When Pakistani medical student, Salman Ahmad, stood up to twiddle his guitar, to the delight of all, at a student talent show event in a Lahore hotel in 1980, he was oblivious of the raging silent war between religion, music and sports. As he sang, a Pakistani fanatic dashed to the stage, snatched Ahmad’s Gibson Les Paul guitar from around his neck and smashed it into smithereens. Nothing happened. The fanatic could not understand Ahmad’s temerity of playing rock music or music in general which Arabs potentates of the Islamic religion once referred to as “a prompting of the Devil” and an affront on Islam. As if leaving frying pan for fire, Ahmad recoiled off music to his other passion of playing cricket. He got it to the highest octave, even playing alongside Imran Khan, Pakistani cricket World Cup player.
Not satisfied with himself, Ahmad made a momentary return to the “prompting of the Devil” on a cricket tour of Bangladesh. He then began to combine classic rock and blues, mixing them with the mystical music and poetry of Islamic Sufism, to form a blend of what he called “Sufi rock”. Under threats from the military regime of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Ahmad went underground. To Islamists, Zia-ul-Haq got praises for his “de-secularization efforts and stern opposition to Western culture.” To the world out there however, Zia-ul-Haq was authoritarian, especially in his press censorship, religious intolerance and weakening of Pakistani democracy. Upon his death, Ahmad became a celebrated rock star and his songs, a representation of a progressive Pakistan. As he wrote in his biography, Rock and Roll Jihad, it became a life struggle for him to get music positioned as an integral and crucial part of Islam.
Popular American-Nigerian singer, David Adeleke, last week had a brush with his own Pakistani fanatics as he courted the intolerance of Muslim youths. For his temerity at sharing his musical video, Jaye lo on his social media handles, the penalty was a quaint colouring of the social media with hate against his person and music. A Muslim group even set his posters ablaze as a representation of their anger. Davido had misrepresented Islam as the preoccupation of sybarites, they alleged. The Jaye Lo video had backup singers dressed as Muslim faithful, in white flowing apparel and cap. All of a sudden, the group transmuted into hip-hop music dancers. Davido himself sat on a building that looked like the roof of a mosque, complete with a loudspeaker, like a muezzin. The video immediately sparked outrage and divided opinions. How dare Davido drag the holy religion into such typecast of a mundane, pleasure-seeking, dancing groove? By such representation, Davido had painted pagan image of Islam and mis-situated the religion in an imagery of carnal engagement.
The same week, at the Brisbane Stadium in Australia, while Nigerians momentarily forgot the harrowing pain inflicted on them by their new rulers and were wrapped up in celebration of the country’s win in the women World Cup football event, the “prompting of the Devil” debate returned at full throttle. Apparently overtly animated by her 72nd minute maverick shot that netted a third goal for Nigeria against Australia, Super Falcons’ Asisat Oshoala pulled off her shirt, leaving almost her lingerie.
The Oshoala celebratory pull of shirt has since provoked a huge hoopla. Social media went abuzz with back-and-forth conversations wrapped round the act. Photos of Oshoala, a Muslim, praying and wrapped up in the Islamic Hijab, sprung up. She was not only exposed to sexualizing diatribes, Muslims weaponized religion to cast her in the mould of an infidel.
From the time of the earliest theology, theologians of all religions have had dissenting opinions about music. Questions asked are, what is music’s place in religious rituals? Is music beneficial to the soul? Does it encroach on the boundary of morals? Is the problem strictly with some musical instruments? The bata, for instance, an ancient drum associated with the liturgy of traditional religious worship, is frowned at in some churches till date. What occasions and times should particular music be played? Are some genders morally and spiritually unsuitable for some music? And in sports, which require terse dressing to ensure easy movement of concerned sport persons, should female gender sport adherents be part of it and if they are, should they too be tersely clad like their male counterparts?
When traditional African Yoruba music genres of Sakara, Apala, Fuji and Waka began to emerge in the early 18th century, they faced strict censure from their listening audience. Most of them had mutated from the Islamic liturgical practice of Ajisari music used to wake Islamic faithful during the fasting period. Though mostly in the form of praise songs and engendered by traditional Yoruba instruments like the solemn-sounding goje violin and a tambourine-like small, round sakara drum hit with a stick, as well as agidigbo, the music’s Arabic ancestry manifested in its traditional percussion instruments which were very implicit. Abibu Oluwa, who pioneered Sakara in the 1930s; Jibowu Barrister of Fuji, Haruna Ishola of Apala and all who came immediately after them faced critics who claimed that they were polluting the Islamic faith with their songs. This necessitated a defence made into a track in an early musical career song of Ayinla Omowura. Alcohol and not music pollutes Islam because even Arabs who lived in Mecca, Ayinla sang, are involved in music. He sang: Ara Mon…Ara Monka ns’esin/Ilu o b’esin je o, oti ma lo b’esin je…
While in 2003 or 2004, a minor city in Sweden was faced with the row of a woman who got converted to Islam but decided to engage in a legal battle to get her 7-year-old son exempted from music instruction in school, Islam wasn’t the sole attacker of music. American pop musician, Marvin Gaye’s death revealed this. He had had bitter childhood rancour with his father. However, on April 1, 1984, his Christian Minister and strict disciplinarian father committed filicide by shooting him twice in the heart at their Western Heights neighbourhood house in Los Angeles, California. Gay Snr. highly disapproved of his son’s “sexual ambiguity”, with widespread rumour that the hip-hop musician was a homosexual. Gaye was also a user of hard drugs and had gone paranoid and suicidal before he met his untimely death at the age of 45. Indeed, traces of cocaine were found in a later autopsy conducted on his corpse. The older Gay highly excoriated Gaye’s career in music and was more resentful that Gaye was closer to his mother Alberta, especially when the musician became the breadwinner for the family. Marvin’s highly successful but sexually explicit Sexual Healing track, from the album, Midnight Love further put a wedge between father and son. How could the son of a Minister sing such song?
