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In Iraq, Mahdawi Rap Emerges as New Form of Religious Expression

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Iraqi Shiites gather outside Imam Ali’s shrine in the holy city of Najaf. Photo: QASSEM ZEIN / AFP ©AFP ⁃ QASSEM ZEIN

Rap is often associated with rebellion and social minorities expressing their anger as well as their hopes and fears in smartly composed rhymes. In Iraq, where Shia Islam is the dominant religion, rap – specifically Mahdawi rap – has become a way for some Shiite clerics to connect with a younger audience.

Mahdawi rap is described on Rate Your Music, a collaborative online musical database, as ‘a new rap trend coming from Iraq. It’s basically Shia preaching rapped over very minimalistic beats’.

Originating in the south of the country, Mahdawi rap has quickly gained popularity in other regions as well and focuses on messages of humanity and inclusion. It is derived from traditional latmiyat, chanted verses mourning Muslim icons, adapted to Western-style rap in order to engage younger adherents. Latmiyat predate Islam, going back 4,000 years to Babylonian times, but have their own icons, including Bassem al-Karbalai, in modern Iraq.

The Arab Weekly described in a 12 May 2019 article a religious ceremony incorporating Mahdawi rap: ‘In Midhatiya, a town 100km south of Baghdad, teens in matching red shirts stood shoulder to shoulder in their local place of worship as if preparing for prayer, but when the speakers crackled to life, they blared a staccato drum beat and the voice of a young performer in a black robe, rhyming with a speed befitting New York’s fiercest underground rap battles.’

The article also quoted Sheikh Salem al-Janahi, an older religious figure, who said his more traditional counterparts “had gotten involved in corruption and politics, so young people began running away from religion”. Rapper Karrar al-Bederi added, “Young people abandoned religion and morality because of backward, classical clerics…[Rap] has become one of the important ways we reach out to youth, to spread a message of peace, moderation but morals as well.”

For Marsin Rahim Alshamary, a Harvard research fellow interested in the intersection of religion and politics in the Middle East, Mahdawi rap’s popularity is not just its appeal to the youth. “It’s more like self-expression, a new and modern way to express one’s faith,” she told Fanack. Mahdawi rappers are often active on social media and regularly share their music online.

Some Shiite clerics, such as Kazim Hairi, have criticized the music form and its use to mark the martyrdom of key religious figures. “This will harm Shiites and their faith,” Hairi said. The permissibility of music in Islamic worship is also disputed, with hardline clerics saying that Islam forbids all music, even in daily life outside the mosque, whereas other Muslims, such Iraq’s Sufis, use drums and dance in their worship.

“Religious deviant movements that have emerged recently have taken advantage of weak religious knowledge among young people to introduce to Islam things that have nothing to do with religion,” imam Latif al-Amidi told The Arab Weekly. “These movements brought singers, dancing and DJs into Islam, using the excuse that they want to attract youth.”

Alshamary noted that Iraq has various types of Shiite clerics, not just conservative and modern ones: “You have different clerics and different involvements. Some belong to the elite; they are less likely to be involved in small issues like rapping or not in religion. They care about the youth but are more involved in politics or in academia. Then you have the popular preachers, very charismatic people who speak well and hit positions of authority because people listen to them. They get involved with the community, notably on social media, and the youth will most likely look up to them. They are most probably among the people who were at the origin of the Mahdawi rap trend.”

However, she also pointed out that “in general, religious observance in Arab countries is declining, especially among the youth, so clerics are less influential”. This could be why some clerics have attempted to adapt their communication and change their approach, both to religion and young people.

“But at the end of the day, religious rap is not a real issue or a big problem,” Alshamary said. “If clerics want to appeal to the youth, they need to concretely act and develop a better understanding of it. Instead of being reactive, for example by answering questions only if they are asked, like about homosexuality or women’s clothing, they could be more proactive, in the sense that they need to initiate [conversations]. They are usually professional and open minded about a wide range of topics, so they could just start the conversation themselves, by targeting issues important for the youth.”

No religious authority in Iraq has made an official statement about Mahdawi rap so far, indicating that it is more a cultural trend than a ‘deviant’ means of expression. It may, however, serve as a reminder that as forms of expression evolve constantly, religion does too.

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