Just as expected, the Taliban have reinstated the same harsh laws they imposed during their first period of rule in Afghanistan in 1996. They banned music, having their squads smash musical instruments in public. The painful sight recalls their destruction of the ancient Buddhas that precipitated an international outcry. Taliban Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declared that music was the work of the devil and would be henceforth prohibited in public spaces.
Also true to form, the Taliban excluded females in their decree ordering only male students and staff back to school. They eliminated the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and reintroduced the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – to impose their fanatical interpretation of religious strictures. It appears they banned women from working there, too. Video footage circulating on social media shows female ministry employees demanding to be allowed back at work.
Afghanistan has an ancient and rich musical heritage that reflects the country’s ethnic, linguistic and geographical diversity. Perhaps the best known is Pashto music, a folk music influenced in part by Indian music. One of the most famous Pashto singers is Momin Khan Biltoon, known by the honourific Ustad Biltoon, who sang in both Pashto and Dari. He died in 1995 after more than 70 years of contributing to traditional Afghan music. Fazel Ahmad Zekrya was another famous musician. Known professionally as Ustad Nainawaz, he was a poet and a composer as well as a performer. He composed some of the most famous pieces in popular Afghan music, but died young, at the age of 44, in 1979.
Mohali is another category of Afghan music – and the most diverse. It is divided into three basic genres that have evolved in the mountains over the years without being influenced by the outside world: Qataghani, Logari and Qarsak.
The rubab, a three stringed instrument similar to the rababa, is the most widely used instrument in Afghan popular music. Rare is the composition that lacks its melancholy tones. Among the most famous rubab players are Essa Kassemi, Mohamed Rahim Khushnawa and Homayun Sakhni. The dombura and ghichak are two other popular string instruments.
Music, art and cultural heritage in general have no value among Islamist sects, be they ISIS fanatics who beheaded Yazidi artists in Iraq and banned music in weddings and other social activities in Yemen, or Muslim Brothers who closed down the Opera House and fired its director when they came to power in Egypt. Islamist politicians and pundits also demanded that pharaonic statutes be covered in wax to conceal their limbs, condemned ballet as sinful, defamed artists and performers and described the novels of Nobel Prize Laureate Naguib Mahfouz as the “literature of hash dens and whore houses.”
If they knew more about the history of Islamic civilisation, they might realise what a wealth of art, poetry and music it engendered, especially in the Abbassid and Andalusian eras. Just one of innumerable examples is the 9th-century musical genius, Abu Al-Hassan Ali Bin Nafie, who was born in Iraq and invited to serve as chief entertainer at the court of Cordoba. He was given the nickname “Ziryab”, or “The Blackbird” - because of his melodious voice, eloquence and dark complexion. His contributions to music and musicology were widely influential all across the civilised world.
Some Islamic musical heritage is known to date to the era of the Prophet who is said to have been greeted with music on entering Yathrib (which later became Madina). Ubayd Allah Bin Muhammad Bin Aisha relates that when the Prophet arrived in Madina after his flight from Mecca, women and children welcomed him with the song, “The full moon has risen upon us.” The song, which expresses gratitude to the Lord for sending His messenger to the city, has become something of an Islamic anthem inspiring musicians across the ages to modern times. Of particular note is Malek Jandali, the widely acclaimed German composer of Syrian origin who based The Moonlight, a symphony for piano and orchestra, on the ancient verse. Talaa Al-Badru Alayna, as the song is called in Arabic, was also performed by the famous British musician and singer, Cat Stevens, or Yusuf Islam as he is known after his conversion.
Clearly when the Taliban think of music, they can only think of sin, their sole obsession. The moon that rose upon Madina a millennium and a half ago has not risen over Afghanistan and is not likely to do so.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly