Contemporary Islam

, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp 297–314 | Cite as

Tunes of religious resistance? Understanding Hamas music in a conflict context



Hamas (Harakat al-Muqawamatal-Islamiyya) was established in 1987 as a resistance organization against Israel and as an alternative to Fatah. One of the resistance tools of Hamas is music, which it produces, performs, records, and uses. Music in the Palestinian context can be seen as creating a political space for expression that the Israelis cannot control; inasmuch as as Hamas was established as a result of the occupation, so also, to a large extent, was its music. Palestinian resistance music has existed ever since the 1948 al-nakba (the catastrophe), and music centers in Cairo and Beirut have been influential factors in its production. Originally, the music was constituted by a wide range of popular music, which included lyrics about the Palestinian struggle. This article scrutinizes how Hamas music is being created, how it is used, and how it is linked to the organization’s resistance struggle against Israel and for a Palestinian homeland in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. It concludes that Hamas resistance music is not permeated by the religious affiliation of the organization. Rather, it has as its aim social connection, spreading the messages of the organization, and exhorting resistance against Israel. In addition to resistance music, Hamas produces and uses music of grief and tributes to political and religious leaders, as well as anashid, songs different from the resistance music saturated by a religious character.


Hamas Music Resistance Religion 

My opinion is that music, songs, and art are used for fun and, more important, for freedom etc., things that are of value. Music can also give spiritual feelings of, for example, relief. Music also supports the humanity values, like the moral effects and how to behave. But here it is clear that we are under occupation, so to talk about music, we are not uniformed, but in relation to resistance we want to make Palestine free. Hamas has a similar idea to this, but they support the physical resistance. It is a moral war to get our rights back, and in this aspect music is important. (Hamas member 11; Nablus 2011)

In relation to the quotation above, the aim of this article is to scrutinize what Hamas (Harakat al-Muqawamatal-Islamiyya) self-produced music is all about. The aim is not to present an exhaustive study, but to examine how Hamas music is being created, how it is used, and how it is linked to the organization’s resistance struggle against Israel and for a Palestinian homeland in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. This article is particularly important in view of the lack of studies on the political meaning of music created by religiously affiliated groups. Music produced within Islamic contexts has remained within such a framework of understanding, which is also an explanation as to why the term Hamas music has not been used in previous studies. Moreover, texts addressing the relation between music and resistance in the Palestinian context have not highlighted—or most times, mentioned at all–whether Hamas-produced music has played a role and, if so, what that role has been in the Palestinian resistance, struggle, and mobilization.

The Islamic movement Hamas was established in 1987 as a consequence of socioeconomic and political changes among the Palestinian population, influenced by the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas became the new resistance to Israel and an alternative for those opposing the secular party Fatah, especially after it committed itself to the US-led peace process in 1991. The popular support base for Hamas has grown since its establishment, peaking in 2006 when the movement’s political branch won the national election victory in the Palestinian self-rule areas. As a result, fratricidal war emerged in June 2007 between Fatah and Hamas, which led to an informal division of the Palestinian Authority (PA) where Hamas took total control over the Gaza Strip (Gaza) and Fatah remained in power in the West Bank (WB). An international attempt, through the Cairo Reconciliation Agreement, to reunite the PA was made in 2011 but has, until today, not led to a solution to the split (Schulz 2012; interview with Morra 2011). Hence, in Gaza, Hamas has had the opportunity to decide on what regulations and rules should be in place. These include safeguarding that living is in accordance with the organization’s interpretation of Islam and that the resistance against Israel is maintained. Hamas´s role in such regard relates to, for example, the enforcement of the Hamas view on politically correct cultural life, resistance, and mobilization. In other words, it has included religious policies of austerity in people’s everyday life, but also attempts at a stronger, or a different, resistance strategy against Israel (Gunning 2009; Tamimi 2007, 2009; interview with Meshal 2009). Within such a framework, and in regard to this article, Hamas defines and frames how its produced music is linked to and used in the struggle against Israeli occupation in general and as a tool of unified resistance in particular.

The academic literature on Hamas is expanding but is still rather scanty, and little of it has touched at all upon the relation between Hamas and culture (see Chebab 2007; Gunning 2009; Hroub 2000; Milton-Edwards and Farell 2010; Tamimi 2007, 2009). On Hamas self-produced music and on the organization’s opinions and standpoints regarding music, only a few articles and blogs are available (see Kabubfest2009; The Telegraph2012).

Music, conflict, and religion

There is a flourishing academic debate with regard to music as a tool of resistance (also in relation to religion and conflict) concerning how music is seen not only as a means for religious practice among Muslims, but also as a weapon of resistance and/or combat against unjust regimes, rules. and systems, particularly in conflict-struck areas. Josef Massad has underlined the historical understanding of music in conflict contexts as an extremely important tool for mobilization, specifically in relation to national liberation. Nationalist-related music has the mobilizing capacity to “stir the emotions of the masses for the nationalist cause” (Massad 2005: 175). Massad made a direct link between historical usage of music as a mobilization tool and the Arab resistance against the Zionist movement. Muslim musicians spreading religious and political messages can be found within different musical genres and related to several contexts in all parts of the world. If we understand the Islamic resistance sphere as some sort of battlefield, music produced and used as an inspiration is far from a new phenomenon. During conflict, music has been used to, for example, psychologically prepare, motivate, focus, signal commands, unify participation, share experiences, and so forth. Moreover, it fulfills the purpose of creating an “untouchable” space for the adversaries. When individuals listen to music within the same physical sphere, creation of unity and community as preparation—for example, before battle—is effective. Jonathan Pieslak claimed that “music is a means of establishing the identity of the group and supports the feeling of togetherness through a ritualized musical experience” (Pieslak 2009: 54–55).

Bruce Johnson and Martin Cloonan argue, in their recent book The DarkSide ofthe Tune:Popular Musicand Violence, that “war perennially provides the most extreme manifestations of the connections between music, identity and violence” (Johnson and Cloonan 2009: 2). Similar to Pieslak’s claim on creating a superior space, they underline the usage of music in conflict contexts to distinguish between us and them: “Every time music is used to demarcate the territory of self or community, it is incipiently being used to invade, marginalize or obliterate that of other individuals or groups” (Johnson and Cloonan 2009: 4). Empirical inquiry into such claims has been distinguished in several war and conflict situations, such as in the war between North and South Korea (O’Connell 2010), and in the war in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, music was used for three main purposes in the conflict: “encouragement to participants; provoking and humiliating the enemy; and calls for the involvement of those not directly involved” (Johnson and Cloonan 2009: 149).

Within a context similar to that in Johnson and Cloonan, David McDonald discusses the relation between artistic performances and violence in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict from an ethnomusicological point of departure. McDonald makes sense of the connotations of violence through performativity, such as in music, making sense of including cultural meaning in specific contexts in the debate. He presents some interesting field data where a Palestinian musician states that music is a direct tool of resistance and that a singer on stage in the PT has power equal to that of martyrs in the street. McDonald stipulates that “music and violence are a means of communicating/instantiating a particular historical narrative embodied in the gestural acts of its participants” (McDonald 2009: 79). This implies that violence in the Palestinian case is a responsive act from years of occupation and occupational violence expressed through the collective media of art, such as music. Interestingly, he underlines martyr operations as a performative means in itself and as the most figurative form of Palestinian violent resistance against the occupation. However, he does not draw on the possible relation of music, violence, and martyrs. Neither is Hamas addressed in this regard.

As much as music is an effective tool during conflict, music may also be considered politically offensive, immoral, or even incorrect. More precisely with regard to the relation between Islamic affiliates and music in general, directly relating to Hamas as an Islamic movement, Jonas Otterbeck describes one common scenario where “Islamist and conservative organizations or individuals try to disturb and break up concerts, demand censorship on recordings, or call for the punishment of individuals for being blasphemous. At times musicians are killed or attacked physically” (Otterbeck 2008: 211). Hence, music is not only a tool for individuals’ (Muslims’) own purposes, such as in conflict contexts. Music in itself can create clashes when it fails to correspond to the ideology and goals of individuals’, organizations’, and so forth. During the last 2 decades, quite intense and fearful confrontations have occurred in the Palestinian Territories (PT) over music, mainly between young Hamas members and secular-oriented individuals and groups. Hence, this article will, in addition, try to shed light on Hamas’s attitude toward usage and performance of music in general.

Opinions on whether music is allowed or not are as many as the number of Muslims. The diverse opinions can possibly be related to the second most authoritative source for Muslims, the Hadith, where pieces both for and against music can be found. In the same regard, Lois Ibsen Al-Faruqi underlines that both secular and religious music prospered during all periods of Muslim history. She points out that it is rather the Muslim community that has taken, and still takes, its own stance and makes its own interpretation of whether and how music is appropriate or even allowed. She says that “rather than to say Islam prohibited music, one ought to realize that in these ideological battles over music that were waged throughout the centuries of Islamic history, there was a cultural orientation in musical style going on which has had its effect until today” (Al-Faruqi 1980: 59). In this sense, context is the focus, rather than content and performance.

Amnon Shiloah elaborates on Al-Faruqi’s questioning by addressing the power of decision making within Muslim communities, arguing that “no single canonist or religious authority, whatever his rank, can a priori decide on a prohibition or authorization; such an authority is expected to base his arguments either on direct references in the sacred writings, or on analogic exegesis” (Shiloah 1997). Both Al-Faruqi and Shiloah conclude that even if the Hadith can answer some questions regarding music and permission, religious affiliates generally act with regard to surrounding circumstances, and not with regard to the music as sinful or inappropriate in itself. What they both claim is that many Muslim adherents, both in history and today, associate music with chartered libertines conflicting with the actual Muslim law. Hence, Islam’s—and therefore, many Muslims’—attitude(s) toward music has been misunderstood (Al-Faruqi 1980; Shiloah 1997).

