Given the recent terror strikes in the name of Islam across the globe (even in Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, and those offering conspiracy theories about terrorist attacks can see this article and this one; jihadism in the form of violent attacks by non-state actors against unarmed civilians being one of the most controversial interpretations of the Quranic doctrine of jihad, the conventional interpretation endorsing a holy war against evils within oneself or an armed struggle in case of violation of one’s rights, that too against the specific aggressors only after peaceful modes of conflict resolution are exhausted, with many Quranic verses like 2:256, 5:2, 5:8, 5:32, 6:108, 6:151, 10:99, 49:13, 60:8 and 109:6 preaching peace, religious tolerance and human brotherhood, and as for the violent verses, the vast majority of practising Muslims globally regard them as contextual*), it may be noted that terror is the final stage of extremism**, but comes from a larger outlook shaped by regressive theology, which includes, in many cases, aversion to music, cinema and television.
At the very outset, I’d like to state that if some Muslim friend questions whether I, as a non-Muslim, can comment on the topic of Islam and music, cinema and television, I’d like him/her to ponder over how any non-Muslim can embrace or at least not misunderstand Islam without studying and analysing it. In any case, what I am going to state here is not something no Muslim has ever said, and has indeed been said by many Muslims over the course of history. Though to a lesser extent now, the theological debate over music as also television and cinema has existed among Jews and Christians too, as you can see here, here, here and here.
A few months ago, in March 2016, in Kota, Rajasthan, many Muslim clerics had decreed that there should be no music in Muslim weddings as it is un-Islamic. Pretty bizarre, given that not only do most Muslims enjoy music but some of the finest musicians in India and elsewhere do happen to be Muslims! Nevertheless, a section of Muslims has been interpreting Islam to oppose music, especially music of stringed instruments, for long. In Kashmir, a girls’ rock band shut down because of pressure from clerics, a concert in an orphanage was cancelled by thekedars of Islam and jihadist militants had earlier even fired at radio stations.
In our much volatile neighbouring country to our west, Pakistan, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has been executing singers and musicians, the most recent prominent example being Amjad Sabri. To quote from a news report dating to 2012–
“Singer and dancer Shabana from Swat was killed in January 2009, followed by Peshawar-based Ayman Udas who was murdered the same year, in what was said to be an honour killing. Pakistani newspapers suggest that singers Gulzar Alam and Gulrez Tabassum, known for their Pashto songs, too quit after threats from militants.”
“More than 20 stores selling music CDs were attacked by militants in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and North Waziristan in November last year.”
The Quran nowhere prohibits music and certainly doesn’t prescribe any punishment for the same. The likes of Zakir Naik have suggested that verse 31:6 of the Quran prohibits music. Stated below are four popular translations of the verse–
|Asad||:||But among men there is many a one that prefers a mere play with words [to divine guidance], so as to lead [those] without knowledge astray from the path of God, and to turn it to ridicule: for such there is shameful suffering in store.|
|Malik||:||Among the people there are some who purchase frivolous tales so that they may lead people away from the Way of Allah, without any knowledge, and take the invitation to the Right Way as a mockery. For such people there will be a humiliating punishment.|
|Pickthall||:||And of mankind is he who payeth for mere pastime of discourse, that he may mislead from Allah’s way without knowledge, and maketh it the butt of mockery. For such there is a shameful doom.|
|Yusuf Ali||:||But there are among men those who purchase idle tales without knowledge (or meaning) to mislead (men) from the Path of Allah and throw ridicule (on the Path): for such there will be a humiliating Penalty.|
How on earth does one conclude that the idle tales misleading people away from God amount to music? But Zakir Naik says that the wise can get it. Well, I’m sure no rational person would want a certificate of wisdom from Zakir Naik who has said the most unwise of things, like making fictitious claims to rebut the theory of evolution, justifying Saudi Arabia not permitting the construction of places of worship of non-Muslims (imagine such an statement made by a non-Muslim about disallowing construction of mosques in countries where Muslims are in minority!), giving bizarre reasoning of Muslim women being barred from marrying a Jew or Christian for Prophet Muhammad could be ridiculed in such a home (can’t she fact-check?) and passing very offensive remarks about other religions, which if any non-Muslim dared to indulge in, in say, Pakistan, he/she would be behind bars for blasphemy. As if that wasn’t enough, he has been promoting ludicrous conspiracy theories that pin the blame of wrongs by Muslim extremists on others, denying atrocities by the Afghan Taliban, though my Afghan Muslim friends tell me otherwise. Zakir Naik has been critiqued by genuine liberal scholars of Islam like Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who, among other things, has held music to not be prohibited by Islam.
