Indeed man is in loss,
Except those who have faith and do righteous deeds, and enjoin one another to [follow] the truth, and enjoin one another to patience.
— Quran, “Al-Asr: The Declining Day”
God has never sent a prophet without giving him a beautiful voice. — Hadith of the Prophet
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I am a Muslim. Minutes after I was born at the Flushing Hospital in Queens, New York City, my father whispered the shahadah into my ears: La ilaha il-Allah — There is no God but God. I was introduced to Islam with the world, and the rhythm of La ilaha il-Allah took the place of my mother’s heartbeat. All other experiences were subsequent to the rhythms of Islamic verse.
“I was introduced to Islam with the world, and the rhythm of La ilaha il-Allah took the place of my mother’s heartbeat.”
In my childhood home of Kennesaw, Georgia and in cities across South Asia, I’ve heard the shahadah repeated daily in the azaan, which calls believers to prayer. No one disputes the beauty of the sound — the strong and sonorous voice of the muezzin casting a spell on its surroundings. At home, recorded azaans are played back by apps that have re-placed miniature mosque-shaped alarm clocks that double as home decorations. But their intention is the same: to invite us to prayer regularly, five times a day.
I am a musician. My songs take on new lives apart from me the moment they are shared. The long process of songwriting is how I try to do justice to what begins as a melody in a dream. My task as a composer is simply to submit to the dream, guiding it to structure and feeling it into form, through a private intuition that is informed by deep traditions. I may not know why singing songs — even when I’m alone — brings me such pleasure, but sharing them with others comes from a desire to make something that can find a life far beyond my own.
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Make beautiful your voices while reciting the Quran. — Hadith
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Like most Muslims, I’ve memorized many verses from the Quran in their original Arabic, despite not understanding the language. My mother tongues are English and Urdu, the language my parents grew up speaking in Pakistan. My mother, grandmother, and Islamic Sunday school teachers all took part in teaching me how to recite the Quran as a child without ever simultaneously learning to understand it. Sunday school was at al-Hedaya Mosque, right off the highway in a converted house in nearby Marietta, since we didn’t have one in Kennesaw. I often cried before being dragged to lessons and dreaded going for years, unable to understand the point of it all.
But my inability to understand the meanings of the words encouraged me to appreciate the poetic, musical qualities of the sounds and structures of Quranic Arabic, thankful for the rhythms and melodies I internalized through countless hours of recitation. I also gained an aesthetic appreciation for the visual beauty of Arabic calligraphy, as inscribed in mosques, homes, and Qurans all across the world. Islam is a supremely aesthetic religion. Between the acts of recitation and calligraphy emerges an enormous expanse of sonic and visual beauty.
“Between the acts of recitation and calligraphy emerges an enormous expanse of sonic and visual beauty.”
Sharing my songs with friends and loved ones is one of the last steps in the composition process. Private devotional practice becomes a public performance, which extends beyond me to listeners whose receptive faces are sometimes the greatest feedback. At this point little, if anything, will change, but the shared moment of reflection helps settle any lingering concerns before setting the song in stone.
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Do they not then reflect on the Quran? Nay, on the hearts there are locks. — Quran, 47:24
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By middle school, I delved deep into online commentaries and translations of the Quran. 9/11 ensured that my faith could not remain a casual concern. What did it mean to be Muslim when your religion was how you were other-ed by peers, and even by other people of brown skin who distanced themselves from you as a precaution?
“What did it mean to be Muslim when your religion was how you were other-ed by peers, and even by other people of brown skin who distanced themselves from you as a precaution?”
To be questioned and harassed about my religious background meant I needed to have my theological bearings in order, and a devout practice followed as a result. Part of Islam’s beauty for me has always been the fervor it induces in its believers. I wavered for a time in high school and college after finding certain fatwas and orthodoxy troubling, but the intensity for ideas — of submission to discipline, the Oneness of existence, a struggle to find the Undefinable — never faded.
Back in Sunday school, I had found it unsettling whenever teachers batted down my questions for going too far. They deemed innovation, known as bid’a, to be wicked and harmful to our community. We were to unconditionally trust the Elders before us, and take the word of God as final. Their Islam allowed for no ambiguity, far unlike the Islam I began to find through my own studies.
I stumbled upon the idea of ijtihad as I dove deeper into translations and commentaries of the Quran while in high school. Related to the infamous jihad, ijtihad literally means the act of exertion or endeavoring. Ijtihad in a religious context refers to finding answers and asking new questions of the religion that reflect one’s own time and place.
“Ijtihad in a religious context refers to finding answers and asking new questions of the religion that reflect one’s own time and place.”
