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.
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.