The permissibility of music has been contested in Iran since the onset of Islam in the seventh century AD when Muhammad passed and his companions sought to keep men's minds away from malahi (forbidden pleasures): wine, women and song. While the Koran doesn't condemn music per se, it claims that music can lead to a loss of reason resulting in "uncontrollable behaviour" and an "inflammation of passions".
After the Prophet's death, Islamic purists began to collect his sayings, or hadith. One ancient hadith says: "Listening to music leads to discord, just as water leads to the growth of vegetation." Hadith were then used by legists to effectively forbid music, save that tolerated by Muhammad. Music in Iran was to uphold these Islamic standards and abide by the Islamic moral code established by the Koran and the hadith.
However (in)compatible it may be with Islam, music is deeply rooted in the country's rich and diverse history. In addition to the practice of halal (compatible) music, Iranians have historically maintained the practices of makruh (blameworthy yet tolerated) and haram (incompatible) music.
Before the advent of music reproduction and other information communication technologies (ICT), music – underground or not, halal or haram – was confined to physical locations in real-time, historically controllable by authorities with centralised power in a physically and temporally confined country.
The development of ICTs in the mid to late twentieth century, paired with a progressively minded government and loosened controls on cultural practices led to an increase in the import and export of (musical) ideas. With the introduction of music reproduction technologies, Iranian music underwent a process of rapid internationalisation. New and portable media revolutionised how, where and when musical practices could be carried out on the periphery of the public domain. This made them increasingly more difficult to control.
The Islamic revolution
The Islamic revolution of 1979 and the end of the Shah dynasty brought about dramatic reform, new power constellations and a purge of outside – and in particular Western – influences. The new theocratic regime sought to centralise its control over Iranian society and culture.
During the revolution, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini told the "Keyhan", Iran's major conservative daily newspaper: "...music is like a drug, whoever acquires the habit can no longer devote himself to important activities. We must completely eliminate it."
In the course of its politicisation of Islamic ideology, the regime brought all public music to a halt. Systematic measures were designed to officially suppress Islam-incompatible music, and draconian control of music was imposed through the agency of official organisations. Concerts were banned, and those who had attended or performed in concerts or music festivals prior to the revolution were interrogated. Music ceased to be broadcast, music schools were closed and the symphony orchestra, ballet troupe and opera company were disbanded. The ban was so severe that revolutionary guards were reported to have organised raids in small villages to collect and destroy musical instruments.
By establishing official legislation to define music's permissibility according to Islamic criteria – however vague that legislation might have been – the revolutionary regime officially dismissed the long-contested issue of music's permissibility, turning it instead into the issue of music's regulability.
The appropriation of Shajarian's music
In an effort to preserve, retrieve and propagate the cultural "purity" of Iran's history through the promotion of select Persian traditional music, thereafter dubbed "revolutionary music", the embargo was imposed on all music except revolutionary and religious music that government officials felt "[spoke] truth to the sensibilities of Iranian culture".
The state sponsored a campaign featuring Persian traditional music such as Mohammad-Reza Shajarian's famous "tasnif", or epic song "O Iran, O House of Hope". It was broadcast repeatedly over mass media channels to set what cultural sociologist Motti Nieger calls the "tune of the nation's mood".
Shajarian's piece resounds with ideals of social cohesiveness, national unity and pride. With these qualities, the piece was used to propagate ideological support for the new regime's triumph over the old, unifying a message of hope for a new era. It was planted in the collective memory of the Iranian public to be associated with the social, political and cultural ambiance of the 1979 revolution.
The power of music has long been acknowledged and documented throughout Persian antiquity and modern-day Iran, above all by those who have been impelled to censor it. Islam has always approached music with mistrust, suspecting it of being endowed with "magic" or even "diabolic powers liable to drive [its listener] to the worst extremes." Down through the years, religious and political leaders in Iran have continued to use these suspicions as their motivation and justification for its regulation.
The power of music has not only been acknowledged and feared by authorities throughout Iran's history, it has also been used as an instrument of propagation and control. In the case of Shajarian's epic song "O Iran, O House of Hope", the state-controlled radio broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), re-created the musical space of the popular Persian traditional song again in 2009, a time of civil and political unrest.
The controversial presidential election of 2009
The results of the 2009 presidential election were highly contested. Accusing the authorities of having used fraudulent methods to obtain false election results, supporters of the opposition party took to the streets to demand a recount. Meanwhile, the IRIB strategically and systematically re-broadcast some of the nation's most respected Persian traditional music from the 1979 revolution era including Shajarian's "O Iran, O House of Hope" to conjure and re-propagate the pro-state connotations initially assigned to the song in the wake of the revolution.
The government attempted to utilise the transgressive power of music by saturating radio and TV channels with the song's imposed associations of patriotism and religiopolitical optimism, to distract, discourage and even change the hearts and minds of those in opposition. The aim of this attempted recreation of the revolutionary "ambiance" was to legitimise the events surrounding the 2009 election.
Shajarian, along with several other musicians, poets, filmmakers and artists, expressed his support for the opposition by re-appropriating the power of his own music. Using the government's censorship mechanism against itself, Shajarian silenced his own music, decrying the connection between the song and the present situation.
