Music and Islam: A Deeper Look

By Hussein Rashid, Hofstra University

The religious arts of the Muslim world manifest particular cultural characteristics and a sense of unity across cultures. The devotional music of Nigeria and Pakistan, for example, have a recognizable relationship, but are also uniquely Nigerian and Pakistani. Jacques Jomier attributes this phenomenon to the way Islam moves through the world:

Islam is like a clear stream, with well defined characteristic, which is the same everywhere. But the soil over which the stream flows can be very varied. Moreover, in each case, the water will take on the color of the shores, the sand or the earth which forms its bed.

The cultural specificity that emerges is in conversation with the idea of what a “true” or “pure” Islam is. This discussion is present through nearly all art forms, literature, painting, architecture, and music, drawing out the question of when art ceases to be “Islamic,” or religiously permissible.

There is a popular perception that music is generally forbidden in Islam. However, such a prescriptive statement elevates the issue to one of faith. The answer to the question is open to interpretation. The first consistent scholarly attack on music dates to the mid-10th century, and seems to be in response to illicit behavior tied to music, rather than to the music itself. No Islamic scholar would argue that Qur’anic recitation (qira’at) is forbidden, and many would argue that the Qur’an should be recited as beautifully as possible. To a person unfamiliar with qira’at, the sound would resemble music. However, in an Islamic legal framework the recitation is not music, and to call it so is insulting. The problem is that the term “music,” representing some combination of instruments and voice, does not map well onto the Arabic term musiqa; musiqa is one kind of audio art in the Islamic legal tradition; qira’at is another.

The debate among Muslims is not about the permissibility of audio art, but about what kind of audio arts are permissible. The Qur’an, the first source of legal authority for Muslims, contains no direct references to music. Legal scholars use the hadith (saying and actions of Prophet Muhammad) as another source of authority, and have found conflicting evidence in it. The consensus that has emerged is that the audio arts fall into three broad categories: legitimate, controversial, and illegitimate. Qira’at, the call to prayer, religious chants and the like are all considered legitimate. Controversial audio arts include almost all other types of music. Illegitimate audio arts are considered to be those that take people away from the commandments of the faith. Music that leads to drinking or licentious behavior is considered illegitimate. Depending on the community of interpretation, one can find devotional music legitimate, controversial, or illegitimate.

Sufis, a broad category for a group of Muslims who generally take on a more personal and esoteric approach to the faith, argue that devotional audio arts must be bound by three things to be considered legitimate: time, place, and companions. Al-Ghazali, the famed 11th/12th century Sunni Muslim, argues that a good time is one that allows you to complete religious and societal obligations and no diversion should take time away from performing obligations. The place for the performance of audio art should be an appropriate setting-- no concerts in masjids, and no performances in bars. Finally, the companions, the people surrounding the listener, should encourage the best in the listener.

The 10th century philosophical group, the Ikhwan as-Safa, argue that the truest audio art is the Voice of God, which the Prophet Moses heard at Sinai. When Moses heard the Voice, he moved beyond the need for earthly music. Based on this moment, the Ikhwan as-Safa believe that human audio arts are necessary echoes to remind us of the true music. The 15th century Persian mystical poet Jami says that in the Qur’an, when God says He is blowing life into the form of man (38:72) it should be understood that human beings are the first musical instrument. The famous Sufi poet Rumi (13th century) also plays with the idea of human beings as musical instruments. He opens his work the Mathnawi, perhaps one of his most famous poems, with the lines, “Listen to the reed as it tells a tale/ a tale of separation,” a statement on the human condition of removal from the Divine. It is also argued that the Prophet David (who authored the Psalms according to Muslims) and the Prophet Solomon both had beautiful voices and sang freely.

Drawing from these traditions, Muslims have an understanding of the permissible audio arts. For the legally minded, the traditional consensus is that nothing can be forbidden that is not explicitly forbidden by the Qur’an or the Prophet. As a result, contemporary scholars including Shaykh al-Azhar Mahmud Shaltut, Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini have all issued legal rulings that audio arts that do not encourage people to go against the faith are permitted.

Further Reading:
al-Faruqi, Lois Ibsen. “Music, Musicians and Muslim Law”, Asian Music 17, no. 1 (Autumn - Winter, 1985): 3-36.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. “Islam and Music: The Legal and Spiritual Dimensions”, Enchanting Powers: Music in the World's Religions, edited by Lawrence Eugene Sullivan, 219-235. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Numān, Abū Ḥanīfah ibn Muḥammad. The Pillars of Islam: Daā'im al-Islām, translated by Asaf Ali Asghar Fyzee and Ismail Kurban Husein Poonawala. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Qaradawi, Yusuf. Diversion and Arts in Islam, Translated by Rawah el-Khatib. Islamic Inc, n.d.

Shiloah, Amnon. Music in the World of Islam: A Socio-Cultural Study, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995.

Shiloah, Amnon. “Music and Religion in Islam”, Acta Musicologica 69, no. 2 (Jul. - Dec., 1997): 143-155.