All together now
Musical fusion, cultural exchange and modernization
December 28, 2004
A new phenomenon has come about in Persian music. Musical fusion
has emerged as a form of music that does not sounds very Persian.
In the last two decades, a number of musical innovators have appeared;
musicians who have fused Western Rock with various classical Persian
poetic and musical traditions.
Arash Mitooii, Sima Bina's son and
a great guitar player, produced an album based on Hafez poems
in 1997. In the same year, Sussan Deyhim's Majoon CD found world-wide
recognition, due to her original, explosive and hard-hitting
of fusion. Shahram Nazeri, Kayhan Kalhor, the groups, Kamkar
and O-Hum have each in their own way introduced fresh elements
In the last two decades a number of performers have emerged.
To some, this may be indicative of a loss of historic identity
(gharb-zadegi); to others, an assault on sacred religious beliefs.
Let us put our Musical Fusion in the context of history. In recent
Persian (Iranian) memory, music has been reduced to second-class
citizenship among cultural activities. Music is not widely respected
by the religious fundamentalists who see it as a moral subversion,
or by many others, who consider it a cheap and degenerate diversion,
as opposed to serious cultural practices such as poetry. This current
state of things is a far cry from the views that were held by many
of our great philosophers (back when we did have great philosophers).
Persian philosopher, Muhammad Ghazzali (1058-1111), wrote: "There
is no entry into the heart except through the ante-chamber of the
ears. Musical tones, measured and pleasant, bring forth what is
in the heart and make evident its beauties and defects. Whenever
the soul of music and singing reaches the heart, then there stirs
in the heart that which preponderates in it."
not an exception. Ibn Sina, Khayyam, and Farabi wrote entire
books on music. They considered music a serious topic warranting
along with philosophy.
How could Persian philosophers writing in 11th century hold views
that were far more advanced than the dominant views in Iran today?
How did we get here?
I do not believe there is an inherent conflict
between Islam and music. The Islamic call for prayer, azan,
is a form of melodious singing. In many Islamic lands, Egypt, Algeria,
Turkey, and Pakistan there are rich musical traditions. Sufis
who escaped from Persia in the 16th century, fused their chants
Indian Raga to create what later became Qawwali. One of the
important performers in this domain was the late Nusrat Fateh
Ali Khan (1948-1997). He performed songs in many languages including
Once upon a time there was a golden civilization, rich and proud
of its achievements. She sailed on the high seas of history like
a proud ship, like the Titanic. This civilization, the Islamic
civilization, brought together peoples from the Middle East to
North Africa and Spain. It produced major writers, philosophers,
astronomers, mathematicians, chemists, medical scientists, architects,
poets, musicians, historians, geographic explorers, and linguists:
Khwarazmi, Hafez, Ibn-Sin (Avicenna), Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), Razi
(Rases), Ibn Arabi, Khayyam, Tabari, Ibn-Sibovaih, Saadi, Rumi,
Ghazzali, Ibn-Battuta, Ibn-Tufayl, and Ibn-Khaldun; the list goes
These thinkers came from all backgrounds; they were Persians,
Arabs, Kurds, Jews, or Spaniards. They built upon the rich
histories of Persian, Egyptian, and Greek civilizations. They wrote
one lingua franca, in Arabic. They were thus able to communicate
each other in a spirit of exploration, and create important
works in a territory extending from Central Asia to Spain.
cultural exchange that went on in the Islamic Empire was instrumental
creating a fertile environment. Ibn-Sibovaih was a Persian
linguist who wrote the first systematic study of Arabic grammar.
Rumi (1207-1273) was a Persian poet who studied in Damascus
under the Syrian philosopher, Ibn Arabi. These thinkers produced
wealth of intellectual works, at a time when the Europeans
were in the
dark ages, at a time the European clergy burned people at
the sticks for saying that the earth moved around the sun.
The proud ship sailed with elegance from the 8th to the 13th
century. The Islamic golden period lasted about five centuries.
A large number of historic factors caused that great civilization
to decay. It is impossible to point to a single factor in these
There are many internal causes for a civilization's
decline. Foreign invasions do play a role. In the 13th centuries,
as the Mongols led by Chengis Khan (1162-1227) launched their
barbaric assaults across the Middle East, the Islamic civilization
in decline. It was not able to defend itself. The Mongols destroyed
all that they could find: libraries, universities, schools, observatories,
hospitals, etc. The Mongols assault on the Middle East was similar
to the Japanese attack on China (1931-1945), or the German
Nazi attack on the Soviet Union (1941-1945), which the Soviet Union
never quite recovered from.
