by Ahmad James
By the grace of Allah, I entered Islam at the age of 20. It is no exaggeration to say that Hip-Hop was my religion before Islam. I was blessed to be brought up in a local underground scene that taught me to love myself and all others as creatures of God, reject blind materialism, respect women, and different cultures, and religious traditions. It also taught me to live naturally and refuse drugs. Often people who didn’t grow up in the culture mistake it for what they see on MTV, which is nothing but the corporate thievery of a culture to serve the interests of the outsider. This is quite similar to how those who aren’t Muslim will definitely be led to think that Islam is a horrible faith if they watch the corporate news which is similarly spun to serve the interests of an outsider. That’s why I was shocked when you completely affirmed the Shaykh who compared Hip-Hop to “Satanism”. And added statements like, “Since the 1970’s hip hop has done nothing to help the hood except throw its women on BET while some self styled Uncle Tom runs a credit card through their cleavage, served to degenerate basic language skills; create a culture of hyper masculinity based on a feeling that one is greater than God!” First of all, you know that isn’t true. That’s not the whole picture. Excluding what is put on corporate controlled television and radio Hip-hop artists have carried the message of Malcolm and the Black Panthers to our generation like no one else. They have also taught people about alternative narratives to history in contrast to the whitewashed versions in our standard textbooks. They have taught not to follow the global monoculture but to think outside the box and rebel against injustice and oppression. I have seen so much beauty from Hip-Hop driven grassroots campaigns, from “stop the violence” to working to free political prisoners, to raising money for breast cancer research. Hip-Hop after school programs have kept kids off the streets and away from crime in neighborhoods where there are few other options. No one is pretending Hip Hop is all positive and it reflects the sometimes “unislamic” realities of poor inner city America but we both know it is far from satanism. It was created by inner city kids who had no artistic outlets – so they created their own. At the very least, Hip-Hop has always been the voice of the voiceless. The Shaykh from overseas probably doesn’t know this because he didn’t grow up in the culture and he only gets the MTV/BET version. But you know better. Would you nod with approval if one of your non-Muslim relatives compared Islam to satanism citing all the evil they see on the TV about it? Of course not!!! But you emphatically support someone describing Hip-Hop based on misinformation. The metaphor is imperfect but the similarities are undeniable.
To me your writing, shows more than anything, that you have not been living in America for quite some time and are out of touch with the realities on the ground.
When I became Muslim I stopped making music, going to shows or even associating with the culture because I didn’t feel I was strong enough in my deen to go into that atmosphere and not be changed. This is because along with the good in the culture there is the alcohol, weed smoke, and mixing of genders etc (standard in any non-Islamic gathering in America). However after three years I started working on music again because I felt strong enough to bring myself to venues and open mics and be the one influencing as opposed to being influenced. The response was positive and so I continued. But I did want to firm up my relationship with Allah and my understanding of the deen so I did what you suggested. I took time off music and my family and I moved to Egypt to study. I had a lot of time to reflect and my time there made me even more certain that I wanted to make music. I had to leave after 6 months because of financial issues. And in fact I stayed until I depleted all my savings. As I am writing this, my family and I are living in a motel. Next to me on one side is a prostitute. On the other side is a drug dealer. These people need Islam. They are not interested in your lectures. They are interested in Hip-Hop.
I don’t make Islamic Hip-Hop, or Muslim Hip Hop and I have never marketed my music as such. I am a Muslim and I make Hip-Hop. Because I am a practicing Muslim I talk about my religion, or more often my relationship with Allah, in most of my songs. If Muslims relate great, but I focus my music toward two groups: one is the non-Muslim hip-hopper I once was. The other is the Muslim who is not in the mosque and who is instead listening to Hip-Hop.
