Music and Singing: Analysis of Quraanic Texts and Commentaries

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The Islamic Ruling on Music and Singing
By: Abu Bilal Mustafa al-Kanadi
Analysis of Quraanic Texts and Commentaries
Critical Analysis of the Hadeeth Literature
Consensus of Companions, Taabi'een, and others
Wisdom Behind Its Prohibition by the Shari'ah
Exceptions to the Rule of Prohibition
Synopsis of Shari'ah Texts along with Conclusions

It is vital that one critically assesses the extent to which certain verses of the Quraan allegedly stand as proof for or against the legality of music and singing. Some of those verses which might be misconstrued to indicate that music, singing, dancing etc are permissible, are mentioned first. They are then followed with a sample of verses, which certain scholars have claimed to be proof of prohibition regarding this issue.

Verses Claimed to Indicate Legality of Music

The following verses regarding the Psalms of Dawood (upon whom be peace) is case in point.

The First Verse

{And verily,We did favor some of the prophets over others, and to Dawood We gave the Psalms.}[1]

How does this verse purport to be proof for those who claim legality? It is a common misconception of certain Muslims-especially those having a western background or living in the west-that Dawood (peace be upon him)composed the Psalms and sang them to the accompaniment of music.[2] There are even some commentators of English translations of the Quraan who fall prey to the same error. For example, Abdullah Yusuf Ali comments on this verse saying, "The spiritual gifts with which the Prophets came, may themselves, take different forms according to the needs of the world and the times in which they lived, as judged by the wisdom of God. A striking example here given is the gift of song and music as given to David...[3] The fact is that the Psalms were not composed by Prophet Dawood (upon whom be Allah's peace and blessings), but rather were revealed to him[4] by Allah, the exalted, as is clearly stated in the Quraan.[5] Additionally, nowhere in the Quraan or in the authentic traditions[6] is there any support for this accompanying the psalms with musical instruments .

In order to properly understand the true nature of the Psalms (Az-Zaboor), one must look to some of the dependable Quraanic commentaries (tafaseer). Ibn Katheer (Allah's mercy be upon him), explains the meaning of the term Az-Zaboor saying, "Az-Zaboor is the name of the book revealed by Allah to Dawood (peace be upon him)."[7] Al-Aloosi further confirms this saying, "Az-Zaboor is the name of the book sent down to Dawood (upon whom be peace); it was revealed to him gradually, by installments."[8]

As to the nature of these psalms, Al-Qurtubi states, "Az-Zaboor is the book of Dawood, consisting of one hundred and fifty chapters; however, it contained no rulings of divine law on matters of prohibited or allowed things. Rather, it consisted of words of wisdom and admonishment."[9] Al-Aaloosi adds to this description that "the Zaboor also contained divine praises and glorification of Allah, (exalted be His praise)."[10]

Prophet Dawood's captivating, melodious voice was exceedingly beautiful and effective. When he recited the Zaboor, men, jinn, birds and wild animals gathered around him.[11]

The Second Verse

Some ignorant people claim that the following text regarding Prophet Ayyoob(Job), whom Allah tested with various trials and tribulations, permits music and dancing:

{Allah, the Exalted and Mighty, commands His messenger, Muhammad in the Quraan, "And recall Our servant, Ayyoob, when he cried unto his Lord, 'Verily, Satan has afflicted me with distress and suffering.' It was said unto him, 'Strike the ground with your foot; here is a spring for a cool bath and water to drink.'}[12]

In these verses Allah, the Glorious and Exalted, directs His Prophet, Ayyoob, to strike his foot upon the ground, whereupon a spring came forth. He bathed in its cool, soothing water which healed the disease afflicting the outer surface of his body. He also drank from the spring which removed the illness that afflicted his innermost body. Thus, after putting His faithful servant, Ayyoob, to excruciating tests and trials, Allah Ta'aala judges him to be firm, patient and unwavering in his faith, saying: {Truly, We found him firm in patience and constancy; how excellent a slave. Verily, he was ever turning in repentance (to his Lord).}[13]

