Sami Yusuf? Maher Zain? Mona Haydar? Some of these Muslim pop stars sell millions of CDs, have more Facebook likes than Robbie Williams and play to sold-out venues - including in Germany.
Zayn, a student from Munich, shows his playlist on his smartphone. In addition to many well-known Western artists, there is also Muslim-influenced rap. "Especially Khaled Siddiq from England, because I think he combines normal, modern musical art with religious music very well," says Zayn. It is important to him to be able to identify with the values of the musicians:
"Well, I actually listen to everything, but I notice as soon as I listen to this genre a bit that there is a lot more added value at the start."
Arabic traditions meet rap and pop
Whether rap, reggae, R&B, pop or classical Arabic music: Muslim stars have also conquered the European music market in the last two decades. In addition to insider tips like the aforementioned Khaled Siddiq, there are also international pop greats like Sami Yusuf and Maher Zain.
According to the Swedish Islam scholar Jonas Otterbeck, there is one name behind this global phenomenon: the London music label “Awakening Music”. Its founders had the right instincts in the early 2000s. They recognized that there was a gap in the market for professionally produced Islamic pop music, Otterbeck explains:
“They make – as they call it themselves – music that is driven by faith. That is their personal motivation, they are deeply religious and theologically well trained. One of them has a PhD in Islamic Studies. But they are not traditional because of that, they are just very interested in their own tradition. They try to find new ways, new forms of expression.”
Feel-good music with an Islamic message
Swedish pop musician Maher Zain is now the label's biggest star. About 25 million fans follow him on Facebook. For comparison: Robbie Williams has five million followers on Facebook. Zain's best seller: feel-good music with an Islamic message. His songs are called "Insha Allah", "Medina" and "Ramadan", but also "True Love" or "For the rest of my life". Sometimes it's songs of praise to Allah or the Prophet Muhammad, sometimes it's about a godly lifestyle, sometimes it's about love - and sometimes it's about everything at the same time.
In the video for "For the rest of my life" you can see how Zain rolls out a second prayer rug in addition to his own - for the woman with whom he wants to spend his life. Eternal love, marriage, family, son-in-law appeal: if Zain didn't keep switching to Arabic in his songs, he would be almost indistinguishable from many other Western pop musicians.
Songs in which Muslim fans find themselves
The Islam scholar Otterbeck believes that musicians like Maher Zain are filling a gap. European Muslims are growing up today with a globalized pop culture, but they were not really represented in it for a long time. Maher Zain keeps hearing how important his music is to his fans:
"I think it's about alternatives. People want alternatives. They still hear everything, but if they want something spiritual that lifts the spirits, they listen to our music. And the facts show that this kind of music was missing before and that it is very much appreciated.”
When Zain played in Berlin's Verti Music Hall in early 2020, thousands of mostly female fans came. And that although the tickets were not exactly cheap at more than 100 euros each. But newspaper articles, radio reports, television reports about the concert? None! Not a single result can be found on Google News. How does Zain explain himself, being so famous and totally unknown at the same time?
According to Zain, the obvious answer to that question is that he makes Islamic music. "People in the mainstream, that is, on the radio and television, are often afraid to get involved with anything related to Islam, and I think that's one of the challenges this movement faces."
The origins: Nashid chants
Along with Sami Yusuf, Islamo-pop's other megastar, Maher Zain has given an old Islamic music genre a new lease of life in the West: the nashid. The word "Nashid" in Arabic simply means: song. It can refer to both secular and religious music. In religious circles, the "Nashid dini", the religious Nashid, refers to rhymes that are usually sung, with which God or the Prophet Muhammad are to be praised.
Traditionally, the nashid was often improvised and usually performed a cappella by men. In the 1970s and 1980s, revolutionary Islamist movements such as Hamas or Hezbollah began to use such chants for political propaganda purposes - mostly without stringed and woodwind instruments, which are rejected by particularly strict Muslims.
At the same time, however, the apolitical, spiritual Nashid continued to exist, and with the emergence of a global music industry, the best singers were now able to pursue international careers, says Jonas Otterbeck:
“Then, when it became possible to record them in the 20th century, people took the chance and started documenting Nashid singers. And then you started recording the really good ones, and they became very famous.”
Religiously inspired social criticism
Mona Haydar is in a completely different tradition. The daughter of Syrian immigrants in the USA also sees her music as religiously inspired. But instead of following musical role models, the rapper is more oriented towards the social-revolutionary tradition of Islam. Because the Prophet Muhammad also spoke out against abuses in his society:
"As a matter of fact, the Prophet came to question Arab culture and to say that much of what your people do is bad. Making people pay for spiritual and religious pilgrimage to Mecca is wrong! Creating an economic system around religious duties to accumulate wealth is wrong! Burying your newborn daughters is wrong! Femicide is wrong!”
In her powerful videos, the young woman, wearing a headscarf, deliberately presents herself as lascivious - and in doing so antagonizes white nationalists as well as overly pious Muslims. A headscarf and strong femininity still don't go together for many today.
Against questionable ideals of beauty
According to Haydar, it is not about how men look, but above all about freeing yourself from the ideals of beauty in a society in which women like her - small, with dark complexion, big lips and veiled hair - are far from being as were considered desirable.
"I'm not doing it to get the looks of a male audience," says Mona Haydar. "I don't do it to be sexier, I do it because I love beauty. Honestly, what's wrong with that? But I don't do it to fit in. I'm not doing it to conform to a standard that doesn't come naturally to me."
In the US, Haydar is not necessarily perceived as a Muslim rapper. But rather as an artist whose music is a form of protest - against racism, against sexism and against a cosmetics industry that sets unattainable ideals of beauty, especially for non-white women.
And maybe that's exactly the right understanding of musicians like Mona Haydar. Because one thing we should avoid, says the Swedish researcher Otterbeck: