In Defense of Music in Islam – Part 2

In “Part 1” of this post, we touched on the requirement of Usul ul Fiqh (Islam’s jurisprudence) necessary to prohibit any act; based on the legal maxim that everything is permissible until proven otherwise. We saw two arguments on the legal position of Music in Islam. I even advised that there are better ways to one’s time and energy than engaging in these debates; especially because there are hardly new dimensions brought into the argument but are simply regurgitation of arguments by scholars from history leading to a historically rooted stalemate. Obviously, Music is a big social issue especially today, so are we going to continue in this vicious cycle of repetitive polemics? When shall we break free? Are we even engaging with the issue of Music properly?

Religious Authority: Sayyad Muhammad Hussein Fadallah
Website URL:
Question: What is the Ayatollah’s fatwa on the status of classical music?
Answer: I am not that knowledgeable in the field of music. However, it is usually said that classical music has an intellectual nature and stimulates thinking. If this is correct, it is easy to say that such music is permissible.

Above is a Fatwa on Music which I saved for this post; save the best for last. I prefer this Fatwa even over those that explicitly permit Music. The main reason for my preference is the Mufti’s humility about Music. Now here is someone who acknowledges his knowledge gap on the said issue, then only give his Fatwa on certain conditions. Of course I would like to hope the other Muftis research the topic before they issue Fatwas however, their research doesn’t seem to start from the most fundamental question of all: what is Music? Instead they go deep into the deliberations of past scholars who equally, and perhaps more understandably, didn’t ask that fundamental question. The reason is that past scholars were more aware of their culture, in some cases even active producers not simply consumers of their cultures. When asked about Music, both the questioner and the questioned probably agree on what they referred to as Music. The meaning of Music would have been a precisely understood vocabulary within their shared but well demarcated culture. However living in the cultural salad we do at present, it is difficult to ask any serious listener of Music about Music without throwing back the question: What genre of Music?

That is to say the genres a society would be familiar with in the past were much fewer compared to today. Therefore all the past Fatwas (both prohibiting and permitting) on Music must have had a particular type of Music in mind even when not explicitly mentioned. If they assumed to answer for the whole of Music, then those scholars were probably too ambitious because it would have been much less likely that they would even be aware of the variety of world Music back then compared to today. Similarly when today people refer to Music with regards to prohibition in Islam, and they don’t ask that fundamental question, but have an understanding between the questioner and the questioned of what Music means, then they are both probably not qualified to talk about Music in general. That is to say they probably both believe that Music refers to that particular Music that falls within popular culture (especially MTV, BET, Channel O etc) and they use that to generalize to other Music forms. That is indeed unfair to Music. The average zombie consumer of Music (fans of MTV, BET, Channel O etc) and the Mufti declaring/regurgitating its prohibition, while both deluded that they grasp that universal expression called Music, have one thing in common which is that they are not qualified to make authoritative/legal remarks on Music as a whole. The least they could do to have some intellectual credibility is to begin by qualifying what they mean by Music; making it more specific.

“The creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of music vary according to culture and social context.” – Wikipedia

The truth is that Music is, and cannot be, removed from a cultural framework. Music has never existed as an absolute, free from cultural significance (or in a form of platonic world of forms). You might find within the same culture that Music serves different purposes e.g. mothers singing lullabies to their children, while folk history is preserved in songs, while the religious sing and dance to songs of praises, while the hedonists combine it with intoxicants and sex, while the warriors sing as they march towards battle; all this may be with or without instruments. A common example of this in the past is during the Prophet’s time, it was clear that Music in Makkah and Madinah were different at least in social significance. The Prophet was reported to have allowed the people of madinah to enjoy their Music during celebrations because the Madinan women were lovers of Music, and he didn’t see it contradict the Shari’ah. True, some forms of the Music may be more dominant within a community and might hijack the meaning of Music for that community. The point is that as one moves between communities, the variety, definition and significance of Music changes such that what is applicable to “Music” in one community may not be applicable to another. That said, it means it is a fallacy to take legal judgement about Music in one community (even the Prophet’s Madinah), then impose it on Music in another community with different parameters for what Music is; not in a religion/deen that claims universality in application of its laws.

Some would argue: if all these aspects of Music that change between cultures are identified as Music in some way, then there has to be something that all Music share which makes them Music! If that is so then, were we to get a legal ruling on those things common to all Music then that ruling would apply to all the Music forms I have been trying to defend. I agree, that seems reasonable. With that logic in mind, some have taken a reductionist approach, not only to identify musical instruments as that common thing in Music, but even to reduce Music to simply being nothing more than a mechanical orchestration of sounds. It is not difficult to see the fault of the reductionist approach when one lets go of their biases, because certainly not all Music requires Musical instruments. Moreover it is established that tools in the Prophet’s time (including forms of expressions) like swords and poetry are neither good or bad in themselves but in how they are put to use. However the faulty reductionist understanding of Music has lead to misinformed legal prohibitions on Music on the one hand, but also the creation of an “Islamic” music genre of the Nasheed. This is the genre that is basically a cappella like the barbershop style or hiphop’s beatboxing (no certain instruments) BUT sounds could be made with the voice or percussion. There are a couple of Nasheeds I quite enjoy, at least one is almost safe in expecting positive content which is perhaps one of it’s strong qualities.

