This brief article is motivated by a frequent notion I’ve heard over many years, particularly when people ask me about, or comment on, women dancing at gender-segregated weddings. The idea that dancing is forbidden in God’s Law is somewhat of a widespread notion, and whilst it can be held as a view that relates to both men and women, there seems to be a particular disapproval of women dancing, irrespective of the context. This isn’t simply a matter of misogyny; women are often the most trenchant in their criticism of other woman.

So here I unpick much of the conversation around the issue and shed light on the basis of erroneous misgivings, that they namely come from incorrect understanding, conflations, and/or the imposition of one’s cultural norms on others. The point I’m making in this brief article is that to regard dancing as intrinsically offensive to God and hence impermissible is not only incorrect, but that the antipathy tends to be cultural and not moral. Of course, if an individual doesn’t like dancing then that’s fine. But as long as the context of dancing doesn’t exceed the boundaries set by God, some of which I’ll explain, then there’s no legitimate basis to make claims of impermissibility, let alone condemn others for it.

A basic legal understanding

There is an important distinction to make when considering something to be illegal in God’s Law. A thing can be impermissible either for its intrinsic qualities (لذاته) such as consuming pork, or for circumstantial reasons (لغيره) such as purchasing a knife to commit a crime, where the thing is intrinsically permissible (buying a knife) but the context might call said permissibility into question.

Now when it comes to dancing, where does the discussion start? The default in God’s Law is that everything is permissible unless there is something that compellingly informs us that it is impermissible. So did God or His Messenger explicitly condemn women dancing, and by this I mean moving to a rhythm, either for (a) its intrinsic qualities or (b) because of their gender?

Not at all, and no jurist (as far as I’m aware) has ever claimed so. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case – jurists tend to cite the hadith of A’ishah to undermine a claim of intrinsic impermissibility, where she relates that the Prophet was once sitting when they heard noise and the voices of children. As the Prophet got up to see, an Abyssinian woman was dancing with the children around her. He said, “A’ishah, come and look!” So she came and put her chin on the Prophet’s shoulder as she watched. (al-Nasa’ī) Furthermore, Ibn Abī Mulaikah relates that the Prophet’s daughter, Fātimah, would get her son Hussain to dance whilst reciting rhythmically, “My son looks like the Prophet and does not look like Ali!”

Although it is enough to establish the intrinsic permissibility of dancing from the fact that there is no prohibition related in the Qur’an or hadith corpus, narrations such as those cited above further establish that women dancing – that’s to say women moving their bodies to a rhythm – in and of itself is perfectly fine. In the first, which if the hadith is sound (there’s some discussion surrounding it), the Prophet called A’ishah over to watch which he wouldn’t have done were it impermissible. In the second narration, the noble Lady Fātimah would encourage her son to dance which she wouldn’t have done were it unbecoming. One might respond that perhaps she didn’t know it was unbecoming? I’d assert that this would be rather unlikely given that song and dance was a part of ancient Arab culture, and a ruling that went against the widespread norm would stimulate widespread conversation amongst the general inhabitants of Madinah, let alone the Prophet’s own daughter. And we know it was a cultural norm from the Prophet’s saying, “The Ansar enjoy songs,” (Ibn Mājah) and “The Ansar enjoy entertainment.” (al-Bukhārī)

So having briefly dealt with dancing being inherently permissible, what are the circumstantial conditions where a problem might arise? There are a few situations in which a person might fall into the behaviour God expects moral agents to avoid:

  1. Where dancing is sexually provocative or occurs in view of those likely to be sexually aroused by such movements. For example, a woman or man seductively gyrating in view of the opposite gender would be unbecoming.
  2. Where the style of dance resembles immoral activities. For example, even in a gender-segregated context it would be unbecoming for western believing women to engage in pole-dancing amongst themselves since pole-dancing, at least in the West, is a particular genre of dance associated with an illicit culture.
  3. Where there is indecent exposure, either due to a choice of costume or because the nature of certain movements results in exposing what not ought to be exposed. The awrah (sanctified aspects of a woman) of women amongst women is not the same as amongst men, so unlawful awrah here will depend on context, and that’s not to mention that what goes for unlawful awrah is open to legal interpretation.