The Middle Eastern Titanic sank and
took down with it an immense body of intellectual and cultural
works. As for the musical works of the Islamic civilization
or those of the Persian Empire of two thousand years ago, we
may never be able to appreciate them, since they were not recorded
down, the way many works of poetry were.
Centuries went by and the Middle East remained in dark ages.
There were other factors that contributed to this decay. And to
enumerate those factors would be the subject of an entire book.
According to the Egyptian writer, Samir Amin (The Arab Nation,
1976), an important source of wealth for Middle Eastern economies
had been the trade routes connecting Europe and the Far East, through
the Silk Road for instance. The discovery of America (in 1492)
and growth of a European maritime empire in the 18th century diminished
the economic importance of the Middle East. This importance was
restored to the Middle East with a vengeance with the discovery
of oil in 1890's.
The achievements of the Islamic Empire later became a launching
pad for Europe, when the modern age began. Throughout the European
Reformation, a large number of works written in Arabic were translated
into European languages. Spain became an important center of translation
and played a key role in the transmission of Islamic civilization
In a period that began with confrontations pitting Kepler
and Galileo (both students of Islamic astronomy) against the
established Catholic clergy, in the 17th century and culminated
in the French
Revolution of 1789, in confrontations pitting the modern bourgeoisie
against the aristocratic order. Europe was able to shake off
the shackles of Feudalism. The European dark ages ended. Europe
the modern age in the 19th and 20th centuries. Advanced capitalist
industrialized empires emerged in Holland, France, England,
and Germany. In their quest for world domination, these powers
brutal attacks upon Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The Middle
East stayed where it was. The modern Empire in the 20th century
saw and continues to see the Middle East as its main source
of oil supply.
However, those who are interested in progress for the Middle
East must not solely blame the West for all that went wrong. The
most fundamental battles are to be fought internally in the Middle
East as elsewhere. The Dark Age that began eight centuries ago
and continues today, brought along a whole array of dark cultural
practices and relations, that continue today deep in the Middle
The examples are numerous: The feeling of envious
admiration for all that is European, the view of women as men's
property that permeates every level of life and masquerades as
our traditional identity, the excessive reverence for the elders,
the adulation of the dead, the endless assertions of our past greatness,
the endemic tendency to forget the miseries of the present by taking
refuge in the greatness of the past, the assertions by some Persians
about our supposed kinship with Italians, and the endless boasting
by some Persians and Arabs of how great we used to be, because
allegedly "we did this and that", the lack of tolerance
for opposing views that creeps into all political, religious, artistic,
and social debates, not to mention the Taliban banning of music
are symptoms of centuries of decay.
Some Islamic Fundamentalists have a solution for our decline.
They insist that we should go back and rebuild the same ship all
over again. They insist that the old Islamic Empire was culturally
rich and socially prosperous because it was based on Islamic teachings.
They claim if we just go back to the principles laid out in the
7th century, we will be great again. They are nostalgic about a
time we have never seen.
However, the Islamic civilization was
not the only successful case of independent growth in our region.
Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Phoenician empires were all
socially prosperous and culturally rich prior to Islam. Civilizations
great due to the interplay of a whole array factors, not just
a single factor. What some Islamic fundamentalists have in mind
a caricature of the old ship. They forget that in the golden
age of Islamic civilization, intellectuals such as Khayyam, Ibn-Rushd,
Rumi, Saadi, and Hafez fought against religious fanaticism.
Khayyam's numerous poems about the greatness of wine were attempts
at introspection, through wine drinking, for a search of inner
truths; Classical Persian poets and philosophers were not religious
fanatics. Ibn-e Sina and Khayyam belonged to a school of philosophy
known as the Skeptics.
Recreating the same ship with the antiquated technologies is
not the answer. Limiting our thoughts to blaming the West, and
their agents, is not the answer; boasting about past greatness
is not the answer. Confusing oppressive institutions such as the
veil, with our cultural identity is not the answer.
