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The Islamic Stance on Music

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The Islamic Stance on Music: Ghamidi’s View-Part 1

Translated by Tariq Haashmi 

(Javed Ahmad Ghamidi can be contacted by E-mail: <  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. >

Ghamidi is President and Founder of Al-Mawrid, Institute of Islamic Sciences (51-K, Model Town, Lahore, Pakistan Tel. 5865145 / 5434306). President of Danish Sara, an institution for organizing the task of Islamic propagation and the people involved in it. Presently, the institution is publishing two monthly journals, Renaissance (English) and Ishraq (Urdu) and books and pamphlets on Islam. Ghamidi is Chief Editor of Renaissance which publishes research work done at Al-Mawrid and other articles dealing with various aspects of Islam. Chief Editor, Ishraq, a monthly Islamic research journal (Urdu). Ishraq also publishes research work done at Al-Mawrid and other articles.) 

The Almighty has created man with the best physical and intellectual abilities. Desires for beauty and stateliness of thought and practice are found in his nature. He is well-disposed to choose good to the exclusion of evil, and prefer piety to sinfulness. He professes virtues of love, fidelity, truth, purity, justice and equality, and shuns hatred, falsehood, injustice and inequity. He yearns for enlightenment and shuns ignorance; he goes for fragrance and evades fetidness; he craves for beauty and dislikes ugliness. All cultural advancement and progress in civilization, in fact, owes itself to this very natural desire in man for beauty and grandeur. Every small step he has taken for advancement testifies to his inclination towards the best.

He needed nutrition for his growth for which he could have done with brambles and potherbs, but he innovated a variety of delicious foods as an essential part of his meals. His sense of modesty required that he cover his private parts, for which he could have wrapped himself up in sackcloth, but he went for silk, brocade and satin. He needed shelter. Caves, tents or huts scattering through forests and deserts could have satisfied this need, and yet he chose to build cities and bejewelled them with magnificent palaces. In social life, he needed an effective means of communication. But he did not feel content with simple signs and symbols or even a plain discourse; instead he coined such eloquent styles of expression that language developed into poetry and literature.

The history of mankind - in the realm of social and cultural progress - sufficiently evidences the fact that in his very nature, man longs for beauty and grandeur in all activities that emanate from him. His physical and psychological senses, and their necessary characteristics, mirror his interest in beauty. Therefore, we see that his appreciation for the ambience of life and its vivid images drives him to decorate his surroundings. His command on expressing himself leads him to take ordinary words, and develop their rhyme and meanings into poetry. This is because of his appreciation for a beautiful voice that he infuses passion in his utterances and uses the high and low pitches in composing enchanting musical tones. His yearning to hear pleasing sounds draws him towards the captivating resonance in his environment and forces him to invent musical instruments to master and reproduce these sounds. Music is nothing but the manifestation of his beauty of utterance and taste for pleasing sounds. Therefore, music satisfies his want of beauty and affords him an opportunity to delight his innerself.

It is commonly believed that the Islamic Shari‘ah prohibits music and musical instruments altogether. However, we understand that this view cannot be substantiated from the basic sources of religious knowledge in Islam. Only the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah have the sole authority to render something allowed or forbidden. Nothing can be added or deducted from the list of the allowed and forbidden articles of the Shari‘ah.

In order to identify the Shari‘ah directives regarding a certain matter, Muslim scholarship has generally sought the two authentic sources: the Qur’an and Sunnah. An inquiry into the Hadithliterature ascribed to the Holy Prophet (sws) follows this. If the issue is addressed in these narratives, they are also to be benefited from in the light of the established principles of sense and reason, and religious knowledge. The previous Divine scriptures are also resorted to when necessary. Opinions ascribed to the companions, exegetical works, Hadith and Fiqh are also consulted in such analytical study.

