#MiddleGroundPodcast – Music, The Ontology of Religion, and What Does Difference of Opinion Mean?


[Direct download]

In this episode of the Middle Ground Podcast, I, while on the road, discusses music, the question of its permissibility and beyond. My thoughts are in part inspired from remarks in a Q&A session by Mufti Abu Layth, may Allah reward him.

“Before you approach religion, you have this ontology of religion. You already have an understanding of what religion — with a capital “R” — is going to provide for you, or provide for people.”Mufti Abu Layth


Music: Sean Dobbins Organ Quartet, The Journey.

For other khutbahs and podcasts, see the Middle Ground Podcast.

From This Quiet Place…

So many years ago this journey began, and all along the way breadcrumbs were left for me, like so much foreshadowing. How deeply overcome I was tonight, sitting quietly in a dark room, whereupon I chanced on an old album by the gospel sextet, Take 6, and like Proust’s madeleine, I was transported back to when I was just a young man, more a boy in reality, and how this album, amongst all my others, would comfort me so and bring me only what I could now articulate as yaqin and sakinah: certainty and tranquility. How moved I am by my Lord’s plan: how His mercy has always been present; how He has always had a plan. I have no words to properly convey the emotional feeling I just had but I felt compared to share it, for my cheek is still wet (I sobbed like a newborn!). And this lyric still fresh in my mind, more than twenty five years ago:

Whether a garden small,

Or on a mountain tall.

I am reminded here of Allah’s words in the 45th chapter, al-Jathiyah:

فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ فَيُدْخِلُهُمْ رَبُّهُمْ فِي رَحْمَتِهِ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ هُوَ الْفَوْزُ الْمُبِينُ

“As for those who were secure in faith and did right actions, their Lord will admit them into His mercy. That is the Clear Victory.” (Qur’an, 45: 30)

This journey, this thing called Islam, is simply amazing. My only lament is not being able to articulate it with justice. Despite that shortcoming, I invite any and all seekers to truth to join me on this sojourn.

More Thoughts On the Relation Between Islam, Blackamericans, and Bebop

The following is s short excerpt from The African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective [335-7], by Ingrid Tolia Monson. Monson’s book provides some further insight on the nature of the relation and attraction that Islam held for Blackamerican jazz musicians as well as Blackamericans as a whole who embraced Islam.

Art Blakey’s African Travels

Ingrid Tolia Monson It is clear that its members of the New York jazz community of the 1940’s demonstrated awareness of both the anticolonialist internationalism of Robeson and Du Bois, as well as the more cultuml and spiritual pan-Africanism and pan-Asianism of Islam. Art Blakey emerged in the New York modern jazz scene through his work with the Billy Eckstine band from 1944 — 1947 (Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were his bandmates in 1944) and his recordings with Thelonious Monk in 1947. He had come to New York from Pittsburgh with Mary Lou Williams in 1938 and worked with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra from 1939 — 1941. Blakey’s first recordings as a leader were four sides for Blue Note in December 1947 with the 17 Messengers, a band conceived as a training band for young musicians. Its members included Sahib Shihab and Musa Kaleem (Orlando Wright). Blakey, whose Muslim name was Abdullah ibn Buhaina, dated his conversion to Islam at about this time. Blakey never publicly explained his path to conversion to the Ahmadiyya movement, but Dizzy Gillespie reports that a Muslim missionary named Kahlil Ahmed Nasir convened many New York musicians to the faith (Gillespie 1979).
ship. Although Blakey later remembered going to Africa for two years beginning in 1947, he likely spent only one year in Africa.

Blakey consistently denied that he ever played music while in West Africa. In one of the most detailed accounts of his African sojourn, Blakey told two French interviewers in 1963: “For two years, I immersed myself solely in philosophers, religion, and Hebrew and Arab languages. I do not remember havin
Blakey’s choice of the name Messengers for his short-lived group of 1947 and for the more enduring group from 1954 onward signifies in several directions. From an Islamic perspective, the word invokes the Islamic belief in Muhammad as the messenger of Allah; from a more broadly African American cultural context, the word implies the common cultural belief that African American music has a message, that it “says something” of deeper cultural significance. Since the Ahmadiyya movement believed in a continuous prophetic tradition (i.e., that there were prophets after Muhammad), the name of the later group, the Jazz Messengers, implies a prophetic view of the music itself. After the failure of the 17 Messengers in 1947, Blakey was unable to secure regular work and decided to travel to Africa, to pursue religious studies by working his way over on a g played an instrument even one time during that entire period” (Clouzet and Delorme 1963). Blakey’s denials later became even more emphatic: “I didn’t go to Africa to study drums — somebody wrote that — I went to Africa because there wasn’t anything else for me to do. I couldn’t get any gigs, and I had to work my way over on a boat. I went over there to study religion and philosophy. I didn’t bother with the drums, I wasn’t, after that. I went over there to see what I could do about religion” (Nolan 1979: 19).

Implying that his religious quest was somehow incompatible with music (a remarkable assertion when considering religion in West Africa), Blakey always stressed that his main inertest in Africa was religion.

