On music vs. musiqa, and the difference between “music” and “non-music”

by Katherine Butler Schofield. CC-BY-NC 4.0

This is a modified version of something I published 10 years ago in the now out-of-print volume Thinking Through Islamophobia, ed. S Sayyid and Abdoolkarim Vakil. One of the great misunderstandings — on all sides — in the debate around the place of music in Islam, is what the word “music” refers to. This is my attempt to explain the differences, and what is at stake when we misunderstand each other on this crucial point.

The Problem with Parables

There is a famous story told about the last Great Mughal emperor of India, ‘Alamgir (r.1658-1707), probably the best-known story of his reign. ‘Alamgir was a strict (many would say fanatical) orthodox Muslim. In 1668, so the story goes, he began a purge of “un-Islamic” customs and practices in the Mughal empire, which had hitherto enjoyed peaceful and respectful relations between its majority Hindu and minority Muslim populations. Legendarily, one of the practices ‘Alamgir banned was music. In response, the court musicians, perceiving what a threat this was to the emotional well-being of the body politic, not to mention their own livelihoods, staged a public protest in the time-honoured form of a funeral procession. Carrying coffins, wailing and crying at the death of one so dearly beloved, the cortège wended its way through the crowded streets of Delhi towards the foot of the imperial fortress. Slowly but surely the sound reached ‘Alamgir’s ears, and when the clamour grew so great beneath his feet that he could no longer ignore it, he put his head over the parapet and shouted down, “Why are you making such a terrible noise?” In anguish, the musicians cried back, “Music is dead! We have come to bury her.” ‘Alamgir replied implacably, in a cold-hearted sentence that has echoed down through the centuries: “Then bury her so deep under the earth that no sound of her voice will ever be heard again.”

This popular tale continues to be repeated widely today by historians, journalists, and ordinary people alike, and is believed to be true amongst the global community of scholars as much as in the Indian popular imagination. More importantly, it is almost always used as a cautionary tale for today’s world about the threat of political Islam, not just to music, but to all that makes life worth living. 

But the story is, in fact, not true – neither literally, nor in its apparent import for the ongoing health in ‘Alamgir’s India of cultural practices not strictly sanctioned by Islam. On the contrary, ‘Alamgir was widely known at the time as the most knowledgeable and dedicated connoisseur of North Indian art music since Akbar the Great (r.1556-1605). Although he himself renounced his practice of listening to music in 1668 for reasons of personal piety, ‘Alamgir continued to allow his sons and noblemen to enjoy music unhindered until his death in 1707. That the story is nonetheless still asserted as truth, and promoted as a parable of the dangers of Islamic extremism, says something profound about global misunderstandings of the place of music and pleasure in Islam, as well as the role they play in misrepresentations of Muslims themselves.

It is a popular misconception that music is forbidden in Islam. This impression is not alleviated by the pronouncements and actions of ultra-orthodox groups like the Taliban, whose widely publicised disembowelling of audio cassettes and burning of instruments when they came to power in Afghanistan in 2000 were strikingly prefigured in Niccolao Manucci’s heavily embellished retelling of the story of ‘Alamgir’s ban on music (c.1700). Nor is it, unfortunately, assuaged by the admirable activities of anti-censorship organisations whose laudable attempts to publicise acts of music censorship by states and religious organisations worldwide sometimes serve to give the impression that the powers-that-be in Muslim societies are particularly prolific offenders in this regard. 

It is indeed the case that music has traditionally been controversial in Islamic discourse. Musical instruments in particular are the subject of a number of hadith (traditions of the Prophet), and the musical arts are a major topic of legal discussion in relation to the Sufi practice of sama‘ (listening to musical sounds as a means of enhancing communion with the Divine). Yet Muslim societies have also given the world such musical giants as Youssou N’Dour, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Umm Kulthum, have inspired and fostered the great art music traditions of Indonesia, North India, Iran and al-Andalus, and have challenged the status quo of many modern political entities through the popular mediums of rai, arabesk and hip-hop. Moreover, certain Islamic practices that sound like music, such as the melodic recitation of the Qur’an, are integral to the devotional experience of all Muslims and are entirely beyond reproach. How can these facts possibly be reconciled with the idea that Islam “forbids” music?

One of the main causes of misunderstanding concerns the way the term “music” is used in Arabic and other languages of Muslim-majority societies. The word “music” in English has an unusually wide range of meaning, incorporating all “humanly organised sound” from the high technical complexity of a Beethoven symphony to accidental sounds of coughing and ambulance sirens as long as they are heard as music. The word “musiqa” in Arabic, on the other hand, while derived from the same Greek word, is only ever applied to certain secular genres, some of which may be associated with morally suspect social situations. “Musiqa” thus excludes a vast amount of “humanly organised sound” that is enjoyed regularly in Muslim societies and even positively commended as an enhancement to religious life. 

