Thursday, January 14, 2010

Permissibility of Music

Permissibility of music
By Asghar Ali Engineer - Dawn, Karachi, Friday, 18 Dec, 2009

THE other day I read an article in the Friday edition of an Urdu newspaper which quoted a few traditions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) to argue that music is strictly prohibited in Islam, and that Allah will send those who burn musical instruments to paradise.

Many non-Muslims also ask this question frequently as to why Islam is opposed to music. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is also said to have strictly prohibited music. But is music really prohibited in Islam? My study into the matter shows it is not prohibited per se. The Quran denounces what it calls lahw wa la’b (i.e. fun and play), and there was a background to it.
Arabs in pre-Islamic times had no serious religious faith and used to indulge in drinking, singing and dancing as we often witness in our societies also. Islam wanted to engage people in serious activities of containing social evils and make them obedient to Allah thereby becoming good, just and compassionate human beings, undertaking fight against all prevailing social evils. For such way of life naturally lahw wa la’b was a serious obstacle; hence the Quran warned people against it.

However, many Muslims could not distinguish between the two and declared music prohibited, whatever its form or context. While traditional ulema denounced music, Sufi saints generally approved of it, and distinguishing between lahw wa la’b and harmless fun, they allowed music as a tool to God-realisation. Music could induce a sort of ecstasy which in turn helped in being closer to God. Thus sama’ which literally means listening to music was practised by Sufis.

It was for sama’ that qawwali was invented, as far as my knowledge goes, by Khusro, the celebrated disciple of Nizamuddin Awliya who used to have sama’ (i.e. congregation for devotional music). Those traditional ulema who were jealous of Nizamuddin Awliya’s popularity issued a fatwa against him for attending sama’ and the sultan asked him to come to his court to defend himself.

He went to the sultan’s court (otherwise he never paid a visit to any sultan) and defended himself by reciting certain ahadith and came away. Maulana Rumi had gone a step further and even resorted to dancing to induce such divine ecstasy. His followers regularly resort to dancing, and are known as the whirling dervishes.

It was because of such controversies created by a section of the traditional ulema that an eminent scholar like Ghazali wrote an epistle on Status of Music in Islam — Discipline and Rules of Music and Ecstasy. It is worth reading for all those who want to understand whether Islam prohibits music or not; or if prohibits, what kind of music it prohibits.

Al-Ghazali begins his Risala on music with these words, “Know this my dear about the fact and situation of man that there is a secret of God which is hidden in the human heart; which is similar to the one that is between iron and stone. Just as fire emits when iron strikes stone and sets forest on fire, a movement occurs in the human heart when it hears good and rhythmical sounds. And unconsciously a new situation comes into existence in the heart.”

He further says, “The upper world of beauty and grace and the fundamental of beauty and grace is due proportion. And, whatever is proportionate is the manifestation of the beauty of that upper world. The beauty and proportion that we see in this world is the product of the beauty and grace of the upper world. Therefore, good, rhythmical and proportionate sound has a similarity with some of the wonders of the upper world. And it provides new informations in the heart in the form of a movement and eagerness.”

Further, Ghazali says, “Whoever’s heart is filled with the fire of the eagerness of God, music becomes necessary for him, so that the fire may be brighter. The same music becomes haram (prohibited) and poisonous for a man whose heart is full of the love of wrongful matters.”

What is this wrongful matter that Ghazali refers to? It is lust, frolic and music meant for worldly pleasure like the ones youngsters indulge in after drinking in clubs and such other institutions. Of course Indian classical music does not fall in this category; it is great art and a discipline in itself. Even qawwali and ghazal singing are based on Indian classical music. For that matter, western classical symphonies are also well cultivated art representing the best in human beauty and grace.

Of course, Ghazali does not base his epistle only on such arguments but also on ahadith which tell us how the Prophet himself listened to music on occasion along with Hazrat Ayesha, his beloved wife. This can be discussed further in another article.

The writer is an Islamic scholar who heads the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai.

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