Books and Documents

Islamic Culture

In her lifetime, Gauhar attained a celebrity status that few women of her era could even dream of. For someone whose photograph appeared on picture postcards and matchboxes during her time, sadly today Gauhar is almost forgotten and largely unacknowledged even by the world of Hindustani music. This is what made researching her life for her biography an immensely challenging, yet enjoyable task. In a culture where the art is always perceived to be bigger than the artiste, and where documenting their personal lives is seldom considered important, it was quite an exercise to exhume this marvellous artiste from her grave and place her in a historical perspective, bringing her memory and contributions to Hindustani music in the public discourse. -- Vikram Sampath


Bangla speakers in Bangladesh and in places in many other countries which are home to Bangladeshi expatriates celebrate Pahela Baishakh (Poila Boishakh, in Bengali) the first day of the Bangla year, with much fanfare and enthusiasm. -- New Age report

Redefining hope on Pahela Baishakh we have forgotten what Pahela Baishakh really stands for and that we have failed to define our hopes in line with its spirit. Hence, as we celebrate Pahela Baishakh this year, it is perhaps in the order of things that we define our hope in the light of the day. -  Editorial in New Age, Dhaka

Pahela Baishakh must herald a change in outlook

WHILE the political and economic promises of the liberation war largely remained unfulfilled, the cultural sphere did show the resurgence expected of a liberated country. A distinctive and self-assertive theatre movement, the plethora of cultural organisations, periodicals and publications, cultural institutions and academies, literary meets and events, the different kinds of cultural innovations and improvisations, derivation of cultural impetus from the national days, broad-based institutionalization of the Ekushey observance and, most of all, a vibrant cultural activism – all these, to a great extent, acquired a new verve and vivacity after the liberation war and the country’s liberation from alien rule. -- Zakeria Shirazi

Photo: Poila Baishakh cards


Behind the Dubai palace in Karachi, near the seashore, there lives a merry old man. He holds a treasure which is unparalleled in this world. A treasure which is most likely to be destroyed… The reason being, most of us still questions the validity of the argument that it is indeed a treasure.

In his house, under specially built cabinets are rows and rows of audio tapes. When played they tell you the history of Indo Pakistan music, literature and poetry. You can find Ustad Bundo Khan playing his Sarangi, Pathanay Khan singing his tunes, Chotay Bukhari and Baray Bokhari reciting their essays in the earlier days of Radio Pakistan, Maulana Thanvi and Rasheed Turrabi reciting Quran or giving sermons or Faiz Ahmed recording his entire Nushka Hai Wafa in a span of 20 years in his studio. -- Ayaz Abdal

Photo: Lutfullah Khan

The quality of commercial films in Bangladesh has always been a bone of contention. In 2003, film producers and artists went on strike accusing each other of bringing obscenity to movies. But the last few years have seen a tremendous change, says, Mahbub Hassan Saleh, counselor, Bangladesh High Commission. There has been an improvement in the thematic and technical making of movies, he says. The films being screened in the festival, he says, not only showcase the history of the country but also reflect the contemporary social fabric of Bangladesh. -- Insiya Amir


“What is Sufi music? Singing a prayer to God and making an illclad girl gyrate to the rhythm? Positively not,” says Mohammad Idris Qutubi, the younger of the two Qutubi brothers who have been the traditional Sufi singers attached to the oldest dargah of Delhi, that of Khwaja Syed Muhammad Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki in Mehrauli, popularly known as the Qutub dargah. “As a family, we’ve been singing for the Khwaja Sahab for the past 825 years,” informs the elder brother, Mohammad Ilyas Qutubi...

“Anybody singing a song in praise of God classifies himself as a Sufi singer these days, which is not correct,” implores Mohammed Idris. The indignation of the traditional singers becomes heightened due to the money and fame that the ‘other’ singers end up making, in the name of Sufi singing/ qawwali. “Most of these Bollywood composers visit a dargah, copy our songs and make millions through their albums or films,” adds the elder brother. -- Archana

A new translation introduces the master of Urdu romantic poetry to 21st century readers

… Ghalib’s romantic verses are globetrotting with the subcontinental diaspora. ‘Ghalib nites’ are held from Delhi to Dubai to Detroit. Ghalib is studied in universities around the world. And new translations, new insights into his works continue to emerge.

