The Debate Over Music

Duff/Daff (Source: chandrakantha.com)

One of the controversial topics that Muslim scholars have debated throughout Islam’s history is whether music and singing are halal (permissible) or haraam (forbidden). As I mentioned in an earlier post on the singer and songwriter Maher Zain, Muslims vary in their opinions on music. Since this topic has been extensively discussed and most of the opinions either way can be very lengthy, in this post I will just summarize some of the key points on the contention over the issue of music and singing.

There are two parts to this discussion that are often treated separately: whether singing is permissible and if so under what circumstances and whether the use of musical instruments is permissible and if so what types. Most scholars agree that singing without musical accompaniment during certain occasions is permissible as long as the topics of the songs do not go against Islamic values. Occasions during which it is permissible include during weddings, the two Eids (religious festivals), births, and when someone returns from travel. Some scholars assert that singing as an activity that brings enjoyment and celebration is acceptable at any time as long as the songs do not encourage forbidden things like drinking alcohol, for example.

There is disagreement between the scholars on the use of musical instruments. Scholars who maintain that all musical instruments are prohibited cite the following hadith:

Narrated by Imam Al-Bukhari on the authority of Abu Malik or Abu `Amir Al-Ash`ari that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, ‘From among my followers there will be some people who will consider illegal sexual intercourse, the wearing of silk (clothes), the drinking of alcoholic drinks and the use of musical instruments, as lawful.’

These scholars also cite verse 6 from chapter 31 in the Qur’an:

But there are, among men those who purchase idle tales, without knowledge (or meaning), to mislead (men) from the Path of Allah and throw ridicule (on the Path): for such there will be a humiliating Penalty. 

The focus in this verse is the phrase “idle tales.” According to this opinion, music and singing are examples of idle tales because songs can be about topics that deviate from Islamic values and can influence people to engage in more sinful activity. Contemporary scholars who follow this opinion often associate listening to music with drinking alcohol and frequenting clubs. Some in this group will make an exception if the songs focus on religious topics called anasheed and if and when women sing they do so in the presence of other women. In this category of songs, the only instrument that can be utilized is the duff/daff, a one-sided drum made of animal skin. The following is an example of this type of song, performed by Mesut Kurtis about the Prophet Muhammad and his close companions.

The scholars who follow this opinion generally fear that music can distract Muslims from fulfilling their religious duties.

Scholars who do not support an absolute prohibition on singing and music argue that the textual evidence is not conclusive. For example, scholars like Al-Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn Al-`Arabi  and Ibn Hazm contest the validity of the above hadith and argue that that there is a problem with the line of transmission. Moreover, they argue that singing and music do not always lead to more sinful activity and should not be assumed to fall into the category of idle tales. These scholars maintain that as long as the content is appropriate and is not accompanied with other activities that are forbidden then music is acceptable as a means of enjoyment and relaxation. They do agree with scholars who prohibit music that it should not distract a Muslim from fulfilling their religious obligations.

Since there is no clergy in Islam, followers of the faith must read the extensive arguments of scholars on topics like music to reach their own opinion on a matter. There are core values and principles of the faith that Muslims adhere to, such worship of God, respect and love of the Prophet, caring for the less fortunate, leading a righteous life, and an awareness of accountability. Issues like music are important insomuch as they relate to following the core values of Islam.

What do you think about music? Do you think it is permissible or forbidden? Why do you think this is an important issue? Are there other faith traditions that have debated this issue? Please share your comments below.

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