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The Shia Voice: An Overdue Celebration of Shia Culture (Review)

When I first heard about The Shia Voice I was cynical and cringed, but having watched all the episodes – I think it is the best TV show for Shia Muslims to ever be produced.

When I first heard about The Shia Voice I was cynical and cringed, but having watched all the episodes – I think it is the best TV show for Shia Muslims to ever be produced.

The Shia Voice, produced by Imam Hussein TV, is a talent show comparable to the likes of American Idol or Britain’s Got Talent. The show featured talents such as Quran reciters, public speakers, poets and of course reciters of Nawhas, Latmiyya and Manqabats (Nasheeds).

Side note: If you are not familiar with Shia culture; Nawhas and Latimiyya are poems recited in emotional melodies in honour of the Holy Prophet and his family, to mourn their oppression and deaths. It is to these melodies that Shia Muslims will strike their chest in a rhythm. This is a cultural practice with religious roots spanning many centuries and has evolved over time and takes different forms in various parts of the world.

The thing about culture and religion

Growing up in the West amongst a diverse Muslim community of both Sunnis and Shias – the unique culture of Shi’ism has always been something close to my heart. Coming from an Indo-Pak heritage Shia culture was something always at the forefront of our religious beliefs and practices. Arguably, sometimes these cultural practices took precedence over religious values and the line between them both became blurred. However, and like many millennial Muslims, I have come to understand the distinction between religion and culture. In recent years I have realised the power of culture and how it provides to give texture and emotional relatability to my Islamic beliefs.

As someone who has from a young age been involved in Media production for Muslims, and particularly Shia Muslim audiences, I have always been a cheerleader for exploring new ways to express our beliefs, heritage and identity. I believe that culture is something that should be celebrated and especially as Wester Muslims, we should be brave enough to explore different ways to express ourselves, and push the boundaries of creativity whilst respecting the religious boundaries we must adhere to. In 2012 I worked with Ali Fadhil (the host of this year’s series) and OnTheD to produce an album and a video, called Higher, which pushed the boundaries for what Shia Muslims would consider acceptable to listen to in Muharram. We were even bold enough to premiere this video at a Majlis during the 10 nights of Muharram and received some backlash from the community –  years later, it seems there is an acceptance of our culture’s evolution.

However, whenever a boundary between culture and religion is pushed there is initially a knee-jerk reaction to condemn it because it is something different to our own experience. I believe such a reaction is normal and even a good thing to ensure our community’s integrity and provide accountability for those influencers of our culture.

Unfair criticism of The Shia Voice

The Shia Voice is no different and has been at the receiving end of much criticism, which I think is unfair and at times based purely on their ideological differences with those who have produced this TV show. Personally, I think that because of our inability to make a distinction between religion and culture we have created imaginary red lines which really only suppress our ability to grow and express ourselves creatively as a community.

Many people have made the argument that how can you judge someone or their talents when what they are doing is rooted in the remembrance of Allah, His prophet and Ahlulbayt – however, I would make the argument that this judgment is already taking place within our centres when we discuss amongst ourselves on the way home how well (or not) a particular Nawha or Latmiyyah was recited.

Some have made the argument that a TV show like this promotes ‘celebrity culture’ which is antithetical to Islamic values, to this, I would argue that the phenomena of fame and celebrity are something that will always exist because naturally as humans we are drawn to people who possess talents; be it their intellect, their voice or creativity.

What the show did right

In reality, The Shia Voice has provided a much-needed platform to both young and old talent within our community representing various cultural backgrounds. The ‘judgment’ (if you can call it that) from the judges was fair, balanced, technical and actually helpful to the participants in their endeavour to nurture their talent for the sake of Allah. Of course, there were times when Mulla Nazar Al-Qatari may have been a bit too harsh but it made for good television.

The show was also a great way for people of different cultures to learn about other cultures within the community end appreciate the rich heritage of Shia Muslims around the world. Personally, the show invigorated a sense of pride in my Shia identity, seeing the vast array of talented individuals who took part and did their best.

It is often said that Shia Muslims do not give enough emphasis to the Holy Quran and this is a criticism I have had of my community for a while. But seeing Quran reciters as young as 12 reciting so beautifully in a way that genuinely connected with my heart and soul, and gave me confidence in the future of our community. Providing a platform to these participants has surely increased their self-esteem and connection with their cultural identity. And for this, I would like to commend the team behind the show for what they have achieved.

I was most impressed with the judge panellist, Sayed Jalal Masoomi, whose feedback to Quran reciters and others was very technical. The times he recited from the Quran himself were perhaps my favourite moments. I also really enjoyed the behind the stage interviews by Sayed Ali Al-Hakeem, who gave the show and the participants a sense of warmth.

Sidenote: I was elated that Shan and Rizwan AKA ‘The Twins’ won the show. These two brothers (who aren’t twins but they dressed the same and their voices were insanely in sync) displayed a very unique talent along with incredible humility which was palpable. May Allah protect them and increase their capacity to serve.

How the show could be better

My only criticisms of the show would be the use of language from the judges such as ‘celebrity’, ‘career’ and ‘superstar’ which takes away from the essence of why anyone would get involved which such things to begin with. Equally asking participants what they would do with the money whilst candid was a little bit cringing, though it did generate some cute and funny replies. The length of each episode could also be trimmed down, perhaps not having two interviews before every performance or showing the complete audition of every participant – with that said, my family and I were hooked for the full 2 hours.

In the future, it would be great if this show could provide a platform for a female talent (of course within the bounds of Islamic laws) and even having a female judge would be great.

Personally, next year I would like to see more spoken-word artists taking part, I know that there is a lot of poetic talent in the community which was underrepresented in this series. For me the poetry performances were underwhelming and I feel that the bar for English poetry seems to be quite low amongst Shia Muslims. It is my dream to see a Qawwali performance – though I understand the use of instruments would likely trigger more backlash and criticism from those who do not deem it permissible.

To conclude, this TV show was a monumental first step in celebrating the rich diversity of the Shia Muslim community’s culture. I think this show and future series will discover hidden gems of talent and provide individuals a platform to fulfil their dreams to serve Allah, His Prophet and the Ahlulbayt with their God-given creative talents.

You can watch the full series here.

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