President Obama's speech in Cairo last week as well as the candid and heated debates in Iran during its contentious presidential election provide yet another opportunity to revisit the sterile images of Islam that dominate the discussion both in the West and throughout the Muslim world as well. That discussion is framed by Muslim terrorists or extremists on the one hand squaring off against secular but resentful populations on the other. That is one facet of a kaleidoscope, a potent one but in no way the only one.
If there's any doubt on that score, a new documentary focusing on the career of Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour should dispel it utterly. "I Bring What I Love" is an elegiac, beautiful film, years in the making, and it will start playing in New York this week and then in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Like all documentaries, it will be dwarfed by the summer blockbusters that surround it, but this film deserves an audience.
In 2004, N'Dour's album "Egypt" created a controversy in Senegal and among a vocal handful of his fans because he set verses of the Koran to music. One of the debates between more fundamentalist Muslims and much of Muslim society world-wide is over the proper role of music in worship - not unlike the struggles among Baptists about dancing. N'Dour was and is a hugely popular singer with a world-wide following and adored in Senegal, and the negative reaction of several key members of the religious establishment in his country saddened and surprised him.
N'Dour speaks passionately in the film about his love of God and his devotion to the Koran, and explains that he could think of no better way to honor his faith and his God than by putting those verses to music, as generations of Sufi mystics have done. His album ultimately won a Grammy, and in 2008 N'Dour was named one of Time Magazine's most influential people. But even without that recognition, N'Dour, his music, and this film would stand as a testament to the immensely complicated tapestry of global Islam, which cannot be defined by what clerics in Saudi Arabia or the mountains of Afghanistan say, or by the rhetoric of angry parties in Lebanon and Iran. Youssou N'Dour lays as much claim to speaking for a true Islam, and he does so with poetry, grace and beauty. That not only deserves a place at the table; it must be there, and as long as individuals like N'Dour can pour forth their hope in humanity with such mellifluous joy, it will be.
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