Sometime during the last weekend of July 2023, previously confiscated musical instruments were collected and publicly burned in the Afghan province of Herāt. The head of the local office of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Aziz al-Rahman al Muhajir, justified the burning by saying that music leads to moral corruption. Apparently string instruments, a harmonium, a tabla, and electronic amplifiers were burned. Performing music in public has been banned in Afghanistan since 2021.
Music has long been a controversial topic in Islam. Although the Islamic world has birthed rich and brilliant musical cultures, some Muslims nevertheless believe that music, especially instrumental music, causes people to go astray by indulging in sensual pleasures. The Taliban, a Sunni Islamic nationalist and pro-Pashtun movement founded in the early 1990s, rose to power in 1996 and subsequently banned the public performance of music and imposed numerous other restrictions on musical life. The group ruled around three-quarters of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 before being overthrown after an invasion led by the United States. The group regained power over the entire country following the August 2021 departure of coalition forces.
Speaking in July 2023, Ahmad Sarmast, founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, likened the Taliban’s actions to “cultural genocide and musical vandalism”. Now living in Portugal, Sarmast says, “The people of Afghanistan have been denied artistic freedom . . . The burning of musical instruments in Herat is just a small example of the cultural genocide that is taking place in Afghanistan under the leadership of the Taliban.”
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Below is a performance of the Afghani rabāb accompanied by tabla at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
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In September 1967 Mark Slobin, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, traveled to Afghanistan to spend 14 months studying and documenting the country’s musical traditions. He returned for additional fieldwork trips in 1971 and 1972.
Today, the information and materials that Slobin collected there comprise priceless glimpses of the region before successive waves of war and repression began to decimate its traditional culture.
Mark Slobin, a self-published website from 2021 (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2021-3963), presents his monograph Music in the Afghan north (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976) along with a reissue of Music in the Afghan north, 1967–1972 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004, a website that was taken down in 2020 for technical reasons) and additional slides and super 8 footage from his research in Afghanistan.
As he describes it, “the material presented in this project is something of a fly in amber, a structure engulfed by the flow of history, but still showing the morphology and evidence of a kind of life that existed at a particular moment in time.”
Above, Slobin’s photograph of a rubāb maker in Mazār-i-Sharīf; below, discussing and sharing his documentation of Afghanistan in peacetime.
Music has always been a controversial topic in Islam. Although the Islamic world has birthed rich and brilliant musical cultures, conservative Muslims nevertheless believe that music (especially instrumental music) tends to lead people astray by indulging in sensual pleasures.
The Taliban, a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist militant group that originated in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, emerged in 1994. After taking power in 1996, the Taliban essentially banned music altogether in Afghanistan, until 2001 when the Taliban regime was overthrown in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Yet with the recent Taliban recapture of most parts of Afghanistan, there are renewed concerns about the situation there. Will music be banned again?
Looking through the literature related to the Taliban and music, we can find that scholars, journalists, and directors have left us valuable information through their articles and films documenting musical life in Afghanistan during and after the Taliban rule. In chronological order of publication, we can outline a brief history of music in Afghanistan in the last two or three decades through these documents.
Yusufzai, Rahimullah. “All quiet in Kabul”, Index on censorship: The global magazine for free expression 27/6:185 (November–December 1998) 135–138. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1998-26068]
Abstract: With the takeover of the Taliban regime in 1996 the cultural policies of Afghanistan changed dramatically, as music and any form of electronic entertainment were forbidden. The consequences of this prohibition are described and an excerpt of the Taliban’s official statement is provided.
Majrooh, Naim. “The Talibans have banned all music in Afghanistan”, 1st World Conference on Music and Censorship, Copenhagen, 20–22 November 1998, ed. by Marie Korpe (Freemuse: København, 2001) 27–30. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2001-20196]
Abstract: Afghanistan’s centuries-old art and folk traditions began to decline after the communist coup of 1979 and the repression that followed, but they suffered a far greater blow with the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. In 1992 women and music were banned from Kabul radio and television, and in 1995 all musical life was proscribed. While musical life continues in remote villages, in the cities even weddings and funerals are held without music. A black market in smuggled cassettes, enjoyed discreetly in private homes, shares many similarities with the drug trade in the West.
Baily, John. “Can you stop the birds singing?”: The censorship of music in Afghanistan. Freemuse report (Freemuse: København, 2001). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2001-20183]
Abstract: The people of Afghanistan under Taliban rule are subjected to an extreme form of music censorship. The only musical activity permitted is the singing of certain religious songs and Taliban chants.
The report traces the gradual imposition of music censorship since 1978, when the communist government of Nur Ahmad Taraki came to power in a violent coup d’etat. During 14 years of communist rule, music in Afghanistan was heavily controlled by the Ministry for Information and Culture, while in the refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran all music was prohibited in order to maintain a continual state of mourning. The roots of the Taliban ban on music lie in the way these camps were run.
In the Rabbani period (1992–1996) music was heavily censored. In the provincial city of Herat, the newly formed Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (religious police) enforced a virtual ban on live public performance, but private music making was permitted. There was a little music on radio and television, and audiocassettes of music were freely available. In Kabul conditions were somewhat more relaxed until Hekmatyar became prime minister; cinemas were then closed and music was banned from radio and television.
When the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996 a number of edicts were published against music. All musical instruments were banned, and when discovered by agents of the Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice were destroyed, sometimes being burnt in public along with confiscated audio and video cassettes, TVs, and VCRs. The only forms of musical expression permitted today are the singing of certain kinds of religious poetry, and so-called Taliban chants, which are panegyrics to Taliban principles and commemorations of those who have died on the field of battle for the Taliban cause.
The effects of censorship of music in Afghanistan are deep and wide-ranging for the Afghan people, both inside and outside the country. The lives of professional musicians have been completely disrupted, and most have had to go into exile for their economic survival. The rich Afghan musical heritage is under severe threat. The report concludes with a number of recommendations intended to counteract the effects of censorship.
Broughton, Simon. Breaking the silence: Music in Afghanistan. VHS (BBC Education & Training, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2002-15784]
Abstract: The Taliban’s prohibition of music was the most severe in history. Apart from unaccompanied chants, all music was banned and instruments were broken and burnt. This film documents the remarkable moment when the country was reconnected with its musical culture. Shot in Kabul and Peshawar (Pakistan) in January 2002, two months after the fall of the Taliban, this film is an introduction to the music of Afghanistan and the way it’s been caught in the crossfire of conflicting regimes over the past 25 years. Most poignantly, it shows the musicians in Kabul who are now rebuilding Afghanistan’s devasted musical life. Directed by Simon Broughton, it won the documentary prize at the Golden Prague Festival in 2002.
Includes: Sarinda-player Mashinai, forced to work as a butcher under the Taliban; Singer Aziz Ghaznawi, who had no option but to sing for them; Female singer Naghma, whose tapes flooded the Kabul bazaar as the Taliban fled; Rare footage of Sufi gatherings where Islam and music fervently meet; Ensemble Kaboul, the best of the traditional Afghan groups in exile, who formed when the very survival of Afghan music seemed under threat.
Seybold, Dietrich. “Kulturkampf und Musikzensur: Über die Hintergründe des Musikverbots der Taliban”, Musik & Ästhetik 9/33 (Januar 2005) 104–112. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2005-256]
Abstract: Historically examined, musical censorship is an almost commonplace phenomenon. Less common is a ban as radical as that imposed in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 1996. The reception of the ban in the Western public sphere is analyzed, unifying the insights offered by various disciplines. Embedding this particular phenomenon in a historical examination of the theme of extreme, religiously based opposition to music, patterns of such opposition are revealed; these are also found in the occidental tradition, albeit focusing on a different problem complex: the stance of Islam, including its marginal, sect-like manifestations, in relation to music.
Alagha, Joseph. “Jihad through ‘music’”: The Taliban and Hizbullah”, Performing Islam 1/2 (2012) 263–289. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-13894]
Abstract: Discusses the cultural politics of the Taliban and Hezbollah. While Hezbollah embraces “resistance art” and encourages purposeful music and artistic expressions as pious entertainment, the Taliban censor music and restrict artistic activities, considering them innovations (bida’j) that distract from the practice of “authentic Islam” and “true worship”. To discuss the interplay between the “power of music” and “music in power”, this article uses samples of anashid (alternate spelling anachid or anasheed, meaning songs, hymns, and anthems) of the Taliban and Hezbollah, both of which practice jihad through music.
Most notably, both employ the same Qur’anic concept of “action of excellence under God’s guidance”, either to legitimize and justify certain artistic expressions and practices (Hezbollah) or to ban and prohibit them altogether (the Taliban). Hezbollah’s contextual argument leads to a music theory, whilst the Taliban’s prohibition in the absolute curtails cultural politics all together.
Cara, Gibney. “Dr. Ahmad Sarmast”, fRoots 39/10-12:418-420 (spring 2018) 31. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-1109]
Abstract: A profile and interview. Ahmad Sarmast is founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul, which asserts in its mission statement: “We focus especially on supporting the most disadvantaged children in Afghanistan—orphans, street-working vendors and girls”. It’s been long, hard, dangerous work developing a music institute in Kabul focused on these marginalized populations, and the struggle isn’t over.
Ahmad Sarmast left Afghanistan in the 1990s, seeking asylum in Australia away from the relentless Afghan civil war. During his years away from home he pursued a music education that would develop skills and knowledge essential for the years ahead, ultimately becoming the first Afghan national to obtain a PhD in music. He returned to Afghanistan in 2008 after the defeat of the Taliban, a land where music was banned for many years.
ANIM opened its doors in 2010, and now offers a core academic syllabus including math, languages, and social sciences. It offers studies in Afghan music, Western music, and various ensembles including Zohra—”the first-ever all-female ensemble in the history of Afghanistan”.
The importance of birds and bird song in Afghan culture is embedded in Afghanistan’s two official languages—Dari and Pashto—in which the nightingale, a central poetic symbol, occurs in texts sung by urban and rural singers.
The songs of particular birds are associated with calls to prayer, and mullahs confirm that birdsong is regarded within Sufism as a form of religious singing; birds are welcomed at Sufi shrines, where feeding them is considered an act of piety.
Sometimes caged birds are brought to musical performances in Herāt, and when they are stirred to sing by hearing music their sounds are heard as an integral and treasured part of the performance.
This according to “Afghan perceptions of birdsong” by John Baily (The world of music XXXIX/2  pp. 51–59).
Above, an Afghan dove with a friend; below, a nightingale competition in Afghanistan.
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