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Don't make me sing about Allah!

More choir controversy in the news, this time about singing religious songs:
A student has left his high-school choir after the group sang an Islamic song which contained lyrics in praise of Allah. James Harper, a senior at Grand Junction High School in Colorado, protested when the after-school men's choir chose to sing 'Zikr', by Indian composer A.R. Rahman.
He said he thought it was inappropriate for the choir to sing 'an Islamic worship song' which includes the line 'There is no truth except Allah'. But when he complained to the local school district, they defended the choir director, Marcia Wieland - so Mr Harper left the group.
The student, a devout Christian, told KREX he thought that religious people should not be forced to sing the songs of other faiths. 'I don’t want to come across as a bigot or a racist, but I really don’t feel it is appropriate for students in a public high school to be singing an Islamic worship song,' he said.
Here is the damning part for the choir director:
The song, 'Zikr', is in Urdu, but the choir was issued with the English translation before they started rehearsing it.
How dare the choir director provide the translation!  He could have avoided a lot of trouble!
on February 20, 2012 5:36am
I suspect the young man hasn't the slightest problem, though, singing anything having to do with Christianity's beliefs - but I wonder if his sensitivities extend to singing anything which is not strictly in accord with his specific denominational Christian beliefs - so, if he happens not to agree with the Virgin Birth, would he opt out of singing about that?  Or the Resurrection?  Sadly, his attitude is typical of many who want to "pick and choose," to be, in this instance, a "buffet singer," similar in nature to "buffet Catholics" or "buffet Christians," a particularly and peculiarly insidious American form of intellectual and philosophical approach that says, quite simply, "I call myself a (fill in the blank); but I reserve at all times and places the right to refuse to do/believe/act upon the actions/beliefs of that group when it is personally inconvenient."  These people have, sadly, "convictions of convenience," and it is an odd form of intellectual and moral superiority, and singularly inappropriate in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society - but so sadly typical of much of what we are seeing today in the media, and among politicians in particular.  I wish him well; he's going to have a heck of a time finding a group that perfectly accords with his beliefs.  But I suppose that's what growing up is for:  to learn that the world does not conform itself to our convenient beliefs, but that we choose to deal gracefully with the imperfect belief systems around us, and respect the right of others to believe/act on those imperfect systems, and that we learn to deal with it.
on February 20, 2012 5:51am
And so the hate continues, and there is no peace...
on February 20, 2012 6:01am
 The culture wars are always goosed on by propaganda which separates peoples and defers discussion about real [economic/environmental] needs.
 Keep the faith.
on February 20, 2012 6:21am
This incident forces us to have a look at the elephant standing in the room.  Fact is, a large majority of great Western choral music is sacred and specifically Christian.
In recent years the issue of whether such religious texts should be sung in public schools has become a topic for debate. 
I'm 69, attended mostly public schools, and was brought up in a northeastern Methodist family, at a period in American history where a certain amount of "churching" was the norm,
but where immediate issues of conflict with other religious points of view were largely absent. So these questions simply did not exist. Personally I have never possessed much religious sentiment at all; perhaps I am agnostic, perhaps atheistic - I am indifferent to religious experience. Yet I have devoted a large part of my musical career to sacred music, organ, and choral with mostly sacred texts, both repertoire that I have performed by other composers, and also most of my choral works.  Is there a contradiction here? I don't think so, because it is not the underlying theology of this music which appeals to me, but the colossal artistic achievement, including the superb religious poetry that I have selected for my own musical settings.  We do not admire Parthenon on Acropolis because we have temples to the ancient Greek gods hidden in our bedroom closets, but because that building, and innumerable others from western classical civilization, are among humanity's greatest creations.
I deplore attempts to exclude performance of music with religious texts from public school programs, because a considerable majority of the greatest repertoire is precluded whose musical
value cannot be lost on interested students and their audiences.  What is needed, perhaps, is a policy of informing that the aesthetic quality of the music is why many of us perform and
listen to it.  
An Islamic song in praise of Allah?  This remains very distant from our western culture, and in the minds of many sharply conflicting as well. The student had every right to leave his
high-school choir.  At the same time, the choral director might have given the selection of this work more careful consideration before he/she programmed it in this particular context. 
on February 20, 2012 6:32am
As a Christian and an aspiring church musician, I also would have a problem singing a Muslim choral piece.  At the same time, if Mr. Harper had his way we would not be able to perform ANY sacred music, Christian, Muslim or otherwise.  I think it's in Mr. Harper's best interest, and the interest of the school's choral program, to sing the piece as if it were a work of art and not a worship song.  This is the rationale that choral musicians have used for years when they argue the importance of sacred Christian choral literature in a public school setting.
Travis Lowery
on February 20, 2012 1:00pm
"As a Christian and an aspiring church musician, I also would have a problem singing a Muslim choral piece."
So, I guess you'd also have a problem singing any music by Jewish composers such as Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms or Ernest Bloch's Sacred Service then, eh?  What about Jews singing Handel's Messiah or Bach's or Saint Saëns Christmas Oratorios?  Or does the standard only apply to Christians and doesn't apply to singers of other religious beliefs? When you sing or perform a piece that's part of another's heritage it's not mandatory that you plug into another's beliefs. This may be hard to grasp but for some of us the worth of the music trumps whatever belief is associated with that music.
on February 20, 2012 7:37am
Perhaps you want to stir the pot a bit yourself? :)
on February 20, 2012 7:46am
How dare the choir director provide the translation!  He could have avoided a lot of trouble!
Very funny.
There is no polyphonic choral tradition in the history of Islam, and in fact performing religious music in a concert setting is considered offensive to Muslims (what isn't?).  But I know some composers who are melding the western choral tradition to Islamic and/or Arabic sensibilities and practices.  So we might see more and more of this kind of conflict as the repertoire grows and the growing Muslim population in the U.S. asserts its influence.  
Immediately, one can't help but wonder how this student feels about whether or not it's appropriate for students in a public high school to be singing Christian worship songs.  The missing pieces of this story are how the piece was contextualized by the choir director, and also whether or not songs of Christian worship are ever sung at the school. Assuming they are, I'd say this kid needs an education on the constitution every bit as much as he needs exposure to music of other cultures and perspectives.  
on February 20, 2012 7:47am
You are not saying that by not translating the thing the ditector would not be challenged. He (a boy named Marcia) could have avoided trouble?
I don't understand why, if this is a big deal to anybody. If Mr. Harper were a Buddhist, would this be noteworthy? Just wondering!
on February 20, 2012 10:19am
Found this great performance of "Zikr" on YouTube:
What a fascinating, intriguing, refreshing change from the same-old, same-old Western-tradition fare.
on February 20, 2012 10:29am
Here is a local television news story about it (that I thought was fairly balanced):
The lyrics to the song are also provided in the post.
on February 20, 2012 10:55am
"Allah" is simply the Arabic translation of "God". The God of Islam is the same God of the Christians and the same God of the Jews.... all the God of Abraham. We are half-brothers. Perhaps some history background would help as we present music that may be misunderstood.
on February 21, 2012 7:33am
El /Elohim = Allah Etmologically cognate, as are much of the Theology.
Conflicts one grants in the organizational aspects of worship, and the roles of the Empires utilizing same.
Seek concord and respect.
on February 20, 2012 12:30pm

