Muslims and the Performing Arts

Whenever I am in London, I try to find time to see live performances of music or theatre; in my experience, London perhaps offers the largest selection of the arts to be found within one city.

During my last visit I saw the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium. It was a Friday evening and the theatre was full, with a good half of the audience made up of excited children. It was a delightful production, where the latest in theatre technology was used to create the whimsical airborne automobile after which the show is named.

I’d seen the Disney movie version when it was introduced many years ago. But this live British performance with a cast of at least 50, was pure magic to me, along with all the other adults and children in attendance. I watched boys and girls as young as five cheer whenever good triumphed over evil. And even when the show became political — as in, "if you are vulgar and speak English, you must be an American" — nothing could detract from the critic-proof performance.

Even though Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is one of those no-fail family shows, it still took me by surprise to see such a large number of young children there, well supplied with full packets of popcorn and mounds of cotton candy. It made me wish there were more opportunities in Canada’s larger cities to stage shows like this that offer enjoyment for every age group. It was clear to me that the London audience was not only entertained, but given some value-added education as well.

Unfortunately, like some of their counterparts in other faiths, many practicing Muslims avoid the performing arts because they believe these activities are against Islamic religious teaching. Yet early Muslims freely engaged in poetry, singing, and musical composition, although not in theatre or dancing as we know them in Western culture.

Even prior to the emergence of Islam, Arabs had a long tradition of poetry as their primary artistic medium — not only in written form, but also in public reading and singing to the accompaniment of specially composed instrumental music.

There was an annual event in Mecca where Arabia’s greatest poets met to compete in their art. The winning poems were called "Al-Molaqat," meaning the Displayed Ones, and were circulated among the public to be read throughout the year until the next annual competition.

Some of the winning poems were in reality stories, for storytelling in Arabian culture was the art that came closest to staged theatre; dramatic plays as we know them were non-existent.

This is why Muslim scholars who translated the great classical Greek writings into Arabic did not pay much attention to Greek plays and did not translate them. The concept of people individually acting out fictional roles as kings, beggars, heroes, gods, etc. and exchanging dialogue before a live audience was a form of artistic expression to which they could not relate. For the early Muslims, a story was much better told by a good storyteller who could bring to it the right mix of animation and variety in voice, song, gesture and poetic skill.

The Qur’an uses time-honoured Arabian storytelling style to communicate to its readers about many events, whether they happened in the distant past, in the time of the Prophet, or will happen in the future. Some of these narrated events include stories of Creation, Peoples (or Nations), Prophets, the Hereafter, Heaven, Hell, etc.

Qur’anic style involves poetic conversations, arguments, discusssions, narrations, and descriptions of major characters in their contexts of time and place. In fact., an entire chapter of the Qur’an is called "Al-Qassas," meaning literally, The Stories. The difference between most theatrical performances or storylines is that Muslims believe the stories in the Qur’an to be true.

Dancing was not a widespread performing art in Arabia before Islam, although it was known and practiced by African immigrants. During the Prophet’s time, African folkloric dances were performed in his presence before mixed audiences of men and women.

Islamic civilization flourished in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus and all the major Western cities of Andalusia (in what is now Spain and Portugal) for some 800 years, beginning in 711 AD; and so did the performing arts — except for theatre.

For example, the Muslim scientist, composer and philosopher, Al- Farabi, blended physics and mathematics to codify the techniques of formal musical composition. And it was Muslim musicians who invented and developed the guitar (originally called Getharah in Arabic), which became the most popular stringed instrument, especially in Andalusia, for generations before the introduction of keyboard instruments like the harpsichord or piano.

Furthermore, Muslim physicians knew a great deal about the curative effects of music and storytelling on the healing of the sick. They established the world’s first hospitals, places where the sick were cared for in one central facility by specialists in medicine, surgery, nutrition, medication, and nursing, as well as music and storytelling.

The world’s first modern hospital was built in Baghdad and its site was selected with aesthetic as well as medical considerations in mind. It overlooked the great Al-Furrat river, and was surrounded by lavish gardens, beautiful man-made waterfalls and fountains, all with the goal of improving and speeding the healing process.

Storytellers in Muslim hospitals were carefully trained to select cheerful themes in order to contribute to the quick recovery of their listeners. And all of these advanced services were available without cost; Muslims were the first to introduce a truly universal free health care system, because they believed it was a human right and service ordained by the Creator.

Hospital officials even used to give low-income patients a discharge grant to help them overcome any loss of earnings incurred while they were sick and thus to alleviate worries about unfulfilled financial obligations.

Given their considerable role in history, are the performing arts Islamically acceptable today? It depends.

Guidelines set down by Iranian scholars after the Revolution clearly urged those with talent to strive for excellence in their arts, but to reject excessive violence and sex. Many Iranian artists followed those guidelines and have been honored with international awards given by their Western peers.

Some Western Muslims, however, believe that they should sing only with drum accompaniment, as these were the only musical instruments thought to exist at the time of the Prophet. And they also believe they must mix their lyrics with Arabic words in order to make their songs more Islamic.

But I believe that Western Muslims today need more talented poets, songwriters, composers, storytellers, actors and actresses in their midst who can translate the human experience of Islam into a beautiful international art. The diversity and vast potential of artistic expression always has something new to offer. Even a show as whimsical and lighthearted as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is an uplifting example of what I have in mind.