Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Review)

Book cover for "Heavy Metal Islam" by Mark LeVine.Title: Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam

Author: Mark LeVine

Narrator: Nathan Mubasher

Publication Year: 2008

Pages: 312 (audio length: 9 hours 3 minutes)

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Audiobook version purchased from Audible.com

From the cover:

An eighteen-year-old Moroccan who loves Black Sabbath. A twenty-two-year-old rapper from the Gaza Strip. A young Lebanese singer who quotes Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” They are as representative of the world of Islam today as the conservatives and extremists we see every night on the news. Heavy metal, punk, hip-hop, and reggae are each the music of protest, and in many cases considered immoral in the Muslim world. This music may also turn out to be the soundtrack of a revolution unfolding across that world.

Why, despite governmental attempts to control and censor them, do these musicians and fans keep playing and listening? Partly, of course, for the joy of self-expression, but also because, in this region, everything is political. In Heavy Metal Islam, Mark LeVine explores the influence of Western music on the Middle East through interviews with musicians and fans, introducing us young Muslims struggling to reconcile their religion with a passion for music and a desire for change. The result is a revealing tour of contemporary Islamic culture through the evolving music scene in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Heavy Metal Islam is a surprising, wildly entertaining foray into a historically authoritarian region where music just might be the true democratizing force.

If you want to read a book about rock music in the Muslim world, this book is it.

Last year, I read Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star’s Revolution by Salman Ahmed, and while it was interesting, it was primarily about his own bands and his personal experiences. Heavy Metal Islam, on the other hand, is more of a survey of the Muslim metal scene in general. (It does include meeting, and jamming with, Salman, particularly in the section on Pakistan.) In particular, here is part of the introduction, which gives a good idea of where Levine is going with his book:

These teenagers, 20-somethings,and 30-somethings are not just the future of Islam but of the West and the world at large. That’s why it’s so important to listen to what young Muslims – and particularly those on the cultural cutting edge – are playing and saying, even when they’re playing and saying things the rest of us might not want to hear. Yet the range of voices that are heard today in the Muslim or global public spheres are both too narrow and far too black-and-white. […] The wide variety of music listened to by young people across the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] reveals that the Muslim world is as diverse as are its music scenes – mainstream and underground, religious and secular, Sunni and Shia, Christian and Jewish, as well as Muslim.

One of the things that Levine does particularly well in this book is to discuss the political atmosphere in which all of these people are trying to create and consume rock music. The section on Egypt, for example, provides a rather interesting commentary about pro-Mubarak music and directing anger elsewhere (ie not at Mubarak), and about the evolution of the Muslim Brotherhood. It would be rather interesting to see how this is different now, a year after the Egyptian revolution.

Overall, Heavy Metal Islam does a great job of detailing the music scenes in Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan. This is a look at the kinds of music people are making, yes, but also anyhow the music – and the process of trying to make it, perform it, and distribute it – is helping youth to interact with their societies and their religious beliefs. Definitely an interesting look at the evolution of metal culture, and of the way that youth in the MENA are trying to determine their future.


This book is a part of the Ramadan Reading event happening here this month.

You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.

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