18 Feb 2018
Reading time ~15 minutes
A couple of firsts made my week this past week. For one, I experienced live sashmaqam music performed by exquisite artists in an exquisite setting. A tad bit less relevant to my project but a first nonetheless was riding a ski lift at Chimgan ski resort in the Tian Shan mountain range.
Barzu Abdurrazaqov and “Farhad and Shirin” @ Muqimiy Theater
Director, dramaturg, and film and theater actor Barzu Abdurrazaqov has directed more than 100 plays in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kirgizia, Kazakhstan, France, Germany, and Russia. In light of the fact that Mr. Abdurazzaqov is recognized by various institutions in each of these countries including state governments for his innovative works and achievements, it was a privilege to get to interview him despite his extraordinarily packed schedule (he graciously agreed to do an interview at Muqimy Theater in Tashkent on the second day of a three-day-long premiere of his play entitled “Farhad va Shirin” (“Farhad and Shirin”), based on the book by Ali-Shir Nava’i of the same name. Mr. Abdurazzaqov made it clear to me that though he’s Muslim, he respects other religions as they are each differing paths to the same universal truths. He emphasized that his own Islamic background and convictions have had no bearing on his work in film and theater. Echoing the secularist orientations of most other actors I’ve interviewed on my travels, Mr. Abdurazzaqov held that “theaters are not madrassahs”. The way he sees it, the purpose of acting is to present the world in its entirety to humanity, not just cherry-picked representations of society in favor of one set of religious beliefs or sensibilities over another. He’s open to acting in plays about Buddhism as much as any other religion or life philosophy as actors of all faiths must recognize and embrace that they occupy an alternative universe while acting in which their primary purpose is to inform or enlighten humans about anything and everything under the sun. By implication of Mr. Abdurazzaqov’s philosophy of acting, being Muslim need not or rather should not be a limiting factor on the job. Whereas smoking and drinking in real life may more clearly constitute sin in one’s book, a Muslim actor is more or less exmpeted from smoking and drinking as long as they do so on stage or on film by Mr. Abdurazzaqov’s account and that of other actors I’ve interviewed on my travels. Islamic theater actors such as Gene Sharudyn from back in Singapore would likely take issue with such a view on Muslims in theater or film, as his dramatic engagements are limited to works which are strictly “shariah-compliant” and more explicitly in service of the dakwah (propagation of Islam).
The second half of our 15-minute-long interview concerned ways in which Mr. Abdurazzaqov’s works have been in some way, shape, or form hindered or looked down upon due to people’s Islamic sensibilities especially by people in positions of authority. Coincidentally, the very night before the day of our interview, Mr. Abdurazzaqov was urged to make a change to his play, “Farhad and Shirin” due to the theater management’s perceptions of a particular scene in the play as being sacreligious. The scene in question involved a king angry with God for not granting him a child after so many years of observing his various duties and obligations. In Mr. Abdurazzaqov’s original version of the scene, the king essentially curses God and promptly walks off stage. After receiving complaints from the management about the sacreligious nature of the scene, Mr. Abdurazzaqov gave in to their demands after much initial resistance and added a couple of lines after the king’s tirade against God in which he apologizes to Him for his insolence. Consequently, scene which was deliberately crafted with a high shock factor in mind lost it’s umph due to censorship. I attended the second night of the three-day-long premiere of the work and was fortunate enough to have witnessed this exact scene in the play myself, a fantastic supplement to Mr. Abdurazzaqov’s poingnant account of and thoughts on the matter. Upon reflecting on the incident, Mr. Abdurazzaqov held that people in positions of political and religious authority often have a fundamentally different conception of and relationship with God than do artists. In his view, the former category of people, emphasize God’s might and wrath, while artists are more likely to view God as loving, merciful, and even light-hearted. From his characterization of peoples’ differing conceptions of the Almighty, I could see how Muslim artists such as Mr. Abdurazzqov feel justified in their thoughts and actions on the job. Before leaving me with the impression that his works are constantly limited by authorities on religious grounds, he noted that organizers, producers, and consumers of the arts in his experience have been on the whole less religious in his home country of Tajikistan and his current place of residence in Almaty, Kazakhstan than they are in Uzbekistan.
Khasan Rajabiy and the “Yunus Rajabiy Home Museum”
Khasan Rajabiy is a musician and music scholar with perhaps just as phenomenal genes as Abror Zufarov from last week’s post on the music front. He’s never personally interacted with someone who believes that music is haram, but if he were presented with the opportunity to do so, he told me that he would loathe such a person or at least their views. Mr. Rajabiy’s father, Yunus Rajabiy, was a pioneering figure in the musicology of sashmaqam, having written numerous texts on the subject and related topics alongside performing and composing music. Though Mr. Rajabiy admitted to never witnessing his father observing ritual prayer, he mentioned that Yunus Rajabiy had committed several ayats (verses from the Quran) to memory and possessed deep spiritual knowledge. Yunus Rajabiy’s siblings, however, were known to do namaz (ritual prayer) five times a day. Though Mr. Rajabiy too is not one to actively practice Islam, he mentioned that he has faith in God and always recites the Basmala prior to working on just about anything arts related.
