Silencing the drums of war

Historian Mark Levine writes of musical efforts to end conflict and strife.


    Ali Azmat (left) and Salman Ahmad of Pakistani Sufi rock band Junoon say they perform
    to "lift the veil of ignorance about Muslim cultural heritage" [GALLO/GETTY]

    Shortly before his death in 1997, the Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti declared that "music is the weapon of the future".

    Since then, however, more than $3 trillion has been spent on far deadlier weapons of war which are fought in the name of peace and stability.

    But these conflicts have brought neither peace nor stability.

    Not all Christians, Muslims and Jews are enamored of these wars. But as a Canadian television host recently pointed out, though violent people constitute a small minority of their religion's followers, "they sure make a lot more noise" than those in the mainstream.

    Imagine if Muslims, Jews and Christians decided to combat that noise with musical, cultural and religious harmony of their own? Perhaps the three Abrahamic faiths could drown out, and even silence, the war drums that seem to grow louder each day.

    Such a strategy is being tested by performers of A Mystical Journey, a 2008 US tour that features dozens of Sufi musicians from across the Muslim world, including Pakistani rock superstar Salman Ahmed, Algerian chaoui (Berber) legend Houria Aïchi and the Dalahoo Sufi Ensemble from Iran.

    Their concerts, which premiered in Canada, are spiritually uplifting tributes to the often ferocious joy and love that have long characterised mystical Islam's experience with the divine, and through it, humanity's potential for spiritual transcendence and renewal.

    Muslim Americans hold an interfaith unity
    event in Dearborn, Michigan [GALLO/GETTY]

    Fusion of secular and sacred

    The festival, organised by the Ismaili Council of the United States, also serves as a reminder to both Muslim Americans and a broader western society of Islam's long history of inclusiveness.

    For 1,400 years, the religion has embraced a number of cultures and traditions, and art and music have long been central vehicles for expressing and sharing the faith with others.

    "All the songs were organised to come together as one long prayer," Amin Hashwamy, the tour's musical coordinator and also a scion of one of Pakistan's wealthiest families, explained while recovering from a powerful set by Rizwan and Muazzam Khan, nephews of the legendary Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

    "It's so important to get this message out, to make people happy and create solidarity rather than division today."

    In Karachi, Hashwamy sponsors jam sessions for young heavy metal musicians in the basement of his "Coffee Cafe," one of many such locations throughout the city. And while conservative Muslim leaders have often railed against secular music - especially heavy metal, which is seen as "satanic" - Hashwamy favors the fusion of secular and sacred music.

    That is because the experience is just as important as the message, explained Salman Ahmed, the founder of Pakistani Sufi rock band Junoon.

    "A tour like this has to offer ecstatic, head-shaking, hand-clapping, shoulder-swaying rhythms locked into ethereal melodies with poetry," he said.

    "Together, the secular and divine lift the veil of ignorance about Muslim cultural heritage" among both Muslims and non-Muslims.

    Returning to rock music's roots

    At the same time, the enthralling artists who are deeply steeped in traditional music and performing alongside those blending Sufism and rock 'n roll remind us of the spiritual core of most rock music.

    Even my six-year-old son noticed, as he watched the members of the Dalahoo Ensemble swinging their long hair in circles and up and down in time with the intensifying rhythms of their dafs, or bass hand drums.

    "Dad, they're headbanging," he said, equally excited and confused, intuitively linking the drummers' heavy Sufi rhythms to those in his favorite Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath songs.

    Sitting next to him was Lanny Cordola, a leading US rock and session guitarist who has himself undergone a spiritual transformation, from glam metal "hunk of the month" to founder of the recently established "Love Supreme Coalition."

    His new endeavor seeks to use the music and spirit of the jazz saxophone master John Coltrane to bring artists around the world together for peace and justice.

    Cordola, a Christian, said Islam plays a central role in his endeavour.

    "Just listening to the esoteric yet ecstatic melodies and rhythms of these artists brings us all closer to the higher laws and deeper codes of God and the deepest expressions of the human heart," he said, adding that he left the concert so uplifted that he planned to drive from Los Angeles up to San Francisco to see the next leg of the tour.

    Blessed encounters

    The 2,000-year-old Buddha statues before
    the Taliban destroyed them in 2001 [EPA]

    At the post-concert reception, I brought my children over to meet the members of Tahleeleh, the Syrian Sufi dance and musical troop that is led by Sheikh Hamza Chakour, the choir master of the Great Mosque in Damascus.

    The kids had been mesmerised by the classical Arabic music and whirling dancing prayers of the troupe.

    As soon as we approached them, the sheikh grabbed my daughter's hand, said bismillah (in the name of God) and recited a prayer repeatedly over her while rubbing her face gently.

    It was hard not to be moved and reminded of the universality of religion's positive message. Only two days before, a Tibetan Buddhist monk had grasped my son by the hand and blessed him while similarly rubbing his face.

    For most people, the only connection between Buddhism and Islam occurred when the Taliban destroyed the famed statues of the Buddha in Bamyan, Afghanistan. Until their demolition in 2001, the statues had stood carved into the cliffs overlooking the valley for 1,500 years.

    But for centuries, Islam peacefully co-existed with Buddhism and even the ostensibly polytheistic faith of Hinduism. The hints of Gregorian chants and Sephardic Jewish melodies in the songs of the various performers at the concert also remind us of the deep, if often conflicted, interaction between Islam and its sister monotheistic faiths.

    Reality check

    hat if musicians from all three faiths joined together to tour around the world, moving back and forth across the so-called civilisational divides and sharing possibilities for coexistence?
    Later that night, the news from the Middle East, filled with sounds and images of war, threatened to beat back the pleasant melodies that lingered after the performance. But then the soft harmonies of Sarajevo's Hazreti Hamza Choir, the group that opened the concert, came to mind.

    The choir members explained that during the height of the civil war in former Yugoslavia, they met regularly in Sarajevo's great mosque to sing their devotional music, regardless of what danger lurked outside.

    In a sense, their music was their jihad, or struggle - their way of defending their faith and their community against the onslaught around them.

    The musical jihad, or strivings, of the Sarajevan choir members - a jihad of the oud and nay, or flute, complemented by the more common jihad of safeguarding the heart, tongue and hand - purified them internally and spiritually while helping to preserve and defend Bosnia's centuries-old Muslim community from threats to its very existence.

    A better weapon

    A Mystical Journey represents similar struggles endured by Muslims today who are mired in deep conflicts but are working to establish understanding with those of other faiths.

    What would happen if a similar tour comprised of Christian and Jewish musicians took place in the Muslim world, spreading the same message of connectedness and openness?

    Or even better, what if musicians from all three faiths joined together to tour around the world, moving back and forth across the so-called civilisational divides and sharing possibilities for coexistence?

    If the Mystical Journey tour is any indication, such collaboration could serve as a far more powerful weapon in the struggles against occupation and terror than have been offered by the trillions of dollars already spent on violence in the name of freedom and security.

    Mark Levine is a professional musician and professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Irvine. He is author of half a dozen books, including Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Religion and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (forthcoming, Random House/Verso, companion CD to be released by EMI Records).


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