WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world. As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.
It was a sleepy Saturday morning on June 1, 1994. I stood next to the kitchen wall phone, shuffling nervously, heart pounding up into my brain and holding my breath while begging a coworker to take my morning shift. After a long pause they said yes, and I nearly passed out.
Within the hour I was on the train to get to the HMV on Yonge Street in Toronto, and arrived early enough to be 10th in line. For hours complete strangers chatted, sang, and joked with each other. A few came dressed to the nines in top hats and walking sticks. I’m surprised I didn’t see a snake.
When the line began to move I stopped thinking rationally. This experience was happening to another person — I was only a spectator. We walked deeper into the store, right to the back where a black table was set up with posters and commemorative books. Two burly security guards in bright orange shirts stood behind it. I shuffled closer and grew sick with excitement. After an eternity, it was finally my turn.
He signed my CD album cover and told me that he rarely sees this particular album outside of Europe. I laughed and told him that I bought it while on vacation in Germany. I found all of his obscure albums there. He smiled and I told him it was my favourite. He thanked me for coming by and before leaving I offered him a hand shake. He took my outstretched hand in his warm, black leather glove, and in mid-shake, I turned it over and kissed it.
The security guards moved quickly to stop me, but he leaned back and grandly announced, “Oh, don’t worry. She’s worthy.”
I kissed Alice Cooper’s hand.
My obsession with Alice started in 1990 when a junior-high school friend sold me his brother’s Trash tape for $2. I’m not exactly sure what made me love his music from the second I pressed PLAY. Perhaps it was a mix of the leather, the glam-horrorshow makeup, gender ambiguous themes, ties to Dali and Vincent Price, the psycho-killer/innocent quixotic vaudeville theatrics, with just really good rock. Whatever it was, by the mid-1990’s I owned 24 albums, several collectibles, and knew every song by heart.
Then years later, after I converted, someone convinced me that music was forbidden in Islam, and it was no more mister nice guy for me.
I was in the midst of a very bright and shiny worldview of Islam — a spiritual awakening that included embracing a new self-identity, a strict interpretation of hijab and an adherence to the religion that focused on the “correct way” of practice. My friends at the time, authoritative conservative message boards and Islamicfatwa banks, were very influential. So believing that I was becoming a better Muslim by not listening to music, I did the unthinkable in the name of religion: I threw out every album I owned.*
The conservative arguments to why music is haram, or forbidden, rely on one obscure prophetic tradition claiming that the future Muslim community will make musical instruments lawful (concluding that they are therefore forbidden); it’s an idle past time; it elicits strong emotional responses that stokes ones’ passions (especially if it’s the sultry, tempting voice of a woman); Western music is especially suspect because it is usually in praise of alcohol, promiscuity and vulgarity (Mozart certainly comes to mind, that rogue); and music normally goes hand in hand with dancing and free mixing of the sexes (especially in elevators).
So to circumvent these arguments, the ultra-conservative voice reasons that only Islamic inspired music is permissible — as long as it doesn’t elicit too strong of an emotional response, use musical instruments or the voices of women. Sounds a little boring, doesn’t it? There are however some very sweet religious a cappella musical groups. But nothing to write home to mother about. Some even use natural noises like rain, thunder or the ocean to provide rhythm.
The view that music can elicit a strong emotional response is also often used to reason that women are not allowed to recite the Qur’an, pray, sing or even speak in front of men, but are free to do so in front of other women. According to those few who follow a very conservative view of Islam, if one fears that a woman’s voice may induce a man’s sexual desire by speaking, it’s better for her to remain silent. But, you know, a male voice could never, ever incite the passions of a woman.
Interestingly, while non-instrumental religious music is traditionally sung by men, it is also sung by choirs of little girls, or little boys (who sound eerily like little girls). As long as the young feminine singer is prepubescent and ‘unworldly’ she can’t possibly be a temptress. Sometimes these choirs are covered head to toe in white hijabs and abayas, symbolizing their purity. They are bathed in bright lights and float on stage, purposefully alluding to their angelic qualities. Transcending gender by becoming non-human makes the feminine voice permissible.
