Is music forbidden in Islam?

Sufism complimented the Bhakti movement in India and played its part in forging the philosophical foundations of an inclusive society (Photo: WikiMedia Commons, Author: Ajaiberwal) Photograph:( Others )

WION New Delhi, India Mar 17, 2017, 07.49 AM (IST) Ashok G.V.

Having grown up in a family of music aficionados, I developed quite a diverse taste in music. S.D. Burman’s “Doli mein bithai ke” from the movie Amar Prem appeals to me as much as Salim Merchant’s “Ali Maula” from the movie Qurban, as does Shankar Mahadevan’s “Shree Ganeshaya Dheemahi”. I discovered the meaning of the word “soulful” from these songs. To me, the difference between “living” and “feeling alive”, is defined by experiences like music, poetry, prose and drama. 


Artists, such as Suhana Malik or Nahid Afrin, who are gifted with such an extraordinary talent and the power to touch our souls, live in an elevated world, a better world free of the petty squabbles of mankind. Therefore, to see them being needlessly targeted by fringe elements for their rare talent is tragic, to say the least. However, beyond the moral outrage one feels at the misadventures of the fundamentalist mind, there is a larger question of legality. 


Nahid Afrin (DNA)



After all, what role does personal law have to play on matters of music?


India’s unique interpretation and practice of secularism mean that personal laws continue to play a significant role in determining the lives of individuals belonging to various communities. While this interpretation of secularism is controversial and is perceived as an anathema to human rights by many sections, religious communities are not unanimous over the issue of keeping religion separate from the state. 


Derived from religious practices, these personal laws serve only a limited purpose. As per Section 2 of the Muslim Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937, Muslim personal laws remain limited to subjects of personal nature, such as succession, inheritance, marriage and divorce. Beyond the scope of these subjects, secular laws come into the picture.


But the line between where the personal laws end and the secular laws take over has, unfortunately, been a blur. For example, the maintenance payable to Muslim women post-divorce became the focal point of the conflict between the Shariat and the Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 which is the secular law governing the rights of the divorced wife. Also, Women rights advocates are cognizant of acts of violence and cruelty to the wife that are clearly condemned in the Protection of Domestic Violence Act, 2005 and Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. However, these cases escape the attention of the secular criminal justice system because they are treated as “matrimonial disputes” within the scope of personal laws privy to situations.  


Suhana Syed (DNA)




Unlike these above-mentioned cases, there are no ambiguities about the right to freedom of speech and expression. Enshrined in the Constitution of India, any attempt to restrict or even condemn these rights, as have been done with Suhana Malik and Nahid Afrin, will be considered as offensive to the Constitution and transgressing the limits of the personal law.  


On a different note, the Muslim community, whose contribution to Indian music is legendary, are well within their rights to nurture the talents within the community. After all, what would life be without Ustad Bismillah Khan’s Shenai? Lest the resolution of the legal debate still leaves matters of faith unanswered, I must venture to examine the position of Islam on the subject of music.


Muslim Personal Laws is a complicated affair. It is jurisprudence that traces its origins back to almost 1400 years and defined by the experiences of the Muslim community from Africa to Asia and everything in between. Unlike the Vatican, which acts as the centre of the neural network of Christianity, Islam is diverse and vibrant like its practitioners. Contrary to what stereotypes the media might project, Islam is intellectually and culturally enlightened and rich. Reza Aslan, in his book “No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam” even says that the use of spontaneous melody was encouraged among Quran reciters and, hence, the aptitude for music among many of them.


The Holy Quran does not explicitly condemn music in the context of worship, but merely cautions against the use of “false” and “vain” words during worship



The Holy Quran does not explicitly condemn music in the context of worship, but merely cautions against the use of “false” and “vain” words during worship. Even if one assumes for the sake of argument that reference to “false” and “vain” words are references to music, still, the prohibition is limited to worship only. 


The evolution of the sharia jurisprudence was affected by geo-political occurrences, such as the expansion of Islam to Africa and Asia, Mongol invasions and the Crusades. Thus, the differences in approach between the Sunnis and the Shias, and within Sunnis, among the followers of the Hanafi School, the Hanbali School, the Shafi School, the Maliki School and the, more recent, Wahabi School. While practitioners of the Wahabi school abhor music and dance, it is by no means, a measure of the overall perception of music and dance among the Muslim community.


Sufism complimented the Bhakti movement in India and played its part in forging the philosophical foundations of an inclusive society



However, for every Taliban out there, there are also the Sufi mystics who stand in stark contrast. In a true testament to the inclusive and diverse nature of Islam, Sufism complimented the Bhakti movement in India and played its part in forging the philosophical foundations of an inclusive society. Far from interpreting the caution against “false” and “vain” words as a prohibition against music, Sufi music has carved out a niche for itself and remains one of the most popular brands of music in this region. Be its inclusive character or its resistance towards politics, Sufism represents an intrinsic counter to the radical elements of Islam that seek to spread hatred and fear.


Therefore, the need to stand by Suhana Malik and Nahid Afrin is not just about enforcing the Constitution of India. Our duty to these bright young women stems from the need to protect and nurture the Sufi brand of Islam that found patronage in our sub-continent. In a symbolic gesture, this allegiance we owe to Sufism, if discharged, would also serve to remind those clinging to the Wahabi school of thought, that Islam isn’t the exclusive narrative of the radical fringe groups, but belongs just as much to the culturally sensitive and peace-loving Muslims of India and the world. 


While a parallel debate about the Uniform Civil Code continues, it is about time that the Indian Muslim population assumes intellectual leadership in defining the image of Islam as the inclusive faith that it really is.