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Art, Culture and Islam
Nasim Hassan, Delaware, USA

 March 2002 - Ever since humans learned to communicate with one another, 'culture' began to evolve.  The earliest people started to show their own observations - in paintings and sketches on walls of caves. Birds and animals reacted to changing seasons - and laid the foundation of music.
The historical definition of 'culture' is "a social heritage, or tradition, that is passed on to future generations". Another definition puts together the religion, philosophy, poetry, music, art and spiritual traditions of a people – and calls the result a ‘culture’.  Because culture is a direct reflection of people's aspirations, the culture evolved in a desert locale cannot be the same as that developed in mountainous regions where singing streams abound.  'Culture' evolves gradually over the centuries in any given area, so it cannot be said that you can uproot the local culture in any place and substitute it with another foreign culture. 
Although art, culture and Islam may seem to be contradictory terms, the fact is that - over the centuries - Islam has deeply impacted the Culture of all environments with which it came into contact. In fact, Islam has modified most artistic expression such as painting, sculpture or architecture.
In this 'communications age', when local Eastern arts, music and poetry are not encouraged, the common man just naturally switches to the dominant culture of the West.  Subsequently, we lament the so-called 'encroachment of cultural imperialism' and the loss of eastern values.  We forget that every aspect of a culture is interconnected.  When we discourage local cultural activities by saying that they are not Islamic, then also fail to provide more acceptable alternatives, we must be ready to accept the onslaught of Western cultural traditions, by default.

Briefly, I have tried to highlight the impact of dominant Western Culture on the values and culture of South Asia. For lack of a viable alternative, this impact is in fact visible in Muslim countries all over the world.

Classical Music

Classical music - such as 'ragas' - emanated from various parts of the Indian peninsula - to express human feelings such as hope, fear, love, joy and sorrow.  It is a well known fact that certain ragas such as Tilang and Bhairveen were developed and refined in the plains of the Punjab while others originated in the southern part of the subcontinent.
In ancient India, music and dance were restricted to the upper castes and were dedicated to various gods and deities.  When the Muslim conquerors came into contact with the local people they transformed this art completely. At first they introduced it to the royal courts of Kings and Emperors.  Gradually it came down to the level of Rajas, Maharajas and Nawabs who sponsored unique forms of classical song.  This in turn led to various schools of music that flourished in various local areas.  Such exponents of classical music can still be found all over India.
Long before the high noon of Indian classical music during the time of the Moghul Emperor Akbar, a great statesman, poet and Sufi, Hazrat Amir Khusro developed a number of Ragas.  His impact has been profound and can still be felt in the classical realm. The advent of Pakistan saw a gradual decline in the tradition of classical music.  Some Muslims in fact still believe that all forms of Music are prohibited in Islam!  Some even associate 'music' with the decline of Muslim rule in India.  The fact is that the rise of Muslim power in India was followed by a fusion of Islamic and local Indian Culture.  Similarly, when Muslim power declined - a decline in classical music also occurred.  Musicians were no longer held in respect so the profession began a downgrading process.  As a direct result of this benign neglect, very few people in Pakistan now understand or appreciate classical music. These days, most common people just tune in to Hindi film music or pop music of every description - via their ever-present satellite dishes.

Folk Music, Ghazals, Qawali and Theater

The Indus valley civilization has a rich tradition of folk music, songs and plays based on local love stories.  There was a time when the theater companies would travel all over Pakistan.  This was associated with local festivals or commemoration of local Sufi Saints.  Every year at specified times folk musicians would perform at shrines of Sufi Saints.
A number of reasons have contributed to a progressive decline in these activities. Pop singers have replaced folk singers.  These pop singers have roots in Western music and hardly ever touch the inner chords of common people.  So they cannot replace the symbiosis of centuries that has developed and refined folk music.
Ghazal singing is certainly a contribution that can be attributed to Persian influence on the music of South Asia. Pakistan has produced a number of renowned ghazal singers.  Pakistan has introduced Qawali singing to the World through the genius of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Sabri Brothers.  After partition in 1947, North Indian migrants began to revive their old cultural traditions in India.  The popularity of Ghazals in India coincided with emerging economic rehabilitation of the migrating Indians and still continues unabated.  The same cannot be said about the future of ghazal singing in Pakistan. Here it is directly linked to the decline of classical music, which is the foundation of all indigenous music.

