Islam, rap and cultural harmony

April 6, 2007

Muslims are using rap and hip-hop to offer a more moderate and positive image of their faith to students. Music to my ears, says Michael Mumisa.

An article in The Times late last year revealed that some hip-hop and rap artists in the US, France and the UK are teaching young Muslims "the ideology of radical Islamism through songs about the war in Iraq, the oppression of Muslims and the creation of an Islamic state governed by sharia, or religious law". Jurors in London trying the July 21 terror suspects were shown the infamous 2004 rap video Dirty Kuffar ( Unbelievers ) by a group of UK rappers calling themselves Sheikh Terra and the Soul Salah Crew, a nod to the popular group So Solid Crew. The term "Salah" is Arabic for the Muslim daily prayers. The video praises Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks while depicting brutal images of the war in Iraq, Chechnya and Afghanistan. While the use of musical instruments is usually considered haram (un-Islamic) by such groups, the messages posted on al-Qaeda and other extremist Arabic websites after the video was aired by the international media strongly praised its producers for "doing Allah's work".

Other Muslim hip-hop artists opposed to extremism and terrorism have decided to fight back against what they see as al-Qaeda and extremist groups' attempt to hijack Muslim hip-hop. The popular and internationally renowned group Mecca2Medina attacked suicide bombings and the Muslim scholars who justify them as un-Islamic in their recent hit song Stop the War .

Mecca2Medina are believed to be the pioneers of Muslim hip-hop in the UK. The group has been invited on a number of occasions by the British Council to perform in universities and major cities in Nigeria, where they are also involved in "unity and peace campaigns" among the Christians and Muslims in the volatile northern region.

On November 10, 2006, Westminster University hosted the first Love-Music-Hate-Islamophobia event, where Muslim and non-Muslim musicians such as Mecca2Medina, Poetic Pilgrimage, Blind Alphabetz and others performed together after engaging in a passionate debate on the question "Is Islamophobia the new racism?" I was invited to join a panel of politicians, academics and hip-hop artists who took part in the debate. The event was hailed as groundbreaking by many students and members of Muslim communities. Labour MP Sadiq Khan described it as "vital in celebrating diversity, not extremism".

According to Lee Billingham and Olivia Fletcher of the organisation LoveMusicHateRacism, such debates and events on campuses are necessary to counter the narrative of extremist organisations, particularly the British National Party. "The university campus provides an atmosphere of free speech and critical reflection where prejudices and racist worldviews can be challenged. This not only encourages young people to be politically involved in society but also enables them to make informed choices when voting in elections," Fletcher explains.

Echoing her point, Rakin Fetuga of Mecca2Medina says "the use of musical events on university campuses as a platform to debate sensitive issues affecting our society is effective in creating a relaxed atmosphere where people can be themselves. Some people actually believe that Muslims are terrorists, just as some ignorant young Muslims believe that violence is religiously justified. It is important to engage with these two groups".

There appears to be a civil war of ideas among some Muslim students on university campuses: in one camp there are those (a "vocal minority") influenced by groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir who believe that voting and participating in a Western democracy is in itself an act of apostasy for a Muslim and that Muslims should work towards establishing a caliphate, or Islamic state, in which Islamic social and moral values are sustained. In the other camp are those who argue that voting and participating in political life in British society is a religious duty for every Muslim, as it ensures that their rights and interests are protected. They maintain that it is not in the nature of a secular state to define issues of social morality, nor to enforce any particular standard of moral and ethical behaviour. The responsibility is on individuals and communities to ensure that they safeguard their religious values so that they do not become victims of what they consider to be social vices. This is the message that Muslim rap groups such as Mecca2Medina, Poetic Pilgrimage, Blind Alphabetz and others say they would like to advance through their work on campuses.

Forward Thinking, a UK charity that seeks to address the growing social isolation of the diverse Muslim communities in Britain and to promote a more inclusive peace process in the Middle East, is the first organisation to recognise the significance of hip-hop culture as a means of expression for voiceless and marginalised Muslim youth. According to Huda Jawad, the charity's UK programme director, they are seriously considering engaging with Muslim hip-hop artists such as Mecca2Medina. "Plans have already been approved to support activities that will empower the hip-hop artists to translate their music and ideas into positive action that will benefit Muslim youth," she says.

For many of the young Muslims involved in hip-hop, the practice of sampling in the music can be seen as a metaphor for how to deal with the challenges they face with their own multiple identities, and how they can reconstruct a unique identity by sampling the various available cultures. The use of Islamic themes in such sampled music from other, non-Islamic sources also suggests how Islam can and should co-exist with other cultures in a pluralist society.

Sheikh Michael Mumisa is visiting lecturer in the department of theology at Birmingham University.

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