Music in the Arab-Muslim World

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Court Scene with Music, Dance and Wine from a Rumi manuscript from the 17th century

Music in the Arab-Muslim world has traditionally been a vehicle for poetry. Partly because of its association with the Qur’an and god, poetry has often been considered the highest cultural form. The great Persian poet al-Ghazali wrote: “There is no entry into the heart except through the antechamber of the ears. Musical tones, measured and pleasing, bring forth what is in the heart and makes evident its beauties and defects...whenever the soul of the music and singing reaches the heart, then there stirs in the heart that which preponderates in it.”

John L. Esposito wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Muslim views of music have been influenced by hadith (Prophetic traditions) that caution against music and musical instruments. Nothing in the Qur’an bans music, however, and historically music has been a popular and significant art form throughout the Muslim world. It has played an important role in religious festivals and in life cycle rituals, including those for birth, circumcision, and marriage. In addition, throughout Muslim cities the daily calls to prayer are traditionally sung or chanted by a muezzin and projected from on high from loudspeakers on minarets. The most important musical form in Islam, however, is recitation of the Qur’an, done as a chant, in which annual competitions are held throughout the Muslim world. Recordings of Qur’an recitation are widely sold, and some of Islam's best-known singers have been reciters of the Qur’an. The Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum and others have imitated Qur’an recitation in their music. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

As part of their devotions, the Sufi orders typically use music, both vocal, through repetition of words or phrases and in chanting, and instrumental. For Sufis music is a vehicle for spiritual transcendence and a means of attaining the experience of divine ecstasy. Folk music has also been an important expression of culture throughout the Muslim world, used to express moral and devotional themes as well as heroism and love. The music produced by the Muslims of Andalusia, like their poetry, had an enormous impact on the development of classical music in Europe.

Because a negative connotation sometimes given music by Islam, the development of music in the Muslim world has been for the most part a secular phenomena. Some audiences show their appreciation of singers and musicians they like by throwing money on the stage. The pan-Arab singing contest on the Lebanese LBC satellite television station was very popular in the mid 2000s. When Iraqi Shadha Hassun won in March 2007, Baghdad erupted in celebratory gunfire.

Classical Arab songs are often an hour or more in length and deal with themes such as forbidden or unrequited love or tragic fate. Devotional chanting has been described as a cross between secular music and Qur’an recitation. It is often done by a solo singer and a chorus at weddings, Ramadan parties and Sufi celebrations. “Chaabi” describes a wide variety of styles of Arab popular music. “Sut el-Khalije” is the music of Gulf Arab fishermen.

Arab music is circulated primarily via radio, television and the Internet. Arab music and Arab film are also inextricably intertwined. Many Arab songs are simply too long to fit neatly into three-minute, pop-song format of albums and CD. Many popular songs were — and continue to be — sold on the streets as bootlegged cassettes and CDs. The cassette market took the music industry away from record companies and gave it to the street vendors. It democratized the music market and robbed famous performers of millions in royalties.

Islamic, Arabic and Persian Literature Islamic and Arabic Literature at Cornell University ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ;
Wikipedia article on Islamic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Arabic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Persian Literature Wikipedia ; Persian literature at Encyclopædia Britannica ; Persian Literature & Poetry at /

Music and Islam

Islam has no music. Although chanted Muslim prayers have a musical quality and “maqamat” structure, orthodox Muslims have lobbied hard to keep music out of their religion. Playing music was once forbidden as idolatrous. In some Muslim societies women rarely play musical instruments other than tambourines. In some places they are not even allowed to touch musical instruments.

The cadence of the Qur’an is very musical and many Muslims sound as if they are singing when they recite Qur’anic passages. Prayers and the call to prayer by the “muezzin” are not considered music because the "emotional impact of the sheik in the recitation is guarded by strict rule about pitch and tempo."

Syrian singer Omar Souleyman

In a famous Cairo court case in 1977, a judge ruled, "The holy Qur’an contains the words of God, who recited it in a manner we do not comprehend. Qur’an recitation is an act of compliance and does not involve any innovation."

Not all devout Muslims are opposed to music. Among Sufis music is viewed as a way to get closer to God. Sufis have developed techniques to create ecstatic experiences and heighten them. Among them are the repetition of poems and holy names, music, dance, meditation, rhythmic beating, chanting and self hypnotism. The goal is to work oneself into a trance and loose contact with the immediate world to intensify one's awareness of God. Ritual used to open a path to divine ecstacy are called dhikr .

