The art of sound in the world of Islam

Developing Just Leadership

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Jumada' al-Ula' 22, 1423 2002-08-01


by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz (Features, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 11, Jumada' al-Ula', 1423)

The Islamic rules and regulations governing the listening of music are among the most misunderstood in Islam. YUSUF AL-KHABBAZ discusses the issue...

Muslims will often begin inquiries into the art of sound in the world of Islam by asking whether listening to music is haram. The term "haram" has a legal sense and a cultural sense. The cultural sense of the word, the way it is used casually, is closer to the meaning of "shameful". In the legal sense, to be haram requires that something is explicitly forbidden in Qur’an and hadith, with punishments laid down in the shari’ah for infraction. This does not apply to music.

Nor is there any consensus among Muslim scholars. The Qur’an says nothing directly about music, and scholars usually use qiyas (analogy) to extrapolate from other areas. For instance, the Qur’anic term lahw (6:32, 29:64, 31:6, 47:36, 57:20, 62:11) is cited in edicts against music, although this is a broad term that means "diversion" or "entertainment". Similarly, one finds laghwused in some places (23:3, 25:72, 28:55, 52:23), meaning "vain talk" or "false speech". Some music can be seen as mindless diversion or vain talk, but certainly not all. Add to this the variety of opinions in the schools of thought (the Shi’ah, for instance, do not rely on analogy as much) and we have in effect an unresolved question.

The hadith literature is not definitive on music either, and people on both sides of the debate can find narrations to suit their positions. So the Muslims who say that music is haram, as a blanket statement, are not examining all the issues and are imposing a narrow view of Islam. One should take into consideration the sources one uses, the associations between music and other activities, and the terminology itself. Many of the rulings that music is haram do so by association, but they are not condemning music as such, only some types and uses of music. Similarly, the terminology is not consistent. "Music" is actually a very narrow concept, and the word (musiqi in Arabic) did not enter Islamic literature until quite late. If we take music to mean secular sound arts, that leaves a whole array of musical activities that are not secular: things that would be much better termed "sound arts". The supreme sound art of Islam, of course, is recitation of the Qur’an, which can be rendered very artistically, although never with the trappings of "music".

Similarly there are other sounds arts, such as the adhan, eulogies (hamd, na’at, etc.) and recited poetry, that stylistically derive from recitation of the Qur’an. Then there are wedding songs, children’s lullabies, military songs and work songs. After that, if one imagines a continuum of sound phenomena, there is instrumental music, and then finally purely secular songs and singing. So even a cursory survey reveals many sound arts in the Islamic world, that clearly cannot simply be written off as haram. However, there have been many general rulings about music, and several come down cautiously in its favour. One famous one that is often cited was made by Mahmud Shaltut, who was at the time head scholar of al-Azhar. He ruled that music is permissible on four grounds: 1) that Allah created human beings with the ability to appreciate beautiful things, one of which is music, and Muslims can learn to appreciate this beauty without abusing it; 2) that Islam seeks the golden mean, and in an issue like music, with extreme positions for and against, there can be a thoughtful middle ground; 3) that music is permissible in certain circumstances, such as weddings, and so any condemnation has to consider the context, not just the sound itself; 4) that Muslims should avoid recklessly forbidding things that Allah has not clearly forbidden.

Parallel to the debate among Muslim scholars about music, in Muslim societies it flourished in different eras, so it may be useful to consider how this debate influenced the type of music that developed. Scholars, well-intentioned most of the time, have the best interests of the Ummah at heart, and in this controversial issue worked very hard to clarify the matter. This has been going on for centuries, and in part accounts for the framework within which the sound arts developed. In other words, because it was controversial, Muslims took extra care when finding ways to express themselves in sound.