Yet even then, these points require further nuance. For example, a woman beating a drum and slightly swaying with the beat is not the same as actively gyrating, and whilst someone swaying might be pretty normal to some, others might find any form of movement, however light, indecent. In the well-known hadith of Buraidah, a slave woman came to the Prophet upon his return from a military campaign, saying, “I vowed that if God brought you back safe and sound, I would beat a drum before you and sing.” (al-Tirmidhī) The Prophet permitted her to do so, and it’s highly unlikely she simply stood there like a robot banging her drum and singing in her moment of happiness; it’s more than reasonable to assume that she would have moved along with the rhythm of the drum which was considered appropriate. In our own context there are those who would condemn such a situation, but whilst they have the right to feel averse, condemning those who do not share their cultural sensibilities is obviously misplaced.

Where are the conflations?

Well firstly, people often respond that music is forbidden and therefore dancing is illegitimate. The issue of music is a distraction here; all jurists not only agree on the permissibility of the duff (light drum) for celebrations, many hold it to be recommended – so clearly some type of music is agreed on being permissible by all scholars. But the clear conflation here is between the intrinsic nature of dancing and its permissibility and circumstantial factors like the type of music being played.

Secondly, many people conflate conservatism with their own cultural proclivities. Since dancing isn’t their cultural norm they assume it shouldn’t be so for anyone else. They often rely on lazy accusations such as the activity ‘resembling the ways of immoral people’ which in reality turns out to be a xenophobic denunciation of activities outside of their ethnic bubble. They adopt a spurious moral stance which positions their culture as morally superior and what they find to be alien as ‘sinful’. Expectedly, they’re usually members of insular and narrow-minded communities unable to appreciate varying cultural expressions within the boundaries of God’s Law. The mark of a cultured person is the ability to appreciate cultural activities that the person him/herself is little acquainted with and has little intention to adopt – to appreciate from the outside. For example, the Prophet enthusiastically watched on as some Abyssinians performed their ceremonial battle dance in his mosque (al-Bukhārī and Muslim). While he neither got involved nor adopted it into his own culture, he evidently welcomed the show.

Some ethno-cultural Muslims who cannot maintain the salāh (five daily prayers) much less anything else will mock the very legitimate cultural norms of others with religious posturing, saying things like: “They call themselves Muslims, but look at them dancing like [insert ethnicity]!” Yet God warns the conscientious believers,

No one group should jeer at another, who may after all be better than them; no one group of women should jeer at another, who may after all be better than them. Do not speak ill of one another; do not use offensive nicknames for one another. How bad it is to be called a mischief-maker after accepting faith! Those who do not repent of this behaviour are evildoers.

Qur’an 49:7

As believers, we ought to be wary of such displays of cultural hegemony, particularly in the name of God. These Muslims will argue for multiculturalism in wider society, yet fail to acknowledge the multicultural nature of Muslims living in culturally diverse societies like the UK. To disparage believers from all over Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, the Caucasus, or anywhere else believers enjoy a good dance at a celebration, is foolish. And to make such believers out to be immoral is not only ignorant, especially where we find that these same believing women have turned up to the venue having actively maintained the legal covering and their salah irrespective of the occasion (which the critics themselves struggle to do!), but often stems from inherited racial prejudice. The range of prophetic narrations evidence the Prophet’s cultural difference with other believers from across the region yet his ability to appreciate and enjoy cultural diversity within the parameters of what’s decent, the parameters as defined by God.

In conclusion: Dancing is perfectly fine, and beyond particular circumstances which I feel believers intuitively know to be improper, condemnation or accusations of immorality are misplaced. All believers are free to their own cultural proclivities and aversions, but they are also obliged to know the difference between cultural norms and God’s values, without imposing their norms on others or making it the basis of moral judgements.

And God alone is the Judge of all things.