Describing a Sufi sect in Egypt, Thomas Abercrombie wrote in National Geographic, "Devotees from the poorer quarters gather under colored lights to the cadent spell of flutes and drums. Wearing agate prayer beads and a red fez wrapped with a green turban, the tall, clean-shaven master led the emotional dhikr , a “memorial service to God," waving the rhythm with a gilded baton." " Allah! Allah! Allah! " the chant continued for half an hour, with hypnotic effect, then veered from prayer to poetry: Stranger in this world Shepherding the night starts Sleepless, forlorn... Emotions flowed. before the evening was over I saw women swoon, grown men break into tears."

Islamic Ban on Music

Music is frowned upon by conservative Muslims unless it praises God as stylized versions of Qur’anic scripture. Some Islamic groups have banned music and dance. Muslim views of music have been influenced by hadith (Prophetic traditions) that caution against music and musical instruments. Nothing in the Qur’an bans music.

The Taliban in Afghanistan banned music, drumming and dancing at weddings as a sin against Islam. Music shops and record stores were only allowed to sell recordings of sermons and Qur’an recitations and religious songs without the accompaniment of instruments. All musical instruments were banned except for tambourines. Cassettes were confiscated from cars at checkpoints and their tapes was ripped out.

Music and dance were banned by the Taliban because they were regarded as frivolous distractions from prayer. Men were expected to spend their free time praying, reading the Qur’an and fighting jihad. Explaining the prohibition on music, one Taliban cleric told The New Yorker, “Islam does not permit it. People who sing create the thing that causes cowardice. And when a person spends his time in singing he loses his time.”

Omar Souleyman concert in 2015

The Taliban also based the ban on music on a story from the haddiths in which the Prophet Muhammad became irritated when he heard the sounds of his family singing. “When the holy prophet walked into the room and heard the music, he stuck his thumbs in his ears.” Most Islamic scholars say that yes Muhammad did not like the music but he didn’t try to stop it and he didn’t try to ban music in general.

The Muslim singer Deeyah hired 24-hour bodyguards after receiving a number of threats by Islamists who took issue with her sexy stage image. She has been spat on and had people call her a a “whore” on her fan sites. She has also received her share of support messages. One said: “nothing should stand in the way, least of all extremists. I mean, how dare they? Who on earth do they think they are?”

Early History of Arab Music

In the old days music was mainly the occupation of women. Singing female slaves worked at weddings and festivals and entertained courts and caravanserais as prostitutes and entertainers. Sometimes they accompanied warriors to the battlefield and sang war songs to get them in the mood for fighting. Most male performers were “mukhanathin” (transvestite slaves).

It is no surprise then that when Islam came on to the scene that music was associated with decadence and looked down upon. One Umayyid caliph wrote in A.D.740, "Beware of singing for it will steal your modesty, fill you with lust and ruin your virtue." In some places music was banned and musical instruments were confiscated and destroyed.

Because music was handed down orally from generation to generation and was not written down, we don’t know what early Arab music sounds like. What we know is based on a handful of paintings and illustrations and some descriptions by court observers.

Golden Age of Arab Music

drawing from Arabian Nights

Music held a high position the Golden Age of Arab culture during the 8th to 12th centuries thanks to hedonistic, arts-loving caliphs like Harun el-Rashid, who not only loved music and musicians but protected them from religious purists. Arab music all but disappeared under 500 years of Ottoman rule.

A talented Iraq-born musician named Zirab is regarded as the father of Arab music. A prodigy, he was driven from Baghdad by musicians envious of his skills and settled in Cordoba, where he established a school of “ haute couture” and developed a “Hispano-Arab” style of music unaffected by Greek theory and still regarded as the purest form of Arab music today. It influenced flamenco music in Spain and is different from music from the Greek- and Persian-influenced Middle East.

One of the most famous musician-poets was Ishaq al-Mawsili (767-850). It was said he knew every live of Arabic poetry every written and once brought tears to the deaf and dumb with his words. His contemporary al-Farabi wrote the “Great Book of Music”, a treatise on rhythm, scales and modes, by far the most advanced work of its kind in the world in its time.

