December 03, 2011

So About That Opera House....

I'll keep this brief (yeah, I know I've said this before, but...), but I have two big issues about this apparently raging controversy:

The first one is, as I feel Dhofari Gucci might be too polite to say, who cares what he thinks?  I, like DG, have every respect for Ahmed Al Khalili as a man who has dedicated his life, no doubt with great effort and conviction, to seeking truth and helping guide the people to a more moral existence.  May God reward him.  I have shaken his hand a couple of times here and there, and he strikes me as a rather gentle and modest man - something I've noticed about great man of religion from other faiths too, over the years.  

But nevertheless, is his opinion really so important?  I have written before about how I have great cynicism towards those who set themselves up as "muftis", "sheikhs", "scholars" and so forth - not because I doubt the effort and learning of one who makes this his life's work, but because of the implied role it gives them in society.  There is no occupation or social status of "mufti" or "scholar" mentioned in the Holy Qur'An, nor even in the most widely accepted traditions of the Prophet (pbuh).  A "sheikh" is either the elder of a tribe, or the man chosen to lead them in war.  Islam, I believe, dislikes titles.  On the contrary, it is a basic tenet of Islam that we have no priests, popes, vicars, gurus, lamas or similar such creations acting as intermediaries between us as individual Muslims, and God.  So even when a man makes himself (or worse, society makes him) into a respected full-time student of matters spiritual, does that really give him the right to speak as if his views or understanding are incontrovertible fact?

I lay the blame for this not at the person of "Sheikh" Ahmed, but more at the society (and I mean the Umma more generally, not Oman specifically), that has created such roles.  The very fact that a man has to ask on behalf of his mother (let's not look at that too closely either), and is prepared to make a decision apparently based solely on this one man's reply, is to me indefensible from a theological standpoint.  There are many people one might ask for an advice or an opinion, but relying on one, however clear his heart or great his library, is simply creating an Islamic church with doctrinal dogma growing beyond what we believe to be the world of God.  Listening to someone else's opinion, and treating it as an inherent part of religious understanding, is a mistake in my view.  Is music forbidden?  Personally, I doubt it, and there are many schools of thought on the matter, or at least on where the boundaries lie, but that's not the issue: the issue is that making one man responsible for everyone's view, is elevating him to a status that I believe to be itself forbidden, unequivocally, by the religion we claim to share.

There will be different views on all of the above of course, and I mean no personal insult to the individual or to anyone else.  But here's the second thing: why have an opera house at all?

I don't mean in respect of whether it's OK to have music venues, bars or other such non-traditional facilities built with the country's wealth as a matter of principle based on their content.  That will always be debatable, and let's debate it.  But I  mean the specific issue of building a big, expensive, eye-catching project that is not empirically a priority for the under-educated, under-paid, under-employed, under-served Omani majority.  A few comments on other blogs and forums have put the view that the opera house was a waste of money, and although not mentioned in the original discussion, they are nevertheless questions that have been raised by many.

When I wrote a few days ago about things that Oman should be proud of in marking National Day, I had meant to include this project.  Not because of the way the project worked (over a year late, inadequate access, signage and parking, and a budget to make your eyes water), but because of what it represents.

Of course on one level, it represents the personal passion of Sultan Qaboos for classical art forms.  In that respect, Oman has an opera house for the same reason as it has a symphony orchestra, the same reason Oman FM has always set aside time for classical music, the reason Oman now has a dedicated classical radio station, and that both the Al Bustan and a certain royal palace, have full-scale pipe organs.  His Majesty spent a formative part of his education in a music-loving house, and learned to understand and to love the richness and beauty of various classical forms of music.  It is a passion he wishes to share with his people and encourage among them, no doubt in his mind a representation of higher civilisation, a badge of intellect and social maturity to which the nation should be helped to aspire.  It seems to me that His Majesty has a rather different view on the morality of music than Ahmed Al Khalili.  Whoever is right, I am happy at least that neither view is repressed out of insincere conformity.

But to me, the Royal Opera House of Oman represents something beyond that.  When a government or a leader sets a budget, and looks at all the priorities for a nation, there is something beyond paying the bills, maximising the provision of services and planning for infrastructure requirements or even national defence.  There is the question of self-respect, community pride.  A question of representing all the progress and aspirations of a nation in something tangible.  Some leaders build big statues of themselves, or monuments to some past revolution.  Some take a more utilitarian approach, with a new park or planting a forest.  In a way, perhaps an opera house is a statue of Sultan Qaboos as it represents so directly and personally his own vision of what cultural progress means.  But it is open.  Just as the parks and corniches are.  Even if the performances are expensive, they vary, and a tour or just a view from the road as you drive by, is for everyone.  This is no mere vanity project, it is an invitation.

