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Singer finds loving audience among Muslims
by Susan Hogan Albach
He grew up with an ear toward the Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan and 10,000 Maniacs.
But those were the days when Dawud Wharnsby-Ali was playing his guitar in venues that tugged at his conscience and troubled his soul.
Today, the 28-year-old Canadian has found inner peace and a surer audience. With a sound reminiscent of Peter, Paul and Mary, he's writing and singing folk songs for Muslims.
"I embraced Islam in 1993, so I sort of weaned myself away from working in drinking pubs and stuff like that," said Mr. Wharnsby- Ali, who lives in Waterloo, Ontario.
Three years after he became a Muslim, he released his first Islamic recording, A Whisper of Peace, for Sound Vision, the largest Muslim multimedia company in the United States. It's the company's best-selling music CD.
"Dawud is loved in the Muslim community," said Abdul Malik Mujahid, president of Chicago-based Sound Vision. "He is known more for his songs than for his face because he doesn't like to do concerts."
Mr. Wharnsby-Ali's newest release, Sunshine, Dust and the Messenger, is geared toward older listeners. But his earlier CDs - Colors of Islam and Road to Madinah - had young children in mind.
"I was learning about Islam alongside them," he said. "I found so much energy in that. I felt like a child again. I had seen the world through a new light. It sounds cliché but that's what it was."
Mr. Wharnsby-Ali, who was raised Roman Catholic, was curious about religion from an early age. During high school, his spiritual quest led him to study the teachings of Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed - and others.
"I had studied the Bible in a Catholic school setting where we would go in one room and be told, 'This is your faith,' " Mr. Wharnsby-Ali said. "For me, I felt as though I needed to start over and reassess the information."
In his teens, he was introduced to the music of Cat Stevens, who had become a Muslim at the height of his music career.
"There were people like The Who and the [Rolling] Stones and Bob Dylan singing about peace and love and integrity and finding your way," Mr. Wharnsby-Ali said. "I thought, 'When does it end? When do you hit the point when you actually find that peace that you're searching for?' "
As his heart moved toward Islam, Mr. Wharnsby-Ali questioned the music scene around him.
"For friends of mine who would write songs and sing, there was that element of quest of spirituality," he said. "But then the lights go off and the show's over and they all get drunk. You can't live that way forever."
He stepped into a mosque for the first time at about age 20, searching for reliable information about Islam. Soon he was going regularly to read during his lunch hours.
"There was often the waft of curry in the air," he said. "There were cultural elements because Islam as a way of life encompasses people from all over the world. I wasn't yet committed to implementing this way of life, but I felt comfortable there."
Mr. Wharnsby-Ali released three independent recordings in the early 1990s. But as his faith changed, so did his music.
"Everything I was wanting to write about and express was in the Quran," he said. "It was difficult for peers of mine who in someway felt slighted or who felt that I had chosen God over them."
Today, Mr. Wharnsby-Ali is to Islam what Michael W. Smith is to Christianity and Debbie Friedman is to Judaism. Like them, he is putting the tenets of his faith in a pop music format that appeals to North Americans. But unlike them, he's doing it without the benefit of musical instruments, except for soft drums.
"The use of musical instruments is sort of a gray area for Muslims," he said. "There's a saying that when in doubt, stay away. So I try not to let it consume me. I stay mainly with vocals and with percussion in a very simple way, and it keeps the Muslim market pleased. I try to go at it in a way that's more gentle and less glossy. In that way, it's very different than the Christian pop scene."
His songs are often playful, but his goal is to inspire and educate. For instance, on "The Veil," he encourages young women to wear the Islamic head covering known as Hijab:
"This body that I have, no stranger has a right to see. These long clothes, the shawl I wear ensure my modesty. Faith is more essential than fashion, wouldn't you agree?"
Mr. Wharnsby-Ali said that he rewrote the song several times because he didn't want to sound judgmental.
"My sister embraced Islam just over a year ago and is wearing Hijab," he said. "It's a struggle. I understand that. For those sisters who don't wear Hijab, I tried to present the sister in the song as very humble and very gracious, although very serious and very determined."
The songs resonate with many Muslims.
"Whenever we are in the car or having a good time together, my family plays the music," said Haseeb Akhtar, 35, of Garland. "As Muslims, we don't have a lot of choices for music like this. I know the teenager groups love it the most. But my son is 7 and he loves it too."
Mr. Wharnsby-Ali said adults have sometimes been critical of the songs children seem to like the most.
"Children like to hear that Mohammed cried," he said. "They like to hear that there's a man crying because of what he's been through, but that he's happy to see his daughter. They like to know that it's OK to trust emotion. These are songs people say you shouldn't put on the tape."
In addition to music recordings, Mr. Wharnsby-Ali has recorded devotional CDs on the Quran. He does some puppetry for the popular Muslim children's video series Adam's World. He also oversees an Islamic information center in Waterloo and leads lectures and children's workshops. But he generally shuns performing in concerts.
"After embracing Islam, I decided to write and record again based solely upon the intention of pleasing Allah and providing education," he said. "Spirituality is very important and very intimate, and I don't like cheapening it."
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