Slippery Stone: An Inquiry into Islamís Stance on Music

By Dr. Mahmood Ghazi
Posted: 22 Jamad-ul-awwal 1430, 17 May 2009

Title: Slippery Stone: An Inquiry into Islamís Stance on Music
Author: Khalid Baig
Publisher: Open Mind Press
Year: 2008
384 pages.

Slippery Stone: Cultural Colonialism and the Music Question

 The dawn of the colonization of Afro-Asian world in general and the Muslim world in particular brought in its wake efforts by the western academia to justify colonization in a variety of ways. The so-called “white man’s burden” to educate and civilize the barbaric, primitive and illiterate masses of Asia and Africa was based on the presumption of the total absence of all culture, civilization, religious beliefs and knowledge in the countries occupied by the colonial powers, initially for commercial purposes under purely economic motives.

The colonial powers of Britain and France particularly faced formidable resistance at the hands of Muslim freedom fighters almost everywhere in the colonized regions of Asia and Africa. What prompted Muslim freedom fighters to resist foreign occupation was their deep desire to preserve their Islamic identity, and protect Islamic culture and civilization in their respective regions. This fierce resistance necessitated thorough study of the Orient, its history, culture and religion. During the next two centuries the conflict got intensified and regenerated interest in the study of Islamic culture, civilization and religion.

 In this process, many western scholars tried to create confusion about those aspects of Islamic culture, civilization and religion which were responsible for reinforcing Muslim resistance to western powers and which were the main cause of the difficulties and obstacles faced by the colonizers. The Islamic unity as exemplified in Khilafah, love for freedom and dedication to make sacrifices for the sake of Islam as exemplified in Jihad, condemnation of any form of dissociation from Islam and Muslim community, represented in the punishment of apostasy, were some such aspects considered by western observers as serious obstacles in the way of the success of the colonial agenda.

With the passage of time, it was felt necessary that in order to ensure the protection of their interest on a long term basis, the colonial powers should create a generation within Muslim countries which would be western in their opinion and taste, but oriental in color and ethnic affiliation. Macaulay, the author of this idea, was perhaps the most successful colonial thinker who gave a new dimension to western colonialism which may be termed as intellectual colonialism.

This new intellectual and academic policy soon resulted in cultural and civilizational colonialism as well. Although political and military colonization allegedly come to an end during the second half of twentieth century, these three forms of colonization, namely intellectual, cultural and civilizational are still continuing. It is now evident that some western powers have the continuation of these forms of colonization at the top of their agenda. The elimination of cultural identities of other civilizations, obliteration of distinct features of non-western cultures, rejection and condemnation of non-western legal systems and spurning oriental social patterns constitute the fundamental elements of this agenda. The media tirade against Islamic laws, targeting social habits in Muslim societies and caricaturing cultural patterns of Muslim societies has become the order of the day.

 In pursuance of this agenda, some orientalists undertook to portray Islamic culture and civilization as representing some archaic, outmoded, inhuman, and barbaric remnants of the medieval ages. That is why Muslim aversion to carnal expressions of human sentiments in fine art was projected as a major handicap in the way of cultural sophistication. To deal with this ‘malady’ they started efforts to popularize their social ethos and life styles in the Muslim world.     

Muslim concept of artistic performance and finer expression of their sense of aesthetics was different from the prevalent western styles. In fact, Islam represented a stage of perfection and maturity of the human mind. Most primitive religions and primitive societies emphasized the physical aspect of life at the cost of its moral and spiritual aspects. To them, the sensual aspect of human existence outweighed the inner and higher human values. This primitiveness was reflected in worshipping physical phenomena believed to be representing the Reality. Music and dance thus became integral part of worship in many primitive religions.

In fact, Islam declared the inauguration of a perfect religion, a final way of life, an accomplished legal and moral system and a panhuman culture and civilization. The Islamic Shariah contemplates intellectual maturity of human beings and presumes the moral perfection of human life and behavior. The laws of the Shariah are based on higher moral ideals and finer spiritual virtues. Islam’s approach to the reality of life is constructive and positive. It is forward-looking. It is morally motivated and spiritually oriented. To Islam, human physique is the vehicle of moral ideals; body is the locus of the spirit.

 This has given a new dimension to the idea of beauty and aesthetics in Islam. This morally rich and spiritually impregnated concept of aesthetics is reflected in Islamic fine arts, Muslim poetry, architecture, calligraphy, book decoration, pottery, carpet-designing, and so on, which represent only the higher moral ideals and spiritual values. . There is hardly anything in Islamic art which demonstrates any sensual motivation on the part of their respective authors.