I recommend to anyone interested in this issue to read the article entitled “Islam and the Cultural Imperative” by Dr. Umar Farooq Abdullah. I will quote one hadith he relates in that article,
“The story of the ‘sons of Arfida’—a familiar Arabian linguistic reference to Ethiopians—provides a telling illustration of the place of culture (here, of course, Black African culture) within the Prophetic dispensation. In celebration of an annual Islamic religious festival, a group of Black African converts began to beat leather drums and dance with spears in the Prophet’s mosque. Umar ibn al-Khab—one of the chief Companions—felt compelled to interfere and stop them, but the Prophet intervened on their behalf, directing Umar to leave them alone and noting to him that they were ‘the sons of Arfida,’ that is, not his people. The Prophet invited his wife A’isha to watch the dance, took her into the crowd, and lifted her over his back, so that she could watch them clearly as she eagerly leaned forward, her cheek pressing against his. The Prophet made it a point to dispel the Ethiopians’ misgivings about Umar’s intrusion and encouraged them to dance well and, in one account of this authentic story, reassured them to keep up their drumming and dancing, saying: ‘Play your games, sons of Arfida, so the Jews and Christians know there is latitude in our religion.'”
I have been to Hadramawt, with some of the top scholars of Shafi’i fiqh in the world, where they have dhikr sessions with the drum and flute until deep into the night. You mean to tell me that that is fine, but a brother in any city USA can’t play his instrument because he feels it brings him into communion with something greater than himself? I converted to the universal message of Islam. I didn’t convert to a religion that says its ok in Yemen or Mauritania but it’s not ok in South Central, or Oakland, or Kansas. Furthermore, almost every single convert that I know, was either a musician or an artist before Islam. The few exceptions were avid music listeners. That is because true music and art opens one up to the reality that there is something greater than the sensory world and that is the space an artist enters when they master their art. I first knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was more than just flesh and bone during a freestyle session on a street corner, in which the words, rhyme patterns, and meanings that were coming out of me, were not from me alone.
The American Situation
Modern America bases itself on plurality. Few places on earth are as diverse as any city USA. The Muslim community here reflects that diversity. Because of this, if Islam is to remain relevant and spread successfully in America, it must be one that recognizes difference and is open to plurality. Of course this should be within the wide range of scholarly opinion rooted authentically in our tradition. That is why it is a problem when scholars allege, for instance, that music is Haram. The fact is, you know better than me, that it is a much more nuanced discussion. I have had a scholar tell me, “Well you know there is a difference of opinion but if you tell people certain things are permissible then they will start listening to Brittney Spears.” The fact is, Muslim youth are listening to way worse than Brittney Spears. How on earth would keeping us ignorant of our deen benefit us!?
So if music isn’t all out haram, then it must be certain themes within Hip-Hop that are objectionable. Again, I agree. Much of Hip-Hop, especially the pop variety, is horrendous in most of its subject matter. It is basically jahaleeya poetry translated into ebonics. Yet, if we refer to our tradition we have a striking example. RasulAllah (pbuh) did not forbid his companions to recite poetry. Rather he encouraged it as long as it was beautiful and of virtuous subject matter. He made sure the poetry was purified. But he had no problem with the art form itself. Even the art form which had been the most emblematic sign of the jahalleeya and had been one of the greatest weapons of the kufaar to attack our blessed Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)
As much as we like to tell people that Islam is the fastest growing religion in America. We usually fail to note that Muslim youth (the children of immigrants) are leaving the religion, or at least are leaving the practice of it, in numbers much greater than the highest estimate of new converts. They don’t feel that it is relevant to their situation. They feel at best uninterested and at worst ashamed of their parents’ accents, culture, and religion. They want to be American and they want to fit in badly. But when they see a brother, who is much more authentically American than they feel they are, and who is much more serious about Islam than they have ever been, grab the mic and praise Allah while expressing himself, think about what that does to their minds. I guarantee they will never look at their father’s prayer mat or their mother’s head scarf in the same way again.