The Middle Eastern Titanic sank centuries ago. It is high time
for modern cultural workers interested in progress to go to the
dark rooms of the sunken ship and recover the tremendous amounts
of hidden treasure, and build new structures of greatness, with
modern technologies. Many Persian poets and philosophers were among
the greatest on the stage of the world history.
It is not enough to be proud of that. It is not enough to write
hagiographies about our great writers so we can feel good. The
medical works of Ibn-e Sina (980-1037, aka Avicenna) were used
in Europe's main medical universities in the 15th century. However,
today in the Middle East they import medical knowledge and equipments
from the West. In the 20th century, awed by the achievements of
Europe, the general trend in the Middle East has been not to study
our great past writers, but to boast about their greatness.
Hafez, Ghazzali, Rumi, and Saadi's main goal in life was to search
for truth, not to prove how great they were. Many of our great
philosophers even critiqued each other. Ghazzali's third major
work, Ruining of the Philosophers (tah'futu l-fal'sifa), is believed
to have been written as a critique of the skeptic thoughts of Ibn-e
Sina. The only way to continue their tradition is to break new
grounds, not to recycle, regurgitate, and adulate them. In our
personal lives, we feel sorry for those who insist on reminding
us of their past greatness.
When Europe left the dark ages, European thinkers reached greatness
by learning from the East. The examples are numerous and have been
discussed elsewhere in this article and in many other more important
works. They include the Middle Eastern origins of a whole array
of fields ranging from modern algebra, to optics, to chemistry,
to medicine, and architecture.
An important work of European literature
was [The Life and
Strange and Surprising Adventures of] Robinson Crusoe.
Daniel Defoe's famous work, published in 1719, was considered to
be the first English novel, and had
a major influence on forming the European imagination in geographic
explorations in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in the rise of
modern capitalism. It was based on a famous work by the Spanish-Moroccan
Arab philosopher (1100-1185), Ibn-Tufayl.
Ibn-Tufayl had presented
his philosophy in a novel, "Walk on, you bright boy",
where a boy is brought up in isolation on an island. In that novel
the boy investigates the universe, and passes through several stages,
each lasting seven years. At the highest level the boy comes to
understand the ultimate nature of universe: He learns how spirit
takes material form, and how it strives to reach up to the One.
The philosophy elaborated by Ibn-Tufayl had also a major influence
on the works of Georg W. Hegel (1770-1831), the German philosopher,
who became one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century.
Hegel developed the modern dialectical philosophy after a close
reading of the famous works, 'Al-Muqaddimah' (The Introduction)
written by Ibn-Khaldun (Arab philosopher, 1332-1395) and Mathnavi
written by Rumi (Persian philosopher and poet). Ibn-Khaldun had
developed a first modern study of a philosophy of history. He
had provided an analytical study of civilizations, and the factors
contributing to their rise and subsequent decline.
Hegel based his book, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, on the works of Ibn-Khaldun. That book had a direct influence on
Karl Marx, and the notion of progress in history. Two thousand
years prior to Hegel, Greek philosophers had based their research
on the findings of the Egyptians and the Phoenicians. See the seminal
work by Martin Bernal, The Black Athena (1987). Phoenicia was a
region that mainly included today's Lebanon. Phoenicians were traders
who established colonies around the Mediterranean basin. They invented
modern Latin and Arabic alphabets. The Phoenician Empire was a
maritime empire that lasted from 1200 BC until 875 BC, when they
were taken over by the Assyrians. In 538 BC Phoenicia was taken
over by the armies of Kourosh (Cyrus in Greek) along with Babylon,
and became a province of the Persian Empire.
Persians made major contributions to civilization. They also
learned a great deal from other peoples. The game of chess and
the book of Kalila and Dimnah were introduced to Persia from India,
tea and spices from China, the numbers system from Mesopotamia
(Iraq), and our alphabet from Phoenicians and Arabs. Persia's pre-Islamic
religion, Zaratoastrianism, and Indian Buddhism have a common history.
For centuries, Persian philosophers studied the Greeks who in turn
learned their philosophy from the Egyptians.
This perpetual multi-layered
exchange among civilizations has been the norm since the dawn
of human history. Most of what is seen as traditional in any given
culture today is the culmination of centuries of cultural and
exchange among different nations and peoples. A large portion
of today's vocabulary in Persian is based on Arabic. There is absolutely
nothing wrong with that. This only makes Persian a richer language.
