Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fatwas in the Age of Final Fantasy - Some thoughts on Video Games and Islam

What follows below are just a few thoughts that emerged out of the latest Video game controversy, the LittleBigPlanet soundtrack saga. I will explore this issue in more depth in my next blog. for now I will just touch on a few things.
I spent my day going through about 30 articles and about 550 comments around this whole issue. Here is a link for those who have no idea what i'm talking about, but if youre half assed to click the link i'l give a quick summary.
There is a PS3 game that was supposed to be released in America this week called LittleBigPlanet, but it was delayed last week as Sony recalled all copies because of a complaint by a Muslim Gamer (playing a test copy) that the game contained verses from the Quran. Now theres alot of bullshit on the net about the content, but this is whats there.
On the 'Swinging Safari' stage, there is a song by Mali-born singer Toumani Diabate called 'Tapha Niang' (released two years ago) and two of the phrases used are from the Quran - kollo nafsin tha'iqatol mawt" - 'Every soul shall have the taste of death, and kollo man alaiha fan"- 'All that is on earth will perish') If you want, you can listen to the song here - its quite cool. Taken in the context of the song, its about the mortality of man - A theme that runs through the Quran and isnt blasphemous in any sense whatsoever.
As you can imagine - there is a huge backlash around this as people were anticipating this game (this game is one of two reasons why I would buy a PS3, the other being MGS4) and alot of ignorant cunts are equating this to the Denmark saga and probably think Osama will be using this in his next Video - Death to Crash Bandicoot and all that. American Gamers are defending their Freedom of speech passionately (even though this is a British made game developed for a Japanese console for commercial gain)
So - what are my thoughts.
Firstly - I am not offended whatsoever by the song and I do believe that having a recall so late in the production cycle is counterproductive (not to sales mind you - any publicity is good publicity) Before anyone admonishes me for not being offended one must understand the context - Toumani Diabate is a devout Muslim (the guy has a salaah room next to his office) and his songs reflect his spirituality. He has popularised the Kora (a West African Harp - have a listen to this track - its amazing - Elyne Road) and the use of this cultural instrument is comparable to the early muslims use of the Daff, Qawali artists use of the Tabla, Dawud Warsnby Alis use of the Guitar or Sami Yusuf's use of the Piano - as you can see - different culutres, different instruments. A track which introduced me to this genre of music is 'Alibaba' from a CD called Sound of the Maghreb and you can hear a sample of the Azaan (Haya Alla salaah) playing in the track - This track could probably be tantamount to blasphemy for many of my readers but is it fair to apply our interpretation of what it means to be Muslim to a foreign culture? The extension of this is - is naath the only permissible means of expression? I want to explore this idea further (touching on Junaid Jamshed etc but let me get back to LittleBigPlanet. One more thing before I go on - Have a listen to Durban Based group Waahids first CD (Im friends with the guys so I dont think they'l mind this) Listen to the track rabbana - The original was verbatim from the Quran, and only after a Cape Town Moulana (I stand to be corrected but I remember this from the Souk two years ago -I'm sitting next t o Nazjam for Sami Yusuf tomorrow so i'l ask him) brought this up, they changed one word to make it 'halaal'. One more example before I go - If you have a Nokia N95 8 gig - Listen to the music that was installed on the phone (Africa Calling) Two of the tracks have bits from the Quran in them - do we boycott Nokia?
This however is not a review of music, and nor do I want my comments to be highjacked by the 'Music is haraam' brigade (I respect that position but this is not the post for those comments) I want to look at this issue from one guiding principle - Benefit.
Firstly, I need to point out that this isnt a clear cut issue - there are pros and cons to both sides. Granted, some Muslims would be offended by the song (although honestly - Listen to the track, while you imagine you are immersed in the game and tell me whether you can pick out the bits if you werent looking out for them) but this could possibly close the door to any Muslim artist hoping for coverage on the fastest growing media inthe world. Also, this game is largely driven by user created content and I predict thousands of anti muslim stages being created by gamers (just adding to the cycle of Islamophobia) that is so prevalent today. I came across a few comments where the guys are already discussing how they would do this - Would they have done this if the game wasnt pulled so late?
Copies of the games that are already on the market (sold by retailers who didnt keep to the original launch date) are being sold on Ebay for up to R2500, so we know that there is demand for it.
Are we as muslims becoming too sensitive? Last year Sony got into trouble from the Church of England because one of its games (Resistance: Fall of man) modelled a stage after the Manchester Cathedral, and the Church was upset that it recreated Scenes of violence in the Church. Sony apologised, but did not recall the game. I'm trying my best not to sound cynical but what if, what if it wasnt the Manchester Cathedral but a famous Musjid? Please dont misunderstand me now - We need to defend our faith when it is wronged and I also believe that Freedom of Expression isnt an absolute, but are we unwittingly being dragged into a quagmire of sorts where our reactions are not only anticipated, but are counterproductive to the tenets of Islam as well? In a more general sense, are we hypocrites for defending only Rasulullah ( صلى الله عليه وسلم) but not saying a word when any other prophets are insulted?
As Ibraheem Hoop (National director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations) has stated with regards to the recall "Many Americans already feel that Muslims want to censor everything".
We love to harp on about how one fifth of the Worlds population are Muslim but have you ever sat back and looked at the way we are depicted in media like Video games? Apart from a handful of titles (even that many is pushing it) Muslims are portrayed as a combination of the exotic and Huntingtons wet dream. Who do we blame for this? Surely video game makers are drawing from what they see (see being the collective sum of cognitive dissonance, actions of a few muslims, and media influences.) Finally we have a chance for positive engagement through gaming, even if it is in the form of 'World Music' which seems so kitsch these days, and it is removed. Here goes any chance of experiencing Islam in gaming as anything except the 'Other' which is to be feared.
A conspiracy theory could be that it was removed because Right Wing Christian Gamers wouldnt want games with Quranic Ayats in them, and while this is plausible I wouldnt really use this as an argument.
While I'm rambling about censorship in games, let me quickly touch on two examples where Ive agreed with the censorship and recall. Five years ago Microsoft recalled copies of a crappy fighting game called Kakuto Chojin because one of the fighters was a Muslim chap and his theme song had verses from the Quran in it. So why am I cool with LittleBigPlanet but not with this - Because of context. Diabate knows what he is singing about and it isnt offensive to muslims (and neither was there a huge outcry about the song until now - and dont tell me its some obscure song just because you havent heard it before - the guy won a frikkin Grammy and is considered to be one of the African greats of World Music), the Japanese programmers who developed the fighting game on the other hand probably just inserted it out of ignorance because they thought it was cool. Heres a link of the video if anyone is keen.
The second example is one that was picked up in production and removed after CAIR contacted Capcom. Its from the Wii Game Zak and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros Treasure and I am glad it was edited because there were some cannibals/barbarians circling a totem pole and as soon as a voice shouts Allahu Akbar they all prostrate towards the pole. no prizes for figuring out where they got the inspiration for this one. I'l embed the video on this blog so you can check it out - Listen for it at around 20 seconds or so.
As ive stated earlier - this is merely an unstructured post to create debate and introduce people to issues of censorship in gaming. As with all my posts, you are welcome to disagree with me, however - construct an argument and i'l respond to it. If you agree with anything, let me know (because sometimes I fear that my concerns are a bit left field).
I'l pick this up in my next post where i look at Aladdin etc.