The latest entrant is ‘Wine of Passion: The Urdu Ghazals of Ghalib’, a compilation of his love poems translated into English by US-based Pakistani professor Sarfaraz K. Niazi. The book seeks to open “a window to the mind and heart of Ghalib for English readers” by making him available in their language. – Saif Shahin

Photo: Mirza Ghalib


For Knight, punk's rebellious ethos echoes the rebellious spirit of Islam, which, when it began in 7th century Arabia, directly challenged everything from the Meccan economic power structures of the day to the prevailing tribal views on women. Knight's novel opens with a poem, which Poursalehi set to music and which has become an anthem of sorts for the scene: "Muhammed was a punk rocker/ You know he tore s___ up/ Muhammed was a punk rocker/ Rancid sticker on his pickup truck." For Knight, now a graduate student in Islamic studies at Harvard University, the richness and elasticity of Islam has allowed a Muslim punk scene to develop and now flourish. "The energy of punk is about tearing down," he says. "But I don't want to just be tearing something down. I want to build, to do something positive."

Photo: Basim Usmani of the Kominas rocks out in Chicago, in a scene from the documentary Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam


China - Manas - The Kirgiz ethnic minority in China, concentrated in the Xinjiang region in the west, pride themselves on their descent from the hero Manas, whose life and progeny are celebrated in one of the best-known elements of their oral tradition: the Manas epic. Traditionally sung by a Manaschi without musical accompaniment, epic performances takes place at social gatherings, community celebrations, ceremonies such as weddings and funerals and dedicated concerts. China - The Mazu belief and customs - As the most influential goddess of the sea in China, Mazu is at the centre of a host of beliefs and customs, including oral traditions, religious ceremonies and folk practices, throughout the country's coastal areas. China - Mongolian art of singing: Khoomei - The Mongolian art of singing: Khoomei, or Hooliin Chor (throat harmony'), is a style of singing in which a single performer produces a diversified harmony of multiple voice parts, including a continued bass element produced in the throat. -- Mahmoud Sulaiman


The Arabs do well in Islamic calligraphy, and while many Arab countries produce good work, Syria is simply outstanding in this art. Over the past six or seven years, the Syrians have been winning at all of the major calligraphy competitions. I’ve noticed that for the past three or four years, the Arabs have been trying their best to compete with the Turks to regain their lost glory in Islamic calligraphy. To some extent they have succeeded, and the Syrians have played a major role. Most of the great calligraphers are now from Syria, like Farooq Al Haddad, Hassam Shoukat Matti, and Ahmed Amin Shimta. However, there are some good ones from Egypt and Iraq as well. -- Gul Jammas Hussain


As a result of the meeting, the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey was founded, bringing together an international team of experts working under the sponsorship of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. Dr King was made its academic director and Peter Hellyer the executive director. Dr King has documented the latest study, the fruit of more than a decade of fieldwork with his colleagues, in The Historical Mosque Tradition of the Coasts of Abu Dhabi, a book published by the National Centre for Documentation and Research, the organisation charged with acting as “the nation’s memory”. In all, the book records 45 mosques, some of which are documented for the first time, ranging from simple stone outlines to complete buildings, on 14 islands. -- Jonathan Gornall


Music has had its detractors in plenty and the MMA government, foisted on the NWFP by Musharraf, had declared music to be a vice in 2002. Since then music has been treated as an enemy. It has been targeted regularly. The campaign first began in the form of attacks on shops and music centres. Then musicians, those gentle artists who soothe the soul, were threatened and they either fled or gave up their art. Some had to pay with their life. The website notes, “Imagine the world without music. Or imagine a world where we are told what to play, what to sing and even what we may listen to in the privacy of our homes. That world already exists in more countries than you might imagine.”Why the need for censorship? The link between music and politics is now widely recognised. -- Zubeida Mustafa

Firstly, music is a useless activity which in fact, is a state of passiveness. As we will explain in another article about gambling, the fact that such an inactivity, which is inherent in those so called professions, did not escape the attention of our religion.

