Does Islam prohibit music and playing musical instruments?
Historian Zachariah Elias
Resides in Raqqa, Syria
Since the status of music and musical instruments is quite a heavily debated topic in Islam, we need to examine all the evidences and arguments that have been presented over time. But first, we must make a few things clear:
1. Everything in Islam is considered permissible unless you can find something from the Qur’an or a statement from the Prophet ﷺ saying otherwise. The opposite is simply not true and completely illogical (I have the history of Islamic scholarship to back me up on this one).
2. Using a Hadith with any weakness in it is unacceptable, and we must always have a hadith going back to the Prophet. Otherwise, we have no way of knowing if the person narrating the hadith in question made a mistake or not.
3. We don’t care about personal opinion - just because you think something should or shouldn’t be permissible/forbidden is completely irrelevant.
Okay, so now that we got that out of the way, let’s proceed with our analysis (sorry if this is too long):
“Music is clearly forbidden, I mean, it’s in Sahih al-Bukhari !!!”
I’d like to address this argument straight off the bat. This may be shocking to a lot of Muslims, but not every hadith in the collection we have from Bukhari is actually authentic. This is because Bukhari’s collection is not a musnad - it’s a musannaf.
For those who are new to the study of hadith literature, a musnad is a hadith collection organized according to the narrator of the report. A musannaf, however, is organized according to legal category. This almost always means that the author of a musannaf is organizing his hadith collection in order to make legal arguments, and yes, Bukhari was known for his knowledge of fiqh. We even know that Bukhari would purposely include weak hadiths within the titles of his categorization in his collection, likely in order to present arguments against them.
But on top of all that, we know other things as well, like the fact that Bukhari included mu’allaq hadiths in his collection. This occurs when a narrator omits a narrator(s) that would have to be there in order for him or her to have heard this hadith. For example, if I claim to have heard something from a man who died before I was born, it should be obvious that there was a middleman.
What is interesting is that all of the hadiths forbidding music in Bukhari’s collection are mu’allaq. For example (a translation):
Narrated Abu 'Amir or Abu Malik Al-Ash'ari:
…that he heard the Prophet (ﷺ) saying, "From among my followers there will be some people who will consider illegal sexual intercourse, the wearing of silk, the drinking of alcoholic drinks and the use of musical instruments, as lawful. And there will be some people who will stay near the side of a mountain and in the evening their shepherd will come to them with their sheep and ask them for something, but they will say to him, 'Return to us tomorrow.' Allah will destroy them during the night and will let the mountain fall on them, and He will transform the rest of them into monkeys and pigs and they will remain so till the Day of Resurrection." - Sahih al-Bukhari 5590, Book 74, Hadith 16.
I don’t know a single muhaddith who has examined the isnad of this hadith (and others like it) and hasn’t concluded that this is a mu’allaq hadith. So the question remains, why would Bukhari include mu’allaq hadiths anyway?
The answer is intriguing - it was actually a habit of Bukhari to omit narrators for certain hadiths once he concluded that the isnad for the hadith was weak. This is something few scholars mention, which is why so many people have used these hadiths anyway, thinking that Bukhari viewed them as authentic. But the implications of this fact are actually much bigger. If a person were to find other chains of narration for the same hadith, and matched up the narrators to Bukhari’s narration, then we have a complete chain right? But the problem still remains that Bukhari found the chain itself weak (i.e. one or more narrators were untrustworthy in some way), so we need to make sure to find other chains of narration.
Now, there have been scholars who did in fact have other isnads for this hadith, and they, like many, believed these isnads to be authentic (such as Ibn Hajr and an-Nasa’i). However, there is just too much evidence that suggests that even these narrations have weaknesses (there are just too many issues with missing or weak narrators). Every person who has studied hadith literature that I know personally has concluded that there is not a single hadith condemning music that is authentic.
“Music is forbidden in the Qur’an”
The verse in the Qur’an that has usually been used in arguments condemning music is the following:
وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَنْ يَشْتَرِي لَهْوَ الْحَدِيثِ لِيُضِلَّ عَنْ سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ وَيَتَّخِذَهَا هُزُوًا ۚ أُولَٰئِكَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ مُهِينٌ
“And of the people is he who buys the amusement of speech to mislead [others] from the way of Allah without knowledge and who takes it in ridicule. Those will have a humiliating punishment” - The Qur’an [31:6]
The big controversy concerns the words لَهْوَ الْحَدِيثِ (lahwa al-hadith) which refers to any speech, words, or stories that are generally perceived as trivial. However, there are two companions of the Prophet ﷺ whom others claim said that these words refer to music - Ibn Abbas and Ibn Masood. But there are a few problems with this argument:
1. The narration that goes back to Ibn Abbas, the one supposedly claiming that these words refer to music or singing, has weaknesses it, to the extent that some scholars don’t even believe he actually said it. I’m still looking into the case of Ibn Masood, but either way…
2. Even if it was true that both Ibn Abbas and Ibn Masood believed these words referred to music, it doesn’t change the fact that no scholar of the Arabic language has ever made such a claim. There is not a single text or dictionary of the Classical Arabic language that makes this claim either.
3. Both Ibn Abbas and Ibn Masood were human beings who were given a lot of knowledge, but like all human beings, they still made mistakes (Ibn Abbas’ stance on the mut’ah marriage was opposed by literally every other companion). And the fact that the verse in question was revealed early on in Islamic history, yet there is no authentic narration that says that any other companion (namely Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, or ‘Ali) ever said these words referred to music, suggests that this opinion was quite rare.
4. We should always resort to authentic narrations that go back to the Prophet. A companion saying that something is forbidden isn’t sufficient evidence unless they quote the Prophet.
What about the other narrations regarding music?
This is just icing on the cake. A lot of people get confused when they read all of the hadiths where the Prophet is clearly fine with people listening to music or singing. But hopefully now it makes sense. I was thinking of listing all of the hadiths that show that the Prophet (and several other companions) were fine with music and singing, but this answer would just get even longer. Since we must assume that something is permissible until we can prove that it is forbidden in Islam, many have argued that, based on what was stated above, we can’t really say that music is forbidden, and I agree with that view.
There has not been one community of people since the very beginning of time that has not produced a music that is specific to itself. The production of music is responsible, in part, for the continuance of cultural patterns within a given human group. It is reported in biblical literature that Prophet David was a well known musician before he became more famous for killing Goliath ( 1 Samuel 16-23 ). There is scholarly debate on both sides of this issue which means some scholars take the position that music is halal and some take the opposite view. And because they are scholars, their arguments, on either side are supported by mountains of evidence. So, in order to make sense of this for myself I employ the following axiom : 'Not everything is for everyone'
Each individual Muslim must make a decision about music for himself or herself, only. Decide what you think is most pleasing to Allah and then act accordingly. However, that decision is what you have determined to do, your brother or your sister in Islam may have taken a different position. Respect it and then go on with your life. ( see: On Scholars )
I listen to music, I play music. However, music with lyrics must be scrutinized so that the content of the lyrics in no way advises or encourages behavior or ideas contrary to the overall tenor of our Islamic moral positions. m.a. ibrahim