Sound and Vibration—A Muslim on Her Music

Part 1 — First Vibrations

I set out to write this because I watched this video for the first time, and was struck by something that Dr. Hans Jenny said about all life as we know it originating from the vibrations of sound.

At a first blush for me, this seemed a bit ableist of a thing to say, knowing that not everyone has hearing. However, we all feel. Sound is produced by vibration, and vibration—science does inform us—is a commonality to most life. Certain animals use types of vibration to communicate, or “hear”. Humans experience and create vibration in various ways — both for practical purposes or for pleasure. And the universe itself seems to run on a frequency all its own. One (ones?) that we can’t even begin to understand, though we do our very best to try.

This all made me think about my relationship with sound — music in particular — and how it’s evolved over time in my life into something that is a core driving force in many of the things that I do, and how I move in the world.

I was raised by my mother and grandmother, who were the sole islamic converts in their family. They kept with them some of the sensibilities of their background as African Americans raised in the midwest. My grandmother was born in the 40s and knew well the cultural zeitgeist of the times spanning then and the modern day. She was raised Catholic, and was what I would say unusual, description-wise, for a black woman during the turn of the century. My mother inherited a few of those sensibilities from her, and always recalled never finding her place physically or spiritually with Catholicism or Christianity. Islam was a natural fit for them, and so I was born into it, with as much of the knowledge of it as they could glean from fellows in the faith, books, and the Qur’an.

Dimly, as a baby or toddler, I recall the sounds of two things: the Qur’an — specifically the Egyptian qari Abdul Basits’s rich Tajweed recitations.

And middle eastern music, such as this:

The latter was my parents immersing themselves into what they felt was the core world of islam, still with a lot of Arabian influence in it. They enjoyed trying new things, and were (my mother still is) very open people, though their openness did still come with some conservative and personal reservations for certain things. So thus, these were my first sounds. Intonations from the Middle East.

As I grew older, I began to discover “strange” music collections. For a long time in my youth, so-called “international music” was considered the safest for my young ears. So I heard a lot of “weird” global music. Strunz & Farah. Ottmar Liebert. Classical. Khaled’s Rai (with which I was obsessed and learned entire lyrics from in Arabic). I had a brief obsession with Opera, which merely meant that I cycled quickly through Pavarotti & Friends.

Another fave—Paco de Lucia. Early on, I was encouraged to appreciate strong guitarists and percussionists. I used to sit in front of the TV drumming along with Ottmar’s Luna Negra drummers.

All of this was tempered by a constant in my life — the sounds of The Glorious Qur’an. It was highly important to my parents that I memorize as much of it as I could. The Qur’an, while also in book form, is typically passed down through an oral tradition. In this way, it is the only known religious text which… (a copious variety of translations notwithstanding) …is lyrically un-altered from its original state — something I always thought was cool. It is considered an important tradition of the faithful to memorize the book, as this will — for lack of a better example — give you bonus points in the hereafter to have God’s word in your mind and heart.

So I learned a good chunk of the book, and would listen to qaris — basically professional and trained reciters of the Qur’an — such as Basit, Ghamdi, and Ali Al-Ajmi to get my pronunciations and intonations down. I would mimic the qaris down to their very voice, so Basit and Ajmi were very challenging, but fun. This was probably as close to being trained to sing as I ever would get.

The things that have continued to strike me deeply about the unique experience of reciting or listening to the Qur’an are two.

A) The Qur’an is not music.

This is stated bluntly in Surah Al-Haqqah (The Reality) in the Qur’an:

…indeed, the Qur’an is the word of a noble Messenger. And it is not the word of a poet; little do you believe. Nor the word of a soothsayer; little do you remember. It is a revelation from the Lord of the worlds.

It is also noted in the Qur’an that certain people have been granted great power through their command of their voice in praise of God. And in some ways, the Qur’an implies, sounds made by creatures or natural entities may actually mean much more. David, for instance, in Surah As-Saba (Sheba) in the Qur’an:

And assuredly We gave David grace from Us, (saying): O ye hills and birds, echo his psalms of praise! And We made the iron supple unto him… [Pickthall translation]

This is profound to me because it creates a distinct separation between what we tend to consider music, and what we consider prayer. Most non-muslims hear the Qur’an and think it is a type of music. Muslims are instructed to recite God’s word with a beautiful melody because doing that is pleasing to God. We recognize that reciting the word of God melodically is not song because the Qur’an is not human lyric, it is intended to be Gods own word, penned “supernaturally”, lacking a human element as traditional music contains.

That established, that many people consider music to be a form of prayer remains interesting and in some ways, compelling to me.

B) The experience of reciting the Qur’an.

When you are completely lost in it, it is a strange, humbling experience. Transcendent, if you wanna get freaky. In this small way, it reminds me of the way an excellent live musical performance makes me feel. Simultaneously strong, joyful, emotional, and speck-small in an incalculably large cosmos. I remember being at an Odesza concert in 2019, and being in the front next to the speakers. The vibrations of the Odesza drumline rattled my bones. I literally was shook. But it felt good. It made me feel whole. The entire concert moved me to tears, which sounds dumb, but that was my mindset. Many reciters of the Qur’an begin to cry while they recite, because they are so moved by the words and the act of praising their God.

