Maher Zain's Hip but Pious Soundtrack to the Arab Spring

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The superstar uses pop music to praise Islam and advocate for political change in the Middle East

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Ramadan 2011 coincides with two significant events for the people of the Middle East. The first—Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s appearance in a Cairo courtroom—has received plenty of coverage and was seen as emblematic of a new Egypt in which even the highest officials are accountable to the law. The second event will get less attention in the West, but also comes out of the political movements that have transformed the Arab World in the last seven months: Lebanese superstar singer Maher Zain is set to release his new music video, “Ya Nabi Salam Alayka” (“Oh Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon You”).

The Democracy ReportWashington analysts have overlooked the political significance of the pop singer, who—like the Bob Dylan of the ’60s—represents a new generation of Arabs: Young people who want a new society and a new nizam (political system) in which Arabs no longer have to choose between modernity and Islam, and where neither Islam nor the West can be used to justify autocracy. The importance of a change of nizam can be seen in the chief demand of demonstrators from North Africa to the Persian Gulf: “al-sha'b yuridu isqat al-nizam,”which means, “The people want to overthrow the system.”

Few artists understand the yearning for change in the Arab World better than Maher Zain. Born in Lebanon but raised in Sweden, Zain studied aeronautical engineering and partnered with an Arab singer/songwriter who had also migrated to Sweden, Nadir Khayat (known as “RedOne”). The two men traveled to New York, where they worked in the city’s music industry with some of its brightest young stars. Khayat played a key role in the rapid emergence of Lady Gaga and went on to become one of America’s top music producers, working with Akon, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson.

On the album's cover, Zain is dressed as if for an R&B concert—but is seated in quiet Islamic prayer

Zain’s New York period and his work with Khayat served him well when he produced his debut album, Thank You Allah. Released in November 2009 (little more than a year before the start of the Arab Spring) and featuring a good many songs sung in Zain’s excellent English, it was a surprise commercial success. In a musical competition organized in January 2010 by Cairo’s Nogoom FM (the most-popular radio station in Egypt), the album’s second track, “Ya Nabi Salam Alayka,” was voted as the best religious song for 2009, beating out work by more-established singers. Zain’s March 2010 concert in Cairo drew fans from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and the United Kingdom. Many leading personalities in the Egyptian music industry also attended the concert.

Thank You Allah went on to sell well throughout the Muslim world, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, in 2010 and 2011. In Malaysia, the album earned eight platinum awards from Warner Music Malaysia in 2010 and was declared the top selling album in the country for the decade. (Approximately 120,000 albums were sold in a country of approximately 27 million people.) That same year, Zain was the most googled personality in Malaysia. In 2011, Thank You Allah earned a double platinum award from Sony Music Indonesia. By May 2010, the record had earned the top position on Amazon.com’s digital charts in the world music category.

On the album’s cover, Zain wears jeans, a black jacket, and a dapper cap—all items appropriate to a rhythm and blues concert—but is seated in quiet Islamic prayer. That combination is emblematic of the theme of the album that faith in Islam, God (Allah), and personal dignity are the answer to the systematic challenges facing modern Muslims. But the moral message of his music is clothed in a pop idiom immediately recognizable to the young. While Zain sings in Arabic and has released songs in French, Malay and other languages, most of his work is in English. These songs are integral to a global marketing campaign that seeks to reach fans via social networking sites, YouTube, and other internet media platforms. In a July 2011 interview in the British lifestyle magazine Emel, Zain noted that the internet was both “revolutionary” and the “biggest blessing” for Muslim artists, since they face considerable obstacles in getting Islamic-themed music on radio and television. The internet allowed him to bypass traditional media and publicize his work directly to people around the world.

Deftly taking advantage of opportunities offered by the internet, Zain was the first Muslim artist to reach a million fans on Facebook; today, he boats 2.5 million fans. Collectively, his YouTube vides have received more than 50 million hits. Released in 2010, “In Shah Allah” (“God Willing”) has been downloaded more than 11 million times on YouTube. Two other videos—“The Chosen One” (2010) and “Palestine Will Be Free” (2009)—have been downloaded more than 4 million and 2.5 million times, respectively. He harnessed this popularity offline with an ambitious touring schedule in 2010 and 2011, that has seen him regularly performing to sold-out concert venues throughout Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and, interestingly, North America.

In his videos and songs, Zain eschews the traditional, glamorized image of pop stars, instead presenting himself as an ordinary person standing out from the crowd only because of his musical talent—given to him by Allah. He also specifically calls on Muslims to avoid blaming all of their problems on the West and to realize their own role in shaping their situation. Indeed, as he very clearly realizes, his music has deep roots in the West.

One of his most striking songs is “Palestine Will Be Free.” The video uses animation to depict an apocalyptic urban landscape torn apart by Arab-Israeli violence, with live-action Zain singing amid the carnage. In the penultimate scene of the video, we see a young school girl holding a stone in front of an Israeli tank. The image is meant to invoke a clash between David and Goliath or might versus right. But it also has specific meaning for many Arabs: It is a reminder of the famous picture from the First Palestinian Intifada of a Palestinian child holding a rock above his head to throw at a nearby Israeli tank. But in Zain’s video, the girl drops the rock, stands defenseless in front of the Israeli tank, and implicitly puts her faith in Allah that her personal will is stronger than the mighty Israeli tank. Her faith is rewarded. As she moves forward, the tank withdraws.

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Sean Foley is a Fulbright Research Scholar in Malaysia at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) as well as an Associate Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University.

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