Basant or Jashn-e- Baharan

This festival ushers in the spring season in northern India -particularly in the Punjab.  Historically, Punjab has a harsh winter and a simmering summer. In mid-February the weather starts to change. The countryside is full of mustard blossoms and the fields look like a flowing river of Yellow. People in the Punjab regardless of their religious affiliation celebrated this festival by wearing yellow and by flying kites from roof tops.
After the emergence of Pakistan, the Muslim clergy discouraged this practice by saying it was a Hindu or Indian celebration.  Many a time, religious parties petitioned the government to outlaw this festival alleging that it is dangerous and 'against Islam'. Actually, this festival is simply a celebration of seasonal change. This festival has now emerged even stronger than before and continues well into the night.  Many other items have now become associated with it.  If sober elements prevail, this will be recognized as a centuries-old tradition, in fact as a human need. Then, perhaps its features can be changed from within - to make it a healthy celebration instead of a bug-a-boo that creates so much chaos.

The Film Industry

Over the past 50 years, the film Industry in Pakistan has declined.  In the first place, no government in Pakistan recognized it even as "an industry".  On the contrary, filmmaking was actively discouraged. Sometimes it was labeled, "against Islam" and other times it was alleged that "films were a corrupting influence on the morality of common people".  I am not advocating that in the name of freedom of expression, we copy Western culture, which leaves nothing to the imagination. A better approach would be to positively encourage "clean entertainment".  Because a creative outlet did not exist in the film industry for artists, they went into Television. 
In North America, Pakistani and Indian families do watch PTV plays because the whole family can see this non-X-rated entertainment together. I believe that this success can be translated into films.  South Asians all over the World want clean family oriented films and plays. Pakistani Films could fill this gap if the authorities support it.

Mushaira or Poetry Recitation

The recitation of Urdu poetry started a few hundred years ago in India -in a particular format.  It somehow reached its zenith at a time, which coincided with the decline of the Mogul Empire.  Northern India became a literary paradise as it saw the emergence of Urdu language, after the British decided to discard Persian as an official language. This tradition although gradually declining continues in Pakistan and India today. 
The first generation immigrants from Pakistan and Northern India have brought Urdu with them to the Middle East and North America.  Every year, poets from Pakistan and India tour various countries and recite their latest poetry.  Initially, religious people also attended these poetry recitations and atmosphere always remained sober. I believe that as long as religious people stay in touch with cultural activities they have a very positive impact.
Unfortunately, this tradition can not be sustained in North America because only 25% of our next generation here know Urdu!  Out of this 25%, not even 1% can read or write in Urdu.  So, as soon as the first generation immigrants pass the baton on to the next generation, this cultural tradition called Mushaira will quietly wither away.
However, it does not necessarily have to go away in this manner.  Given the motivation, if our first generation immigrants who are concentrated in large cities start teaching Urdu, on a voluntary basis, I believe it can easily be done.  Contrary to popular belief, I have seen a significant number of South Asian young people enjoying Indian songs and movies.  Learning Urdu is much easier for youngsters of Pakistani parentage.  Pakistanis send their kids to Islamic centers where they learn the Quran in Arabic.  Because Urdu uses the same script as Arabic, these kids should easily be able to recognize the letters and words used in Urdu. In fact, the Urdu language itself is a mixture of words that originate in Arabic and Persian. Talk of Reverse Osmosis! 


Cultural activities need nourishment to survive.  Islam and culture do not contradict one another. Certain cultural traditions that are in conflict with Islam can be modified or discarded.  However there are a number of cultural activities that are specific to a province, tribe or a country and should be sustained.  If these traditions are backed and reinforced, then they can easily face western "Cultural Imperialism". The simple reason for this is that these cultural traditions have taken centuries to emerge and become refined. All they require is a helping hand - and they will start to blossom. The result of neglect can only lead to the discarding of a treasure that has taken centuries to build and the World would be a net loser.   

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