Blocking out the Sun: Music Censorship and the Taliban

by Peter Tracy

Minstrels in Herat 1973

In early 2001, just before the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban were in almost full control of the country. Although resistance still remained in the form of the Northern Alliance, a coalition of anti-Taliban warlords which by then controlled only about 10% of the country, the Taliban in the rest of Afghanistan had the time and space to consider what their long dream of an Islamic Emirate would actually look like on the ground: how would they govern? How would they make their presence felt? The main task at hand, of course, was to consolidate power, crush dissent, and impose their ideology more fully on the people of Afghanistan’s many corners.

In one of these corners, the Panjshir Valley, Yahyud Massoud and his brother, Ahmad Shah Massoud, a major leader of the Northern Alliance, were learning more about how this process was playing out. While posing questions to a group of captured Taliban fighters, a certain incident was raised that could be considered emblematic of the Taliban’s outlook:

“I remember that his first question concerned the centuries-old Buddha statues that were dynamited by the Taliban in March of that year, shortly before our encounter. Two Taliban combatants from Kandahar confidently responded that worshiping anything outside of Islam was unacceptable and that therefore these statues had to be destroyed. My brother looked at them and said, this time in Pashto, ‘There are still many sun-worshippers in this country. Will you also try to get rid of the sun and drop darkness over the Earth?’”[1]

The statues known as the Bamiyan Buddha’s, enormous 1400-year-old works of devotional art adorning a cliff face in the highlands near Kabul, had until then survived over a thousand years under largely Muslim rule, a period in which a wide variety of Muslim writers had praised the statues as wonders of the world. Yet, according to scholar Llewelyn Morgan, “the men who ordered the destruction… claimed it as an impeccably Islamic act.” The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was, for the Taliban, something to be celebrated throughout the Islamic world as a long-awaited victory for the faith. “Many Muslims”, however, “disagreed, including that delegation of senior Islamic scholars… who travelled to Qandahar to try to persuade Mullah Omar not to pursue a course of action that (the scholars insisted) was contrary to Islamic law.”[2]

Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in March 2001

That Mullah Omar, in 2001 the relatively young and, for the United States, frustratingly reclusive Taliban head of state, ordered the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha’s despite the protestation of these religious scholars points to an important distinction regarding the Taliban and other, more recent Islamist groups. According to Morgan, what the Taliban share with groups like Al-Qaeda is “an uncompromising insistence that their extremely reductive readings of Islam [are] the only way to practice the faith, implicitly and explicitly condemning as heretical much of the rich breadth of beliefs and practices that make up Islamic observance and culture today and have done throughout its history.”[3] In contrast to the varieties of Islam practiced in other regions of the world and, arguably, the Islam practiced in most of Afghanistan today, the Taliban’s ideology is set apart not by its extreme traditionalism, but by its narrow interpretations of what these traditions are and by the group’s willingness to enforce their view whatever the human cost. The ideology of the Taliban undoubtedly involves the imposition of new traditions at the expense of the wide variety of cultural practices found in Afghanistan, including those that fit under the heading of Islam[4]. Thus, the attempt to control cultural and religious practices justifies and is justified by the Taliban’s broader push for total control of the people and resources of the region.

As we continue to be shown evidence of the Taliban’s brutality in the coming months and years, it is important to remember that this extreme push for control, both physical and cultural, is not unique to the Taliban just as it is certainly not an inherent feature of Islam. For example, iconoclasm, or the destruction of images, has been a recurring tactic of religious and political movements, as well as governments, the world over: think of the Great Iconoclasm of the 16th century, in which Protestant Calvinist mobs destroyed Catholic religious art[5], or the widespread destruction of sacred indigenous sites by European colonists from Cameroon to Sumatra to Iowa.[6] From the Cultural Revolution of 1960s China to the state-sponsored drive towards a socialist-realist style under Soviet rule, to the House Un-American Activities Committee of the McCarthy era in the United States, governments, too, have a long history of art censorship.[7]And even individuals, driven by amorphous and often implicit ideas about the role of art in society, are capable of isolated acts of destruction and silencing, such as the knife-wielding museum patron who, in 1986, attacked Barnett Newman’s aptly named painting “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III.”[8]

The Taliban burning cassettes

Music presents a slightly different target to would-be autocrats than paintings, statues, or burial sites: as singular objects that can be located and physically destroyed, these kinds of art and artifacts can present quick, easy, and almost complete victories for censors.[9] Yet music is no such object: it occurs in time rather than space and when it is translated into some sort of physical medium it is much too decentralized and widespread to be blown away in an afternoon. Whether in a score, a cassette tape, a CD, an audio file, or the memory of a community, the imprint and the practice of music is, in the best of cases, widespread and hard to pin down. Attacks on music, therefore, tend to be attacks on the people and the objects who make it possible, through violence real or threatened.

This was, and now is again, the case in Afghanistan. In his summary of music censorship in the region, musicologist John Baily claims that, during their initial period of rule, “the Taliban in Afghanistan imposed one of the most extreme examples of music censorship ever reported.” Almost immediately on taking control of Kabul in 1996, the Taliban set to work on the eradication of art in everyday life, such that the streets were silent for the call to prayer. This took the form of various decrees, among which were the following:

“To prevent music… In shops, hotels, vehicles and rickshaws cassettes and music are prohibited… If any music cassette found in a shop, the shopkeeper should be imprisoned and the shop locked. If five people guarantee the shop should be opened the criminal released later. If cassette found in the vehicle, the vehicle and the driver will be imprisoned. If five people guarantee the vehicle will be released and the criminal released later.

To prevent music and dances in wedding parties. In the case of violation the head of the family will be arrested and punished.

To prevent the playing of music drum. The prohibition of this should be announced. If anybody does this then the religious elders can decide about it.”[10]

Thus, “the disembodied audio-cassette, tape waving in the breeze, became the icon of Taliban rule.”[11] Yet the Taliban did more than prohibit the playing of music or destroy cassette tapes: they actively targeted both instruments and musicians. Through the frequent burnings of “unlawful instruments and goods” carried out in converted sports stadiums and the heavy-handed punishments given out for simply owning an instrument, the Taliban created such an atmosphere of distrust and repression that many musicians were sent fleeing for their lives, their instruments in tow. A delruba (a bowed lute) player named Amruddin, for instance, describes his flight to the Pakistani city of Peshwar as follows:

“When the Taliban took Mazar-e Sharif I had a shop with instruments from both East and West. When the Taliban came we buried some and burned some, we got rid of them all. I kept just one delruba. It belonged to my father and was very dear to me. I wanted to keep it till I died. But on the way to Herat there were many checkpoints. At first no one noticed my delruba. I had removed the strings and stripped it to the bare wood. But in Herat a local boy recognized what it was. He smashed it to pieces against the car. I don’t mind the other things but that delruba meant a lot to me.”[12]

Other musicians had far worse luck than even Amruddin, with some becoming butchers and taxi drivers while others were forced to become beggars. Such was the case with one former tabla player from Kabul who was interviewed for John Simpson’s film Islam’s Year Zero:

“I can’t pay rent. The owner has thrown me out. I can only afford one meal a day. The other two I have to forgo. My children are all hungry. They say to me, ‘Father, what should we do?’ I tell them there’s nothing I can do. I was young, now I’m old. You see these hands [that once played the drums]. Now they stretch out asking for help. I feel this all very shameful and degrading.”[13]

Despite these harrowing stories (of which there are certainly many more both recorded and unrecorded), the sheer absurdity of the situation, in which an armed group attempted to fully wipe thousands of years of musical culture from a region, often shined through. It was in these small moments of quick thinking or subversive listening that the Taliban’s eclipsing of both Afghanistan’s heritage and its contemporary connections to global culture was shown to be woefully incomplete. Take, for instance, the case of the intrepid local staff at the Afghanistan Radio station in Kabul (renamed Radio Sharia), who managed to save the majority of the station’s archive[14] by thinking on their feet under immense pressure:

“In the early days of Taliban rule a number of tapes of Indian film music and Iranian popular music were offered by the archive’s staff as constituting the music archive, and these recordings were destroyed. The main body of the archive remained on its shelves, the sign saying ‘Archive’ was removed from the doors and local staff colluded in the deception that there was no archive.”[15]

Other acts of subversion were even more widespread than this, encompassing, seemingly, the whole of urban Afghan society:

“The best example of resistance to the Taliban comes not from the field of music but from the film Titanic. In November 2000 the BBC’s Kate Clark came up with the extraordinary story that while cinema, TV and video were all banned in Afghanistan, this film was undergoing an incredible surge of popularity. Everybody in Kabul seemed, somehow, to have seen it, in some cases many times. Even the Taliban seem to know all about it. According to a joke current at the time, a mullah was giving his Friday sermon to a crowded audience and warned them that they were committing many sins, that they were sinful people. He told them, ‘I know you are listening to music, you’re hiring video players, you’re watching films. You should be careful. You’re all going to be damned, and drown just like the people in the Titanic film!’”[16]

The taller of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 1963 and in 2008 after its destruction

Thus, it is helpful to remember that, as we watch the Afghan people’s luck turn to the worst yet again, the Taliban’s control has never been and will never be total and complete. People, both musicians and otherwise, will continue to find ways to resist, whether these acts consist of watching Titanic or celebrating a wedding the old-fashioned way. It is quite telling that during the war that led to the Taliban’s defeat, “spontaneous outbursts of music greeted the liberation of the towns and cities”, such that “the very sound of music became a symbol, even a signal, of freedom.”[17] For many Afghans, music seemingly came to represent a return to normalcy and to living together as friends and neighbors.

As the Taliban realized, music is, in the right contexts and in the right hands, a powerful tool. While the precise nature of that power has proved difficult to describe, it is worth noting that, strictly speaking, even the Taliban could not give up the use of music completely. Instead of attempting to justify their use of existing genres, the Taliban created their own genre of songs called taranas, which are “like Pashtun folk music but with new texts and no musical instruments.” The lack of instruments, apparently, is enough to argue that taranas are not actually music.[18] To bring legitimacy to such interpretations, the Taliban and their like-minded supporters cite isolated passages from Islamic literature such as the Hadith (traditions surrounding the Prophet Muhammad) cited by the paper Itafaq-e Islam in December 1998 to justify punishment of musical offenders: “Those who listen to music and songs in this world, will on the Day of Judgement have molten lead poured into their ears.”[19] Yet this strong rhetoric can obscure the extent to which music was still officially allowed: for example, the one Taliban-sanctioned instrument, the frame drum known as the darieh, escaped destruction because it “is not regarded as a musical instrument in the full sense of the word” and because its use was “sanctioned on one occasion by Prophet Muhammad.”[20]

The studio of Radio Kabul in the 1950s where it is still housed today

In his excellent discussion of the attitude of Islamic fundamentalists to music, Jonas Otterbeck summarizes the ideological underpinnings of these attitudes and their practical results as follows:

“The modern hardliners have identified music as a serious rival to Islam. They find a possible interpretation in Islamic tradition leading to a proscriptive attitude to music. They use the Koranic phrase ‘idle talk’ to associate music with deeds and ideas inspired by Satan. They further emphasize the uselessness of music and its association with forbidden behavior and sin. Finally, they claim that modern youth is preoccupied by non-Islamic, Western-style music.

To combat this, their strategy is to ban music and musicians if they have the power to do so, or at least attack them, verbally and at times physically. The logic behind this attitude is their fear of music as a rival source of passion and pleasure, but also their fear of losing a battle of cultural hegemony to global, Western-style consumerism.”[21]

Thus, although their justifications are grounded in a specific tradition of Islamism, the attitude of Islamic fundamentalists such as the Taliban fit neatly into a recurring pattern in music censorship that extends well beyond the realm of Islam. In this view, music is considered not just an unnecessary distraction from devotion to the censor’s chosen cause or way of life, but a force that brings people together in celebration and community. This, clearly, can be seen as a pressing and dire threat by those who would impose their control on others by force.[22]

