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Singing & Music in Islam – Halal, Haram or Middle Ground?

By: Asiff Hussein

A topic that still has many Muslims confused is whether singing and music is permissible or prohibited. Many charismatic Muslim speakers today in the rhetorical cherry-picking style of America’s evangelical preachers often take a one-sided view of the issue, and typically rant against musical entertainment in any form. People like Abdul Raheem Green belong to this category of people.

Then there are other Muslim scholars, mainly writers, who adopt the opposite view, declaring that music is perfectly permissible so long as there are no suggestive lyrics in the songs. People like Yusuf Al Qaradawi, author of The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam belong to this category.

The purpose of this article is to approach the subject from an unbiased dispassionate point of view without judging things in black and white, but rather focusing on the real issues at heart based on the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah of our Noble Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). We will here attempt to show that music cannot be generally categorized as either halal or haram, but belongs to the realm of the contextual, where many factors come into play to determine whether it is allowed or to be avoided. In other words, the Islamic approach to music is that of the Middle Path.

Singing

First we will deal with the issue of singing per se. There exists evidence from both the Qur’an and the Sunnah to suggest that singing by itself is permissible. There is nothing in the Qur’an that explicitly prohibits singing, while there is evidence that singing is permissible, though this is implicit and by no means explicit. At the same time, however, singing is qualified in that it does not take us away from the Remembrance of God.

Firstly, let us consider Surah Saba Verse 10:

And certainly We gave to David excellence from Us: O mountains! sing praises

with him and the birds; and We made the iron pliant for him

We know from the Bible that the psalms of the Prophet David were sung or recited to a chant, which also finds support in the term used by the Qur’an to describe this act, which is awwibi, to repeat or echo, suggesting these were chants and that there were choruses of these made by our feathered friends. Further evidence of the Biblical narrative of the Psalms being sung is borne out by the hadith  where it is related that the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) passed Abu Musa Ash`ari, when he was offering his night prayer. He stopped and listened to his recitation for he had a very beautiful voice. The Prophet said to him: “O Abu Musa, you have been bestowed one of the musical instruments of the family of David” (Sahih Bukhari).

Now, it may be asked, would God mention and praise this act of David were it forbidden by Him?

Secondly, we will consider verse 11 of Surah Al-Juma:

And when they see merchandise or amusements they break up for it, and leave you standing. Say: What is with God is better than amusements and (better) than merchandise, and God is the best of Sustainers

The context for the revelation of this verse is given by Jabir Ibn Abdullah: “Once the Prophet was delivering a sermon on Friday while standing and suddenly a caravan approached from Sham (Syria). The congregation went towards the caravan and only twelve men remained with the Prophet. Immediately after that this verse was revealed”.

It would appear that besides getting distracted by merchandise that came by way of caravans, some of the early Muslims were also prone to be distracted by amusements that may have involved singing and music. These people are clearly condemned by God. However, at the same time, this verse combines both trade and amusements (known as lahw in the Arabic of the Qur’an) as things that ought not to distract us from God. Since we know trading is clearly allowed in Islam, so we may surmise that amusements such as singing too are allowed, so long as they do not distract us from remembering God.

There are however three Quranic verses that are taken to suggest that singing is haram. This includes verse 6 of Surah Luqman which states:

“And of mankind is he who purchases idle talk to mislead (men) from the path of God”

The Arabic term used here is lahwal hadith which literally means ‘idle talk’ but has been taken by some scholars to mean not only idle, vain or false talk, but also singing. The revelation seems to have been primarily meant for the likes of people like Nadr Ibn al Harith, a Pagan who preferred Persian romance to the Qur’an, and turned away ignorant folk from preaching Allah’s Word. Whether idle talk refers to ordinary singing is a moot point.

This however cannot in itself be taken as a blanket prohibition on singing. It is only the opinion of certain men who were prone to read deep into the Words of God without reflecting on what it must have originally meant.

Then, there is Verse 64 of Surah Al Isra where the Almighty says to Satan:

Lead to destruction those whom you can among them with your (seductive) voice

Some commentators interpret the word voice (sawt) of Satan to mean singing or flute or musical instruments generally, though it could as well refer to any call or invitation of Satan to do evil.

