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The Sound of Music

There is a widespread perception that music is generally forbidden in Islam. The Qur'an, the first source of legal authority for Muslims, contains no direct references to music. However, most religious scholars refer to Bukhari's hadith (Book 7, Volume 69, Hadith 494) that recounts the Prophet as saying, "From among my followers there will be some people who will consider illegal sexual intercourse, the wearing of silk, the drinking of alcoholic drinks and the use of musical instruments, as lawful." This hadith is worded as though the use of musical instruments is haram or forbidden. Probably, if musical instruments are banned, then music such as singing would also be prohibited. Both Bukhari and Muslim, Islam's two best and most well-known collectors of hadith, have other hadiths that mention music, but their interpretation is ambivalent.

In one earlier article ("Recitation of the Qur'an," April 13), I mention that most countries with a significant Muslim population hold a national qirat competition where children and young adults compete for awards for the most beautiful recitation of the Qur'an. The recitations are similar to singing without instruments, sometimes referred to as "a cappella." The words a cappella mean "in the church style" in Italian. There are videos of these presentations on the Internet. However, in Islam, this is not music.

Also, in another previous article ("A video is worth 1000 words," Jan 21), I show a video of Sufi dancers following a rhythmic dance step to fast music. The dance is a portion of the traditional form of Sufi worship and is a psychological effort for the participants to release themselves from all worldly distractions. This form of worship is not recognized as orthodox in Islam, and Sufis frequently find themselves excommunicated from Islam.

The older and more influential religious scholars and imams lean towards music as haram. For example, Salah Al Budair, the Imam of the Grand Mosque in Medina, considers music as sinful. Most other imams fall into that line of thought. In Islamic majority countries, you will find no choirs and no music in the mosques. You might discover moral and reserved songs; religious recitations recited in various melodies without musical instruments except percussion instruments, which are sometimes permissible, depending on the country. One notable exception were tambourines which were used to announce marriages.

While mostly the salafis (fundamentalists) control the mosques, one other group that discourages music is the Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabi represent the religious establishment that contains all of the sacred shrines in Saudi Arabia with ties to the Saudi ruling family. Thus, the aversion to music runs deep in the roots of Islamic doctrine. One surprise to this is the country of Iran and, by extension, the Shia. The Grand Ayatollah has relinquished control over the music to governmental executives, allowing folk, classical, and pop music. This action, of course, gives the Sunnis another reason to hate the Shia.

Most Muslims subscribe to the view taken by modern scholars such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who opined in his influential book, The Lawful and the Prohibited, that music is forbidden only if it leads the believer into activities that are clearly defined as prohibited, such as drinking alcohol and illicit sex. The point of much music in the Islamic world is, therefore, to express and encapsulate the most crucial concept of the Qur'an: tawhid, or "unity with God."

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