Sunday, June 25, 2017

Primal Music Reconsidered: Part II

In the last post, I summarized my early life experience immersed in music and my eventual move toward an understanding of my religion that threw my relationship with music into doubt. Music holds a dubious place in my faith tradition, and an axial principle within Islam suggests leaving doubtful matters altogether. I obliged, and that was the end of my relationship with instrumental music for the next 20 years.

It was my divorce in 2015 that forced me to recognize a powerful societal dynamic that has been gaining sway in popular consciousness for some time.

We are living in extremely polar times. This dynamic had crept into my thinking and even into my marriage. It can be heard in today's political rhetoric. It can be heard in religious discourse. It makes up a large part of social media exchanges.

Everyone is in a camp.

You're either this or you're that. You're either with us or against us. You swing left or you swing right. To celebrate black lives is to denigrate white lives. To fight for men's rights is to disparage women. Trump, a perversion of masculinity, vs. Hilary, a perversion of femininity. America first.

And the rest of humanity?

The drawing of these lines puts the emphasis on "or." And when my marriage hit a transition point, I believe we had both been conditioned to consider things in light of that polarizing "or." Each of us had a vision of what had to happen, or what the other must be. Or else.

My children had not yet suffered the polarizing effects of "or." They saw good in their mother and their father. They were Muslims and had an abundant passion for many aspects of our shared popular culture, music included, that in my "or" thinking, I couldn't appreciate.

And through my children, I began to consider the beautiful possibilities of "and." Could I exert myself standing up for the injustices perpetrated against women, my daughters included, and struggle against the gross perversions of justice as they pertain to father's rights? Could I respect the populist rhetoric of Trump and acknowledge the glass-ceiling symbolism of Hilary? Could I hold fast to the tenets of my faith and honor my God-given talents and passions?

Once it's considered, the incredible, mending "and" becomes almost narcotic. And like narcotics, its use must be judicious. It is a healing thing that, misapplied, can become rather absurd.

But I don't believe that, in courting instrumental music as an observant Muslim, my application of "and" is absurd. Not in the least. To remind us of the axial Islamic tradition:

That which is lawful is plain and that which is unlawful is plain and between the two of them are doubtful matters about which not many people know.

About instrumental music in Islam, there has only been debate. And then, only among the scholars and their respective students. The whole of Islamic history, from its earliest days until the present, speaks to the rich instrumental musical traditions of the Muslim people. From the simple shepherd's flute to the development and codification of the myriad maqamat, the contribution of Muslims to the cultural stores of world music cannot be overemphasized, nor should it be under-appreciated.

I'm a rock musician. Some estimate that 20% of the African men and women brought over to the Americas and forced into slavery were Muslim. Their songs informed the development of the blues. The blues were caught up by white country musicians and that was the birth of rock and roll. And there is every reason to believe that Muslims and their early stringed instruments presaged the guitar.

From Wikipedia:

Many influences are cited as antecedents to the modern guitar. Although the development of the earliest "guitars" is lost in the history of medieval Spain, two instruments are commonly cited as their most influential predecessors, the European lute and its cousin, the four-string oud; the latter was brought to Iberia by the Moors in the 8th century.

The Moors were the Muslims of North Africa.

Rock and roll brought together black and white culture in North America. It was an "and" response to an "or" worldview. There's medicine in that.

Rock and roll is not about sex and drugs. At its heart, rock and roll is about the quest for authenticity, and rebellion as a tool to get there. Rock pushes hard against the status quo, and in the early, Beaver Cleaver days of rock's inception, rebellion really was about doing everything your parents hated.

But in an era of recreational sex and legalized pot, there's really nothing rebellious about sex or drugs. Which, in many ways, is why mainstream rock had lost some serious cultural currency. Seattle's grunge scene was a short-lived and powerfully corrective moment where area musicians realized the extent to which their art form had been co-opted and neutralized. While the Seattle explosion was noted on an international level, rock has always nurtured an independent underground scene that carries, in many cases, the energy and passion to fuel movements.

But it's not for everybody.

In November of 2016, I wrote and recorded my first instrumental song (using prerecorded loops) in close to 20 years:

That felt good. And after that, I sent a note to my old songwriting partners, Chris and Issac of Stillwater Black, a rock band I last co-fronted in 1997. We're writing and recording again. I'm gonna be over there for awhile.

You're more than welcome to join me and stay true to what's Real.


  1. Beautiful, eloquent and enticing to the senses. I think part of our personal purpose in life includes not only discovering our God given talents/gifts, but also acting on them, to not do so would be a waste - like wasting sustenance since music is food to the is nourishing to the one creating it and to the listener, surely that must be something to be shared, your music is lovely. Thanks for sharing! Assalamu Alaykum Br. Ahmed

    1. Salam Abbyss,

      Wow. A very validating comment.

      I won't say I'm right, but it's my best understanding of things given my experience and circumstances. Here's hoping we get credit for trying to do the right thing!

  2. Don't take this the wrong way, I'm being totally honest. You guys got divorced two weeks ears ago. Time to let go. People are always changing. You don't have to seek validation online every time you make a choice. My sisters and I are happy.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Sage.

      The divorce is mentioned here as only a paradigm shifting experience. If falling off a cliff caused me to change my thinking, you would have heard more about that. The divorce here is incidental.

      The article is about moving away from a more rigid, black-and-white thought process to something a bit more fluid.

      If your sense is that this is not the appropriate forum for a discussion of divorce per se, I absolutely agree. This is not an article about divorce, but rather about how a pattern of thinking can be discerned, how consequences of those patterns might be experienced, and the risks attached to considering new patterns.

      As sansfife, I wrote quite a bit about the problematic nature of instrumental music. There are many lovely people who were invested in that perspective. I am now moving in a different creative direction, and while I don't necessarily owe anybody an explanation for that, I think there is value in sharing the evolution of one's thinking. Perhaps the greatest value is in the implicit permission this might give others to reconsider their own thought processes and behavioral patterns.

      May your current and future happiness be ever connected to the fulfillment of your highest calling.


  3. Ahmed, my salutes to you for pushing through all the barriers, specially in the past couple of years. I commend you for staying true to your passion, and for doing all the soul searching you do. I thank the Creator who has Blessed you with many talents. I'm happy that you have chosen to come back to the road of rock n roll, specially to the beauty and healing qualities of music. Wishing you lots of success and happiness

    1. "I thank the Creator who has Blessed you with many talents."

      And I thank the Creator for sending people like you into my life. May we all honor as much of the Truth as we've been allowed to understand, and may our understanding increase in alignment with Truth.

      Stay Sterling, my brother ;)


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