"Hesham's iPod" is an occasional column about what's hot, what's spiritual, and what's buzzworthy in the world of Muslim music, and about the nature of Muslim artists.
There was a time when I shunned and rejected all music and singing as haram, or forbidden by Islam. But after many years of study and reflection, I now realize that my previous position--although out of pious devotion-- was not entirely correct, and my life is now enriched by music. True, I still do not listen to any music that is vulgar, indecent, and irreverent, but I no longer subscribe to the notion that Islam prohibits music altogether. In fact, I have found God in many modern songs, and my life is all the better because of it.
But there are many Muslims who believe that music and musical instruments are forbidden, and I do not criticize their beliefs in the least. These Muslims interpret certain verses of the Qur'an and statements from prophetic and scholarly tradition as prohibiting most forms of music. Seeking to cater to that still large group of Muslims, many Muslim singers have emerged who perform either acapella or with only drums, which many devotees believe to be the only acceptable musical instrument. Their songs are wonderful, and I do enjoy them. Yet frequently I find myself wanting more--more than simple acapella singing, or even someone singing just "Allah" with a guitar in his or her hand. I find myself asking the question: Can music be thoroughly Islamic without overtly mentioning Allah, the prophet, or Islam in it?
My answer? Most definitely.
Muslim singer Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, does a good job at portraying the spiritual nature of Islam without properly mentioning it, and his latest album "An Other Cup," released last year, is a perfect example of this. But there is another, less well known Muslim singer/songwriter who also does this masterfully: Dawud Wharnsby. Originally from Canada, Wharnsby is a Muslim convert who has been writing and singing songs since he was 17 years old. I was first introduced to his music through the Muslim media company Soundvision, when he sung Islamic children's songs without instruments. His songs were truly wonderful, and ever since then I have been a staunch fan. As the years have passed, I have been a witness to Wharnsby's musical transition from a kid-friendly artist to adult-oriented fare. In 2003, he released "The Prophet's Hands," his sixth recording for Soundvision, and it was much more adult than his previous work. The album was wholly Islamic, with songs such as "Remember Allah," "Whisper of Peace," and "The Prophet's Hands." His song "Don't Talk About Muhammad" brought me to tears (and still does). It is a song about the beauty of the Prophet's character, and it never ceases to touch my heart and soul. Yet, the album was clearly geared toward older listeners, and when I had a chance to ask him about that, he told me that many parents of his child listeners beseeched him to record an album for them. (I secretly yearned for the very same thing.)
After that album, however, Wharnsby really changed: He pulled out his guitar and began to sing with it. It came as a major shock to me, as I have never heard him sing with a guitar before. I was used to Wharnsby singing alone or with drums. Yet, it was completely wonderful; it only made his music all the more beautiful. In 2006 he released "The Poets and the Prophet" followed by "Out Seeing the Fields" in September of 2007. These two albums are exactly what I had been wanting Wharnsby, and other Muslim singer/songwriters, to do for a long time: Produce albums that are mainstream and wholly Islamic, yet without a single "Allah" or "Muhammad" in it.
It is not that I do not like music that references Allah or the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), but that sort of music limits its applicability and reach: Only Muslims will listen to it. Islam and its values are universal, and it deserves to be shared with a wide variety of people. Thus, I have been yearning for songs that overflow with Islamic principles and values but can be mainstream enough to fit right in on a local radio station. "Poets" and "Out Seeing the Fields" do just that.
"The Poets and the Prophet" completely blew me away. I bought the album during the annual Islamic Society of North America conference last Labor Day weekend, and I was instantly hooked. Rarely have I ever listened to an album where I loved every single song. From the very first song, "You Are the Only One," I was transported to that wonderful place where mind and spirit are released from the shackles of life on earth and the hypocrisies of the human condition. One can hear a number of musical genres on this album, including R&B, folk, classical, and music from the Far East. Along with Wharnsby, the album features double bass legend Danny Thompson (from the United Kingdom), award winning Canadian songwriter Stephen Fearing, world famous sitar master Irshad Khan, R&B vocalist Priyesh Shukla, and top Canadian oboist James Mason.