It reminds me in a way of the Beijing Olympics - that event mired in all sorts of controversy, inside and outside China (and at least an opera house was built without evicting anyone!).  But it was a statement.  In building that remarkable Bird's Nest, that extraordinary performance to open the Games, and of course the massive investment in China's own athletic performance, a country announced itself confident and come of age.  It was a tonic to the nation, an item of pride and self-esteem.  "We can invite the best of the World to come to us, and appreciate the joy and tradition of these games".  So said China with its Olympic Games.  So says Oman at the opera or the ballet.

Instead of complaining at the cost, or debating whether this or that form of entertainment is traditional or religiously compliant, I think perhaps Oman needs a different view of what this building is about.  Yes, there are many things this country needs, and more urgently than to hear Andrea Bocelli.  But just as someone struggling with a budget needs, once in a while, to pick up a tub of that expensive ice cream after a hard day, or take his wife out on their anniversary, financial priorities are not always solely about paying the bills.  They are also about embracing life, about just occasionally, saying "let's treat ourselves" to something a little out of the ordinary.  The daily grind, the pressures and stresses of making a living, will always be there.  But everyone needs to have something special on their birthday.  Oman got something beautiful, and beauty is a gift from God.


Balqis De Cesare said...

Then let's also stop to make fun of Emaratis with their towers and swarosky cars .
The thing is, that in the eventuality of a serious revolution, you will need more than a opera house to unite people around you
And anyway, are we sure that these moves are really pleasing foreigners ?
Yes I have read a couple of articles on this and other amenities that Oman can offer, but this is part of Oman government promotional campaign on friendly British media .
In the end, Sultan Qaboos remains for specialised publications like foreign policy, the benevolent monarch ready to give out cash for kidnapped people in Yemen and Iran .
I would want some more substance in their foreign politics, specially in these delicate period .
Then we can also sing and dance with the stars .

The Linoleum Surfer said...

I don't believe it's designed to please foreigners. The projection of the image of culture is, I believe, designed to stimulate interest from within, not merely imitate what is outside.

As for building tall towers, well yes, that's exactly what this is not. It's not "mine's bigger than yours", it's not pretending to be a commercial venture. It's a piece of art for its own sake. Once in a while, doing such things is good for the soul I think.

Sami said...

Bloody hell! Never knew there were bloggers against the ROH.

Nicely written my mzungu friend. Totally agree with you.

HM's vision is sophisticated.

Art and culture is part of the Omani heritage. Embracing ours and others would play an integral role in our economy.

Sadly I am yet to attend any of the shows, because stupidly I thought that there won't be any attendance and had time to buy tickets. But shows were sold out in no time! And that's because we had many attendees from the region; they flew in, spent a night or two here, toured in muscat and had a pleasant time here. Doesn't that help our economy, tourism,etc.?

Not just that, ROH is going to be the hub of attraction of such art AND become the school of art for our youth!

Every time I drive or walk by this astonishing building I'm overwhelmed, especially at night.

Finally got a ticket for the Swan Lake and can't wait for it!

Blewyn said...

I heard he paid for it himself, from his personal funds.

Modee said...

Although I don't really agree with the mofti and mostly agree with all that you have written, I think what we should really be talking about however is, how great it is to live in/be from a country where both sides can have an opinion and not have to be forced to live by either sides opinion, we have the right to choose, and that is a beautiful thing

Mutassem-ization said...

well no one is forced to follow the opinion of the Mufti to begin with. Judgement in the end of the day is by the Creator Him Self. There are other laws which are made clear cut for us from an Islamic point of view that the judge following the Islamic law has to follow (the punishment of stealing...etc.). Nevertheless, the Mufti (Sh. Ahmed) always takes a conservative stance in his opinions, I believe for one simple reason; He has the responsibility of the masses if he ever gave an opinion that with a chance of 10% being wrong (in the eyes of Allah) and would lead people to do things which are possibly forbidden.