Describing an Abbasid concert, one composer wrote: “I was led into a large splendid saloon, at the end of which there hung a gorgeous silk curtain. In the middle of the room were several seats facing the curtain, and four of these seats had already been taken by musicians, three female and one male, with lutes in their hands. I was placed next to the man, and the command was given for the concert to commence. After these four had sung, I turned to my companion and asked him to accompany me with his instrument...I then sang a melody of my own composition...Finally the door opened; Fadl ibn Rabi’ cried, ‘The Commander of the Faithful,’ and Harun appeared.

Later History of Arab Music

Arab music made a come back in the 20th century after Ottoman rule ended as the Middle East forged its own identity after a long period of being dominated by Turkish and colonial powers. Arab music is the late 20th century has evolved in many ways as reaction and adaption to the technology, permissiveness and styles of Western music.

A defining moment in rebirth of Arab music was the pan-Arab conference in Cairo in 1932 that was partly supported by the European composer Bartok. Musicians and composers from all over the Arab and Muslim took part and they were not only inspired by music from their region but also from the West. The heavy use of string arrangements and harmony in modern Arab music can be traced back this conference.

Modes, Maqamats and Rhythms in Arab Music

Aleppo music

The modes of Arab music have remained pretty much unchanged since the Golden Age of the Muslim World a thousand years ago. “Maqamat” refers to complex scales on which classical Arab melodies are based, each of which is associated with a particular mood, season or body humor. Today there are 60 different “maqamats” in popular use. They are divided, not into 12 semitones like Western music. but 24 quarters. Singers often switch from one “maqamat” to another and develop a method scaling a large range called the "maqam phenomenon."

Arab rhythms vary great greatly from the shortest of two beats to the longest at 88 beats. Of the 111 recorded rhythms only about 10 are commonly used. A “rajaz” is perhaps the simplest rhythm. It is a poetic meter "likened to the rhythm of a camel's hooves."

Among the other rhythm types are “Samaai”, a 10/8 rhythm often used in classical Arab music; “Masmoudi”, a slow Egyptian pop rhythm in 8/4 time; and “Matsoum”, an Egyptian pop rhythm in 4/4 time.

Arab Musical Instruments

The “rabab” is a bowed instruments popular in the Maghreb and Middle East that is believed to have inspired the creation of the violin. Resembling a cross between a banjo and a sitar, it has two strings, a curved hide-covered body and a wood neck with a rosette sound hole. Some have a sounding body made with coconut wood and fish skin. Over the past decades it has been widely replaced by the violin. It is held vertically on the knee.

The “kanun” is an Arab-style zither (or dulcimer) that is played over the knees. It consists of a flat trapezoid box with anywhere from 40 to 100 strings that are plucked with plectra attached to the fingernails. Introduced in the 18th century, this instrument, it is said, takes half a lifetime to learn to play properly and half a lifetime to tune, which is done with levers.

The “kamenjah” is a Persian fiddle adopted by the Arabs. Held up vertically on the knee, it is three-string bowed fiddle with an oblong wooden body and a short neck.

The “darabouka” is one of the commonest Middle Eastern and North African drums. It is made from pottery shaped into a cylinder with a swell at the top and a single skin stretched over it. It is beaten with two hands.

Flutes and Woodwind Instruments

Egyptian arghul

Oboe-like shawns are popular throughout the Mediterranean. The Muslim “ghaita” (sometimes spelled rhaita” ) is loud snake-charmer-like instrument popular at weddings and parties. Usually made of hardwood, it has a double-reed mouth piece, a conical pipe and six to eight finger holes. The “mey” is a similar instrument with larger reed. It has a more melancholy sound.

The “arghul” is an Arabic double-reed clarinet. Producing a sound reminiscent of a bagpipe, its is comprised of two parallel cane or wood pipes, each with a single reed and five finger holes. The long pipe produces a bass drone. The short pipe is used to finger a melody.

A variety of flutes are also used in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Most are either “nays”, a hard-to-play flutes carved from a piece of hollowed bamboo, reed or hardwood, and recorder-like “kavals” .


The “oud” is a pear-shaped, short-necked lute-like instrument usually with five or six pairs of strings. Believed to have originated in Iraq about 2000 years ago, it is descended from the musical bow used by Babylonians, was mentioned in the Bible and reached Europe in the 11th century via Muslim Spain and over time evolved into the lute, which has same number of strings as an oud but has a longer neck. Lute is a mispronunciation of the Arabic word “al'ud”, which means "the wood." The lute eventually became the guitar.

