This interesting BBC documentary explores the complex relationship between music and Islam. Native Deen and Seven8Six are two American Muslim bands, who perform to sell-out audiences across the world and have a fast-growing fanbase in Britain. They are part of a new wave of Muslim, or Nasheed, music, which allows the current generation of Muslims to engage with pop music while staying true to the principles of Islam.
Both the bands have a fusion of styles, but Native Deen are often classed as a Hip Hop group, while Seven8Six are more R'n'B. The latter's slick, boy band appeal has won them a lot of admirers, particularly among young girls, but that's also causing them a few problems with more conservative elements of the Muslim community.
Issues came to a head in August 2006, when the two bands were flown to the UK by the Islamic Forum Europe, to take part in a major Islamic event at Manchester's MEN Arena.
Seven8Six had no sooner landed than they were dropped from the line-up of the Manchester event by the very organisers who had paid for their visit. Although the band was never given a reason, it was understood that, for at least some of the event's organisers, a band consisting of five single, good looking, westernised young men in their twenties was projecting the wrong sort of image of Islam and attracting the wrong sort of attention.
"There are certain individuals that have issues with our image. I think you can't blame them, because its almost one of those things which is so new that you see five guys who dress like everyone else, who've got spiky hair and they get up and sing about being Muslim and proud of it and that's not what has been traditionally seen. It's been the long robes and big beards, which is... nothing wrong with that, but... our religion teaches us that you can't judge a book by its cover. So, that's one of the things that we're trying to get across: you can't make a judgement on this guy walking down the street, because he doesn't have a beard or he's not wearing a kufi on his head. You don't know what is in his heart." - Shahaab from Seven8Six
"Long live Seven8Six! They're very close to us. Sometimes, we call them our younger brothers, because they used to listen to us when they were a little bit younger and I think we helped inspire them to do it themselves. They have beautiful voices and they've gotten some problems before. They are attractive guys they have beautiful voices and so it gets a certain response from the audience and maybe a lot of the women in the audience and sometimes maybe organisers don't want to be associated with that. Maybe that's looking too mainstream, [but] the brothers are doing this for the same reasons that Native Deen is: we want to get this message out there we want to inspire people." - Joshua from Native Deen
"Image is a big deal to us. We really try to make sure that we carry ourselves in a manner that's appropriate and according to rules of Islam, but also still true to our identity as youth in western society, and a lot of times I think that people start to look at that and say, 'Well, these guys, they're too young and too hip and too cool.' And I think a lot of times we lose credibility because of that and it hurts, because you never want to be judged as based on your image, what you look like, and a lot of times that's gotten us in trouble. The real good fortune for us is, when we do go to events, people can see that beyond the spiky hair and the jeans that these are five guys that are actually sincere, and if you actually listen to the words of what they say that it actually means something positive. That, to us, is more important than image." - Zafur from Seven8Six
Despite the best efforts of their manager to get the Seven8Six re-instated to the line-up, the band weren't allowed to play. Events then took a turn for the worse as the band, and their manager, were even refused entrance to the MEN Arena as paying members of the audience.
Several fans were left disappointed and confused as to why the band didn't appear. Naseem Younis, mother of 11 year old fan Jinan, said, “Nobody really understood why they weren't performing. There wasn't an explanation. They just announced that they weren't performing without saying why. And there was definitely an “Ahhh” from the whole audience, because many people had come to see them.”
Even leaving aside the issue of Seven8Six's image, music is a complicated issue in Islam, with many different views on what is acceptable. Some Muslims believe that string and wind instruments are haram (unlawful) and should be forbidden. Here's what the band members themselves have to say on the issue:
"Some scholars say it's legitimate, some scholars say its not. One thing we can say that we all agree is that songs that are about sex, drugs, violence are not legit. Some scholars say, 'Hey, as long as the music is good and you don't lose yourself in it, it's legitimate.' Other scholars say. 'Even if it's good lyrically, if there are certain instruments that are used, like string instruments, like guitars, piano and wind instruments, studies have shown that it makes a person get into it more than they should. So, what is permissible, in the most conservative opinion, is percussion. So, that's what we subscribe to as a group. What we put out on our albums is vocals, it's our voices and just beats. So that makes us get creative with the way we do things. Now to a non-Muslim that, in itself, is hard to understand, but that's probably as basic as I can make it." - Shahaab from Seven8Six
"There is a strong opinion in Islam that wind and string instruments are forbidden. That may not be our opinion, but it is an opinion so we don't use it. Any time you buy a Native Deen CD, you will not find any wind or string instruments used on it because we respect that there are differences of opinion.Joshua from Native Deen
We felt that our message is paramount. We wanted the most Muslims to benefit from our work, so we use percussion only, when we're on stage. But then you have like amazing artists, like Yusuf Islam, [formerly Cat Stevens], who's recently picked up guitar again and you have Dawud Wharnsby Ali who's picked up a guitar again and Sammi Yusuf, who's putting on amazing forty piece orchestras around the world. It seems there will always be a debate on right and wrong [on any topic], but we try our best to have a middle path in everything we do and hopefully we're blessed for it and continue on it." - Naeem from Native Deen
For both bands, there are challenges in combining life on the road with the requirements of Islam, but they do their utmost to reconcile the two - always ensuring they fit prayers into their hectic schedules. Keeping focused on their religious motivation is not always easy: the pressures of delivering top class performances, the disapproval of some more conservative Muslims and the adoration of young fans are all constant struggles for the band members.
There is always a danger that you need to be on stage... and I think some people get drunk off their own stardom. We need to guard against that and that's why, before every programme we do, we make a prayer and say, 'Keep us guided.' One of the main songs that we do is called Intentions and that one we do that almost every set if we have the time, because it's like telling people: 'These are our intentions,' so we don't get caught up in the celebrity of things. We are just regular guys like you'd see at the grocery store and whatever. We just perform every once in a while and have a good time doing that." - Naeem from Native Deen
"There was definitely a fear in the beginning and I clearly remember Saad's father telling us about this whole fame and people idolising you or adoring you or whatever you want to call it. He said it's a definite danger, because it can go straight to the head and once that happens its very hard to recover from that. Thank God, we got that bit of advice very early on in our career and now we pay attention to it, and to us the fame doesn't really matter. In fact, it doesn't matter at all. We would rather be unknowns and everyone listen to our music and develop or understand the message that we're trying to put through." - Shahaab from Seven8Six