The Quran actually refers to music in a positive sense, especially in the context of David (who, like Moses and Abraham, is regarded as a prophet by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike) and the Psalms (musical recitals of prayer to God Almighty) offered by him, as you can see in the following verses-
“And thou wilt see the angels surrounding the Throne (Divine) on all sides, singing Glory and Praise to their Lord. The Decision between them (at Judgment) will be in (perfect) justice, and the cry (on all sides) will be, ‘Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds!’ “ (39:75)
“We have sent thee inspiration, as We sent it to Noah and the Messengers after him: we sent inspiration to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms.” (4:163)
“And it is your Lord that knoweth best all beings that are in the heavens and on earth: We did bestow on some prophets more (and other) gifts than on others: and We gave to David (the gift of) the Psalms.” (17:55)
Naik’s bizarre, forced interpretation of the Quran apart, a relatively more valid argument to suggest music at odds with Islamic theology, at least for Sunnis, would be a certain statement in Bukhari, one of the compilations of Hadiths (quotations of Prophet Muhammad outside the Quran) widely regarded as authentic, wherein Prophet Muhammad apparently took a critical view of music. However, the same Bukhari also has references to Prophet Muhammad taking a favourable view of music, like Prophet Muhammad allowing music on a festive occasion, as cited in Volume 2, Book 15, Number 70 and Volume 5, Book 58, Number 268.
And then in Bukhari, another Hadith relates a connection between musical instruments and the family of David (saw). Further evidence that, indeed, the Psalms were musical in nature:
“Narrated Abu Musa:
That the Prophet said to him’ “O Abu Musa! You have been given one of the musical wind-instruments of the family of David’.” (Volume 6, Book 61, Number 568)
More Hadiths discussing how Prophet Muhammad did not think of music as prohibited can be seen here.
Noted Pakistani scholar of Islamic theology Javed Ahmad Ghamdi has also stated that Islam doesn’t prohibit music, as you can see in this video. And this has also been discussed, citing episodes from Prophet Muhammad’s life in this scene in the brilliant Pakistani film ‘Khuda ke Liye’.****
In any case, the Quran claims to be a complete book of theology, and the Hadiths, if at all, are meant to substantiate it. Stated here (don’t miss verse 41:3 stated right on top of that webpage) are some verses where the Quran where it claims completeness and having put across God’s message clearly. Given that there isn’t a single Quranic verse prohibiting music, can some Hadiths contradicting other Hadiths be taken to stand as valid in this regard?
Prophet Muhammad pointed to the beauty of nature as proof of God’s existence, but is that beauty only in terms of sights but not sounds that give pleasure? As this article by a practising Muslim argues, music is a beautiful, aesthetic thing and a part of the order of nature. Maulana Azad makes the same argument in his commentary of the Quran, citing the chirping of birds.
Yes, it is indeed understandable that music with obscene lyrics should be prohibited, and in this regard, this article quotes Prophet Muhammad as telling some girls – “Cut this sentence out, and continue singing what you have been singing earlier”, showing he had a problem not with music but with obscene lyrics.
