Q. I have been studying Islam through reading of an English language translation of the Qur'an, scholarly books, and the Internet. Recently, I read that music, especially the playing of musical instruments and singing, is not allowed. This is the position of many imams and scholars based on the four main Islamic schools of thought. Can you explain which passage(s) in the Qur'an deal with this subject? Thank you for your guidance.

A. Before attempting to answer the question, I need to point out a common error on the part of most people who have questions or need information regarding Islam. They often ask "imams" of the local mosques on the presumption that such a title is equivalent to that of a pastor or priest in Christianity, or a rabbi in Judaism. This then presupposes that, as in the latter two religions, since a priest or rabbi is necessarily versed in the teachings of his religion, so too is the imam in Islam. The fact of the matter is that although the term, in proper usage, should only be for those who are indeed qualified in Islamics, many lay persons, simply by dint of leading the prayer are called "imams," and provide answers to questions when they have no database upon which to draw. I make this observation because for any scholar to make a statement on a controversial matter in the name of the four schools of thought is probably the most eloquent statement against his/her learning, for this would automatically exclude the Shia scholars.

Even if this person were a scholar, speaking only in Sunni terms, the fact of the matter is that to state all four schools have made a ruling would be to claim "ijma" (consensus), and this is clearly not the case regarding music. The "madhab" or "school" as we know it simply means the general body of rules and rulings ascribed to a particular eponymic imam. The scholars of that school who may have reached the degree of ijtihad may differ from the imam or other scholars within the madhab. There is another dichotomy too in that (purported) statement of the scholar because as we know, Sufis in general approve of music, if not in all its forms, at least in some, i.e. the matter is not music qua music but rather what types of music are forbidden. The point that one needs to note here is that several of the jurists of the madhabs were at the same time Sufis. How can one then categorically state that all the madhabs forbid music?

Let me hasten to state, however, that the general view of the scholars is that music is forbidden. One muhaddith even refused to accept a report from a scholar on the basis that he had heard music of an oud coming from the latter's residence. The mufassirs and fuqaha also rely on certain hadith regarding stringed instruments being from the Satan, etc. These hadith are readily available in English and I do not see the need to list them here. The Qur'anic "proof" adduced is the word "Laghwu," which we may translate as vain discourse. And by some stretch of the imagination, the jurists and traditionists in general have extended this meaning to music (see Q28:55): "And if they hear al laghwa, they turn away from it" (Q19:63); "they hear in it no laghwan..." (Q78:35)

The fact of the matter is that the word is used elsewhere in the Qur'an to mean vain talk, to deliberately misinterpret something, etc. (Q2:225; Q5:89; Q25:72; Q41:26). There are two rules in fiqh, which in the case in point, we may apply as well as use in the Qur'an. In the Qur'an, it says: "Allah has created all that is in the earth for you (Q2:29)", another says: "…and He has made allowable for you that which is pure and forbidden that which is base and evil (Q7:157)," and in another: "He has specified that which is forbidden (Q6:119)." Note that the foregoing ayah was revealed regarding food, but the rule is general according to the principles of Usul al Fiqh.

Based on these three, the rule is that the basic sub-rule is "everything is permissible." Another (major) rule is: "That which is clear is not superseded by that which is doubtful." Since Allah, as we are told in the Qur'an specifies that which is haram, and music is not so specified, then it is to be seen as allowable. Of course the answer generally provided to this observation is that the Sunnah is the proof. To which the rebuttal is that Allah, in His wisdom, knowing our weaknesses and desires, and providing a book from which He states: "We have not left out anything from this book (Q6:38)," leaves the matter of music to depend on hadith -- which at best is probable evidence -- falling within the purview of what is considered "doubtful."

This leads to the question: Then why did the Muslims in general forbid music? Several answers, all educated, but nonetheless guesses, may be provided. The first is the Weberian concept of increased rigor in succeeding generations to the founder or prophet of any religion -- wherein the later generations see the Prophet Muhammad, now grossly idealized, as not permitting a lot of things which the people are now doing. Let us not forget too that classical Islamic law, i.e. extra Qur'anic rulings, reached the zenith of its development in Baghdad, a place then under the intellectual influence of the rabbis. One particular rabbinic concept was that the Jewish nation, having been expelled from their rightful land and temple, would no longer use musical instruments until they regained their temple. This debate continued long and deep even in 19th century Germany, where they had the issue as to whether musical instruments could be used in the synagogue.

It appears that this concept impressed the Muslims who were eagerly imbibing Jewish law and lore. We know the extent of this as is witnessed in the case of the penalty for adultery being death according to classical Islamic law, when in fact the Qur'an is totally against this. The jurists, it would seem, were impressed by the ruling rather than by the reason for it, and blindly accepted it. Another observation is that music in the classical law period, the stringed instruments and flutes were known to be used at what we may term today "wild parties," or as accompaniment to the drinking of wine and that which followed. It seemed too that the haunting rhythms of the stringed instruments in particular would engage the attention of the shallow-minded, taking them away from prayer, etc. Observing this, the rule that "what leads to haram is itself haram," could have led the jurists to prohibit music, or what is known in some schools as "sad al dharri'ia -- preventive prohibition." The drum, used in war among other things, is however not prohibited, showing that some amount of pragmatism and consideration of milieu may have been instrumental in the decisions.

The sufis, however, contemporaneous with the developing Islamic law, used music as a tool. Could it be that the influence of music on their spirituality, and the challenges that liberal sufism posed to rigorous monocracy goaded their opponents to rule against music? We do not know for sure, but suffice it to say that after all this discourse, one thing is clear: we have no decisive proof against music, and as such, must let each individual make his or her choice. There is a verse in the Qur'an which says that: "Allah has prohibited to you that which is base (inherently evil)," and we must point out that some types of music to some people may be considered as such.

Note that I have focused on music exclusively, and not mentioned singing. There is indeed no difference of opinion on the aspect of songs as long as they are deemed to contain no offensive lyrics or propound any evil. This obviously would fall under the category of "laghwu." Even in the hadith imagery, we have girls singing songs about Islam, and indeed one of the first children's songs taught at Muslim schools (Tala'a al badr) is ascribed to some young women at the time of the Prophet, who were permitted to continue singing with his approval, having noted the joyousness of an occasion. When the lyrics are accompanied by music, since the latter is the problem area, then this has an impact on the ruling. Given this, one needs to use one's judgment in the situation, for while the general ruling on music (and singing) is that of allowability, it may, like any other halal, in a particular situation, become haram. Lastly, when someone -- scholar or not -- responds to a question, and his/her answer does not make any sense, then use your own judgment. And Allah is the Knower of all things.

Posted February 10, 2000