During his childhood, Mr. Rajabiy was never exposed to ideas regarding the permissibility of music in Islam. In his view, musical ability is God-given, and music making has a role in bringing about happiness or relaxation in daily life. Music, especially that which does not venture into extremity or profanity, is more or less indisputibly good. In addition to bringing about happier people, Mr. Rajabiy maintained that music studies and performance is good for religion and spirituality as it can improve one’s quranic recitation skills, leading to more poignant and attractive quranic recitation in society. He believes that Islam’s prevalence in the world today owes much to music and musical activity. The embeddedness of quranic recitation in maqam speaks for itself. The appropriation of indigenous musical forms in the propagation of Islam is perhaps just as noteworthy. If the Quran were not recited after the maqams and indigenous musical forms were not appropriated throughout history in service of dakwah (Islamic propagation), one wonders what the head count of the Muslim ummah would be today. Conservative Islamic scholars would object to the view that musical studies are beneficial to reciters of the Quran (i.e. theoretically all practicing or dutiful Muslims), because, in their view, quranic recitation is ideally informed by one’s intuitions as opposed to specialized training that may detract from a reciters focus on the holy words at hand.
Mr. Rajabiy noted that most performers of maqam music in Uzbekistan in his experience are either not very religious or they generally keep religion out of encounters and discussions with one another. Sashmaqam texts usually do not explicitly deal with Islamic teachings. They are, however, often Sufistic in nature, dealing with topics revolving around love, friendship, happiness, and longing for one’s homeland. It goes without saying that such content, if not “shariah-endorsed”, is highly shariah-compliant and thus, in Mr. Rajabiy’s view, cannot possibly be haram. He suggested that globalized consumer culture is largely to blame for giving music and dance a bad name in the world today. Too many religious figures fixate on perceived negative effects of the popular music industry on today’s youth and consequently make sweeping generalizations about the dangers of music making and listening. He deeply regrets that people today honestly belive that music making and listening is entirely prohibited in Islam, driving some to throw their talents down the drain only to take up infinitely more mundane and uncreative forms of work. Mr. Rajabiy expressed his serious discontent with the lack of official consensus or unanimity of opinion among Islamic religious authorities or scholars on the permissibilities of arts consumption and production in Islam. He insisted that such a consensus among Islamic authorities is urgently needed to ensure that the next generation of Muslim creatives are raised on properly weighted ideas and opinions regarding the Islamic view on the arts such that religion and the arts are placed on an equal playing field in Muslim majority countries.
Sashmaqom Festival @ The Gallery of Fine Arts
The biggest factor I considered while deciding my Watson itinerary was, of course, whether a country was Muslim majority or not. After this, I gauged the vibrancies of various Muslim majority countries’ traditional music scenes. When first thinking about visiting Uzbekistan, I was immediately turned on to the potential to hear live sashmaqam music. My long-held wish came true this past week at the Gallery of Fine Arts in Tashkent. For the first time ever, a sashmaqam festival free and open to the public is being held at the Gallery of Fine Arts. The Festival includes six evening concerts corresponding with the six maqams of the sashmaqam cycle. Really top-notch stuff.
Olimjon Davlatov, Source Researcher/Historian
Olimjon Davlatov is a well-renowned source researcher of the history of religion, literature, and art of the Muslim East. He has his own publishing house, “Tamaddun”, and is also creatively connected with “Uzbekkino”, the National Film Agency in Uzbekistan currently working on a significant project on Ali-Shir Nava’i. Mr. Davlatov promptly dove into the issues at the onset of our interview by mentioning that the discourse on music permissibility in Islam is not nearly as strong among religious circles as it once was in previous centuries. Notable ulama (Islamic legal scholars) in Islamic history formally discussed and debated the purposes and effects of sama, the formal practice of ritualistic listening to sound/music in various Sufi traditions. Many such ulama came to the consensus that the aim of sama ought to be spiritual improvement as opposed to purely musical fulfillment or the attainment of musical virtuosity. Mr. Davlatov mentioned how Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī considered music to play a great role in one’s spiritual growth. Rūmī is even known to have equated the sounds of the rubab with sounds in heaven. The Persian Sufi and poet Abū-Sa’īd Abul-Khayr held similarly favorable views on music. Even more, Mr. Davlatov related how Imam Ghazali, in his Ihya Ulum Ad-Din (Revival of the Religious Sciences), considered the permissibility of music largely to depend on the intentions behind and circumstances surrounding its production and consumption.
