Art, Culture and Islam
Nasim Hassan –Delaware USA
The historical definition of culture is, “a social heritage, or tradition, that
is passed on to future generations.” Another definition puts together
religion, philosophy, poetry, music, art and spiritual traditions, and calls
the result a culture. Because culture is a direct reflection of human
aspirations, the rise of a desert culture cannot be the same as one
developed in mountainous regions where singing streams abound.
Culture takes centuries to evolve in any given area and reflects the local
Although art, culture and Islam may seem to be contradictory terms,
the fact is that—over the centuries—Islam has deeply impacted the
culture of all environments with which it came into contact. Truly, Islam
has modified most artistic expressions such as painting, sculpture, or
In our present Communications Age, when local Eastern arts, music
and poetry are not encouraged, common people just switch to the
dominant culture of the West. Subsequently, we lament the so-called
“encroachment of cultural imperialism” and the loss of Eastern values.
We forget that every aspect of a culture is interconnected. When we
discourage local cultural activities by saying that they are not Islamic, we
fail to provide more acceptable alternatives, and thus we must be ready
to accept the onslaught of Western cultural traditions by default.
Briefly, I have tried to highlight below the impact of dominant Western
culture on the values and culture of South Asia. For lack of a viable
alternative, this impact is in fact visible in Muslim countries all over the
Classical music, such as ragas, emanated from various parts of the
Indian peninsula to express human feelings such as hope, fear, love, joy
and sorrow. It is well-known that certain ragas, such as Tilang and
Bhairveen, were developed and refined in the plains of the Punjab, while
others originated in the southern part of the subcontinent.
In ancient India, music and dance were restricted to the upper castes
and were dedicated to various gods and deities. When the Muslim
conquerors came into contact with the local people, they transformed
this art completely. At first they introduced it to the royal courts of kings
and emperors. Gradually it came down to the level of rajas, maharajas
and nawabs who sponsored unique forms of classical singing. This in
turn led to various schools of music that flourished in various local
areas. Such exponents of classical music can still be found all over India.
Long before the high noon of Indian classical music during the time of
the Moghul Emperor Akbar, a number of ragas were developed by the
great statesman, poet and Sufi, Hazrat Amir Khusro. His impact has
been profound and can still be felt in the classical realm. The advent of
Pakistan saw a gradual decline in the tradition of classical music. Some
Muslims still believe that all forms of music are prohibited in Islam; some
even associate music with the decline of Muslim rule in India.
The fact is that the rise of Muslim power in India was followed by a
fusion of Islamic and local Indian culture. Similarly, when Muslim power
declined, a decline in classical music also occurred. Musicians were no
longer respected, so the profession began a downward slide. As a direct
result of this benign neglect, very few people in Pakistan now understand
or appreciate classical music. These days, most common people just tune
into Hindi film music or pop music of every description via their everpresent
Folk Music, Ghazals, Qawali and Theater
The Indus Valley civilization has a rich tradition of folk music, songs
and plays based on local love stories. There was a time, associated with
local festivals or commemoration of local Sufi saints, when theater
companies would travel all over Pakistan. Every year at specified times,
folk musicians would perform at Sufi saints’ shrines.
Many reasons have contributed to a progressive decline in these
activities. Traditional folk singers have been replaced by pop singers who
have roots in Western music and hardly ever touch the inner chords of
common people. Pop singers therefore are the antithesis of the symbiotic
development and refinement of folk music over past centuries.
Ghazal singing certainly is a contribution that can be attributed to
Persian influence on the music of South Asia. After partition in 1947,
North Indian migrants began to revive their old cultural traditions in
India. The popularity of ghazals in India coincided with emerging
economic rehabilitation of those migrating Indians and still continues
The same cannot be said about the future of ghazal singing in
Pakistan. Here it is directly linked to the decline of classical music, which
is the foundation of all indigenous music. However, Pakistan has
produced a number of renowned ghazal singers and also has introduced
Qawali singing to the world through the genius of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
and the Sabri brothers.
