By Ziauddin Sardar
For the last 25 years, my wife has been doing semi-voluntary work at a special school near where we live. It is a small school for pupils with physical disability or delicate health needs who need a structured and particularly supportive learning environment.
Every year, the school holds a special assembly to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan. And every year, without fail, there is a common question: why are Muslims so boring?
The displays at the Ramadan assembly are copies of the Qurâ€™an, a couple of prayer mats, and an odd poster. There is the standard, solemn recitation of the Qurâ€™an. In contrast, the Diwali assembly is a riot of colour, costume, dance and music. Ditto for Chinese New Year. Not surprisingly, the pupils enjoy themselves thoroughly and, unlike the Ramadan event, look forward to them eagerly.
I sympathise with the children. We Muslims are not very good at expressing joy. We have reduced our religion to a set of rituals which we enact like robots at every occasion. When Muslims want to celebrate something, they go and offer some extra prayers! Indeed, there are some amongst us who have even outlawed all sources of pleasure and delight. Every time some unfortunate sods in the Muslim world are lumbered with an â€˜Islamic governmentâ€™, music is declared to be Haram, cinemas are closed, dance and theatre are banned, and art and imagination are outlawed. No wonder, the rest of the world finds Muslims somewhat lacking in humanity.
No society, whatever it holds to be true, can survive without culture in all its multiple manifestations. Prayer and rituals may make us pious and righteous, but it is cultural expression that really manifests our full humanity. To say that all we need is prayer and rituals is to diminish ourselves as human beings. As human beings, we have an innate need for cultural nourishment, an innate desire to express our most sublime thoughts, emotions and feelings. Moreover, we also need to be entertained, to feel good about ourselves, to be jolted about our shortcomings, and to communicate joy and contentment. But how we do this when we look down on all forms of cultural expression?
Consider, for example, the absurd suggestion that music is Haram. If this were true, then God has ordained that we should ignore and suppress something that He, in His Wisdom, choose to give us in the first place: the beauty of sound. In other words, we are being asked to overlook one of our five vital senses, one-fifth of what makes us human. The suggestion also belies Islamic history whose tributaries and valleys were alive with the sound of music. Indeed, one of the most common musical instruments, the guitar, was invented in Muslim Spain. Not to mention the role played by music in Sufism, one of the major strands of Islamic thought, where music is used routinely for mystical elevation, for getting close to God.
Equally absurd is the suggestion that Islam outlaws images. Hence, cinema and television, painting and sculpture, and other forms of art that rely on images should be banned from Islamic societies. Islam shuns idolatry. But to suggest Muslims are so stupid that they will start worshipping cinematic or sculpted images is genuinely dumbfounding. Those who insist that Muslims can exist without images in a world awash with images - where images are the dominant and most effective way of communicating messages, portraying people and societies, and displaying power and privilege – are inviting us to commit suicide.
We need to realise that culture is power. Indeed, culture is the most prominent source of power in the contemporary world. Look at the impact of Bollywood, not just in Britain, but all over the world. Note how Hollywood maintains the domination of American culture throughout the world; and note also how Hong Kong action films and Chinese art cinema are transforming Hollywood. Consider the impact of serious and popular European fiction on the globe. Think how art has been used in so many societies to highlight their shortcoming and express dissent. Notice how music and dance bring people together everywhere.
Culture is also a source of resistance. We can only resist the proliferation of the globalised mass culture of McDonald and Coca Cola variety with our own cultural products. But if we donâ€™t produce anything ourselves, if we shun all forms of art and architecture, film and fiction, dance and theatre, then we have nothing that could offer resistance. Except perhaps our victimhood in which we already wallow at every opportunity.
Finally, cultural expression can be a way of thanking God. When I listen to Quawwali or sitar, or watch the latest masterpiece of the Iranian cinema, or look at particularly uplifting work of art, or read an insightful novel, I cannot but exclaim: â€˜Alhamdulillahâ€™. God, in His Infinite Mercy, has endowed us with so many wonderful ways to enlighten and enrich ourselves. And so many diverse ways to â€˜seeâ€™ His signs and feel His presence.
The suppression of cultural expression is a form of ungratefulness. It is the denial of Godâ€™s grace and cultural bounty. This is why the most obnoxious Muslims you will meet are so diminished, so lacking in appreciation of culture, so constipated with their disgust and disdain of cultural expression.
At the end, we are so boring because we insist on being truncated human beings. And because we are so ungrateful to God.