I am following this discussion with great interest. I love to sing, choral music of any type, from any century. In our culture, most of that is sacred, all the way from Palestrina to the present day. It's common knowledge that many composers throughout time have had to write music and words that did not agree with their personal beliefs: then, as now,composers depended on wealthy patrons or publishers who will sponsor and pay for their music. I understand that, but as an atheist it still makes me shudder to sing things like "Will thunder and lightning in ruin engulf them, may hell's fiery furnace in fury surround them, devour them, destroy them, defile them, confound them, bloodthirsty horde, the falsehearted traitor who murdered his Lord" ----- this from Bach's St Matthew Passion. These ones even worse-----"Thy right hand oh Lord hath dashed in pieces the enemy......Thou sentest forth thy wrath which consumed them as stubble.....with a blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea,-------thou didst blow with the wind, the sea covered them, they sank as lead in the might waters" etc etc.------this from Handel's Israel in Egypt. Yes, it's all biblical text, and yes, this is the way these master composers wrote it but it doesn't make it any easier to sing. I know it's hypocritical, but I find it less painful to sing in Latin or foreign translations------it's a bit easier to 'blank out' the meaning of the words! That's not to say that I agree with the chap who thought the whole problem would never have surfaced had the text of Zikr not been translated!!! Mr Harper will also be interested to know that some of the most powerful and stunning liturgical masses were written by professed non-believers, agnostics and atheists, amongst them Schumann, Wagner, Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, Debussy, Berlioz, Mozart.....the list is a long one.

