Islamic Music between Pop Songs and Hip-Hop

If George W. Bush Were Muslim

Music with religious content is on the rise – also among young Muslims in Europe. Martina Sabra asks what "Islamic" music is and what role it plays for Muslim youth in Europe

Cover of Sami Yusuf´s last album
Sami Yusuf: Clear moral messages instead of Islam propaganda – many youth welcome this pragmatic message

​​The popularity of the band "Outlandish" has been increasing for years, in Denmark as well as in other countries. In England the Islam singer Sami Yusuf has been the subject of portraits in the mainstream media such as the BBC and "The Guardian." Also in Germany an "Islamic" music scene is beginning to emerge.

Ammar, a young Ethiopian-German from Frankfurt who converted to Islam at the age of nineteen, has already created over a dozen rap songs that demonstrate not only his talent in writing lyrics but also his gift for satire. For example, he narrates in staccato how U.S. President George W. Bush grows a beard and converts to Islam.

The student from Frankfurt who plans to become a teacher addresses only a small minority with his mixture of satire and missionary zeal. After all, his songs can only be heard on the Internet. But he has an important message for very devout young Muslims: yes to the peaceful coexistence of religions and cultures; no to the sweeping demonization of the West:

"To every coward who tolerates hate and terror. And who rejoices when a bomb explodes in public. To those who support and carry out such acts. Peace is being attacked in the name of Islam: You sow injustice and follow Satan, your own inner weakness, but not Islam. You're dragging our religion deep in the mud. If you've had enough – then do some rap instead."

Idol: Yusuf Islam

The musical idol of many religious Muslims is Yusuf Islam alias Cat Stevens, who converted to Islam in 1977 and then for religious reasons took a break from his music career for many years. The assumption that Islam prohibits music, however, is disputed among Muslim experts and scholars alike.

"Some Islam scholars have always claimed this throughout history. But nowhere in the Koran is there a prohibition against music, neither explicitly nor implicitly," says Anes Sabitovic, a Bosnian-born teacher of classical guitar and a music journalist for the Islamische Zeitung, an Islamic newspaper in Berlin.

Music is not prohibited in the Koran

Therefore, and most likely influenced by the rise of intolerance and violence worldwide in the name of Islam, Yusuf Islam acknowledged a few years ago in interviews and open letters to his fans that the prophet Muhammad definitely approved of poetry and uplifting music. But Yusuf Islam's concerts and albums are still shaped and inspired by Islam.

His texts praise God and his religion. The songs are musically inspired by the "Nasheed": a mystical, religious song, typically a cappella, at the most mixed with some rhythm. Yusuf Islam has also re-recorded old Cat Stevens hits such as "Peace Train" in this style.

But a growing number of religious Muslim youth want more. They are enthusiastic when Islam musicians present religious messages in the form of rap, hip-hop, or soft rock – such as the music from British musician Sami Yusuf.

"These are not traditional forms," explains Berlin musician and journalist Anes Sabitovic, "but typical pop music. Only the texts are Islamic."

Sami Yusuf: chaste, apolitical, non-violent

Sami Yusuf, born in 1980 to Azerbaijani immigrants, grew up in England and studied music at the renowned Royal Academy in London. He now tours the world with his Islamic edification repertoire. Sami Yusuf owes his fast-growing popularity to his clear renunciation of violence and terror as well as to the Saudi television station "Iqraa."

In his music videos Sami Yusuf preaches a neoliberal Islam that desires to be compatible with Orient and Occident: chaste, family-oriented, apolitical, non-violent. Clear moral messages instead of Islam propaganda, a call for concrete social action. Many youth welcome this pragmatic message.

For twenty-four-year-old Saloua Muhammad, a German-Moroccan theology student from Spich near Bonn, Sami Yusuf is the Muslim Xavier Naidoo (who in his turn is a pop star in Germany with South-African, Indian and German roots, who often refers to religion in his songs). "He (Sami Yusuf) makes music that appeals to young people, with topics that are important to them: What is the meaning of life? Who is Allah? Who is the prophet? What does a regulated life look like?"

Devout? – Not

Saloua Muhammad, who regularly visits the homeless with the Islam youth organization "Lifemakers Germany" and is also socially committed elsewhere, regards Sami Yusuf as his role model. But whether Islamic music can find a broad audience in the German-speaking world is more than dubious.

Many young people with Muslim backgrounds in Germany say that religion is important to them. Yet the majority of them are not practicing their religion and are not even devout. If they listen to music with a connection to Islam, then it is more likely to be groups like Outlandish or rappers like Everlast – young musicians who emphasize their Muslim identity but without missionary zeal.

This is also true of Anes Sabitovic: "Here I make a distinction. For me art has priority," says the Muslim guitarist and journalist from Berlin. "Privately I prefer to listen to classical music and jazz."

Martina Sabra

© 2006

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce´

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