Historical understanding of Hamas/Palestinian music

Hamas has produced and used its own music since the establishment of the organization in 1987. The main part of the Hamas music produced during the early days of its establishment was created mainly for resistance purposes and as part of the Palestinian resistance genre as whole. Hamas explains such evolution as having the following overarching narrative2:
  • Before the al Nakba, the catastrophe, in 1948

  • 1948–1965 A period of exile and mourning in the Diaspora and the emergence of resistance music

  • 1965–1982 The period of PLO resistance and Fatah music

  • 1982–1987 Since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon until the Palestinian Intifada

  • 1987–1993 During the Palestinian uprising, Intifada

  • 2000–the al Aqsa uprising, Intifada

  • 1993–from the Oslo Accords until the contemporary time period.

During the period before 1948, Palestinian resistance music was developed particularly during the Arab revolt period of 1936–1939. One follower of the Palestinian leader Izzaad-din al-Qassam in the 1930s was Nuh Ibrahim, who became a singer and poetry writer. Ibrahim is considered to be the first revolutionary singer and the first Palestinian to combine Islamic resistance songs with Palestinian nationalist lyrics. After the Nakba in 1948 until 1965, songs of mourning over the exile and longing for the homeland were initiated. They were mainly led by such singers as Najah Salam (Lebanon), Farid al-Atrash (Syria), and Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab (Egypt) (Massad 2005). As the PLO and its secular resistance against Israeli occupation originated in 1965, poems and songs during the period of 1965–1982 were related to the revolution, resistance, and liberation and to the dream of returning to Palestine. In addition, songs after the 1967 war reflected sadness and despair, but also hope in supporting the struggle by the Fida’yyin, Arab partisans/guerillas. As the Fida’yyin grew stronger during the 1960s, songs celebrating resistance and the liberation of Palestine emerged and became an important weapon for the guerilla movements, such as songs by Shaykh Imam ‘Isa (Egypt). In 1969, as Fatah emerged, Palestinian resistance songs were produced by members of the organization addressing the occupation and encouraging militant revolutionism. When the Fida’yyin was expelled from Jordan and relocated to Lebanon, in 1971, the PLO established the Radioof theRevolution (Sawt Filastin Sawt al-Thawrah al-Filastiniyyah). Similar stations where guerilla groups broadcast music of revolution emerged in Syria and Iraq during the same time, and in all three nations, the broadcasts became very popular, particularly in Palestinian refugee camps (Massad 2005; interview with Abu-Shakra 2011).

After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the PLO withdrawal to Tunis, a second period of traditional nostalgic songs about Palestine developed. With the outbreak of the Intifada in 1987, songs of the popular uprising and resistance developed and dominated the Palestinian Islamic musical scene. It was during this period that Hamas members began to write their own music, songs that were increasingly permeated by a mixture of Islamic and Palestinian national themes. This eventually led to a struggle over nationalist and Islamic songs after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

However, already in 1982, partly as a result of the Sabra and Shatiila massacres in Lebanon, the Islamic League of Students in Lebanon developed Islamic music beyond its solely religious meaning, although not Palestinian national music. It was during this period that Islamic songs developed and extended their content, according to Hamas. Several Islamic-affiliated bands were created during this time, and in 1992, the music of several bands was spread, mainly due to the new Gulf satellite channels that were broadcasting the new music. Hamas members have explained that one of Hamas’s current top leaders was a member of one of the first bands (al-Rabita al-Islamiyyaal-Talabat Falastiin), formed within the Islamic League of Palestinian Students in Kuwait in 1980. After Palestinians were deported en masse from Kuwait in 1991, most Palestinian singers continued to develop in Jordan, and furthermore, it was in Jordan that many recordings took place in studios such as New Sound, Golden Sound, and Taif-Recording. It was also during this time that Islamic singers began to earn money from their music, an issue that created a heated debate on whether earning money from Islamic music production should be allowed.

As was mentioned above, after the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Palestinian musical genre turned to focus on reactions connected to the Oslo process, where song lyrics including the term aadoun (we willreturn) were common. It was explained by the interviewees that the time of the Oslo Accords has influenced Palestinian and Hamas songs until today. It was further underlined that parallel with the al Aqsaintifada in 2000, the Palestinian musical scene had its own uprising with several famous Islamic singers in Europe, such as Maher Zein (Sweden), Sami Yousef, and Masoud Kortesh (England). They all became popular in Europe, as well as in Palestine. Even if the singers and producers of Palestinian national/political songs are far from all Hamas-affiliated musicians, they are frequently listened to by Hamas members. But there is an ongoing struggle inside Hamas on whether such is appropriate or not: “Hamas has different opinions within, from the extreme to the liberal. Within Hamas, there are also people who claim that all music is haraam [forbidden]. But there are also people who say that music belongs to human nature. There are no general open stands from the authority (Hamas member, Nablus 2011). It should be mentioned, as was explained during several interviews and is also mentioned in the theoretical background, that diverse opinions can be found throughout the entire chronological evolution of music within the Islamic and political/national sphere in the Middle East.

