Ten years ago, a young and unassuming British-Azerbaijani, who’d recently had a spiritual awakening, released an album that catapulted him to stardom. Sami Yusuf, now 33, is known throughout the Muslim world for his spiritual songs about Islam. At the peak of his career, following the release of his 2005 album “My Ummah”, he was heralded as “Islam’s biggest rockstar”.
For many years, Muslims have been yearning for an alternative to the spiritually devoid content of popular mainstream music. An inevitable outcome has ensued: the beginning of the Islamic music industry.
The industry, however, is still in its infancy, with a small amount of artists competing and only one major record label, Awakening Records.
Music, however, is a controversial topic in Islamic jurisprudence, with many conservative Muslims rejecting its permissibility. In 2006, for example, journalist and former Taliban captive Yvonne Ridley (a convert to Islam) lambasted Yusuf in an open letter that went viral. The hysteria Yusuf was creating among his Muslim female fans was a step too far for Ridley. This mania “must be creeping around the globe and poisoning the masses”, Ridley said.
Despite this zeal to condemn Islamic music, it was the deeply nuanced and vast nature of the Islamic tradition with its multitude of interpretations and applications that has made its growing approval possible.
But the staunch opposition to Islamic music is symptomatic of a deeper problem. According to Dr Mohammed Fahim, a London-based imam, with the growth of Wahhabi Islam in the 20th century, the movement began to fight art in all its forms. Music is allowed in Islam, he says, providing there isn’t any vulgarity or obscenity in the singing or dress – something many Muslims, see as a truism.
Now is an exciting time for the Islamic music industry. Muslim artists are entering into new terrain and have the power to dispel negative stereotypes about their religion.
With perhaps more fame and, indeed, inner happiness, than he would have found in the US, Maher Zain, who came through the US music industry and worked with the likes of Lady Gaga, is today the most well-known Islamic musician worldwide. Boasting 10 million Facebook followers and more than 100 million views on Youtube, his transition from secular music to religious, appears a worthwhile move.
On November 3, Zain, 32, performed to a packed hall at The Troxy in London. As he walked onto the stage, wearing trendy attire, colour-coded in blue and black, he was greeted by rapturous applause and screams by his female admirers. Singing songs for an hour about peace, unity and God, the show was the final stop in a 12-city concert tour of the UK and Ireland organised by the British charity Human Appeal in aid of Syria.
Yes, some girls screamed, and yes, light sticks were waved rhythmically in the air while Zain performed. But there was an underlying feeling of warmth, positivity and it was all carried out, in the most part, in a dignified manner. For those few hours, Muslims of all ages, including renowned Islamic scholars who were present, seemed to forget about their worries, they smiled and felt a sense of shared community spirit.
The 12-city tour – which also featured Awakening’s artists Raef and Harris J – is evidence of Islamic music being on an unstoppable upward curve. Indeed, as the Islamic music industry grows, it is producing many new, exciting artists. London-born Saif Adam, 28, has worked with the likes of Ed Sheeran and Tulisa Contostavlos but is now rising to prominence among Muslims worldwide. He has just released his debut album, Heart, inspired by the love he has for his religion. Adam’s success is representative of change, with mainstream companies beginning to recognise and endorse him.
Now is an exciting time for the Islamic music industry. Muslim artists are entering into new terrain and have the power to dispel negative stereotypes about their religion. Whether it is American Muslim artist Mo Sabri’s viral song “I believe in Jesus” or Zain’s songs about peace, never in Islamic history have Muslim singers commanded the ears of their co-religionists worldwide, had devoted fans, and sold multi-platinum albums, as is the case with the likes of Zain.
Until recently, Islamic music, often referred to as nasheed – now a slightly outdated term – was poorly made and badly marketed. Now we see an industry that is growing, diversifying and experimenting to fit in with the times in which we live. There is no problem with people being against Islamic music. Muslims have the right to believe Islamic music is haram [forbidden] and differences of opinion in religion are healthy. But Islamic music is here to stay.
Omar Shahid is a freelance journalist specialising in religious affairs. He has written for The Times, Guardian, Independent and the New Statesman. He blogs at: omarshahid.co.uk.
Follow him on Twitter: @omar_shahid