Nooj said...

Looong post
don't think I got all of it
I don't play video games unless I want to boost my nephew's self confidence
but if the Qur'an is being played more...think about how Umar RA converted to Islam
Swinging Safari doesn't sound like it would associate the Qur'an with anything UnIslamic
But if it were GTA I'd be angry
I didn't listen to any of the links but I'm all for different genres getting publicity
I agree with Dew you should present this debate more widely

Anonymous said...

I disagree with you. The Quraan is sacred and so is the Prophet(saw).
It always perplexes me as to why you refuse to belive the sinister nature of some non-believers. If we start to accept some attacks on Islamic life soon it will be outright attacks on our faith and that will be the beginning of the end. Tell me MJ , would you play a video game portraying WW2 from the german side - specifically carrying out the holocaust? You are loosing your objectivity my friend, you are becoming biased towards western media - i suggest you watch more aljazeera :-)

M Junaid said...

Nooj - i'd be angry as well if it was in GTA - its all about context - thats why i included the bit about the fighting game and my objections to it.

Perhaps I have found my niche i think

Archtype me mate - The quran is sacred, no doubt about that, and so is our beloved prophet (peace and blessings upon him)
I dont refuse to believe the sinister nature of some non-believers - but on the other hand i dont beleiev every bit of 'conspiracy theory' that is thrown at us - I honestly think that there was no conspiracy here to demean muslims or anythign like that.
Islam has been attacked since its inception - it always has had resistance, and will continue to have resistance until the second coming of Christ. How is this an acceptance of an attackon islamic life?

Would I play a videogame portraying WW2 from the German side - Yes I would. I dont see the link between that and the issues I raise. I engage with everything I can. I cannot comment on something I know nothing off, so I will play the game. However - one must bear in mind that you are presupposing that Narrative is a defining feature of video games. This is a traditional way of understanding the medium, but theorists like Gonzalo Frasca propose that we should use simulation to understand games - My thesis proposed that economics is a useful paradigm for understanding gaming. Ok - i'm drifitng point is - i'l play that game - because i understand that it is just a game - an artistic impression of sorts. Schindlers list had the holocaust in it - I watched that - same thing?