Contemporary understanding of Hamas music

Even if Hamas is officially an Islamic organization, the music it produces today is mainly not composed of Islamic messages or Qur’an recitation, Tajwid. However, Hamas does produce and record anashid—that is, devotional songs that are based on religious texts, themes, or ideas.3 In addition, some songs are not anashid in the sense just explained but have a similar style. An example of such would be songs paying tribute to different leaders. But in those songs, it is Islamic or Hamas leaders that are praised and not the prophet Muhammad, as in anashid. One interviewee in Lebanon explained that approximately 10 % of the Islamic anashid created in the world today is a product of Hamas, produced in studios such as Golden Vision. It is important to make a distinction here between anashid producers in Gaza and elsewhere. The producers outside Gaza claim to be affiliated with the Hamas environment, whereas in Gaza the musicians sing in the name of Hamas. For example, the members of the band al-Buraq in Syria are adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood but claim to be affiliated with Hamas, whereas the band al-Ahrar in Gaza performs and records in the name of the organization. The present article will not go into a detailed religious discussion regarding what type of music Hamas produces, but it needs to be discussed in relation to the usage of instruments. The Hamas-produced anashid contains instruments, but other musical genres, such as resistance songs, which will be explained below, use various instruments to a larger extent. Even if anashid in general includes instruments, it appears to be, or at least has been, a heated topic within Hamas, where one member claims the following:

Regarding instruments in their [Hamas] own music, on their TV channel Al Aqsa TV they use a lot of instruments, so I think it has passed this point. Hamas relates its rules to the contemporary time. For example, during Muhammad’s time, he prohibited the instrument Nay because it was related to whores. But today such would not make sense. (Hamas member 1, Nablus 2011)

This claim seems to be relevant, since several of the Hamas songs that can be found contain several types of instruments and even electronic additions of background music. However, it does not answer the question of whether, how, and why acceptance has changed over time.

The Hamas music, including anashid, can by and large be understood as having the following purposes: social affiliation and spreading the message of the organization, resistance against Israel, devotion to the religion of Islam, and tribute to and mourning of Hamas/Islamic leaders and martyrs. Interviewees explained that the songs should generally be understood to express collective feelings and the sense of belonging in relation to Palestine and the conflict with Israel. The first purpose of social affiliation and spreading the message of the organization is often expressed through lyrics such as “We shall unite,” “Together we are strong,” “Hamas will never give up,” and so forth. This genre, or this type of message, is often intermingled in the resistance songs, which will be discussed below. Songs whose purpose is paying tribute to and mourning Hamas/Islamic leaders and martyrs are usually slower in pace and more like anashids in style than, for example, the resistance songs. Even if one can distinguish between what song is made for what purpose, several songs include multiple messages. For example, grief songs are usually not solely about grief. They are often combined with political messages of struggle and/or resistance, usually related to the previous position and performance of the honored person. One example is the song specifically honoring Hamas’s previous political leader and spokesman in Gaza, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, who was killed by the Israeli Air Force in 2004. Phrases from the particular song go: “Sleep in peace, the sleeping of heroes and let Hamas attack like an earthquake.” “You were the leader. Even if you died, your revenge will be by our hands, leader.”4

It is worth mentioning that there is a difference between only listening to Hamas songs on cassettes or CDs and simultaneously watching the accompanying videos on, for example, YouTube, which exist for some of the songs. The videos are, in general, violent in their appearance, specifically toward Israel, symbolized as the evil to be destroyed. Many videos show snapshots of masked men with Qassam rockets and weapons with burning buildings in the background, Palestinian children dressed/masked in Kefiyye (the traditional Palestinian scarf) throwing stones and using slingshots, pictures in honor of the leaders, cartoon images of Israelis oppressing the Palestinians, and so forth. Each and every Hamas song, both in videos and in other forms of recordings, lacks female voices, even if Hamas’s political and social part, as well as the military wing, comprises women.5

Hamas music is not only produced and recorded to be spread through different media, such as CDs and YouTube. In Gaza, Hamas has its own boy band, called Protectors ofthe Homeland. The band was formed by Hamas’s top police commander, Jamal al-Jarah, in 2007. The members are all bearded men in their 20–30s, wearing Hamas police uniforms and advocating a new way of live performance. The band explains that it practices every day in the police headquarters, and its aim is to bolster morale, encourage the forces, and boost their spirits with entertainment. In order to deliver its messages, they sing about Islamic values, heroic fighters, and the Palestinian homeland. The band has performed on several occasions, always in settings of men only. They also perform in the Palestinian prisons, shows that are specifically tailored as education in anticrime and morals, but also with the aim of entertaining and relieving the prisoners (The Telegraph2012).

Except for the Hamas boy band, which has its own studio, and some house-studios, most of Hamas’s music is produced outside of the PT, such as in Lebanon and Egypt. The main reason why Hamas produces its music in Lebanon and Egypt is not only because a large Palestinian population resides there, but also because access to studios is better, Hamas members explained. They also clarified how the political atmosphere for freely producing and spreading the music is easier abroad than in the PT, especially concerning the WB. Actually, since 2006, the production of Hamas music in Gaza has increased, but due to the poor economy in Gaza in general, the studios are usually temporary places, created in, for example, someone’s living room, often lacking accurate equipment. Regarding the WB, production and even usage of Hamas music has become difficult and often also dangerous, mainly since 2006: “If we play the music or even have it in the computer when we get stopped, Fatah arrests us. If I listened to Hamas music here, I would be surrounded and arrested. The situation is much worse here than in Gaza” (Hamas member, Nablus 2011).

