The Taliban and music

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IN her latest book, The Case for God, Karen Armstrong describes music as `the limit of reason`. She finds it inseparable from religious expression when religion is at `its best`.

We do not get the best demonstration of this connection in the Taliban brand of Islam. The faith practised by the Sufis, however, shows an intrinsic link between the two.

No count has been kept of the video shops destroyed by the Taliban in the course of their offensive against Pakistani culture. Music has had its detractors in plenty and the MMA government, foisted on the NWFP by Musharraf, had declared music to be a vice in 2002.

Since then music has been treated as an enemy. It has been targeted regularly. The campaign first began in the form of attacks on shops and music centres. Then musicians, those gentle artists who soothe the soul, were threatened and they either fled or gave up their art. Some had to pay with their life.

It all seems bizarre, given the clear connection between the rhyme and rhythm of music and the harmony in the working of nature. It beginswith the unborn child`s first exposure to the rhythm of his mother`s heartbeat.

Even the Taliban probably know that music casts a spell on the listeners. It was amusing to read on the Freemuse website ( — an independent Copenhagen-based organisation called the World Forum on Music and Censorship — that the Taliban who claim to be averse to all forms of musical expression were at one stage promoting `jihadi` hymns to lure young men to their cause.

After having robbed the people in the north of the much-celebrated Pakhtun folk culture, which was enriched with song and dance, the Taliban reportedly reverted to what comes naturally to the natives of that region — music. According to a Freemuse report, every Taliban group had its own production house with staff to hire youth with melodious voices to render the jihadi songs that were duly recorded on cassettes and sold in large numbers.

Every religion has its share of poetry and music that keep its adherents spellbound. On a recent visit to Bhitshah, the resting place of Shah Abdul Latif, the Sufi saint of Sindh of the Shah jo Risalo fame, what fascinated me most were the fakirs who played the tanboro and chanted the great poet`s verses in the courtyard of the shrine throughout the night. They have been doing that without a break for over two centuries, I was told. The music was overpowering.

Isn`t that the case with qawwalis too? Or for that matter qirat rendered by a good qari? Palestinian activist Ghada Karmi who has spent a lifetime in London and could not be more secular in her outlook was full of praise for the gentleman at the Karachi University who recited Quranic verses before her lecture when she visited Pakistan in 2003.

There has always been a link between man and music. S.M. Shahid, who learnt classical music for 20 years at the feet of his ustad, the late Wilayat Ali Khan, discovered this connection when his handicapped grandchild began to respond to music in a remarkable way. Thanks to his musical intellect he can recognise the beats — he claps at ever summ (starting point of a taal — a rhythmic and cyclic arrangement of beats). Music enchants him and he concentrates on the beats.

This does not surprise those who have studied music and are involved with children. Afshan Ahmad now a Montessori directress quotes Maria Montessori, the Italian educationist and anthropologist, when she points out that “rhythmic movements” which song and dance involve have a positive neurological effect on a child.

Afshan made her debut in the world of music as a child when she appeared on PTV`s Saaray Dost Humaray to entertain children with her melodies and teach them their lessons by singing nursery rhymes that were unforgettable. Afshan uses music cleverly in her school to soothe and calm a rowdy child.

So why does music have so many enemies? Freemuse was in fact set up to advocate freedom of expression for musicians and composers worldwide. It was born in the first world conference on music and censorship in 1998 in Copenhagen and has about 200 members today, mostly professionals from diverse fields and countries and including musicians, journalists, researchers, record industry professionals and human rights activists. They examine and document a wide variety of abuses to create awareness and fight censorship.

The website notes, “Imagine the world without music. Or imagine a world where we are told what to play, what to sing and even what we may listen to in the privacy of our homes. That world already exists in more countries than you might imagine.”Why the need for censorship? The link between music and politics is now widely recognised. In the US, jazz, a creation of the Creoles of New Orleans, came to reflect the aspirations of the African Americans and in the 1960s was the battle cry of the civil rights movement. That explains why pro-status quo forces fear music. It can turn into a form of social protest.

But one thing reassuring is that music cannot be suppressed as Salman Ahmad, the founder of the rock music band Junoon, and now UN`s goodwill ambassador, points out. “For years Gen Ziaul Haq tried to suppress music but it bounced back no sooner than he had gone.”

Now Salman wants to use his talent to promote peace by bonding people culturally. He went to the Kashmir Valley last year and attracted a massive crowd to his concert in spite of death threats from the militants. He is working on a musical event at the UN Assembly in September to raise funds for the IDPs. Their trauma can be eased by reviving the vibrant Pakhtun music that the Taliban virtually destroyed.