Although Orthodox Islam disapproves of music, particularly instrumental music, Islam in West Africa has long blended the celebration of Islamic festivals and beliefs with traditional animist worship practices that are deeply musical. In West Africa Blakey is likely to have encountered Muslim groups who made considerable use of drumming. He is also likely to have encountered Akan, Ewe, and Yoruba religious ideas, practices, and music, as well as secular urban popular music in his travels. In 1963 Blakey explained African American interest in Islam to his French interviewers: “Islam brought the black man what he was looking for, an escape like some found in drugs or drinking: a way of living and thinking he could choose freely. This is the reason we adopted this new religion in such numbers. It was for us, above all, a way of rebelling” (Clouzet and Delorme 1963: 38).

Citations and Further Readings

  • Manley, Marc. “The Social Origins of Bebop.” The Manrilla Blog: Academics. 28 Nov. 2008. Web.
  • Monson, Ingrid. African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective (Critical and Cultural Musicology, 3). New York: Routledge, 2003.

The Evolution of Muslims in America

With yet another PBS documentary under its belt, American Islam would seem to be on the up and up. There are a number of hip-hop artists affiliated with Islam to lesser and greater degrees, thus, many see this as the “coming of age” of Islam in America. Seen as giving the American Muslim youth something to identify with, many seem to be reluctant to call out and name hip-hop for what it is. Two isles have formed where individuals either decry hip-hop as a spiritually bankrupt and corrupting enterprise while others say it has positive messages at its root. I will clearly state that I find hip-hop as it is expressed to be incompatible with a healthy Muslim practice but I am not using this opportunity to roast but rather make this one addendum: while we may denounce hip-hop as not being conducive to a healthy Muslim experience we must allow for the evolutionary process of people as they try and make moves towards understanding and living their Islam.

This idea of evolution may seem an awkward expression, especially given the word’s [ma sha’Allah] unfortunate or highly charged history in the English speaking world. I am not speaking of that flawed theory presented by Charles Darwin but rather the aspect that while people may start at point [A], and hope to arrive at point [C], there is a wide swath of [B], the evolutionary path that all of us tread on in one form or another. If we can come to understand and appreciate this we have a greater chance of actually allowing more people to make it to point [C] without being waylaid or ambushed along the path.

Part of what may help to make this idea better known to Muslims is that, one, it is a type of pedagogical technique practiced by the Prophet [s], where he allowed people to grow into their Islam, all the while not sacrificing one iota of the transcendent values of the religion he sought to teach. It is not wholly necessary here to delve into excessive examples but we are all familiar with the many examples where the Prophet [s] withheld punishment or judgment on persons who had character flaws or issues because he saw it as a progress [another highly charged and misused word] of their Islam, that they would eventually get to point [C] if given an opportunity to develop.

One of the ways in which we as Muslims [and especially as those in leadership positions] can help to bring this to fruition is to walk that solid line between understanding and condoning. Extend a hand but a firm one – one that is not afraid to give sincere nasihah [keeping it real in the modern vernacular] to those who are still in that early stage. Along with this comes the need to give people the education and tools to realize the true nature of Reality – for when people unveil [kashf] the inner nuances of what it is we object to, they will have, God willing, the toolset to come to similar conclusions. What is happening currently, is that people who do not have that spiritual training and maturity, are often demonized to such an extent that they are banish from any thought of coming to terms with what they do [their mu’amalat] and how they can come to realize its detriment to their health as Muslims [mukashafah]. If we, as both leaders and as a community claim to be inheritors of the Prophet [s], then we must examine our kulliyat and question if we’re letting the kullu shay [every little thing] get in the way of the big picture.

Two small pieces caught my eye regarding this topic. One, was rapper Lupe Fiasco reciting al-Fatihah at a concert.  For many Muslims this causes two reactions: [a]: total dismay, as the Qur’an is something Holy and should not be used for such purposes – that Its Message would be lost amongst the din a crowd enthralled at the performance of a star. [b]: total enchantment, for this is what some see as finally an opportunity to blend their personal or secular likes with the transcendent. The other piece was Suhaib Webb’s response to the proposition of hip-hop, where he stated,

“I was brought into Islam through the Hip-Hop world. That being said, once I became Muslim and started studying, I realized that in order for me to develop and grow as a Muslim I would have to amputate my relations with Hip-Hop and its community. I realized that the Qur’an and Hip Hop simply don’t mix.”

Webb articulates the difficulty that he has had in trying to sign off on hip-hop, but, as a sign of his own maturation as a Muslim and future leader, is that he had to make a tough decision and label hip-hop for what it is. But for me, the more important lesson here is that while Suhaib Webb was able to call hip-hop out for what it is he never gave the impression that those that do still engage in it [particularly here I assume he means listeners but perhaps performers as well] would be “amputated” from the community. In other words, stand firm on recognizing hip-hop, the “thing” and not the people, is corrupt at its core, whereas people can always be reformed, God willing.

To summarize, we have to do a better job of lending a helping hand while not compromising our core principles. We have to start to offer real, sincere, and alternate solutions, solutions with efficacy, not simply sloganized dogma. I think more Muslims who have a genuine love of their religion, if given the proper tools, God willing, will come to unveil hip-hop for what it is, and work to salvage their souls. Something all of us, hip-hop connoisseurs or not, strive to do.