Music, Islam and Muslims
By Dr Basheer Ahmed Khan
Garden Grove, CA
The other day I saw a program on PBS about “Playing for Change, Peace Through Music” in which some very nice music was played from all parts of the world. This gave me an understanding of the events taking place in the “liberated” Muslim world with regard to music and musical events.
The reemergence of Baghdad Symphony, Celebration in Palestine of Asaf's success as Arab Idol, spurt of music groups in Afghanistan, and now audition for Pakistan Idol in the length and breadth of Pakistan led me to write this article. It is essential that Islamic scholars take note of this trend and guide the masses rationally and properly to keep this important pastime of the masses in its limit so that it does not go to extremes because of unclear direction and counterproductive coercion.
Islamic scholars are almost united from the very early times that music is neither permissible nor prohibited per se. Music can be good and it can be bad. What is good is permissible and what is bad should be avoided. Issuing edicts against music or burning of music stores etc. to discourage this popular pastime in the hope of weaning Muslims away from songs and music to the ways of piety has proved to be counterproductive and damaging to the image of Islam in recent times. The so-called friends of Islam and Muslims have an uncanny knack of spearheading every losing cause in the name of the defense of Islamic value to take the Muslims on a slippery slope.
There is a verse in the Holy Qur’an which says: There are men who pay for playful words (Ch 31 V 6). Quoting a Hadith by Ibne Masood, Ibne Abbas (RA) and others, Ibne Katheer in his exegesis says that Nabi SA has said that playful words meant singing of songs. Based upon this interpretation of playful words (Lehval Hadith), most Muslim scholars have forbidden all music including singing of songs. They think that Muslims' life must be centered around worship of God and taking care of their families. Few amongst them are conscious of their responsibility to society. Others think that it is OK to enjoy a certain type of music and dance which do not go beyond what was in vogue during the time of the Prophet SA, and they indulge in musical singing and dance in a limited way.
In the era of Muslim imperialism after the era of Khulfa e Rashidoon (Righteous Khalifas), the Muslim society was dichotomous. While those in authority indulged in every pleasure, the common man was kept away from it, because somebody had to work for the others to enjoy. That is why while fine art grew with gusto in palaces and castles of the elite the common man was kept away from every pleasure of life as the command of God, and thus the masses were fed on an extreme, imperialistic and impracticable version of Islam. When the grip of the elite on authority weakened due to their indiscretion, those that were poorly educated in this state version of distorted religion came forward briefly to give a fresh lease of existence to the old hats. This scenario was not specific to history of Muslims alone but with every other religion till the movement of renaissance emerged independent of the religious ethos about two hundred years ago.
Now the pendulum has swung to the other side. From the excesses of distorted version of religion mankind is now suffering the pain of irresponsible liberalism in every aspect of life. We are now trying to establish unity, peace and tranquility through music.
Hearing is a very powerful tool, and a source of input with huge impact not only for human beings, but also for plants and animals. It has great impact on the emotions of an individual. Nabi SA advised his followers to beautify the recitation of Qur’an with good voice short of singing so that its meaning could inspire them. He himself would listen to Qur’an from Ibn e Masood RA and would say: Ibn e Masood and Abu Musa RA have bequeathed their voice from Dawood AS who had such a good voice that animals and mountains joined him in the praise of their Lord through his Psalms.
During the time of Nabi SA poetry and singing and even some sort of crude dancing with Daff was in vogue. Nabi SA did not stop any of it and there are narrations that he SA was a spectator with Aisha RA to some of these performances. With regard to poetry of Hassan bin Sabit RA, Nabi SA is reported to have said that Allah helps Hassan with Rooh ul Qudus (Gabriel AS) in the composition of his poetry. This shows that Islam which Nabi SA taught us had provided a space for some entertainment in the limitation of the resources available at that time.
Imam Ghazali RA (450-505 Hijra) in his book Bawarikh Us Samaa has discussed the above aspects of entertainment during Nabi SA time and written: “What has been forbidden in the verse 6 of Chapter 31 of Qur’an as 'Lahval Hadith' relates to songs that glorify lies and lewd actions. One that is free of lies and vulgarity is permitted”. He further says, “If someone says that singing is permissible for Fakhirs, he is wrong. Similarly if one says that singing is prohibited, he is wrong. Because he has permitted or prohibited a thing for which there is no sanction in divine law. As there is no injunction in the book of Allah or the tradition of Nabi SA prohibiting singing and dance, the one who says it is forbidden he is attributing a lie to Allah and whoever attributes a lie to Allah is a Kafir (disbeliever).” He quotes the following verse to support his point: “Allah says: do not make anything permissible or forbidden by the word of your mouth. This is a lie which you fabricate against Allah. Those who fabricate lies in name of Allah will not prosper". (Ch 16 V 116). Imam Ghazali RA permits the Daff (Tambourine) with Jhanjer (bells). He is critical of those who decry music and dance even in the limitation imposed by Shariah which was in vogue during the time of Nabi SA and which was practiced by some of the righteous Muslims like Junaid RA, Shibli RA, Maaroof Karkhi RA etc.
