11 Feb 2018
Reading time ~19 minutes
There’s nothing quite like getting invited to a traditional wedding celebration. I mean, what’s not to love about tons of free food, decorations, and entire life savings gone down the drain? I was lucky enough to have been invited to one wedding each in both Indonesia and Malaysia. Unfortunately, I arrived in Central Asia in the dead of winter, which happens to be when wedding season is also dead. Things are beginning to pick up now, though, because it’s already mid-February. I wasn’t invited to the actual wedding party, but I did make it out to the “morning plov” of the wedding celebrations. “Morning plovs” are basically what they sound like - a bunch of people (actually only men) come together in the morning to eat plov together, and that’s actually pretty much it. I was rather surprised at how promptly the event began and ended (just over an hour or so of eating food to live background music). I’m kind of happy that I was invited to the “morning plov” as opposed to the wedding party, because “morning plov’s” feature imams who do quranic recitation and prayers, which I always love to witness as a student of Islam and culture. Also, plov is undeniably awesome.
I didn’t get to see a ton of sights this past week in Tashkent. Actually, the only new place I ended up going was the Khast Imam complex, primarily because I needed to meet with an interviewee there, but also because the mosque complex is really quite gorgeous. Look below for interviews with people I conducted associated with both the “morning plov” event and mosque visit I made this past week.
Mr. Abror Zufarov, my first interviewee in Uzbekistan, is a prominent musician from a prominent musical family. One of his grandfathers, Usmon Zufarov, was a well-renowned instrument maker and his other grandfather, Turgun Almiatov, was a virtuoso musician renowned for his tanbur, dutar, and sato playing. Mr. Zufarov noted that his grandfather Usmon Zufarov strove towards praying five times a day and generally preferred wearing “Islamic” clothing as opposed to casual or more popular forms of clothing of his day. Mr. Zufarov’s mother, having expertise in Islam, Arabic language, quranic recitation, served as Mr. Zufarov’s primary Islamic teacher throughout his childhood. His family home was full of books dealing with Islamic fundamentals and history. Concerned with the permissiblity of music making from a young age, Mr. Zufarov remembers approaching a number of people on the topic including his grandfather, Turgun Alimatov. While most of his consultant’s views rather easily fit into one of two opinion camps (i.e. music is halal as long as it does not drive someone away from God vs music is haram in most all cases), his grandfather’s views on the matter were a bit less conventional. Mr. Alimatov suggested that perhaps music is haram in Islam not because it’s too bad for humans, but rather because it might be too good for humans. That is to say, human beings are too bad or evil for music. We take something essentially so pure and innocent and shamelessly corrupt it into something evil and dangerous, exploiting it for all sorts of ungodly occasions and purposes. Even more, we become addicted to it, no longer dutifully observing our religious obligations as commanded by Allah.
Neither Mr. Zufarov’s family members nor other individuals with religious knowledge that he consulted were able to provide him with the depth of information that he now possesses on the matter, however. Though his musical family members were practicing Muslims, they were not especially concerned with the particulars of shariah. They mostly took for granted that the traditional music making cultures of their day couldn’t possibly be illegitimate engagements. Such convictions were probably had with more questionable forms of music making and entertainment in mind of Mr. Zufarov’s grandparents’ time and would certainly still hold today in relation to the ubiquity of more “questionable” forms of music that predominate today. As with other Muslim artists that I’ve recently interviewed, Mr. Zufarov’s family members simply carried on with their music making activities for lack of more conclusive and credible information on the matter to persuade them to act otherwise.
Mr. Zufarov thus took it upon himself to read up on music permissibility in Islam. Much of what he mentioned on this topic, beginning with the day of Al-Misah, were things I hadn’t previously encountered. On this day, Allah apparently ordered the soul of Adam, the first humann being, to enter his body. At first, Adam’s soul would not easily enter Adam’s body. Upon listen to music brought down from the heavens by Allah, Adam’s soul promptly and willingly entered Adam’s body, animating him and allowing for the birth of the human race. Even more, Mr. Zufarov shared with me how when Allah first commanded all the souls in existence prior to life on earth to acknowledge his omnipotence, a select number of souls refused to do so. Apparently, people with these select souls who disobeyed Allah so many years ago are precisely the kinds of people today who are averse to music making and listening. Such people, in Mr. Zufarov’s view, possess souls that are excessively stubborn and closed in. Mr. Abror is of the opinion that there is hope for such souls, though. Just as music was all that it took for Adam’s soul to agree to enter his body, Mr. Zufarov is of the opinion that music, in particular maqam music, has the ability to open up people’s souls/hearts of all people allowing for intimate relationships with Allah. He even went so far as to claim that souls of people today that rejected to acknowledge Allah as the one and true deity on the day of Al-Misah could actually be transformed by music to become more spiritually inclined, an idea articulated in varying .
