Speaking music to power: A study in Reformations

Speaking music to power: A study in Reformations
Blog: 500 years after the start of the Protestant Reformation, music still fuels protest and foments revolution, writes Hadani Ditmars.
7 min read
17 Aug, 2017
Martin Luther led history's most significant challenge to the Catholic Church [Getty]

With all the current turmoil in the Middle East, I'd rather forgotten that it's the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's sparking of the Protestant Reformation - a movement that led to centuries of bloodshed and conflict.

While there's been lots of debate about whether the "Muslim world" - whatever that means exactly in terms of a billion humans from different nations and ethnicities - is in need of, or is going through, its own "reformation", it's a problematic issue at best.

There is no one governing body for the world's billion-strong Muslims to compare with Luther's protests against the excesses of the Catholic Church - a specific and singular body. There have, for centuries, been many attempts at "reform" within Islam, although more often than not, they were foiled by European colonialism - especially after the Sykes-Picot carving up of the Ottoman empire - argue scholars such as Christopher de Bellaigue

The ideals of liberty and democracy were all fine and good, but were often brutally suppressed once they got in the way of imperial interests.

And if anything, the Protestant Reformation has more in common with puritanical Wahhabist Islam - another "reform" movement - than with secular liberalism. Luther called German peasants rising up against their feudal masters "mad dogs" who should be "struck dead". He also set the tone for centuries of German anti-Semitism, calling Jews the "devil's people" and promoting the destruction of synagogues. So searching for a "German Luther" to "save the soul" of Islam may not be such a good idea.

I'm not one to spend long hours pondering the fruits of the Christian Reformation, although I do like to remind Islamophobes that inter-Christian factional violence has been going on for quite some time - and still has a toehold in places like Northern Ireland. It's also interesting to note that the same areas of England that embraced the Protestant Reformation with great zeal were also the ones that currently claim the most enthusiastic Brexiteers.

The Reformation, for all the upheaval it triggered, produced some truly beautiful music

But I was reminded of the positive side of the Reformation the other day at the Vancouver Bach Festival. The Reformation, for all the upheaval it triggered, produced some truly beautiful music. Not only Bach's inspired passions, but also William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, devout Catholic composers in Elizabethan England who wrote music for Anglican services - and their gorgeous laments.

Luther, it must be said, in spite of his puritan excesses, liked to drink, was against celibacy and often made ribald remarks, even encouraging followers to "fart at the devil".

And unlike other Protestant Reformers of the 1600s, (and his erstwhile Wahhabist "brethren"), Luther believed that music was divinely inspired, and encouraged choral singing. JS Bach was in turn passionately inspired by Luther's theology.

While taking in a riveting performance of Bach's St. John Passion, such delicious musical fruits of upheaval and conflict made me ponder whether, if one in fact accepts that the Arab Spring was a kind of Muslim world equivalent - again problematic as a theory, but bear with me - of the Reformation, where is its musical equivalent?

Is the bard of Tahrir Square - Ramy Essam - who led crowds in anthemic anti-Mubarak protest songs and later railed against the excesses of Morsi, the military and Sisi - an artist to consider?

Can one compare Elizabethan political intrigue with current events in Egypt?

Or are Shia laments for their martyred imams the better equivalent of Tallis and Byrd's plaintive songs of longing for a lost (post-Reformation) Jerusalem" (aka Catholic England)?

Politically, one could certainly compare the intrigues of Elizabethan England - with clandestine corridors for underground Catholics seeking favour with various Anglican and Catholic monarchs - to the current chess game going on in "the Muslim world" - with even the likes of Shia firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr being courted by Riyadh and various accusations of Iranian sympathies levelled against Qatar by the Sunni oligarchy.

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And with rocker Ramy Essam in mind, was the Luther-inspired Bach really the purveyor of an 18th century form of rock 'n' roll? Pianist James Rhodes has described Bach as a "duelling, fighting, hard-drinking rock star… sleeping with groupies in the organ loft… producing music that still, 300 years later, inspires, stuns and rockets us into a fourth dimension of existence".

But long before Mark Levine wrote 2008's pre-Arab Spring's Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islama book that documented the struggles of MENA musicians who, "in the face of corruption, repression and violence, use their music to speak truth to power and carve out a space for individual expression and a new form of community", there was Rai rebel Rachid Taha - whose heady, politicised version of the Clash's Rock the Casbah remains a classic Arab protest song.

What kind of song would Taha write today?

While no human endeavour is static, and fluidity and change are inevitable - what remains timeless in terms of cultural fruits of protest movements?

And beyond the misguided right wing pandering to Islamophobes by the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali - what can we look to as a cultural beacon?

As Essam told me in a recent interview, the real threat to regional authorities is the "more than 50 million young people - people under 30 they can't control or brainwash anymore with religion or ideology like they used to, because of the internet and globalisation". Fifty million young people who are also greatly influenced by music.

Perhaps one should look to Iran, a nation whose attempts at "reform" were foiled by foreign powers in 1907 when Britain and Russia divided up the country between them, with the Russians invading Iran and dissolving parliament and the Brits establishing a de facto colony. The 1951 UK- and US-backed coup d'etat followed, overthrowing the democratically elected prime minister, Muhammed Mossadeq, after he nationalised the oil industry.

The betrayal of moderate progressives by Islamists after the 1979 revolution was perhaps an inevitable consequence of the linking of reformist, democratising projects with imperialism.

Here, music - both traditional and modern - has become a vehicle for protest against the regime. A fitting representative of this musical movement and rock star in his own right would undoubtedly be Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, considered Iran's greatest living master of Persian classical music.

His 2009 hit Language of Fire - "Lay down your gun, come, sit down, talk, hear. Perhaps the light of humanity will get through to your heart too" - was widely read as a direct communiqué to the plain-clothes Basiji militiamen and security forces who beat protesters.

Shajarian uses Persian culture itself as a bulwark against repression, just as Martin Luther used the folk tradition and vernacular German as a means of empowerment

Rather subversively, and with his fame as protection -Shajarian uses Persian culture itself as a bulwark against repression, just as Martin Luther used the folk tradition and vernacular German as a means of empowerment.

Classical music and the sung poetry of Rumi, Hafez, and Saadi offer a sense of identity far from the images of an increasingly unpopular regime.

When Shajarian sings poetry like Rumi's "Give me a taste of the wine of union so that the door / of this eternal prison I may shatter frame by frame," the double meaning is apparent.

In these apocalyptic times, we may do well to remember that the Imam Mahdi - together with its Christian (Second Coming) and Jewish iterations expressing the idea of the "great reformer" who will come at the end of time to save the world - is seen by Sufi scholar and mystic Ahmed Hulusia as one aspect of the awakened self - much closer to the central tenant of Islam, namely jihad al nafs - or struggle with the ego - than with the idea of an actual incarnated "Mahdi".

With so much turmoil in the world, it may also be timely to contemplate the words of Ibn al-Arabi, who in his book Al-Ahkam wrote: "None of the hadiths maintaining that singing is prohibited are considered authentic," and also penned the famous poem My religion is love.

Whenever I read it I remember my English great-grandmother whose Methodist preacher father banned music and dancing from their home, and I think of ongoing attacks against Sufi musicians by extremists.

While puritans may seek to ban music, its eternal power is still the best part of religion, from the caravan of love to the church of rock 'n' roll.

As a certain reformer named Luther wrote 500 years ago: "Music is God's greatest gift. It has often so stimulated and stirred me that I felt the desire to preach."



Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist, she has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. Her next book, Ancient Heart, is a political travelogue of Iraqi heritage sites.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.