The oud provided an accompaniment for poetry and used by traveling mistrals. During the Golden Age of Arab Culture, it was a favored court instrument and used by mathematicians and philosophers to work out their theories on scales. It is said that the oud gets its unique sound from the songs of birds that live in the trees—such as mahogany, lemon, coconut and olive—that supply the wood to make the instrument.

Egyptian oud

Jeffrey Fleishman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “With a shell shaped like a polished turtle, it's the Arabic cousin of the lute. Its rhythms and laments have played through the centuries, from caravans to palaces to the orchestras of belly dancers and divas. It was once as prevalent as the call to prayer.” [Source: Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2010]

Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet wrote for the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The origin of the lute cannot be pinpointed to a specific date, but its close relationship to the Arab 'ud is without doubt. The 'ud has a pear-shaped body with a bowled back, made of numerous ribs (thin strips of wood), a wooden soundboard, rosettes (decorative soundholes), plucked gut strings, and a peghead that is bent back in a curved shape. The name al 'ud literally means "the wood," and was most likely used to distinguish instruments with wooden soundboards from those with soundboards made of animal skin. Examples of 'uds first appear on illustrations and manuscripts in the pre-Islamic Arabic peninsula in the sixth century. [Source: Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, "The Lute", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2010 \^/]

It is not until the thirteenth century that the Western lute can be distinguished from the Arab 'ud in iconography. The earliest evidence of the Arab 'ud in Europe can be found in numerous carvings and depictions dating back to the ninth century, when it was introduced by the Moors to Spain. However, it is not until the thirteenth century that the Western lute can be distinguished from the Arab 'ud in iconography. One of the first depictions of the European lute—an illustration of a musician playing the instrument at a chess game—can be found in the Libro de Juegos (Book of Games) commissioned by Alfonso X in 1283. This illustration demonstrates the similarity of the form of the European lute with that of the 'ud, although the latter has frets and its peghead is bent back like a lute (not curved as on a typical 'ud). The instrument is shown being played by a Christian woman, whereas all previous depictions of similar instruments were played by Arab performers.” \^/

Cairo Oud Maker

Jeffrey Fleishman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Ali scrapes his planer, pale curls weightless as snow tumble around his sandals, his glue pot simmers on a stove. He tightens strings of copper and silk until the pluck-pling of ancient music rises from his worn hands and drifts out the door. A single note. Then it vanishes. "I don't play, really, I just make."[Source: Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2010 ==]

Zaidoon Treeko playing a double-necked oud

“Ali works in the Gamil Georges shop, founded in 1906 in a brick building with a wrought iron arch. Georges is dead and his son is 86 and doesn't come in so much anymore. The red and white letters spelling out Gamil Georges on the window are fading. The shop is pretty much run these days by Ali and Eid Mohamed, filling orders from France, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and the guy in Texas who requests two ouds each year. ==

“Mohamed works downstairs, unfinished ouds of beechwood, oak and mahogany tacked up by the dozens on walls of grit and dust. Ali, who Mohamed says is the best oud maker there is, rules the loft, climbing a ladder, scrunching through a passageway and then standing in the breeze of ceiling fans. Ali had his own shop, but says taxes, bureaucracy and the "unsecure nature of Egypt's musical industry" led him here a decade ago. ==

“He prefers not to talk when he works, hovering over his bench, his untucked shirt swaying, his dark eyes narrowing, focusing on his tools and wood that seems to float through his fingers. His ouds sell for $100 to more than $1,000, depending on the quality of wood and intricacy of design. The company pays him $5 for each one. He must be doing all right, though; he smokes Western cigarettes, not the cheaper local Cleopatras. ==

“This music goes back to the pharaohs, says Mohamed, his work clothes streaked with months of stains. "The most important thing is the balance between neck and nose. This must be precise or the sound is off and any musician would hear such an imperfection. My father was ultra-religious. He forbade music and never listened to it. He would never have approved of my making ouds. I had to wait until he died."” ==


A ghazal is a light style of classical Persian love music adored by the Mughals. Originally more of a poetic than musical form, the name is derived from an Arabic word meaning "to talk amorously to women." Although sometimes referred to as the Urdu equivalent of khayal, it is based as often on folk melodies as on ragas. The lyrics are often taken from famous Urdu poems. Famous ghazal singers are mostly women. They include Shabha Urtu, Najma Akhtar and Begum Akhtra (1914-1974). [Source: Rough Guide of World Music] Ghazals are also performed in Central Asia, Iran and Turkey. In India they often heard on the radios or in films popular in northern India. But they are most often associated with court music from the Mughal Golden Age. These songs were often linked with stories of maharajahs who seduced deadly snakes into performing dances, Mughal shahs who transformed day into night with their songs and musicians who calmed rampaging elephants.