Strictly following these acknowledged principles of research, we have attempted to conduct a thorough inquiry to find out the Islamic stance on music. Our study led us to believe that the Holy Qur’an does not have any direct or indirect, explicit or implicit directive that can evidence the prohibition of music. Likewise, the list of Sunan (i.e. practices established by the Holy Prophet (sws) as part of the religion) also does not offer any basis for the assumed prohibition of music in Islam. The Hadith literature contains many Sahih 1 and Hasan narratives ascribed to the Holy Prophet (sws), which allude to the allowance of music. However, some narratives depict it as a prohibited activity, but scholars of the science of Hadith have declared most such narratives Da‘if 3. Furthermore, a close examination of the narratives that are presented as basis for the prohibition of music show that it is only the involvement of drinking, nudity, and other moral depravity that renders the entire event forbidden. As for the previous scriptures, the Holy Bible explicitly refers to the fact that the Prophet David (sws) was gifted with a very pleasing voice. He would glorify God in his psalms, which he sang accompanied with enchanting music. The Zabur (i.e. Psalms), the book revealed to him, is a collection of such songs that he sang on a harp. Different views of the Companions on the issue have been recorded in the Hadith and the exegetical literature. As for the works of the researchers and scholars of the past, many of the commentators of the Qur’an understood some Qur’anic words to be referring to music. Based on their interpretation of the Qur’anic references, they maintained that it is prohibited in Islam. As we have already mentioned, scholars of the science of Hadith consider that most of the narratives which are often presented to establish the prohibition of music are Da‘if and unreliable. Some of these scholars declare that there is no Sahih Hadith in the entire corpus of the Hadith literature that proves the prohibition of music. However, the majority of the jurists have declared that music is an activity forbidden in Islam. They base their argument on narratives discarded as Da‘if by the scholars of the science of Hadith.

We have studied all these sources of religious knowledge and have tried to determine the status of music in Islam. Our thorough research has led us to the conclusion that music is one of the permissible natural gifts of God. The Islamic Shari‘ah does not forbid it. One can use the musical tones in hymns, encomia, odes or tragedy, epic and comedic poems. However, if any of these literary poetical compositions contain any polytheistic or atheistic subject matters or is prone to promote impiety and sinfulness, then of course, it must be condemned and rendered unallowable. But it must be understood, this is only the content of the poetry recited that is being condemned in this case not the art of music itself. If the content of the poems and all literature is endorsed by the Shari‘ah and does not offend man’s moral values, then music can be used in poetry, prose, oratory, writings and recitals. If the message conveyed through the rendered contents does not conform to religious and moral principles, then all such indulgences shall necessarily be forbidden. For example, if a poem written in praise of a messenger of God is contaminated by verses expressive of polytheistic ideas then that very poem is to be forbidden, not the art of poetry. Similarly, songs that contain immoral utterances should be condemned. However, once again, this is done merely because the contents of these literary genres contain debauchery and the literary activity itself cannot be prohibited based on this. Still, if any such permissible thing has become associated with an evil thing, it can be temporarily banned in order to block the way for that inseparable evil.

 

1. Music and the Holy Qur’an

 

The Holy Qur’an is the last episode of the religious guidance divulged by God to man. Initially implanted in human nature in the form of intuitive knowledge of certain basic facts, this religious guidance culminates in the Holy Qur’an. Over the course of history, different Prophets (sws) of God added different rites, rituals and practices to the treasure of Divine guidance.

The Prophet Abraham (sws) gave these practices (known to all as Sunat-i-Ibrahimi) a well-defined and concrete shape. On the other hand, Divine books like the Torah, Psalms and the Gospels further explained various aspects of the Shari‘ah directives and the wisdom behind them. Then, finally, came the Prophet Muhammad (sws) and the Holy Qur’an. Thus, the HolyQur’an is the last version of the religious guidance and not the first. It would mean that besides the Holy Qur’an, the sources of religious guidance include dictates of nature, Abrahamic practices and previous scriptures.

All religious precepts are termed as Ma‘ruf and Munkar in the Holy Qur’an. The word Ma‘rufsignifies all such acts as are inscribed in the human nature as praiseworthy, and the wordMunkar is applied to the ones considered evil. Man’s ability to tell the nature of the deeds enables him to distinguish good from evil. This is the very yardstick by which he can identify the moral and immoral aspects of certain acts. Therefore, relying on this human knowledge, the Holy Qur’an does not provide an exhaustive list of good and bad deeds. Generally, it only provides principal guidance. Detailed guidance is only considered necessary where humans tend to err in a specific matter and clarifications are rendered inevitable.

In the light of the above explanation, we can conclude that the Holy Qur’an does not pass a verdict on all human thoughts and actions. Rather, it leaves the matter to men to decide for themselves in the light of primary sources of religious knowledge, referred to above as innate guidance and established religious practices. In some matters, it gives only principal guidance and/or slight hints. In others, it provides necessary details. As for music, the matter has not been directly addressed in the Holy Qur’an. No single Qur’anic verse clarifies its religious status.

