&tThe greatest injustice that the minions of extremism and violence have done against Islam are the murders in the name of God. Very closely behind that travesty, follows the collective defecation that the bearded flame-throwers have taken upon the history of Islamic culture. The puritanical impulse that began three centuries ago, rooted in an effort to give Islam back to the bedouin, has gone too far. It has infused its desert desolation into the very heart of the flora and fauna of Islamic art, music and dance; it has castrated the singers; sucked dry the vegetative roots from the dados of our arabesques. Rumi’s dervish dance is no more the fount of passion and insight; it is a silly puppet show we put on for liberal Western audiences. Things are so bleak that just to juxtapose “Islam” with “art,; with “music,” with “dance” seems anathema. No longer can we Muslims take the transcendence of the poets and musicians at face value; no, first we must employ syllogism and then argumentation to prove that these things are “permissible.” Even then, even if we somehow gain approval, we must be like Damocles, dancing under the sword of our austere brethren. The dervish dance? Denied. The graceful fall of a ghazal’s final verse? Denied. The shimmering colors and tropes of painting? Denied. Nothing remains, my friends, but Ghalib lamenting in the night: Yeh na thi hamari qismet keh wisaal e yaar hota (it was never in my fate to meet my beloved). With no more the palpitation that beauty leaves in our heart, God no longer beats in our arteries, nor wakes up from Her slumber. Is it any surprise that Muslims are now the new representatives of nihilism? In the midst of all this: I am pleased to say that the music of Niyaz, fronted by Azam Ali, brings back to one’s heart the sweet serenades of Muslim past and the life-affirmation we have been arguing for, but not knowing how to describe.
Azam Ali is a Persian-Indian-American vocalist steeped in Sufi music. Formerly with the new-age band Vas, she has also sang for The Matrix movies. In her latest work, she has hooked up with producer/remixers Carmen Rizzo. But once you own the Niyaz album you won’t care very much about the qualifications of the people or the personalities involved. The singular incredible feat of this album is that it has eliminated everything but one’s link to his own individual spirit. In that it is unlike anything available on the radio, and right in line with the traditions of Middle Eastern and South Asian folk music. Niyaz carries the simplicity of Bulleh Shah and the complexity of the soul looking inward and leaves a listener, on desolate work days trapped amidst skyscraping spikes, almost on the verge of absolute redemption. Wordworth once said that if you wanted to know God all you had to do was put your ear to the grass and listen. I must admit that upon my first listening of this album I had my ear against the speaker.
That effect is as much a consequence of Azam Ali’s hauntingly melancholy voice, as it is of the verses she is singing. Note: you have to know Persian or Urdu to appreciate the meaning of the songs. But if you do not speak these languages, the beat and the ambience of her tone, will put you in the right mood. That precisely is where this album succeeds and where so many other “Sufi” singers (like Junoon and Rabbi Shergill) have failed. In Niyaz, the serenity of Islamic mysticism exists even if the words were to disappear and only the voice were to remain.
As to the songs, they are not original to Niyaz or Azam Ali. Instead, they are a number of Persian and Urdu ghazals. It includes poems by Rumi, local folk songs from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, as well as a ridiculously beautiful mixture-song, consisting of the poetry of Anees, Mehar and Amjad Hyderabadi. At the risk of exoticizing the album (if I haven’t done it already), I must reveal that my favorite song is called “The Hunt” – a folk song from Khorasan told from the perspective of a hunter in which he describes that everything he sees, from the mountains to the animals, remind him of his beloved. Seeing his beloved in all things he cannot bring himself to kill a single creature. What a stark contrast to the monsters that come from Khurasan today. We have gone from hunting for love to hunting for enmity. The pang one feels for having such thoughts is really what made this album so moving for me. When Ali sings “the world is like an impermanent resting place/Where in all things just simply come and go” I could not listen to the verses as a message of peaceful spiritual humility; rather, all I could think was: these are now things that our suicide bombers must say to themselves. The loss of our history comes full circle and hits you with the force of a broken verse. In everything we no more see “the face of God” but the face of the “Great Satan.”
In that sense, Niyaz’s album is either too late (so that it cannot join the past glory of our culture), or it has come too soon (and lives in a state of cautious hope). For that reason it might (and has) fallen on largely deaf ears. The detonations of New York and London and Bali still ring in our ears so that beauty falls to the wayside. The smoke of the humans, yes, real humans, that we burn simply because they are Shia, or because they are alleged apostates, stuffs our nose and we cannot smell the little petals of jasmine that Niyaz is casting. Oh, it must sound as if Niyaz is God’s gift to music. It isn’t. But in the face of the culture of depression and anger that we call home, that we call Islam, the contrast that is its innocence, makes it seem that much more urgent. With the idols of cruelty and Usama having set themselves resolutely in the Houses of God, this album, with its unceasing affirmation of God, is more than just a harking back to the history of the mystic; this is music meant to smash idols.
Ali Eteraz is an essayist and novelist. He maintains the popular blog “Unwilling Self-Negation” at eteraz.wordpress.com.