Music has always been a part of Muslim societies, even under rulers like Harun al Rashid and Salahadin hailed in the Islamic world, and even in our times, some of the greatest musicians in India and globally (including Michael Jackson, a convert to Islam) have been Muslims. The guitar was also an Arab Muslim invention in Spain!
Besides, humour, sport and other means of recreation were never prohibited by Prophet Muhammad, as this Arab film demonstrates citing several examples, and music, and even cinema and television, can be seen in the same light (moving images have no connection with idol-worship, and that’s not very different from theatre). Unfortunately, in Kashmir, separatist militants coercively shut down all cinema halls and in 2005, even attacked one where an audience was watching a film, leading it to shut down, and these people not respecting people’s civil liberties claim to be fighting for “freedom”!
Thus, liberal Muslims ought to resist attempts by the clergy to impose their diktats. Indeed, this threat of not officiating weddings with music in Kota reminds me of the threats the Muslim clerics in India supporting the Muslim League in the elections in 1946 (which were to prove decisive in the context of the creation of Pakistan) gave to ordinary Muslims to support the Muslim League and not Congress leaders like Maulana Azad opposing the partition of India, failing which the clerics supporting the Muslim League, in the villages where they held their sway, would not conduct the marriages and funerals of Muslims not supporting the Muslim League, though there is no contradiction between Islam and secular Indian nationalism, as I have discussed here. The outcome of the partition of India is before us, with Pakistan being a militaristic state retaining the exploutative zamindari system and where Muslims of different sects and persuasions are killing each other over what is supposedly the true Islam, with religion not being able to dissolve even linguistic fissures***, and the partition making the loyalty of Muslims who stayed back in India suspect and them being branded by some extreme Hindu rightists as traitors. History would have followed a different course had Maulana Azad’s line been followed (notwithstanding the baseless propaganda against him by sections of the Muslim right, and even by sections of the Hindu right, which I have debunked here). And unsurprisingly, the maulana, a great scholar of Islamic theology, saw nothing wrong with music, and in fact, loved it for the beauty and serenity it had to offer, being an accomplished sitar player himself.
Liberal Muslims, you must not shy away from taking on the orthodoxy in your religious grouping and introduce reform (which isn’t happening on a large scale, though the growing number of Muslims opposing triple talaq is a positive sign). However, a focus on that is possible only if you put an end to the dangerous trend of harbouring exaggerated notions of victimhood, as if to suggest perennial oppression, subtly hinting at Hindus in general being oppressors (which I have debunked here), fed to you even by non-Muslims of the likes of Arundhati Roy (the fallacies in whose worldview I have discussed at some length here). If you do not expect Hindus to take Muslim apologists of the Hindu right like Tufail Ahmad and Minhaz Merchant seriously (which is not to say that everything Tufail and Minhaz have said is wrong, and they have sometimes provided very interesting and balanced insights, but their apologia for the Hindu right does go too far often), then why should you take non-Muslim apologists of the Muslim right seriously, when you lead a largely regular life with Hindu friends in educational institutions, workplaces and recreation centres? India’s constitution is strong, unlike Pakistan’s, and there are enough Hindus, not only left-liberals but even centrists (many of whom are practising Hindus) who swear by the idea of secularism, and not every right-leaning person is an extremist altogether either. I understand that many of you felt let down by Narendra Modi becoming India’s prime minister, but that was with a low vote-share (the votes of the majority of the electorate not in favour of Modi getting divided, enabling Modi to win) at a time when the