Many important rulers that have played important roles in the
history of different nations, had foreign roots. One of Russia's
most important rulers, Katherine the Great, and at least one important
French king, Charlemagne, were Germans. Persia was ruled by a number
of Turkic kings throughout its history. The Qaznavi, Saljuqi, and
Khwarazmi dynasties were based on Turkic Turkoman or Uzbek tribes.
Under the Safavis who were Azerbaijani Turks, and ruled Persia
in the 16th and 17th centuries, the official language of the
court in Isfahan was Azeri Turkish. Later on the Qajar kings
Persia from late 18th century into the 20th century were also
based on Turkic tribes. The pure classical Persian music that
inherited today is for the most part problematic. By some accounts
it represents centuries of decay.
According to many writers, such
as Ahmad Shamlou, it is limited, "closed"; it is not
going anywhere. It is high time we dug out the hidden treasures
rich heritage and develop it in new ways or fuse
that with modern music.
Arash Mitooii, Susan Deyhim, Kayhan Kalhor,
and the group Kamkar have each in their own way introduced fresh
elements to Persian music. They have fused our rich poetry with
new approaches to music. They bring out the hidden treasures
not to adulate and recreate the past, but to build new treasures.
have done in the musical domain what Kiarostami, Kimiaie, Tahmineh
Milani, and many others have done in Persian cinema.
I am referring
here to an intelligent fusion of traditional music with modern
element. I am opposed to the adoption of the lowest elements
of the West, Techno or Rap music, not because they are foreign
because they have been vulgarized to the extreme. They are
no longer forms of art. After truly experiencing a work of Rumi
you can say you are a better person. After listening to 99%
of Rap or Techno, you can not honestly say you are a better person!
Cultural progress has not been easy in our part of the world.
In the 20th century, from Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iraq, to Egypt,
and Morocco, dictatorial regimes suffocated intellectual progress.
But the human spirit can never be completely subdued. It keeps
coming back for more growth. Progress does not come about by adulating
the greatness of the past.
Progress comes about by questioning
what some may view as sacred. Progress comes about by taking
out what is relevant in the works from our rich heritage and combining
that with the wealth of works created by the Europeans in the
three centuries, the works of Mozart, Brahms, Schoenberg, Beethoven,
Eisler, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Darwin, Stendhal, Balzac, Shakespeare,
Some have criticized musical fusion as being too westernized.
Let us assume as our great thinkers, Ghazzali, Ibn-Sina, Rumi,
and Khayyam did, that music deserves a place alongside with other
cultural and intellectual activities. It would be an act of monumental
stupidity, for anyone to claim that we should not learn from the
most advanced achievements of the West, or that we should dismiss
Western novels, music, poetry, engineering, dance, arts, sciences,
and technologies. The Japanese and the Chinese have understood
this fact. As I have mentioned above, when the Europeans entered
the age of modernity, they learned what they could from the East.
The idea of keeping foreign elements out of a nation's culture
is a romantic but useless fantasy. It is idiotic to go back and
criticize Ibn-e Sina for having written many of his books in Arabic.
The forerunner of modern Flamenco (one of the jewels of Spanish
culture) was the the Andalusian School. The latter has a rich history
as the fusion of Moroccan, North Indian Katak dances, Spanish,
and Egyptian styles. Persians engaged in the 10th century in slave
trade along with the Arabs.
The Bandari music and dance in the
South of Iran and Iraq have strong African roots from Zanzebar
(today's Tanzania) going back to the period of slave trade. Those
who criticize our musicians for adopting foreign elements seem
to have no problems with driving modern German cars or flying
in American or Russian made planes. Music has no national boundaries.
Musical tones are closely linked with musical instruments. The
latter have changed throughout human history, due to changes
technology. Western music has been transformed since the Renaissance.
True innovators in music are heralds of worlds
in the making. Musical fusion represents a revolutionary breakthrough
music. Its emergence is comparable to the rise of many Rock bands
in the 60's in the US and England. Those who are offended by the
fusion of Hafez with modern Rock have not truly understood Hafez
or modern music.
For many Persian writers Hafez represents a sacred
part of our heritage. Yet, the large majority of the people who
take pride in Hafez have no clue about what Hafez really said.
They have relegated Hafez to the forbidden realm of the sacred,
a holy book that should forever remain closed. They have not
understood the only true sacred space that there is: our real lives
eternal search for freedom, dignity, and a better world.