Just as there are plenty of ulama today who disapprove of music making and listening, there was indeed a fair share of ulama back in previous centuries who similarly considered music to be haram. Mr. Davlatov held that such differing views only make Islam more dynamic and thereby rich in his eyes. Indeed, not a whole lot has changed over the centuries in terms of the kinds of opinions that religious experts hold with regards to various aspects of the arts in Islam. Considering all that Islamic scholars have contributed on the matter, Mr. Davlatov stated that all music falls into one of two categories - rahmoni or shaytoni. Today, as in the past, Islamic scholars are perfectly willing to embrace certain musics while actively avoiding others. Mr. Davlatov mentioned how numerous, high-ranking Islamic scholars in Uzbekistan often attend functions featuring traditional or national music, including Shaykh Abdul Aziz Mansur who just recently attended a concert of the Uzbek music stalwart Sherali Juraev, who happens to be a very close friend of Mr. Davlatov. Such high-level Islamic scholars’ choices to attend such musical gatherings should be suffiently suggestive to the general public that there is in fact representation of legitimate Islamic experts in music making and other arts related engagements.
Youth Symphony Orchestra of Uzbekistan @ the Youth Creativity Palace
Just when I thought that things could not get much better than a month-long sashmaqam festival, I caught wind of the 2nd Annual Uzbek-Russian Youth Forum held at the Palace of Youth Creativity in Tasheknt. On the second evening of the three-day-long conference, the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Uzbekistan put on a marvelous show free and open to the general public, though mostly intended for the Russian youth and administrative delegation at the conference. The concert featured a truly diverse spread of music, representing, Uzbekistan, Russia, the United States, and several European countries.
Hasanxon Yahya Abdulmajid
Hasanxon Yahya Abdulmajid is a graduate of the Tashkent Islamic Institute named after Imam Bukhari (2008). By his teenage years he’d already been completely immersed in the world of quranic recitation, having taken first place at the International Quran Competition held in 2005 at Makkah Al-Mukarramah in Saudi Arabia. He also took first place at the Republican stage of the 19th Quranic Recitation Contest held by the Spiritual Board of Muslims in Uzbekistan in 2009.
Mr. Abdulmajid premised our interview with the idea that Islam seeks to protect the five following items:
In the course of our discussion, Mr. Abdulmajid argued that much of action in Islam is inherently neutral. Though casual conversation, gossip, and profanity all qualify as speech, the first item is halal while the later two are either makruh (disliked) or haram. Mr. Hasanxon held that humans should openly accept all that God has provided us with while carefully discriminating between good and bad uses or forms of such gifts from God, and we should show thanks to God for such bounty with ibadat (worship). By implication of Mr. Hasanxon’s account, artistic ability falls under the category of things which are inherently faultless as gifted to humans by God. We humans are thus held responsible for making either good or bad use of such skills. As artistic ability cannot possibly be inherently haram, music or sound art making and listening, by extension, is not all inherently haram. From various hadith reports that relate music making or listening, Mr. Hasanxon maintained that less good and less bad categorizations of music which existed as early as in the Prophet Muhammad’s day. In other words, one can discern formulations of a contiuum of music permissibility existed, though not so formally outlined, at least informally and partially prior to the work of ulama and scholars of Islamic history/arts in this regard. In Mr. Hasanxon’s view, it is fairly clear that uses of and purposes for music making and listening in the Prophet’s day had varying legitimicies in the Prophet’s and sahaba’s eyes. The Prophet Muhammad either directly or indirectly encouraged or allowed for music during or after times of war, music during weddings, music for holiday seasons or occasions, and music for work. Taking from such primary sources, various ulama and scholars of Islamic history and arts have of course worked to further clarify and refine that which is encouraged, merely allowable, controversial, or firmly inappropriate in the realm of sound art in Islam. Mr. Hasanxon concluded our interview by likening the position that the Prophet took with regards to visiting graves as that he at least implicitly took with regards to music making and listening. During the Prophet’s day, ancestor worship and other forms of “un-Islamic” practices were exercised at gravesites. For this reason, the Prophet Muhammad did not visit graves for a period of twenty years as a purificatory/educational measure for himself and others in society. After this period of time, the Prophet and others by extension could once again conscionably visit gravesites with the proper knowledge and intentions on hand to appropriately visit such sites in a shariah-compliant vein. Mr. Hasanxon held that the Prophet’s and others’ proscriptions against music making and listening were similar to the proscription against visiting graves in that both proscriptions were intended to be temporary ones for the sake of enlightening, purifying, and reevaluating as opposed to unwavering judgements meant to last till the end of time.
Tasty Treats in Tashkent Pt. 2
New items in my dietary history this week included naryn (thin pasta-like strips from pasta w/ horse meat), Kazakh style beshbarmak (also featuring horse meat), and mastava (an Uzbek rice soup). Aside from all that good stuff, I stumbled upon a lavish spread of Chinese food prepared for the occasion of Chinese New Year at my hostel. Last but not least, I once again indulged in copious amounts of plov and assorted salads.