The curious case of Music in Islam

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Muslim girls playing 'Duff'
Muslim girls playing 'Duff'

There are many issues that millennial muslims face growing up in a non-muslim majoriy society. And the majority of those are related to the push-and-pulls that exist between social norms and our Islamic values. One such has been music, does Islam allow us or does it not. Be it the popular social media scholars or ‘ustadhs’ (teachers) or typical beard-clad mosque imams, there is surprisingly a split opinion.
Personally for me, the subconscious discomfort while listening to my favorite Frank Sinatra, finally took a toll on me and I decided to put my training as a grad student to good use and apply a purely intellectual approach to the religious script referring to music, and form an opinion of my own.

And this exercise ended up clearly in favor of music. Let me explain.

The number of times music has been mentioned in Quran, the most authentic, undiluted, divine scripture for Muslims, is exactly Zero. Quran has touched on all the important aspects of a human life, from telling us that taking a human life is the gravest of sin (chapter 5, verse 32) to never break a promise (chapter 2, verse 177) or love thy parents (chap 17, verse 23) and act with kindness with everyone (chap 60, verse 8) etc. But the notion of music and singing was just too insignificant for any mention. So where does the argument against music and singing come from? Well some traditionalists have ruled that Chapter 31, verse 6 of the Quran ‘do not indulge in idle talk‘ actually allude to music and singing. But what is surprising is that apart from having no basis for such a deduction, the commandment can be interpreted for any aspect of life that reflects vulgarity. Cursing, lying, abusing or using the tongue for any obscenity is what this verse prohibits if taken on its literal words, and doing that with or without a rhythm or a musical beat is of insignificance. Identifying this verse with the exclusion of music from Muslim society has no more merit than applying the same prohibition to the other usual traits of a human life i.e. talking or laughing. But more importantly, taken in its proper context to the larger message of the chapter, the verse refers to the attempts of non-muslims who at that time were trying every trick to sway away Prophet Muhammad’s early supporters from going to him, and hence this verse was revealed as part a warning of being cautious of such attempts. Moreover, this chapter was revealed in the earlier part of Prophet’s life i.e. the Maccan life, when even the strict injunctions against drinking alcohol or observance of five obligatory prayers had not been revealed and it is no less than ridiculous to entertain the idea that musical instruments might had been banned even before the most basic dos and donts of the religion had not been delivered.

So the next biggest source of inspiration for music-hating souls, comes from ‘Sahih hadis’ (the authentically proven words of Prophet Muhammad). There is only one which prohibit its use while three times that number show its acceptance (with regards to a particular instrument). So clearly, this apparent conflict means that there is more to it than the literal text. The authenticity of the lone authentic hadis prohibiting music, had already been challenged in the 10 century by a famous commentator on hadis, Ibn Huzn. However since a larger segment believes that they were indeed the words of Prophet Muhammad, let us put it to the test of logic and reasoning. The saying of Prophet Muhammad goes ‘there will be people in my society (among muslims) who will consider sexual promiscuity, wearing of silk, musical instruments and alcohol as acceptable (the assertion being all of them are actually illegal)

Its important to spot here that sexual intimacy is neither illegal nor immoral within a marital wedlock and in fact Islam calls for precluding celibacy. So clearly the mention of sex is with regards to illegal copulation and thus, just as we use our common sense to derive this rather simple logical conclusion, we can also come to understand that the scenario being described by prophet points to a particular game of thrones kind-of-scenario where all of the above, would be happening. A corrupt society where obscenity, alcohol consumption and unnatural mixing of sexes would be the way of the society and people would be more interested and consumed by worldly desires than of what is required by God or his prophet.

This perhaps explain the reason why in other instances, we see the prophet clearly permitting using of ‘duff’, an ancient Arabian drum or in another instance, where he made sure that a singer had been sent to a wedding or in a yet another instance where he praised and compared the voice of a companion to that of David. This begets the point that there is nothing particular about the drum which makes it more ‘moral’ than a flute or a stringed instrument. It is simply the use that is in question as Quran has already explained to us the general concept of what is unacceptable (other than dietary items) in chapter 7, verse 33, which bars Muslims from polytheism, damage to life or property, violating somebody’s right, vulgarity and prescribing unlawful commands to God. By this context, banning music in God’s name is by itself unacceptable to God.

And lastly the book of ‘Zabur’, which muslims believe was a divinely sent scripture to David, was in fact a combination of hymns, where many of them were addressed to a director of music and even gave details about the instruments that needed to be played with those hymns. In fact the word zabur is basically the Arabic equivalent of Hebrew word zimrah (Zabur was written in Hebrew). And zimrah means singing and music.

And with this, humming to the tunes of Frank Sinatra’s summer winds, I rest my case.

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