Before the demonization of Islam across the West with the advent of the 9/11 attacks, a historic rock band engraved the Arabic words “In the name of Allah” into many unbeknownst ears around the year of 1975. This brilliant and strangely operatic track, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, garnering 675 million views (and counting) on YouTube, as of 2018, is considered one of Queen’s most celebrated masterpieces, thanks to a man called Farrokh Bulsara; better known to the world as Freddie Mercury.
The rise in viewership on YouTube could partially be attributed to the recent release of the biopic on Freddie titled aptly, “Bohemian Rhapsody”. The life of this remarkable individual was cut short, too soon, giving in to AIDS. Talk of Farrokh, originally a Parsi Zoroastrian, whose ancestry can be traced back to Gujarat, can in itself generate a long arduous writing about the journey of a gipsy soul. But some chunks of this musician’s life have to be taken into account to understand how the words of the Holy Quran seeped into this popular 70s track.
Yes, the screaming of “Galileo” may seem preposterous and yes, the Arabic words afterwards equally so. But even if it was just silly lyrical rhyming (as Freddie once put it in an interview) it spread the words of a now vilified religion across the globe.
Freddie Mercury (1946-1991) having spent some of his earliest times in British protectorate of Zanzibar, Tanzania where Islam is the most prominent religion, had likely heard the Adhan (the Islamic call for prayer) several times a day throughout his primary schooling there before being sent to St. Peter’s Church of England School, a prestigious all-boys boarding school in Panchgani, India. The Indian Parsi family had to flee to the UK due to a government upheaval in the country in 1964 where countless Arabs and Indians were murdered. Before his time in England, and perhaps even afterwards, Freddie must have been surrounded by a good number of Muslims that would say “Bismillah” before undertaking any task, even something as trivial as intoning it before eating a meal.
The operatic section of the lyrics contain various other words such as Scaramouch, the Fandango and Figaro and it was perhaps a silly, fun and comical artistic attempt at portraying the struggles inside the artist’s soul who had gradually begun to identify himself as being gay. This peculiar, amusing section of the track is a court procession in which a man trialled with murder begs for his life with “Will you let me go?” and the court sternly answers “Bismillah (In the name of Allah), we will not let you go!” Lyrically and rhythmically, Freddie’s use of Bismillah was likely a shorter and more suitable substitute phrase to its longer English counterpart.
The funny bit is that this has led to censorship in some Muslim regions like the UAE where the Islamic phrase is bleeped or cut off when it is played in the radio. At least it’s still being played on radios in the region; that may come as a surprise to some.
Freddie, the flamboyant yet polite rock god of sorts, not only named the band “Queen” to be “regal, majestic and dandy” as he put it, but had even used his skills acquired from London’s Ealing Art College to design the band’s logo which was his version of a royal crest composed of Zodiac signs of the band members: Two lions on each side to represent John Deacon and Roger Taylor who are Leos, with a crab in the middle for Brian May, a Cancer, and two fairies on each side for Freddie himself claiming that it symbolized him being a Virgo.
Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, for all its brilliance, ridiculousness and controversy isn’t of course the only Western song to divulge into the use of Middle Eastern or Islamic phrases. Cat Stevens converted and became Yusuf Islam and his following general appearance and songs reflected that metamorphosis. Sting has also been enamored by the Middle East with tracks like “Desert Rose” and more recently in 2016 with “Inshallah” (If God Wills) sympathizing with migrants in the Refugee crisis.
The Islamic and Western community at large should embrace these fusions of culture rather than condemn these attempts to bridge the two worlds together. We live in times where intolerance is on the rise but incorporation of Islamic or rather culturally Islamic verses and lyrics can be considered to be a door for listeners to welcome world diversity. Our hopes to live in a harmonious society continue to echo in Gill Scott Heron’s words, “Peace go with you, brother. As-Salaam-Alaikum”.