The Philosophy of Ahmed Abdul-Malik

The following is an article about the Sudanese bassist and composer, Ahmed Abdul-Malik, that was originally published in Down Beat Magazine, July 4th, 1963. The article was written by Bill Coss. Beyond an excellent insight into the workings of a master musician, Abdul-Malik ties the thread between knowing the Creator and knowing one’s world. Given Modernity’s fractured vision on the relation of things, Abdul-Malik’s words are erudite and moving. He was also a stellar musician of world-class calibre. Hat tip to Doug Benson for the resource. May Allah have mercy on his soul.

In some degree, all music is about something. But what it is about, its contents, differs widely and generally determines its essential worth.

For composer Ahmed Abdul-Malik the content encompasses all the sciences. particularly the sociological, ethnic, and theological. The easiest thing to say would be that Abdul-Malik is different from most jazz musicians, and both his brief biography and the development of his thought immediately show that difference, while at the same time serving as a primer for youngsters who might aspire to be what Abdul-Malik considers the complete musician.

All his conscious development has come from religious convictions. “People think I am too far out with religion,” he said. “But it is so necessary to know the Creator, to know the rules of being – what it means – to know the commandments, to know you are commanded to use your intellect and will. That allows you to advance in all subjects. How else can you know about life? And music is life.

“You must do subsidiary study. All music has its own history, of course, and you need to know that, but it is also important to know the non-musical side of a people. That way you learn more about their music. By studying a people’s habits, you find their musical expressions.

“That you are commanded to do. The whole health of the world is based on each contributing to one another: doctors, bakers, musicians. If musicians want to co-operate, they must be masters of all scales which will broadcast to the receiver of the mind.”

“Really, a musician should be in excellent condition, physically, mentally, professionally, and scientifically,” Abdul-Malik continued. “I have studied all the elements: animals, insects, plants, space – the universe – old and new jazz but most importantly the Creator.

“How can you play beauty without knowing what beauty is, what it really is? Understanding the Creator leads to understanding the creations, and better understanding of what you play comes from this. How can you understand fully without knowing the start, the continuation, and the ending?

“So much of jazz has become surface music because it hasn’t searched for ultimate truth. Jazz is part of the world today. The artificial living of today – the slightness of understanding, the easy patterning – all of that ends up in sterility. But we, as a higher species, should be able to see, hear, and understand everything.”

The beginning of a wide vision was perhaps almost forced on him by his early environment. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Jan. 30, 1927, he grew up on Atlantic Ave., where “there were 10 different nationalities just in the neighborhood. Your ears just had to open up.”

His earliest recollection of music is of his Sudanese father singing and playing Eastern music. The youngster began studying violin early in life.

“My first teacher,” he said, “was a Russian. He insisted that a musician had to know how all people felt before he could call himself a musician.”

In junior high school, he joined a group that played at Greek, Syrian, and gypsy weddings. By the time he had been graduated from New York’s High School of Performing Arts, he had command of several instruments. But it is as a bassist that he has worked since 1954 with such widely diverse leaders as Art Blakey, Don Byas, Sam (The Man) Taylor, Randy Weston, and Thelonious Monk. Nowadays he concentrates mostly on bass and oud (a double-strung, mandolin-like Near Eastern instrument), but his thoughts range into every area. Not the least of these is the economic, although he is inclined 10 minimize it in terms of more important considerations. But characteristically he discusses economic problems as a totality, not simply as a weekly wage.

“If you could get out of economic problems,” he said, “you could find the time, the energy to create. You have to have some peace of mind to create. The lack of this has brought about a serious problem. As the environment has changed a great deal in the last 10 years, many musicians have begun to believe that they will not be accepted if they venture. They are wrong to let that stop them, but I can understand that because there really is no place for them to show development.

“Very few record companies will allow you the opportunity, and no clubs are available where you can work and develop. Clubs used to allow you that-and time to build an audience. How can they expect jazz to develop if they only book established groups, or only give experimenting musicians an occasional two-week booking? There aren’t even sessions any more. I think that the minimum-wage scale has brought down the whole scale of endeavor.”