Mr. Zufarov’s self-directed studies of Islamic history, philosophy, and arts occured alongisde his musical studies of the maqam music. The greater his understanding of Islam, the more he conceived of his musical craft in an Islamic light. The more he learned about maqam music, the greater his appreciation for and understanding of tariqat (the inner spiritual dimension of Islam). Mr. Zufarov maintained that the work of 10th century polymath Al-Farabi regarding the psychological, neurological, and/or moralizing effects of music on people is especially relevant to my project. As opposed to his philosopher-musicologist predecessors and successors including the likes of Pythagoras, Al-Farabi’s musical musings were firmly situated in the backdrop of Islamic society. Mr. Zufarov came to appreciate music’s rather obvious mark in the histories of some of the most Islamic regimes the world has known particularly in West and Central Asia between the 10th and 15th centuries CE.
Despite constantly pointing to signs of music’s legitimacy in Islam throughout our interview, Mr. Zufarov admitted that music could very well be haram (prohibited). I found this intriguing even though I’d encountered such admissions in the past on part of other interviewees of mine. It’s kind of like someone defending alcohol or pork for an hour and a half only to haphazardly conclude that alcohol and pork just may be haram. Of course, music isn’t a food item and it’s not nearly as clearly and consistently lambasted in the Quran and Hadith as alcohol and pork are. Nevertheless, I understand that Mr. Zufarov was simply trying to give his opposition the benefit of the doubt. A couple of points that I’ve made in previous posts bear repeating here in brief. Firstly, the ‘Islamic’ view on anything is a function of what the majority of people in society make out the permissibility of that thing to be Islam. “True” or “mainstream” Islam today in one country often means very different things from “true” or “mainstream” Islam in another country today or “true” or “mainstream” Islam from the same country any number of years ago. Moreover, many Muslim artists often unapologetically admit that what they do for a living may be makruh (disliked) if not strictly haram, just as many Muslims who smoke cigarettes are perfectly aware that they may be or certainly are sinning with each swig. Such artists may not have the willpower or means to avoid their crafts or they view their crafts as causing little to no harm to individuals and society as compared with more grave sins. Their incomes and sanity may very well depend on their continual dependence on music. They understand that Allah is merciful and understanding, as long as they continue to have faith in Him, avoid major sins in life, and carry out their most fundamental religious obligations. I should mention here that most scholarly discourse on the permissibility of music in Islam barely relates music as being potentially in the realm of haram (prohibited - sin for doing, reward for avoiding) things and instead mostly discusses music as a subject which either could be or certainly is makruh (sin for doing, nothing for avoiding) or mubah (nothing for doing or avoiding), batil (invalid), lawgh (pointless action). Unfortunately, thoughts on the subject of music permissibility in Islam among everyday people are comparatively black and white or reductionist as they gloss over these subtleties that more well-informed individuals throughout Islam history have used to put forth their opinions on the topic. Even today, Mr. Zufarov continues to receive comments from religious people who tell him that he should not play music at weddings or morning plov’s because music making is not advisable in their books especially as a profession in Islam. In response to such remarks, Mr. Zufarov asks such people what alternative they may have for professional musicians the world over in his shoes. Sure enough, there are tons of programs in existence which help people get over their tobacco or alcohol addictions, but as far as Mr. Zufarov and I am aware, Islamic authorities have not put forth practical rehabilitation programs, so to speak, for Muslim musicians. Indeed, no one I’ve met with on my travels seems to have a conclusive answer on any of these issues, for better or for worse. In light of this, Mr. Zufarov believes that shariah for music and perhaps also other realms of the arts ought to be renewed or reformed in a joint effort by renowned Islamic scholars from around the world today. He concluded our interview by mentioning how one of his nephews once approached him on the topic of music permissibility in Islam to whom Mr. Zufarov said that he was young enough to get away with committing many more graver sins in life before beginning to have to worry about whether or not music is haram.
