Over a decade, I’ve been asked about music so frequently that I’ve finally written this. I hadn’t done so until now because I didn’t want to engage the cacophony of polemics. However, I hold it that believers deserve better than the one-sided narrative they’ve been presented with, especially when we’re speaking on behalf of God as to what He holds to be offensive, and as millennials (and younger) become the dominant generations, we need to be far better informed. I am not advocating what people should or shouldn’t do – things affect them differently so each moral agent ought to decide what’s best for them. Also note that this brief post is not a juristic presentation but just a brief clarification for those who’ve asked.

From the get-go it’s important that we distinguish between two things people tend to conflate:

  • A range of cultures/behaviours associated (rightly or not) with types/genres of music,
  • Music as melodious sounds, and instruments.

Here I am solely dealing with music as melodious sounds (including instruments) and not speaking to certain types of music that might inspire negative behaviour in some. Since I’m dealing with melodious sounds (including instruments), I don’t distinguish between sounds from singing (ghina’) and sounds from instruments (aalaat) in this shar’i discussion – and most early jurists didn’t.

The crux of the matter

I do not believe music, singing or dancing to be inherently (لذاته) impermissible in God’s law nor do I believe God finds innocuous melodious sounds offensive. I hold music to be a mundane human pursuit and thus permitted (mubah). In the same category I place watching sports, playing computer games, or watching Netflix. Where anything in this category has a malign influence on a person then it’s unadvisable. If not, then it’s fine.

Now interestingly, as an activity that is mubah, I’ve intimated that if a circumstance brings about negative outcomes then depending on the degree of harm, it can be makruh (unadvisable) or haram (unlawful). But if it brings about positive outcomes, it can be mustahab (advisable). So for example, if music inspires one to engage in destruction, criminal activity, indecency etc, then that music is impermissible to that person. If music (or a type) inspires someone to be better, such as train harder in the gym or act with a conscience, then that music is not only permissible, but good for that person.

As a shar’i issue, it’s as simple as that.

The position is based on the following:

  1. The shar’i default rule: All things are lawful unless stipulated by God and His final messenger as unlawful.
  2. Music is inherently benign given that Prophets of God to human civilisation enjoyed music – the Hebrew King David for example. The Nev’im and Qur’an reference a singing David, and the final messenger of God Muhammad positively referred to the flute (mizmar) of the ‘House of David’.
  3. There is nothing inherently harmful in musical sounds and rhythms, whether originating from vocal chords or an instrument.

So what of the Quranic verses and hadith that seem to disparage music?

  1. The verses that are often cited, such as 31:6, do not refer to music but to speech: “But there is the sort of person who pays for distracting tales, intending, without any knowledge, to lead others from God’s way, and to hold it up to ridicule.” Yes, some early exegetes have interpreted “distracting tales” as a reference to singing (ghina’) but the interpretation tends to rely on shaky grounds such as unreliable hadiths (such as the hadith of Abu Umamah on singing slaves). Now the reason for the verse being revealed is not just informative, but critical for context: the verse refers to Nadhr b. al-Harith who would travel to Persia and return with Persian war myths as a challenge to Quranic narratives on the nations of ‘Aad and Thamud. Some exegetes have said it might refer to Ibn Katl and singing slave girls, but as Ibn Ashur points out, the wording of the verse makes that very unlikely and far more relevant to Nadhr b. al-Harith. And let alone singing, contemporary personalities go a step further and say it refers to musical instruments when the verse is very clearly not even referring to instruments!
  2. The seemingly prohibitive hadith people tend to refer to are not collectively speaking solely to musical sounds but a wider indecent culture that employed music – like a nightclub where people consume intoxicants and watch naked performers dancing to music, and where the initial motivation was to attend the performance. But outside of such repugnant contexts we know the final Messenger himself would be musically entertained during celebrations, and his companions saw it as light entertainment (a bit like a TV).

That’s a bold statement! But isn’t there a scholarly consensus (Ijma’) that music is impermissible?

