May 4, 2014 By Interactive scholars

Music and Muslim Classicists

q-and-a-musicAs regards music, or any cultural products including movies, the stand of Islam is ambiguous. A certain section of scholars argue that music is out of sync with the Islamic value system. Yet, many great traditions of music have grown in the landscape of Islam. I would like to be enlightened on the position of scholars, especially the classicists, on the permissibility of music in Islam

Question of permissibility or otherwise of music in Islam borders on the questions of culture.  Islam does not denigrate a culture per se, merely because it is strange. What it rather questions are those elements in a culture which stand on the other side of the ethical and ideological assumptions of the religion. The whole issue came to fore for the first time in the history of Islam after the new community of believers under the Prophet migrated to Medina. This migration or hijramarks not only the geographical realignment of the emerging Muslim community; it was rather its transition from the mercantile Meccan culture to Medinese culture, which is a melting pot of several communities and, hence, variegated cultures.

Islam and Culture

Tariq Ramadan writes: ‘The companions who went into exile because of repression in Mecca (al-Muhajirrun) had to learn to distinguish what concerned only their religion and what were instead rather more cultural features: the people of Medina, the Helpers (al-Ansar) were indeed to share with them the principles of their common religion, but they nevertheless maintained specific cultural traits that the Prophet did not ask them to change, but also that he treated with thoughtfulness and respect. This can be seen in many situations involving customs, individual relations and public modes of expression: Respecting the Ansar’s taste for art and singing or women’s role in society. (They were far more evident in Medina than Makah).

(Ramadan: RR P 187)

He adds: ‘Very early on, the community of faith, following the Prophet’s example had to distinguish between what belonged to Islamic principles and what was particularly related to Meccan culture. They were to remain faithful to the first while learning to adopt a flexible and critical approach to their original culture. They even had to try to reform some of their attitudes, which were more cultural than Islamic. Umar Ibn al Khattab was to learn this to his cost when, after he had reacted sharply to his wife answering him back (which was unthinkable in Mecca)… Hijra, exile, was to reveal that one must question every single cultural practice both to be faithful to Islamic principles and to open up to other cultures and gain from their wealth.

(Ramadan: MM P 84)

As the landscape of Islam expanded from the communities in Mecca and Medina, the religion encountered different cultural traits which the communities approached, setting a template of response for the coming generation. The template had the character of creative adaptation which was predicated upon the ethical and moral patterns foregrounded by the sacred texts. But sometimes, literalists and their ascendency brokered by different regimes for the latter’s aggrandizement of power paved the way for erasing the difference between culture and religion, which in turn standardized and normalized an ‘Islamic’ response. The ban on music in certain quarters is part of this supposed response. But from classical scholars themselves, there was resistance against the inadmissibility of music. The aim of this paper is to study the two approaches (both of admissibility and otherwise) with special reference to the comments of   classical scholars.

Classical response

Those who affirm that music is not lawful in Islam have premised their arguments on what they interpret the phrase ‘lawhul hadith’ in the Quranic verse 31:6. The verse says: There are some who gladly pay for ‘frivolous tale’ so that in their ignorance they may mislead others from the way of god and make fun of it.’

Even some of the Prophet’s Companions like IbnMasud meant by the phrase lawhul hadith singing and musical instruments. But this was not a normative interpretation of the said verse sanctioned by the Prophet and a majority of his companions. In his celebrated al-Muhalla, IbnHazm analyses the interpretations of the verse in the following manner:

“This ayah does not contain any evidence against the admissibility of singing due to the following reasons:

1. Nobody except Prophet Muhammad (may the Lord greet and bless him) can express a final judgement on this supposition (that the word combination “lahw al-hadith” implies music as well), whereas he did not comment on the ayah in this manner.

2. Many of Prophet Muhammad’s companions and followers believed that this ayah does not impose a prohibition on singing.

3. The context of the ayah as well as the text itself clearly confirm the incorrectness of such interpretation, for the second part of the ayah reveals the aim of  buying “a frivolous tale”. It can be seen from the ayah that the action described is performed by an infidel, and not an ordinary infidel, but an infidel who leads other people to infidelity! For if somebody buys, for example, the book of the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (may the Lord greet and bless him) in order to mislead others from the right path by means of adducing fragmental quotations taken out of the context, then he is, verily, a transgressor and an infidel! And it is this kind of action that is described in the ayah. Yet the Lord does not censure verbal amusements (songs, funny tales, parables) which man uses for the sake of entertainment and rest. (Yusuf al-Qardhawi.Fatawamu’assyra)

IbnHazm adds: And they explain the inadmissibility of singing as follows: Singing is one of the two: either truth (al-hakk), or falsehood (al-batyl). For there cannot be any third option!” And this is due to the words of the Lord:”That which is not true (al-hakk) must needs be false (ad-dolal)” (the Holy Qur’an, 10:32). And we, hoping for God’s consent, will answer in the following way:”The Prophet said:”Verily, our deeds are judged by our intentions. And verily, everyone receives what he intented [to receive]…”.And we say: he who listens to singing with an intention to awake one’s brute instincts, is the one who has gone astray from the right path (fassik); and this applies not only to singing, but to everything. He who intends to reach inner peace and harmony and to accumulate new forces for the manifestation of obedience towards God and to receive Divine blessing for noble deeds, shows religious gentleness and chastity. His action is truth (al-hakk). Whereas if his deeds are not defined either as sinful or as noble, they belong to the category of idle talk and twaddle that the Lord has forgiven to him. Among such deeds can be a walk in the park, sitting on a bank in front of one’s house, contemplating nature, dying one’s clothes in another colour and any other action’ (Ibid).

There is hadith literature that anti-music scholars cite to adumbrate their position like the saying attributed to the Prophet that ‘singing cultivates hypocrisy in human heart.’ With special reference to this saying and citing IbnArabi, IbnHazm and al-Ghazzali, Qardhawi writes: ‘all ahadith mentioning the inadmissibility of singing are unauthentic and fabricated.’ (Ibid)

Although we take ahadith for face value, it is hard for us to conclude that the prohibition encompasses all forms of music and instruments. Al-Ghazali classifies the structure and content of music (both admissible and otherwise) analyzing and historicizing traditions to this effect:

‘The first accident (which causes the inadmissibility of music) is that the producer of poetry or music be a woman upon whom to look is not lawful and from listening to whom temptation is dreaded. The second accident is in the instruments in so far as they are of the badges of people who drink and of the mukhannaths. They are pipes and stringed instruments and the kuba-drum. These three kinds are forbidden, and all besides these remain under the fundamental principle of allowableness like the duff whether it has little bells or not and the tabl and the shahin and the beating with the qadib and other instruments.’ (IhyaUloomuddin)

It has to be noted in this connection that evil temptations (mostly related to desire) and not merely the fact that singer is a woman is the condition for the proscription of music in the first category. In the second category, instruments per se can be considered evil and such instruments that are the badges of drunkards need only to be proscribed. Ghazali then goes on to the third category:

‘The third accident is in the content of what is sung, the poetry. If there is in it anything of obscenity or ribaldry or satire or what is a lie against God most high or against his apostle or against his companions like what the Rafidis (who satirized the pious companions) composed in satire on the companions and others and listening to it is unlawful with melodies and without melodies and he that listens is partaker with him that speaks.’


There is no better way to conclude this piece than by reproducing the debates and contestations in the classical Islam briefly narrated by FazlurRahman in his ‘Revival and Reform in Islam’:

“He (IbnTaymiyya ) says: ‘It should be noted that the ascetics and pious devotees became excessive in their indulgence (in matters of enjoying) sweet voices (music) and lovely sights (human beauty). The rationalist scholars and intellectual theologians became indulgent in theorizing and speculation.  Thus the one side became guilty of innovated Kalamand the other side guilty of innovative music. The one indulges in letters and other in sounds. You will find those devoted music (Sufis) excessively critical of the people of kalam, in the manner of Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami (d 412/1021) wrote a book in condemnation of scholastic theology and theologians, he (and others) being among the poeple of Sufi music. On the other hand, you will find scholars and theologians going to extremes in denouncing Sufis who are fond of music as in the case of Abu Bakar b Furak (d 406/1015) and the writings of dialectical theologians in condemnation of those fond of music and Sufis are too numerous to be counted. The reason is that the scholars suffer from the deviationism of Christians given to excessive worship and deviationism. The (true) Muslim therefore strives for the realization of the (Quranic) prayer, (‘O Lord!) lead us along the straight (i.e. the middle) path. (IbnTaymiyyah, al Isthiqama)

In an extensive and detailed critique of the Sufi theologian, Abd al-Karim al-Qushayri (d.465/1072) and his defence of music in Sufism, IbnTaymiyya adopts the view that “at best music can be regarded as permitted.”

“His (al-Qushayris) discourse contains two theses. Firstly, that it is permissible (in religion) to pleasurable voices an dtunes, provided that the listener entertains nothing objectionable in his mind and that the music he listens to contains nothing blameworthy in his shari’a and that he (does not lose his self-control) and follows his uncontrolled desires. secondly, the music that incites the listener to incline to God’s obedience and avoidance of sins makes him mindful of God’s true promise and creates praiseworthy states in his mind is (not only permissible but0 positively recommended (in the Shari’a). On these two premises those who (not only) consider music (permissible but) positively recommend it, like Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulaimi and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, base their arguments. Some of them sometimes even regard music as obligatory (in religion) when they see that religious obligations can’t be (properly) performed except by music. (Ibid vol I, pp 235-6).

‘Sometimes these people prefer music even to the recitation of the Quran,’ says IbnTaymiyya, probably referring to al-Ghazali who, in his ihya, advances seven reasons why music can be more potent in arousing ecstasy than Quran recitation. (FazlurRahman, Revival and Reform in Islam)


It should be noted that despite his scathing criticism of al-Ghazali and Qushayri, IbnTaymiyya does not consider music as inadmissible. He was rather up against their equating or for that matter sublimating music over Quran recitation. From this, we arrive at the conclusion that the classical scholars’ objection to music is not monolithic. Although there are blind reactions, major scholars were foregrounding the religious texts and their ethics over a category of culture. This questioning of culture on the basis of weltanschauung and ethics has not destroyed culture, but rather enriched it. On the other hand, al-Qushayri’s or al-Ghazali’s advocacy of music can’t be relegated to unethical on the basis of this critique. They are providing a spiritual background to culture and sublimating a cultural practice to the level of worship.  Both the phenomena (questioning culture on the basis of ethics, which has relevance in this era of culture used as a tool to aggrandize market-oriented political power, and sublimating culture to the level of spirituality) have worked as an undercurrent in heterogeneous tradition of Islamic music.

Posted in: Q&A