 In this conception of society, of aesthetic and fine arts, music had little place, if at all. Muslim societies, by and large, have been averse to music and dancing. These two expressions of sensuality in the name of art have been extremely rare in Muslim societies and were always confined to a very limited and insignificant section of the society, mostly representing the periphery, despite involvement of and encouragement from the ruling class. Muslim history bears testimony that carnal and sensual expression of art and aesthetics have never occupied any respectable place in Muslim societies. Those who took interest in these expressions were always denied a central position in Muslim social hierarchy.

This situation however underwent a change by the middle of twentieth century in general and by the introduction of powerful print and electronic media in particular. The result of this media crusade for the promotion of music and dance culture has been tremendous. Soon, the domestic media within the Muslim world also entered the arena in a much wider and powerful way and filled Muslim societies with general enchantment with sensual pleasures.

 It is in this background that Khalid Baig decided to undertake a comprehensive inquiry into the whole issue. Such an exercise was needed in view of a series of writings by some modernists and pseudo-jurists of Islam in the twentieth century who styled themselves as the new reformers of Muslim society and tried to save it from the monotony of religious life. Many such self-styled mujtahids have also played up some of the practices of the Sufis who used to listen to moral or devotional poetry. Although, even this practice, done under strict conditions, was never approved by the over-whelming majority of the jurists, some modernist writers rely on this practice to justify music and even dance. Some writers also refer to the interest taken by some companions of the Prophet in Arabic poetry to justify excessive involvement in music and the musical instruments, thereby justifying the introduction of the western culture of night life in Muslim societies.

The present volume by the author is a welcome addition to the existing literature on Islam’s position on art and poetry, use of music and musical instruments. The author has very rightly and succinctly discussed the question of the terminology used in this discussion in the very beginning. This is important since much confusion resulted from the use, or misuse, of various terms interchangeably, sometimes unintentionally and at times intentionally.

He has established that the word music has never been used in Islamic literature. This is originally a Greek word and now used in all western languages and many Muslim languages as well. It only found its way in Muslim writings much later. The Quran, the Sunnah, and writings of early jurists are not familiar with this word. Therefore, any effort for the justification of music from early Islamic literature is preposterous. The terms used in early Islamic literature are: ghina’, mazamir, ma’azaif, malahi. Some modern writers have either ignored the negative mention of these terms in Islamic literature or have arbitrarily interpreted them in such a way that their negative nuance is extremely diluted.

 One basic thing the author has brought to limelight is the concern of the Shariah to ensure constant vigilance and presence of mind on the part on the believers. The Quran disapproves of every such thing that diverts attention from serious matters of life to non-serious concerns. The terms lahw and malahi are very significant. Literally meaning instruments or means of diversion, these are effective vehicles for projecting, promoting and communicating baser sentiments. These emotions are kept hidden in everyone’s deep self for a limited and controlled use for constructive purposes. Attempting to bring these emotions to the forefront only to occupy a central place in human life has been discouraged even by those Sufis whose references are used to justify the new life style in which. the control of human psyche, mind, heart and body is lost and both the individual and the society are carried away by carnal desires.

The author has divided the book into three broad sections or parts. Part one surveys the historical perspective. Consisting of four chapters, it deals with the position of Islam on poetry and the role played by poetry in pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabia. A history of music in Arabia before and after Islam has also been briefly surveyed. One significant contribution of this part is the discussion on the role of the orientalists in highlighting the hidden stories of musicians and projecting their limited influence on a wide level.

Part two constitutes the core of the book and is entitled: Clearing the Fog. Consisting of six chapters, it surveys the whole range of Islamic literature starting from the Qur’anic verses and sayings of the Prophet of Islam to the writings of the jurists of various schools. In this chapter, the learned author has consulted the writings of leading Muslim scholars, jurists and the Sufis. He has also given a summery of the rulings of the jurists of all major schools is Islamic law.

 In chapter eight, entitled “The Sufi Perspective,” he has summarized the views of the great Sufis including Imam Ghazali on sama’. This exposition of the Sufi perspective pulls the carpet from underneath the feet of those who try to justify the introduction of music culture on the basis of the Sufi practice of sama’.

Part three surveys the present situation and highlights some of the problem faced by Muslim youth in the present day. At the end of the book, four appendices have been added containing rulings on anashid, music debate in history, biographical notes and glossary of important terms.

Slippery Stone is well researched and thorough work on its subject. It deals with the core of the subject as well as with many relevant issues which further throw light on it. I am confident that the book will be widely read by students of Islamic law as well as by general readers interested in understanding the position of Islamic culture on music and other similar forms of artistic expression.        

  Dr. Mahmood Ahmed Ghazi was the president of the International Islamic University, Islamabad.

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