Finding harmony in music and Islam

February 20, 2013

The grand mufti whose words against music ended the short career of an all-girl teenage pop band in Kashmir last month made me wonder: is music really un-Islamic? He said that if women indulge in indecent, immoral acts such as singing, it would be a step toward their destruction. Is it really that simple in Islam? Of course it isn’t.

On one hand, you find words in the Qur’an such as “Zoor” – an Arabic word used for “falsehood” and musical expressions; “Laghv” – vain words and actions, useless entertainment;  ”Ghina” – prolonged sonic vibration, with pitch changes to such an extent that it might as well be “singing”, and of course, it’s sinful. According to another interpretation, singing, reciting poetry and playing instruments is allowed on occasions such as weddings and other festivals. Then there is debate going on all the while.

Music is also said to affect the body in a negative way – increasing blood pressure, impeding digestion, releasing adrenaline. All this could excite men’s lust and desire, and destroy their brotherhood and make them angry. If women do it, they should do it only around other women. And then there are videos like this, which clearly demonstrate another point of view.

While the Qur’an is read in a lyrical way, interpretations of how good or bad music is tend to depend on pitch, content, musical instruments, gender, situation and occasion. Some Muslim scholars say classical music is OK, or any music that is not meant for entertainment. For some, it invites divine wrath. In Sahih Bukhari, one of the six major hadiths of Sunni Qur’an, a musical instrument belongs to Satan.

From interviews I conducted with a variety of people, there seems to be little support for the idea that Islam and music can’t exist together.

“The idea is to protect society from sex pollution. It needs to be understood that the Qur’an cannot be changed or amended. It exists from a time when there weren’t any music varieties, and therefore there is no description that a certain type of music is allowed or disallowed. It says that anything that affects a person’s mind, body or time adversely is prohibited,” said Syed Bilqis Fatima Husaini, head of Persian studies at Delhi University.

“Art is not bad or wrong – but stuff like Jumma chumma de de, choli ke peeche kya hai – these are in bad taste and that’s what the Qur’an says – that anything, whatever it is, that spoils the society is prohibited,” she said.

The music of the Sufi mystics, meanwhile, has been around for centuries, and many celebrated musicians have sung their ghazals and qawwalis. Whether classical or pop, there is good reason to let people get acquainted with music, said Professor Syed Ahmad Kamal, head of the Department of Islamic studies at Jamia Milia Islamia University.

“Young people should be allowed to participate in as many extra-curricular activities as possible because it broadens their mind. There is nothing wrong in them going and singing on stage,” he said.

In fact, it is the highest form of meditation and knowledge (ilm) possible, said Sufi singer Ustad Zila Khan. “Music, and especially singing, is the closest to ibaadat and meditation.”

Theatre performer and dastango Danish Husain said it is pointless to ask whether music is Islamic. “This debate about music being haraam has been going on for centuries, it isn’t a new thing. … You will always find people saying that there is no explicit mention of music not allowed in Qur’an, while some will say yes there is. … There is a prophetic tradition of David in the old testament and Dawood in the Qur’an having a sureela gala (melodious voice)…  and when he would sing everything would come to a hold, be mesmerised.”

Kashmiri singer Alam Ara Janbaz, who faced death threats in 2004 for recording an album of Sufi songs, and was forced to relocate from Kishtwar to Jammu, said it was senseless to call music un-Islamic, especially because Kashmir has had a tradition of song, and that the government should support the girls.

“These are young girls, they are talented, they should not give up… but they will lose hope unless they are supported.”

Sufi singer Ustad Raza Ali Khan said, “Everyone has their own interpretation of Islam, and they use it for their personal end in quoting Qur’an. It is very very unfortunate and condemnable..” The mufti’s interpretation might be open to debate, but Khan said that it resembles the kind of hard-line Islamic nature of the Taliban rather than something that should be permitted in Kashmir.

“By giving a fatwa to the girls it is an insult to the Indian democracy and its people.”

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