And by the way, Ali (May Allah be pleased with him) was in the position of a Mufti (someone who gives religious opinions in matters that arises) in the times of Umar's (May Allah be pleased with him) leadership of the Islamic state... So the position was there, not as a title per say, but as a reference for religious opinions.
And then in the end of the day, reason and intellect (are not the only resort of reaching the right conclusion). Intution plays a role, too (not only in religious matters). The arguement is whether the intuition of someone who's striving to follow the will of God is stronger than the instinct (perceived as intuition) of the normal layman who lazily performs his religious/spiritual duties, such as some of us who rant against an opinion of the Sh.? :)

The Linoleum Surfer said...

There is no comparison between the contemporary and closest friend of the Prophet (pbuh) being asked for an opinion, and a man centuries later who has no more privileged information or insight than any other man or woman who can read.

It is exactly because questioning and thinking is dismissed as "lazy ranting", and disagreeing or questioning a so-called "sheikh" has become so socially unacceptable, that it is more important than ever to seek truth for oneself directly from the unaltered Revelation itself, and ones own heart as the "mufti". ;)

Mimi said...

"There are many people one might ask for an advice or an opinion, but relying on one, however clear his heart or great his library, is simply creating an Islamic church with doctrinal dogma growing beyond what we believe to be the world of God."

Well muslims rely on certain people because of this verse:
"If ye realise this not, ask of those who possess the Message." (21-7)

And the thing is not whether Sheikh Al Khalili is important or not. I mean come on who would ask him such a question? It was obvious that he would give such a statement!!

And Oman should be proud of the Opera House. I think it could be the first step to build the missing High Culture of Arabs!!! ALthough I don't really think many Omanis/Arabs can really appreciate arts and that we should have a real high culture. Haven't they realised how boring their deserts are?

The Linoleum Surfer said...

"If ye realise this not, ask of those who possess the Message." (21-7)

That is a reference to all the prophets and messages that were sent to mankind (see 1-6!), not to whoever has memorised a collection of ahadith. It is called "The Chapter of the Prophets", not "The Chapter of the Scholars". Elevating scholars to the rank of prophet is exactly the problem I'm talking about...

Mimi said...

"Before thee, also, the messengers We sent were but men, to whom We granted inspiration: If ye realise this not, ask of those who possess the Message."

You know how this verse is interpreted, and it's obvious that its addressing the readers of any time, so how come it's only about the prophets??

In Arabic it's clear to me that it's not talking about prophets but 'men' who just know something. And no I don't think the verse is saying 'prophets' are just ordinary men in case you thought of that...

The Linoleum Surfer said...

Mimi, remember that this is the word of Allah (swt) to Mohammed (pbuh): he is saying that all of the Prophets were ordinary men before they were "granted inspiration". A man who is chosen to be "granted (the) inspiration", given the "Message", and become a "Messenger" is a prophet, not any person people decide they want to listen to.

If Mohammed (pbuh) is the Seal of the Prophets, there are none now with the authority to make their words into a religious reference.

Mimi said...

I'm not talking about the first part.

"If ye realise this not, ask of those who possess the Message."

Maybe the word "message" is a wrong choice of translation and is confusing. In Arabic it is not "al risaala" (message) it is "al thikr." I can't think of a translation now but "al thikr" always seems to refer to knowledge, and that's why those sheikhs always tell you to ask "ahla ath-thik" (the people of al thikr) and they call themselves "ahla ath-thikr."

If you still think "the people of althikr" also refer to prophets, then it is worth mentioning that this is the only place in the quran where 'althikr' is associated with prophets. Althikr is not usually related to their messages.

ANyway I just wanted to explain why Muslims chose to count on certain people when it comes to religious matters. But of course I agree that what those sheikhs arent always right!!!

Hehe as if I care about what they;re saying...


Mimi said...

And yes I know ahla al thikr can refer to jews and christians :)

Um3azzan said...

The amazing thing like Modee said earlier, we can choose which we way we want to be .. The Q stated the obvious from Sk Ahmed point of view, i personally dont like that .. I belive in my heart, my mind and choose to use them as tools to look for answers. Not everyon can do this, with muftis around and people still twist facts .. Thier existience is important to set the standered, to remind people .. Its our choice, and Allah's judgment after that to choose the way. He is the ultmate judge, not sk Ahmed!

Lover, Lover said...

I'm going to show a bit of ignorance here I'm sure, but how does what the Mufti respond to the Mummy's boy relate to the general merriment of traditional dancing and bongo-beating we see at many Omani traditional gatherings?
Surely that is music and dancing? Or is it only when infidels do it that it is haram?
And when we hear the bearded ones doing the nasal recitals in LuLu and various other places, how come they are reciting rhythmically and not in a monotone?
There are many hypocrisies arising from this (Really?? Hypocrisy in religion?? Well I never!)

