Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Islam, Music, and Splitting Hairs

April 2nd, 2009 · 4 Comments

Of all the Taliban’s attempts to drag Pakistan’s Swat Valley back into an imaginary Medieval Golden Age, the one Microkhan finds most baffling is the prohibition on music. In the West, it’s difficult to imagine religious observance (or secular life) without the accompaniment of music, that most universal of languages. But in the Swat Valley, the Taliban is reportedly going house-to-house, breaking folks’ flutes so they don’t dare play a note. (Some years ago, I remember reading the moving tale of a Kabul resident who risked death by playing his flute beneath a blanket in his own home.)

The question this brings up, of course, is whether Islam truly prohibits all forms of music, or if this is just some Taliban bastardization. As you might imagine, the holy texts are open to interpretation. And so much depends on punctuation and word choice. This snippet from a 2008 lecture by an Australian professor is instructive:

There is no explicit mention of music in Islam’s holy book: the Qu’ran.

However, in the Hadith (the collection of traditions and sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed), there are some passages which approve of and celebrate music, and others which denounce music. In some cases, a single passage can be interpreted in both, opposite ways.

Here’s a passage from the Hadith of Bukhari: “From among my followers there will be some people who will consider illegal sexual intercourse, the wearing of silk (clothes), the drinking of alcoholic drinks and the use of musical instruments, as lawful.”

For those who wish to use this quotation as evidence against music’s acceptability, the statement can be taken on face value – the use of musical instruments is part of a list of activities that should be considered unlawful. Surprisingly though however, this passage is also used to support the contrary position. The inclusion of the word “AND” in the phrase “drinking of alcoholic drinks AND the use of musical instruments” is taken to mean: music when used in combination with alcohol or licentious activities is unlawful.

Microkhan prefers the latter interpretation. Though given our crippling weakness for Crown Royal, we’ll just stick with our heathen ways.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    They’ll take my iPod and Aviation gin from my cold, dead hands.

  • Gramsci

    I believe Edward Said had some interesting things to say about music and Muslim culture. I have to find that piece…
    I think part of the theological issue is that the Quran itself, unlike the New Testament for example, is taken as divinely musical (listen to the famous muezzins calling people to prayer– you’re not supposed to do that in a pastoral monotone). I agree with the latter interpretation, especially because music is as abstract and anti-idolatrous as the geometric figures that are the lifeblood of Islamic art.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: Excellent point re: the muezzins. Maybe instrumentation is where the diehards draw the line (to say nothing of secular subject matter).

    I do love the Friday call to prayers at the mosque on 116th Street and Lenox. It seems sorta out-of-place amidst the surrounding commerce (e.g. a CVS, a Fine Fare supermarket). Which, in some ways, makes it all the more beautiful.

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