And finally there is verse 59-61 of Surah Al Najm:

Do you then wonder at this recitation (the Qur’an)? And you laugh at it and weep not,

Wasting your (precious) lifetime in vanities

So basically what we are told here is not to waste our precious time in amusements that can take us away from the recitation of the Qur’an and leading a holy life. Amusements obviously also include singing or music. The word in question samidoon (vanities) used in the Qur’an Ibn Abbas (A close companion of the Prophet) takes to refer to the Pagans’ practice of singing and dancing noisily whenever they heard the Quran being recited, so as to drown out the reciter’s voice so that others would not hear it.

Although it may be that it is this Satanic trait of the Pagans that is condemned here, it could by extension refer to any act of amusement that is preferred to recitation of the Qur’an, music included. Thus it is conditional and can by no means be taken as an outright condemnation of singing. The message here is not to let the love for amusement take us away from the path of God. God comes first. In this sense, amusements such as singing should be curtailed as far as possible and be deemed what one may call guilty pleasures to be indulged in only on occasion and not as a habit.

As for the Sunnah, there is ample evidence that singing is permitted at least on certain occasions.

For instance, upon the Prophet’s entry to Madina after his flight from Mecca, the townsfolk including women and children sang him a song of welcome, chanting:

The full moon has risen upon us

Over the hills of Wadaa

Gratitude is incumbent upon us

Each time a petitioner calls upon Allah.

Even much later we hear of similar songs of welcome done in honour of the Prophet including his return from the expedition to Tabook during the ninth year of the Hijrah. (Zaad Al Maad) which shows that singing was allowed in early Islam throughout the lifetime of the Prophet.

It is also known that the Prophet and his wife Ayisha listened to songs occasionally and not just on joyous occasions. Once, a woman came to the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). He asked “Ayisha, Do you know her?” “No, O Prophet of God” she replied. “This is the singer of such and such tribe. Do you want her to sing to you?” so the woman sang for her. (Sunan Bahaqi). Another of the Prophet’s wives Umm Salamah narrates: “A slave girl belonging to Hassan Ibn Thabit came to us on Eid-ul-Fitr. Her hair was unkempt and she carried a tambourine and was singing”. Umm Salamah rebuked her. But the Prophet said to her: `Umm Salamah, let her (sing). Certainly every nation has an Eid and this day is our Eid’. (Mu`jam Al-Kabir).

The Prophet’s wife Ayisha also narrates that when her father Abu Bakr entered upon her at the time of Eid, there were two young girls with her who were singing the verses that the Ansar had said on the day of Bu’aath. Abu Bakr cried out: “Musical instruments of Satan in the house of the Messenger of God!”  The Prophet replied “Leave them alone, O Abu Bakr, for every nation has its Eid, and this is our Eid.” (Sahih Bukhari).

Ayisha has also narrated that when a woman was married to an Ansari man, the Prophet (peace be on him) said, “Ayisha, did they have any entertainment? The Ansar are fond of entertainment” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari.). Ibn Abbas says: “Ayisha gave a girl relative of hers in marriage to a man of the Ansar. The Prophet (peace be on him) came and asked ‘Did you send a singer along with her?’ ‘No,’ said Ayisha. The Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) then said ‘The Ansar are a people who love poetry. You should have sent along someone who would sing: ‘Here we come, to you we come, greet us as we greet you.’ ” (Ibn Majah).

All this shows that the Prophet not only approved of singing on special occasions, but also promoted this form of entertainment.

However, Ayisha herself does not seem to have approved of singing when it involved swaying the body and dancing frantically. Umm Alqama relates that when the daughters of Ayisha’s brother were circumcised, she was asked, “Shall we call someone to amuse them?” “Yes” she replied. Adi was sent for and he came to them. Ayisha passed by the room and saw him singing and shaking his head in rapture – and he had a large head of hair. ‘Uff!’ she exclaimed, “A Satan! Get him out! Get him out!‘(Adab Al Mufrad).

This tradition suggests that Lady Ayisha approved of some form of entertainment for her nieces who had just been circumcised and were recovering from the operation. The entertainment she envisaged might have included some decent singing, but when she saw Adi shaking his head ecstatically with an unkempt head of hair like a modern day heavy metal rockstar, she ordered him out, calling him a Satan for good measure. What the good lady would have found unacceptable were the combination of acts that made it such an unseemly sight, not the act of singing itself.

All this would suggest that singing in itself is not haram, but must be limited only for occasions and must not include any vulgar words or suggestive body movements. Moreover it must in no way take us away from our remembrance and duties to God. Thus singing must be restricted to special events and may be indulged in only occasionally. In other words, it must be controlled so we do not allow this fleeting worldly entertainment to take us away from the Path of Allah. It could be a diversion from the hustle and bustle of this worldly life, but must not be a distraction from our remembrance of Allah.

