Mohammed Nazam: Music Does What Talking Can't
Wed, January 20, 2016
Mohammed Zazam (left) performs alongside his band. (Photo: © Mohammed Nazam)
Mohammed Nazam is the founder of the Berakah music project, an interfaith project that uses music to build bridges between people of different faiths and especially between Christians, Jews and Muslims.
Born from Pakistan, he was brought up in the UK and is a die-hard Londoner. He has been a professional composer and musician for over 25 years. From 2001 to 2008 he was a music tutor and team leader at the Prince’s Trust SoundLive courses teaching young people from disadvantaged backgrounds how to write and perform music.
He graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Dialogue Coordinator Elliot Friedland about his interfaith work through music.
Clarion Project: Growing up in a Muslim environment, what perceptions did you and your community have about Christians and Jews? How if at all has that changed since doing interfaith work?
Mohammed Nazam: Although I became less and less religious as I grew up, when I was a small kid I was bought up to respect both Christians and Jews. In fact I can clearly remember my mum telling me that Jesus was a great figure and we believed that Mary was a virgin chosen by God to give birth to him. However, by the early 70's, the events in Israel and on the world stage had begun to cast a shadow on everything and the talk at home became political, with a definite view that the Palestinians were Muslim brothers and that they were being treated badly, which was unfair.
In the years since I've been working with Berakah I've visited Israel twice, and the West Bank once. It's not pretty, and it makes me feel very conflicted because I can see the situation from both sides. From a larger historical point of view it's a bitter family dispute taking place over generations and fostered by both sides by intractable attitudes.
What has become apparent though is that Jews and Muslims share many things because of the roots of their religions, and it's what we share culturally that I focus on, whilst keeping one eye on the controversial issues.
Clarion: Why did you found Berakah?
Nazam: The answer is actually quite simple - I wanted to do something good with music.
It's one thing doing what you love and getting paid for it, another to actually use it to 'give something back'. For quite some time, in the early 2000's, I worked with The Prince's Trust on music courses where people with very challenging lives would come together to make music.
I saw how music can really change people and having always had a deep interest in religious issues, albeit from the point of view of someone not involved in the organized aspects of religion, I decided that music could be a powerful way for me to contribute something positive to an area that was getting tenser every day.
Clarion: You've said that you want your music to strike up conversations between a mixed-faith audience, leading to new understandings. Have you seen that take place? What happened?
Nazam: Performing concerts with Berakah is a truly humbling experience. I've seen people break down in tears, I've seen them smiling, eyes shut and transported to another dimension – it's great! And yes, there have been some significant events.
One of our concerts took place in a synagogue and it happened to be Ramadan so the rabbi opened his office so that some Muslim women could pray there in private.
But there's an important point to make here – in our last tour of England, in 2015, we worked with local community and inter-faith organizations in seven British cities to organize and hold concerts that bought their whole communities together and gave encouragement to the people who work day in day out on the ground, in the face of growing tensions and daily red-top newspaper headlines, to carry on believing that the work they do has meaning and makes a difference.
Also, this year (2016) we are concentrating on our Youth Ensemble which will be where real seeds of change are sown. As well as making music we will have partners relieving content about identities, faith, culture and heritage so that young people from different communities can really get to understand each other, and make music too!
Clarion: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to interfaith communication in Europe and America?
Nazam: Politics. It is inherently about keeping people not only apart but at each-others’ throats. I have to say that the situation in Israel and the 'Occupied Territories' is a massive thorn in the side of all of us. The sooner a compromise is reached there the better for all of us.
Clarion: In your opinion are interfaith relations getting better or worse? Why?
Nazam: I don't see things in terms of 'better or worse' – I see them as evolving and in the midst of action, meaning ebb and flow. There is no doubt that in the world at large things are tense, and tensions are increasing. However there are also more and more people being drawn to efforts to mitigate tensions and to help increase peace and understanding between us all. There are millions of people all over the world working on this – Berakah is a small part of that movement.
Clarion: Finally, what is your favourite thing about Islam?
Nazam: Well, I always describe myself as 'of Muslim heritage' due to the fact that I'm not an observant or practising person. My interests in religion and theology are more from a spiritual perspective and I'm devoted to my spiritual path, whatever that is!
Having said that, when my mum explained to me that in Islam it didn't matter which race one came from, that had quite a big impact on the young me. I grew up with racism on a daily basis back in the day, so to hear that here was a culture that I belonged to in which race didn't matter was good to know. On a more contemporary note I'm glad to see more liberal attitudes amongst Muslim communities and I think the next 20 or 30 year will about the acceptance of these liberal attitudes by Muslims living in the West and beyond.