As is clear from numerous examples throughout history, Islamic fundamentalists are not the first to feel this threat. Plato’s Republic, a foundational text of Western philosophy, includes an argument for the tight control of music in an ideal state, an argument that, for musicologist Lydia Goehr, can be considered the beginning of music censorship’s long and storied history:

“Ever since Plato produced his forceful argument in the Republic, we have witnessed numerous expressions of a deep-seated desire on the part of governing bodies to regulate those parts of human behavior and those human activities whose effects are so great but which we so thoroughly fail to comprehend. The control of music has long been pervasive, ranging from determinations of acceptable modes or scales to regulation of composition, reception, and criticism.[23]

So it should come as no surprise that the Taliban have fixated on music as a particular threat. It should also come as no surprise that there has been pushback from Muslims against the censorship of music throughout the history of Islam. Different schools of Islamic law and scholarship have often, throughout the more than thirteen centuries since the spread of the faith, prescribed rather different solutions to the problems of society and theology. And while we can point to the theological origins of the Taliban in the Deobandi Islamic revivalist movement cultivated among the anti-Soviet mujahedeen guerrillas by the Pakistani government, while we can discuss the influence of Wahhabism on the movement and the degree to which the Taliban adhere to a Hanafi or Hanbali interpretation of Islamic law, what is clear from the Taliban’s censorship of music is that their ideology and their interpretation of Islam as relates to music are grounded in arguments common to Plato and Al-Qaeda alike: that music is useless at best and an active threat to control at worst. It is inspiring, uplifting, and pleasurable, but it is also powerful and dangerous. It is, for those wishing to control the lives of others, a force to be contained. There have long been and continue to be arbiters of what should and should not be played, where it should be played, and who should play it: the Taliban simply have the willingness and now the increasing ability to enforce their view.

As has recently been noted by publications such as Classical FM[24] and Al-Jazeera[25] there is widespread and justified fear that another, even harsher period of musical censorship is coming soon to Afghanistan. Already, the same pattern is beginning to unfold: western-educated, connected, and relatively wealthy musicians flee to Europe and America while hereditary musicians of more rural backgrounds are forced to sing for the Taliban, change profession, beg in the street, flee to neighboring countries, or be killed. The Taliban clearly see this process of musical and cultural control to be an integral part of their ability to rule, and there are as of yet no signs that this current iteration of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate will let music escape their grasp.

Ruling Afghanistan, however, has never been easily done. One of the last groups to violently take control of the region, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, assumed that they, too, could impose orthodoxy on the people of Afghanistan:

“After taking control of the state structure in 1978, they assumed that they could use its power to impose their policies on the rest of the country at a rapid pace. Never was an assumption more unwarranted. The realities on the ground in Afghanistan would prove much more challenging and difficult, as this and all future governments would come to learn through hard experience”[26].

The 20th and 21st centuries have followed a certain pattern in Afghanistan, one that the best laid plans of succeeding invaders and factions have yet to fully grasp. After the Soviets and communists left the stage, it was the conservative mujahadeen guerrillas, U.S.-backed precursors of the Taliban, who took up the mantle of censorship[27]. Yet they, too, found themselves caught in the age-old dilemma of the region known as the graveyard of empires:

“Conservatives, let alone reactionaries, could never permanently maintain what they saw as traditional tribal or Islamic values in a world where economic opportunity and social mobility increasingly unhinged old status hierarchies. Going to war to defend such values only increased the rapidity of social change within the communities that fought them. Still, oblivious to these realities and regardless of its ideology, each regime that took power in Kabul and lasted long enough to hold a military parade assumed it was the natural master of the country and its inhabitants, and could dictate Afghanistan’s future. Of course, beyond the edge of town where government influence historically ebbed and then vanished completely in villages where donkeys were more common than cars, these trumpets of state supremacy sounded faintly, if at all.”[28]

Taliban police patrolling the streets of Herat in 2001

In the hills and valleys of Afghanistan, there are diverse groups of peoples – Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, and more – who each have their regional loyalties and who each have a long history of managing their own, local affairs[29]. Arguably, musicians have this history as well: the assumption that music and musicians can form alternate power structures is not without precedent. Far from being useless, music builds communities around its production and its enjoyment wherever people live and work together.

