"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.
No two songs are alike on this album, and thus each song is a fresh and unique musical experience. He even has love songs on this album, but they are spiritually pure and do not appeal to base desires, like so many love songs we hear today. "Prophet for Profit" is a powerful song about illegitimate religious and political leaders. In the song, he sings: "Behind the passion I hold / there are millions like me / deaf to your definitions of democracy / and we don't want your twisted spirituality/and we don't want your bloody hands on the scriptures we read." He could not have spoken better on my behalf. At the end of the song, he says, "Behind the cities you free, there's an oil leak / beyond the city's debris, there is the bed where you / sleep in peace / How can you rest in peace?" Very powerful indeed. This entire album leaves the listener spiritually uplifted and renewed, which I feel is what music should do to the listener.
"Out Seeing the Fields" is a much more mellow album. It features another Muslim musician--an extremely talented pianist named Idris Phillips. The songs are also very good, and my favorite song is titled "Rachel," which Wharnsby wrote in honor of the late peace activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed while on a peace mission in Gaza in 2003. This album even has a song that has Muslim chants in Arabic on top of musical instruments, which gives an amazing acoustic experience. Both of these albums are the perfect embodiment of the infusion of Islamic values into music. These two albums are at once perfectly mainstream and perfectly Islamic.
Moreover, Wharnsby's music really challenges the mind, rather than numbing it like so much of the popular music in our country today. So many heavily rotated songs either excite base desires or speak of silly things. Wharnsby's lyrics are deeply profound, and they can mean many things to many people, which is exactly what art should do. In his song "You Are the Only One," Wharnsby sings: "The jovial conductor is finished / with his music he's in love and he's insane / ‘Outstretch your mind’ is his final message / This is the only sanctuary to remain.” What in God's name does that mean? Who is the "jovial conductor?" I think Dawud left that question for each listener to answer for himself or herself. That it is the hallmark of a truly gifted songwriter.
I always thought that Dawud Wharnsby had not used any musical instruments out of religious piety, and he only changed with time and reflection. I even thought the terrorist attacks of 9/11 helped accelerate his change of heart about musical instruments. But when I interviewed him for Illume Magazine in 2007, I learned what the truth was: "My views on music have never really changed ... When I began to write children's songs inspired by Qur'an, I recorded them all with guitar, and you can easily see they were inspired by my Celtic background ... I chose to release the songs without guitar as a way of ensuring my diverse audience would be comfortable with the material.
"Living in North America, I thought it was best to keep instruments out of my CDs so families would feel comfortable listening to the songs. Ten years and almost 12 albums later, I felt it was important to be more honest with myself about my own personal opinions of music and its usefulness. There are also the majority of followers of Qur'an who don't have a problem with music and who do not consider it as unlawful, thus I felt it was important to share something of value with them as well as through some newer music and songs."
Dawud Wharnsby is a very talented, pure, and beautiful American Muslim musician who deserves a closer look by mainstream American audiences. You want this artist on your iPod. His music spiritually uplifts, mentally refreshes, and inevitably takes the listener to a higher place. He showed me--and will show you--how harmonious the marriage of Islam and music can be. Wharsnby said in his interview with me, "It is always a prayer of mine that the work I produce will help, in some small way, to better the world or provide others with hope in themselves or trust in The Creator's mercy to us all." I believe his prayer has been answered.