I know there are many atheist choral singers out there like myself. I've asked others how they deal with this issue and most just say "Just ignore the words and enjoy the music!" That's my basic strategy but I still find myself gritting my teeth on occasion. The young man who refused to sing 'There is no truth except Allah' has a long and arduous learning curve ahead of him if he wishes to continue choral singing!

on February 20, 2012 12:40pm
As an non-religious person who conducts beautiful music from many religions and cultures, what I find interesting about programming this piece of music is not the religious aspect but the actual music itself.   In my opinion - and it's just my opinion - I don't think it has enough musical merit and would not have programmed it for that reason alone.   
One of the reasons that non-religious singers love singing music from centuries of Christian music is because of its "colossal artistic achievement" - as James Johnson said above.    I would have no hesitation in having my singers sing a gorgeous work even if it had Islamic words - but since there is no tradition of beautiful Islamic polyphony this isn't going to happen.
on February 20, 2012 1:16pm
The question should ALWAYS be:  Does it have musical integrity?  If so, it's worth doing.  I think it is the height of arrogance for choral directors to insist that students sing about Christian beliefs and then say they would REFUSE to sing a song in praise of Allah! 
  I had an incident several years ago when I played the second movement of David Fanshawe's AFRICAN SANCTUS to a World Music class (which juxtaposes a Christian chant with an African muslim text).  I was confronted by two Pakistani students who objected because they felt their parents would object.  However, several Pakistani students came up to me two days later and apologized for the two, claiming they were hypocrites and not living the good Muslim life anyway, and had no business objecting to what a teacher presented in class.  At the time I felt a bit nervous, as it was not too long after 9/11/2001.  Ignorance begets prejudice, and prejudice can produce hate.  We all need to work to combat ignorance and  prejudice - not only within ourselves, but among our students.  So Yes, if the piece in question has musical integrity, then it has a place in choral performance. 
on February 20, 2012 3:05pm
James Harper, You could have effected a knock out punch if you had said you were an atheist. Many changes have been made for the hurt feelings of only one of some "belief systems."
You disturbed a hornet's nest by saying your Christian beliefs were offended. And you went to higher authorities who, perhaps, fearing anti-Christian sentiment, acted accordingly.
To the other students the bottom line now is, Islam is fine, but you, James Harper, are a bigot. Be calm. You'll be OK. JUst be sure of your information as you stand for your convictions.
on February 20, 2012 7:53pm
If James Harper finds that the subject matter of Zikr is incompatible with his Christian values, he has every right to refuse to participate in the performance of it. It is clear in this situation that Mr. Harper's musical integrity is deeply connected to his faith, since it appears that to him, singing something is the most profound expression of what he believes, hence the refusal to sing a text reflecting theology he does not believe. Anyone who suggests that he should just sing and "not think" is suggesting that he turn off the very part of his brain (or his heart) that makes music-making such a personal, expressive and rewarding experience for him.
This problem does beg the question that if Christians shouldn't be obligated to sing music of other faiths, then why should non-Christians be obligated to sing Christian music? The answer is that nobody is obligated to sing anything they don't want to. Life is not fair, and the world is far from perfect. This is the reality of a multicultural society. We sometimes have to agree to disagree.
on February 21, 2012 6:43am
To everyone teaching choir in a public school, put in the course description that the course is not just a singing class, but also a study of music of other cultures and religions.  When/if this kid goes to college, he will be required to take courses dealing with other cultures and religions, minority studies, etc.  Speaking of college, the Colorado State University Choir sang this song on a concert just last October.  Go to Youtube.  A week ago I heard Cantus sing it, and it was the high point of the concert for me.  That group is full of men of faith, overwhelmingly Christian.