Hamas music and resistance in conflict contexts

The music created by Hamas is permeated by contextual factors. One contextual element is, evidently, the conflict context, not only in relation to Israel, but also internally with regard to to Fatah. Another contextual factor is the Palestinian diaspora situation. Since a large part of the Palestinian population is residing in neighboring Arab countries, the production and usage of Hamas music is not limited to the PT but, rather, extends to the entire diaspora context of mainly neighboring Arab countries, but also Europe, as was mentioned at the beginning of the article.

Hamas was established as a result of the Israeli occupation (and as an alternative to Fatah). So too was Hamas resistance music. Palestinian music related to resistance in general has existed ever since the 1948 nakba, and music centers in Egypt and Lebanon specifically have been influential factors for the genre. To further understand the contextual meanings of resistance music, we must realize that “it’s impossible to understand Israeli and Palestinian music today apart from the abysmal failure of Oslo to deliver on its promises of peace, independence, and development for either Palestinians or Israelis” (LeVine 2008: 113). Moreover, since the first Intifada, protest songs have been “composed to mobilize the Palestinian people for uprisings against the Israeli state, disseminated quickly through audio cassettes and other mass media” (Wong 2009: 270). Palestinian songs, both from the PT and from abroad, have had a major impact on the struggle during the Intifadas mainly as a tool for motivation and mobilization. As was explained earlier, singers from neighboring Arab countries sang about the Palestinian struggle and suffering in a nationalistic manner, which was used by Palestinians as a musical weapon for inciting purposes, to prepare for battles with the Israelis. One example is Feiroz’s songs about Palestine, which were frequently used as a trigger before battles during the Al Aqsa Intifada of 2000. Music was, during that time, used to create a political space for expression and spreading the word that the Israelis could not control. Such is also the case today among Palestinians as a whole and among Hamas resistance music in particular.6

The aim of Hamas resistance music is first and foremost to spread political messages to the people, but also to mobilize and exhort to action. It follows that the pattern in Hamas resistance music is that the political exhortations are either phrases that can be understood as general (such as “Hit the Qassam rocket. Shoot in the liver of the oppressive”7; see Appendix 1) or as expressively directed to Israel as the occupier (“if the whole world will give in, we will not admit the presence of Israel”8 [see Appendix 2] or “ask about us, the occupier became weak and we did not”9). Political slogans or powerful phrases are often repeated several times in the Hamas songs, which appears to be a structure used with the aim of inculcating particular messages, almost like a mantra. The songs contain fatal incidents, often historical, used as triggers for struggle, fighting, and resisting and, at times, expressively encouraging attacks towards Israel.

Some songs are specifically made as battle songs for Hamas’s military wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, like the song mentioned above: “The Return of the Qassamist Falcons.” The repetitive refrain in this song goes, “Hit, hit, hit. Hit the Qassam rocket. This is made by our hands and the only God is protecting us.” Such phrases encourage violent struggle and affirm that one should not be afraid, because it is a duty in the name of God. The Islamic message of encouraging Jihad is repetitively used, often for the aim of creating an Islamic national state. In relation to exhorting violent acts, not all resistance songs include such, even if the majority do and even if most of the videos have a violent content. It was explained, by Hamas members, that the reason for the violent approach is because most of the resistance songs are made for the military wing of Hamas, the part of the organization that conducts soldierly actions. In this regard, one interviewee explained that

I had an 18-year-old friend who was a Hamas member, and he tried to conduct a suicide bombing in Israel, but he failed. Afterwards I asked him what made him do this thing, and he said that he listened to Hamas music and was triggered to do it. Sometimes we should use violence to show Israel that we are still here. It is easy for Israel to do bad things to us, but we should show that we are people too. (Hamas member 2, Nablus 2011)10

On the relation between Hamas resistance music and violence, another interviewee claimed that “personally, when I hear Hamas music, I get very active and I am ready to fight! I think I share that feeling with all people who hear it. But Hamas music is not in itself created for the sake of creating violence” (Hamas member, Nablus 2011). Other Islamic groups that use music in similar ways to Hamas, and that are directly affiliated with Hamas music, are the opposing forces of Iraq. The opposing forces consist of Iraqi anti-American and anti-Israeli movements, and their music frequently appears in videos produced by, for example, Hamas and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The ISI resistance videos are very similar to Hamas videos in appearance, message, and music, including elements of resistance in the name of Jihad (Pieslak 2009). The common denominators in the resistance music made and listened to by all these groups are fighting for and in the name of God, spreading political messages, uniting in order to resist Israel and the West (mainly the U.S.), retaking Palestine, worshipping the Islamic leaders, and struggling as martyrs.

Hamas, secular music, and censorship

Resistance within Hamas is not only linked to their own music as a tool against Israel. Hamas is also permeated by an internal division of opinions, by complexity, or by resistance, if you like, against other musical genres or events, mainly expressed in Gaza since their governmental takeover in 2006. To illustrate the diverse opinions on nonreligious music within Hamas, two interviewees gave their views:

From a religious perspective, there is nothing related to music that is called haram because there is nothing in the Koran or in the Hadith that says so. But some people say that if you listen to music, you will move away from your religion. I personally do not listen to music. But if I do and if I would its ok, it does not matter. I believe that everyone can do what they want. I would not tell people to turn off the radio or the music, but some people do and claim that it is haram. For example like my father, he is against music. He listens to the Sheikhs, but in such sense it is more the texts of the songs. Regarding Hamas censorship, it is not efficient, as I know of, even in Gaza. Hamas would not stop weddings due to music or such reasons, but they would if there were gun shooting. Music is an important part of Palestinian life. (Hamas member 1 in Nablus 2011)

Within Hamas there are also people who claim that all music is haram. But there are also people who say that music belongs to the human nature. Those who are hard-core against music are also diverse in expression. Some people keep it for themselves, some express their opinions orally, and some are more extreme and take actions to close down music shops, for example. On some levels, Hamas take stands on music, but it is done more privately. There are no general open stands from the authority. There were occasions when Hamas took actions, but again on a people to people level. (Hamas member 2 in Nablus 2011)

Through these quotes, it becomes obvious that opinions about music vary within Hamas. They also show that the members’ ideas about what Hamas as an organization should stand for vary. That some members of Hamas are against nonreligious music and occasionally even take actions against the same is not a rare phenomenon globally. Historically, people in power have often wanted to control art and music, with the justification that it has harmful effects on individuals.

In the case of Hamas, as was mentioned above, it is extremely difficult to distinguish exactly what group or individual is behind acts of censorship in Gaza. What we do know is that Gaza today, and since 2007, is the most strictly controlled Palestinian area concerning lifestyle, expression, dress codes, and so forth. For example, it was explained that there are no record shops in Gaza, so musicians spread their music through e-mail or cell phones. On several occasions, it has been reported by musicians from Gaza that Hamas bans all kinds of music that is not performed in accordance with Islamic norms. It is also reported that graffiti, a frequently used tool for expression in Gaza, is nowadays in total control by Hamas (Jordan Times2011). Examples where Hamas has closed down musical performances in Gaza are mainly related to events allowing for mixed sexes in the audience or in the group itself, even if it concerns traditional Palestinian music. In other words, it seems that banning musical events is not related mainly to the music itself but to the setting of the event. One Hamas leader elaborates, as an official, on the issue:

Hamas focuses on where you use instruments. It will be haram in the nightclub, for the environment of mixing men and women. Hamas does not want to make the haram halal [permitted] in public. If you make the haram behind closed doors, no one can punish you. People who are not Hamas can make closed occasions and mix men and women. As long as it is not moved out in public, we will not prevent them. Personally, I believe that let people know Islam and they will prevent themselves! (Hamas leader in Beirut 2011)

In other words, according to Hamas, mixing sexes and listening to any type of music is ok if you are not a Hamas affiliate and if the event is not held in a public space. The same interviewee further highlights that when acts of banning musical events in Gaza take place, most of the time it is not an action of Hamas. Instead, he accuses the Islamic branch Salafi from the Gulf. According to him, the Salafis are often supported by Fatah. This leads us to another internal resistance debate—namely, that between Hamas and Fatah. There have been reports from Gaza about Hamas beating up musicians performing in bands from Fatah, which is obviously rather a power struggle than a stand against music (Jerusalem Post2010). Also, the Hamas interviewees from the Fatah-ruled PT explain that

Before we used the music for trigger purposes, but today we are not allowed. If we play the music or even have it in the computer when we get stopped, Fatah arrests us. If I listened to Hamas music here, I would be surrounded and arrested. The situation is much worse here than in Gaza. (Hamas member, Nablus 2011)

But there are also examples of official Hamas standing behind similar acts of repression. For example, in Qalqiliya in the West Bank in 2005, Hamas, which governed the city at that time, decided and managed to ban a music festival for being haram. The same municipality, run by Hamas, “also ordered that music no longer be played in the city’s zoo, and mufti Akrameh Sabri issued a religious edict affirming the municipality decision” (Freemuse 2005). In this particular case, and again in general, it seems that it is rather an opposition against the mixture of men and women and, further, what such could lead to in the presence of music. Another example of Hamas taking control over the public sphere as a governmental power was the closing down of the Rap performance by Mothafar Assar in Gaza in March 2009. Hamas motivation for shutting down the concert was a combination of being against mixed sexes, alcohol consumption, and performance of “noncorrect” music. In relation to the same incident, it was reported that Hamas discouraged recording studios in Gaza from permitting Assar’s and other bands to record their music (Sherwood 2010). Moreover, the Danish organization Freemuse, for freedom of musical expression, also has reported several incidents where masked gunmen (sometimes specifically identified as Hamas) by different means have obstructed musical performances and also, on occasion, have used violence against or kidnapped singers (Freemuse 2005).