Some ghazal stick close to the raga format. Others bring folk rhythms to the forefront and verge on being pop songs. Essential elements found in Ghazal are shayari (“eloquent poetry”), mausiqui (“gentle music”) and jazbat (“fragile emotions”). The music is very slow paced and the lyrics are repeated two ro three times. The first couplet is a matla. The second couplet is the makta. The remaining couplets are misra and antara.


Pashtun mahfil

A mahfil (also spelled mehfil, derived from the Persian word for "gathering" or "assembly") is modern version of a traditional private instrumental and vocal performance. Musicians at a marphil have traditionally been forbidden from performing pieces they have played in public. [Source: Rough Guide of World Music]

Mahfils are the dominion of the elite. It is considered a great honor for someone to play at, host or even attend one. It is almost impossible for ordinary people to attend one unless they know the right people. Those who attend seem be divided between the socially ambitious and true music lovers who prefer the atmosphere of a small intimate performance to a concert in a large hall.

"The evening's cost are sometimes shared among the guests, who contribute to the collection, which is taken up at the beginning of the evening; if the mahfil features qawwali then the listener gives the money directly to the singers. It is not unusual for musicians to earn over £2,000 in a mahfil of about fifty listeners...Where qawwali is concerned the amount itself, ideally, is insignificant—the gesture of getting up often and placing a small coin or note into the hands of the singer is a devotional act in itself.

"Nautch girl" mahfil feature a dancing girl performing before an all-male audience, who throw money at the dancer and fight among themselves for her attention. "A large number of helpers, usually female, crowds into the kitchen to prepare halftime-snacks" and "dinner, to be served after the performance at around two in the morning.” Most of the dishes for this meal have been prepared and bought by the guests themselves.

Description of a Mahfil

Describing a mahfil, Jameela Siddiqi wrote in the Rough Guide to World Music, "The build-up for a mahfil is in itself a major performance...guest-listeners...rush back and forth with final preparations—washing the hot-sweet betel leaves and wrapping them around sweet spices to make paan to be chewed, sucked at spat out." [Source: Rough Guide of World Music]

"The large drawing room still retains its grandeur—the furniture has either been moved back against the wall or removed from the room altogether...The fragrance of joss sticks fills the air...The "stage" is clearly marked with rich weavings and bolster cushions. Both musicians and audience sit on the floor...There is no amplification."

At true mahfil gatherings, "the audience don't merely recognize the forthcoming raaga as the instrument is being tuned , but actually call out the taal they would like the musicians to use...The intensity of the music is sharpened by the interaction between audience and performer. Those listeners who are most apt to respond are soon noted by the musicians, who are close enough to see the expressions on their faces and play to their emotions....There is no applause at any time, for clapping is considered undignified and only fit for large concert halls where there is no other practical way of showing appreciation."

Singers and Groups in Arab Music

The singer is regarded are most important musical instrument. Improvisation and ornamentation skills are greatly admired and summed up by the expression "a chicken is not a chicken without the nice fat that gives it its taste."

A “takht” is a traditional Arab ensemble of or five main instruments, including an oud, rabab, riq and kanum. The idea of many songs is to work up momentum with the oud, vocals and kinetic drumming. These day most popular Arab music is recorded in front of a full orchestra or synthesizers that imitate a full orchestra. Many performers have abandoned large orchestra for synthesizers.

Um Kalthoum is regarded as the most popular Arab singer of all time. Often pictured wearing sunglasses, the Egyptian singer entranced the entire Arab world in the 1970s with her monthly radio concerts. Other famous Egyptian composers and musicians, who often performed to the accompaniment of an oud during the golden era of modern Arab music, were Mohamed Abd Elwahab and Farid Atrash.

