Music in Islam: Is listening to music unlawful?

[Music in Islam] Is listening to music unlawful?By Nimira Dewji

Islamic jurists have debated this issue for centuries, although it is not clear how the question arose as there is no direct censure against music in the Quran. There are just as many arguments in support of as there are against the listening of music being unlawful in Islam.

Some jurists explain that singing is “unlawful” because it employs poetry, and they point to the Prophet condemning poets in Sura 31:5-6, where it says:

“There is one who purchases a ludicrous story, that he may seduce men from the way of Allah, without knowledge, and may laugh the same to scorn: these shall suffer a shameful punishment.”

The jurists argue that the “ludicrous story” meant singing. Another possible argument against the listening of music is Sura 26:224-6 which says:

“And the poets do those follow who go astray. Dost thou not see that they wander distraught in every vale?”

H.G. Farmer argues that “this was probably not directed against poetry as such, but simply against the poet who in the eyes of the Prophet was the incarnation of pagan idols, and who, was pouring out satires and invective against him.” (Farmer, p 23).

However, since objectors to listening to music could not find any real basis to discredit music listening, they turned to Hadith, which was considered the second authority to the Quran.

Farmer narrates that A’isha, the wife of the Prophet, has handed down a tradition that the Prophet once said, “Verily, Allah had made the singing girl (qaina) unlawful, and the selling of her and her price and teaching her.” (p 24).

Farmer describes the following Hadiths in favour of listening to music:

“There are two attributed to the Muhammad saying “Allah has not sent a Prophet except with a Beautiful Voice,” and “Allah listens more intently to a man with a Beautiful Voice reading the Qur’an than does a master of a singing-girl to her singing. Anas ibn Malik (d. 715) claimed that Muhammad “used to make him sing the huda (caravan song) when travelling, and that Anjusha used to sing it for the women and Al-Bara ibn Malik (the brother of Anas) for the men. Al-Ghazzali claims that the huda are poems equipped with agreeable sounds (sawat tayyiba) and measured melodies (alhan mauzuna).”  (Farmer, p 25)

When the Prophet, who heard the voice of the singing girl and was asked if it were sinful to sing, the Prophet replied “Certainly not.” (Farmer, p.26)

Scholars agree that the Prophet tolerated musical instruments, and that his own marriage as well as that of his daughter, were celebrated with music. Historians suggest that the Prophet had to restrict the poetry of Pagan Arabia and this was interpreted by some as the forbiddance of poetry. Many of the traditions were deeply embedded in the society at that time and the Prophet had to adapt to the social resistance and accept Pagan customs under new sanctions (Farmer, p 34).

Pagan Arabia had a custom of music during their festivals of feast, and this, too, says Farmer, “found a place in the public festivals connected with Islam, such as exists today in the ‘id al-adha, the id al-fitr, the yaum ashura, and the various mawalid.” (Farmer, p 35). Music was allowed during various celebrations such as births, weddings, and others. The love-song, which had a strong tradition in pre-Islamic Arabia, was allowed.

Soon after the spread of Islam, cities of Mecca and Medina, “which were concentrations of political and religious power under the Orthodox caliphs, developed into important centres of rich musical life. Among the thousands of slaves who had been sent to Arabia were many qualified artists and talented musicians, who had brought their craft with them. Patronized and generously rewarded by the elite, the best singers and instrumentalists could thus demonstrate their finest achievements.” (Shiloah. p 11).

Many sources acknowledge that the founders of the four legal schools, the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafi’i, and the Hanbali, did not like listening to music, for a variety of reasons, and decided against its legality, although many treatises have been written to prove the opposite.

Although there is no censure in the Quran, there is evidence supporting both views, and there are no conclusions whether or not listening to music is unlawful in Islam.

Henry George Farmer, A History of Arabian Music to the XIIIth Century. Luzac & Co. London, 1929
Amnon Shiloah, Music in the World of Islam. Wayne State University Press. Detroit,1995.

Next in the series: Development of MusicArt of Music in IslamThe Healing Power of MusicInfluence of Western Music

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