By Mark Ellis
A couple working in the Middle East were stunned when an acquaintance informed them that listening to music is forbidden under Islam.
“We were sitting with a local watching some old black-and-white footage of the famous singer Abdel Halim Hafez (the Frank Sinatra of the Middle East),” says Cyril Jones*.
Their female friend was unmistakably relishing the experience. “She played it through once—twice—and three times, clearly enjoying herself.”
“I haven’t listened to music in a year-and-a-half,” she sighed after the third time.
“Why,” Jones and his wife asked in unison.
“It’s haram (forbidden),” she said, as she held up her hand. “No, don’t ask me why. It just is — but I can’t resist Hafez,” she said, grinning.
The fact that music is ‘haram’ is something that many Muslims prefer not to dwell on, Jones has found. “They’ll laugh awkwardly, hit ￼on their iPod again, and shrug it off as a peccadillo that doesn’t really count against them. It isn’t the same as, say, murdering somebody.”
The question of permissibility of music under Islamic law is hotly debated.
Some scholars of the classical era of Islam believe music is forbidden both by the Qur’an and by the Hadith. As evidence, they note that Muhammad censured the use of musical instruments when he said: “There will be among my Ummah people who will regard as permissible adultery, silk, alcohol and musical instruments.”
Others say Muhammad’s prohibition of music and instruments related to the way it was used in that historical context—at the time by polytheists.
Some prohibitionists say the only permissible instrument is the ‘Daf,’ a flat, round drum similar to a tambourine, but with only one side. Although music is often prohibited, song-like recitation of the Quran is part of Islamic culture.
Jones has found some Muslims who still lump music together with murder in the haram category.
One Muslim friend explained it this way to him: “Pretend you’re sad. You listen to some music to pick yourself up. Good, yes? No. That’s sin. It’s making music an idol. You have to look to God as your source of joy. That’s why music is haram,” they explained.
Jones agrees, somewhat. “Anything that takes God’s rightful place in your heart is an idol—even a good thing like music,” he notes. “The problem is, how can God be your source of joy when He’s so utterly transcendent (under Islam) that you’ve got no way of relating to Him and don’t believe that He relates to you? The answer is, He can’t.”
“That’s why music is still popular among Muslims,” Jones observes. “That’s also a conversation piece for us as followers of Jesus—to share that we can rejoice in a God who adopts us as His children, and that we can relate to Him, and He to us, through Jesus.”
“All people have holes in their hearts that only Jesus can fill, and it really does always come back around to Him.”
*name changed due to security concerns