However, it is misleading to take the secularist or missionary position that the debates have somehow "restricted" music and the arts. Rather, as with almost anything in life, people need guidelines, so it is more just to see the debates not as creating restrictions but as constructing a framework within which to create a pathway that one can follow. Muslim artists, eager to express themselves according to their deen, paid attention to the best of these frameworks and pathways. These were guided by the supreme sound art, Qur’anic recitation, which has provided many of the aesthetic parameters for the other sound arts. In this context, the debates have been positive and productive. In fact, it is when they stop, when things solidify, that Muslims get stuck looking for easy answers, seeking halal/haram dichotomies, which, in the case of music and other cultural practices, are less productive than ongoing discussion.

However the legal issues are resolved, it is important to recognize that there is now an onslaught of industrialized music (and other entertainments) on other cultures, and cultural practices, that is unprecedented in human history. This particular kind of entertainment, largely emanating from the Western pop-music factories of Europe and North America, seems to appeal to a broad cross-section of young people. Part of the solution is in education: not the narrow sort one gets from schooling, but in what might be called "cultural education". Too much "cultural education" these days comes from conduits of mass culture on television and the internet. Why young people like to sit transfixed by these devices, instead of being in other kinds of human activities, is perhaps a question for psychologists, but in any case education on the community level is important, and this may involve loosening the sometimes strict and narrow attitudes to music in some quarters.

In other words Muslims may have catalysed the problem by a twofold blunder: making Islam and its cultural functions seem ossified and strict, labelling many things haram and bid’ah; and neglecting the living traditions in their own lives. Television and the net are easy: they are perfect sources for passive consumers. What Muslim societies need is producers: those who can understand and produce various arts and integrate them into community activities. At the moment it is the same story everywhere: cultural gray-out wherever "globalization" appears. Part of the answer lies in reviving local traditions.

While art and music are important parts of culture and have a special place in Islamic culture, these days Western music and art seem to be more popular among young Muslims. Western culture does seem to have a certain allure. Since Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 Muslims have been enthralled by the West, beginning at that time with science and technology but now continuing into the cultural sphere. The problem is part of a broader trend, and it is not fair to blame the youth for listening to Western music when adults are wearing Western clothes, thinking Western thoughts and living practically every aspect of life the Western way. What seems necessary is a broad effort at cultural rejuvenation that includes dress, food, work, education and other areas.

One thing we should do is look at what options our young have when it comes to cultural and artistic endeavours. Have we not failed them by not carrying on our own traditions? The Western way is present-oriented: it exists only in the here and now. For living traditions to compete with essentially dead fads, they have to be kept alive. Muslims have to find ways to practise their own cultures, and in the area of music, if we avoid the rigidities of some schools of thought, there is a tremendous richness of sound arts in the Muslim world, incredibly diverse across cultures. If we Muslims outlaw these arts, things like qawwali and jaliya, we are in a sense outlawing our own culture and past, thus paving the way for young Muslims to fill the gap with whatever is to hand, which in this case is provided by the mass culture industries. It is necessary to begin at the community level, and learn how to produce the art of sound. The answer to the problem of being mere consumers, which is what we are most of the time, is to strive to become producers of culture, and to perceive the sound arts in broader contexts.

Muslims have historically developed a rich tradition of instrumental music. This includes various string instruments and wind instruments, such as the lute and flute. Some of the most beautiful and heart-stirring sounds one can imagine have been teased out of these simple instruments, and there are still today accomplished performers on them in the Muslim world, although they are fewer and have become ‘stars’. Perhaps that is part of the problem: it is the death of any cultural tradition, instrumental or otherwise, when its performance is turned over to an elite of experts who develop such high standards of performance that most people are intimidated from even trying to learn. In fact Muslim scholars have frowned upon professional musicians, and there are even rulings that their testimony cannot be accepted in a court of law. Again, it requires reflection to understand the reasons for this. From a cultural point of view, practices are more likely to survive if people perform and participate, rather than only listening or watching. What has happened over the years is that people have become consumers of music, at first played by experts but now commodified via electronics.