anti-incumbency sentiment was at its peak, and with Modi, during the election campaign and for some time even before that, making it a point to demonstrate commitment to religious pluralism. Besides, those particular Muslims and left-leaning non-Muslims of the subcontinent who shy away from condemning Jinnah for the Direct Action Day riots (before which Jinnah said he wanted India divided or destroyed and after which he said he didn’t want to discuss ethics) or are willing to give him the benefit of doubt, those who shy away from condemning Kashmiri separatists like Yasin Malik for killing and driving away the Kashmiri Hindus (also known as Kashmiri Pandits) or are willing to give them the benefit of doubt (as for the conspiracy theories and rationalizations offered about the exodus of the Kashmiri Hindus from their homeland, have a look at this piece, and it is noteworthy that none of the Kashmiri Muslim perpetrators have been convicted, unlike hundreds rightly convicted in connection with the Gujarat riots for the massacres in the Best Bakery, Ode, Sardarpura and Naroda Patiya, and the Kashmiri Hindus haven’t even been rehabilitated the way the Muslims driven out from the village of Atali have, and while the media has rightly consistently supported the Muslims of Atali, it has actually been biased against the Kashmiri Hindus on some occasions – so much for our national media, on the whole, being supposedly biased against Muslims) and those who shy away from condemning Azam Khan for the riots in Muzaffarnagar and Sahranpur (it is noteworthy that he has not even been “chargesheeted” in spite of sting operations suggesting his involvement, while Maya Kodnani was rightly convicted, and my point is not with respect to how much evidence is available in which case for what sentence, but whether the narrative of “Hindu riot-instigating politicians always go scot-free and Muslims are only victims, not perpetrators of riots” is true, and I believe that the issue should be ‘powerful vs. non-powerful’, ‘vote-bank politics vs. the spirit of democracy’ etc., rather than ‘Hindu oppressors vs. Muslim oppressed’, which would actually be half-true or even false in many contexts) or are willing to give him the benefit of doubt have no business to be spitefully critical of those shying away from condemning Modi or those who give him the benefit of doubt for what happened in 2002. And I emphasize that I am not stereotyping all Muslims – there are many of them who condemn the likes of Jinnah, Yasin Malik and Azam Khan in unambiguous terms.
When the BJP government did behave irresponsibly in the wake of the Dadri episode, India’s civil society registered its strong protest by way of returning awards and the BJP lost the Bihar elections. It is true that even under this Modi regime, we had without any censorship whatsoever, screenings of movies like pk, a film criticizing Hindu extremists and even questioning several mainstream Hindu beliefs and practices, and Haider, a film supporting the Kashmiri Muslim separatists and very critical of human rights violations by rogue elements in the Indian Army (a taboo subject for many Hindu rightists, and those contending that the film was, in any way, biased against the Kashmiri separatists should read this article), with Haider even winning National Awards from the government as also Sania Mirza, a Muslim tennis player, receiving the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, S. Christopher, and Syed Akbaruddin, a Muslim bureaucrat, continuing as the spokesman of India’s foreign ministry, even getting a further promotion, with their religious identities not coming in the way. In fact, this BJP government at the centre even apologized to the people of Kashmir when two innocents were killed by some rogue soldiers in a fake encounter. Even this government is launching schemes for the religious minorities like Nayi Manzil as also another one named after Maulana Azad. And if anyone claims that these are token initiatives by the BJP to prove its tolerance, doesn’t that also show the strength of Indian pluralism that compels the BJP to take such initiatives? This is a country where there are very many Muslims excelling in all walks of life and enjoying the civil liberties of a democracy.