Musical Instruments

The subject of music, meaning entertainment with musical instruments with or without singing must be approached much more cautiously, as there is evidence both in favour and against it and it is no easy task to come to a crystal clear conclusion as to its permissibility or prohibition. We are on difficult terrain here.

Although the Quran is silent on the subject of music, there are some ahadith concerning it. A well known hadith often cited to prove that music is haram is the Prophet’s saying:

“Among my ummah there will certainly be people who will permit illicit sex, silk, alcohol and musical instruments”

(Saheeh Al Bukhari)

This hadith is taken by many scholars as conclusive proof that musical instruments are prohibited since they are mentioned in association with other haram activities like consuming alcohol and fornication. That it is in the form of a prophecy also gives it added weight.

However some scholars, both old and modern, argue that this particular statement of the Prophet is qualified by the fact that they refer to a vulgar, decadent type of music which is accompanied by immoral acts, such as alcohol consumption and the promiscuous mixing of the sexes leading to fornication and adultery. This view would have us believe that music is not haram per se but becomes so when it is accompanied by these other vices thus leading to immoral behaviour.

This view is supported by the fact that what the Prophet spoke in the above ahadith was by way of a prophesy, for who knows he saw the musical shows of our day and age with all their corrupting influences and censured them, at the same time condemning all those misled persons who approved of such sins. Such persons need not be Islamic scholars since we know of no such scholars who allow the drinking of liquor or illicit sexual relationships. All scholars are unanimous that these are haram even in our day and age. However, they differ with regard to music, with some saying it is permissible according to Islam based on evidence from the Sunnah. Thus the persons the Prophet speaks of seem to be rulers and other corrupt people who do not prevent these evil orgies where people gather together for committing sins such as drinking liquor and fornication, with a corrupting vulgar form of music thrown in for good measure, which we certainly know to be common in this day and age. It cannot refer to the scholars of Islam.

This view is lent support by another hadith, or perhaps version of it that has it:

Some people of my Ummah will drink wine, calling it by another name, while they listen to singers accompanied by musical instruments. Allah will cause the earth to swallow them and will turn some of them into monkeys and swine

(Ibn Majah)

What seems to be condemned here is not song or music in itself, but rather a culture of indulgence or rather decadent living with a gay abandon to wine, women and song where the only purpose of life is to indulge in worldly pleasures. This view is supported by yet another hadith where the Prophet says:

“In this Ummah will be earthquakes, disfiguration (of faces) and showers of stone (descending from the heavens).” A man asked: “O Messenger of God! When will this be?” and the Prophet replied: “When singing girls and musical instruments will become profuse and when liquor will be consumed (in abundance)

(Tirmidhi)

Here too we find a reference to music and liquor consumption as part of a culture of immorality. Note what is condemned here is not singing or music per se, but these activities becoming commonplace in the Ummah.

There are a number of other ahadith that suggest that musical instruments, particularly the one-sided drum known as duff, were allowed by the Prophet, at least on certain occasions. For instance, musical instruments were played to welcome the Prophet during his arrival in Madina. Abu Bakr wanted to reprimand those who were playing these instruments but the Prophet stopped him saying: “Leave them alone O Abu Bakr so that the Jews will also learn and know that our religion is relaxed and accommodating!” Thus, the women of Madina continued to play the instruments singing “We are the daughters of Najaar! How excellent and wonderful it will be to have Muhammad as a Jaar (neighbour)! (Al-Qushayri). At this the Prophet remarked:`God knows that I love you people‘ (Ibn Majah).

Ayisha narrates that when her father Abu Bakr visited her at the time of Eid, there were two young girls with her who were singing. Abu Bakr cried out: “Musical instruments of Satan in the house of the Messenger of God!”  The Prophet replied “Leave them alone, O Abu Bakr, for every nation has its Eid, and this is our Eid.” (Sahih Bukhari).

On another occasion, the Prophet asked Ayisha: “Did you send a young girl with the bride to beat upon the daff and sing?” She replied: “What should she say in her song?” He replied: “Let her say, ‘To you we have come, to you we have come! So welcome us, as we welcome you!’ (Tabarani).