Shia Music in Iraq

Alissa J. Rubin wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The heart of Baghdad's Shia life is in Kadhimiya, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods. Cantilevered windows lean out from wooden houses over the narrow dirt streets; the outdoor market is so thick with merchants' booths that each awning touches the next. Small wooden doorways lead into warrens of tiny shops, apothecaries, barbers and cloth sellers. At the very back of one of these dark hallways is a small jewelry store no more than 6 feet across and perhaps 8 or 9 feet deep. On a February afternoon, four men are inside, two of them chatting and the other two etching religious messages in fine calligraphy onto gold jewelry. A small boy rushes in periodically with trays of heavily sugared tea. Portraits of revered Shia leaders watch over the proceedings: Muhammad Sadeq Sadr, with his snow-white beard, and his darker-bearded brother, Muhammad Bakr Sadr. Both are believed to have been assassinated on Hussein's orders. [Source: Alissa J. Rubin, Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2005]

Iraqi flute player

“The hunched jewelers are more than craftsmen. They are the "poets of the Husseini pulpit," singers from a tradition stretching back more than 10 centuries. They sing the story of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, in versions ancient and contemporary, urban and Bedouin. It is a form of a cappella music that strikes a chord in almost every Shia who hears it, seeming at once ancient and utterly current. The men in the shop are reciters, or singers; generally, the poems have been handed down through an oral tradition or are written by contemporaries."Most of my thinking is spiritual. I go deeper and deeper into each word I utter and also have before my eyes the image of the death of Imam Hussein," Haider abu Ameer, 23, says as he pauses in his engraving. Then, he lays down his tools and begins to sing.

The melody is lilting, yet carries a sadness so eloquent it brings many listeners to tears. The sound fills the small shop and seeps out under the door. It draws neighborhood children who, their noses pressed to the glass, listen from outside. Ameer closes his eyes as his voice rises and falls by half and quarter tones. Much more than a jewelry shop, this is a gathering place for Husseini pulpit singers. Many of them work the two jobs -- engraver and singer. "There have been attempts over the centuries to extinguish the tradition of the Husseini pulpit," says the singer Talib, 33, sitting in the shop listening to the conversation, a white shawl covering his head. "But it has been around for 1,400 years. There is no end to such a school. Saddam's regime tried to diminish us as well, but we were able to continue."

“The Kadhimiya neighborhood has two flourishing schools that teach the art of Husseini pulpit singing. There are more in other Shia areas of Baghdad as well as in Najaf and Karbala. Some graduates of the four-year schools become professionals and sing at religious festivals; others confine their performances to their own families. Some become teachers or travel to start Husseini pulpit schools in other places. The singers, in demand for weddings and funerals, are almost always present on the Shia' high holidays, when corps of men walk in formation, alternately clapping their hands, beating their chests and hitting themselves with ropes or chains, as poets of the pulpit sing Imam Hussein's story. "The suffering which we have lived under is part of a cycle of actions and reactions," Talib says. "And our suffering is rewarded by God."”

Arab Pop Music and Micheal Jackson

Sami Yusuf in 2011

Arabs are famous for their love of Arab music and their disdain for non-Arab music. It is one of the few regions left in the world where Western pop does not have a strong presence. Popular songs have a strong emotional link: "poignant lyrics, sultry melodies, melancholy tones.” Famous singers and songs have been important in helping define national identities. A song without lyrics is not considered a true song or like "religion without scripture."

Some Arab pop music of course incorporate Western beats and Spanish and Greek influences. Describing the video for the hit song “I Live For You “ by the Lebanese singer Elissa, Samia Hosny wrote in the Independent: “An attractive brunette, cleavage bulging out of her bustier, lies on a bed in a Paris hotel. With big dark eyes, she gazes suggestively at the man across the room. A sequence of erotic shots follows, as the story of an illicit liaison follows.”

One of the hadiths reads that “song and dance by women lacking virtue” coming to every home is one of the signs that the end of the world is near. Some see this as reference to MTV.

Jermaine Jackson, brother of Michael Jackson, converted to Islam in 1989 and lives in Bahrain. In 2007, Jermaine reported that Michael was likely to convert to Islam. “I think it is most probable that Michael will convert to Islam. When I came back from Mecca, I got him a lot of books and he asked me lots of things about my religion and I told him it was peaceful and beautiful.”

Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens in 1972

Cat Stevens is British singer who found a large popular audience in the 1970s. He sold over 25 million albums world wide and created hits like "Peace Train," "Sad Lisa," "Wild World," "Moonshadow," and "Oh Young One." Born Steven Georgiou in London, he had 10 hit singles in Britain and 14 in the United States. After suffering from tuberculosis in 1968 and signing with Island in 1970, he had eight consecutive gold albums, including "Tea for the Tillerman," "Teaser and the Firecat," and "Catch Bull At Four."

