Jazz, Religion, and Cherry-Picking

I came of age seeing Islam as something benign, even hip. That's because I spent a lot of time immersing myself in the world of jazz, where players with Islamic names were many. I can't say I gave it a lot of special thought. It just seemed like they were people who combined a sort of Black consciousness as exemplified by Malcolm X with the peace and love vibes that informed the post-Coltrane, jazz-as-spiritual-quest mode that characterized the music in the 60s and 70s. I would see their names on record jackets, and see the players in person sometimes too. There was Sahib Shihad, who played with Monk, and who was one of the earliest jazz converts to Islam. Other names that jump out at me now include the great South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, who conveys more positive vibes than almost anyone on the planet. There's the drummer Idris Muhammad, and the trumpeter Idrees Sulieman. There are probably dozens of great jazz players who went or go by Muslim names, and who, presumably, practiced or practice some form of Islam.

I wouldn't be surprised if they were influenced by Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam best known for the Whirling Dervishes. I've read books, which I recommend, by Hazrat Inayat Khan, the Indian classical musician turned Sufi master, whose works include The Music of Life. Vibration and harmony are literally the stuff and meaning of life, in the Sufi view. So, when it comes to Islam, give me Sufism!

Okay then: How is it possible that Sufism and the ultra-conservative Salafism of ISIS both reside under the umbrella of Islam? Isn't the violent practice of ISIS a perversion of Islam? Aren't they just cherry-picking some extreme statements from the Koran and certain examples from the early days of the religion to further their anti-human agenda? Well, yes they are. But the Sufis are cherry-picking, too. It's not the cherry-picking that makes a religion illegitimate or false. Our teachings and histories are full of contradictions. And why would anything that rich, ancient, and widespread be any other way? Indeed, the only way to practice a religion is to cherry-pick. Otherwise you would be paralyzed by it all.

One analysis of ISIS, clearly intended as "sophisticated" analysis, holds that the purposes of ISIS are political and megalomaniacal, and that they simply are "using" certain teachings to seduce recruits and to maintain cohesion in pursuit of their nefarious goals. This might in fact be true. But, again: All religion is practiced like this. Let's say I'm concerned about death, maybe fearful of death, or at the very least curious about life after death. Religion helps me in a very big way with this. Does this make that religion illegitimate? Not at all. Let's say I am interested in a community that nurtures fellow feeling and pursues social aid and justice, and I have found a church that provides this. Same thing.

I understand that people are hesitant for the word Islam to be associated with ISIS and other terrorists in any manner at all, for fear that bigots will use that association to condemn all Muslims, the vast majority of whom are peaceful. But refusing to think clearly and dispassionately about the contradictions and tensions that exist within all religions inhibits our ability to say what needs to be said, which is that the way forward toward greater harmony and peaceful coexistence within civil society requires us to cherry-pick the stuff that will help us get there. And, believe me: There's plenty to be picked.

Above I have posted a video of pianist Randy Weston's "Blue Moses," from his late-career masterpiece, The Spirits of our Ancestors. This piece demonstrates how Islamic-oriented music can be expressed in a jazz context. Call it pluralism. Call it cosmopolitanism. Call it good.


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