Basant or Jashn-e-Baharan
This festival ushers in the spring season, particularly in the Punjab.
Historically, Punjab has a harsh winter and a simmering summer. In
mid-February the weather starts to change. Soon the countryside is full
of mustard blossoms and the fields look like a flowing river of yellow.
People in the Punjab, regardless of their religious affiliation, celebrate
Basant by wearing yellow and flying kites from rooftops.
After the emergence of Pakistan, Muslim clergy discouraged such
festivities by saying it was a Hindu or Indian celebration. Many a time,
religious parties petitioned the government to outlaw this festival by
alleging that it was dangerous and against Islam. Actually, as simply a
festival of seasonal change, Basant has now emerged even stronger than
before and continues well into the night. Numerous other items have
become associated with it. If sober elements prevail, this will be
recognized as a centuries-old tradition that is, in fact, a human need.
Perhaps its features can be changed from within to remake it a healthy
celebration, instead of a bug-a-boo that creates so much chaos.
The Film Industry
Over the past 30 years, the film industry in Pakistan has declined. In
the first place, no government in Pakistan even recognized it as an
industry and filmmaking was actively discouraged. Sometimes it was
labeled “against Islam,” and at other times it was alleged that, “films were
a corrupting influence on the morality of the common people.” I am not
advocating that, in the name of freedom of expression, we copy Western
culture which leaves nothing to the imagination. A better approach
would be to positively encourage “clean” entertainment. Because a
creative outlet did not exist in the film industry for artists, they went into
In North America, Pakistani and Indian families do watch PTV plays
because the whole family can see this non-X-rated entertainment
together. I believe that this success can be translated into films. South
Asians all over the word want clean, family-oriented films and plays.
Consider this an opportunity that Pakistani films could meet if the
authorities supported filling this gap.
Mushaira or Poetry Recitation
The recitation of Urdu poetry in a particular format started a few
hundred years ago in India. It somehow reached its zenith at a time that
coincided with the decline of the Moghul Empire. Northern India became
a literary paradise as the Urdu language emerged after the British
discarded Persian as an official language. This tradition, although
gradually declining continues today.
First-generation immigrants from Pakistan and Northern India have
brought Urdu with them to the Middle East and North America. Every
year, poets from Pakistan and India tour various countries and recite
their latest poetry. Initially, religious people also attended these poetry
recitations and the atmosphere always remained sober. I believe that as
long as religious people stay in touch with cultural activities, they will
have a very positive impact.
Unfortunately, this tradition cannot be sustained in North America
because only 25% of our next generation here understands Urdu! Out of
this 25%, not even 1% can read or write in Urdu. So, as soon as the firstgeneration
immigrants pass the baton to the next generation, the
cultural tradition called Mushaira will quietly wither away.
However, Mushaira does not necessarily have to go disappear in this
manner. Suitably motivated, our first-generation immigrants who are
concentrated in large cities can start teaching Urdu on a voluntary basis.
I believe it can easily be done. Contrary to popular belief, I have seen a
significant number of South-Asian young people enjoying Indian songs
and movies. Learning Urdu is much easier for youngsters of Pakistani
parentage. Pakistanis send their kids to Islamic centers where they learn
the Qur’an in Arabic. Because Urdu uses the same script as Arabic,
these kids should easily be able to recognize Urdu letters and words. In
fact, the Urdu language itself is a mixture of words that originate in
Arabic and Persian. Talk of reverse osmosis!
Cultural activities need nourishment to survive. Islam and culture do
not contradict one another. Certain cultural traditions that are in conflict
with Islam can be modified or discarded. However, some cultural
activities are specific to a province, tribe or a country, and should be
bolstered. If these traditions are supported and reinforced, they can
easily complement or provide an alternative to Western “cultural
imperialism,” for the simple reason that they have taken centuries to
emerge and refine. All they require is a helping hand to start blossoming.
Neglect can only result in discard of a centuries-old treasure that would
be the world’s loss.
Having kids of North-American immigrants learn Urdu is a significant towards appreciation of their South-Asian heritage.