If Music Be The Food Of Love: Singing, Spirituality and Islam

Thembi Mutch

Zanzibar Town, Tanzania:

A crowd of young women in burkas and some men gather outside a café in Zanzibar, bewildered by the sight: an African woman, in a West African mumu (kaftan) and  covered head, playing ghazal poetry as an Islamic call to prayer. Sitting on the café terrace and accompanied by an acoustic guitar, Nawal’s clear voice captivates the audience – until it is broken by al’s clear voice captivates the audience – until it is broken by the cry of a visibly upset street vendor. “How dare you use the name of Allah in a song!”, he shouts.“You use keyboards in your praise of Allah”, Nawal retorts calmly.

Striking a chord with the community: From sandy Zanzibar  to sunny Sudan

Painting by Maria Naita, Uganda

Painting by Maria Naita, Uganda

In 21st century Zanzibar, as in much of Africa and the Muslim world, music has the power to inflame as it did in ancient Persia when music, mosaics and poetry were created to be “nearer to Allah”. And the old divisions – between the more tolerant Sufi branches of Islam, which believe that art and music can be expressions of meditation, and the more conservative branches, which believe devotion should be  silent, personal, and  contemplative continue to raise existential questions about the nature of faith and spirituality.

Although there is much disagreement over the role of music or prohibition of it in Islam, Nawal, a practicing Muslim from the Comoros islands, is adamant that there is nothing in the Qur’an that forbids singing. “I sing for my hopes, my values”, she says. “It’s like a communion. I want public to forget I am an artist. I don’t say  “Let’s go pray” I just say “God is great, there  is nothing that is not God”. So, if someone kills me for saying that, they kill me  for praising God. I am not here to change  people – I am here to shine.”  She continues, “The Western media  must show me as I am and show Islam  as vital, spiritual, productive, subtle and  positive – not just extremist”. She recounts  a story at an international festival in Belgium when the predominantly Muslim  crowd complained and nearly revolted.  However, after the gig, she recalls, Turkish,  Palestinian, Tuareg and Syrian Muslims –  both men and women – came up to her  with tears in their eyes, saying they had  found her songs moving and profound. 

These divergences  also reverberate in Sudan, where the vibrant and dynamic musical group Camiraata uses music to address social issues. Far from seeing music as unreligious,  the group uses music to bring together families, tribes and clans in Sudan, north to south, to sing their way through serious political and domestic challenges. Indeed, for many Muslim Sudanese, music is integral to  community dispute-resolution, initiation rituals, the unusual and the everyday. Dafaallah, Director of Sudan’s Music and Culture Academy in Khartoum and band member explains, “Music and culture is about understanding. If you know my music, my religion and my culture, you respect me”.

“We never ever stop singing!”, Dafaallah continues, before breaking into song. “Music in  Sudan  is  absolutely every- where, and has been for many, many centuries. Music is part of life in Sudan, from birth to death. When a woman makes tea or coffee in the morning she has a special song. She sings, bashing her pestle rhythmically to create a beat as she grinds coffee. Then we have a special al baramka type of songs for tea drinking – this is a group song.” He demonstrates – and it sounds like Mongolian throat-singing –before continuing, “We sing love songs to our camels because we depend on them. We sing to the desert so it won’t kill us. If we have problems in the community, we bring everyone together to solve the problem, we consult the elders, we talk,we sing, we talk more!”

Facing the music in northern Mali

A couple of thousand miles West of Sudan in Mali, the tensions between contrasting interpretations of the role of music for Muslims was been brought into particularly sharp, and often tragic, focus following the takeover of the north by Islamist militants last year.

Khaïra Arby, looking regal in her striking head wrap and plush blue dress, her face lined and tired, just got off a plane from Mali. “Yes, it’s true, I’ve seen it myself; they will cut off your tongue if you sing”, she says. “I’ve seen friends who’ve had their hands cut off for the ringtones on their mobile phones”.

Arby, adored across Mali, is affectionately called the Nightingale of the North. Born in the village of Abaradjou, north of Timbuktu, her parents came from different ethnic backgrounds – her mother Songhai, her father Berber. Arby’s music, which is more popular at home than the music of her internationally-famous cousin Salif Keita, captures northern Mali’s diversity of ethnic groups, styles and poetry. After persistent threats and attacks from Islamist militants –  including smashing up stereo systems in markets and people’s homes, confiscating radios and even SIM cards with music on them Arby escaped to Bamako to stay with Salif Keita on his island in the river Niger, just outside Mali’s capital of Bamako. Many Malian musicians are among the thousands who fled south since the crisis began.

Keita is also resigned. Before the international intervention against the Islamist rebels, he commented, “If there’s no music - no Timbuktu. It means that there is no more culture in Mali”. In- deed, Timbuktu is regarded as part of a chain of African kingdoms that had a long history of education, literature and intellectual life. It was the site of one of the largest Islamic libraries in Africa and a meeting point for scholars who debated and interpreted the Qur’an.

However, last year the Islamist rebels who took over the towns declared the shrines to  be idolatrous and  restricted forms of expression, such as music, that had been part of the fundamental fabric of everyday life. Like many Malians, Arby was bewildered: “There’s not a single part of the Qur’an that forbids music”, she says. “I‘ve read it all, I can tell you honestly, there’s nothing in there that says don’t sing. I’ve never seen, never, that music is forbidden.” In fact, Arby is highly sceptical as to the importance of religion at all in the motives of militants. “This war is about drug-running and arms trafficking. It’s  about controlling important  routes through a very long term trade area. It’s about money, politics and control. It’s not about religion”, she insists.

Cheikh Lo, a Senegalese veteran and arguably the Miles Davis of African music, is also angry about the rebels’ attempts to ban music in northern Mali. Lo is a devout Muslim of the Baye Fall Sufi tradition. “These people misuse the name of Islam”, he says. “They are nothing to do with Islam, they are terrorists and we must have the dirigence  - the composure, to drive them out.”

Clearly, Africa’s  Muslim musicians from Senegal’s Cheikh Lo to Mali’s Khaïra  Arby  to   Sudan’s   Camiraata to  Comoros’  Nawal –  are not  about to  give in  and succumb to  pressures against their singing. In  fact, to  the contrary, they see music as the  very means of social change. “The real musician does not go out to nightclubs, but  he stays in  the community, and leads to the right way”, says Dafaallah. “This means peace, unity, understanding, communication”.

Meanwhile Arby states defiantly, “We have an obligation to sing, to dance, to respect, and to show appreciation for the suffering, the endurance and bravery of the people who are fighting for us, for those who cannot sing.

We must compose beautiful songs before the war, during the war, and after the war, to celebrate what we have”.


First published in Think Africa Press - Reprinted in Women in Islam Issue 2 (2015)