mentioned in many of his narrations telling us of the harms of music,” says Patel.
“Wherever you go today you will find that wherever there is music, sadly a lot of vices take place at raves and clubs and so forth.”
Patel began singing nasheed some 15 years ago on a visit to Bata’s house where the two began a father-son like relationship composing nasheed together.
“My son made him read the Qur’an,” Bata recalls.
“I was inspired by his voice and I said to [Patel] why don’t you sing something and he said ‘what should I sing?’ and that time there was the war in Afghanistan and the Taliban,” says Bata. Patel interjects to elaborate that the pair were so impressed by the way children were taken care of during the time of war that they decided to write about it.
Over the years they composed a few more songs together, The Grief I Feel being one of their most popular songs. “I wrote one or two songs for [Patel]. The songs were a bit heavy,” says Bata.
“All of our songs are completely kosher. All our songs are in the spirit of peace,” Patel says, as he elaborates the non-fundamentalist aspect of his nasheed. For him nasheed is not music, it’s a form of Islamic praise poetry.
“We were taught when we were kids that anything associated with music will only bring harm and wrong with it. It’s forbidden. We were taught to be careful of the vices associated with music,” Patel recalls.
Despite the traditional approaches practised by Patel and other nasheed artists in the area, and worldwide, the more modern, instrumentally based nasheed industry is a thriving one.
Artists like Zain Bhikha have made the move to English nasheed and have found local and international popularity. Bhikha is among the handful of South African nasheed singers who sing in English and use instruments like the daf.
However, Bhikha still remains cautious about the restrictions of halaal and haram music. Most of his albums come with bonus tracks that consist of non-instrumentals or offer the drum versions of the original nasheed. “Inadvertently, by being cautious and my love for a cappella, I’ve created a niche for myself,” Bhikha says.
In the past 20 years, the name Zain Bhikha has become one of the most prolific in the South African nasheed landscape. Bhikha’s career began with simplistic a cappellas, reciting the Qur’an on cassette tapes. It was in a fateful moment that one of his cassettes landed in the hands of Yusuf Islam, who was so impressed by it that he flew Bhikha out to London to record A is for Allah with him.
It seems the influence of working with former rock star Islam shifted Bhikha’s creativity from reciting a capella tunes to more elaborate tunes that consist of vocal layering, harmonies and drumming.
Bhikha has made a number of appearances on the Top 500 Influential Muslims in the World list, which is compiled by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, Jordan. He is also an international superstar in the Islamic music world and is often referred to as one of the founding fathers of the modern day nasheed. Though if you ask him, in his gentle demeanour, Bhikha would tell you “music is like a hobby for me”.
“I’ve seen this whole genre of English/Islamic music come from nothing over the last 21 years and every day I see new artists and every one of them comes with his or her own style. I think [the industry] is going to grow,” says Bhikha.
Bhikha adds that bringing an African influence to his nasheeds has helped distinguish him from other artists. “My songs are very African, you can hear the African backing vocals coming through, you can hear the influences, even the melodies, whilst contemporary, they have a very strong African background.”
But Patel feels the shift to English nasheeds is a sad sign of the Islamic community. “There’s a great shift to English nasheeds, sadly many a time the old folk and the young folk as well they won’t understand much of the Arabic sung on some of the nasheeds. The Arabic is of a very high level and even the Urdu at times is of a very high level,” says Patel.
According to Patel, Arabic nasheeds are easier to sing because of the way in which the Qur’an is written, it allows the artist to put a tune to the words with more ease. “That gives us the edge over English artists. Arabic is very versatile,” says Patel.
He adds: “You will find that some of our parents and our grandparents would understand. But the current generation, we have lost our connection with the home language so many tend to go and listen to English nasheed.”
Patel recalls how many of the nasheed artists started off reciting nasheeds without any music but once they are in the industry they feel the need to want to try and make their material more accessible through the use of instruments and English.
“They will start to try make their music better and start inserting a bit of musical instruments. So they will initially start by inserting instruments where there is consensus from the scholars, for example the daf, and as time progresses, they want to make their music and nasheed more accessible and eventually we find some youngsters having a full-blown musical nasheed,” says Patel.
For Bhikha, music is simply black or white. “Either it’s a good song or a bad song, either it’s inspiring you to do something that is in accordance to what you wish to emulate as a human being or not. A lot of the songs out there are teaching our children harmful messages, whether it be about the materialism of this world, whether it’s about disrespecting women, whether it’s about drugs, whatever the case may be,” says Bhikha.
“For me personally, I don’t subscribe to any particular dogma. However, I do believe that I’ve erred on the side of caution to make my music accessible. So all my albums are only with drums and voices and even on the same album you will find both,” Bhikha adds to his contemporary thoughts on the longstanding debate.
“The important thing is for people to focus on the music rather than everything else. We should focus on the music, focus on the message and make a difference,” says Bhikha.
His more conservative counterpart shares a stronger and more traditional view on the prohibition of musical instruments. “As a reciter of the Qur’an and a Qari of the Qur’an, I would say that this is totally and completely incorrect. For us and the teachings that we have been taught, music and instruments are not allowed,” says Patel.
For traditionalists like Patel, nasheeds should be recited using vocals and harmonies but no musical instruments whatsoever. “There are others who would beg to differ but majority of us here in South Africa are of the school of thought that all musical instruments are haram and should not be used,” says Patel.
Islamic radio seems to agree with Patel’s view and contributes to the conservative nature of the Islamic community of Fordsburg and Mayfair. “From a faith perspective if something is not clear, allowed or not allowed, people would rather abstain from that grey area,” says Ismheal, public relations officer at Radio Islam.
For Radio Islam in Johannesburg, the station only reserves 5% of its content for music. The other 95% is talk. “Our licence conditions don’t allow us to play music because we are a more traditional or if you would like to use the word ‘orthodox’. I suppose, yes, our listeners share this sentiment,” says Ismheal.
He adds that the station has conditioning measures that filter through all music before it gets put on air. While most stations are concerned with making sure their aired content is audible and complies with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission’s mandate, Radio Islam checks for lyrical content and the use of instruments. Their checklist is simple, “first people will listen to it see what the lyrics are, what does it say. The other is ‘is it accompanied by musical instruments’ yes or no and if it’s not, fine,” says Ismheal.
From a contemporary point of view, Bhikha’s sentiments are more concerned with the instrumentally populated Bollywood style of music. “It’s interesting in the debate about music because many people would say music might not be permissible but Bollywood music has its own genre and exceptions a lot of the times. I think it’s because the tradition of Indian culture in Bollywood is so strong there’s a lot of nostalgia there … but that’s also changing, it’s becoming a lot more modern.”
Within the large range of music on sale in the Fordsburg and Mayfair there is a split between traditional nasheed CDs and copies of Bollywood tunes that fill the album shelves in music stores.
“Like in many communities, music is a central part of the heartbeat of Fordsburg and Mayfair,” says Bhikha.
In the western part of Johannesburg, there is a plethora of small and big stores that cater to the musical needs of the Fordsburg and Mayfair Muslim community and its visitors, traditional and contemporary.
“Ultimately, I think all human beings want to listen to beautiful sounds and beautiful poetry, this is what makes up human beings,” says Patel.