The first English nasheed I ever heard was “A’ is for Allah” sung in a clear tone by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. A cozy setting: it was just Yusuf Islam and the gawking small crowd at my mosque, a converted old church (just like in Little Mosque on the Prairie!) We young ones had been let out of Sunday school early to witness history in the making – Yusuf Islam was softening his stance against music… a little. The song went on to become #1 on mosque announcement boards across North America. (Right under the parking regulations – see comedian Azhar Usman’s take on that).

Until then, until Yusuf Islam opened his mouth and sang in ENGLISH, Islamic music was mostly sung in Arabic or your indigenous language if you happened to come from a part of the world that had a tradition of Islamizing the local culture and arts. My family fortunately came from a culture which had encountered and embraced Islam from the 7th century – our locale being prominent on the trade route; Muslim music has its own name there and on my visits “back home” as a child, the beauty and the meaning of the songs I heard my cousins singing stayed with me even though I wasn’t fluent by any means in the language. I particularly remember a hauntingly beautiful melody about a song-bird which awakens at the break of dawn to flitter around the minarets and rise, soaring into the dark sky as the souls rise to meet Allah for morning prayers.

Music and the arts was so prominent a part of my background culture that it was commendable for children to master them. My teenage male cousins were just as likely to spontaneously sit around and sing together as my female cousins were. On my summer visits, hardly a night would go by without a nasheed-a-thon under the flickering lights of rationed electricity.

Back home in Canada, music to me meant stuff you listened to on your favourite alternative radio station, 102.1 CFNY, even though you had a vague idea your dad might not approve of New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle. Back then, lyrics didn’t matter – just that your best friend kept going on and on about the Housemartins until you started singing Caravan of Love in the shower – with the vague idea that your dad might approve of a song with “my brother” and “my sister” in it. Your clique at school decided what kind of music you listened to – and for me that meant British invasion – New Order, Depeche Mode, the Cure, the Smiths – was the order of the day. (Though I secretly liked some of the top 40 hits; but, in the interests of keeping my ultra cool friends from fainting, I refrained from singing Phil Collins).

Later as I opened my eyes to the world beyond my high school halls, I started to actually listen to lyrics. The meanings of meaningless songs bothered me. U2 singing Sunday Bloody Sunday about finding peace was more worth listening to, I felt, than someone singing Somebody (Depeche Mode) about finding love (not that finding love was meaningless! Just that finding peace was a more pressing concern…) Deep meaning mattered to me and the intent of a song like Mr. Wendel by Arrested Development – about a homeless man – was more my cupa’ tea now that I had become awakened to the realities of the world beyond suburban comfort. You guessed it, I was in university. My friends and I were going to save the world.

Now, the explosion in English Islamic/Muslim music or “just” songs from Muslim artists from around the globe is such that it’s hard to keep up with. We are witnessing the Islamizing of the arts and culture of a part of the world which until more recently we regarded as not “our” lands even if we were born and bred here. It’s like we just remembered that to God belongs the East and the West.

Consider whole websites devoted solely to nasheed artists and the huge interest in their products. And as many Muslim English musicians there are, there are the same number of opinions regarding them – from the view that they can only sing on Islam, they can only use voice, no – they can use the traditional duff, they have to market solely to Muslims etc. And then there’s the whole question posed out there – just what can be called nasheed and what can‘t? Is nasheed to be defined as “Islamic oriented music”?

My view has always been to support (through the purchase of original works) any Muslim musician who wishes to get across the message that Islam brings to the world – God-centeredness, peace, kindness, justice, brotherhood, remembrance of our role models (both Prophets and noble historic personalities) etc. And if they’re doing this in English, even better. Any Muslim musician who is able to get this message across in such a beautiful way that their songs actually travel across the bridges of faith, culture, identity and nationality is to be especially commended. I particularly think Yusuf Islam (I like his remake of Father and Son with Ronan Keating), Dawud Wharnsby (who actually is a formidable pioneer – the 2nd most I would say after Yusuf Islam – in Islamic music) and Kareem Salama (his work is one of the most well-written I’ve seen – and not only amongst Muslim artists – and the music and voice are especially bridge-crossing) are mention-worthy in this regard. By the way – the video for Midnight on Dawud Wharnsby’s site has got to be watched until the end – it’s very moving. With Zain Bhika‘s latest CD, Allah Knows, he seems to be breaking ground as well.

That’s not to say groups like Native Deen (who I really enjoy listening to) don’t cut it. Their focus seems to be on the Muslim youth in our communities – a commendable goal in itself. Of course I’m not going to forget seven8six, Shaam, Sami Yusuf, Aa’shiq-al-Rasul et all who are doing the same sort of thing. Oh, and Raihan (the Malaysian group) with its feel-good, sway-to music (and am I ever glad that their latest offerings have had more English – my Malay and Arabic were getting confused). And one more, I’m not going to forget brother Mustaqiim Sahir (there’s a long wait for the link) from the early days of English Islamic music, who uses only his voice to make a range of instruments.

And Outlandish? They harken back to my university days: save the world while humming. Are they nasheeding? Well, do they promote Islamic ideals? I just think if everyone asks themselves that question each time they listen to a Muslim artist, they’d be able to ascertain who’s nasheeding and who isn’t. Just make sure you listen with the heart of faith yourself and not the heart of judgement based on a fortress of fear. Because, really, the amount of people who tsk tsk at Muslim musicians producing works with beautiful messages while back at home or with friends, they (the same people) bob their heads to music with dubious content is just too sad of a topic. Sad enough that I wish someone would make a song about it.

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