In the context of the UK, this has been a blatant mistruth peddled by some for years, out of what I can only explain as sectarian and/or cultural interests (the aversion seems to be against western music – eastern music doesn’t seem to attract as much ire). Whenever such preachers assert scholarly consensus (Ijma’) – an authoritative source for most in Islamic law – but then early and later jurists who opined otherwise are pointed out, they divert the conversation or resort to immature ad hominems and anti-western tirades that have little to do with the shar’i issue. 

The truth is, music was part of the early believers’ culture in ancient Arabia.

So why aren’t there loads of historical reports on it? Well, it’s not reported as some standalone major historical phenomenon because it simply wasn’t a big deal. It’s a bit like if a historian 500 years in the future were to write about the lives of Londoners today, s/he wouldn’t make Londoners listening to their car radios a major aspect of their lifestyle, although most do.

But we know it was a norm through reports that come together to give us some an insight:

  • The Prophet and Abu Bakr listened to two young girls singing and playing on their drums.
  • Hamzah b. Abdil Muttalib had a female singing slave.
  • Uthman b. Affan narrates a woman swore she would sing for the Prophet on his safe return and he permitted her to do so.
  • Abdullah b. Ja’far b. Abi Talib (nephew of Ali) listened to music and had his servant play for Mu’awiyah b. Abi Sufyan and Amr b. al-Aas.
  • Abdullah b. Zubair b. Al-Awwam would not only sing himself (as apparently all the Muhajirin did), but he had servants who played instruments which he had played for Abdullah b. Umar who recognised its Levantine rhythmic pattern.
  • Usamah b. Zaid would sing and enjoy singing servants.

So what of later scholars? Is there not consensus later on?

No, this is also a mistruth. I fully acknowledge that many medieval jurists held music to be impermissible – just as many did not, and I can see how they came to that conclusion. But I respectfully assert that their reasoning hasn’t been very strong (sometimes bordering on the bizarre), and either there has been the conflation I mentioned above between sound and behaviour, or a narrow analysis that fails to consider all the sources holistically. When you look at history, to a large extent the People of Madinah maintained music as an aspect of their culture (and we see the shar’i position subsequently reflected in Muslim Spain and Africa). To argue all medieval jurists held music to be impermissible is highly spurious, and to the contrary:

  • Sa’eed b. al-Mussayab permitted his daughter to play an instrument.
  • Ata’ b. Rabah saw no problem with singing as long as it wasn’t indecent.
  • Muhammad b. Sirin enjoyed music at weddings.
  • Abdul Aziz al-Majishun, the tabi’i and scholar of Madinah, taught music, and alongside the shar’i disciplines was also a musicologist.
  • Yusuf al-Majishun: a student of al-Zuhri countenanced by Yahya b. Ma’een and Ahmad b. Hanbal. Yahya b. Ma’een said: “We would visit him and he would narrate hadith in one house, and from his house next door he would teach music.” Yahya also said: “He, his brothers and his nephew were known for musicology; they are trustworthy hadith narrators, included in the authentic compilations.”
  • Abdul Aziz b. Abdillah b. Abi Salamah, the mufti of Madinah alongside Imam Malik permitted singing and playing instruments.
  • Abdul Malik b. Abdil Aziz, b. Abdillah b. Abi Salamah, also a mufti of Madinah like his father and companion of Imam Malik, viewed singing and playing instruments permissible.

Now this is a nominal list. As we go through the centuries there are many more. Some jurists felt so strongly about those who claim a consensus to its impermissibility that they authored retorts and their works are well known today: scholarly giants such as Ibn Daqiq al-Eid, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, al-Izz b. Abdil Salam, al-Dhahabi, Abdul Ghani al-Nablusi, Ibn Hazm, and later on al-Shawkani. To argue a scholarly consensus on God having forbidden music in the face of all of this is futile. In fact the opposite is true, the vast majority of Muslim societies have had a culture of music and saw it as no offence to God.

Putting aside the behaviour of humans (who do impermissible things even with the Quran, such as justifying murder and mayhem!), preachers struggle to posit a coherent argument as to why melodious sound, in and of itself, is bad. Either they posit music’s supposed ill effects when the reality is that the behaviour they refer to is more about a genre or the choices of individuals, or more often, argue a ritualistic prohibition which is to say there’s no actual reason other than their claim that “God said so” when He, the Most High, clearly didn’t.

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