The word “music” comes from ancient Greece and is a reference to the “art of combining sounds in a certain order for aesthetic effect.” Music is also concerned with combining these sounds in a harmonic way; therefore it studies what sounds go together and what sounds do not. This is achieved both through musical instruments and through human voices.
The issue of listing to music is one that has differing opinions in Islamic law, it is not from matters of creed or those matters that are necessarily known from religion therefore it is not prudent for Muslims to castigate one another on such issues since one can only castigate issues that are agreed upon, not issues that have differing opinions. As there are jurists who have ruled that listening to music is permissible and they are jurists whom it is permissible to follow in their scholarship, it is therefore impermissible for one to criminalize Muslims who follow such an opinion. This is even more so as there is no single text proof that specifically outlaws music.
Among the scholars who have ruled music and listening to music is permissible is Imam al-Ghazali as he stated:
Amusement and entertainment help one in seriousness and serious matters as one cannot tolerate such matters without aid, except for the Prophets upon them be peace. Therefore, amusement and entertainment are cures of the heart from exhaustion so it must accordingly be permissible, however one should not engage in it with excess just as one cannot take medicine in excess. Based on this intention (i.e. relaxation and aid in seriousness and serious matters) amusement and entertainment become acts of drawing near to God and this is for the person whom listening to music does not stir up a certain praiseworthy trait that he seeks to be evoked by listening to music, rather such a person only seeks pure enjoyment and relaxation so it is incumbent that such an act be praiseworthy for him to engage in so as to reach the goals mentioned previously.
This situation, however, indicates a level lesser than wholeness as the whole person is he who is in no need of other than the truth to aid him. However, the righteous deeds of the common people are the misdeeds of those who are high in spiritual rank. Whosoever has mastered the science of the cures of the heart and the ways in which to make the heart soft knows with certainty that these sorts of entertainment and amusement are things one can not dispense with.
Imam al-Ghazali has also written that “if musical instruments have become the sign of drunkards or lewdness, if the instruments are like the harmonica, wind instruments, string instruments, or drums used by drinkers then it is impermissible. And every other kind of instrument remains permissible such as tambourines even with jingles, drums, striking drums with branches, guitars and the like, or any other instrument.”
Other scholars saw in music and listening to music lessons and allusions for those who understand and whose souls are at a high level. Amongst them was Qadi ‘Iyyad al-Shibli who was asked about listening to music to which he replied, “its apparent nature is seductive and tempting while esoterically it is full of lessons so whoever can understand the allusion it is permissible for them to listen to music.”
Similar statements can be found attributed to the Sultan of the scholars al-‘Izz ibn ‘Abd al-Salam who said, “the path to rectifying hearts from without are many such as listening to Qur’an which is the best thing one can listen to, it can also be done to listening to admonishment and remindful talk, it can be done through songs and odes, and it can be done through music and instruments of which there is a difference of opinion regarding its permissibility. For example the flute, if listening to it is permissible then it is praiseworthy what occurs to a person when listening to it and has left cautiousness in religion by listening to that which has differing opinions regarding.”
Al-Qurtubi has mentioned in his commentary on the Qur’an al-Jami al-Ahkam al-Quran the singing of some Qusharites in the presence of the Prophet the day he entered Madina. Abu Bakr was disturbed by this and the Prophet said, “leave them Abu Bakr so that the Jews can see that our way is expansive.” They were playing drums and saying, “we are the girls of al-Najjar and we love that Muhammad is a neighbor”. Al-Qurtubi then said, “it is said that the tambourine and other instruments used in weddings are permissible as long as what is said is sound and not from foulness.”
Al-Shawkani has stated in his Nayl al-Awtar in the section “That which has come concerning instruments of amusement and music” both the arguments for those who rule on its impermissibility and permissibility. He specifically discussed the hadith in which the Prophet said, “Every form of amusement which the believer engages in is false except for three; a man being playful with his wife, a man being playful with his horse, and archery”.
Al-Shawkani then quotes Imam al-Ghazali’s commentary on this hadith, “The Prophet’s statement ‘is fales’ does not necessitate its impermissibility, rather it indicates its lack of benefit”. Al-Shawkani then adds “this is indeed a sound statement since anything that has no direct benefit is from the category of permissible things.” Al-Shawkani offers other text proofs to the same effect such as the women who vowed to play the tambourine if the Prophet returned from a certain battle safely.
When he did, he allowed her to carry out her vow without any form of castigation. This allowance indicates that what the women did was not an act of disobedience in such a circumstance.
Ibn Hazm has stated that the Prophet said:
“all actions are based on intentions and to every person is what they intended” thus whosoever listens to singing, or engages in any other act, as an aid in disobedience towards God then it is evildoing, and whosoever intends by listening to singing relaxation of one’s soul so as to aid it in being obedient to God and helping it perform righteous acts then he is engaging in an obedient act and is rewarded and this action is a true and sound one.
Whosoever does not intend either disobedience or obedience, then this action is simple amusement and it is ineffectual and such an act is pardoned such as a person walking in his garden strolling or one sitting on his doorstep relaxing.
In summary we can say that the issue of singing, with instruments and without, is an issue that has caused scholarly dispute throughout all ages. These scholars have agreed on aspects regarding the issues and have disagreed in other aspects. They have agreed that any sort of singing of music that causes disobedience or aids in disobedience is impermissible as singing is comprised of words so its good is permitted and its bad is impermissible. These scholars have also agreed on the permissibility of singing a cappella especially in times of happiness such as weddings, homecomings, and days of ‘Eid as long as certain conditions are met such as a woman does not sing in front of non-relative males.
The areas of disagreement are whether musical instruments are permissible or not and others mentioned earlier.
Based on this discussion we find that singing, whether with musical instruments or without, is permissible with the condition that it not a call for disobedience, lewdness, and does not contain any themes contrary to the Shari‘ah. It is also noteworthy that excess of music and singing can take the act beyond its permissibility to the category of reprehensible acts, and perhaps even to the category of impermissibility.
God is most high and all knowledgeable.