In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful
Each year I attend the ISNA Convention, I have specific “consumer goals.” Mostly, I intend to buy books (which is what I did last year). This year, however, I made it a point to purchase music CDs, with a particular mind to buy Dawud Wharnsby’s most recent album Poets and the Prophet. When I bought it, I had a little bit of hesitation (what if I like only one song? I asked myself). Yet, I know Dawud personally and love him very much, so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
On the way home from the conference on Friday night (I had to work in the hospital the next morning), I listened to it…and was blown away. Rarely have I ever listened to an album where I loved every single song. This is one such album. From the very first song, “You are the only one,” I was transported to that wonderful place where mind and spirit are released from the shackles of life on earth and the hypocrisies of the human condition. Ever since purchasing the CD, I have listened to it almost non-stop, taking in the lyrics, his voice, and the wonderful range of instruments and sounds. One can hear a number of musical genres on this album, including R&B, Folk, Classical, and music from the East. Along with Wharnsby, the album features double bass legend Danny Thompson (UK), award winning Canadian songwriter Stephen Fearing, world famous sitar master Irshad Khan, R&B vocalist Priyesh Shukla, and top Canadian oboist James Mason.
No two songs are alike, and thus each song is a fresh and unique musical experience. The album even features one of Dawud’s “oldies” about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), without any instruments. It brought tears to my eyes, because it took me to Medina at the time of the death of the Noble Messenger. Even though I knew the song well, it was still as fresh and new as the others songs on the album. I do not think I can pick a favorite song on this album, but I really love “Follow” and “Everyday.” They are quintessential love songs, but they are spiritually pure and do not appeal to base desires, like so many love songs we hear today. In fact, I wonder if most of this album was not inspired by his love for his wife.
“Prophet for Profit” is a powerful song about illegitimate religious and political leaders. In the song, he sings: Behind the passion I hold/there are millions like me/deaf to your definitions of democracy/and we don’t want your twisted spirituality/and we don’t want your bloody hands on the scriptures we read. He could not have spoken better on my behalf. At the end of the song, he says: Behind the cities you free, there’s an oil leak…beyond the city’s debris, there is the bed where you sleep in peace…How can you rest in peace? Very powerful indeed. This entire album leaves the listener spiritually uplifted and renewed, which is what music should do to the listener.
Writing a song, starts with just being open to the world around me and allowing myself to be impacted by life experiences.The next step is to carry a journal and pen with me at all times. Life, thoughts, experiences and emotions pass by quickly and if we are not in the habit of recognizing their beauty and ugliness, then capturing them to preserve them or deal with them, it is easy to forget them or push them deep into our minds. Many of my friends who are composers and musicians think “musically” – that is to say, they think in “sound”. I am much more of a writer, poet and lyricist. Most of the songs I have written — almost all — were written as poems first, then set to music afterwards.
Ever since his days as a singer producing albums for Soundvision, I have been praying to God that Dawud Wharnsby produces an album like this one. In the last few years, a number of Islamic/Muslim bands have sprung up, frequently making their debuts in the ISNA entertainment show. A lot of times, they are 3-5 men, wearing Kufis and bluejeans, and singing “Allahu-Akbar” or “La Ilaha Illa Allah.” There is nothing wrong with this, do not misunderstand me, and many of them are very good, but I frequently find myself wanting more.
British singer Sami Yusuf has finally broken out of the “percussion only” shackle and produced an excellent album in My Ummah. Yet, again, the songs are overtly Islamic (for the most part), and I think we can do more as a faith community. We need more artists that sing real songs, with real music, and not just “Allahu-Akbar” while playing a guitar. It is not easy to do, but Dawud Wharnsby (and perhaps Yusuf Islam) is one of the few Muslim artists that has mastered the ability to produce beautiful music imbued with Islamic values. His music is fully Muslim, yet there is hardly an “Allah” or “Subhanallah” in the entire album.
This melding of Islam and music can be seen embodied in the song “The Poets,” which I am certain was inspired by the following verses at the end of Surah 26 (The Poets): And as for the poets, those who are lost in grievous error would follow them. Are you not aware that they roam confusedly through all the valleys and that they say [so often] what they do not do? (26:224-226) In fact, I thought I had heard the word “Allah” in the song “Midnight,” but I said to myself “no way”…until I read the lyrics and there it was! It was so beautfilly done, and it made me love the song so much more. Music such as that in Poets and the Prophet is an absolutely essential part of the building of an American Muslim culture, which is one of our primary tasks as we move forward in this next century.
Moreover, his music really challenges the mind, rather than numbs it like so much of the music popular in our country today. So many songs today either excite base desires, or speak of silly things. Dawud’s lyrics are deeply profound, and they can mean many things to many people, which is exactly what art should do. For example, in “Love Strong,” he writes: We all want a simple song/We all want to get along/We all want to just belong/We all want to know right from wrong/We all want to love and be loved strong. That’s deep, man. In the first track, “You Are The Only One,” Dawud sings: The jovial conductor is finished/with his music he’s in love and he’s insane/”Outstretch your mind” is his final message/This is the only sanctuary to remain.
What in God’s name does that mean? Who is the “jovial conductor”? I wish I had asked him when I said “Salam” to him at ISNA. Nevertheless, Poets and the Prophet is an excellent, excellent music album, and it is a shining example of what happens when Islam spreads its wings over music: it becomes something eminently beautiful that uplifts the soul. Listening to his music makes me reflect over the fact that – given that our religion conforms perfectly to the primordial nature of humanity, the fitrah – it is just inconceivable to me that Islam would simply come along and ban outright something which has been part of every society and every culture since the very beginnings of human history.