Rabi, daughter of Muawwidh bin Afra says that after the consummation of her marriage, “Our little girls started beating the tambourines and reciting elegiac verses mourning my father who had been killed in the battle of Badr. One of them said, “Among us is a Prophet who knows what will happen tomorrow.” On that the Prophet said, “Leave this (saying) and keep on saying the verses which you had been saying before.” (Sahih Bukhari)

Even after the demise of the Prophet we know that his companions listened to song and music, albeit only on certain occasions. Aamir bin Sa’d says: “I entered into the presence of Qaradha bin Ka’b and Abi Mas’ood Al-Ansaari during a wedding celebration, where some girls were singing. I said, ‘Oh companions of Allah’s Messenger and warriors of Badr, is this done in your presence?’ They said, ‘Sit and listen with us if you like, and if not, then leave. For verily, entertainment has been permitted for us during the wedding feast.” (Nasai)

What all this suggests is that the Prophet not only permitted, but he himself listened to songs sung with music on certain occasions like festival days and marriage feasts, which was also deemed permissible by his followers. Thus it is wrong to say that all music is haram. In fact, this is tantamount to saying that the Prophet was a sinner (God Forbid) since we know for certain that the Prophet not only allowed certain forms of song and music but also listened to them. Thus those who attempt to put a blanket ban on music are in fact committing blasphemy against the holy person of our Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) and ought to repent.

However from what we gather from the ahadith, it would seem that only a particular form of musical instrument was played in the presence of the Prophet, and that was the duff or one-sided drum, also known as the tambourine. This is evident not only from the above ahadith, but also from numerous others, such as the following:

Announce your marriages publicly by playing the tambourine

(Sahih Muslim)

The demarcation between the unlawful and the lawful (in marriage)

is the duff and the voice

(Tirmidhi)

What this shows is that marriage should not be a secret, hushed up affair, but should be publicized by singing and playing of the duff. In fact it suggests that these actions are obligatory or almost obligatory in legalizing a Muslim marriage. Thus clearly both singing and the playing of the duff are permissible in Islam on certain occasions at least.

This is supported by a narration of Ali that once the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) and his Companions passed the tribe of Bani Zariq. He heard singing sounds and music. `What is this?‘ he inquired. The people replied: `Messenger of God, the marriage of such and such (person is being conducted)’. Said the Prophet: “His religiosity now reaches the zenith”(Baihaqi). Thus clearly both singing and the playing of the duff are permissible and indeed recommended  in Islam on certain occasions at least.

As such the classical scholars of old permitted only this simple form of musical entertainment. For instance, Imam Ghazzali in his Ihya ulum al-din writes: “If the instruments are devices used by people to incite others to drink and engage in vice such as wind instruments (mazamir) stringed instruments (awtar) and drums (tabl al-kuba) then they will not be allowed. Apart from that, all other instruments such as the tambourine (duff) even if it has jingles or bells (jalajil), drums (tabl), and others, are permitted”.

The scholars of old as evident from the views of Ghazzali justified the ruling against all other forms of musical instrumentation (except the duff) on the grounds that the duff was the only instrument explicitly allowed by the Prophet and that other instruments had the tendency to cause people to engage in vices. What this leads us to believe is that these other instruments like string and wind instruments were often associated with a decadent lifestyle, hence their condemnation.

Some actions of the Prophet also seem to have contributed to this view. For instance, Abdullah bin Umar has reported that once the Prophet heard the sound of the flute of a shepherd. He immediately placed his fingers into his ears (to block out the sound) (Musnad Ahmad).

However at the same time, a version of the hadith where Abu Bakr is said to have cried out: “Musical instruments of Satan in the house of the Messenger of God!”(to which the Prophet replied “Leave them alone, O Abu Bakr, for every nation has its Eid, and this is our Eid”) has it that Abu Bakr entered and scolded saying ‘The flute of Satan in front of the Prophet?!‘. The better known version in Bukhari however says the musical instruments concerned were duff.

However at the same time, there are traditions that imply even percussion instruments like the drum fall under censure. In the ahadith about certain people of the Ummah of a future time indulging in musical amusement, the word used is ma’aazif, meaning objects that are beaten upon for their sound. It is also related that the disciples of Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud confronted young girls who had duffuf (plural of duff, the one-sided drum) with them in the narrow alleyways, confiscate their instruments and break them up. (Ibn Abi Shaybah). What all this suggests is that even though beating of the duff on certain occasions was approved by the Prophet, this does not in itself give us the right to play it at anytime we fancy. Rather, playing it regularly is a sin as it takes time away from our devotions and giving others a helping hand. All this implies that all forms of musical instruments fall under the same category. It may be used, but not abused.

