The Notion of Sacred Music in Islam

[This is an excerpt from a longer academic piece that I wrote on Islamic hip hop. Here I present only those parts which relate to the status of music in Muslim societies. It might appear a little disjointed.]

Umm Kulthum

The furor over the all-girls Kashmiri Rock Band, Pragaash (meaning from darkness to light), begs the question: Is music permissible in Islam or in Muslim societies? In the Koran and the hadith (especially the more accepted ones like al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim collections), according to ethnomusicologist, Lois Ibsen al-Faruqi, there seems to be no explicit ban on music. That’s why the term haraam (forbidden), which has a legal implication, might not be applicable to the musical practices in Muslim societies. Rather, the term that should be used to describe music in Muslim societies is makruh (unfavored).

In ‘Music, Musicians and Muslim Law’ (1985), she constructs a hierarchical schema in the Islamic musical traditions. In this schema, the recitation of the Holy Quran stands at the top of the Muslim hierarchy:

“The pitched recitation of the Holy Qur’an stands at the  peak  of importance  and  acceptability in  the  Muslim hierarchy  of  handasah  al  gawt (artistic engineering of sound). Over  the  centuries  this solo,  vocal improvisational  chant  has  enjoyed the  full  and unequivocal  acceptance  and support  of  both  the  religion and  the society. Qur’Anic  cantillation,  or qird’ah (reading),  has  been  performed  with  some  variance  of individual  and  regional  style  over  the  fourteen  centuries of  Islamic  history;  but  exemplifications  have  rarely transgressed the  boundaries  of  an  acceptable  style  that has  been strictly  monitored  by  concerned  Muslims  in  every century  of  Islamic  history” (9).

Al-Faruqi further writes that below the Quranic chant is adhan and other occupational music such as shepherd’s tunes, military music etc. Last in the hierarchy is ‘that  sensuous  music  that  is  performed in  association with  condemned  activities,  or  that  is  thought  to  incite  to such  prohibited  practices  as  consumption  of  drugs  and alcohol,  lust,  prostitution,  etc.  This  last  level…that  Muslims  have  been consistently  unwilling to  accord  their  approval’ (12).

And yet in Islamic societies, music – as we understand it today – has consistently engaged with those genres that are supposed to belong to the lowest level of acceptability, musical forms which are theologically undesirable. In her study of the festive sacred, “The promise of sonic translation: Performing the festive sacred in Morocco” (2008), Deborah Kapchan contends that the Fes Sacred Music festival organizers ‘self-consciously create a doxa of their own, one that downplays national and religious differences to emphasize “spiritual” or “sacred” homogeneity’ (470) by recontextualizing the sounds linked to particular scared traditions. Her formulation highlights how the notion of the sacred is itself constantly shifting to accommodate heterodox impulses. Most of the music that is catalogued as sacred at the Fes Festival would not be considered sacred in the traditional schema of al-Faruqi.

Moreover, what is considered sacred in musical aesthetics is highly controversial. In his study of Syrian mawlawiyya (or ‘Whirling Dervish’), “Sultans of spin: Syrian sacred music on the world stage” (2003), J.H. Shannon argues that even though this form of music is considered to be sacred on ‘world stage,’ it no longer is listened to by the Syrians. Its supposed authenticity as a sacred music is a result of successful construction of a particular style, commodification, and its consumption by an audience spread across the globe. In the Syrian context, he explores how the boundaries between the genres of sacred and secular music are porous because ‘the sacred-profane distinction tends to refer more to different venues than to different repertoires’ (2003, p. 268). Though there are specifically sacred genres such as the Quranic recitation or other forms that refer to God, Muhammad and the prophets. At the same time, lyrics of so-called sacred songs might have both spiritual as well as profane connotations. Like Kapchan’s deconstructive reading of the category of ‘sacred music,’ Shannon posits that ‘where on a continuum of sacred and profane attributes a given performance falls depends on how it is framed as one or another style’ (269). More than the lyrics or sound, the conventions of dress and audience co-performance determine what is framed as a sacred music in the world market.

While the categories of sacred and secular music have been porous, there has been an effort to categorize Islamic hip hop and other experimental metal music from the Muslim world as explicitly secular.  In Heavy Metal Islam (2008), Mark LeVine, while enumerating globalization’s positive impact in the MENA region, claims that the contemporary musical productions in the region ‘violate the boundaries separating the global from the local, the religious from the secularly profane, the exotic from the mundane, and the hip from what those in the know deride as hopelessly passé’ (8). Despite pointing to the emergence of a complex youth sub-culture in the region, LeVine’s study equates ‘heavy metal’ with the emergence of a secular voice among Muslims. More surprisingly, he asserts that the musical scene in the MENA region shows that there are plenty of ‘secular Muslims’ in the region. While one cannot discount the reality of secularization thesis, the phenomenon of Islamic hip hop and other metal genres seems to suggest complex ways in which Islam will continue to form the cultural core in the region.

Islamic hip hop avoids this simple schema of the sacred and the secular as it combines ‘legitimate’ sacred words and ‘non-legitimate’ sounds. The result is a distinct everyday sacrality that deconstructs the binaries of the sacral and the secular. Islamic hip hop outside America advocates the cause of anti-racist movements and other structural discriminations against the Muslim youth, particularly in Britain and France. While recontextualizing the Islamic scriptures, the hip hop artists express a commitment to a spiritual world-view determined by Islam. Let’s consider this lyric from Fun-Da-Mental’s song ‘Mera Mazab’: ‘I was born as a Muslim, and I’m still livin’ as a Muslim/ My spirituality determines reality.’ While their music is a fusion of western, sufi qawwali, and Middle Eastern beats, their songs quote extensively from the Quran. Their controversial use of Islamic scriptures in their music met with opposition from the orthodox Islamic communities. Hip hop groups such as Fun-Da-Mental along with the white Left have been at the vanguard of antiracist movements and carnivals in England. The following lyric is an interesting example of how the Islamic rhetoric of jihad or holy war has been integrated into the secular antiracist movements:

You go for your cuz I’m in jihad

Allahu samad

So I’ll be comin’ around the mountain

With my Islamic warriors

Nubians wid jihad in my mind.

More significantly, the phenomenon of Islamic hip hop ignites larger debates about the place of music in Islam and the availability of a viable form of youth subculture. It will be apt to remember here that the iconic singer Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam after conversion to Islam) who had given up singing after converting to Islam started singing again during the Bosnian war (1992). While commenting on his return to music, he wrote: ‘But looking again at the question of music in Islam, it became more clear that the issue was highly debatable, particularly in circumstances of oppression and war. Without doubt in today’s world, to have no cultural strategy or alternative would leave Muslims without any defense. Surely, I thought, the use of certain musical instruments for the protection of Islamic identity and culture of a nation is worthy of the same allowance as guns and rockets’ (184-5). Islamic hip hop artists term this struggle as musical jihad.

Since the Koran and hadith do not explicitly ban music, there seems to be no easy way to pronounce a judgment on music in Muslim societies. The Muslim musical practices are often a result of local tradition, permissiveness of particular societies (Umm Kulthum was a superstar in Egypt), and inextricable link with global cultural forces. The fatwa against the Kashmiri all-girls’ band might not be sustainable by Islamic injunctions. What can decide their fate is the (in)tolerance of the local people.


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2 Responses to The Notion of Sacred Music in Islam

  1. Bali says:

    great piece, am in awe of the woman in the picture though, could you identify who she is?

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