I dont feel I am losing my objectivity - in fact - I truly believe that I am becoming more objective by the day - specifically when it comes to finding flaws in argument. I was going through a survey with a friend last week (survey on muslim broadcasters) and I pointed out several assumptions that could potentially skew research - one of the reasons why i did my concerning possibilities post.

As for me watching more Al Jazeera - I watch on average - two hours of Al Jazeera a day, an half an hour of local news broadcasting - I dont watch CNN or Sky or Fox at all. Again - you presume that Al Jazeera is markedly different from the Western package. Al Jazeera started with many ex BBC people.

However - I enjoy constructive debating, and I am happy that you hae commented. Please take me up on anything i have said in this comment that you disagree with :)

Lady T said...

I would like to comment. But I need clarity on one thing first...

What is the point of video games?

Anonymous said...

Hey MJ....

Check out this email someone sent me....

Let me know whats your opinion.


Sami the musician is due to perform in SA. OASIS PRESENTS THE SAMI YUSUF MUSICAL WORLD TOUR
"Music: What is Evil Looks Good"
Here is what our sister who was arrested by the Taliban a few years back who at the time was kaafir has to say about this musician:
Pop Culture in the Name of Islam
Monday, April 24, 2006

I FEEL very uncomfortable about the pop culture which is growing around some so-called Nasheed artists. Of course I use the term ''Nasheed artists'' very lightly. Islamic ''boy bands'' and Muslim ''popsters'' would probably be more appropriate.

Eminent scholars throughout history have often opined that music is haram, and I don''t recall reading anything about the Sahaba whooping it up to the sound of music. Don''t get me wrong. I''m all for people letting off steam, but in a dignified manner and one which is appropriate to their surroundings.

The reason I am expressing concern is that just a few days ago at a venue in Central London, sisters went wild in the aisles as some form of pop-mania swept through the concert venue. And I''m not just talking about silly, little girls who don''t know any better; I am talking about sisters in their 20''s, 30''s and 40''s, who squealed, shouted, swayed and danced.
Even the security guys who looked more like pipe cleaners than bulldozers were left looking dazed and confused as they tried to stop hijabi sisters from standing on their chairs. Of course the stage groupies did not help at all as they waved and encouraged the largely female Muslim crowd to "get up and sing along." (They''re called ''Fluffers'' in lap-dancing circles!)

The source of all this adulation was British-born Sami Yusuf, who is so proud of his claret-colored passport that he wants us all to wave the Union Jacks. I''m amazed he didn''t encourage his fans to sing "Land of Hope and Glory." Brother Sami asked his audience to cheer if they were proud to be British ,and when they responded loudly, he said he couldn''t hear them and asked them to cheer again.

How can anyone be proud to be British? Britain is the third most hated country in the world. The Union Jack is drenched in the blood of our brothers and sisters across Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. Our history is steeped in the blood of colonialism, rooted in slavery, brutality,
torture, and oppression. And we haven''t had a decent game of soccer since we lifted the World Cup in 1966.

Apparently Sami also said one of the selling points of Brand UK was having Muslims in the Metropolitan Police Force! Astafur''Allah! Dude, these are the same cops who have a shoot-to-kill policy and would have gunned down a Muslim last year if they could tell the difference between a Bangladeshi and a Brazilian. This is the same police force that has raided more than
3000 Muslim homes in Britain since 9/11. What sort of life is there on Planet Sami, I wonder? If he is so proud to be British, why is he living in the great Middle Eastern democracy of Egypt?

Apparently the sort of hysteria Sami helped encourage is also in America, and if it is happening on both sides of the Atlantic, then it must be creeping around the globe and poisoning the masses. Islamic boy bands like 786 and Mecca 2 Medina are also the subject of the sort of female adulation you expect to see on American Pop Idol or the X-Factor. Surely Islamic events should be promoting restrained and more sedate behavior.

Do we blame the out-of-control sisters? Or do we blame the organizers for allowing this sort of excessive behavior which demeans Islam? Or do we blame the artists themselves?

Abu Ali and Abu Abdul Malik, struggling for their Deen, would certainly not try to whip up this sort of hysteria. Neither would the anonymous heroic Nasheed artists who sing for freedom; check out Idhrib Ya Asad Fallujah, and you will know exactly what I mean.

Fallujah is now synonymous with the sort of heroic resistance that elevated the Palestinians of Jenin to the ranks of the resistance written about in the Paris Communeand the Siege of Leningrad. The US military has banned the playing of any Nasheeds about Fallujah because of the power and the passion it evokes.