Regarding this verse, Al-Qurtubi mentions in his tafseer that certain ignorant ascetics and common Sufis have sought proof for the permissibility of dancing in Allah's saying to Ayyoob, {Strike the ground with your foot.}[14] He relates the reply of some scholars to such baseless claims. Abul-Faraj Ibnul-Jowzi says, "This is an empty argument. Had there been a command for the striking of the foot as an act of joy, there might be some slight excuse for such a view; however, the fact is that the command for striking the ground with the foot was in order to get the spring water to flow from it"[15] Ibn Aqeel gives a further rebuttal by questioning, "How is the proof of the legality of dancing deduced from the simple fact that an afflicted person is ordered as a means of miraculous healing to strike the earth with his foot in order to cause water to spring forth?"[16] He further suggests that if such reasoning were correct, "It would also be right to interpret Allah's saying to Moosa, {Strike the stone with your staff.}[17] as a proof for the legality of striking [rhythmically] upon [stuffed] cushions with sticks![18] We seek refuge in Allah from such fraudulent playing with the Shari'ah."[19]

Obviously, one could make endless far-fetched analogies between certain verses of the Quraan and various, false, preconceived notions which one might hope to substantiate. May Allah protect us from such evil manipulation of the divinely-revealed law.

It is essential at this point to mention that if it were established - for the sake of argument - that Dawood (peace be upon him) did in fact have musical accompaniment to his psalms; such a thing would not be proof that music, singing to musical accompaniment, etc. are followed in Islam. This is substantiated by the agreed upon principle from the science of usoolul fiqh[20] which states that the revealed law (shar'un) of those who came before us[21] is considered applicable insofar as such law is not explicitly abrogated by the texts of the final divine;y-revealed law of Islam as embodied in the Quraan and the authentic sunnah.[22] However, as will be presented later, there is abundant authentic proof from the Islamic Shari'ah which prohibits music. Therefore, this prohibition by the Islamic Shari'ah abrogates all previously-revealed law and nullifies any support it may have made for the legality of music. With this in mind, it becomes abundantly clear that the attempts of certain persons to use such previously-mentioned verses as proof for the permissibility of music are baseless and untenable .

Quraanic Verses Alleged to Indicate Prohibition of Music

In his tafseer, Imam Al-Qurtubi mentions that there are three verses which have been used by the ulaama as proof of the contempt for and the prohibition of singing.

The First Verse

The first of these verses appears in Soorah An-Najm[23] as follows:

Allah, the Blessed and Exalted, addresses the disbelievers from the tribe of Quraysh, {Do you marvel at this statement, and laugh and do not weep, while you amuse yourselves [proudly] in vanities? Rather, prostrate before Allah and worship Him.}

The important phrase is Allah's saying, {Wa antum saamidoon} ("while you amuse yourselves [proudly] in vanities"). Due to the root 'samada' having various interpretations in the Arabic language, the scholars differ about this phrase's meaning. As a result, different interpretations are given by the commentators of the Quraan, such as the companions, taabi'een and later scholars of tafseer.

Al-Qurtubi refers to the various derived meanings mentioned by the linguists.[24] Among the meanings understood from the root' samada' is the raising of one's head up proudly or in disdain. When conjugated, the noun form 'sumood' means leisure or idle play, while 'saamid' (the doer of the action) means one who plays idly with musical instruments or other objects of play. It is said to the singing girl, "Asmideena!"("Amuse us with your singing!") However, 'saamid' can also designate one who lifts his head in pride and haughtiness, as mentioned in the ancient dictionary, As-Sihah.[25] A further meaning derived from the root 'samada' is the notion of standing motion less or idle. This was mentioned by Al-Mathdawi,[26] one of the famous grammarians, but he added that the common, established meaning in the language points to the idea of turning away by making fun and amusement. Finally, Al-Mubarrid mentions the meaning of 'saamidoon' saying, "Saamidoon means khaamidoon [silent, motionless]."[27]