He demanded that the IRIB stop broadcasting his song. In doing so, Shajarian attempted to re-assign to the politicised song the initial connotations associated with it, namely optimism, citizenship and cultural and national pride. Nevertheless, this powerful piece will always retain the scar caused by the government's misappropriation.
In 2011, more than two years after the dispute surrounding the 2009 election and Shajarian's act of defiance, the state fought back. The IRIB announced that Shajarian's beloved Ramadan song "Rabbana" was banned. The state banned all recordings and performances of Shajarian in a desperate attempt to take back the power he had exercised via self-censorship.
Despite all this, Shajarian is the "undisputed master of Persian traditional singing", he is considered a national treasure by music lovers in Iran and throughout the Iranian diaspora, and his global fan base is growing by the day thanks to the Internet and social networks outside the reach of religiopolitical censorship.
Iranian music on the Internet
While ICTs continue to play a pivotal role in undermining the systems of state control of music in Iran, the Internet has transformed the issue completely by providing a whole new dimension. Music's expansion into virtual space rendered the state's infrastructures of enforcement outmoded, therefore putting the state under pressure to change tack. This time, applying the principles of censorship has proven far more difficult.
The Iranian government's legal, administrative and technical agencies are making steadfast attempts to apply enforcement mechanisms to Iran's increasingly densely populated virtual society. Meanwhile, underground music persists online despite being faced with progressively pervasive barriers of bureaucracy. Internet users have made impressive strides in circumventing Internet-based music censorship. Musicians in Iran and the Iranian diaspora continue to grow and strengthen their networks online while end users in Iran continue to develop and harness the means to evade filters in order to create and experience underground music online.
Although underground music cultures continue to create new musical space online and exploit new technologies to deal with historically rooted barriers, music in Iran and its growing diaspora face a turbulent future, especially in the wake of the 2013 presidential election. What is now the "tune of the nation's mood" and who is setting it? Whatever the answer, the future of music in Iran is rooted in both a rich history and the global network that is the Internet.
© Qantara.de 2014
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de
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TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranians vote on Friday in the 10th presidential election since the 1979 Islamic revolution which toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.
Three decades after the revolution, Reuters invited some older Iranians who witnessed the Shah’s overthrow to look back at the changes they have lived through.
Here are some of their views:
“Before the revolution, most Iranians could afford to buy a flat, but now even rents are not affordable for people like me,” said Mahmoud Sardari, a retired government employee who earns $400 a month.
“I had a 150 square meter apartment then and I could afford to travel abroad with my two daughters and my wife. But now with this high inflation I feel poorer every passing day.”
Sardari, 62, has little patience for hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s economic populism, but said reformers offer little alternative since all candidates promise to redistribute oil wealth, rather than restructure the economy.
With official inflation at 15 percent “every month my purchasing power drops and I am preoccupied with daily livelihood,” he said.
Under the Shah, the middle class constituted a majority of Iran’s population, said Sardari. “But now Iranians are mainly lower income people.”
Architect Alireza Naghshband, 67, disagrees.
“Since 1979, we weathered international sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s,” he said. “Still, people like me have much better living standards than before the revolution.
“Under the Shah most Iranians were poor except those linked to the royal family. But since 1979 Iran has become the land of opportunities for all Iranians.”
TRAVEL AND RESPECT
Retired teacher Mahin Hamedani, 72, has not seen her U.S.-based children and grandchildren since 2004. “I have tried unsuccessfully to get a U.S. visa. I miss my children and grandchildren so much,” she said.
“Before the revolution, Iranians could get a (U.S.) visa from the American embassy in Tehran easily.”
Washington cut ties with Iran shortly after the revolution. Before that, Iran had interaction with the rest of the world, said Hamedani.
“But now we are on two different sides of the spectrum. Iranians do not see the same respect abroad that we used to see under the Shah.”
ISLAMIC DRESS CODE
Artist Shirin Ghavamian, 58, wears colorful clothes in Islamic Iran, where women are obliged to cover their hair and wear long, loose clothing to disguise their figures and protect their modesty. Offenders can face fines and even jail.
“Using bright colors instead of browns and greys favored by the system gives me a morale boost,” she said. “Under the Shah, a woman was much more respected if she was not covered from head to toe.”
But housewife Zahra Farrokhi, 50, says dictating what women wear — whether “Islamic or un-Islamic dress” — is wrong.
“Before the revolution I chose to respect the Islamic dress code. It was very difficult under Shah to take such a decision. I was not welcomed at all by society,” she said.
Since Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005, promising a return to the values of the revolution, hardliners have pressed for tighter controls on women flouting the strict Islamic dress code.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH
Many Iranians remember the Shah’s secret police, Savak.
“Under the Shah we could not even think about criticizing the system publicly, because of the Savak,” said Iraj Nemati, 60, owner of a carpet shop.
“But wherever you go now, people are criticizing the system, the government’s economic policies and so on,” he said. “Today Iranians enjoy much more freedom of expression than 30 years ago.
“Iranians turned against the Shah because there was no freedom in the country,” he said.
Rights groups and Western diplomats say the Islamic Republic has escalated a crackdown on dissenting voices since Ahmadinejad came to power, possibly in response to Western pressure on Tehran over its disputed nuclear work. Iran denies the claim.
Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Dominic Evans and Sara Ledwith