What alarmed me most about your short article was the fact that you encouraged Muslims to “avoid these superstars [muslim hip-hoppers and entertianers], inviting them to events…” Subhanallah. The fact is that almost every one of these brothers and sisters (“Muslim hip-hoppers/entertainers”) is a convert to Islam that was involved in music before Islam. Many of them were shunned by their families and alienated from their friends for accepting the religion. Yet their love of Allah led them to stay and grow as Muslims while developing their voices in ways relevant to those they were raised amongst as well as their new co-religionists. They continue to use their art to speak of their experiences as American Muslims in a way that many Muslim youth (convert or not) can relate to. Sure they bring their cultural baggage (not always a bad thing) but most I have met have a deep love for Allah and His messenger and simply use the only art form that they ever related to express that love. Their experiences speak more to the American Muslim youth than the average lecture by “scholar X” who was more often than not brought in from overseas and, for all his knowledge of the deen, has no understanding of the culture and the circumstances these kids face day to day. Or maybe he is a scholar like you who has removed himself from American life for long periods of time for the noble goal of gaining sacred knowledge. However upon return most American scholars have no training or mechanism to make that knowledge relevant in the setting of modern America and many do more harm than good by rigidly imposing opinions, or worse; norms and customs from the place where they studied. Commendable are Abdul Hakim Murad’s efforts with the Cambridge Muslim College to train English students who have studied the deen overseas to make that knowledge applicable in their country. The fact is, if you quarantine Muslim rappers and don’t allow them to be part of the community and express themselves the way they know how in our venues, then the community is going to suffer, much more than the artists.
The Bigger Picture: Immigrant and Indigenous
This conversation could easily be put under the heading of a larger debate regarding the clash between the immigrant community and the indigenous community. Too often this clash has been the result of immigrants (and those indigenous privileged enough to be educated in countries where the immigrants originated from) telling the indigenous Muslims, “you don’t know how to practice true Islam, let me tell you”. But that is a conversation for a different forum. I mention it only because many will read this debate that way and it must be kept in mind.
The point to remember is that many immigrants have long scoffed at indigenous (read black) culture as a form of backward ignorance. They bring with them their deep seated racism. Racism that makes you and me their poster children, but the black brothers we converted because of barely worth a salaam. The biggest clash of our generation as Muslims in America is the one between immigrant and indigenous. Case in point; I was recently in Alexandria at Imam Busiri’s mosque for the recitation of the Burda. During that gathering my white friend and I were treated like royalty and brought to the front. Yet at the end when my son came up near the Shaykh who was leading the recitation he looked at my 5-year old boy (who is part African) who was sporting his hair in a beautiful big curly afro and said in broken English “No! Bad! Animal!. He was saying that my sons air was bad and he looked like an animal and he was telling me that I should make him cut it. Yet he didn’t seem to mind my long straight blonde locks falling to my shoulders under my kufi. I didn’t tell my wife about this for fear of what it would have done to her iman.
Are we to except that black brothers have to cut, not only their hair, but also their ties with hip hop and other musical art forms their peoples originated in order to be welcomed into this religion. Do we make them choose between apostasy from the religion and cultural apostasy?
The fact is, maybe the more scrupulous opinion is to abstain from music altogether. However, everyone isn’t there yet. In fact, most people aren’t there and never will be. That goes for Muslims here in America bumping the newest radio hit about “my girl” as well as Muslims in any Arab country listening to the newest radio hit about “ya habibi”. My point here is that we have to make room for people who aren’t there yet. Islam is for everyone, the scholars and the performers, the garbage man and the lawyer. And we have to be honest about what is permissible and what isn’t. You are not going to have a hard time convincing me that the song on the radio is haraam with its sexual innuendoes and blind materialism. However, you are going to be hard pressed to convince me that for some reason all music is haram, even if it exhorts to righteousness and beauty and calls one to reflect more deeply on the signs of Allah. Or even if it simply tells a story of heartbreak or struggle or an escape from one’s poverty-stricken past. We don’t have to say that “kuli shay halal” but if issuing a fatwa based on a minority opinion seems to be more appropriate for the American Muslim context then, maybe it is the preferable opinion in that case. And I don’t believe Muslims are all stupid and that if you say that there is an opinion that listening to music that calls one to remember Allah is permissible, that everyone will go out to the record store and pick up the new Lil Wayne album and watch the new J-Lo video and say “this right here helps me remember Allah fa sho baby”.