At-Tabari mentions in detail the various narrations traced to the sahaabah and taabi'een.[28] According to Ibn Abbaas, the word 'saamidoon' in this verse refers to the mushrikeen's habit of singing and playing noisily whenever they heard the Quraan being recited, in order to drown out the reciter's voice so that others wouldn't hear it.[29] This meaning is used by the people of Yemen. Ibn Abbas also indicated a second, more general meaning for the word 'saamidoon'; namely, that they were playing and amusing themselves and making light of the affair. The same opinion was held by some taabi'een such as Ikrimah and Ad-Dahhaak. A third meaning given by Ibn Abbaas is that they held their heads up in pride. Other tabi'een have indicated certain meanings similar to the preceding linguists' views. Thus, Qataadah reports Al-Hasan as saying that 'samidoon' is the mushrikeen's being inattentive and negligent. Mujaahid says it indicates their being in a state of extreme anger or rage.

Clearly, the term 'saamidoon' has various possible meanings, e.g that those referred to were singing noisily and amusing themselves with music and idle play, that they were holding their heads in pride, or that they were exhibiting extreme anger and hatred for what they heard of the Quraan and the message of Islam. Furhermore, it could indicate that they were indifferent, negligent and rejectionist in their attitude. All of these meanings are possible, and are not - in essence - contradictory. Most likely, 'saamidoon' is a comprehensive description of their different reactions upon hearing the verses of the Quraan and the new message of tawheed. However, it must be said that when a Quranic term yields a number of different possible meanings and we have no clear, authentically-reported statement from the Prophet defining it in a strict sense, then such a verse containing the said term cannot be used as an unequivocal, decisive proof (daleelun qat'ee) of any particular meaning. Thus, this verse cannot stand alone as an uncontestable proof of the prohibition of singing, music, etc. Rather, other evidence, either from the Quraan itself or from the authentic sunnah, must prove such a position.[30]

The Second Verse

Another verse alleged to be proof of the illegality of music, singing, etc is mentioned in Soorah Al-Israa as follows:

After Iblees (Satan) refuses to bow before Adam as ordered, he requests that Allah grant him respite until the Day of Resurrection, so that he may misguide all but a a few of the descendants of Adam (peace be upon him). Allah, the Glorious and Exalted, addresses Satan thus, {And excite any of them whom you can with your voice. Assault them with your cavalry and infantry, be a partner with them in their wealth and children, and make them promoses. But Satan promises them nothing except deceit.}[31]

It is related that some of the commentators from the generation of the taabi'een, such as Mujahid and Dahhaak,[32] interpreted Satan's exciting mankind with his voice to mean through the use of music, song and amusement. Ad-Dahaak said it was the sound of wind instruments. However, according to Ibn Abbaas, the voice mentioned in the verse refers to every form of invitation which calls to disobedience to Allah, the Exalted.[33] After mentioning the various interpretations of the commentators, At-Tabari says, "The most correct of these views expresses that verily, Allah, the Blessed and Exalted, said to Iblees, {Excite whosoever of Adam's progeny you can with your voice,} and He did not specify any particular type of voice. Thus, every voice which is not an invitation to Allah's worship and to His obedience is included in the meaning of Satan's 'voice' which is referred to in the Quraanic verse."[34]

In conclusion, this verse - like the preceding one - is too general in its meaning, and is not by itself an explicit and unequivocal proof of the prohibition of music and singing, except in the case that such singing and music invites or leads to disobedience to Allah. Therefore, one must look at other unambiguous texts, which clearly show music, singing, etc. to be prohibited intrinsically and not due to some extraneous variable.

The Third Verse

The final verse, and the one most often presented as proof of prohibition, is located in Soorah Luqmaan:[35]

Allah, the Exalted, says, {And there are among men those who purchase idle talk in order to mislead others from Allah's path without knowledge, and who throw ridicule upon it. For such there will be a humiliating punishment.}

After mentioning the condition of the felicitous (those who are guided by Allah's Book and who benefit from listening to it), Allah, the Glorious and Exalted, reveals the condition of the miserable ones who refuse to benefit from hearing the word of God. They only devote themselves avidly to idle and foul talk, empty amusements and all other false works and deeds whose purposes are to turn others away from Allah's path and to make it the butt of mockery.

