Maher Zain, with Fadly 'Padi', sings Insha Allah live on Indonesian television
Writing for Oxford Islamic Studies Online, Sean Foley examines the recent phenomenon of singer Maher Zain across the Islamic world and beyond...
On a recent fall afternoon in Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia, hundreds of people came to celebrate the wedding of the son of Dr. Osman Bakar, one of the nation's foremost scholars of Islam. As is often the case with Malay weddings, guests streamed in and out of the large ballroom. There were several dozen large tables, where the guests were served traditional specialties: rice, rendang tok (a dry meat dish), chicken curry, various vegetables, watermelon, and rose juice. The proud father, Bakar, greeted guests and wore a purple baju melayu (shirt and pants), black songkok (cap), and gold kain sarong (skirt) --- much as Malay men have done for generations at weddings. When the groom and his procession of friends and relatives entered the ballroom to meet the bride and begin the bersanding (the enthronement or public display of the bride and groom at the heart of a Malay wedding), they were accompanied by children playing traditional Malay drums (kompang) and waving a traditional bunga manggar (silver palm blossom tree).
But there was one important aspect of the wedding which would have been unrecognizable to Bakar's forefathers or would not have been included in a similar wedding as recently as two years ago: the music. When the bersanding began, Maher Zain's English language romantic song, "For the Rest of My Life" boomed across the ballroom and signaled to guests that the main event of the wedding was beginning. The music of the Lebanese-Swedish music star, taken from his 2009 album, Thank You Allah, played for the remainder of the wedding, only pausing for the reading of an Islamic prayer for the new couple.
The place of Zain's music at the wedding reflected the popularity of the Muslim singer in Southeast Asia and suggests how his vision of synthesizing Islam and modernity resonates with the hundreds of millions of Muslims in the region—the largest in the Muslim world. From southern Thailand to the outermost Indonesian islands, Zain's songs are now as ubiquitous an element of the daily environment as afternoon thunderstorms and spicy rice dishes. In both kampongs (villages) and cities, Zain's songs are part of any public event—whether on radio playlists, cell phone ringtones, and Facebook postings, or as background music heard in the streets, malls, buses, and trains.
Remarkably, Zain spent virtually no money on advertising in Southeast Asia. Instead, he utilized Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to publicize his work to the region's Muslims. They bought Thank You Allah in record numbers and helped to amplify the significance of his music and his message to the peoples of the Middle East and the wider Muslim world during the 2011 Arab Awakening. Ultimately, Zain helps us see the emerging importance of both new communications technology and Southeast Asians to the modernization of the global Muslim community from Cheras in suburban Kuala Lumpur to Cairo, Egypt to Chicago, Illinois.
Within months of the release of Thank You Allah, revolts began throughout the Arab World. These revolts employed strategies similar to those used by Zain to promote both his music and his characters in his songs, and drew hope for a better future from Islam. Through enormous, peaceful demonstrations, protestors challenged Arab governments to withdraw in a manner recalling the way the little girl forced the withdrawal of the Israeli tank in the video "Palestine Will Be Free." They did not blame the West and utilized social media and YouTube to "market" their message (and circumvent mainstream and state media) in a manner reminiscent of Zain's (and Awakening Record's) approach to marketing music. The most important days of protesting corresponded with the most holy day of the week for Muslims—Friday—and included women and pious Muslim parties. The role of these two groups was sufficiently important that the Nobel Committee justified awarding the 2011 Peace Prize to a female Yemeni Islamic Activist, Tawakkal Karman. In an interview with the Associated Press in October, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, noted that Karman's award was meant to signal that both women and Islam have played an important part in the 2011 Arab uprisings.
These remarks are not meant to suggest that Maher Zain caused demonstrations or is an Islamic activist in the mold of Karman. But Zain's songs clearly reflect a wide-spread feeling of discontent and a desire for a different future among Islamic and secular activists in the Arab world. His awareness of that discontent and of the need for hope is an element of his popularity—epitomized by an Egyptian fan who stated at his Cairo concert in March 2010 that she loved the "revolutionary" feel of his music, which was neither materialistic nor in line with classical religious sermons.
Zain tapped into this same feeling of discontent and the need for hope in the first song he released after the start of the Arab Spring, "Freedom." He premiered the song, which is entirely in English, in Malaysia in February 2011. The song thanks God for giving friends and neighbors the strength to hold hands and demand an end to oppression. It presents a vision for a new Arab Muslim society in which people will no longer be prisoners in their homes or afraid to voice their opinions in public. While Zain acknowledges that the dream of a new Arab society has yet to be fulfilled, he promises his listeners that they are on the verge of achieving it, that God is with them, and that he will not let them fail. In the background as Zain sings, there are images of Arab flags and protestors of all ages peacefully challenging their governments in the Arab World.
Maher Zain "Palestine Will Be Free"