Slow news day: Muslim kids and music

I was just listening to the BBC London station (94.9FM) and the top story in their news bulletins at the moment seems to be the fact that some Muslim parents are withdrawing their children from music lessons because playing instruments is against Islam. The story isn’t on the BBC News website but is on the Evening Standard’s This is London site; it appears that the report will be on BBC1 at 6:30pm this evening. This is a perfectly valid, indeed mainstream, opinion in Islam and this has been going on for years. Why is this news now?

It sounds like a story sourced from one of the think tanks who produced reports on what was available in mosque libraries, based on sending spies into various mosques of one denomination or another, but it seems that they carried out their own investigation for whatever reason. One school in east London reported that 20 pupils were withdrawn from rehearsals for the Christmas play (so it’s not just about musical instruments: it’s about taking part in celebrations of other religions), and that one girl remains withdrawn from music lessons.

On closer examination, other aspects of this story fall down. “Hundreds of pupils are thought to have been …” means that there isn’t concrete evidence that anywhere close to that number of pupils actually have been withdrawn. They also say that, according to Dr Diana Harris of the Open University, around half of some pupils are withdrawn from music lessons in some schools during Ramadan. Well, that’s Ramadan, and Muslims abstain from these kinds of pleasures, not just food, during daytime in Ramadan; while not essential to fasting, it is a way of devoting more of their time in that period to worship rather than to pleasure.

Of course, many (perhaps most) Muslims do listen to music, but the stricter religious ones don’t, and this has been the case throughout history. There are exceptions, such as therapy for those with brain damage and even, according to some, for children (I found CDs of Zain Bhikha’s songs for children, accompanied by a keyboard, on sale in Deobandi-run bookshops in the late 1990s, for example, and they would never sell recordings for adults which contained instrumental music). That doesn’t mean they don’t sing or listen to singing; what is excluded is the instruments. Surely there are ways of accommodating this without without making it necessary to withdraw children from lessons entirely.

The role of the Muslim Council of Britain in all this is troubling. The BBC interviewed some guy called Matthew Wilkinson who claimed that this stricture affected about 10% of Muslims in London and that he (and therefore the MCB) thought that children should be benefiting from the full curriculum, or some such thing. Surely the MCB should actually be sticking up for Muslims by defending all of us, rather than by playing the “we’re the moderate majority, so listen to us and not that lunatic minority over there”, rather as some do with regard to the niqaab and other strict observations of Islam. In any case, surely schools should be about preparing young people for life in the wider world, and while some may consider the ability to play an instrument and appreciate music to be part of being a well-rounded person, the fact is that most kids, whether they can play the cello or not, won’t be looking for a job in an orchestra when they leave school.

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