Over centuries, Islamic scholars have debated the propriety of music to the religion. Islamic scholars, in the Hadith collections of the late 8th and early 9th centuries, said that even Muhammed was ambivalent about music, shunning and embracing it as inherently haram or as halal. Islamic scholars who preach tolerant views on music say that even in the Qur’an, the prophet never gave a clear statement on music whenever he described social life or gave advice on morals. In a particular Hadith, Muhammed was said to have encouraged songs at weddings, though also prophesying that, at the end of time, music would become one of the signs of moral chaos. Ibn ‘Abd Rabbihi (d. 940) while discussing music in Kitab al-‘iqd al-farid (The Book of the Unique Necklace), which is regarded as one of the oldest surviving texts in Islam, had been quoted to have said: “And sometimes one apprehends the blessings of this world and the next through beautiful melodies. And a proof of that is that they induce generosities of character in performing kindness, and observing family ties, and defending one’s honour, and overlooking faults. And sometimes man will weep over his sins through them, and the heart will be softened from its hardness, and man will remember the joys of the Kingdom [of Heaven], and image it in his mind.” Umayyad Caliph ibn Walid (d. 744) renowned for his asceticism, was quoted to have said, on the reverse: “O, Umaiyads, avoid singing for it decreases shame, increases desire, and destroys manliness, and verily it takes the place of wine and does what drunkenness does. But if you must engage in it, keep the women and children away from it, for singing is the instigator of fornication.”
It was apparently this attitude that Nigerian Netizens took to attacking the duo of Davido and Oshoala last week. Some said that since African values frown at nudity, Oshoala shouldn’t have pulled off her shirt. Did African progenitors, in setting the boundary of culture, reckon with playing football, especially a woman footballer who, seized by a spontaneous celebratory spirit, pulled off her shirt? This intolerance is rank intolerance. It is also failure to apprehend the fact that, unlike what operated in early centuries when religion was lord of the universe, religion has scant influence now. It is this same attitude that is taken to violent reactions to burning of the Quran and, in a lesser degree of bile, reactions to burning the Bible. When far-right politician, Islamphobic Rasmus Paludan, burnt the Quran in Sweden on January 21, 2023, a floodgate of reactions was opened into the debate. About two weeks before this in Stockholm, police claimed they authorized a protest by a man who wanted to burn the Torah and the Bible outside the Israeli Embassy. He said it was a riposte to Quran-burning outside a Stockholm mosque earlier by an Iraqi immigrant. Were these two Quran and Bible-burning exercises of freedom of expression? Did the culprits, in the process, infringe on the harm principle? The harm principle holds that actions of individuals should be limited only to preventing harm to other individuals. So, what harm is inflicted on a Christian or Muslim if the Quran or the Bible is burnt? Why are they bothered by outward appearances that do not endure, at the expense of the more enduring subject of the soul and humanity?
The defence by religionists is that burning those religious texts is deeply offensive and incites violence or hatred against some individuals or groups. Why can’t Bible and Quran burning incidents be seen as freedom of expression? Why must religionists go violent because a non-living object has been burnt but, in the same vein, see it as the wish of God when a human being is murdered? Does burning of a religious text, in any way, de-masculinize the religion? It has often been said that Muslims see the Quran as not just a book, but a sacred text which holds great spiritual and religious significance and a symbol of the Islamic faith. Its burning is then seen as a visceral attack and insult on Allah, as well as a desecration of Islam. If that is the case, why don’t we leave the all-powerful God to avenge infidels who desecrate the text? Is the God/god of a religion worthy of being worshipped if we have to fight for him?
In Nigeria, so many people have been killed by fanatics on the pretext of fighting for God. Gideon Akaluka was beheaded in Kano in 1995 by a group of nine Wahabists. A man who eventually rose to the zenith of Nigerian banking was even alleged to be part of the conspiracy. In May last year, Deborah Yakubu, a Home Economics sophomore at the Shehu Shagari College of Education, Sokoto, was gruesomely murdered for having “blasphemed” Islam and Prophet Muhammed through a voice note on a WhatsApp group she left in response to another student’s post on Islam. She was forcibly pulled out of a room and her student colleagues repeatedly bayoneted her with stones and clubs. They then set her lifeless body on fire as they shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great). Till today, Nigerian government’s connivance in this horror is manifest in that, no one has since been brought to book.
There is no difference between the intolerance of those who killed Deborah, those who beheaded Akaluka, the ones calling for Davido’s head over his song and those heaping invectives on Oshoala. They are all united by pristine ignorance and Stone Age sheepish abidance to religious exegeses. One of such was a fellow called Bashir Ahmed, an ex-President Muhammad Buhari’s aide who labeled the video “hurtful” and “disrespectful.” To who? Must he listen to the song? Why not concentrate on listening to the usual Quranic recitation rhymes and leave those who wanted to enjoy Davido’s songs to bother about it? Why should it bother me that someone is tearing the Bible? Those religious texts are not in any way different from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Says Zarathustra. They only assume greater importance in the way we deploy them for the betterment of our lives. The problem is tyranny of the mind, a war that the two religions – Christianity and Islam – inflict on the other person. Why not be content with what you believe in and go to heaven and give others the freedom to go to hell if they so wish? Why play God?