Straddling sacred-secular line never simple for singers
In today’s Middle East, music and religion have close affinities. While these affinities may be similar in other contexts, the relationship between music and religion has particular complexities in this region. In this final column of three on the fine line musicians straddle between sacred and secular spaces, I focus on the outward manifestations of a presumably inner, personal experience.
Debates about the acceptability of music have long occurred in all three of the region’s major religions. While there has rarely been agreement about whether music (which comprises singing as I use it here) is compatible with living a pious life, there is consensus that specific forms of music — or song — are compatible with pious living privately and in public. Where this is the case, strict limitations appear to be associated with admissible music making, and they are normally aligned with views that are close to strict religious practice.
Communities continue to grapple with internal debates about whether a standard of acceptable music exists, at least with every new generation or when new musical genres come close to sacred practices. But when the issue goes public, such as when a famous singer decides to shift their outward lifestyle toward piety, the debate takes as public a profile as that of the singer in question, putting the artist and their subsequent behavior under close scrutiny.
In the 1990s, the popular Arab music scene witnessed a wave of religious conversions, or reversions, with the generation of artists that came to fame soon after the first wave of mass media stars had left the spotlight. Singers who followed in the footsteps of Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez had long and active careers in the 1970s and 1980s before a number of them declared their return to a simpler life, announcing early retirement in many cases. Famous female artists who made the shift included dancers who starred in many films, some mixing acting with dance and song. When reverting to a religious lifestyle, they invariably wore the hijab as a sign of modesty and resignation from glamor and public performance.
Typically donning the headscarf as their chosen form of hijab, many of these women abandoned the public eye, except to witness about their conversion experiences. Having resigned at the prime of their careers, a number of women artists made a subsequent return to the limelight, in some cases without the head covering or with a modified, more fashion-inspired version of it. Making a shy return to acting, typically in television, artists such as Suhair Ramzi, for instance, said they were not abandoning their faith. Rather, Ramzi said she was making a minor shift between embracing hijab (being “muhajjabah”) and choosing modest appearance (being “muhtashimah”). Suhair Al-Babli is another example of a female artist who gave up performing when she declared embracing the hijab in the 1990s, only to return to acting in the early 2000s, so far without giving up her religious appearance.
This exterior manifestation of faith in the form of a head covering and long, loose dress is an evident choice for women who make the secular-to-pious shift. However, for a skeptical public, the change of heart is not only about appearance. High expectations shift the debate to other areas, especially for male singers. Men who declare a religious awakening are expected to mark it with a dramatic turn in how they use their voice, rather than their appearance.
An example of a famous male singer who abandoned his star status in the 1990s is Rabi’ Al-Khouli. This heartthrob of teenagers was part of a new wave of stars ushered in by the talent show “Studio Al-Fann” in the 1970s/80s. Toni Al-Khouli (his original name) disappeared from the scene in the 1990s, only to re-emerge at the turn of the millennium as a monk. He was ordained as a priest a few years later. Al-Khouli re-emerged because he decided to continue to sing, but now with a voice dedicated to devotional song rather than to earthly emotions. In making this shift, Priest Toni, as he is now known, also moved to a more restricted musical repertoire, having abandoned “tarab" singing in favor of religious anthems. Technically less demanding, and more repetitive in nature, the acquired singing style limited the types of music in which Al-Khouli’s audience could enjoy his voice, if without hiding his talent.
Thanks to the new religious musical scene, which has exploded in recent years as a result of satellite television and online media, a slew of sacred singers has emerged in the region. In contrast with the previous Levantine generation, exemplified by Al-Khouli and others who never made it big beyond their local parishes, emerging Arabic Christian singers are following more secular trends than their Muslim counterparts.
Whether the shift to secular styles of singing is the result of the conversions (or reversions) to pious life that are common in the region, or to mounting popular demand for pop-style sacred songs, is a question that merits its own discussion. The issues are different in different religious contexts. What remains universally important, however, is the expectation that music should serve sacred purposes, and whether the artist and their audience agree on the matter.
Men who declare a religious awakening are expected to mark it with a dramatic turn in how they use their voice, rather than their appearance.
One of the most controversial cases of religious reversion in the past decade has been Fadl Shaker. The Lebanese singer’s religious awakening, which, according to the artist himself, was a result of disillusionment with the lifestyle of extravagance and explicit sexual references, along with deep identification with the Muslim victims of the Syrian war, was total and uncompromising. In interviews he gave at the height of the Syrian crisis, Shaker declared that he would dedicate his voice to religious anthems (nashid). This meant that one of the most successful singers of the new millennium was turning to a rather limited repertoire. This ideologically induced musical prohibition did not last long. Shaker released a song in early 2019. “I Have Loved You” is his new single, home-produced and posted on his personal social media profiles.
Straddling the illusive sacred/secular divide is never simple in music, nor is it in the Middle East. For most of the population, especially in religiously mixed contexts, the variables are too many between in-group and outside criteria, between textual restrictions and cultural practices, and between allowance and forbiddance. Song, and the singer whose voice carries it, will continue to reckon with such complexities so long as the region has people who value living in compatibility with their religious beliefs.
- Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo” (OUP, 2018). She is currently Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and Associate Fellow of Pierson College at Yale.