One of the reasons I was drawn to Islam was by the music of Muslim musicians. Especially West African musicians like Yousou N’dour and Ali Farka Toure but also Qawwali singers from the subcontinent and Turkish ney players. Telling a West African brother not to play music is like telling him not to breathe. Africa is the musical continent. And many of those musician are the most mubarak human beings I have ever laid eyes on. Much more than many people who spend their days memorizing fiqh. Playing their drum, their kora, or their guitar and telling the story of their people and their love of God. Please tell me what is wrong with that?
Rap is different. But Hip-Hop like Jazz and R&B, and Rock and Roll came from blues. Ethnomusicologists have traced blues back to West Africa in present day Mali. Mali was then a Muslim country as it is today as I’m sure you know. These African Muslims enslaved in America were some of the founders of blues which has in turn informed all American music up to today. And the African-Americans here today are none other than the descendants of the musical Muslim peoples of West Africa.
I recall having a conversation with a group of students of knowledge in Egypt after a basketball game with you one Thursday night. Someone mentioned that they had became Muslim largely because of Hip-Hop, and immediately everyone present agreed that it had been one of the defining reasons for their having entered Islam. In fact almost every convert I have ever met became interested in Islam because of Hip-Hop (including you, if I’m not mistaken). The reality is that these rappers, many of them from “proto-Islamic” groups like the NOI and the 5%ers spoke of the honor, righteousness, and beauty of Islam. I heard you yourself say that there was always a feeling in the streets, that Islam was right, or something to that effect. If nothing else these rappers made Islam look and sound cool to a generation of kids growing up in the 80’s and 90’s. This may seem trivial but in reality the essence of cool, extracted of its negative stereotypes, is someone or thing that is outstanding, out of the ordinary, relevant, yet cutting edge and original. It is that which is attractive and worthy of emulation and imitation. Indeed the most worthy of imitation (pbuh) was someone that was well dressed, well groomed, eloquent, beautiful inside and out, always smiling and radiant. In a word, rasullAllah (pbuh) was cool. On an interesting side note, I was showing pictures of my travels to Hadramawt to some friends I grew up with. The scholars in Hadramawt dress closer to the sunnah than possibly anyone on earth. Anyway my two friends, one of whom happens to be a graffiti artist and the other a hip hop producer, looked at the pictures and agreed, “Man, they got an ill sense of style”.
Of course we know HabibAllah (pbuh) was much more than cool and it seems almost disrespectful to refer to him in this language however, to most children and teenagers, there isn’t much better one can possibly be than “cool”.
However the view of Islam has changed with the new generation. A convert friend of mine, who is a student of knowledge and a guitarist, with one of the greatest characters of anyone I ever met (so much so that both his parents converted through his da’wa) relayed to me that his teenage brother wasn’t interested in Islam. The reason, he said, was that Islam to him was rigid, uncreative and closed-minded. Basically it was uncool. Unfortunately he is not alone. And the reason is because Muslims say things like “music is haraam”. Like my teacher Usama Canon once told me, “That’s like saying food is haraam.” Of course there are haraam foods but there are also wholesome and nutritious foods alhumdulila. The difference between telling someone interested in Islam that music is forbidden, versus or as opposed to telling them that music that degrades anyone or glorifies negativity or uses foul language etc is haraam, is monumental.