In relation to cultural performance in general, not only the mixing of men and women seemed to contradict the outline of Hamas as the organization attempted to dictate a cultural policy of conduct in the 1980s and early 1990s. Meanwhile, tensions arose between different social groups, and Hamas continued its struggle for the cause by burning certain video shops and books argued to be dissenting from Islam. In general, the whole Arab world has reached a point where governments that previously strived for religious correctness can no longer control the musical media flow as previously, due to its being spread through the changed and widened forms of media.


As was indicated by Al-Faruqi and Shiloha, ever since Mohammed’s era, there has been opposition as to what Islam accepts and does not accept in relation to music. Such is the case even if the main source of the religion itself—that is, the Koran—does not take clear stands on the topic. Hence, it is rather social communities and the leaders of such that limit and regulate music. The empirical findings on Hamas illustrate, similarly, that the usage of and even the banning of music have rather little to do with religion in practice. Production and usage of Hamas music, rather than being a matter debated in terms of religion, is a social weapon of resistance against unjust regimes. Hamas resistance music is, as has been shown, a political tool, with historical meaning, in McDonald’s sense, within a created space of unity, along the lines of Pieslak’s argument. McDonald’s arguments in relation to the empirical data on Hamas do not have any religious anchorage regarding the relation between music and violence. Hamas’s usage of resistance music would, in McDonald’s argument, mainly have a cultural meaning in the specific context of the PT, where violence creates violence (referring to the historical narrative of occupation).

Both Johnson and Cloonan’s and Pieslak’s arguments concerning the use of music to distinguish between us and them could be understood on different levels if applied to Hamas: first, us and them as Palestinians and Israelis; second, as Hamas and Fatah; third, as Muslims and non-Muslims; and fourth, as Hamas members and non-Hamas members. In any of the cases, it becomes obvious that the purpose would be to demarcate the “us” from the “others” and to unite the “us.” Johnson and Cloonan argued that the generated “us,” indirectly implying a “them,” creates a space of maneuver for justifications of different acts. One such act, specifically related to conflict contexts, is violent actions. Johnson and Cloonan would, for example, argue with respect to the earlier mentioned quote, of the Hamas member blowing himself up after listening to Hamas music, that violence is closely connected with pain. This seems reasonable in the Palestinian case of extensive time under Israeli occupation, deprived rights, and internal conflict. More than pain, musical violence is also a manifestation of politics as relations of power, they argue. When music inflicts violence, it is mainly related to noise/sound, since it is attacking both the body and the mind. In the case of Hamas music, such could be applied to the monotonous mantra-like sound that could possibly trigger such emotions, but also to the slogan-like lyrics exhorting certain behaviors. Studies have proven that it was exactly such characteristics of the music that were used as a trigger to destroy victims psychologically and physically during the Second World War. However, Johnson and Cloonan underline that the main part of music that causes violence usually does not contain violent lyrics. It is more a combination of melodic complexity, mood, and behavior, but also, not least, the context within which the music is heard. Whether this is also the case for Hamas music, where a lot of songs contain both violent lyrics and accompanying violent videos, would need further research to answer.

The Fatah–Hamas struggle is, on the one hand, a specific case within the Israeli–Palestinian conflict but, in some cases, is directly related to it. If we deal with it separately, it is not only about a competition over the content of Palestinian nationalism, secular versus religious (see Lindholm Schulz 1996, 1999; Robinson 1997) but also a competition for controlling spheres. Hence, other musical genres, such as pop, hip-hop, and rock, but also Palestinian and Arab secular music, are being challenged. The main reason for music censorship within the Islamic sphere is still often related to Western-style music, which seems to be perceived as challenging governments and their political power. This could be understood as directly related to Hamas fearing to be overthrown by Fatah. The same could be understood in the WB, as a power struggle of trying to control one’s sphere. This implies that it is not necessarily the Western message of art in itself that is a threat for Hamas, or any Islamic power/government, but that censorship and negative attitudes are rather related to preventing loss of control.

Previous studies have shown that in Muslim-governed countries, such as Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, music censorship is first and foremost performed by the government and directed at Western-influenced music. Music censorship is frequently related to politics with the aim of controlling the spread of political messages and exhortations. For example, in Mogadishu, Somalia, largely controlled by the Islamist group Al Shabaab, the Sharia law is interpreted to its extreme by banning music on the radio, cell phone ringtones, and school bells. It seems as if a similar process, even if not to the same extent, is taking place in the Gaza Strip since the takeover by Hamas in 2006, even if there is little evidence with respect to the actual membership of the perpetrators.

