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Egypt’s Debate on Music in Islam: Between Religious Austerity and Spiritual Ecstasy

May 4, 2023
Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troupe (source: Wikimedia Commons)

In Youssef Chahine’s 1997 historical film Al Maseer (‘Destiny’), twelfth century Caliph Yaqub Al-Mansur’s youngest son, Abdallah (Hani Salama) is recruited by Islamist extremists, who launch war on Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (Nour Al-Sherif) and the band of bohemian artists who rally behind him in support.  Amidst the ideological battle, Abdallah finds himself torn between the Islamists’ austere views and his lifelong passion for music and dance — an internal conflict which culminates in the film’s most powerful musical sequence.  The character’s journey points to a larger debate in the Muslim world surrounding the status of music in Islam.  I lived happily indifferent to this debate until last April, when I shared a list of Ramadan concert recommendations, under which several people expressed the view that music was contrary to the spiritual ethos of fasting from drink, food, and activities which are deemed sinful. A few days later, just before Eid, a widely shared thread on the topic stirred controversy on Twitter. The author voiced her shock at the number of Muslims who attend concerts despite what she perceived as an obvious religious prohibition.  Reading through the replies, I wondered:…

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