Islam, in non-Qur’anic historical tellings, has a pretty negative outlook on music, because of its propensity to distract from remembrance of God, draw into worldliness and potentially sin. Music also often features some pretty unholy language and sounds when it comes down to it. So this outlook, from a purely religious perspective, is understandable.

This is something I continue to think about and struggle with. I would be very sad without music. It’s mentally saved me on a number of occasions. And I personally argue that thanks to the lyrical and sonic talent of some musicians, music has brought me closer to my faith. I’ll fully own up to being a bad muslim because of this thing. But I also challenge the idea of music as being flat out impermissible if it, like the word of God, has the ability to uplift a soul that is feeling lost.

Part 2 — The Radio

Moving on. My next musical journey started when I discovered the radio, as most kids were in the late 80s and early 90s. Radio was the Spotify of the age, albeit with a bit more challenge since there were no playback buttons. The playlists were pre-curated, so we relied on the skill of radio DJs to feed the hits of the current era and eras past into our ears. I would spend hours waiting for my favorite song to come on the radio, and when it did, I fucking belted “Hang On Sloopy” so loud my neighbors probably heard. The radio was wild. There was so much stuff — country, classical, rock’n’roll, classic rock, oldies, hip hop, Sting! I couldn’t listen to it all fast enough.

I was born at the sunset of the Blockbuster empire, so I get to recall standing at the earphone kiosk thingies they had in-store, which allowed you to listen to samples from any CD you wanted so you could try before you bought the disc. This was how I discovered and promptly fell in love with Queen. So many different rhythms…so many different voices calling out to various things…the present, the past, lovers, the dead, family. Voices sang of memories and experiences, escapades. The cowboys drawled on about their trucks and the 80s rockerboys shouted about the girls they’d lost or laid. The rappers were on about all kinds of weird shit that I didn’t understand…but sometimes the beat was bumpin’. I listened to a lot of stuff I probably shouldn’t have, come to think of it…

So, fun fact. If you put a cassette tape in your cassette/radio combo, turn on the radio, and hit (if I recall correctly) record and play, you can effectively record whatever is playing on the radio to the cassette. In this way, at 9 years old, you can become your own goddamn DJ, and be the pre-Spotify you want to be. The radio changed my life, and is a big part of why I still love curating weird playlists for people (or myself…mostly myself) to this day.

Part 3 — Resonance

Growing older changes your perspective on many things. Your tastes evolve, your look changes, your speaking voice evolves at least a little bit…you learn how to talk to people and articulate yourself (at least, that’s the theory). And so, as an adult, I became more selective about the things I listened to. There was always that niggling religious text in my head, making me worry about my fate in the afterlife for listening to Ram Jam sing about Black Betty or whatever. If I could explain to God that in tandem with singing his praises, I needed some of these musicians to just stay afloat in this strange, hard life, perhaps that would do something…if God truly understood the heart and soul he’d breathed life into, breathed vibration into, then maybe listening to music alongside the word oof Qur’an would be at least not the worst thing I ever did in my time alive.

I listened to a LOT of music in college, and continue to curate large musical playlists for every year that I care to. It was what kept me going through hardships, unease, loss and even just plain old happiness. It got me through the death of a loved one. Through homelessness. Through post-homeless uncertainty. Through friendships. Music has scored my ebbs and highs. It’s been everything.

A few musicians I have to shout out in thanks for my life:

KT Tunstall singing about hope and change and the future.

Kimbra with her suave old timey chill and big voice making everything feel good and ok.

Muse playing synth like a heartbeat — Matt Bellamy with that high, powerful voice that reminds me of a Qari sometimes.

M.I.A with politically charged anthems and her consistent no-shits-given aesthetic.

Odesza with lifting, ethereally charged sonic mastery.

Little Dragon with a promise of gentle weirdness, quiet grace, and softness.

Santigold with lyrics that spoke to things I didn’t know I felt but wholly felt right to the bone:

Oh, we said our dreams will carry us

And if they don’t fly we will run

Now we push right past to find out

How to win what they all lost

How do I reconcile my faith with music? My conclusion is this:

All music is sound.

Not all sound is music.

I think that music serves to tune your soul, as a tuning fork helps to set the pitch of a sound. Sometimes, music tunes your soul in a positive or at least a helpful way, and sometimes it does not. I personally prefer the former because life is stressful enough. Qur’an is always tuned correctly. For me, it is the sonic standard.

To return to the idea of God, again, and the Creation. To return to Dr. Hans Jenny’s hypothesis. “If you spare a little of your imagination…you will see many things that answer many questions…everything owes it’s existence solely, and completely, to sound. Sound is a factor which holds [everything] together. In the beginning was the word. And the word was God.”

Allah, in the Qur’an says: “His command is only when He intends a thing that He says to it, “Be,” and it is.” [Surah Ya Sin]

If you don’t cater to Creationism, the Big Bang will still do for this conclusion. Boom. A ripple. A wave. A tide in an electric, atomic, celestial ocean that spits out a cascade of helpless existence.

Sound is a vibration. And if “sound” is all everything is, then we must let the best sounds move within and through us to help make us what we are. Tune us correctly in a cosmic sense. To inspire how we move and think in this world. To give us emotions like hope, fear, anger, love, hate and joy.

To help us live.

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Hafsah Mijinyawa

Hafsah Mijinyawa

Film, Design, Root Beer | A breakneck journey of self-discovery at the height of your thirties. | wetcloudmedia.com | superlunar.com