'Insulting Islam' with a cello

One year ago this month, an event occurred in Bahrain which – to quote Gulf News – "shook the nation to the core". A secondary-school student and two teachers were arrested and Bahrain's parliament established a special committee to investigate the matter. Its official title was the "Committee for Investigating Improper Recitation of Quranic Verses".

The trigger for this supposedly nation-shaking event was a talent contest in which students from the Abdul Rahman Kanoo International School took part. In connection with the contest, someone posted a video on the internet which, according to media reports at the time, showed a student reciting (some say "singing") al-Fatiha – the opening sura of the Quran – while a teacher played a cello in the background.

After an initial investigation by the education ministry, the public prosecutor questioned the student and two teachers – one who had helped to train him, and another who had accompanied him on the cello. All three were then charged with "violating the Islamic religion and insulting its rituals" and detained in what the authorities described as protective custody.

Underlying this affair is the fact that Muslims around the world have differing attitudes towards music, with some saying it is totally forbidden. Anti-music sentiment is generally strongest in the puritanical Gulf states and elsewhere among Islamists.

Bahrain's action against the Abdul Rahman Kanoo school appeared to have legal backing from scholars at al-Azhar in Egypt who had issued a ruling the previous December following reports that an Indonesian opera company had sung verses from the Quran with orchestral accompaniment. Gulf News explained:

Al-Azhar’s High Authority for Islamic Studies stated that singing Quranic verses with music was forbidden in Islamic jurisprudence ...

The highest authority for Sunnis explained that the Quran was the Book of God available to those who sought wisdom and that Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) urged Muslims to recite it in a manner that conveys its meaning.

“Recitation differs from singing and singing the Quran to a tune is forbidden,” al-Azhar said. “Adding a music tune makes the Quran comparable to songs and reduces the capacity of the readers and listeners to understand the true meaning of the verses.”

The Abdul Rahman Kanoo school, a private school with more than 2,000 students, also sounds like the sort of institution Islamists would disapprove of. It is co-educational, provides students with qualifications that are recognised in the west and, according to its website, encourages students to "think critically, and be independent".

Dissatisfied with the education ministry's response, some members of Bahrain's parliament demanded further action – hence the formation of the Committee for Investigating Improper Recitation of Quranic Verses. After a year considering the matter, the committee has now reported back with a series of recommendations which have been greeted with "wide-ranging criticism", according to the Citizens for Bahrain website. It says:

The Ministry of Education quickly submitted a very detailed critique of the recommendations and the work of the committee itself. Firstly the ministry pointed out that many of the recommendations had already been implemented within a few days of the original incident. Furthermore, the ministry questioned the very name of the committee, saying that the incident hadn’t actually involved Quranic verses at all, but simply a prayer set to music.

Other MPs were critical of the committee’s efforts which they said had wasted a lot of parliament’s time. Khaled al-Shaer [a committee member] said that the issue had been “taken out of proportion”. Ali al-Atish said that he had resigned from the committee, adding: “This was an incident which should have been put in context. Why did the committee go on this long? What advancements did the committee make over all this time?” Other MPs questioned the negative effect on the student concerned.

Arguably the most devastating criticism came from Islamist MP Abdulhalim Murad who said that the committee had been a waste of time concerning an issue which was over and done with.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 20 March 2016