If those Nasheeds had sisters running in the streets whooping and dancing, however, the Nasheeds may be encouraged because of haram activity surrounding them.

Quite frankly, I really don''t know how anyone in the Ummah can really let go and scream and shout with joy at pleasure domes when there is so much brutality and suffering going on in the world today.

The rivers of blood flow freely from the veins of our brothers and sisters from across the Muslim world. Screaming and shouting the names of musical heroes drown out the screams coming from the dungeons of Uzbekistan where brothers and sisters are boiled alive in vats of water.

How many will jump up and down and wave their arms in the air, shouting wildly for justice for our kin in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Palestine, and Iraq? There are many more killing fields as well across the Asian and Arab world. Will you climb on theater chairs and express your rage over Guantanamo Bay and other gulags where our brothers and sisters
are being tortured, raped, sodomized, beaten, and burned?

Or will you just switch off this concerned sister and switch on to the likes of Sami Yusuf because he can sell you a pipe dream with his soothing words and melodic voice?

Oh, Muslims, wake up! The Ummah is not bleeding; it is hemorrhaging.Listen not to what is haram. Listen to the pain of your global family.

One of the common signs of approach of the Hour, which has spread all over the world, is the excessive use of musical instruments. Unfortunately, most of the Muslims consider the musical entertainment to be a legal practice. The Messenger of Allah, sallallahu `alaihi wa sallam, had forewarned against such use of musical instruments and warned such entertainers from being transformed into monkeys and pigs. Extensive false accusations of unchas*tity, slander, and earth''s settling and sinking down, as well as transformation of people into monkeys and pigs) would appear. We advise Muslims to shun this event & all other ''concerts'' even those under the guise of Shariah!

Saabir Abdul Karim

KiLLa said...

Trinity - From a personal point of view and as a video games fanatic...

I see it as a means to stay at home (in these vile times) instead of going oout. I use it mainly as a mediation between stressful jobs and it always assists with relaxation. Regardless of the genre of game u into.

I love sport games and i find it a useful source to rather indulge in compatition with my friends in the confines of ones home rather than being out...

That is why i do it. Of cos MJ will reply to u as well..

Lady T said...

The last time I owned a video game was Mario brothers…and it came in those cartridges. Anyway…if the point of video games is to provide an escape and entertainment…I would like to understand why would they put in songs of such a spiritual nature. If the reason is to appeal to people using their religion/culture so they have something to identity with…I think it’s a stupid marketing ploy. If it is to reflect society…how relevant is, what the game is about vs. the soundtrack? If the game was an Islamic war…and the music/song/whatever was in Arabic and about war with verses from the Quran in it. It would be relevant. So I can understand why they would use it. But if it is fictitious cultural war that has no basis in religion or history I can understand why people would get upset, because that is how ‘other’ people would see ‘us’ (muslims).

But this is highly contested topic – and I would rather watch a movie then play a video game.

Nooj said...

trinity- the last video game i owned was mario bros on cartridge as well lol

the thing is that just because we don't find them fascinating we can't ignore the impact they are having on all societies from a media point of view at younger and younger ages when kids are most susceptible to such influences. reg the entertainment aspect- wouldn't you love to walk through a mall and hear qur'anic verses? i totally agree that this has to be regulated very carefully which is why we are lucky to have fanatics like killa and Mj and many others watching the market to ensure things that are sacred to Islam are not being used in a harmful way. How would you feel about kids playing a video game about Salahuddin's conquest of Palestime for example??

M Junaid said...

Trinity - what is the point of video games? A wonderful question that will actually differ from person to person - some see it as an exercise in futility, for others it is a beloved past time that helps them relax. for some, as you say - its an escape mechanism. Since this differs I cannot give you a simple reductionist answer - However - whats the point for MJ? Education, pleasure and escapism.

ABR - i'l tackle this in my sami post :)

Killa - I concur with half of what you say - However - i dont make a conscious decision to play games as opposed to going out in this vile world - that would imply that gaming is a substitution rather than a pure alternative of sorts. I game because it gives me enjoyment. I agree abotu sports games - but I love palyign call of duty every friday night with my mates :) in fact - sometimes we have the intention of goign out, but end up just sitting at home and playing COD :)

Nooj - couldnt just have ne on my own there could you :P I totally dig your idea though. Concerning conquests - there is a game called Lord of Arabia which deals with somethign similar - and last week I conquered Japan with Salahudeen in a game called Civilisations :)

as for the context - it has nothing to do with war. The theme was African safari, hence they included a West African song in there - continuity, cultural relevance etc.

I love Super Mario Brothers, and it is one of my top ten games of all time :)

M Junaid said...


Nooj said...

great article
i sent it to zubair who posted it on FB and ref'd me. darn creative commons...