In spite of these arguments, there is a vast musical tradition in Islam, even within the conservative camp. The Qur’an itself, while not generally accepted as a form of music but as a “recitation,” has hundreds of beautiful renditions and contemporary Qur’anic “rock stars” with legions of fans, CD sales and music videos. Prophetic traditions encourage singing and the playing of instruments, like the daf drum, during celebrations. The renowned historical scholar al-Farabi wrote treatises on the history of music and the use of music as therapy for the soul. Muslims also invented several medieval instruments from single-reed clarinets to the automatic hydraulic organ. Sufis have used music during worship services for centuries and Muslim groups around the world sing anasheed, or religious songs in praise of God and the Prophet or his family. Some are performed with instruments, some by women and some originate in the “musically promiscuous” West.
Contemporarily, Muslim singers are also extremely popular whether they’re singing about Islam or not. Just to name a few, there’s the war-protest-song lover Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam; the Malaysian indi star Yuna; British and religiously inspired Sami Yusuf (with hoards of fangirls and boys pasting his picture to their bedroom walls); Pakistani rock legend Junoon; Afghani all-female Burka Band; Arab Reggae king Mekka; American country singer Kareem Salama; spoken word artist Jamila; and apparently Akon and Ice Cube too.
Music surrounds us. It’s on the tv, the radio, the Internet, in children’s rhymes and lullabys, in language, and in the natural rhythms and vibrations of daily life. So in order to adhere to the conservative viewpoint, I practiced active non-listening. For months the only thing I allowed myself to listen to was Islamic-inspired, non-instrumental music or to Qur’anic recitation. I was so strict, I didn’t even sing to myself.
And while some folks can get by just fine with that, after a while I began to feel depressed.
Music has healing qualities. It can pick you up, bring you down, make you feel passionate about a cause, distract you from pain, and instill love in your heart. And while there are some pretty sick things in the music industry, as well as a history of naysayers on music’s potential to harm, there are more positives than negatives. Religious or secular, clean or vulgar, a killer tune or a calm ditty, instrumental or vocal, no matter the genre, music can play an important part in celebrations, shared experiences, learning and memory.
By the time I found my way to a middle path regarding Islam, as long as the music was good and the lyrics weren’t overtly non-Islamic or vulgar, I’d listen to it. But despite my love for a really good guitar riff, I just couldn’t touch Alice. Most likely because I associated him with a past that I had closed the door on and didn’t see fitting into my current way of life.
Still, over the course of 30 albums, this golf-playing, former alcoholic, Sunday school teaching, born again Christian has never swore. Told through elaborate characters and stage performances, his music is primarily about the struggle between good and evil. While his themes on necrophilia, murder, insanity and dead babies don’t exactly make him a model citizen, he also showcases strong female characters who punish Alice for his crimes. It’s the main reason he’s been tried and beheaded at every concert since 1973.
Then a few years ago I randomly found out that the Eyes of Alice Cooper Tour was coming to Montreal, where I was working on my Masters in Islamic Studies. I mentioned it to the Hubby who was studying in another city at the time. Well, I didn’t just mention it. Being aware that Alice was going to be in the same city as me opened the floodgates and I made him my summer obsession.
So I talked about Alice, reported the daily Alice news, quizzed people on their Alice trivia, gave reviews on all the albums I missed, and even made my housemates sit through a power point presentation on the history of Alice’s music (thank you ladies for indulging me).
A few weeks later he drove up and surprised me with tickets.
So I did what any other self respecting muslimah obsessed with a rock star would do: I found a black hijab with red, sparkly flames, made a fan t-shirt and totally rocked out with Alice Cooper.
*Full disclosure: the Alice albums and paraphernalia went into storage.