We don’t need to worry about whether Muslim youth are listening to M-Team or Amir Sulaiman, we need to worry if they aren’t. Because if they aren’t, they are gonna be leaning to the side of 50 cent and Eminem not Imam Zaid Shakir and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.
Our People, Our Culture
I refuse to leave my people behind. Who is reaching the people on the streets? I can tell you they aren’t listening to your lectures, or those of any other scholars for that matter. Neither are the people in the club. People ask me if I perform in venues in which alcohol is served. My answer is “of course”. I will never turn away from the people who need the message most. I can’t visit my mother or father if I don’t want to be around alcohol and I can’t go to the grocery store either. The cats I grew up with aren’t interested in the Deen because of the hypocrisy they have seen in Muslims and because of statements like “Music is forbidden”. Yet when I give them my CD they tell me, “Damn bro this is tight.” All the while I am expressing my love for Allah and His messenger. I pray their hearts will be softened to the Deen like mine was by the likes of Chuck D, The Roots, Mos Def, and A Tribe Called Quest.
Nor will I turn my back on my culture and become a pseudo Arab. I feel sorry for sisters like my wife who is a Latina and comes from a strong line of outspoken indigenous freedom fighters who is told by Arab men to shut up or get out when she speaks out about the fact that women are generally treated like second class citizens in this Deen and her ancestors have struggled too hard for her to settle for that. Or the African-American brother who traced his lineage to West Africa and decided to become Muslim to reclaim his roots just to be told by someone who studied in Saudi Arabia that the music that his Muslim grandfather played was forbidden. Is he not from the sons of Arfida?
To close I’d like to quote another passage from Islam and the Cultural Imperative that I urge us all to reflect on.
“The Prophet Muhammad and his Companions were not at war with the world’s cultures and ethnicities but entertained an honest, accommodating, and generally positive view of the broad social endowments of other peoples and places. The Prophet and his Companions did not look upon human culture in terms of black and white, nor did they drastically divide human societies into spheres of absolute good and absolute evil. Islam did not impose itself—neither among Arabs or non-Arabs—as an alien, culturally predatory worldview. Rather, the Prophetic message was, from the outset, based on the distinction between what was good, beneficial, and authentically human in other cultures, while seeking to alter only what was clearly detrimental. Prophetic law did not burn and obliterate what was distinctive about other peoples but sought instead to prune, nurture, and nourish, creating a positive Islamic synthesis.
Much of what became the Prophet’s sunna (Prophetic model) was made up of acceptable pre-Islamic Arab cultural norms, and the principle of tolerating and accommodating such practices—among Arabs and non-Arabs alike in all their diversity—may be termed a supreme, overriding Prophetic sunna. In this vein, the noted early jurist, Abu Yusuf understood the recognition of good, local cultural norms as falling under the rubric of the sunna. The fifteenth-century Granadan jurisprudent Ibn al-Mawaq articulated a similar outlook and stressed, for example, that it was not the purpose of Prophetic dress codes to impinge upon the cultural integrity of non-Arab Muslims, who were at liberty to develop or maintain their own distinctive dress within the broad parameters of the sacred law. The Qur’an enjoined the Prophet Muhammad to adhere to people’s sound customs and usages and take them as a fundamental reference in legislation: ‘Accept [from people] what comes naturally [for them]. Command what is customarily [good]. And turn away from the ignorant [without responding in kind].’ Ibn Atiyya, a renowned early Andalusian jurist and Qur’anic commentator, asserted that the verse not only upheld the sanctity of indigenous culture but granted sweeping validity to everything the human heart regards as sound and beneficial, as long as it is not clearly repudiated in the revealed law. For classical Islamic jurists in general, the verse was often cited as a major proof-text for the affirmation of sound cultural usage, and it was noted that what people generally deem as proper tends to be compatible with their nature and environment, serving essential needs and valid aspirations.”
Please forgive me if I offended in any way, this is an issue about which I feel very strongly.