Muslims in Indian classical music today

 As a supplicant before a deity, I am immensely attracted to Bhairav [Shiva]. And, as a lover, I am obsessed with Bhairavi [Parvati, Shiva’s consort]… The average Hindu is conditioned by the caricature of Bhairav. I wish I, a devout Moslem, could describe to him my vision of Bhairav’s infinite form and awesome power! I would say the same for Bhairavi. How many different facets of her persona I have experienced!

— Ustad Vilayat Khan, a famous 20th-century sitar player, talking about the ragas Bhairav and Bhairavi, which are named after Hindu deities

Indian classical music is generally viewed in terms of two distinct traditions: Hindustani music, which developed in the northern area of the Indian subcontinent, and Carnatic music, which took shape in the south. In both traditions, abstract improvisation is given great importance, but “at another level [Indian classical music] was (and in south India, remains) linked in various ways to Hinduism, with its [devotional] song texts, quasi-religious Sanskrit theoretical treatises, and its traditional associations with Hindu cosmology, mythology, and epistemology” (Manuel 121).

However, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Muslim rule in north India began to alter the character of Hindustani music: its performance, “like its patronage, came to be dominated by Muslims—specifically, hereditary professionals,” and although Hindustani music retained its devotional song texts, it “came to be regarded less as a form of prayer and devotion than as one of the secular ‘fine arts’” (Manuel 122, 124).

I am a student of Carnatic violin, and throughout my childhood, I associated Carnatic music with devotional compositions and performances held in Hindu temples. Hindustani music, on the other hand, conjured up ideas of Persian and Afghan music and instruments, of the magnificent Mughal courts, and of a unique fusion of Islamic and Hindu musical traditions. Yet all but one of the Hindustani musicians I have seen in concerts have been Hindus. Many of these musicians, such as Pandit Jasraj, performed Hindu devotional songs alongside abstract improvisational music. Even the Muslim musicians I read and hear about seem to describe their music in an explicitly Hindu manner, making little reference to their personal faith:

He interlocked the notes of the Raga Yaman and when he came to the fourth note … he said, “See, this is the psychic form of Raga Yaman. In this form Saraswati Mata [goddess of knowledge and arts] is … bedecking herself in all her glory. She has put on her beautiful saree and jewellery, she combs her hair and adorns it with flowers. Finally, she puts kohl in her eyes and that is the [fourth note] in Yaman.”

— A biography of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, a famous 20th-century Hindustani vocalist (Gilani 118)

Given the history of Hindustani music as an art form that was “secularized” in Muslim courts and further developed by Muslim musicians, why do so many contemporary Muslim performers of Hindustani music choose to publicly link their music to Hinduism?

This question can be answered by exploring the modern history of classical music in north India, beginning in the pre-colonial era, during which Hindustani music was dominated by Muslim hereditary musicians and their gharana system. This system was first challenged by intellectuals who sought to modify Hindustani music in accordance with British colonial ideas of modernity. The parallel emergence of Hindu nationalism in India posed another threat to Muslim musicians, as classical music became associated with Hindu devotional practices.

Upon the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, nation-building efforts in Pakistan renounced Hindustani music in favor of more Islamic alternatives such as qawwali, thus paving the way for Hindustani music to be explicitly linked to Hinduism in India. The world of Hindustani music has been shaped in the past century by colonialism and both Hindu and Islamic nationalism, with important consequences for how its Muslim performers present themselves today.

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“Idgah” – my introduction to Islam

I think some of my earliest interactions with Christianity and Buddhism were through visiting their houses of worship: an ornate Chinese Buddhist temple near the Microsoft campus, a Unitarian church in which the local bhajan group held interfaith “Sunday school” and weekly bhajans. However, I didn’t visit a mosque until I was sixteen, and I didn’t have any Muslim friends until I reached high school. My childhood encounters with Islam were limited to singing bhajans which made reference to Allah and the Prophet Muhammad, and talking to a Persian family who also attended the Sunday school and bhajans.

I think “Idgah” was my first introduction to Islam, even though it doesn’t discuss much of the religion itself. It’s just a simple story of a young boy and his day celebrating Eid, originally written in Hindi by the Hindustani author Munshi Premchand (1880-1936); it’s also one of his most well-known stories. Here’s the English translation I grew up reading (written by another great modern Indian writer, Khushwant Singh):

Idgah art
Illustration by Jagdish Joshi

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Bridging the Carnatic-Hindustani, Hindu-Muslim divide

Indian classical music is made up of two traditions: Hindustani music, from North India, and Carnatic music, from the south. Although these traditions share concepts like raga and tala (rhythm), in many ways they are quite separate from each other. However, from time to time, Carnatic-Hindustani interactions do occur — and when they do, the results are fascinating.