As the modern day musical instruments were not there during the time of Imam Ghazali therefore we can’t know his opinion about them. The opinion of scholars who forbid even Jhanjer with Daff is quiet obvious on the subject of array of modern musical instruments.
Amir Khusrow was the favorite disciple of Nizamuddin Aulia RA. One should read Maulana Ali Mian’s account of Nizamuddin Aulia RA’s fondness for Amir Khusrow in his book Tareekh e Dawat o Azeemath, Vol. 3, to understand it. Invention of Sitar and Tabla, two of the modern day musical instruments, is attributed to Amir Khusrow. He is also said to have separated the musical notes for music which inspires tranquility from the one that excites the baser instincts of sex and violence. Based upon his inspirational notes Amir Khusrow introduced Qawwali and Ghazal into the realm of music about 700 years ago. The fondness of Nizamuddin Aulia for Amir Khusrow, who was the inventor of modern musical instruments, becomes an enigma in the light of his dislike for singing with musical instruments.
On the basis of a Hadith of Nabi SA that your body has a right on you, the Sufis permit listening to good poetry in good voice but without musical instruments to give some rest to the mind of Sufis which wrestles with abstract problems all the time. If Sufis get rest and peace for their mind through the medium of singing within the limits of Sharia, then ordinary people who are confronted with the problems of day-to-day life also need the same rest through songs and music.
Imam Ghazali has described in detail how music gives rest to the body and lifts your spirits and takes you to ecstatic heights to make you dance and tear your clothes etc. in his treatise, Bawarikh us Samaa. When music in its primitive form a millennium ago could make one dance to sweet voice and tear his clothes, imagine the effect of modern day musical instruments and the attire of singers on the listener now.
Imam Ghazali further writes: Good voice breaks the relation of a person from the realities of the apparent world and prepares him to receive light from the secrets of the hidden world. Music is such a powerful medium that a verse of a lyric and a note of the music have such an effect on a receptive listener that it helps him understand a problem for which he could not find a solution through all his study, contemplation, and dedication. For this reason Imam Ghazali considers Samaa as Mubah for sufis. Many a Sufi make Samaa (hearing to good voice) Mubah for the beginner under the guidance of an accomplished person so that the beginner can be safe from the adverse effect of it on his emotions.
As music has got profound effect on human emotions which dictate action, music which excites the baser instincts and incites its listener to commit violence should be avoided. Those generating such type of music must refrain from it. Inspirational music soothes the tensed up mind when heard in its limits, but when we indulge in it excessively it affects our psyche. As music either excites the emotions or soothes them, it causes psychological problems when it is not kept under limits. Those who are not able to keep this pastime in its limits are the ones who get addicted to other substances. The death of so many well known musicians and singers in their young age by the use of these substances is a testimony to this fact.
When I was in India a non-Muslim colleague of mine asked me as to why Muslims are so very indifferent to fine arts, especially music and dance. I told him: In a world beset with problems Muslims think that they can’t afford to spend their time enjoying music when they have the arduous task of bringing peace to this world through God consciousness. Muslims have therefore kept this pastime for the future when times are favorable for it. I further told him that music and dance are a form of prayers for you and therefore you have so much devotion for them. As for Muslims they have a different prescribed form of prayer which does for them what music does for you and that is why they are indifferent to music.
The situation of Muslims with regard to the subject of fine arts looks awkward because they are heedless to the main job of bringing peace, progress and tranquility to their masses through God consciousness, and are focused too much on one verse and few Ahadeeth about the mainstream pastime. The spurt of interest in music and dance in the “liberated” Muslim world of today is a consequence of this lopsided attitude. It is a fact of life that suppressed urges reemerge with a bang when there is an opportunity for it. The religion which Allah swt has sent through his messengers is correct, but by overemphasizing certain lesser things at the expense of the main message we lose the efficacy of the message which keeps our lives in balance.
Allah is the creator of everything, good and bad for a test (Ch 21 V35). Allah is the one who gives good voice and the intelligence and material to make scintillating musical instruments. Through it, it is Allah who puts people to test, entertains many and destroys some. Allah has made all people of different ranks (Ch 6 V 132 & 165). Some of the people in their zeal to abolish the diversity which Allah has kept in everything and bring uniformity are creating chaos. Recitation of Qur’an in good voice and dancing with Daff may be an enough emotional stimulus for the Muslims who have understood the message of Islam, but others need something different. To force such people to conform to their standard is not OK in a religion which has forbidden its prophet SA from coercion in belief (Ch 10 V 99). What the Islamic scholars should do is highlight the deleterious effect of the bad form of music and excessive indulgence in the good one and thus recommend a moderate course. This was the way of the Sufis who have experimented enough on the subject to know the fact.
What is for the good is also potent for evil applies as much to music as it does to any other thing. When we attempt to curb even the good, then the bad overtakes us with vehemence. In my opinion music was a pastime of the paradise which was introduced into this world to lure people to work for paradise. Unfortunately, Satan is using the same to lure us away from it and some artists are helping him in this effort. Music certainly has the capacity to channel our energies for the good of society, but when it is in the interest of the industry to appeal to the baser instincts of individuals rather than to work for their emotional maturity then music is a bane and not a boon.