Nasheeds are well intentioned (which is very admirable) but it is also based on a faulty understanding that is almost contradictory: reductionist understanding of Music but transcendental in its appreciation of Music. Merely listening to some Nasheed songs, one forgets there is a restriction on the type of instruments allowed because it sounds no different from other instruments to the untrained ears. Moreover, with advancement in Digital Signal Processing, what it means to uniquely identify certain instruments becomes too technical and eventually superficial when one realizes that at the hands of a sound engineer there may be no distinction between outputs from a voice and input from instruments. What about the aficionado beatboxers who can mimic many instruments with their voices; their voices (instruments) or the sounds of their voices, which gets prohibited?!

Music is an expression for all, so universal. But intellectual and legal discussions about Music is not a field for all. The subtleties of Music like the art it is could lead to absurd conclusions, if not properly understood and digested from all the dimensions it occupies, even if very well intentioned; playing safe is a choice at the expense of artistic experience not an obligation. So who is qualified to discuss Music especially with the aim of reaching ethical and legal decisions today?

Who is the Qualified Authority On Music Ethics
Anyone with basic idea of what they regard as immoral can identify what they consider immoral in any Music e.g. most ethical people agree that most of the music videos on MTV and BET are immoral. That would be fine, so long as one does not see their ability to makes these moral deductions as giving them the authority to pronounce legal rulings on the subject of Music. Experts in this field would be required to make any legal pronouncement, until then we the lay people should stick to judging it based on our ethical standards while acknowledging our limitation in the field.

Owing to the complexity of many areas of ethical and legal investigation today, from economy to medicine to education to art, a sustainable and informed legal position require both scholars of the Text and scholars of the Context. Scholars of the text are the Muftis that keep us grounded in Scripture wherein we find the essence of Islam that keeps us faithful. Scholars of the context keep us in touch with reality as it is, its historical trail and future trajectory. How does Music fall into these complex categories? “Music is an art form the medium is sound!”. Music has evolved, like many things/practices over time. Music has evolved vertically in terms of the complexity of its content; e.g. the complexity of sounds, the interaction between melody and poetry, rhymes, the sophistication of genres etc. Music also evolved horizontally, especially due to globalization as it interacts with other Musical expressions from different cultural backgrounds; e.g. the creation of new genres that fall between existing genres, newly acquired relevance to Music in different cultures… etc.

For ethical deliberations the most qualified “scholar of context” may not be a musician, it would be the Ethnomusicologist, the Music Psychologist and others in that field. I find the Wikipedia definitions for these disciplines more succinct than I could put it.

“Ethnomusicology is an academic field encompassing various approaches to the study of music (broadly defined) that emphasize its cultural, social, material, cognitive, biological, and other dimensions or contexts instead of or in addition to its isolated sound component or any particular repertoire.” – Wikipedia

“Music psychology, or the psychology of music, may be regarded as a branch of both psychology and musicology. It aims to explain and understand musical behavior and experience, including the processes through which music is perceived, created, responded to, and incorporated into everyday life.” – Wikipedia

“To many people in many cultures, music is an important part of their way of life.” For as long as customs (‘Urf) is a source of Shariah, then summary and uninformed legal pronouncement on the topic beyond one’s expertise should be avoided. We that defend Music without proper qualification, only do it based on the argument in the “Part 1” of this post: that it is adequate to disregard a legal ruling if shown to be made from an uninformed position. This would be tantamount to having someone who has casually observed Muslims praying Friday prayers on the streets and thereby blocking road access to others conclude that Muslim prayer is illegal because it obstructs roads; they might even claim to be authoritative in Muslim prayers because they can demonstrate what they observed of the movements without knowing the supplications and meanings involved. (Sorry for the bad analogy but I hope you understand the point)

Indeed we need Scholars of the Text and Scholars of the Context to come together before arriving at legal rulings on complex topics, including Music of today. Having argued the need for Scholars of the Context, next part of this post, we shall conclude by looking at some that appear to be Scholars of the Context we so desperately need but might not stand any serious critical evaluation. We shall conclude with some exploration of the process of how we get from receiving information to reaching conclusions that may not be very reasonable, even though we believe so. Stay tuned 🙂



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