Hundreds of young Maldivians descended on Sultans Park on Friday night for the launch of a music album by a young local artist.
Sitting in the dark shade of the trees at night, they cheered loudly as two young ladies strummed guitars to a soft melodic tune.
Music has been closely entwined with cultures around the world, from beyond the mists of time. Soaring orchestras and gentle flutes have enamoured mankind with their ability to convey, wordlessly, their deepest thoughts and most powerful emotions. So majestic is their beauty that, in many cultures, instruments like the lyre, the sitar and the harp have been associated with the divine, the heavenly.
The ancient traditions of song and dance in Dhivehi Raajje have evolved to a point where geographically disparate islands have formed their own subtly distinct styles that allow a keen ear to differentiate between, for instance, the Giraavaru tribe and their neighbouring islanders.
The accelerating beats of bodu beru drums have moved generations of Dhivehin to ecstasy and euphoria as they climaxed in a thrilling crescendo.
As it happens, the centuries old traditions that seem to be infused in the very genes of Maldivians are now facing a new kind of threat – a battle between cultural expression and religious dogmatism that has recently arrived on the Maldivian shores.
In March 2008, a gathering assembled at the Dharubaaruge Conference Centre, organised by Jamiyyathul Salaf, a religiously conservative NGO.
The backdrop on the stage had an image of a burning musical note crossed out with flames.
During the gathering, presumably held in opposition to the government’s support for cultural activities like song and dance, they released a video with 22 local lslamic clerics ruling that song and music were ‘haraam’, or forbidden in Islam.
The gathering was broken up by police, citing concerns over religious radicalisation.
Today, the first cleric to condemn music in that video montage, Adhaalath Party leader Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari, is the country’s cabinet Minister of Islamic Affairs.
Among other clerics in the same video were two members of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, staff members of the Centre for the Holy Qur’an, one member of the Human Rights Commission, and also a member of the MDP religious council.
Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, suggested that one’s ability to appreciate beauty was closely tied with one’s ability to make moral judgments.
Grand symphonies of Mozart, Schubert and Bach have endured for centuries on the strength of their sheer brilliance, and the daunting complexity and elegance of their compositions that could evoke romance, passions and dark sorrows in mute observers.
However, during another sermon organised by Jamiyyathul-Salaf in 2010, titled ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll’, preacher Abdur-Raheem Green called the attention of his audience to the music playing from the nearby Carnival stage, and alleged that the musicians playing at the venue were people with empty lives.
In his sermon, he equated music with hedonism and “worship of materialistic culture… the Qur’an of the shaithaan.”
When the Maldivian death metal band Nothnegal returned from a successful tour of Europe, what awaited them in the report of their story were several hostile comments that insisted music was forbidden in Islam, and the group’s activities were akin to ‘devil-worship’.
While the Maldivian music scene hasn’t quite come to a head-on collision with religious dogmatists the way it has in some other Islamic countries, there are some notable incidents where they have crossed paths.
Ali Rameez, arguably the biggest pop-star in the Maldives at the time, famously quit music in a very public manner, reportedly making a symbolic renunciation by dumping a large quantity of his CDs into the sea.
The lead singer of the popular music band Trio, that had recently represented the Maldives at International music events, quit music at the height of the band’s popularity and announced on his Facebook page that his decision was driven by religious considerations, as he was given to understand that music was forbidden to Muslims.
The cultural differences and the attitudes of talented musicians towards their religious duties are a fascinating study in contrast.
The famous Ghazal and Qawwali musical traditions of the subcontinent have a long and rich legacy of talented Muslim artistes, including internationally acclaimed Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
AR Rahman, the double Oscar and Grammy winning Indian musician is also known to be a very devout Muslim.
There appears to be no clear consensus on what is considered acceptable music and what is not.
The late Sheikh Ibn Baz, former grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, rejected all forms of popular music as ‘haram’, except during weddings where it was restricted to women folk.
While many conservative scholars make exemptions for devotional songs accompanied only by the beats of a daf (a frame drum resembling a tambourine), others consider even devotional music to be taboo.
Renowned Lebanese Islamic scholar Sheikh Ibrahim Ramadan Al-Mardini rejects such religious restrictions on music, saying no such prohibition existed in the Qur’an.
He also argues that the hadith often used to justify it were “very weak”.
Opposition religious leader, Dr Afrasheem Ali, said on national television in 2008 that the Prophet himself had sung. Former President Gayoom, also a religious scholar, asserted in a speech that singing and dancing were not incompatible with Islam.
Indeed, even the definition of the term ‘singing’ appears to be equally nebulous.
The stirring qualities of rhythm, melody and tenor have been used to great effect by famous qaris like Abdul Basit Abdul Samad – who became internationally known for his spell-binding recitations of that Qur’an that inspires many imitators.
Even after ‘renouncing music’, former pop-star Ali Rameez has sung several devotional songs, many of them quite popular.
So did Rock-star Cat Stevens, who embraced Islam at the peak of his career and gave up music. Upon conversion, he took on the name Yusuf Islam, and auctioned away all his guitars.
Elsewhere, Salman Ahmad, the lead singer of iconic Pakistani rock band Junoon and arguably the greatest rock star to emerge from the Muslim world, is appealing to youth in his terrorism-plagued country to take up the guitar and reject extremism.
Cat Stevens, aka Yusuf Islam, eventually returned to music. On the eve of his album’s re-release, he explained that he had stopped performing due to his misunderstanding of the Islamic faith.
“This issue of music in Islam is not as cut-and-dried as I was led to believe … I relied on hearsay, that was perhaps my mistake”, Yusuf said.
Salman Ahmad, too, pointed out that the verses of celebrated Sufi poet Rumi “promoted harmony, tolerance, peace, self-discovery, simplicity… really, the antithesis of the religious extremists protesting on the street.”
Arguing that both rock musicians and extremists had a common target – the youth, he has vowed to undertake a new kind of ‘jihad’, one that combats what he considers the destructive power of extremism and “murderous thugs masquerading as holy men” by providing the outlet of music.
Indeed, young rock bands in the Maldives have chosen to vent their angst against political violence with powerful thrash music. Judging by the crowds that throng their shows, the message has been received well.
Gentle plucks on guitar strings have in the past summoned millions of anti-war activists, raised millions in charity, and defined entire cultural eras.
Countries everywhere use the strength of music to put together stirring verses set to triumphal tunes played by military brass bands – a shared national anthem, to signify a shared nationhood.
Maldivian bands like Zero Degree Atoll have revived cultural identities by skilfully infusing the sounds of waves and conch shells along with modern guitar riffs and bodu beru percussion, accompanying, of course, their evocative Maldivian poetry.
If the music that mingled with the Maldivian sea breeze for centuries is to survive, one would do well to heed the advice of the young man on the stage at the Sultan Park last night, who exhorted his artist and musician colleagues to defy those who discourage and object to music, and remain steadfastly committed to creating wonderful new melodies; words that would clearly be music to our ancestors’ ears.