An item in The Portland Press Herald a week or so ago must have driven the financially beleaguered public school music teachers of Maine near to despair — or maybe it led them to think that they were not so badly off after all.

The news was that the imams of Iran had decided to prohibit the teaching of music in private schools and universities. They had already done the same thing in publicly funded institutions, without much notice in the West.

After almost universal condemnation of the edict, both inside and outside Iran, I thought someone should rise in defense of the mullahs, who are obviously aware of the political and religious power of music, however they may describe it as “idle amusement.”

As Gibbon observed in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:” “To the people of Rome, all religions were equally true; to the philosopher equally false, and to the magistrate equally useful.” The popularity of western music among young Iranians, who make up the bulk of the population, must be perceived as a real threat to a governing power based upon religious tenets.

Here in the West, we have put up with punk, rap, and heavy metal long enough to recognize it as a phase of adolescent rebellion, and know that its devotees will grow up to be insurance salesmen and pillars of the community.  Who knows, given time and a modicum of intelligence, they might even gravitate to classical music.

The mullahs, however, seem to take pop seriously, when they should be happy that repressed feelings are being channeled into an innocuous outlet.

I can think of no reason, other than fear of western influences, that would motivate a ban on music teaching. I’m not a religious scholar, but there is apparently no prohibition of music in all of the Koran, although there may be in later accretions, as Christian prohibitions pop up from time to time among certain sects. It is a stretch to interpret the Koranic phrase “idle amusements,” which are a sin if they distract one from prayer, to encompass music.

Islam has never been inimical to music. The Sufi and “dervishes” come immediately to mind, as does the “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:” “And thou beside me singing in the wilderness.” Of course a jug of (really prohibited) wine was included in the description, but that’s another story.

And what is the call to prayer by the muezzin but a long recitative, sung five times a day?

Western music owes a great deal to Islam, beginning with the Moorish conquest of Spain, which introduced the precursor of the guitar to the Christian world. (Guitars in prohibited Iranian rock bands; talk about coming full circle!)

In another ironic twist, it was the Arabs who re-introduced Greek thought to Europe, including Plato’s concepts of  music and citizenship. Now it is westerners, including the library of Hebrew University, who are trying to preserve a record of traditional Middle-Eastern music, which is being overwhelmed in its countries of origin by American pop.

Perhaps the Iranian authorities should read the 1723 speech by Major Daniel Abraham Davel just before he was beheaded for insurrection in Switzerland. Addressing divinity students from the scaffold, he said :”You neglect your studies for worldly pleasure. You take no pains to learn music, which is so necessary for the singing of God’s praises. The songs of the church form an essential part of divine worship and have an infinite value in helping us to lift our hearts to God.” (Translation by Percy A. Scholes from “The Oxford Companion to Music.”

 

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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