Ibn Jareer At-Tabari, in his Jaamiul Bayaan, mentions that the interpreters of the Quraan differed as to the meaning of the term {lahwal hadeeth} (idle talk) which occurs in the above-quoted verse. Their views regarding its meaning can be formulated into three basic categories.

The first category defines the term {lahwal hadeeth}: (a) singing and listening to songs, (b) the purchasing of professional male or female singers and (c) the purchase of instruments of amusement; namely, the drum (tabl). The elements of this category revolve around reference to the blameworthy usage of instruments of idle amusement, in short, music and song. This view was held by a number of companions such as Ibn Masood, Jaabir and Ibn Abbaas. It is related that the former was questioned regarding the meaning of the verse under discussion to which he replied, "I swear by the One other than Whom there is no god that it refers to singing [ghinaa]"; he repeated it three times to emphasize his position.[36] It is related that Ibn Abbaas said it referred to "singing and the like."[37] Jaabir is reported to view its meaning to signify singing and listening to songs.[38] This general view pointing to censure of music and song was also held by a great number of taabi'een, such as Ikrimah, Mujaahid, Makhool and Umar bin Shuayb, to name only a few.[39]

The second category of interpretation centers around the idea that {lahwal hadeeth} indicates conversation inviting to or consisting of shirk (polytheism). This view was the view of some tafseer scholars from the generation after the companions, such as Ad-Dahaak and Abdur-Rahmaan bin Zayd bin Aslam.[40]

The third category conveys the meaning of all false talk, actions or deeds, whose nature it is to divert people from Allah's path and from His worship and remembrance. For example, Al-Aaloosi relates that Al-Hasan Al-Basri was reported as saying that {lahwal hadeeth} includes "everything which distracts one from worship and the remembrance of Allah such as whiling the night away in idle conversation or entertainment, jokes, superstitous tales, songs and the likes thereof."[41] Al-Aaloosi supports this view, saying that the verse should be interpreted to include all such blameworthy words and deeds which divert one from Allah's path.

After having conveyed the previously-mentioned categories of tafseer, Ibn Jareer relates the commentary of Ibn Zayd about the verse, {And there are among men those who purchase idle talk in order to mislead others from Allah's path without knowledge, and who throw ridicule upon it.} Ibn Zayd said, "The people referred to [in this verse] are the disbelievers. Don't you see that it says [in the immediately following verse], {And when Our revelations are recited to such a person he turns away in pride as if he hadn't heard them, as if there was a deafness in his ears.}[42] The people of Islam are not as those described here, although some say the verse refers to Muslims [as well]. The verse refers to the disbelievers who pitched their voices in a tumultuous clatter in order to drown out the hearing of the Quraan."[43]

At-Tabari concludes by offering his own weighted preference for the general, inclusive meaning as conveyed in this final category. He states, "The most correct view regarding the meaning of {lahwal hadeeth} is the one which indicates every form of conversation[44] which diverts from Allah's path - the hearing of which has been prohibited by Allah or His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him). This is because the statement by Allah, the Exalted, is general and inclusive, and does not exclude certain forms of conversation. Therefore, His statement remains in its general context unless proof which specifies it appears; and singing and polytheism [shirk] are included in this general statement."[45]

From what has preceded, it is to be understood that a specific or exclusive meaning such as singing or shirk cannot be proven; rather, the verse and particularly the phrase {lahwal hadeeth} should be interpreted as anything which diverts one from Allah's path. Music, singing, etc. (since they occupy people's attention and distract them from Allah's worship and remembrance and invite to His disobedience), no doubt fall under the general censure, blame and rebuke cast upon those who fall into this category. However, this verse is not itself an explicit, unequivocal proof for the prohibition of music, singing, etc. Rather, its prohibition is conditional and incidental as stated above. Thus, this issue requires other external proofs which are both clear and categorical, so as not to leave the least bit of doubt in the mind of the conscientious, truth-seeking believer. In order to achieve such a lofty, yet absolutely vital objective, it is necessary to turn to the second source of the Islamic shari'ah, the authentic sunnah of Allah's Messenger (upon whom be blessings and peace).

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