Islam and Music

Music is a contentious issue for Muslims living in the ‘west’, especially Muslim teens. Music creates for the teen a new world which is separate from the family. In this way, music often plays a part in the necessary process of achieving independence. But is it, Islamically, ok to listen to music?

Are there any benefits to music?

The great 13th Century Muslim mystic and renowned scholar Maulana Rumi (ra) described the power of music thus;

‘sama’ (music) is the food of lovers (of God) since therein is the fantasy of composure (tranquillity of mind). From hearing sounds and pipings the mental fantasies gather great strength, nay they become forms in the imagination). The fire of love is made keen by melodies….’ (Mathnawi book 4)

Maulana Rumi is illustrating the ability of music to touch deeper than words and to actually help you connect with Allah SWT. This doesn’t mean it always will play that role, but that it can have benefit.

Music is as instinctive to people as language is. It is something that has been identified in different forms in all civilisations of all times. That does not mean it is good but it does mean it is natural.

Music can show as an impressive talent and for some people it is such a great talent that they see it as an inextricable part of their identity. A beautiful gift such as this must have been sewn into the recipient at their creation and so it is fair to imagine that such a gift should be used, though used of course for good.

Music is in the very nature of things. It is the song of the bird and the beat of the heart. It is the hum of the bees and the whistle of the wind. By our movements we make sound and when we intend the sound to be beautiful it becomes music.

Music in it’s purest form is a creation of Allah SWT and one of the signs back to Him. So why is music such a contentious issue for Muslim teens?

My parents tell me music is haram

The definition of the word music in the ‘western’ world is anything that produces melodies and harmonies and sounds sweet to the ears. Anything from the hum of the bees, the songs of the birds to the symphonies of Mozart may be considered music. There is no real value judgement on the word itself, except that it sounds pleasing.

Not so in the Muslim world.

In the Muslim world, music is associated with drinking, dancing girls and temptations. Because of this association, the word means something different, it has a negative connotation. You may wonder why people never say they are ‘singing the Qur’an’ or why they will never refer to na’ats and nasheeds as songs. It is because there is negative connotation to the word music in the Islamic world.

By your definition of music, na’ats and nasheeds are songs, but you need to understand this simple obstacle if you want to engage any Muslim, particularly your parents or elders, in a discussion about music.

So it is partly, a question of communication. If you do not use the word music you may find that you are able to communicate about this with parents in a less emotional way.

Music can have the effect of embracing you and making you feel ‘understood’. As teens you are working on your own identity and music helps that. There will be certain genres, artists and instrumentation that appeals to you more. It feels like it connects to a part of you that you have not yet defined.

Parents see this and they fear that you are isolating yourself from them and that you are doing it because of the music. You know this not to be true, but it is good to reassure them. Engage with them in a way that they understand; help with the cooking or pray with them. Do something that makes them feel comfortable. This way they will feel less threatened by the things about you that they understand less.

Parents feel nervous about the influences upon you

Firstly, they don’t like that you seem distant. You are their child and it is difficult when the child starts growing personal identity and independence and no longer wants to tell them everything. It looks to your parents like music is one of the causes of this.

Secondly, the sound that you listen to is likely to be completely unfamiliar to them. It may even scare them. It is well known that each generation of music has to work twice as hard to shock the new generation of parents coming through! And shocked they are, especially if they come from Muslim heritage background and music played a very limited role in their nurture!

Thirdly, they will wonder why you are not finding yourself through prayer and Qur’an. They will be worried that you are filling your head with negative words when you could have the eternal words of Allah inspiring you. It is undeniable that a lot of popular music does have very negative words, role models and tempos that are designed to develop recklessness. No parent wants their kid to be reckless, they want you to do positive things that lead to success (the criteria for this will be different for different parents!).

Finally, they will be (just as you are) unsure of the Islamic permissibility of music and they are being cautious.

Is listening to music permissible (halal)?

Like the vast majority of halal/haram questions; there is not one answer. The answer will depend very much on who you are, what you mean by music and where you are on your spiritual path.

As Maulana Rumi (ra) has indicated; music can elevate the soul and make it fly. But what this also means is that it has a power over you. It has the power to fly to places other than Allah SWT as well. It encourages unrealistic thinking, can inspire and fuel negative emotions and can, both subliminally and directly, encourage certain clearly haram activities such as drug taking, sexual activity and behaving in a generally ostentatious way. It does not mean it will. It means it can.

The ulema have various opinions on the permissibility of music. The most extreme will tell you that all forms of music including na’at and nasheed are haram. Some say music without instrumentation is ok but the instrumentation itself is not. Some say a little instrumentation is ok with voice but not lots of instrumentation. Some say percussion and voice is ok but nothing else. Some say instrumentation and voice are ok as long as the audience is not mixed gender. Some say music itself is fine it is the lyrics, the tempo and the influence that you need to be aware of. So you can see, as is usual, Islamic opinion covers most the bases. The only thing that would be (almost but not completely) agreed to be haram would be: music that clearly incites to haram behaviours, mainly through lyrics but also instrumentation and vocals.

It is well known that Imam al Ghazzali (ra) ended life feeling that anything other than the recitation of Qur’an was unpleasant to his ears. As we cleanse ourselves of the influences of the world we naturally become less and less inclined to listen to any music, unless it mirrors the internal state we are in (for example birdsong or the recitation of Qur’an).

What can I do now?

You can assess your own relationship with music to work out what is right for you. Consider the following:

  1. Ask yourself about the type of music you are listening to. Do you enjoy it in a positive way? Does it improve your mood? Does it make you think about good things? If not you may want to reflect if this is the right music for you to listen to.
  2. Ask yourself about how reliant you are on music. Do you listen to music all the time? Do you find it has to accompany everything you do? If so you may want to consider reducing your dependence upon music.
  3. Ask yourself about the impact music has on you. Does it make you accept bad activities such as drugs as normal? Does it make you swear more or think swearing is ok? Does it make you feel angry? Is it sexualised? If any of this is the case you may want to assess your music choices.
  4. Are you keeping up your regular prayer, fasting, reading etc? Are you continuing to be inspired by traditional Islam? If the answer is no, then you should put something in place to ensure that you are growing in your practice and your Islamic understanding, despite listening to music.

There is no fatwa here. No instruction. No judgement. You need to live your own life and make your own mistakes as it is from mistakes that we learn best. But you do need to be able to make informed decisions about the risks you want to take and not behave recklessly. Try to preserve and develop your deen but do so at your own pace. Be forgiving with your parents. Sometimes they will insist too much, but they do it because they care.

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