The night that Navy SEALS stormed Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, another man living not five miles away awoke wondering why the military was conducting drills in the middle of the night.
This man, a Canadian and a Muslim whose name is Dawud Wharnsby, has also become known around the world, but for very different reasons. He is a peace activist, a folk singer whose inspiration comes from Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and the Holy Qur’an. Wharnsby creates music, poetry, and art that is “socially-conscious and spiritually-driven,” drawing from the resources of his own faith tradition to be a voice of peace. Proceeds from his record label fund various non-profit initiatives, including scholarships for Pakistani women in his wife’s school in Abbottabad to attend medical school in China, and return armed with education and needed medical skills to serve their community.
When I first heard him perform in a lounge on the University of Chicago campus, surrounded by young Muslim adults who had grown up listening to his music, I found myself wondering, “How is it I’ve never heard this before?”
Since that night, I listen frequently to Wharnsby’s music, both his nasheeds for children and his more Seeger-ish folk songs. Listening to “Colours of Islam,” I find myself moved to a state of joy not unlike what I feel when I’m singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
His music reaches out from a view of God and religion completely different (and in some ways conflicting) with my own, reaching into the world of the distinct values and traditions I hold dear, and took hold of my heart in a way that brought me to an experience of the divine. That doesn’t mean I’m going to change religions to chase after this one experience. As I’ve said previously, I’m pretty darn proud of my Baptist heritage. Wharnsby’s religion will forever be theologically at odds with mine. And yet here I sit, with an inexplicable feeling of God’s presence, which his music has given to me.
Music has a power that allows us to be grasped by the experiences of others in a way that conventional discourse cannot. It gets around the words that we so often get hung up on. Music demands that for the duration of this song you the audience just listen, rather than trying to think up a response. For this reason, music is a vital part of the movement for interfaith reconciliation.
Franciscan priest Ivo Marković realized this when he created the Pontanima Interfaith Choir in Sarajevo.* Pontanima is an interfaith choir that travels around Bosnia and Herzegovina, going to places that have experienced ethnic cleansing, that most horrible of interfaith encounters, and sings songs from the traditions of every religious tradition found in that country. The diverse and peaceful reality created in the space of the concert defies the war-torn history of the region. It invites its audience to dwell in its vision of interfaith unity for as long as the music goes on. Such an experience has the power to change reality, to make us look upon the religious other in an entirely new way. It can create shared experience, even shared joy, where it had not previously existed.
For the interfaith gathering State of Formation has started in Chicago, we have planned a music-sharing session to take place in the coming academic year. Maybe I’ll sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” or maybe I’ll play one of Dawud Wharnsby’s songs and speak of how it moved me. Because somehow, singing along to “Alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah, I am Muslim,” I feel as deeply Christian as I ever have.
*Many thanks to my colleague Andrew Packman, an M. Div at University of Chicago, whose field research and reflections on the Pontanima Youth Choir in Bosnia contributed to my own understanding of the importance of music in interfaith work.
Photo: Hector Berlioz. Artist: Gustave Doré, published in Journal pour rire, 27 June 1850, via Wikimedia Commons