Music provides harmony among religions


Can music be confined to religious cubbyholes? Some well-meaning religious purists would say yes.

I love music. When someone suggests that it is not acceptable for a Muslim or a Hindu to listen to music from other religious traditions, I consider it blasphemy.

You can imagine how such zealots reacted a few years ago when I hosted an evening of bhajans — Hindu devotional music — at my home.

The music of India and Pakistan is rooted in ancient sacred writings called Vedas. Over many millennia, the music evolved. Along the way, it was adopted by many other religious traditions that had flourished in the Indian subcontinent.

While music has been part of Hindu religion and culture, puritanical strains in Islam have discouraged music in any form. Muslim Sufis were exceptions. They not only adopted but also nurtured Indian music.

Muslim Sufis took those traditions, used them for spiritual fulfillment, and preached the gospel of inclusiveness. In certain Sufi traditions, music became part of spiritual and devotional services.

The great 13th century Persian-Turkish poet and musician Rumi was the founder of the Sufi order of Whirling Dervishes. Sufis carried the tradition to India and used local instruments and devised new ones to continue it.

When I was in New Delhi in 1982, I visited the shrine of the 13th century Muslim Sufi Saint Nizamuddin Aulia. The shrine is a magnet for devotees of all religions who travel long distances to pay their respects and express their reverence.

In the courtyard of the shrine — in fact, a mosque — groups of singers from various religious traditions took turns to pay homage to him.

It is not uncommon in India, and to some extent in Pakistan, for people to visit the places of worship of other religions, and take part in the spiritual musical offerings at those places.

Compare this pluralism in the subcontinent with the cultural isolationism of the Taliban during their rule of Afghanistan in the 1990s. Among so many other dubious and questionable religious laws they imposed, they banned music.

Suddenly, a country with rich poetic and musical traditions going back millennia fell silent. Before the Taliban took over, a visitor walking along the streets and through the bazaars of Kabul would be greeted with melodious Pashtu and Persian music.

The extreme xenophobia of the Taliban is at odds with some of the sacred traditions of the Sikh religion. Garanth Sahib, the sacred book of the Sikh religion, includes the poetry not only of the religion’s early spiritual leaders, but also of the 12th century Muslim Sufi Baba Farid and the 15th century Hindu weaver Kabir.

Muslim devotees listen with rapt attention to the poetry of Baba Farid sung at his shrine in Lahore. But they never bother to enter a Sikh place of worship to listen to the same poetry.

There is much similarity among Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh devotional songs. They all speak of ultimate reality and the search for spiritual guidance. Musical instruments may be different, and tongues dissimilar, but the essence is the same.

To make things more confusing for religious purists and zealots, some of the leading poets and singers of India and Pakistan have written devotional poetry and have sung devotional songs outside their religious traditions. A leading Urdu, Hindi, and English poet, Satyapal Anand, and the late singer Kamala Jharia are among hundreds of such poets and singers.

Music and poetry transcend religious and cultural boundaries. Happily, there are people in India and Pakistan and here in Toledo who enjoy listening to devotional music from other religious traditions.

It was in the spirit of accepting others and enjoying each other’s music that a group of about 60 Indians and Pakistanis gathered recently to enjoy the religious and secular music of the subcontinent.

Among the superb performers were vocalists Vandita Prasad (Hindu), Maseeh Rahman and Imran Andrabi (Muslims), percussionist Kabir Singh (Sikh) on tabla, and Mander Phadke (Hindu) on harmonium.

Though it was not required, all guests, before they entered the private venue, left their religious identities at the door.

Who says rainbows don’t appear during a snowfall? It was a magical evening.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: