The Unavoidable Suspect
Music on Iran’s Political Scene
Is music banned in Iran? Has the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran imposed indisputable limitations on Iranian artists, especially musicians, over the past 44 years? Is holding concerts in Iran subject to bizarre restrictions? Are Iranian women banned from singing and playing music? Is the scope of censorship unlimited? What is the source of the problems? These are a number of questions we Iranian musicians are asked by our foreign counterparts during meetings, and we have to answer them both directly and indirectly.
In this paper, I try to provide an objective, real picture, devoid of overstatements about the present situation of Iranian musicians in the Islamic Republic system. I emphasise the phrase “devoid of overstatements” since a large portion of the information about the issue sent overseas is sometimes overstated. Whether the information is provided by state-affiliated institutions or musicians, it tends to go to extremes. On the one hand, the state claims that music practice in Iran is free and unrestricted and apparently wants to be credited as the protector of freedom of speech. On the other hand, [some] musicians want to show the situation is disappointing and frightening and depict music as art that is almost banned in Iran, where musicians go through daily torment. By doing so, they want to attract the attention of world musicians, festivals and international culture and art circles to their work.
The truth is transparent: both parties avoid telling the whole truth.
First: Where Did the Game Start?
Following the overthrow of the last Iranian king [Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi] and the empowerment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, religious forces led by Ayatollah Khomeini who sided with leftist militants and nationalist factions in the course of the movement, took the upper hand, pushed back their allies, and step-by-step began to monopolise the power. Among the first steps they took was to name the new state the “Islamic Republic”, which was a new term in the terminology of the world’s political science and pre-determined the situation in which we Iranians have lived for the past 44 years: a bit of this, a bit of that, two steps forward, one step backward; make allowances for the hearts of majority urban middle class people and return to the demands of the conservative, traditional minority who backs the Islamic Republic system.
In this context, one could realise the situation of art and thought and music in particular. Meanwhile, some works which were not supposed to be approved, to our astonishment, have received official permission, and on the contrary, some other musical works which we have received clandestinely through friendly connections made us wonder: are they really banned, why?!
The undeniable truth is that the Iranian state is aware that extremist religious attitudes do not reflect the general mindset of our contemporary society, but it’s involved in a ceremonial behaviour toward a very limited minority who are the last survivors of the revolutionaries clinging to traditional slogans that uphold the identity and interests of the statesmen. I believe that the statesmen and governmental officials face a more difficult problem, since people live their own life and religious beliefs play the least role in their private method of life.
Here, music reflects a key general demand of the urban middle class of Iranian society, which streams widely into people’s daily life. They do not really care what decree a very conservative cleric would issue, but the state, which claims to be a staunch follower of Sharia and Shia religious jurisprudence, is obliged to refer to the laws of Sharia once in a while, even if it is not concerned so much with adjusting them [at least in its radical form] to the lifestyle of the urban middle class in Iran. This results in conflicts, which are the subject of our story, but before delving into that, we should understand what is the exact law of Sharia on music and how it has been applied both by modernist and conservative clerics after the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Second: On the Islamic Decree on Music and How It Has Been Applied in Post-Revolution Iran
I’m a composer, not a religious jurisprudent (faqih), therefore, my knowledge about the context of the conservative clerics’ opposition to music is limited to brief case studies, which help me not to be pushed into silence in possible conversations with them and to understand their logic in general. That’s all. So, I don’t see myself qualified to comment on such a complicated, ambiguous field of dispute among jurists. I’d rather quote one of the most influential figures of the Iranian-Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Mohamad Beheshti, who is not regarded a conservative or traditional but a modernist and pioneering cleric. When he was the head of Center for Islamic Studies in Hamburg, in response to a question about the religious decree on music, he said something that to a large extent reflects the views of revolutionary Muslims in the 1970s. His remark was recorded before the victory of revolution in Iran:
Singing is not religiously prohibited and it’s not that all types of playing a musical instrument are religiously prohibited. Only a type of singing and playing which prompts the listeners to commit sin and deteriorates their will of devotion to the rules of purity and piety as well as their will for avoiding sin, and encourages them to participate in corruption and wickedness is prohibited. But, if there is a type of singing or playing music which does not produce such an effect, it is not religiously prohibited, and this can be regarded as the definite view of Islam on music.
However, after the revolution, the top cleric of the country, Ayatollah Khomeini, who was a very influential source of emulation and his views were closer to traditional beliefs, expressed different and sometimes even contradictory opinions about music. At first, he wanted to completely eliminate music from the Iranian state television and radio known in Iran as Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), but the directors of that organization argued that such a decision would go against the general taste of the Iranian people. Addressing the then directors of IRIB, Ayatollah Khomeini said:
They say if music is not broadcast from the radio, people will provide it from some other sources. It doesn’t matter, let them do that. At the moment you avoid sin and people will gradually return to you. Should we give them music if they are going to procure it from somewhere else? Should we betray our religion? Eliminate music from your programs and replace it with something educational. Divert people from such a vice habit.
Such a view expressed by the Leader of the Revolution could push the Iranian music society into bewilderment and silence. Going through various remarks made by veteran Iranian musicians from the tumultuous times of early post-revolution years reveals that they faced restrictions and even arrests, to the point that they even could hardly carry their instruments with them.
Paramilitary groups known as “Committees” were often questioning, prosecuting, and arresting those who carried musical instruments. Even the instruments themselves could be destroyed in the process. Therefore, those musicians who were the employees of IRIB, music teachers or the musicians of the then-closed Tehran Symphony Orchestra were given temporary licences to avoid being prosecuted when they had a musical instrument with them. Some veteran musicians still keep such licences as part of their bitter memories of practising music at that time.
However, the situation changed. Not after a long time, the musicians held meetings with the Leader of the Islamic Revolution, described their activities and programs, and were able to obtain the necessary permissions to practise music and open the Tehran Symphony Orchestra as well as the School of Music. Although the latter was renamed to “The Art Center for Revolutionary Ballads and Songs,” it did not lead to a change in the school curriculum, its nature and programs.
After the invasion of Iran by Iraqi forces led by dictator Saddam Hussein to Iran on September 22, 1980, the function of music became known to many Iranian Shia’ jurisprudents and played a pivotal role in changing the conservative attitude of jurisprudence (fiqh) to music and art. Several credible sources confirm that several passionate military marches as well as mourning songs composed for casualties of war or those killed in terrorist attacks [including one made for Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari] impressed Ayatollah Khomeini and influenced his view on the function of music. Those who knew him believe that at first his attitude toward music was shaped by the pre-revolution Iranian music, which is quite at odds with the music which became prevalent in post-revolution times. The historical decree issued later by him, a very influential Shia jurisprudent resolved the problem of practising music for even the most conservative believers. He proclaimed that the types of music that seem questionable to Muslims are religiously permitted and actually based his argument on the view that music is not religiously prohibited unless it’s proved that the opposite is true. Obviously since the pre-revolution era, the majority of Iranian society members have listened to their favourite types of music.
Military march “Blessed be the victory”, commemorating the liberation of Khorramshahr city in 1982 during the Iran-Iraq war. Singer: Mohammad Golriz
They did not wait for the jurisprudents to announce their decree on music. However, the historic decree of Ayatollah Khomeini cleared up the confusion in the relationship between the state and a significant part of the Iranian art society and released a licence enabling the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to make plans for the whole music industry, which later included even pop music. One would say for certain that for many years, music has not been legally banned by Iranian religious politicians, although there may still be a few jurisprudents who do not recommend music for their followers. Probably, the musical instruments are banned from being displayed in the state media due to their opposition. Nevertheless, the sound of music is heard frequently in the state media. Also, non-official media do not face a ban on music and are permitted to display musical instruments. Obviously, the conservative extremist religious view on music in Iran is no longer a civil law binding on people. So, what’s the problem?
Elegy of the death of Ayatollah Motahari
Third: The Political Scene of Iran
Iran has several political parties which all come from two main camps: the Conservatives (Principalists) and the Reformists.
The Conservatives form the hard core of power in Iran and the Reformists are its soft fruit. For those who have lived in this country it is quite clear that the compound term, the Islamic Republic signifies that the Reformists are committed to the “Republic” component of the system and the Conservatives are involved in the Islamic order. Undoubtedly, the parties in Iran lack the essential features of a party – in the democratic sense of the word – and ultimately serve the Leader of the Islamic Revolution and are being monitored by him. Here in Iran, as in the other parts of the world, the interests of political parties are mostly contradictory, but in order to preserve the power and principles of running the country, their commonalities overshadow their differences and disagreements.
At this point, I should note that the influence of the veteran reformist figures in the political arena has greatly diminished in recent years, and one could even say that they have been pushed to the margins of the Iranian political scene. However, despite their diminished position, the Reformism discourse as a powerful element of republicanism taking into account the demands of the urban middle class is still alive on the Iranian political scene. As a result, echoes of some Reformist slogans were sometimes even heard from parts of the Conservative faction, which called themselves the “Neo-Principalists.”
In the country we live in, until around 10 years ago, based on an unwritten rule, the culture and art affairs were entrusted to the Reformists; it meant that the “Republic” element of the power gave way to the demands of the urban middle class of Iranian society. Consequently, this faction of Iranian political activists controlled the economy of culture and art activities in the country, which included huge investments in various fields of culture, such as newspapers, content production agencies, public media and the arts.
But, in the aftermath of fundamental changes in the political scene of Iran, the gradual removal of the veteran reformists and the transformation of some of their policies into those of the ”Neo-Principalists”, much of the cultural and artistic investments is being made by the Neo-Principalists, whose power is steadily rising.
However, it should be noted that Iran is a large country [almost three-quarters of Europe] where the centre of political power has the final say. Nevertheless, different cultural tastes, biases formed out of the demographic context, as well as the influence of powerful persons in special regions may prevent or, on the contrary, facilitate holding a cultural or artistic event, such as delivering a lecture, screening a special film, performing a concert, and so on. Meanwhile, it is clear that the controlling political force that can exercise its power across the country is nothing but the force of the traditional Conservatives, who still enjoy a major part of Iranian political power and differ significantly from the Neo-Principalists.
I suppose you have known the playing court to some extent by now. For example, imagine a football manager [investor on music] who is close to the Reformist or Neo-Principalist camp embarks on performing a concert with his team [a music ensemble] in a city whose rival team is coached by a conservative manager, for example the Friday prayer leader of that city, and is scheduled to host the match concert. That’s the whole story! In most cases, the visiting team wins the match. In some other cases, it’s possible that the other team’s decision-makers take advantage of their situation as host, take the upper hand, and end the match in their favour. And what would be to their advantage is a question which is normally answered based on the political equations of the day. Keep in mind exactly what I wrote earlier: the key debate over the lawfulness of music from the viewpoint of jurists is not about the music itself, but about the setting, time, and place of performing it. This means that the conservatives have no problem with the production and widespread release of music. Instrumental music pieces are not even examined and basically do not face censorship. What is at stake in the playing field are lyrics of songs, solo performances of female vocalists and, in some instances, forms of performances and concerts in remote areas of the country. These are what give the rival team an opportunity to call for banning a performance and score a goal against a rival political faction on the pretext of holding a chamber of sin or an invitation to sin or public unchastity or other similar comments.
Furthermore, it is not that the conservative faction disapproves of music in any circumstances. No, that would be a misjudgement. Running for president or parliament, even the most rigid conservatives recruit pop singers for their electoral campaigns, who are usually regarded as symbols of promiscuity. With the most fiery rhetoric, the conservatives have called for banning the performances and behaviours of the pop singers who are believed to lead the society into corruption and decline. Therefore, the focus is on the attitude and condition of the rival faction, not on the intrinsic problem in the realm of music. It is politics which has the final word, not any other issue. For example, if there is a moderate president and his Ministry of Culture permits a concert to be performed in a remote Iranian city, it’s quite likely that a conservative group would appear and claim that due to the traditional cultural context of the region, it is against the concert and, based on a religious pretext, would force the Ministry to cancel the permission for the concert in a bid to weaken the moderate government.
Fourth: The Issue of Iranian Women Musicians
The issue of women is still a tangled knot that cannot be easily untied. Women’s solo singing in official concerts, unlike in private and underground concerts, is prohibited in Iran. This is a judicial decision that no political faction whether reformist or conservative can transgress. It is often said that this law is relentlessly challenged by several influential figures in Iranian politics. However, it doesn’t mean that women are absolutely banned from singing. There are many ensembles of Iranian women musicians who are active in various fields, and upon receiving permission, they are able to perform at “special concerts for ladies” held at the best music halls of the country. Only women are allowed to attend these concerts, while men are banned. Nevertheless, the number of female audiences was so high that“special concerts for ladies” turned into a very lucrative business. Sometimes, the women lawmakers or the wives of Iranian political and religious figures attend these concerts, which proves that the musical practices of Iranian women are officially approved. However, playing instruments by women musicians in public concerts with both female and male audiences is not forbidden and women who play a variety of instruments are among the finest musicians in the Tehran Symphony Orchestra and orchestras from other Iranian cities. In addition to that, a huge number of women perform unhindered in the fields of pop, traditional music, and other musical genres. But, once in a while, as the factional conflicts are fomented, the concerts of music ensembles featuring women musicians in an Iranian city are canceled, or even worse, the male members are asked to perform without women. However, such incidences are not frequent. It should be noted that women’s singing in mixed and women’s choirs is not legally banned.
Nevertheless, compared to their male colleagues, Iranian female musicians face more difficulties, which is undeniably relevant to their general situation in the male-dominated Iranian state.
Activities of Tehran Symphony Orchestra at the beginning of 2020, a documentary by Farvartish Rezvaniyeh.
Fifth: On the Result of the Match
In fact, without any overstatement, one could say that such a match is not so difficult for the society of Iranian musicians to prevent them from coming victoriously out of the playing field. Iranian artists keep scoring goals. Tens of music festivals and hundreds of concerts are annually held in Iran by the government, the Ministry of Culture, and even institutes and persons affiliated to the conservatives [They have recently found out about the significance of the issue and have taken the initiatives]. All these events which feature various music genres from classical to modern and traditional are joined by a very large number of musicians. Teaching music is also carried out on a large scale. Official schools, art universities, art schools, and private institutes are all engaged in training thousands of music students. The huge number of trainees, particularly among girls, testifies to the attitude of the Iranian middle class, which protests against the wrong, extremist views about music and takes effective measures to alter them.
In an interview a highly popular Iranian newspaper held with me a few years ago, I uttered a sentence which was then chosen as the title of the interview:
“For Me, Music is a Civil Campaign”
I still stand by this position believing that most Iranian artists think the same.
- Seyyed Rouhollah Mousavi Khomeini (birth name: Seyyed Rouhollah Mostafavi, 1902-1989) who is also known as Imam Khomeini among his followers and disciples, was a religious jurisprudent, source of emulation, the founder and first leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.↑
- Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti (1928 –1981) “was an Iranian jurist, philosopher, cleric and politician who was known as the second person in the political hierarchy of Iran after the Revolution. Beheshti is considered to have been the primary architect of Iran’s post-revolution constitution, as well as the administrative structure of the Islamic Republic… He also served as the first Secretary-General of the Islamic Republic Party.” He died in a bomb blast during a conference at the headquarters of Islamic Republic Party in Tehran. See Wikipedia, s.v. “Mohammad Beheshti,” last modified February 23, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammad_Beheshti.↑
- See Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti, “Music and Entertainment in Islam,” in Music and Entertainment in Islam, ed. Hossein Abdoli (Ayatollah Dr. Beheshti Foundation, 2007). ↑
- Majid Karimi and Mansoor Limba, ed., Sahifeh-ye Imam: an Anthology of Imam Khomeinis Speeches, Messages, Interviews, Decrees, Religious Permissions, and Letters, vol. 8 (Tehran: The Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, 1999), 198. ↑
- Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti (1937-2006) was President of Iraq from 1979 until 2003. He was toppled after the invasion of the U.S. and its allies to Iraq in 2003 and was later arrested and executed by hanging in 2006. See Wikipedia s.v. “Saddam Hussein,” last modified March 29, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saddam_Hussein. ↑
- Morteza Motahhari (1919-1979) was a close disciple and ally of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Motahhari was a key theorist of the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979 and an influential figure who developed the ideology of the Islamic Republic. See Wikipedia s.v. “Morteza Motahhari,” last modified February 28, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morteza_Motahhari.↑