Pre-eminent amongst these valued “non-music” sound-art genres is the recitation of the Qur’an, which any Muslim may be called upon to do, but which may equally be masterfully elaborated by professional reciters using the same modes as “secular” classical music. Other genres commended generally in religious practice include the call to prayer (adhan) and hymns on the life of the Prophet and other religious topics, such as nasheeds. But equally, a number of ostensibly non-religious genres, such as lullabies, work songs, military band music, and wedding songs, have also been very widely endorsed as morally acceptable forms of sound-art – even the Taliban have recorded songs mythologising their military exploits. 

What these genres have in common is, firstly, that they all perform a function (i.e. they are not “art for art’s sake”) in specific social or devotional situations that Muslims universally regard as beyond reproach, and, secondly, that they are all, with the exception of military band music, vocal genres unaccompanied by musical instruments except, in some cases, drums. In other words, they valorise the human voice insofar as it acts as a vehicle for words of significance and wholesomeness in social contexts considered halal (approved). 

One recent refinement of the term “music” in British Muslim discourse is illuminating. A remarkable recent phenomenon in the UK has been the rise of professionally produced nasheed singers and groups, such as Sami Yusuf and SHAAM, who are enormously popular amongst British Muslim youth, and whose songs are often in English and use Western pop harmonies. Media outlets dedicated to Islamic devotional sound-art tend to divide the nasheeds they distribute and promote into the categories “music” and “no music”, in which the category “music” is solely associated with tracks that include musical instruments, other than percussion. Sami Yusuf, for example, recorded two versions of his album My Ummah, a “no music” version that only uses percussion instruments to accompany the vocal lines, and a “music” version that has full instrumental accompaniment. 

That the vernacular meaning of “music” today is thus reduced just to “melody instruments”, at least amongst English-medium virtual communities, clearly opens up a wide range of sound-art practices for Muslims to enjoy freely as part of their devotional practices. That these media outlets and at least some artists nevertheless promote both “music” and “non-music” genres as potentially legitimate, even for religious contexts, points to something more significant – the continuance of a longstanding, legitimate debate amongst Muslims as to whether or not listening to “music” itself can sometimes be acceptable. The question has often been answered positively.

A sizeable proportion of Muslims throughout history have considered listening to musiqa acceptable, as long as the time and place of performance and the company in which one listened to music were morally blameless. This was and still is considered applicable to serious art-music genres, and especially to songs and vocal music with “noble” lyrics. The more closely a “secular” genre approximates the stylisations of Qur’anic recitation, the more acceptable it is to a greater number of people – one of the reasons for the unsurpassed success of the Egyptian “secular” singer Umm Kulthoum was her extensive training in tajwid (the rules of Qur’anic recitation). Furthermore, Sufis have long argued that all music is legitimate as long as its themes are pure, the heart of the listener is pure, and listening to that music inclines the heart towards God. Only musical performances associated with activities legally proscribed as haram (forbidden), such as drinking alcohol or extramarital sex, are universally condemned. Another precept widely observed in Muslim history has been that of balance: listening to music may be acceptable and even commended – but only as long as the listener does not become too attached to it, and thus become distracted from more important worldly and religious duties.

As Freemuse points out, music censorship exists everywhere; all cultures “ban” some music, at some point, to some degree. In 2003, a large number of country-music radio stations in the US banned the airplay of Dixie Chicks’ songs, and organised rallies at which, like the Taliban, their CDs, cassette tapes and other fan material were burned and crushed, because the Dixie Chicks publicly opposed George W Bush and the Iraq War. Would this therefore suggest that music is forbidden in Christianity? To say that music is forbidden in Islam is equally inaccurate. Muslims should be extended the courtesy of recognition that the issue of music’s place and value in Muslim cultures worldwide is equally complex. It is the contexts in which music is performed, and its effects on the individual listener, that determine whether or not music is permissible for each particular Muslim listener, on a case-by-case basis. ‘Alamgir’s personal renunciation of music makes most sense in this context – a genuine concern, based on past experience, that his personal attachment to music was potentially so excessive that it might pose a threat to his duties as Emperor. But he never did ban music.

Published by afghanmusicians

icfam.info An international coordination effort advocating for all Afghanistan's musicians in a time of crisis, along with their extraordinarily rich musical traditions, from the classical rabab to the latest pop music. Lead co-ordinator, Dr Katherine Schofield.

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