There are some things, however, that help, he said. The Modern Jazz Quartet’s presentation of its music, for instance, has done much for jazz and musicians, he said, and this is good because jazz needs to gain more respect – people should naturally look up to musicians,

“That would lead to the government giving respect to the artists,” Abdul-Malik continued. “That is co-operation with the Creator, who has given special talents to each. Honorary degrees should be given to people in the arts who have done practical versions of academic work, or ways should be worked out to allow the artist to go to school. Still, I believe that the answer is not in scholarships to a conservatory but in one-year grants to travel in some other country, because artists should travel and study outside of their own country and their own art forms:’

Abdul-Malik said he believes “a musician must teach others if he is to retain what he knows. This is in addition to performing. And by teaching, he maintains a connection with young people. Besides, he does good by passing his knowledge on.”

Understandably, he is concerned that the teaching exist on the broadest possible level because “it is hard to find musicians who have open minds, not only to hear but to play. So many drummers and horn men are more prejudiced and more in a rut than are bassists. But all musicians have to learn that you can work with all music:’

He says he is amazed at how little he knows now that he has learned how much Eastern musicians know of conception, theory, and science. And he is concerned with that very lack among jazzmen.

“Jazz,” he said, “has contributed very little musically. Individual expressions have been extensive and exceptional though. It’s important to remember that from all parts of the world each man is expressing himself. But here so many cut themselves off from development by sticking to only chords or simple scales.”

In any prolonged conversation with Abdul-Malik, one begins to understand that he is no mere theoretician. He is the most practical of men. Realizing that the tempered scale is the basis of Western music, he began an extensive study of the mathematics on which it is based. As he grew more fascinated with scales. he became a piano tuner in an attempt to familiarize himself with the mechanics of piano scales. This and his studies have made him somewhat unhappy about the piano’s relative rigidity.

“There is,” he said as an example, “a difference between B flat and an A sharp – but not on a piano. The piano limits you. There are no one-eighth or one-quartertones available. People like Monk should have them.”

And this is nearly criminal in Abdul-Malik’s estimation, because part of his whole concept is to get between notes and to concentrate more on scales than on chords. His primary studies have been of music from India and the Mediterranean countries and a general study of African music.

The music of Somaliland and Sudan,” he explained, has Japanese-like effects and something like the blues. Arabian music – and that includes part of the Sudan – is a music all by itself. It specializes in strings and voice. They can hit one-quarter tones on the head.

‘”The Greeks measure tones in different ways, paying no attention to standard piano tones. A jazz musician can hear this if he wants to, but he can’t play it because of the nature of his instrument or his past training. The Greek instruments can break in eighths from Western notes. They change in midflight and get an infinite amount of scales. They consider the greatest musician to be the one who can go from one scale to another without it being easily heard. You see, they have much more freedom than the jazz musician has.”

The other important element of his practicality is represented in a pragmatic curiosity, whether in study (he’s working now with a Japanese musician) or in travel. He’s been on two overseas tours during the last year. both sponsored by the Stale Department.

He was largely disappointed by the one to Nigeria because “it was too much a government social event. The people who wanted to see us couldn’t. Some of them didn’t even know we were there. And because of the way it was run, very little real jazz was heard, and there was very little mixing between us and them, unfortunately”.

But he was pleased, he said, with what he did see and hear.

“People from all over came and performed,” he said. “There were fantastic acrobats, and the music was interesting. Much of it is what is called high-life. It is very common to west Africa, and it has a real relationship to calypso, especially in the dance. There were some musicians there from the eastern part of Nigeria, and their music is quite different. more related to the Arabian.”

In South America, Abdul-Malik. also found a lack of government understanding of jazz’ importance.

”The people,” he said, “were so hungry for jazz. I saw lines of people everywhere, all kinds of people, asking for records, asking for all sons of groups, wondering why the embassy promoted classical music and movie stars. They [embassy personnel] are completely out of touch with the native people:’

He was not out of touch. however. An inveterate walker wherever he visits, he met dozens of musicians.

“This has always been me,” he said, “since the first time I knew myself. I always wander, talk to people, and eat in the people’s restaurants. You know, I always ask for a kosher restaurant. If I can’t find one, I usually eat fish, either baked or broiled. It’s the safest. And , don’t eat vegetables or fruit.”

The tour stayed almost a week in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and his knowledge of Arabic was useful when he found large Oriental section in that city. He played with groups there and in other parts of the city. particularly with “a modern samba group. They were amazed at my feeling for their music, but 1 think most Latin music has a strong calypso feeling. The people were very friendly, and they gave me music, records, and instruments.

“In Argentina I had a similar experience. I went to Lebanese and Syrian places, and I heard music you would never hear in New York. In Argentina they play tangos and boleros, as well as sambas, the way they should be played. It was exciting to hear all this and to hear so many good musicians. I want to return there and to all parts of Africa to learn more and to record with the musicians.”

These wants hardly dent the scope of Abdul-Malik’s ambitions. He’d like to extend that African recording trip through the Near East. Now studying Indian music, he wants to devote a record to it. He plans on a soundtrack for an African film. He wants to start his own flexible group again. But he also wants to play with every other kind of group.

“The widest experience,” he said, “is most important, especially playing music you don’t want to play.”

Then, sometime this fall, he said he plans on a concert at the Brooklyn Museum in company with Japanese musicians. Through it all, he said he intends to keep on teaching – “it is as important as learning yourself. One retains your memory, the other advances you.”

All of that, much as it may be. is not a complete portrait of the man but only an outline. hopefully to be filled in when the scope of his learning and abilities reach fruition in more acceptance. For now. even the outline casts a huge shadow, in his playing-wherever or with whomever – and in his teaching but most particularly in his belief in total musicianship, in the dependence that musicianship has on faith and diversified knowledge, and the change that those things can bring about in life as well as music. As he put it. The tribes have always contributed to each other for common expression and growth.”

Thus, exact and total expression is the goal of mankind and the duty of the artist. Abdul-Malik is reaching for that goal.

The Sacred

Today’s world is a cynical world. How often do we see the deepest, the most egregious problems dealt with a cynical hand? I heard once from a modern scholar that the only people in today’s society that have the power to critique are the comedians. But they loose their impact because they trivialize the issue by making a jest of it (whether or not that make a jest of it).

I recently gave a talk at Rutgers University, to a group of students who were taking a class on spiritual autobiography. Like many people I’ve talked to this year in regards to Islam, “why did the Muslims react the way in which they did towards the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad” has been been one of the more popular questions. My answer has been long coming to me – but the answer I gave that day and the one I’ll give again today is because of The Sacred. I will outline what I mean by sacred so that one will not conflate my words to mean that I condone actions of violence. I most certainly do not. But in an effort to break away from the certain perspectives (Orientalist, Islamophobes…) that these violent reactions are a result of the Eastern Mind or something inherent in Islam and instead, people’s (misguided, and I’ll get to that as well) frustrations towards The Sacred being violated. For many people who had issue with the cartoons (myself included), we were told that Freedom of Speech trumped our concepts of The Sacred. Being able to say whatever comes to one’s mind supersedes that of moral, ethical and public judgment. With this reckless abandonment of wisdom as a system, then there will always be people who will lash out (hopefully in a proverbial way) against having that which they hold as Sacred, trampled underneath someone else’s belief system. The final part of this short essay is the re-examination of what is and isn’t Sacred for Muslims, or if I may be so bold, what aught to be Sacred and the re-prioritization of The Sacred for Muslims based on what the Prophet and his companions held as Sacred, as a guide for Muslims living in this “Western” part of the world.

Before we can clear the deck for me to leap into this topic I’d like to clarify a few short topics. In a recent interview I was quoted as being a “progressive Muslim”. In today’s world of headlines and sound-bites, one little word, one little phrase can pigeonhole a person. To state it for the record, I never used this word “progressive” to describe myself or any of my ideologies. Islam in the 20th century has a seen a vast array of movements: Reformists. Traditionalists. Jihadists. And yes, Progressives. While it is not the focus of this post to target any of those groups or to even say that they are not legitimate, I will say that I am not a reformist, a traditionalist, a jihadist or a progressive. Now that isn’t to say that I may not share specific sentiments with some of these groups but I do not want my labeling as a Progressive to be conflated as consensual.

The most sacred thing for Muslims is God. That is a simple fact. And it is not just simply that there is a god but that there is no god except God (La ilaha illallah). This simple phrase, known as the Testimony of Faith (al-Shahadah) is the foundation of Muslim theology and belief. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, one of the key aspects of his mission was to reintroduce Monotheism back to the world. The majority of the Arabs living in the Arabian peninsula during the time of the Prophet had slipped into idol worship, despite many of them being descendants of great prophets of God themselves (Abraham, Jonah, Shu’aib to name a few). The center of interest in Makkah was the Ka’bah, the house that Abraham built as a place of worship. And while the Qur’an was revealed throughout the 23 years of the Prophet’s stay in Arabia, it dealt theologically with Sacred Ideologies, chief amongst them was not ascribing partners or association with God. God admonishes those that say God is three or that Jesus the son of Mary, the Messiah, is God himself [Q 5: 72-75]. I state this here not polemically – that is not the point of my argument. But rather to reinforce what is sacred to Muslims. God is the most sacred – one of God’s names is al-Quddus, or The Holy or The Sacred. So with this understanding, why is it that Muslims aren’t jumping off at every Christian for wearing a cross on their necks or building churches that have Jesus on the cross, worshipped as God or the son of God? Because of another sacred source for Muslims – the Sunnah.