 

i. Rhyme and Rhythm in Qur’anic Verses

The Holy Qur’an contains unparalleled aural beauty and the best stylistic expression. Though a literary masterpiece, it cannot be identified with the well-known literary genres like poetry, prose or oration. Yet, the element of rhyme in its verses exhibit that the Author has given special attention to it in order to give it a tint of rhythm. The rhyme element in the Qur’an creates an enchanting effect on the listeners - commoners or scholars, Muslims or non-Muslims alike. It was only this aspect of the Qur’anic discourse because of which the Quraysh were able to say that the Holy Prophet (sws) was a poet and the Qur’an, a poetic composition. Since the Almighty has beautified the Qur’an with rhyme and rhythm, we can conclude that He loves rhyme and rhythm in words, and beauty in their sounds. Music no doubt is a form of this assonance created by a certain order of words and their sounds. For that account, the Holy Prophet (sws) encouraged the believers to recite the Qur’an with a beautiful and pleasing sound. He is reported to have said:

 

He who does not recite the Qur’anic verses in a beautiful tone does not belong to us. (Bukhari, No: 7089)

 

Beautify your recitation of the Qur’an with your beautiful recitation. (Ibn Khuzaymah, No: 1556)

 

ii. The Prophet David (sws) and his Psalms

When the Prophet David (sws) would sing God’s praises, the birds and mountains would join him. This has been referred to in Surahs AnbiyaSaba and Suad of the Holy Qur’an.

 

…and We caused the mountains and the birds to join with David. They would praise God with him. (21:79)

 

In the verse, the verb ‘sakhr’ has been employed, which means to subject something, subdue it, and bring it in conformity with something else. Though it is not clear from different usages of the word in the Qur’an that the Prophet David (sws) would sing his hymns, yet if seen in the light of the Biblical texts, it becomes clear that he certainly did. The Bible clearly mentions that the Prophet David (sws) would beautifully sing his psalms on a harp.

 

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise to Him with psalms. (Psalms 95:1-2)

 

Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless His name; show forth His salvation from day to day. (Psalms 96:1-2)

 

I will sing a new song to You, O God; on a harp of ten strings I will sing praises to You. (Psalms 144:9)

 

The famous Muslims scholar, Abu’l Kalam Azad has taken the referred to Qur’anic verse to mean that David (sws) would sing his psalms in praise of God. He writes:

 

The Prophet David (sws) had a very sweet sound. He is the first to compile Hebrew music and he developed the Egyptian and Babylonian harps into more sophisticated musical instruments. A study of the Torah and Jewish tradition reveals that when he would climb the mountain tops and sing the praise of his Lord on his harp, the trees and stones would join him enraptured. Exegetical narratives also corroborate this fact. ‘Subjecting the birds to David (sws)’ can signify either that all kinds of birds would flock to his palace or his songs would enrapture them. The book of Psalms comprises a wonderful collection of songs that David (sws) composed with Divine inspiration 4.

 

Renowned Qur’anic exegete, Amin Ahsan Islahi too has explained the verse of Surah Anbiyain the light of the Biblical narrative. He writes:

 

David (sws) cherished a deep communion with God. At nights, He would set out for the mountains and sing the praises of God. The pleasing sound of his songs would echo through the mountains and the birds would join him. It is noteworthy that the Torah clearly mentions that David (sws) not only had a very sweet voice but his voice revealed strong passion. Furthermore, all these hymns are in the form of songs and poems inspired by God. These inspired hymns cast such deep effect on the listeners that even successive translations have left only little poetical element in them, they still fully captivate the audience. The heart leaps for joy upon hearing them. Imagine a person with so sweet a sound as David (sws) singing the praises of God amid the serene mountains in the stillness of early dawn. You would no longer doubt that the mountains would echo and the birds would respond to his utterances. One should not entertain the thought that it is only a poetical reverie. Nay, it stands an irrevocable fact. The Holy Qur’anmakes it clear that everything in this universe exalts the Lord. It is our lack of understanding, due to which, we cannot comprehend these thanksgivings. Their yearning to praise God is inflamed when someone else starts singing their heart’s voice. They feel enraptured by such a song in the surroundings and join the singer in his utterances. Our inability to comprehend the thanksgiving offered by each and every creation should not lead us to conclude that none else could understand it. All such people as have molten hearts can. Mawlana Rum has beautifully expressed the thought in the following verses:

 

The philosopher belies the incident of Hananah. He is not familiar with the (extraordinary) senses of the Prophets.

 

The famous Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib says:

 

At your end is the problem that you do not know the secrets being unveiled to you. Something that seems a curtain before you is in fact the pardah from which the music flows 5.

 

Islahi’s commentary of the relevant verses of Surah Suad reflects the fact that David (sws) alone was able to comprehend the praises of the mountains and birds because it was a special favour of God on him. He writes:

 

Each and everything in this universe sings the praises of God. It is only the humans who cannot understand their utterances. Our failure to understand their praises does not necessitate that none could understand them. The Almighty had bestowed upon David (sws) not only the sound sweet enough to enrapture the birds and the mountains, but also the perceptive ears which could enable him to understand the hymns of the mountains and birds 6.