Although musicians are already fleeing from Afghanistan for their lives, it seems almost unnecessary at this point to assert that they will continue to make music, whether openly abroad or covertly at home. They will come back as they did in 2001, perhaps fewer in number, but nevertheless as musicians and bearers of a multitude of cultures. They will uncover their instruments from basements and from behind false walls; they will unbury their drums and cassette tapes. The attempt to eradicate music, as always, is as futile as an attempt to block out the sun.

Below you’ll find a playlist in celebration of Afghan music’s past, present, and future, from Pashtun traditional music to Hazaragi language pop and Afghanistan’s first rock band. We can only hope this wide range of music will continue to be heard, in Afghanistan and throughout the world.


[1] Yahya Massoud, “Afghans Can Win This War”, (Foreign Policy, July 2010).

[2] Llewelyn Morgan, The Buddhas of Bamiyan, (Harvard University Press, 2012), pp. 82.

[3] Ibid., pp. 83.

[4] On the topic of what Taliban rule and administration actually looks like on the ground, I would highly recommend Adam Baczko and Gilles Dorronsoro’s piece “How the Taliban defeated the West” in Le Monde Diplomatique: https://mondediplo.com/2021/09/05afghanistan

[5] See, among other more general works on the Protestant Reformation, Carlos M.N. Eire’s War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin, (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[6] See works such as Corbey, Raymond. “Destroying the Graven Image: Religious Iconoclasm on the Christian Frontier.” (Anthropology Today, vol. 19, no. 4, 2003) or Midtrød, Tom Arne. “”Calling for More Than Human Vengeance”: Desecrating Native Graves in Early America.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, (vol. 17 no. 3, 2019)

[7] See, for instance, Tom Pollard’s discussion of censorship in American film during the McCarthy era, Sex and Violence : the Hollywood Censorship Wars, (Paradigm Publishers, 2009).

[8] See Caroline Forder, “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III?”, (International Journal of Cultural Property, vol. 3, no. 1, 1994), pp. 83–92.

[9] This is, of course, leaving aside the issue of reproductions or photographs of artworks such as those that exist of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

[10] Korpe, Marie. Shoot the Singer! : Music Censorship Today. Zed Books, 2004, pp. 19

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., pp. 21. Quoted in the source from the film Breaking the Silence : Music in Afghanistan, (Broughton 2002: 25-10).

[13] Ibid., quoted in the source from Islam’s Year Zero (BBC2, 7 December 1996). I am indebted to John Baily for his excellent curation of primary sources.

[14] It should also be noted that the archives survived the heavy bombing of the Kabul Radio building by American forces in November 2001: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/1979482.stm.

[15] Ibid., pp. 20.

[16] Ibid., pp. 23-24. Baily’s full description of the Titanic craze is well worth a read.

[17] Ibid., 24.

[18] Ibid. pp. 22.

[19] Ibid. pp. 19-20.

[20] Ibid. pp. 20.

[21] Ibid. pp. 16.

[22] For a more thorough discussion on this topic, see Gioia, Ted. Music : a Subversive History. First ed., Basic Books, 2019, pp. 233-234.

[23]Lydia Goehr, “Political Music and the Politics of Music”, (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 52, no. 1, [Wiley, American Society for Aesthetics], 1994), pp. 7.

[24] https://www.classicfm.com/music-news/afghanistans-taliban-music-silence/

[25] https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/10/12/fleeing-afghan-musicians-in-limbo-in-pakistan

[26] Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan : A Cultural and Political History, (Princeton University Press, 2010), pp. 133.

[27] See Baily’s exploration of pre-Taliban music censorship in Afghanistan in Korpe 2004, pp. 24-28.

[28] Ibid., pp. 136

[29] Again, I am compelled to recommend Adam Baczko and Gilles Dorronsoro’s excellent piece for more on this topic: https://mondediplo.com/2021/09/05afghanistan