(RNS) In the early 1970s, singers such as the late Larry Norman transformed Christian music from hymns to rock ‘n’ roll by asking one simple question:
Why should the devil have all the good music?
Now a group of young Muslim musicians is doing the same for Islamic songs known as “nasheeds,” by combining hip-hop, country and pop music with the traditional message of their faith.
“Nasheeds are supposed to remind people of God,” said 22-year-old Mo Sabri of Johnson City, Tenn., one of the first Muslim singers with his own channel on Pandora.com. “If it has a good message, a song can be a rock song or have guitars and still be a nasheed.”
Sabri, 22, first began writing hip-hop nasheeds about two years ago. He sells his songs on iTunes and posts videos on YouTube. His first, called “Heaven Is Where Her Heart Is,” is about finding a girl who puts God first in her life.
Video courtesy Mo Sabri via You Tube
His most popular song, “I Believe in Jesus,” has already been viewed on YouTube more than 1 million times.
Sabri said he wrote the song as a reminder that Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet and that all faiths should follow Jesus’ command to love their neighbors. It’s an idea that’s easier to spread in a song than in a debate because people will sing along before they have a chance to argue.
“If we don’t have peace we’ll end up in pieces,” he sings in the chorus. “I am not afraid to say that I believe in Jesus.”
YouTube is becoming a vehicle for other young Muslim singers, too.
Maher Zain’s “Number One For Me,” a song the Swedish-Lebanese singer wrote for his mother, has been viewed more than 17 million times.
Other songs with Muslim spiritual themes include “Generous Peace,” by country singer Kareem Salama, an Oklahoman, and “Believe,” a new song from British singer Saif Adam.
Dawud Wharnsby is a fan of them all.
Wharnsby, 41, has been writing and performing nasheeds for two decades. When he first started out there were only a handful of other musicians writing nasheeds in English. Some strict Muslims frown on contemporary music and the use of instruments.
But younger Muslim singers are more comfortable in their own skins, he said, and can embrace both contemporary music and their faith.
A good nasheed combines both spirituality and human experience. The best ones, Wharnsby said, are similar to hymns such as “Amazing Grace,” that connect with a universal human longing.
“You don’t have to just write about how great it is to be a Muslim,” he said. “You can write about how great it is to be a human being.”
Wharnsby, who lives near Toronto, recently returned from a tour in the United Kingdom where he met up with Saif Adam, whose new CD, “Heart,” is due out in time for Ramadan, which begins Monday (July 8).
The video for its first single shows Adam out for a job interview in a snowstorm while smiling and listening to his iPod. It has an infectious beat and a melody that’s easy to hum along to:
“I can be free, nobody’s holding me, I am on the road to be where Allah is pleased with me.”
It’s a song that could appeal to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, said Usamah Kamaruzaman, chief editor for the English version of Munsyeed.com, which covers Islamic entertainment.
“The lyrics are plain and simple but carry a very powerful message of freedom within one’s devotion to God,” he said in an email. “Most of his (songs) are about Islam and spreading love towards every living soul. These are the things that matter most nowadays.”
Remziya Suleyman of Nashville, a fan of Mo Sabri and Maher Zain, hopes to get Saif Adam’s new album when it comes out.
“This is the type of music that is easy for our youth to listen to, and also helps make them feel proud of their Muslim identity,” she said.
Sabri said he hopes younger Muslims will listen to this new style of nasheed for the pure enjoyment.
He knows that some Muslims consider the use of hip-hop or rock as a distraction from spirituality.
But he hopes his message and his music will inspire people to embrace spirituality as an everyday part of life. People need that kind of inspiration to live out the teachings of their faith, he said.
“Why can’t I make music that reminds people of God?” he asked.