The stress of success and disillusionment with the music world, turned Stevens into a hermit in the late 1970s. In 1977 he converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. He became such a devoted Muslim he even came out in support of Ahatolloh Khomeini’s death threats of writer Salman Rushdie. He also founded Britain's only state-funded Muslim school, Islamic Primary School, in 1983.

The first place he prayed was Al Aksa mosque in Jerusalem (in the 2000s he was expelled Israel). He said he decided to become a Muslim while swimming in Malibu. “I tried to get back to shore,” he told the New York Times. “I was fighting the Pacific, slipping slowly out. I called out, ‘Oh God, if you save me I will work for you!’ At that moment a wave was sent behind me, I was swimming back to land and I was suddenly safe and alive.”

Cat Steven was on a United States government watch list for people suspected of having ties with terrorism. In September 2004, a flight he was on from London to Washington was diverted to Maine so that the plane and Stevens could be checked out.

Cat Stevens Attitude About His Music

In 1997, Stevens told the New York Times, "I sort of gave up those little songs I've written in the past. I've sung only privately or at meetings, with no accompaniment. It's not as if I completely ceased melodizing.”

Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) in 2009

In regard o his old music, Stevens told Reuters, "Those that are simply love songs...I would not recommend...In the context of the Islamic way of life, love songs should be connected with marriage and a lot of the songs leave that completely out of the equation." Eventually he softened his hardline position on his old songs and allowed them to be reissued.

In the mid-1990s Steven returned to the studio for the first time in 17 years to produce a 66-minute double album of traditional Islamic songs and a narration of Muhammad's life. In 1997, he performed Bosnian Muslim folk songs at concerts in Sarajevo and Istanbul.

He also wrote two original Muslim chants: “I Have No Cannons That Roar” and “The Little Ones” (of Sarajevo and Dunblane). Lyrics from the latter go: "They'll be raising the little ones/ With no sin to atone/ In the light of high Heaven/ They will sit on tall thrones."

Sami Yusuf

British singer Sami Yusuf has been described by Time magazine as “Islam’s biggest rock star.” Appearing on stage in blue jeans and brown leather, with a close-cropped beard, he praises Allahs in his songs and loathes the way that Islam has been portrayed in the West. His songs have addressed topics such as the identity of young Muslims and the Besland school massacre in Russia.

Yusuf had sold two million albums as of 2007. He is married and describes himself as a devout Muslim who doesn’t drink alcohol and prays five times a day. Although his music features Arabesque string arrangements and synthesized Middle Eastern beats he sites Bruce Springsteen, George Michael and Elton John as his most significant musical influences.

Yusuf was born in Tehran in 1980 and immigrated to England with his parents when he was three and grew up in London. His own upbringing he said has given him insight into what its like to be an alienated Muslim in Europe. “A lot of young guys are going through an identity crisis, and I think that’s where people like me come in and say you can be British, you can be Muslim, you can be hip, you can be having fun—it’s not either or.”

Islamic Punk Rock

Among the dozen or so Islamic punks rock bands in the United States are Diacritical, Vote Hezbollah, The Kominas (“bastards” in Punjabi) and Al-Thawra (Arabic for “the revolution”). Diacritical plays clubs in the Washington D.C. area. Chicago-based Al-Thawra is led by Syrian-American Marwan Kamel. They interject Arabesque arrangements into their hardcore sound. In Britain, many of the groups members are of Pakistani descent and refer to themselves as “brown punks.

Taqwacore in 2007

The funky Bollywood music of the Kominas, a band formed by two brothers in Boston after reading the book “Taqwacorwe”, has been played by the BBC. All members of families of Pakistani or Bengali immigrants, they merge punk with bhangra and Punjabi pop. Their songs include “Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay” and “Sharia Law in the U.S.A.” with lyrics like “I am an Islamist, I am the Antichrist”, which respond to fears among American Muslim after the September 11th attacks.

Among Kominas’s targets are bigots in the West who hate Muslims and view the war on terror as a battle against Islam and Islamic fundamentalists that oppress women and justify bloodshed and attacks on the West. One fan who wears a jean jacket with a picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini for shock value told Newsweek, “To me they’re both wrong.” Some of the members of the group don’t drink and regularly attend prayers at a mosque but others are more indulgent in the hedonistic, rock lifestyle. One member told the Times of London, “I was a Muslim in the way out before I found people I could relate with. This is the part of Islam that is about seeking knowledge for yourself, which is kind of overshadowed by people who want to seek knowledge for you.”


Islamic punks rock bands sometimes refer to themselves as “taqwacores “derived from the Arabic word for piety (“taqwa”) and the English word hardcore. Many of the bands see the movement as a mission to confront stereotypes about the Muslim community both outside it and within it. Michael Muhammad Knight, a Muslim convert and author of the 2003 novel “Taqwacores”, the book that inspired the movement told Newsweek, “The Prophet Muhammad was all about smashing idols, and what’s more punk rock than that?” The novel is about Muslim rock bands trying to reconcile their Muslim beliefs with their love for loud music, hedonism and self-expression.

Taqwacore has grown into a major movement. “The Taqwacores”, directed by Syrian-American Eyad Zahra—debuted at the Sundance Festival I January 2010. “The Birth of Punk Islam” is about Knight and the scene he inspired. Britain’s first major Taqwacore event—the Meltdown festival—was held in London in the summer of 2010. The Latitude Festival is another Taqwacore event.

Knight has become a high-profile journalist and figurehead for the movement. A white American who converted to Islam when he was a teenager, he regards himself as devout but also advocates radical reforms to Islam such as women-led prayers.

Muslim Hip Hop

Muslim rapper U-Self

Muslim rappers in the late 2000s included Chicago-based David Kelly, aka Capital D, and Atlanta-based T.I.P. There is a website ( ), and a record label (Oakland-based Remarkable Current), that special in Muslim hi hop. One of T.I.P.’s raps begins with “Do it to the maximum” which some listeners have interpreted as having the same meaning as the Prophet Muhammad’s maxim: Whenever a Muslim endeavors to do something, he seeks to perfect it.”

Fundamental is a British Muslim hip-hop group that churns out a more radical message. Led by Aki Nawaz, a Pakistani emigrant, the group has released songs like “Why America Will Go to Hell” . Other songs praise jihad and predicts the collapse of the West.

Native Deen is a Muslim hip-hop group based in Washington D.C. Some of the lyric to their rap “M-U-S-L-I-M” goes: “So always be proud, you can say it loud/ I am proud to be down with the Muslim crowd!/ M-U-S-L-I-M? I am blessed to be with them.” Male audience members wear typical hip hop gear. Many females though wear head scarves.

“Deen” is an Arabic word for “religion.” The three African-Americans that make up the group perform in skullcaps and loose tunics and insist that there be no dancing or alcohol at their shows. Because they feel that even turntables are an affront to their religion they only perform with “traditional drums”—conga and tabla. Other songs include “Soldiers”, “Hell Fire!” “ and “Drug Free” .

Native Deen’s song in praise of Ramadan goes: “Ramadan is here/ The blessed month of the year/ Fasting and not eating food/ Acting nice and not rude/ Instead of watching movies today/ Let’s go to the Masjid and pray.”

Attack on Iraq and I Hate Israel

“Attack on Iraq” by Egyptian singer Shaaban Abdel-Rahim was popular throughout the Middle East on the eve of the war in Iraq in 2003 even though state radio and televison stations refused to play it. It blared from taxis, sold well in the street markets and was on heavy rotation on Arab MTV and Egypt’s Dream TV. .

One stanza went: “Since the twin towers we have been living in a dilemma. / If one thousand died then, how many more thousands have died as a result./ After Afghanistan, here comes the turn of Iraq, and no one knows who is next.” Another went: “Enough! Chechnya! Afghanistan! Palestine! The Golan Heights! And Now Iraq, too? And Now Iraq, too? It’s too much for people. Shame on you! Enough, enough, enough!”

Abdel-Rahim, an overweight, greasy-haired, former landryman and wedding singer, also had a hit with the song “I Hate Israel” in 2001. In that song and “Attack on Iraq” he goes after Ariel Sharon: He “stays in a swimming pool while the blood falls like rain” “Look at Israel and its army. It attacks and it kills, and why isn’t that too much? The song sold five million copies and Abdel-Rahim became a fixture of Egyptian and Arab television even though he was publically denounced by Arab governments. The song was especially popular among Palestinian youths who used to blast the song from cassette players to antagonize Israeli troops.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Conversation, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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