Lover. Lover said...

By the way, I really appreciate that you bring sensible discussion to this in your articles but also that people are discussing it openly and without any sort of mud-slinging.

The Linoleum Surfer said...

Thanks for the comments. The difference between music and melodic/rhythmic recitals of the Qur'An, is the intention. Using a memorable or appealing melody to emphasise or assist the memorising of the word of God is considered a proper thing to do even by the most conservative.

I'm sure music, in some cases, through lyrical content or maybe associated lifestyle images, can have negative social effects. But overall I think it's beautiful and a source of joy. I'm not convinced it is any more "forbidden" by religion than poetry, but that's just my view.

Lover, Lover said...

OK, a fine line, but a line none the less.
But what of the traditional song and dance we often see at traditional festivals and gatherings?
And does the mufti not, by association, condone the activities of HM as it was he who commissioned the ROH and was present at the opening performance of Turandot?
A line was drawn (apparently) not to show Aida at the ROH so there must be some form of content-based censoring going on which, in turn, shows that there is an awareness of content within the four delectable walls of the opera house.

The Linoleum Surfer said...

I'm not sure of your point. Some people (like Ahmed Al Khalili) say all music is a bad thing. Some don't. Beyond that it's a matter of taste rather than theology.

The people who chose to build or visit an opera house clearly do not, or at least don't take such a rule seriously. But beyond that, whose taste decides what should and shouldn't show there is a long way from a religious question.

I'm glad they included jazz in the list, but I'm not expecting Snoop Dogg any time soon. He'll probably do the Intercon instead...

Lover, Lover said...

Good Lord (yours or mine), let's hope Snoop Dogg never graces our shores!
I think you've gone fluffy in your response and are falling back on the 'catch-all' that religion offers in the form of Hail Mary's and the often self-serving perception of phraseology within the texts of the good books.

The Linoleum Surfer said...

Maybe I can put it more simply: people who think music is forbidden think it's forbidden, will leave a wedding if music comes on, will not listen to music on TV or radio, and will not go to concerts or parties with music be they traditional festivals, impromptu gatherings by the beach, or a lavish production of Carmen.

There has always been music. Some Muslim scholars have always thought it's bad. And some Muslims have never particularly cared. Is that simple enough?!

Anonymous said...

Its an Operah house not a place of worship. If you want to find contadictions between muslims and Islam ask about what laa ilaha ilalla muhamadarasululah means, or the other 4 pillars. Put that under the microscope. Or the koran is the word ofGod, unchanged, unadulterated, and perfect. If you want to see men and women singing and dancing with their junk hanging out go to the Operah House and enjoy the fine arts.

Thats What I said...

Dear Anonymous @ December 5, 2011 12:11 AM
There is no need to be so narrow minded - I suggest that you also include football.
Its disgusting so much junk hanging out and flopping all over the place. Its all done in public - on the side of the road, on the beach, its impossible to avoid seeing it. I am certain you agree and that you also tell your family to close their eyes when you drive them past (though I hope you dont as that might cause an accident). Musical chants with those awful musical instruments bagpipes (more flopping around if you ask me) going on to encourage them. And, given any chance, consensual sexual acts like hugging and kissing in front of an audience.
Exposing their chests in front of thousands of people if its done in a stadium.
I could go on and I ask you to also condemn that cesspit of inequity that football is.

Anonymous said...

"Thats what I"
1. "tell fam. to close eyes" no
2. "bagpipe music" I like
3. "condemn soccer" no

from DEC 5th

lil-bee said...

1. The person in question against the Opera House .. was he just giving his opinion which everyone took as a religious command, or was he actually asserting his opinion as obligatory? Because you're right .. a lot of the times, its actually the society and its people's, much to the dismay of the spiritual leader, that perhaps elevate opinions :// a bit sad :(

2. Its a bit like Ivory Coast though isn't it ... spending all that money to build the biggest church in the world. Money spent inefficiently when it could have been used for welfare, or money used to give a sense of pride? "Development is freedom" as Sen once said .. always makes me smile a bit deviously for some reason!

3. Yeah sorry I kind of went on random tangents in the oh so wonderful circle of my mind :D

alice said...

The opera house is great