Secondly, the benefit and pleasure taken from music involves a meaning of deep slavery in passion. Since Islam is the only enemy of passiveness and slavery in passion, an important duty of Islam is to search their traces in unexpected hide-outs. -- Mustafa Sabri


Seven centuries ago, Baghdad and Damascus were world financial hubs. The Arab world, under the Abbasid caliphs, had trade relations with all major nations from China to Italy. The Assyrians mapped out a road network to enable them to transport African ivory, Caspian furs and Indian spices across their empire. Two millennia before the advent of the dollar and pound sterling, the gold coin, Persian daric, introduced by Darius the Great, was the currency of choice from Greece to the kingdoms of India.

The Silk Road to China, the Amber Route to the Baltic, and the evolution of trade-linked cities such as Petra, Baghdad, Mecca, Sidon and Damascus were the centres of Arab power politics for centuries. From ancient times till modern days trade activities have always flourished in the region. -- Raza Elahi


Picture this: the place is Cairo, and two Egyptian women are eyeballing each other on the subway. One is dressed from head to toe in a burqa, and the other is wearing a hijab. The black clad woman asks the other why she is not wearing a burqa. The young woman points to her headscarf and says, “Is this not enough?” The woman in the burqa responds, “If you wanted a piece of candy, would you choose an unwrapped piece or one that came in a wrapper?” “I am not candy”, the younger woman replies. “Women are not candy”. And with that, Mona Eltahawy, a Muslim feminist who had worn the hijab for nine years, decided to ditch it altogether. -- Virginia Haussegger

(Photo: Rabiah Hutchinson at Manly Beach, Sydney, by Vanessa Hunter)

Having never lived outside Karachi until she moved to New York, Ms. Ahmed Shikoh did not anticipate the mixture of awe and estrangement that she felt. “Here I was looking at a huge new city and wondering: ‘How do I fit in? How do I make this my home and my territory?’ ” she said. Artistically she turned to her Statue of Liberty and Urdu subway map paintings. Socially she started visiting a mosque. “I guess being a minority, everybody starts to look for people of your own kind,” she said. “I had never been to a mosque in Pakistan. The mosque as community centre, I just discovered here. So I made a few Muslim friends, and it opened my eyes. There were women who were progressive, modern, fashionable and wearing the head scarf.” Over the next few years Ms. Ahmed Shikoh wrestled with herself about covering her hair, wondering, “Why not just wear modest clothes?” Her husband — who after 20 years here is relaxed and Americanized in manner — stayed out of the decision-making process. Her mother, tired of hearing her argue with herself, said: “O.K., what are you waiting for? They won’t throw you a party to start wearing one.” And then Ms. Ahmed Shikoh decided that God was asking her to do it as an act of faith. “I had the freedom in this country to make that choice,” she said. “Here people just let you live your life.” Ms. Ahmed Shikoh started keeping what she thought of as a hijab diary. Daily she would make a painting or collage that incorporated the template of a head scarf, sometimes quite playfully, as in the hijab with the built-in iPod or the one made of Play-Doh featuring Dora the Explorer. -- Deborah Sontag, New York Times


But what is the culture of Pakistan? Do Pakistanis own a tradition of music and dance that is separate from India’s? Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali (who told me this on a flight to Bombay from Ahmedabad) enjoy performing in India because Pakistan’s middle-class is mostly illiterate about raag and taal. But this is our inheritance from the Sam Ved and from Amir Khusro. Why should it be disowned by Pakistanis?

High culture is rooted in tradition, and that is the first thing the religious state attacks. There is no culture of north Indian classical dance, Kathak, in Pakistan. Dance in general is absent (though apparently it is quite popular with Mehsud’s men, presumably grooving to the rhythm of pop-popping Kalashnikovs) because physical expression tends to be sensual and therefore deemed un-Islamic.

Culture does not directly resist extremism; it only makes extremism difficult to penetrate by diverting the mind. The only way to fight extremism is through reason, but South Asians are not particularly good at reason because we don’t understand its vocabulary. Culture softens us, not in a bad way, and makes us less suicidal, which is a state where pristine religion leads us through its demand of purity. -- Aakar Patel

Not only was Faiz banned by the quasi-Islamic regime, but also the wearing of saree at public venues. The mild-mannered Bano came draped in a silk saree, a perfect picture of her Dehli gharana style, but that day she roared like a lioness as Lahore swung along. The crowd was so huge the organisers had to throw the auditorium doors open, asking the youngsters to sit on the floor and vacate the seats for the elderly, who also came in droves. Then, loudspeakers had to be put up outside the hall, along The Mall, because the crowd outside just would not leave without hearing Bano sing Faiz.

A nearly hour-long recital of the otherwise short but poignant poem, Ham dekhain ge (‘we shall see the promised day of deliverance’) followed. The thumping and swinging by the huge crowd was so dramatic, a revolution seemed imminent. Zia’s riot police watched in a state of shock, and then disappeared from the scene. Any gathering of more than four persons in the street, and certainly all merrymaking, were outlawed. But here were thousands crying out loud and ecstatically dancing with joy. Bano rocked Lahore that day, resurrecting Faiz who suddenly seemed to have risen from the grave to lead his people to deliverance from tyranny. -- Murtaza Razvi

Muslim countries once led the world in scientific research. Iranian physicist Reza Mansouri tells Edwin Cartlidge why they now lag so far behind and what they can do about it


How a Thirteenth-Century Islamic Poet Conquered America

Maulana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

The best-selling poet in America today was born in Afghanistan, practiced a form of Islam that originated in Iraq, and has been dead for 800 years. How did a white man from Tennessee, who doesn't read a lick of Persian, make Rumi accessible to mainstream America? -- Ryan Croken

I died as a mineral and became a plant;
I died as a plant and rose to animal;
I died as animal and I was a man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as man to soar
With angels blest. But even from an angel
I must pass on: all except God must perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel soul,
I shall become what no mind ever conceived.

--- Rumi

Young US Muslims rediscover identity via underground book

Cleveland: Five years ago, young Muslims across the United States began reading and passing along a blurry, photocopied novel called "The Taqwacores," about imaginary punk rock Muslims in Buffalo. "This book helped me create my identity," said Naina Syed, 14, a high school freshman in Coventry, Connecticut. A Muslim born in Pakistan, Naina said she spent hours on the phone listening to her older sister read the novel to her. "When I finally read the book for myself," she said, "it was an amazing experience." The novel is The Catcher in the Rye for young Muslims, said Carl W Ernst, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Springing from the imagination of Michael Muhammad Knight, it inspired disaffected young Muslims in the United States to form real Muslim punk bands and build their own subculture. Now the underground success of Muslim punk has resulted in a low-budget independent film based on the book. -- Christopher Maag


A Muslim Fashion Show? Yes, in Jakarta!

Honestly, I did not think a Muslim runway show could exist and my feelings towards this new event are mixed. My first reaction is: how can you want to hide women, their hair, their body, their curves and still be a fashion designer? In my eyes, fashion is not first here to conceal but to reveal, to enhance, to make more beautiful, and in some Muslim sensitivities at least, it seems that the garment is here to erase the body, to hide the personality, to reserve its beauty to a very private sexual usage only, says fashion writer Jean Paul Cauvin

Shafqat Amanat Ali, born in 1965, is the son of Ustad Amanat Ali Khan, making him part of the 9 generation old Patiala Gharana. He has been a student of Hindustani classical music since age four, his grandmother being his first teacher.


Hyderabad: They are almost synonymous. Hyderabad and shayari. Nothing sways the ‘ahl-e-zoukh’ here more than poetry. And if it is the bard of the East, the effect is simply heady. The city has just crossed a literary milestone by hosting lyrical sittings of Mohammed Iqbal, the poet-philosopher, for 11 long years. This speaks volumes about the poetic passion of Hyderabadis as also the enduring appeal of Iqbal.


Amit Chaudhuri bemoans the neglect of a secularism that is an experiencing of the modern world through shared cultural artefacts...This secularism, crucially, has room within it for the "spiritual" hungers—the existential bewilderment, the unassuaged longing for something beyond the prison of the self—that, far from being addressed, are unwelcome in official secularism. Despite all the constitutional bulwarks, this is a significant default.

Book REVIEW: By Alok Rai


IN order to introduce Western audiences to a more positive vision of Islam than the one depicted in mainstream media, Badr International produced the long awaited first animated feature film about Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), entitled “Muhammad: The Last Prophet,” which has proven to be a heart-rending rendering of a significant portion of the Prophet’s (pbuh) life and the birth of Islam.


Faraz’s burning poetry pitted itself against the injustices of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes — and certainly, Pakistan has provided plenty. His work will command a following so long as love itself lives, and the Muse finds a voice through a poignant Urdu ghazal, writes Lahore-based commentator F. S. Aijazuddin.

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