That the Prophet Muhammad is sacred for Muslims goes without saying. His life is a holy example for all Muslims in terms of morals, permissible actions and so forth. Many rulings for Shari’ah or Islamic Law, comes from his life. But if we were to examine the Prophet’s life and look at what he considered sacred, would it coincide with what Muslims hold as sacred?

To take the example from above, referring to Christians and their theological stance that they proclaim Jesus the son of Mary is the Son of God, this would contradict the teachings that the Prophet was preaching. And yet, while going against the grain of God’s theological bounds, the Prophet never proclaimed the life of the Christians forfeit. No churches were burned down on his order. No representatives of Christianity were assassinated. To take it a step further, the pagans were not indiscriminately slaughtered. Their idols were not even allowed to be desecrated. Why? Because the Prophet knew that Jesus was holy, sacred to the Christians even while he believed it wrong! The pagan Arabs (who, on a scale, ranked much lower than Jews or Christians because they were people who had received Divine Revelation) were still treated with respect and treaties were signed with them. If Muslims would but take the time to study their own “traditions”, we might see that that which we hold as sacred and that which the Prophet held as sacred are not one and the same. And further, even when something this is sacred to us is violated, are actions are woefully unacceptable.

Our modern age is one of false universals and failed utopian ideologies. And while the Muslims are not alone in perpetuating such rhetoric, ironically, they are just as guilty as their Western counterparts which they blame of the same crime. Often wrapped in the guise of “tradition”, this one-size fits all mentality has and is causing grave harm to Muslim communities across the globe and I have personally seen its insidious affects in my 14-year career as a Muslim. For those who call for an Islamic state to be raised in America I say that you would have to obtain the rights from Roberta Flack for its national anthem, for surely this is “killing us softly”.

So what are some other things that the Prophet held as sacred? Human life would most certainly rank high on his list. Caring for the poor. Visiting the sick and caring for the old. As Muslims, where do these categories rank on our lists? This is where Muslims fail in my opinion. As a group that believes it should uphold high moral standards, how are we caring for the poor? How many Muslim organizations have we developed that care for old and sick people in our neighborhoods, regardless of race, creed or religion? How many Muslim organizations have we built that care for the poor? Are we involved in urban development? Big brother, big sister organizations? I’m sure I will receive many emails confirming that we do partake in such actions. And while there may be a few why are they absent from the public spot light?

As it stands now, Muslims are not known as a group that participate in the greater society (and yet we want people to sympathize with us when we have problems). At a recent meeting between myself and other fellow bloggers, astonishment would be the word that would best describe the reactions of others when they found out that I was a Muslim and that I desired to participate in society. This is not a PR statement for myself but rather a reflection on the status of Muslims in society. If Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man today he’d have to re-title it Invisible People.

So in the end I believe we as Muslims are in need of a serious revamping of what is and isn’t Sacred to us. We need to seriously reevaluate what is important to us and what isn’t. The military developed a term called triage – we need to stop the bleeding and then reexamine what we’re about. I believe this reexamination starts with the basics – Qur’an and Sunnah. It may surprise you that I would choose such a sloganized answer but none the less, I do believe the answer lies there in. By Qur’an, I mean we should actually spend time reading it. Many of us do not. We rely on regurgitated quotes from people who have little formal training and short intellects. The Sunnah of the Prophet is also do for a serious reexamination. What did he say? What did he do? How was he both simultaneously stern and flexible? How could he proclaim no god but God and yet make concessions with idolators? Muhammad was a complex man – revisiting his life and his prophethood will no doubt turn up many unknown gems for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This is a topic which deserves deeper introspection – an introspection that cannot fully be dealt with in a small post as it is here. Rather, it is my hope that we may ponder this questions, these situations and feel moved to do something about it. And in the words of Umar Ibn al-Khattab, “Allah and His Messenger know best”.