God is great: A musical fatwah

WALLACE LYON was Provincial Administrator in Kurdistan after World War One when Britain created Iraq and tried desperately to forge the new country from three broken pieces of the Ottoman Empire.  In Memories of Eden, Violette recalls how the Shi’a Muslims of Basra, the Sunnis of Baghdad and the Kurds of Mosul  had never been linked before; their people did not like each other, and the only thing in common they had was a dislike of central control.  Mr Lyon had other insights. He writes about “bringing Sulaimani under Iraqi rule” and the unusual difficulties encountered in relation to that  sacrilegious modern invention, the gramophone.

allahu“THE favourite relaxation of the local Kurds was to sit on benches outside the café exchanging gossip… while drinking endless glasses of sweet tea… There was also gramophone music purveyed from old-fashioned machines with wide trumpet-shaped horns. Across the mouth of the horns was a string net adorned with screwed up pieces of paper which attracted my attention, and on further investigation the following explanation was given.

When gramophones first made their appearance in Kurdistan the mullahs of the orthodox Moslem religion at once perceived that this new invention would encourage the people to stay around the tea shops instead, as was customary, of spending most of their time in the courtyards of the mosques.  For in those days the mosque was the centre of culture, information and learning, and it was common practice for the mullahs, who had the latest information on the bazaar, to advise the ignorant peasant to go with one of the mosque servants to one of their own agents, where they were told they would get an honest deal instead of going to the open market where they would be victimized.

Infidel music

This practice brought in good pickings for the Holy Men, though sometimes, when the peasant returned home with a wretched piece of short measure cloth, he would get a wigging, if not worse, from a long-suffering and over-worked wife.

So the mullahs issued a ‘fatwah’ or ban on the new machines on the plea that they gave forth infidel music and culture.  But the mullahs’ union was not a completely closed shop, and one or two junior and less affluent clerics saw their chance.  For a reasonable fee they wrote out some verses of the Koran, and these, when hung at the mouth of the gramophone, would act as a filter and all sounds passing through would be disinfected, pure, sanitary and inoffensive to the ears of  all true believers…”

An extract from  Kurds, Arabs and Britons: The Memoirs of Wallace Lyon in Iraq 1918-44  published by I.B.Tauris (2002) ISBN 1860646131, 9781860646133

One thought on “God is great: A musical fatwah

  1. Great post, TandM. This fatwa fits into a pattern – a puritannical Ottoman Caliph had already declared a fatwa on Shi’ites playing musical instruments. That’s why Jewish musicians became so influential in modern Iraq.


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