 

2. Music in the Bible

 

The Bible is a collection of the Torah, Psalms, Gospels and other Divine scriptures. Basically, it contains God’s Shariah and His wisdom. Although different followers of the Book have lost many parts of this Divine book and altered some others because of their mutual differences, yet it treasures invaluable assets of Divine guidance. If seen in the light of the final revelation - the Holy Qur’an - the contents of the Bible afford us very precious guidance.

We find numerous references to music and musical instruments in the Bible. This means that in the religion brought by the Prophets of God, music and musical instrument have never been disallowed. In the Bible, one finds many places where music accompanies the praises of God. Besides, at many other places, the Bible positively mentions the use of music in expressing delight, sorrow, as well as in the context of war.

 

i. Worship Rituals and Music

When the Pharaoh and his people were destroyed in the sea by the command of God, as mentioned in Exodus, and Moses (sws) successfully delivered his people from the Egyptian captivity, all the Israelites embraced the faith and believed in God and His Messenger. On that occasion, Moses (sws) and the believers accompanying him praised their Lord:

 

Then the sons of Moses and Israel sang this song to the Lord, and spoke, saying, ‘I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider, He has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation’. (Exodus 15:1-2)

 

Who is like You, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? (Exodus 15:11)

 

What follows this is the reason that occasioned the singing. Maryam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, it has been told, played a tambourine.

 

For the horse of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea, and the Lord brought again the waters of the sea upon them. But the sons of Israel went on dry land in the middle of the sea. And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel (a musical instrument similar to tambourine) in her hand. And all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them, Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously. The horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea. (Exodus 15: 19-21)

 

According to Chronicles, when the Prophet Solomon (sws) got back the Ark of Covenant, the whole Israel stood before it and offered sacrifices to express their delight and sang praises to their Lord.

 

And they were as one to the trumpeters and to the singers, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord; and as they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the Lord, saying, For He is good, for His mercy endures forever, the house was filled with a cloud, the house of the Lord. (2 Chronicles 5:13)

 

As for the book of Psalms, it comprises a wonderful variety of inspired pieces of music and songs. There are numerous internal testimonies to the fact that the Prophet David (sws) sang these songs with the help of musical instruments. Inscriptions to many chapters of the book read, ‘To the Chief Musician, for stringed instruments. A Psalm of David (sws).’  The contents of the Psalms also evidence this fact.

 

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise to Him with psalms. (Psalms 95:1-2)

 

Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless His name; show forth His salvation from day to day. (Psalms 96:1-2)

 

I will sing a new song to You, O God; on a harp of ten strings I will sing praises to You. (Psalms 144:9)

 

ii. Music as Expression of Gladness on the Most Joyous Occasion

We learn from the Bible that the Israelites used music to celebrate joyous occasions. According to the book of Kings, Solomon’s kingship was proclaimed with joyful music and songs.

 

And all the people came up after him, and the people piped with pipes, and rejoiced with great joy, so that the earth was torn with their sound. (1 Kings 1:40)

 

iii. Music in the Context of Wars

According to the book of Numbers, the Almighty commanded Moses (sws) to make two silver trumpets to call the assembly, and to signal instructions in regulating movements of the troops in times of war.

 

And the Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘make two trumpets of silver for yourself. You shall make them of beaten work. And they shall be used for the calling of the assembly and for causing the camps to go forward.’ (Numbers 10:1-2)

(to be continued)

 

 http://www.irfi.org/articles/articles_251_300/islamic_stance_on_music1.htm


1. A Sahih Hadith is transmitted through an unbroken chain of narrators all of which are of sound character and memory. Any Hadith should not clash with a more reliable report and must not suffer from any other hidden defect.

2. A Hasan Hadith is transmitted through an unbroken chain of narrators, all of whom are of sound character but weak memory.  This Hadith should not clash with a more reliable report and must not suffer from any other hidden defect.

3. A Da‘if Hadith is that which cannot gain the status of Hasan because it lacks any one or more elements of aHasan Hadith. (e.g. if the narrator is not of sound memory and sound character, or if there is a hidden fault in the narrative or if the chain of narrators is broken).

4Abu’l-Kalam Azad, Tarjuman Al-Qur’an, Vol. 2, (Lahore: Islamic Academy, 1976), p. 480

5IslahiAmin Ahsan, Tadabbur-i-Qur’an, 2nd ed., vol. 5, (Lahore: Faran Foundation, 1986), pp. 173-4

6Ibid., p. 552

 

Courtesy:  Renaissance   Vol. 15 No. 3 March 2005 

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