Music, particularly any form of what could be considered western music, has been the subject of many fierce religious and political debates in the country of Iran ever since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran back in 1979. To this day there is still incredibly strict censorship placed on music in the country and it very much continues to be controlled by government entities.

It was during the time of the Islamic Revolution when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came into power and decided to place a ban on all music featured on Iranian television and radio. He feared that music was corrupting the country’s youth and is even quoted as saying music was “no different than opium”.  He went on to say that music also, “stupefies persons listening to it and makes their brain inactive and frivolous.”

This regime was held in place for many years and music took its’ place next to things such as alcoholic drinks and Western movies which were also banned from the country and deemed “satanic” in nature.  Music was looked at as one of the ultimate betrayals to the country and of their youth.

Iran’s tumultuous relationship with music even dates back as far as the time period when Shah Abbas I ruled the country from 1587 to 1629. He was responsible for building the King’s mosque Isfahan and it is rumored that he had one of the upper hallways of his palace located near the mosque lined with hollow wooden acoustic compartments so that he could listen to forbidden music without it being heard from outside the palace walls.

The only music that was approved by Islam was that which was deemed innocent in nature and used for special occasions such as marriages or during war time, such as songs that promoted national pride.  The legality and social acceptability of music in the country of Iran has continuously fluctuated over the years, however it has always been deemed a “betrayal” to the nation.

All concerts and broadcasts of Western and Iranian music, both classical and popular, were banned in the country, but where there is a will there is a way. Because of all the strict regulations surrounding music, it became something that was forced underground or kept within very tight family circles.  When Khomeini passed away and a new regime took over, some of the regulations surrounding music were loosened, but the country still has a long way to go! Back in the 90s under the leadership of reformist president Mohammad Khatami, authorities began relaxing the restrictions even further.

While western music, films and clothing are widely available in Iran it is only specific versions of Iran’s traditional and regional music are officially sanctioned and allowed to be broadcast on the state-run radio and television stations. This has led many to turn to pirate radio stations and for a full-fledged secret music scene to develop underground in Iran, especially in areas such as Tehran.

For those who have the dream of pursuing any type of career involving music in Iran the consequences can be devastating. Musicians can find themselves arrested if their music is deemed to be anti-religious and they could face charges of blasphemy, which if found guilty by the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, could be punishable by death.  There have been several cases where musicians have spent years locked in solitary confinement and had all of their worldly possessions, as well as, their online accounts such as email and Facebook seized by the Iranian government.

These types of situations occur on a regular basis in Iran, however you can never silence the power of music which will always act as a unifying force among  the people.

Kristyn Clarke