Since Hamas to a large extent controls what type of music is accepted in Gaza, regardless of the reasons and what opinions people would express concerning the same, it seems that the rules for which kinds of music and events connected with music are allowed are forced upon people. This implies a violation of one’s free choice by, first, banning certain music and, second, imposing limits on the correct music. The situation is a contributing factor for frustration among non-Hamas members in Gaza, as much as the challenge creates frustration among Hamas members in the West Bank. Moreover, the endeavor by secular persons in Gaza of trying to create a space for free expression is obviously also a trigger for control by Hamas. In this regard, performing acts of resistance in order to safeguards one’s belief, profession, hobby, and so forth is a difficult task, since the free voice and scope of acting is, to say the least, controlled both in Gaza and the West Bank.


Hamas music cannot in any simple form be explained as bearing the title of religious resistance. The music related to Islam should be separated from battle/resistance/national songs. However, the differences are subtle, since several of the latter mentioned genres at times include references to God and Islam. Hamas self-produced music can be described by three themes: resistance, grief and tribute, and anashid. The music is mainly produced in studios outside of the PT, in neighboring Arab countries such as Lebanon and Egypt. Some music is, however, recorded in Gaza, usually not in official studios. The music exists mainly on cassettes and CDs and in videos on the Internet (primarily on YouTube). Except for the anashid, Hamas music can, in generic terms, be explained as fulfilling the purpose of social affiliation and spreading the message of the organization, resistance against Israel, and tribute to and mourning of Hamas/Islamic leaders and martyrs. The songs can generally be understood to express collective feelings and senses of belonging, often with a political message/undertone. In addition to the recorded music, Hamas has its own boy-band in Gaza that occasionally performs live at police graduation ceremonies and in prisons, for example. The main aim of the band is to spread the message of Islamic values/morals, heroic fighters, and the Palestinian homeland.

Hamas music has to be understood in its context of existence—that is, the conflict context. This article shows that context refers not only to war with Israel and occupation, but also to the internal conflict between Hamas and Fatah. The internal problems are, in relation to music, expressed mainly through different sorts of censorship and regulations; for Hamas, this fulfills the purpose of differentiating between itself and its internal enemy, Fatah, or of demarcating who is part of “us.” Hamas governs in Gaza, where it is very difficult for any person to use music freely. In the Fatah-governed West Bank, the situation is almost the opposite, where listening to or even possessing Hamas music entails danger. In the case of Gaza, it is usually not clear whether it is Hamas or other affiliated individuals and groups banning and censoring music and musical events on their own initiatives. Likewise, the voices inside the organization of Hamas are split concerning, for example, what music is allowed and what is not allowed and when, why, and where. But when there are clear cases of Hamas censorship, it is almost exclusively related to surrounding elements, and not to the music per se, such as events allowing for mixing men and women, involving alcohol, and so forth

It would be interesting to elaborate on what the acceptance of secular music would look like among Hamas members if the Palestinians were not part of a conflict context. Today, and in the past, music fulfills the purpose of, for example, creating a common identity as stateless/diaspora Palestinians and expressing struggle for a homeland, an important issue for remembering and struggling unitarily. Hence, is Hamas’s attitude toward different kinds of music related to the current situation of conflict, and would their regulations be stronger and acceptance lower if there was not a general cause to address for the Palestinians?

In relation to the context of occupation and Israel, it is mainly the Hamas resistance music that expresses such concerns. Nevertheless, issues related to Israel as the enemy are indirectly mentioned in several of the grief and tribute songs. Hamas resistance music is a direct result of the Israeli occupation and serves the main purposes of spreading political messages and mobilizing and exhorting action. Some information collected during this study indicates that Hamas resistance songs are very powerful and violent, both in lyrics and in videos, often encouraging Jihad as war in the name of God. In such specific cases, Hamas music can be understood as serving as tunes of religious resistance.

Hamas aims at resisting Israel (and other evil) in a unified manner with all means, not for selfish purposes but for God. However, it can be concluded only that the songs encourage violent struggle, not whether the music is actually a reason for committing violent acts or not. Hamas music and violence particularly would be an interesting theme to follow up in future research on Hamas music in conflict contexts. Also, for further understanding, it would be of great importance to research music produced by other Islamist organizations, in relation both to usage and to censorship in the society where they act as whole. Furthermore, in relation to the PT, it would fill in the gaps in our understanding of the contextual importance of music and power struggle with a full understanding of Fatah’s self-produced music, to be put in relation to the meaning and usage of Hamas music.


  1. 1.

    Due to the informants’ right to anonymity and the sensitivity of Hamas members’ official views in the West Bank, the interviewees are numbered when quoted.

  2. 2.

    The main part of the information was collected during interviews conducted in 2009–2011.

  3. 3.

    One Hamas member who writes, sings, and records anashid is Yasir Ali, head of the refugee office in Beirut, Lebanon.

  4. 4.
  5. 5.
  6. 6.

    Interviews with Palestinian musicians 2004–2009.

  7. 7.

    Hamas Youtube uploads are frequently removed and reposted. I have watched, and transcribed the clip that was accessible June 6, 2011.

  8. 8.

    See the previous footnote.

  9. 9.

    See footnote 8.

  10. 10.

    The person whom this quote relates to was a “regular member and not part of Hamas military wing.”



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Global StudiesUniversity of GothenburgGothenburgSweden

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