"And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd." - John 10:16, American King James Version. This boy's intolerance will grow unless it is nipped in the bud.
Love and acceptance overwhelming was message of the man who 2000 years ago inspired this boy's religion.  This kid is exhibiting the same kind of zealotous attitude as the Jihadists of the world. Unfortunatley, zealots are everywhere. More unfortunate, we engender them.  It is human nature to vilify "the other."  It is divine to transcend our nature. 
on February 21, 2012 12:50pm
Whoa!!  That's a bit much - to compare this young man's atitude to that of the( Islamic) Jihadists is much too strong, in my opinion. Again, if he were a Buudahist, a celabrater of Wicca, a Scientologist, etc. , there would be no commotion about his stand. Rather than praise him for his courage of his convictions, though they differ from some, he has been discussed illy!!
on February 22, 2012 2:25pm
I wonder how this student would feel about singing "crucify Him!!" in Bach's Passion or "Baal, we cry to thee, hear and answer us!" in Elijah.  ;)
on February 23, 2012 6:14am
Context may not be everything, but it counts for a lot, no? Bach wasn't setting his own convictions to music with "Crucify Him!" On the other hand, supposing some composer did write a piece titled "Crucify Him!" as an expression of christophobia, then yes, I suspect this teen would have misgivings -- however much his critics might demand that he sing it to experience other points of view.
on February 23, 2012 5:45am
I'm so glad that our discussions in this forum encompass more than the nuts and bolts of quarter-notes and half-notes. Please allow me a little push back here:
Given some comments here, am I to conclude that the critics of this teen would never themselves object to singing any sentiment whatsoever, however at odds with their own convictions? Never, ever? Really?
Myself, I can't imagine demanding that a Jewish student sing effusive praises of Jesus Christ as eternal Son and Word of God incarnate. Nor can I imagine accusing her of hatred and bigotry if she declined. Welcome her to sing it? Sure. Expect or demand? No.
Have plenty of Jews sung such music? Of course. We all make decisions about what we can and can't live with. (Unless we can live with everything without exception.) Some people have a more tender conscience than others. That doesn't make them bigots. And in my opinion, choir directors are in no position to make ex cathedra pronouncements about the rightness or wrongness of this teen's theology.
Let me come at this another way: If Bach were alive today, would you (if you were in a position of power to do so) demand that he devote a portion of his time to setting Muslim liturgical texts? Would you insist that a Muslim composer spend some of her efforts on setting texts affirming that Jesus really did (contrary to Muslim theology) die on the cross and that his death (contrary to Muslim theology) atoned for sin? I know nothing about the composer of "Zikr." I will assume, at least for argument's sake, that he's a devout Muslim who takes his faith seriously. If he were a composer in residence at your institution, would you compel him to set the "Te Deum"? Would you accuse all of the above of bigotry if they declined? Are composers alone to be allowed to maintain their own theological integrity?
But back to the first question: The critics would sing or program absolutely anything -- no exceptions -- no matter how repugnant to them? All for the sake of a good tune and an alternative point of view?
on February 25, 2012 10:02am
Hi All,

This is such an intersting story and post. I currently teach at a public high school where we perform many types of music both secular and sacred. When ever I choose sacred liturature, I try to never choose repertoire that has lines of text such as, "He bled and died for my sin," "My personal Lord and savior," etc. (However, one exception is the Credo portion of a major work)

I think the thing that upset the student the most was the line, "There is no truth except Allah." In my opinion, this text is too reflective of a personal belief system. Songs that tell the stories and histories of religions are easier to present to students of varying religious backgrouds. They are not necessarily singing about their personal beliefs, merely relating a story to the audience.

In any case, it's a fine line when you teach in the public school system.