The Web is now abuzz with the story of three teenage Kashmiri Muslim girls, who were forced to disband their newly popular rock band “Praagaash” because of threats and a fatwa issued by a local cleric. Their facebook page now has over three thousand “likes” from all over the world, with comments urging them to stand up to the religious authorities. When The New York Times interviewed a professor at a music school in New Delhi, he expressed support for the girls, but added “the overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars are against music.” But does Islam itself actually forbid music? Many Muslims think so, and many of those Muslims are in positions of power and influence, thanks to the oil money that finances conservative Salafi teachings. But the majority of Muslims believe otherwise.
Almost all of my music teachers are Muslims, and almost every Muslim culture-Pakistan, Arab, Egypt, Persia—has a rich and beautiful musical tradition of its own. So where does this idea of music being forbidden come from?
There is nothing in the Koran that specifically forbids music. This prohibition comes entirely from controversial interpretations of the hadiths, the sayings of the prophet that were written down by those who interviewed people who had known Muhammad. I think that studying the hadiths is very worthwhile.
Muhammad was an extraordinary human being, and one can learn a lot from seeing the skillful and creative way he dealt with the challenges that were given him. Perhaps more importantly for Muslims, it’s impossible to understand the Koran (or any other text) unless one is familiar with the historical context in which it was written or spoken. However, Muslim scholars have never treated the hadiths with the same level of reverence as the Koran, and this is how it should be. There is a complex ranking system used for evaluating the reliability of the hadiths, depending on who was speaking and who was writing them down. Also, It would be blasphemous to say that Muhammad’s words, admirable though they are, should be given the same authority as the Koran. If the Koran is the word of God, it would be idolatry to forget that Muhammad’s words are literally sacred only when God is speaking through him.
There are two equally effective ways for criticizing the hadith scholarship that produced the ban on music. First of all, the three hadiths that are cited are of questionable authenticity, and secondly the anti-musical interpretation is ambiguous. Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is a conservative Islamic scholar who has been criticized by many progressive Muslims, and has a television show on Al Jazeera with an estimated audience of over 60 million. Nevertheless, he unequivocally rejects both the historical reliability and the anti-musical interpretation of these hadiths. In the first hadith, Muhammad criticizes idle talk, which for some reason is interpreted by a cleric named Ibn Masud as referring to singing. In the other two hadiths, Muhammad allegedly speaks of an apocalyptic time in the future when the Ummah will be punished by Allah for doing a variety of sinful things. Amongst the activities listed are wearing silk, adultery, drinking alcohol, listening to female singers, and playing stringed instruments. Al-Qaradawi points out that there is not an unbroken line tracing these hadiths back to the prophet himself and thus they are questionable.
In Al-Qaradawi’s words: “all these hadiths are declared ‘weak’ by the followers of Ibn Hazm, Malik, Ibn Hanbal, and Ash-Shafii.” In his book, “Al-Ahkam,” Abu Bakr Ibn Al-Arabi says, “None of the hadiths maintaining that singing is prohibited are considered authentic (by the scholars of the Science of Hadith Methodology).” The same view is maintained by Al-Ghazali and Ibn An-Nahwi in “Al-Umdah.” Ibn Tahir says, “Not even a single letter from all these hadiths was proved to be authentic.” Ibn Hazm says, “All the hadiths narrated in this respect were invented and falsified.” Al-Qaradawi also points out that this text could be seen as a general description of license and excess, with the details of drink, music, etc. added to show the kind of atmosphere created by excess. Just because all of these things together are forbidden, that does not mean that each of them would be.
Those who accept these hadiths as authentic and/or anti-musical must also account for the fact that there are numerous other hadiths in which Muhammad permits and encourages music. There are stories, for example that tells of some of Muhammad’s people who were celebrating by singing and dancing. When Muhammad’s counselors complained, Muhammad said that they should continue to sing and play. In one case, Muhammad specifically ordered that a singer be sent to accompany a wedding ceremony. There are also numerous historical documents describing musical celebrations by Muhammad’s people in Medina. The music-haters respond to this by saying that these documents only describe music made with voice and drums, and therefore what is forbidden is instrumental music, particularly stringed instruments. Apparently the assumption is that whatever isn’t specifically permitted is forbidden.
Al-Qaradawi points out however, that there is a famous passage in the Koran which says exactly the opposite, and gives a second way of responding to these arguments. The Koran arguably forbids the whole procedure of inferring any sort of taboos and prohibitions from any hadith. To quote Al-Qaradawi again: “We do have a good example to follow from one of our earlier pious scholars. Imam Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) who said: ‘It was not the habit of those who preceded us, the early pious Muslims, who set good example for the following generations, to say, ‘This is halal, and this is haram. But, they would say, “I hate such-and-such, and maintain such-and-such, but as for halal and haram, this is what may be called inventing lies concerning Allah. Did not you hear Allah’s Statement that reads, “Say: Have you considered what provision Allah has sent down for you, how you have made of it lawful and unlawful? Say: Has Allah permitted you, or do you invent a lie concerning Allah?” (Yunus: 59) For, the halal is what Allah and His Messenger made lawful, and the haram is what Allah and His Messenger made unlawful.’”
And if I may provide one more argument of my own: If Allah wanted to institute a command as radical as banning music, isn’t it highly implausible that he would have buried it in a couple of highly questionable hadiths? He could have eliminated all doubt by simply saying “Don’t play music” in the text of the Koran itself.
Teed Rockwell studied with Ali Akbar Khan for many years, and is the only person in the world to play Indian classical and popular music on his customized touchstyle veena. You can see and hear videos of his musical performances at www.bollywoodgharana.com.