On Rock Music: Spiritual Underpinnings

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Taqwacore on you. But I did want to explore how experiencing the dunya on its own terms made me, well, me. Me the Muslim.

“Free sexuality was an interesting experiment that failed.” -Joni Mitchell
“Free sexuality was an interesting experiment that failed.” -Joni Mitchell

During a strange, difficult time almost a year ago, I found redemption, as I usually do, through books, friends, prayer. But those were things that were just keeping me occupied. I was wondering where I could just be. I was wondering who would listen, what space I needed to be in to be more accepting and forgiving of myself.

So over the course of some snowy, listless nights, in a warm bed I resented myself for not being more grateful for, I watched A History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The result was a gratifying, warm embrace, one I could sigh and relax into. Because along with marvelling at rock music’s rich African-American origins and seeing legends like Peter Townshend and Tom Petty speak about their pasts and their relationships with music, I found redemption. I found redemption in understanding that not having the dunya as I wanted it, not being able to numb myself, to be an outsider no one quite understands, is the very essence of the spirit behind rock music. At one point in the documentary series, Levon Helm, former member of genre-defining group The Band, said “Sex, drugs…those were the things they were using to sell rock ‘n’ roll, which seems a damn shame, when you get down to it. The music is certainly capable of doing that on its own.”

Santana described just how capable that music is of doing this on its own:

Often, a musician can do to a woman what a lover cannot do to a woman. I’m very flattered that you’re here after the gig, and that you’re knocking on my door, and you’re beautiful and all that. But, at the same time, I cannot do to you what my music does to your soul.

This isn’t just the unlikeliest means of strengthening the case against zina. This is what Muslims need to be mindful of. We need to be critical of our culture of rockstar imams and realize that it’s not the people we should revere so much, it’s their serving as a portal into something much, much greater. They, as individuals as human as we are, cannot do for us what their teachings do for our souls.

Rock also provides a set of motifs for empowerment and personal identity that set it apart from the norm. So the next time a Hitchens-ascribing nonbeliever accuses me of the ludicrousness of my beliefs, I can perhaps give a faith-based version of what metalhead anthropologist and filmmaker Sam Dunn says in Metal, A Headbanger’s Journey:

Ever since I was 12 years old I had to defend my love for heavy metal against those who say it’s a less valid form of music. My answer now is that you either feel it or you don’t. If metal doesn’t give that overwhelming surge of power that make the hair stand up at the back of your neck, you might never get it, and you know what? That’s okay, because judging by the 40,000 metalheads around me we’re doing just fine without you.

Coincidental or not, the parallel to Surah Al-Kafirun is hard to ignore, a parallel that is embodied in its signature verse: “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.”

Our texts, our teachings, remind us that, bad as it seems, the world is temporary. You may hate the world, you may hate yourself for ingratitude, but you have to hold to what’s true by continuously beseeching it, reminding yourself of it. “You’re always cursing,” Santana said, describing the experience of playing the electric guitar, “and you’re always praying.”

Monotheism may or may not lie under the mantle of the profane. But I know music helps. Somehow, without taking away from my Muslim self, it helps the dissonance, it helps the paralyzing feeling that accompanies having one’s internal world not being reflected in her life. “Music doesn’t change the world,” Peter Townshend said in the concluding episode of A History of Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Music changes the way you live in the world. It changes the way you see it, but it doesn’t change the world itself.”

So I dress as I am instructed to, I methodically apply makeup. And if the dread becomes overwhelming, I tune into the radio. Bad Company fills my ears. Literally, and perhaps metaphorically. Either way, I’m temporarily, blissfully numbed.

I later sit in the living area, there in form but not in spirit, waiting for the click of the electric kettle signaling that the water is ready. It’s all part of my rock and roll fantasy.

“So, beta, do you cook?”

“Hm? Yes, occasionally I do, yes.”

“It’s not very hard, and girls eventually end up learning these things over time.”

It’s all part of my rock and roll dream. 


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