In order to make the argument for rejuvenation of Islamic sound arts, we have to discuss their distinctive qualities and how these differ from other musical traditions. Instead of using Western methods of analysis, it is important to develop descriptions of the sound arts that are based on Islamic principles and proceed from the Qur’an and Sunnah. One key feature of the Islamic sound arts, and other arts in general, is their abstract qualities. This stems from the principle of tawhid: that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala is utterly separate from His creation and cannot be represented in any way. Sound is less prone to representation than the visual arts, yet the abstract qualities of the Islamic arts are evident in the lack of interest Muslims have shown in music that is programmatic or descriptive. Linked to this abstract quality is the technique of infinite patterning, in which Muslim sound arts tend to work with short patterns that are repeated over and over, but with slight variations that tend to accumulate.

With respect to form, in much Muslim music forms tend to be modular: the idea of a composition in the Western sense is alien; pieces of music are instead assembled from distinct and separable units or modules. These modules are combined and recombined, repeated and varied in myriad ways, leading to another feature of Muslim musical practice: the centrality of improvisation. Qur’anic recitation is improvised in the way the qari (reciter) weaves the words with various melodic phrases. This is never pre-planned, does not follow a set theory (except in the case of some Western-trained reciters), and will differ from recitation to recitation of the same surah. So Muslim sound arts tend to be improvised and informal in construction. Islamic music, because of these features, tends to have a never-ending quality; one does not find the linear build-up to a climax that exists in almost all Western music. It ends when it ends, and there is no psychological manipulation of expectations that one finds in Western music.

Muslim sound arts tend to be "monophonic", which means that they follow one melody line, the model being the lone voice reciting the Qur’an. The musical equivalent would be instruments and voices all following basically the same line, in contradistinction to Western music, which is almost always polyphonic: different instruments play different parts that fit together like a puzzle. Vocal music is primary in Islamic culture, but even instrumental music, at its best, takes on the qualities of vocal music. These features create what could be called the unity of Islamic musics, proceeding in form from Qur’anic recitation. There are also "regional variations", in which the sound arts of cultures from before Islam have been gradually modified and integrated into Islamic cultures. This has created diversity in things like sound intervals and preferences for melodic fragments, the rhythms and instruments used, not to mention languages and song-themes. There is much more to be said about all this, but this is a sketch of what could be seen as the distinctive features of Islamic sound arts.

Another, perhaps more subtle, aspect of the music debate is to consider whether sound arts and musics have special features distinctive for each listener and performer. Imam Khomeini (ra) once gave a fatwa that one should decide which music is haram for oneself by the way it affects one. This is a sort of sufi or irfani way of seeing the matter. If one’s consciousness is at the level of base desires, then music will increase those desires; if one has a higher consciousness, the same music can have an edifying impact. This perspective leaves it difficult to make a blanket statement for or against music. Imam Khomeini also answered a question about the use of musical instruments by saying that it depends on how they are used and by whom: this view echoes Imam Ghazali, who made distinctions about music according to three criteria: the place of listening, the time of listening, and the companions of listening. This is not to say only that music is a free-for-all, that each person makes individual rules. Rather it is recognition that people are at different stages, and that some people are more aware and others more distracted. Everyone can work on spirituality, but there seems to be a point at which the tables turn, when things like music can be pulling one downward or drawing upward. Such a view can help put music into the same category as other things of beauty in general.

Music, like all the arts, is partly about beauty. The universe is full of beauty; Allah made many beauties for human beings to enjoy. For example, Allah made women beautiful to help create a special bond of affection between men and women. But at the same time beauty needs to be handled delicately and with care, which is why women cover their beauty except in certain circumstances, and why over-indulgence can lead to a dulling of the senses. So music needs caution and each listener needs to evaluate his own relationship with forms of beauty. One may notice, by the way, that the more rigid the interpretation of Islam the less beautiful the resulting culture becomes; in such cultures, women are often not treated well. So Muslims need to understand beauty, this Divine gift, and learn to appreciate it, not to repress it, nor make it ugly, but to respect it as a gift from our Creator. This approach seems more constructive: rather than demanding an easy yes/no or halal/haram answer, it requires that one thinks. Each and every Muslim needs to think analytically and logically, about this and other matters: and that has to be a good thing.

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