Shaykh Abdulaziz Mansur
Shaykh Abdulaziz Mansur is the Chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims in Uzbekistan headquartered at the Khast Imam complex in Tashkent. Shaykh Mansur makes himself available at appointed hours throughout the week for the general public to pose just about anything on their minds to him. I happened to catch Shaykh Mansur at a time when multiple people were in line, awaiting his company. Luckily, I was accompanied by one of his close friends, allowing me to bypass the half-dozen men in line. Mr. Mansur opened our formal interview by admitting just how much he adores classical maqam music in particular. He mentioned how he occasionally finds himself in tears at the sound of specific performers or compositions. Other than this introductory note, Mr. Mansur did not make much mention of his personal affiliations with either the performing or fine arts. Instead, he provided me with a survey of both historic and scholarly discourse on arts permissibility. His defense of music making and listening commenced with reference to the work of Shaykh Shahabuddin Suhrawardi. According to Mr. Mansur, Shaykh Suhrawardi once said that 70 thousand scholars would object to anyone who objected to music making in Islam. \ Even if such feel people feel the need to denounce music on religious grounds, they ought to be honest with themselves and at least admit that they do enjoy the sound of music. In addition to implying that music is universally appealing, the Honorable Shaykh went even further to confirm Mr. Zufarov’s conviction that music softens or eases people’s souls. Having encountered this idea back to back got me thinking more about the profundity of the notion that music can be beneficial for one’s soul perhaps just as much as it can be harmful by anti-music Muslims’ accounts. Mr. Mansur further elaborated that music helps people get over various forms and sources of negativity in life. In his experience, people who avoid music listening for one reason or another tend to be less agreeable, peaceful, and sympathetic than music listeners. In his estimation, about forty percent of public Islamic figures in Uzbekistan agree with his sentiments on the matter while sixty percent of religious authorities oppose his views.
Having dealth with music at some length, we briefly ventured into the realms of visual art and dance permissibility in Islam. Mr. Mansur estimated that about seventy percent of public Islamic figures in Uzbekistan disapprove of figurative depictions. Thirty percent including himself, approve of them simply because the threat of shirk (idolatry) which existed during the Prophet Muhammad’s time was no longer relevant in this day and age. Now that the Muslim ummah is sufficiently large and well-developed, average Muslims today run a much lower risk of committing idolatry due to the influence of idolatrous practices or actors. As with many other Muslim visual artists I’ve interviewed on the matter, Mr. Mansur confirmed that the permissibiliy of painting faces and sculpting bodies largely depends on the intentions behind such artistic endeavors. As long as one does not intend for oneself or others to worship such creations and such creations are otherwise shariah-compliant, all is well. When commenting on the permissibility of dance, Mr. Mansur re-echoed the thoughts of Muslims I’d interviewed back in Sumatra, Indonesia including a couple of Islamic scholars, a lecturer at an Islamic college, and a dancer, all of whom were practicing Muslims. Mr. Mansur maintained that as long as dancers are appropriately covered, women are separated from men, and intentions and environmental circumstances are shariah-compliant, people should be free to dance away. In other words, Mr. Mansur would object to the notions that music, dance, or figurative depictions were intrinsically sinful or prohibited. Instead the permissibilities of such fields depend on intentions and circumstances external to the crafts in and of themselves. He wrapped up his thoughts by mentioning that Uzbekistan is a democratic state, and therefore the government has no legitimacy to penalize people for music making, dancing, painting faces, etc. Judging from the Honorable Shaykh’s candidness on this concluding statement, I gathered that he must be a big proponent of moderation in Islam.
Damir Ruzybaev, Honored Artist of the Republic of Uzbekistan, was born “a long, long time ago in Samarqand”. His grandfather was a mufti (Islamic legal expert), and he described his grandmother as being both very religious and intelligent. His father, however, was a fairly committed atheist, being indoctrinated in Soviet ideology all throughout his primary and secondary schooling days. Mr. Ruzybaev also grew up in the millieu of communism and atheism, though he’s recently started to think more and more about Islam and Islamic arts. Although none of his immediate family members were/are artists, Mr. Ruzybaev feels fortunate to have grown up in Samarqand as most artists in Uzbekistan in Soviet times were based either in Tashkent or Samarqand. He started painting of his own accord at age 3, mostly drawn to illustrations of planes, particularly war planes. After studying for five years at a special school for arts, he was very fortunate to meet artist, Volkof Alexander Nikalaich, who advised him not to continue his studies at the Leningrad Academy of Arts and instead opt for the Art Center in Margilan. Even though Mr. Ruzybaev had been accepted to the Leningrad Academy without needing to take entrance examinations, he had heard that art schools in metropolises such as Tashkent and Leningrad were either disencouraged or simply dropped arts students with unique or unconventional thinking, replacing them with more “controllable” artists. At the Art Center in Margilan, Mr. Ruzybaev would have free reign to pursue all that he wished in the arts. He eventually made his way to Tashkent to study at the Benkov Arts College.
My meetings with Mr. Ruzybaev and other artists who grew up during Soviet times got me thinking about how anti-religious ideologies such as communism size up to political ideologies derived from Islam regarding view on the premissibilities and utilities of arts production and consumption. Back in Southeast Asia, political regimes in both pre and post-colonial times seemed to have relatively little to say or do on either developing or proscribing arts in society. With each new day, it’s clearer to me that for the majority of people in Central Asia Mr. Ruzybaev’s age, the effects of Islam on arts, culture, and nationhood are relatively paltry when comared with that of Soviet ideology and governance. Most of Mr. Ruzybaev’s opinions on the matter at hand are results of his own intuitions and thinking. Rather than consulting others regarding the advantages and disadvantages of the arts in society or what kinds of arts are good versus bad, he believes that he should make up his own mind on such matters. Though Mr. Ruzybaev truly respects and values Islamic arts and culture, he emphasized to me that art is his religion, allowing him to express his innermost thoughts and emotions. He expressed his skepticism towards religiously motivated individuals who proclaim that figurative deptictions are haram due to the simple fact that figurative depictions have existed all throughout the early and medieval periods in Islamic history particularly in the form of miniature paintings. Furthermore, Mr. Ruzybaev insisted on the need to make a distinction between sculptures and idols. In his view, sculptures qualify as works of art while idols or monuments absolutely do not merit such recognition. Idols and monuments serve an obvious, unitary purpose - reminding humans either about other humans or about deities. Sculptures that qualify as works of art span figurative depictions of human bodies just as much as they constitute the phenomenal architectural achievements of Islamic civilization. The latter category of works inspire humans to think about more than just a single human’s or god’s identity or legacy. Ideally, they challenge viewers to connect with their innermost thoughts and emotions, much of which may lay in the realm of one’s unconcious or unexplored mind.
Mr. Ruzybaev concluded our meeting by mentioning that he does not appreciate any form of restriction on human creativity, be it religious practice or political ideology. He asserted that people must reveal their God-given talents in creative ways, lest such talents go to waste. Previous interviewees’ of mine have gone so far as to say that not making use of God-given talent ought to be a sin in and of itself. Mr. Ruzybaev went a step further by criticizing restrictions on other aspects of culture in Islam including women’s dress. He expressed his disapproval of the hijab and more full coverings of women’s bodies, because he held that human beings are beautiful and beauty is a gift from God like all others that ought to be exhibited and appreciated just like any other work of art and not to be regarded as shameful. He said that women’s Islamic clothing looked “awful”, having in mind the infamous, black abayas which are worn by women all throughout Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia. I imagine modest clothing line designer, Elmira Ismanova, from last week’s post would have something to say in response to Mr. Ruzybaev on this front. He concluded our interview with a note on religious tolerance and pluralism.
Jamol Usmanov, yet another Honored Artist of the Republic of Uzbekistan, is a lecturer at Benkov Arts College. Similar to Mr. Ruzybaev, Mr. Usmanov’s grandparents were practicing Muslims, though he and most of his relatives in his parents’ were/are largely atheistic. Over the years, he’s encountered a few ideas revolving around the permissibility of arts in Islam, though not anything perhaps as pointed as some of ideas encountered and interactions had by other interviewees of mine. He did mention, however, that he is aware of several well-esteemed, faithful Muslim artists and theologicans in Central Asian history who were highly supportive of arts and sciences. He also mentioned how many French students studying Sufism in the 19th century converted to Islam due to the appeal of Islamic arts. Indeed, the present-day head count of the Muslim ummah owes much to the arts (music, painting, dance, theater, etc.) for its massive role in Islamic proselytization all throughout Islamic history.
Tasty Treats in Tashkent
The rumors were true regarding Uzbekistan being all the rage for food. When I first landed in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, people told me that I hadn’t tried anything in the way of plov, shashlyk, or samsa until I’d sampled such goods in Osh. When in Osh, people told me that I’d not lived until I had my fair share of such food in Tashkent. Now that I’m in Tashkent, I’m farily convinced that I’m living the life. Nevertheless, people continue directing me to other regions in Uzbekistan for particular foods because I still apparently have not had the realest of real deals.