The finest thinkers in any civilization carve out their own world of habits and actions, each of which is pursued not for its own sake — like Muslims fasting in Ramadan or reflecting on the Quran — but as a means of perfecting their lives as a whole. They leave behind noble legacies and systematic traditions that will become guides for their descendants. Generations connect through the ijtihad of practice, and adapt these guides, reinterpreting inherited forms with fresh personal vision or experience. The souls of one’s ancestors are reawakened through their heirs.
Ijtihad in this way resembles the same kind of delight that Islamic philosopher and mystic al-Farabi proclaimed as emerging from the discipline, refinement, and habit of creative, critical practice. He came to a balanced view on the nature vs. nurture debate with a belief that exceptional individuals are not only born with exceptional ability, but also require an exceptional dedication to self-refinement.
In other words, a child becomes a prophet ready for divine inspiration only once he or she works the natural, passive intellect into an active intellect through years of acquiring knowledge and perfecting spiritual practice. This transformation is akin to Aristotle’s perfect union of existing matter and potential form; here, ijtihad becomes the personal union of both theoretical and practical faculties that manifest as ideals of the soul’s rational faculty.
So the idea of bid’a is then not a ban on change, but a criterion for fresh interpretations of texts so that they fit Islam’s core principles in response to contemporary life. Scholar Umar Farooq Abd-Allah points to this as a way of balancing creativity with continuity in tradition. Limits do not hamper creativity, but give it a basis and direction from which to bloom.
“Limits do not hamper creativity, but give it a basis and direction from which to bloom.”
Every Muslim must practice ijtihad to determine what school or scholar they should follow. Islam is a religion without any central authority — there is no Pope — so ijtihad is vital for communities to reevaluate how inherited standards apply in a new time and place.
Putting together all of the parts to a song is a long process, even after I have found the melody and initial structure. Looped sounds at this stage become my touchstones for establishing rhythm and evoking memory. Sources range from field recordings made during my travels through South Asia to old guitar demos from my personal archives. Loops from these times conjure an immediate comfort through familiarity alongside a foreignness that grows when you repeat anything for long enough.
The fertile space in between — for example the interplay of train and bell rhythms, or the ambient sound of a Muslim neighborhood in Lucknow, India — offers a sonic world safe to play in but also wide open for surprises. Knowing these sounds intimately on their own terms but in the context of my life is how they come to function like an instrument, with an instinctive feel so that intuition guides the compositional process before intellect.
Completing the song only feels close once the very last details come into play. And sometimes it may take months of reflection before I feel secure sprinkling just the right mix of ornamentation on top. Layers of noise as accents, found sounds as narrative transitions, and effects like reverb, distortion, delay — these are what make a song coalesce and grant digital recordings the illusion of existing in physical space, possible only by time and my patience.
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Recite the Quran in a measured pace. — Quran, 73:4
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After frequenting a mosque for long enough, I become attuned to its particular way of reading prayers. The slightest variation from routine is immediately noticeable. And variation is a praiseworthy practice. Habits are not ends in and of themselves, but serve as roots for a lifetime of learning. Slight changes to solid foundations are how one perfects the art of reciting God’s Word.
In my religious practice, I try to habituate personal reflection about the style of my conduct and the substance of its meaning so that such inquiry becomes instinct, just like prayers or the shahadah. This is how I stay alert, focus on beautifying my expression, and remember why any of this matters in the first place.
“This is how I stay alert, focus on beautifying my expression, and remember why any of this matters in the first place.”
I introduce my melody to other sonic materials once it feels secure in substance and structure. I may down-tune my guitar to write a bass line or sing new melodies that become accidental harmonies. Finding the tempo and rhythm of the song-to-be is itself a devotional practice that takes patience and a calm hand.
To force one’s judgment on material too early will stilt the feeling that birthed the song. And playing with the song in different moods and settings is an intuitive way to find its rhythm. Once the song pulses through my life like a ritual of its own, my body pinches and pulls at every tempo shift, even if just a few beats per minute, before settling in to tell me it’s found just the right groove.
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Say: Travel through the earth and see how Allah did originate creation. — Quran, 29:20
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Islam insists on strength of belief, discipline, and self-reflection. Islamic philosophers like Averroes assert that this is exactly the point of the vivid stories told to us in the Quran — to put a memorable face on an otherwise complex ethical framework. Consider the tradition of Asma-ul-Husna, the 99 beautiful names of God: The Sublime, the Beautiful, the Patient, amongst many. The list points to God’s Oneness as the first manifestation of the ultimate beyond, unique and above all perceptual powers, as well as all subsequent manifestations of the Divine.
Continue reading the rest of Zain Alam’s essay, excerpted here by permission, online in full at Miami Rail.
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Zain Alam is an artist whose work explores South Asian artistic traditions, Islamic history, and diasporic identity in the U.S. He is a graduate student in Islamic studies at Harvard University, a BHQFU Fellow at ArtCenter/South Florida, and his NYC-based recording project Humeysha has been featured in Noisey, Fader, and The Village Voice.