Our blog-tastic friend Dhofari Gucci has been writing passionately about the subject of the Grand Mufti's religious view of the new Royal Opera House. Even the esteemed Italian fruitloop and dear friend of mine, Sheikha Balqis, has been diverted from her usual task of stalking Vladimir Putin, in order to comment.
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.