It is obviously based on such evidence that later scholars, among them the much respected Sheikh of al-Azhar Jaddul Haqq and well known writer Yusuf Al Qaradawi of the Muslim Brotherhood declared that there is no difference at all between listening to one type of instrument or another since there exist no textual evidence against the use of such instruments. Thus they argue that any kind of music is permissible so long as the songs sung along with it don’t contain unislamic, vulgar or licentious lyrics.

However, this view ought not to be taken as an open permission for musical entertainment as a practice. It is evident from the life of the Prophet that he approved of song and music only on special occasions.  For example, when his friend and father-in-law Abu Bakr cried out: “Musical instruments of Satan in the house of the Messenger of God!”  he replied “Leave them alone, O Abu Bakr, for every nation has its Eid, and this is our Eid.” (Sahih Bukhari). The fact that Abu Bakr protested the use of musical instruments and went to the extent of calling them instruments of Satan says much of how the pious Muslims of old looked upon such devices. We must also bear in mind that the Prophet did not reprimand Abu Bakr for his harsh words, but merely told him “Leave them alone, O Abu Bakr, for every nation has its Eid, and this is our Eid”. Thus the Prophet made special allowance for the use of such instruments whose general use might have well been termed Satanic.

The Prophet’s words to his friend on another joyous occasion: “Leave them (singing women) alone O Abu Bakr so that the Jews (of Madina) will also learn and know that our religion is relaxed and accommodating!” shows again that Islam is accommodating, but not accepting music as being wholly permissible.

We can conclude from all this that:

  • Singing without musical instruments especially on special occasions is perfectly permissible
  • Singing with musical instruments on joyous occasions like weddings feasts and festival days is permissible
  • Singing with musical instruments as a habit on each and every mundane occasion is questionable and best avoided

 Rationale for Controlling Music

The rationale for controlling the unbridled use of music is very evident when we consider the fact that abuse of music can lead to not one, but many evils. The worst evil of all it leads to if indulged in excessively is taking us away from the remembrance of God, our Cherisher and Sustainer. It also creates hypocrisy because only a hypocrite would prefer the tunes of songs with their mundane if not silly lyrics to the profound awe-inspiring Words of God, so holy and captivating  that one can forget the rest of the world while reading it and comprehending its meaning.

Furthermore it is only hedonistic people craving sensual pleasures who indulge excessively in music, wasting time in satisfying their sense pleasures instead of serving God and helping their fellow men and women lead better lives. Such people desire to satisfy their cravings at any cost even if it be at the expense of their neighbours, caring not whether their loud music might disturb their neighbours even at bedtime.

How far permissible is modern music?

Unlike the songs and music of old which were pretty simple and decent, we find a totally different music scene today. Songs with suggestive lyrics not only challenge our sense of shame, but also prod us to do the most ugliest things like shake our hips to the beat, which we can not even think of on normal occasions. This is made all the worse by modern videos that combine sound with sight, showing the most unseemly scenes possible with women screaming at the top of their voices while engaging in the most unsightly bodily movements and lewd men casting vulgar glances and admiring intimate parts of the female figure including buttocks without any thought for their self-respect. If there is anything that demeans women to the status of sex toys, it is these dirty shows that portray women as Barbie dolls and other material things for the sole pleasure of men.

If you ever want to see the followers of Satan you might as well pay a visit to a musical show to see the revelers dance without a care for the world, promiscuously mixing and engaging in all sorts of indecencies. Here you will see those whom the devil has maddened with his touch with new trends such as hip hop and heavy metal ranting obscenities and openly challenging all that is good and decent, even calling for the worship of the devil himself. Here you will see Satan in full swing!

Needless to say, these are a very far cry from the permissible forms of song and music approved by Islam and ought to be avoided at all costs. Islam allows music with certain limits as a concession, not as an open license to be indulged in whenever and wherever.

Here lies the beauty of Islam. It gives ample scope for diversions that humans need every now and then, while at the same time putting a check on uncontrolled abuse of such amusements. The Purists of Old England used to ban singing and music of any form including the singing of Christmas Carols saying it was a sin to sing or play music, while modern-day Europeans give them a wide berth and go to the other extreme of over-indulging in these activities. Good Muslims must keep away from both these extremes. Islam is, after all, a religion of moderation, the golden mean, the faith of the middle way.