Raga Hamsadhwani

Hamsadhwani (literally, “sound of the swan”) is a popular raga that is common to both Carnatic and Hindustani music; during any Carnatic-Hindustani jugalbandi (duet), the musicians will inevitably perform that raga at some point.

Vathapi Ganapatim is one of the most popular compositions in Carnatic music, set in Hamsadhwani. It’s dedicated to the god Ganesha, and was composed by Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775–1835) in Sanskrit. The following video is M.S. Subbulakshmi’s rendition of this song (at the age of 81!). Pay attention to the first line of the song: vathapi ganapatim bhaje, “I bow to Ganesha of the Vatapi/Badami temple.”

Now, listen to this next video, starting at 1:30. Pay attention to the first line of the song: laagi lagan pati sakhi sang, “I feel joy with my lord and my friends.”

If you listen carefully, you’ll hear that both songs have the same tune!

This second song was composed by the Hindustani singer Aman Ali Khan (1888–1953), who belonged to the the Bhendi Bazaar gharana of Bombay. Upon hearing Vathapi Ganapatim, he decided to compose a khayal in Hindi using that same melody. However, he pays homage to Dikshitar, the original composer of the tune, in the first line of his song.

Going back to the Carnatic song, the first line is vathapi ganapatim bhajeham. If we look at the first line of Aman Ali Khan’s song, the first line contains the word “ganapati” in the exact same spot: laagi lagan pati sakhi sang. How clever is that?

This article contains other examples, and goes more in-depth into the religious syncretism that characterizes Indian classical music, as well as so many other aspects of South Asian cultures. The author talks extensively about how Muslim musicians composed songs to Hindu deities, and vice versa.

Ustad Vilayat Khan

On that religious note, I want to include a short excerpt of an interview conducted with the great sitar player, Ustad Vilayat Khan (1928 – 2004). He was asked, “Which are the ragas you feel you have charged with the entire power of your soul; ragas for which you will be long remembered?”

However, his answer isn’t about music at all. He describes Bhairav and Bhairavi, which are Hindustani ragas, but also names for the terrifying forms of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. The Ustad’s answer blends music with spirituality:

Bhairav is awesome, Bhairavi is compelling. The average Hindu is conditioned by the caricature of Bhairav [Bhairav, as the destructive form of Shiva, is portrayed through graphic and fearful iconography]. I wish I, a devout Muslim, could describe to him my vision of Bhairav’s infinite form and awesome power! I would say the same for Bhairavi (Parvati). How many different facts of her persona I have experienced!

O Allah! By how many different names, and in how many different forms, you manifest yourself to the seeker! It is we who give You different names, according to our limited capacity to understand You. All of them are names in praise of Your Glory. You are masculine; You are also feminine. You are the Love; You are also the Beloved. You are the Ascetic; and you are also the Emperor.

Sitting in this room, you and I talk glibly about my recording of one raga, or another recording of another raga, as landmarks. But all this reflects our limited understanding. Nothing limits the Almighty who inspires all this. Who, amongst mortals, has yet measured the heights to which He can elevate man’s endeavours?

The notes following the interview read: “He handles the apparent incongruity of himself, a Muslim obsessed by a Hindu deity, with total innocence. He is responding to an archetype pregnant with immense appeal within the culture. In explaining this vision verbally, he swings effortlessly between Hindu and Islamic ideas, emphasizing the irrelevance of religion to man’s artistic and spiritual life.”


“Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against ISIS/terrorism?”


I’ve encountered this question from family members, in passing conversations among strangers, and especially online. The answer, of course, is “THEY ARE!” (Google it if you don’t believe me.) One such effort just took place in Morocco, where Muslim scholars and intellectuals from more than 120 countries gathered to reaffirm the rights of non-Muslim minorities throughout the Muslim world. The following text is the Marrakesh Declaration:

In the Name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate

Executive Summary of the Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities

25th-27th January 2016

WHEREAS, conditions in various parts of the Muslim World have deteriorated dangerously due to the use of violence and armed struggle as a tool for settling conflicts and imposing one’s point of view;

WHEREAS, this situation has also weakened the authority of legitimate governments and enabled criminal groups to issue edicts attributed to Islam, but which, in fact, alarmingly distort its fundamental principles and goals in ways that have seriously harmed the population as a whole;

WHEREAS, this year marks the 1,400th anniversary of the Charter of Medina, a constitutional contract between the Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, and the people of Medina, which guaranteed the religious liberty of all, regardless of faith;

WHEREAS, hundreds of Muslim scholars and intellectuals from over 120 countries, along with representatives of Islamic and international organizations, as well as leaders from diverse religious groups and nationalities, gathered in Marrakesh on this date to reaffirm the principles of the Charter of Medina at a major conference;

WHEREAS, this conference was held under the auspices of His Majesty, King Mohammed VI of Morocco, and organized jointly by the Ministry of Endowment and Islamic Affairs in the Kingdom of Morocco and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies based in the United Arab Emirates;

AND NOTING the gravity of this situation afflicting Muslims as well as peoples of other faiths throughout the world, and after thorough deliberation and discussion, the convened Muslim scholars and intellectuals:

DECLARE HEREBY our firm commitment to the principles articulated in the Charter of Medina, whose provisions contained a number of the principles of constitutional contractual citizenship, such as freedom of movement, property ownership, mutual solidarity and defense, as well as principles of justice and equality before the law; and that,

The objectives of the Charter of Medina provide a suitable framework for national constitutions in countries with Muslim majorities, and the United Nations Charter and related documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are in harmony with the Charter of Medina, including consideration for public order.

NOTING FURTHER that deep reflection upon the various crises afflicting humanity underscores the inevitable and urgent need for cooperation among all religious groups, we
AFFIRM HEREBY that such cooperation must be based on a “Common Word,” requiring that such cooperation must go beyond mutual tolerance and respect, to providing full protection for the rights and liberties to all religious groups in a civilized manner that eschews coercion, bias, and arrogance.


Call upon Muslim scholars and intellectuals around the world to develop a jurisprudence of the concept of “citizenship” which is inclusive of diverse groups. Such jurisprudence shall be rooted in Islamic tradition and principles and mindful of global changes.

Urge Muslim educational institutions and authorities to conduct a courageous review of educational curricula that addesses honestly and effectively any material that instigates aggression and extremism, leads to war and chaos, and results in the destruction of our shared societies;

Call upon politicians and decision makers to take the political and legal steps necessary to establish a constitutional contractual relationship among its citizens, and to support all formulations and initiatives that aim to fortify relations and understanding among the various religious groups in the Muslim World;

Call upon the educated, artistic, and creative members of our societies, as well as organizations of civil society, to establish a broad movement for the just treatment of religious minorites in Muslim countries and to raise awareness as to their rights, and to work together to ensure the success of these efforts.

Call upon the various religious groups bound by the same national fabric to address their mutual state of selective amnesia that blocks memories of centuries of joint and shared living on the same land; we call upon them to rebuild the past by reviving this tradition of conviviality, and restoring our shared trust that has been eroded by extremists using acts of terror and aggression;

Call upon representatives of the various religions, sects and denominations to confront all forms of religious bigotry, villification, and denegration of what people hold sacred, as well as all speech that promote hatred and bigotry; AND FINALLY,

AFFIRM that it is unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.

27h January 2016

“Ten Ways on How Not To Think About the Iran/Saudi Conflict”


Omid Safi, an accomplished scholar of Islam, has written an excellent article about the current tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have already have widespread repercussions on the Middle East as a whole. Many news outlets have described the conflict as rooted in Sunni-Shi’a rivalry, which is simplistic and not-totally-accurate, and Safi argues for a more nuanced understanding of the situation. Below are some of my favorite excerpts from the article.


“One. In order to understand this conflict, do not start with Sunni/Shi‘a seventh century succession disputes to Prophet. This is a modern dispute, not one whose answers you are going to find in pre-modern books of religious history and theology. Think about how absurd it would be if we were discussing a political conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and instead of having political scientists we brought on people to talk about the historical genesis of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Probably the most succinct elaboration of this point came from Marc Lynch:

“The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics. This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict.”

The attempt to explain the Iranian/Saudi conflict, or for that matter every Middle Eastern conflict, in purely religious terms is part of an ongoing Orientalist imagination that depicts these societies as ancient, unchanging, un-modern societies where religion is the sole determining factor (allegedly unlike an imagined “us,” who have managed to become modern and secular.) Watch this four-part series by the late, great Edward Said on how Orientalism operates.

There is no disputing that religion is a factor in understanding the Middle East. In some conflicts, it might even be a primary factor. But it is never, ever the only factor. Most often it is the other factors (history, economics, ideology, demographics) that are much more important.”

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