Sony's LittleBigPlanet Recalled Over References to Qu'ran

It sounds almost inconceivable: Sony's highly visible, broadly-appealing, and probably most important video game release of 2008 has been globally recalled with less than four days to retail. LittleBigPlanet, UK-based indie developer Media Molecule's surprise water-cooler wonder about a black-button-eyed knitted and zippered creature named Sackboy who bounds and jounces through physically realistic environments was recalled by Sony after the publisher discovered one of the game's background music tracks employs two Arabic-language expressions found in the Qu'ran (Koran).

Last week Friday, October 17, Sony director of corporate communications and social media Patrick Seybold issued the following statement by way of Sony's Official PlayStation blog:

During the review process prior to the release of LittleBigPlanet , it has been brought to our attention that one of the background music tracks licensed from a record label for use in the game contains two expressions that can be found in the Qur’an. We have taken immediate action to rectify this and we sincerely apologize for any offense that this may have caused.

We will begin shipping LittleBigPlanet to retail in North America the week of October 27th. Sorry for the delay, and rest assured, we are doing everything we can to get LittleBigPlanet to you as soon as possible.

Update 1: Sony Computer Entertainment Europe adds that LittleBigPlanet "will start to appear in stores no later than the week commencing Monday 3rd November in the UK, Europe, Middle East, Australia and New Zealand, on a country by country basis." Note that the US ship date remains the week of October 27th as noted above.

The music in question plays in the now recalled versions of LittleBigPlanet during the first level of the third world, "Singing Safari." The game contains a fairly broad and eclectic range of songs, and it appears no one at either developer Media Molecule or Sony was aware of the specific Koranic references until the proverbial eleventh hour. Some are speculating that the catalyst may have been a concerned letter, but nothing's confirmed at this point.

Before we consider whether Sony's stadium-clearing punt amounts to either brilliant public relations or massive overreaction, let's have a look at the passages in question.

The song is titled "Tapha Niang," composed by world musician and Malian kora player Toumani Diabate. Have a listen to it here on Diabate's MySpace page, if you like.

Sounds innocuous enough, doesn't it? It's certainly hard to argue with the subdued and peaceful sounding strains of Diabate's plucking and the general mood and timbre of the music itself.

But if you listen carefully and happen to understand Arabic, you'll apparently hear two lines which also appear in the Koran (aka the sacred scripture of Islam and, at least for Muslims, the literal word of God).

So?

So. While the Koran doesn't explicitly forbid the marriage of transliterated Koranic text and music, some interpreters of the text apparently find such mingling "deeply offensive." Why is a bit of a mystery that's beyond the scope of a games blog, but suffice to say there's considerable debate over what the Koran does and doesn't say about music, as well as whether subsequent Islamic interpretations and teachings which do raise these sorts of interdictions are in fact canonical.

The two lines that appear in Diabate's song are from 3:185 ("Every soul shall taste of death") and probably 55:26 ("All that is on earth will perish"). See below for the translations provided by M.H. Shakir courtesy the University of Michigan's digital library collections and publications.

[3:185] Every soul shall taste of death, and you shall only be paid fully your reward on the resurrection day; then whoever is removed far away from the fire and is made to enter the garden he indeed has attained the object; and the life of this world is nothing but a provision of vanities.

[55:26] Everyone on it must pass away.

In a Friday post to its website, developer Media Molecule wrote:

As some of you may have noticed, LBP has been slightly delayed in some territories. At MM we were as shocked and dismayed by this as anyone - shellshocked and gutted. We can’t wait for you all to get playing and creating!

According to Edge this morning, Media Molecule immediately prepared a 0-day patch, ready to update the game and remove the potentially offensive tracks, but Sony decided that wasn't good enough, citing PS3 owners who might not have online access, and opted to recall the disks anyway. Nevertheless, some copies slipped through, and of course those of us in the press have had copies for a while now.

In the meantime, copies of the recalled version of the game are being offered for as much as $249 on Ebay.

My two cents: Speaking as someone who's not at all religious, I think Sony should have left the recalled version alone. Speaking as someone who's not religious but also highly respectful of others' beliefs, I still think this mostly just empowers and emboldens doctrinal censors who ultimately exist in the cultural margins. More important, what no one's really saying is that the other edge of Sony's attempt to pacify certain Muslim sects involves censoring the music in the game.

Speaking with my journalist's cap on: Censorship bad. Especially once the horse is out of the gate, which for all practical purposes it was here.

In the end, you'll have to play jury and judge for yourself, but it's worth noting that Diabate considers himself "a devout Muslim, with his own prayer room next to his office."

Update 2: Edge reports that a Muslim group is condemning LBP's "censorship." According to Edge, M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D., president of the non-profit American Islamic Forum for Democracy is saying that "Muslims cannot benefit from freedom of expression and religion and then turn around and ask that anytime their sensibilities are offended that the freedom of others be restricted."

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