Beyond the Music: Dawud Wharnsby
At the Al-Imtiaz Academy in Abbottabad, Pakistan, students gather for their morning classes. This is where world-renowned songwriter, Dawud Wharnsby, his wife Ayesha and their three daughters can be found for about three months each year. Wharnsby sponsors the Academy through the royalties of his musical work, his wife is a teacher and his daughters attend as students.
When the school year ends, Wharnsby and his family return to their quaint, cottage-like home in Kitchener, Ontario. It is here that he spends his time singing in a local choir and working on new projects in his home studio — or as he calls it, his “creative sanctuary.”
Today, in addition to being a celebrated musician and influential philanthropist, Wharnsby is also a gracious host who generously opened the doors of his home for us. The first thing I noticed about him was his gentle demeanour. When he spoke, his easy-going approach was coupled with passion and wisdom.
“The journey of life, faith and music,” he began, “they’re all intertwined.”
Wharnsby was born and raised in Kitchener and like many adolescents, questioned his identity. Advised by his mother to follow his heart, Wharnsby used acting, drawing and eventually poetry as a means of self-discovery.
“My quest, artistically, spiritually and socially was how to be true to myself and learn what my purpose was.”
For Wharnsby, poetry was therapeutic. Wanting to share his work through music but disillusioned by the commercialism of the industry, Wharnsby was struck by the thought that the era of socially conscious music was over. It was during this time that he came across the Quran and took on its teachings to supplement his deeply rooted universalist approach to faith. He believes that it is vital that people seek out a path towards God that works for them and their temperament.
“The Quran was the scripture I connected most with,” he says, “and I thought, if the music industry is too commercial, I’ll embrace this passion for faith.”
It wasn’t until Wharnsby went on Hajj however, that he found his niche in sacred music.
“[When] I heard people singing and I researched nasheeds, I found 1400 years of beauty and song.”
He goes on, “I started writing hymns for children to help them rediscover the tradition of communal singing, of social activism through song, of not creating pop stars but of creating meaningful hymns that people sing together…”
I can’t help but smile when I hear him say this: I think back to all the times I sang his hymns. One particular memory stands out – the tradition that my family has of singing, “Days of Eid” on the way to Eid prayer – it’s one of the most heartfelt moments we share together.
According to Wharnsby, music is about creating social change and starting conversations. Each hymn that Wharnsby writes has a deeper meaning. For example, “Animals Love Quran” is about encouraging children to read the Quran. “The Blue Sky is Blue Like Blue Bubblegum” is about taking advantage of your time before it’s gone.
Growing up, children sing these hymns but it isn’t until they’re older that they’re able to fully appreciate the spirit behind them.
In addition to his love for music, Wharnsby is an environmentalist and recalls how his fondest childhood memories are of being outdoors.
“The Quran talks consistently about the earth as the greatest sign of Allah. If we glorify the Quran and don’t glorify the other ayat (signs), we are disconnected… we need to return to the earth.”
One particular experience that defined Wharnsby’s approach to consumerism was his residing in a Pakistani city that did not have a proper garbage collection system. While living there, he quickly learned that everything he purchased would either stay in his home or end up in the middle of the street.
“We started getting aware of what we purchased. If it’s made of glass it’ll turn into dust, if it’s made of paper it’ll decompose…so we made an effort to not buy things that are plastic.”
Wharnsby and his family maintain this approach until today. It can be seen in the way they beautifies their home, preferring wood and clay to plastic – and in the teachings they share with their daughters.
“In life,” Wharnsby tells them, “the most important thing is you and your Creator — and the next most important things is you and the people. You need to take care of people, then after that you need to take care of animals and the environment.”
When his family comes in later during the photo shoot, I can feel the compassion and genuine concern that this approach has fostered. Throughout his home, there is also a sense of warmth and serenity.
Wharnsby’s biggest passion, however, is the work that he does with the Al-Imtiaz Academy. Started 30 years ago by his wife’s grandmother, the school now consists of 1000 students across three campuses. As he speaks about this project, his voice carries a tone of excitement.
Wharnsby supports the school through his musical work. He explains how when he started making CDs, he didn’t want it to turn into a commercial endeavour. Instead, he created a trust fund and donated money to the Academy.
Today, he takes a similar approach. His income is divided into three parts: the first part is for his family – a fixed stipend that doesn’t increase. The second is a small fixed stipend that goes towards his business. Anything in excess then goes towards the school.
His goal – and his family’s goal – is to maintain a balance. There are many commands in the Quran that need further explanation from the Prophet (peace be upon him), but this one, Wharnsby points out, was mentioned in a non-ambiguous way:
“And the heavens, God has raised and God has set up the balance, in order that you may not transgress the balance. So establish weight with justice and fall not short in the balance” Surah Rahman: Verses 7-9.
“So,” Wharnsby says, “don’t lose the balance.”
His recommendation to the community is that we have to find and maintain a wholesome approach to faith, social issues and the environment. Although the Quran tells us how to live a meaningful life, many of us don’t follow the lifestyle that is prescribed for us.
With a serious tone, Wharnsby continues: “What I find the most helpful is to look back the essence of what it means to enter into peace — what the Prophet, peace be upon him, taught. My advice to the Muslim community is to look long and hard at ourselves, be ready to laugh, sadly, at our inconsistencies as a community and begin to make some real changes.”
Listen to one of Dawud Wharnsby’s classics below, “Sing, Children of the World” that he sang at RIS Toronto in 2015: