Here is a fitting rejoinder to those extremist scholars who declare music to be unislamic – From an Islamic standpoint
Music is Halal By Default…You Need Evidence For Its Prohibition
There is a guiding principle amongst the surviving schools of thought that all matters not related to worship (those in the cultural realm for example) are deemed to be permissible or at best thanni (conjectural) until there is compelling evidence to the contrary*. There are very few things outside the realm of ibadah that are absolutely definitive. This is well known in usul (Juridical methodology). The list of prohibitions in artistic expression is rather short and quite intuitive for Muslims and people of good conscience alike. Some of them are:
* No lewdness
* No vulgarities/obscenities
* Nothing that ignites nationalism or divisiveness
* Context in which artistic expression takes place does not promote behavior considered socially unacceptable in Islam
You can probably ascertain a few others for as I say the above is quite intuitive. In the domain of “non-ibadah” most things are thanni hence the wide array of opinions on music and the use of instruments. But if you recall in the opening section of this article we have had some ambiguity as to the socio-cultural definition of this word music. Let’s explore it then from a Quran, Sunnah and Scholarly perspective.
What does The Quran Say Not Say?
There is no verse in the Quran specifically forbidding music. There is no verse that says “Music or the playing/listening to of musical instruments and singing is haram”. By contrast you will find verses on prohibited meat, alcohol and gambling but nothing prohibiting music. The most oft cited verse by those who proclaim music to be haram is in Surah Luqman (31:6):
And of mankind there are some who buy idle tales without knowledge, to mislead people from the path of Allah, and take it in jest. For such there is a humiliating torment.
Those that promote the music is haram view say that “idle tales” (lahw) means music. We have discussed how the Arabs of the time did not even have a word for “music” but instead referred to forms of what we consider musical expression today so let us look at the occasion of this verse. The Non-Muslim Meccan elite who were antagonistic towards Islam used to try to distract the Muslims away from the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. One of the ways they would do so was to hire “singing girls”. These were usually attractive young women or girls who would sing songs along the paths where Muslims would walk thereby diverting their attention from The Prophet. This verse was revealed in response. But lahw does not refer specifically to “music”. If you recall in the introduction to this article the Arabs at the time did not consider “song” and “playing instruments” and “listening to instruments/songs” and “poetry” and “performance” all equivalent . They did not lump all of these artistic expressions together under the term we know as music. The word used in this verse is lahw which refers to any diverting amusement (even football for you British soccer lovers out there). These idle tales by singing girls was a diverting amusement just like sports and games. In fact the 14th century scholar ibn Taymiyyah held this same view. He was against ALL FORMS OFLAHW (AMUSEMENT) including games. But let’s assume that lahw does in fact refer to music. What of Surah Jumuah (62:11) where the same word lahw appears:
Yet when they see some business/merchandise (tijara) or amusement/diversion (lahw) they break away to it and leave you standing (referring to the Prophet Muhammad). Say: ‘That which Allah has in store is far better than any diversion or merchandise.’
Here we see lahw being used again. In the essay A Fatwa On Music, Shaykh Jad Ul-Haq Ali of Al-Azhar University writes:
In this verse God has joined lahw (amusements with musical instruments) together with tijara (business or trade) using the grammatical particle wa (and) which means that the law and ruling that applies to one of them must apply to the other since they are joined together. We know that Muslims unanimously agree that tijara (business or trade) is permissible…
Furthermore in the Arabic dictionary Al-Misbah Al-Munir it says that the original meaning of lahw is tarwihwhich is amusement and relaxation. Lahw then is really any amusement that can pre-occupy one but is NOT EXCLUSIVE to music. Also if you try to use this verse to justify music being haram you would have to then say that engaging in business is haram due to the conjunctive used in the verse. No one says this. Since the Quran does not forbid music most of those who hold music to be haram focus on the Prophetic Sunnah. Let us spend some time there.
The Sunnah and Music
“Allah is beautiful and he loves beauty” -Sahih Muslim
For our purposes we will define The Sunnah by how we come to know what the Sunnah is i.e. ahadith (plural of hadith which refers to reports we have received regarding the sayings, actions and tacit approvals of The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him). Let us begin with support for musical expression.
The Abyssinians in The Mosque
This hadith found in the strongest of all hadith collections (Sahih Bukhari) refers to an instance during one of Islam’s religious celebrations of a group of Men from Abysinnia who were dancing with spears and playing drums in the mosque. The Prophet’s close companion, and 2nd Caliph, Umar had a desire to stop them but was prevented from doing so by the Prophet. (In fact according to scholar Sheikh Abdallah Adhami the Abyssinians also engaged in this activity on other occasions including days other than Eid)
Playing Musical Instruments and Song
In Sahih Bukhari we also have mention of the occasion of The Prophet’s arrival to Medina (Yathrib). The people welcomed him by playing instruments (in all likelihood drums as this was the predominant instrument in their cultural practices), performing a kind of dance (which we will define in a moment) and engaging in song which incidentally the Women of Medina participated in. Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s closest companion and 1st Caliph, wanted to reprimand them for this but the Prophet said “No…Let the Jews see that our religion is relaxed and accommodating.” They continued by singing amongst other things “We are the daughters of Najaar”. [As an aside: The Prophet specifically mentioned “The Jews” because in Medina they were the cultural arbiters of expression].
In terms of dance the Ansar were performing something akin to the Quranic definition of dance known as “haraqa”. Haraqa in classical Arabic is “fervor created by movement”. It is the kind of dance you might see at a cultural festival but not at a club or party or on a music video. It is not to be confused with the modern Arabic definition for dance i.e. “Raks” even when this term occurs in some ahadith it is still not referring to the modern Arabic understanding. In fact what we call “dance” (raks in modern Arabic) today would not be recognized as such in 7th century Arabia.
A Woman’s Vow
Also in Sahih Bukhari we have the story of the woman who pledged to the Prophet that she would “sing”a song of praise if the Messenger of Allah were to be returned safely from a battle. The Messenger did not rebuke her and say “Oh no sister you can’t make a vow like that because as a Woman your voice is your awrah and you are not allowed to sing to Men not even me.” That did not occur. In fact when he did return he encouraged her to fulfill her vow. She sang but how did she do so? She sang of course in a dignified not lewd manner. Let us recall our usuli principles that were mentioned under the heading Music is Halal By Default. In fact in a separate narration of the same story in the Sunan of Abu Dawud we find that not only did this Woman sing (remember 7th century decorum) but that she also included a kind of haraqa in a style similar to those Abysinnians in the mosque. In fact there are some traditional tribes in Morocco that have maintained this dignified centuries old form of coordinated folk movement. Here’s a little nugget: This story is an example of the Prophet’s mercy and magnanimity for in allowing her to fulfill her vow he honored and elevated her. This is because the vow of a Woman in Pre-Islamic Arabia was invalid!
The Girls Who Sang an Ode
We also have the story in Sahih Bukhari of the group of girls that were singing an ode in front of the Prophet . It was only when they started to sing words to the effect “And oh Allah bless our Prophet who knows the future” that he interrupted them by gesturing and saying in the negative “Mah” (or “uh uh” for a modern equivalent). He said words to the effect of “What you were saying before that was fine but don’t say that [i.e. knowing of the future].” This demonstrates that “content” is the major determining factor in permissibility.
The Girls Who Sang But Weren’t Singers
We also have a very illuminating story for our discussion related by Aisha in Sahih Bukhari. In this hadith there were two girls that were singing at her home in the presence of the Prophet. Abu Bakr became upset by this and proceeded to attempt to stop them. The Prophet instead said to let them continue. You may think that I am mentioning for the fact that they were singing and the Prophet prevented Abu Bakr from stopping them. Yes we can say how this supports the position of this article but I did not include this hadith for that reason. What is really interesting about this hadith is what Aisha mentions when relating it. She, may Allah be pleased with her, described the girls as girls who sang BUT WERE NOT SINGERS! Why did Aisha not simply stop after saying “two girls were singing” and relate the hadith? This is crucial for us to remember because this whole argument of people claiming music to be haram almost always fails to inform us of history and context. These girls were not the Britney Spears and Shakira (may they be guided aright) of their time. Aisha makes a point of emphasizing that the girls were not songstresses. They were not of a people who during that time were known to be Singers with a capital S. During this time and for several centuries after you would have individuals that would sing lewd poetry, often accompanied by musical instruments by the way (we’ll get to that). So you would have songstresses involved in this kind of undignified musical expression. But ghina (singing) per se wasn’t the issue as the hadith shows. Aisha makes a DISTINCTION between good singing which in this historical context meant individuals who were not “Singers” and bad singing which in this cultural reality was the practice of virtually anyone who was a “Singer”. In fact the hadith is more of a proof of usuli principles and frankly that is where this discussion truly resides. Context is King!
Wind, Strings And Understanding The Famous Bukhari Hadith
The most oft quoted hadith from those who claim music, especially the use of wind and string instruments, is prohibited is found in the following hadith in Sahih Bukhari:
“From among my followers there will be some people who will consider illegal sexual intercourse, the wearing of silk, the drinking of alcoholic drinks and the use of musical instruments, as lawful.”
English ≠ Arabic
Sahih Bukhari is the most rigorously authenticated hadith collection in Islam. The English translations however are not always accurate or they are not related in a way that can give the reader a full appreciation for what they actually mean to say. To help us with the ORIGINAL ARABIC of this hadith I asked the eminent scholar, linguist and hadith expert Sheikh Abdallah Adhami to provide an explanation of the philological (the study of historical and comparative linguistics) analysis of the implications that are inherent in the hadith. In other words what is in the original Arabic, what is the context of the hadith and what historical realities help us to understand this hadith in modern times. Please note that the Sheikh is not reiterating the renown ibn Hazm critique of the authorities (transmitters) listed. This hadith is definitive yes i.e. Sahih. But the implication of a definitive hadith is not necessarily definitive. You need to understand the classical Arabic. Let us begin.
The Sheikh has explained that the modern Arabic word for playing musical instruments is ‘azf. But in pre-Islamic Arabic this word ‘azf meant something different. It was a noun that carried several derivable meanings however its core meaning was understood by the Arabs to mean “an unrecognizable sound”. Now in the hadith above we find the very same root for ‘azf being used however in its plural form ma’aazif (the use of musical instruments). Ma’aazif usually accompanied lewd poetry of the time. So thus far we have what should be translated as “the playing of unrecognizable sounds [through these instruments that are normallyassociated with the lewd singing of poetry (i.e. what we may consider a song today)]”. We will analogize the unrecognizable part shortly. Stay with me I know it’s a lot but not everything is a simple answer.
Where Imam Bukhari Places This Hadith
Herein lies the caveat! What is the chapter heading that Imam Bukhari places this hadith under? Is it under a chapter that says “Music/Singing/Poetry is haram, Instruments are haram, etc…etc..?” No it is not. The chapter heading in Sahih Bukhari that this hadith falls under is: “Prohibition of Khamr (wine/intoxicants) and Calling The Drink By Another Name”. Thus the more correct understanding of the hadith would be that
you will have people who will call the playing or listening to of these unrecognizable sounds (using instruments normally associated with vice) by another name in order to make it lawful.
So this hadith isn’t saying that music or musical instruments are haram BY NATURE…INTRINSICALLY. It is saying that these people will call wine something else, silk clothing something else, fornication something else, “ma’aazif” something else in order to legitimize them! This isn’t a wholesale rejection of music. Quite the contrary as we have shown that other forms of what we consider musical expression to be today were allowed and at times encouraged by The Prophet himself!
What is critical in our understanding of this hadith and the general issue of music permissibility is what was going on at the time. Culturally speaking instrument playing was done in conjunction with lewd poetry. It was a cultural norm. Instruments (wind and string in particular) were also mostly present in gatherings that encouraged vice. And if you read the various scholars and Imams that have said musical instruments are haram they almost always position their rulings in this context. So if you were someone who played an instrument as a general rule that would be a red flag in society. Why? Because the only people who did that were people in these types of gatherings. This is why in some classic texts you will find mention of the rejection of court testimony of some musicians. Abu Bakr Bayhaqi as we know compiled a well known and highly regarded hadith collection many scholars quote from. In the 10th volume (Book of Testimony) he talks about music and interestingly this is the ONLY place he mentions music. He highlights how Imam Shafi said poetry is the realm of wisdom and there are people who use poetry along with musical instruments to entertain and bring joy to others. Imam Shafi says that the testimony of these people is VALID. There are those people who make a profession out of this however and their testimony is INVALID. It was understood in this cultural context that people who did this were engaging in or facilitating lewd behavior. This is important when accepting or rejecting a person’s testimony in court. Interestingly Abu Hanifah also held that engaging in music and lewdness was not a necessary association although the mashur (majority opinion) of the Hanafi madhab does not take their founder’s view.
Jurists and An Analogy
All of the Imams that talk about the legality of musical instruments do so from an usuli perspective. You see this with ghinaa (singing). Virtually everyone considers singing to be lawful. But jurists have said that singing can be haram. But when they do they refer to the kind of singing that incites and ignites carnal desire. They do so based on the usuli principles we mentioned earlier. Once again we see content is king! All commentators on this hadith remarkably say very little about the musical instrument portion. In Fath Al-Bari by Ibn Hajar he spends 3-4 pages on this hadith but only 3 lines are focused on the musical instruments part of the hadith. Usul is what we go to to understand music in Islam. This is why I made a point of including theusuli principles in this article.
At this point you are hopefully beginning to have an appreciation for the foundational understanding of the view of music being permissible. And when we say music is permissible are we talking about anything we call music? Are we talking about any setting? Are we talking about any type of content? Are we understanding what musical/artistic expression meant in 7th Century Arabia? Are we applying 21st century Western understanding to 1400 years ago and vice-versa? Hopefully we can now accept that at the very least there is a legitimate difference of opinion (if you still adhere to another view) and that our energy is better spent on the issues of FAR GREATER import that I will address later in this article. But let’s move on to the final legalistic discussion and bring in some history and scholarship.
Some Historical Nuggets
The origin of the words lute, rebec, guitar and naker are from the Arabic Al-Oud, Rabab, qitara and naqqara is an established fact. That we owe three of these instruments themselves to the Arabs we know for certainity [dispute over guitar coming directly from Arabs].”
–Historical Facts For The Arabian Musical Influence by Henry George Farmer**.
Interestingly Muslims had a tremendous impact on music and musical instruments historically.
Most of the Iberian Peninsula saw its greatest development under Islamic rule and this extended into Art and Culture. Al-Hakam II, Sultan in Al-Andalus, improved upon a kind of saxophone. Al Salahi (13th century scholar) says that the Christians borrowed this instrument from the Arabs (i.e. Muslims). Ibn Khaldun also describes this. We also know that Al-Andalus was at the center of musical instrument production in the world and the Abbasid Caliphate even had a court musician. You will not find an analogy of anything else that is supposedly “haram” being publicly state sanctioned, developed and promoted globally. Muslims never contributed much to the development of gambling, alcohol, pork production, houses of “ill repute” etc even if a limited number of private citizens engaged in these things. But they did so with music. This would be the only exception if music were indeed haram. Let us move on to scholarship.
You will often hear people say things like “All scholars condemn music” or the “vast majority of scholars” say music is haram. Others will say “only modern scholars” allow for musical instruments. Here is a list, with special thanks to Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, of just some of the classic scholars that have written on the permissibility of music to varying degrees:
* Imam Dhahabi
* Ibn Hazm
* Qadi Iyad
* Ibn Arabi
Shaykh Jad ul-Haq Ali, Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar (rahimullah) published an essay (in 1980) on the permissibility of music from a Shariah perspective. Read it for yourself here. You also have the current Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Jumuah also affirming that music is halal. There are many other scholars that have spoken on the permissibility of musical expression and hopefully you have a greater understanding as to what we mean by music.