Yes, discrimination against Muslims in the context of housing is a reality, but while many Muslim communalists and left-liberals do rightfully condemn very strongly the Hindus doing so, they do so without trying to impartially assess the causes, though desiring that we sympathetically look into the causes of what makes some Muslims resort to terrorism (but according to them, there’s no need to sympathetically understand Hindu rioters in the same vein, and such people even had issues with the movie Kai Po Che doing the same, where it showcased a Hindu who lost his mother in the Godhara train-burning resorting to anti-Muslim violence, even though that movie wasn’t in the least anti-Muslim). Discrimination against Muslims does exist in the context of being sold or rented out flats or bungalows in very many (though not all) Hindu-majority localities, but that again either has to do with a general sense of aversion to non-vegetarian food being eaten in their property, which is a legitimate choice for them to exercise (Hindus can lie about being vegetarian, as some acquaintances of mine did while renting an apartment in Gujarat, but given that vegetarians among Muslims are extremely less in number, many would find it hard to believe that a Muslim is a vegetarian even if he/she really is one!) or the suspicion about terrorism, which does not to mean that such real estate holders imagine all Muslims to be terrorists, but given that all major terrorist attacks in India’s cosmopolitan cities have been carried out by some Muslims, they view any Muslim stranger in their locality as possibly a threat (and it matters little in this context what the causes of terrorism by some Muslims are or that Muslim terrorists in India and abroad, including in Muslim-majority countries, have also killed Muslims, for a non-Muslim does not wish to be bombed by a terrorist, even if that terrorist also poses a threat to his/her own co-religionists), and such a possibility of one’s rented out flat or bungalow being used to plot terrorist attacks can invite the wrath of the police or at least invite unpleasant occasions of questioning. Sikhs too faced this discrimination till the mid-1990s when Khalistani terrorism was at its peak (as pointed out by Kashmiri Muslim writer Basharat Peer in his much acclaimed book Curfewed Night), and those from the northeast do as well, given that there are secessionist insurgencies in that region, and going by a survey conducted by the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), which is a globally reputed think-tank, there are actually many more landlords in Delhi averse to renting their property to live-in couples, irrespective of religion, than those averse to renting their property to Muslims, and indeed, it is not as though there aren’t any Muslims living in Hindu-majority localities. Also, given that left-liberals expect us to sympathize with, even if not support, terrorists, we can at least do the same with paranoid landlords. And interestingly, it is this BJP government that has tried to take legislative steps to prevent this housing discrimination against Muslims and others!
*Speaking of apostates of Islam (“ex-Muslims”) criticising their former religion, there is a fairly well-known website run by an apostate and basher of Islam who has even offered a cash prize to anyone who can disprove his allegations against Prophet Muhammad (but there are books by apostates of other religions criticizing their former religions too, the most famous one being ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’ by Bertrand Russell, and there’s also ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’ by Kancha Ilaiah, leveling very strong allegations), but practically, he is the judge of the debate, or to go by what he is saying, the “readership” of the website, a rather non-defined entity. In fact, he has acknowledged that he came across a Muslim who “intelligently argued his case and never descended to logical fallacies or insults” and while that Islam-basher “did not manage to convince him to leave Islam”, that Muslim earned his “utmost respect”, which implies that practically, the Islam-basher is the judge of the debate. Likewise, that Islam-basher has mentioned with reference to a scholar of Islam he debated with, that the latter was “a learned man, a moderate Muslim and a good human being” and someone he (the Islam-basher) has “utmost respect for”. So, that Islam-basher’s critique of Islam, whether valid or invalid, has no relevance in terms of making blanket stereotypes about the people we know as Muslims or even practising Muslims. By the way, that Islam-basher bashes Judaism too. And it is worth mentioning that I have encountered several practising Muslims on discussion groups on the social media, who have, in a very calm and composed fashion, logically refuted the allegations against Islam on such websites.
Indeed, several apostates of Islam have explicitly stated that while they personally left Islam thinking that the extremist interpretations are “right” and moderate ones wrong (as is the case with apostates of many other religions), that doesn’t in the least mean that they believe that most people identifying themselves as practising Muslims support violence against innocent people (as you can see here and here).
**To Hindu readers, I would say that while we need to be vigilant as Indians when it comes to terrorism, most Indian Muslims are moderates who enjoy their music, movies and company of Hindu, Sikh, Christian and Parsi friends, and yes, more than 50% of them conform to some or the other form of Sufi Islam, branded as heretical and the adherents of which are being violently targeted in the Middle East by the ISIS, and even most of the non-Sufi adherents of Sunni Islam are far removed from the ISIS worldview and in that sense, are similar to their puritan Sunni counterparts in Iraq who are fighting the ISIS. Indian Muslims will largely never support the ISIS, and we shouldn’t do anything to alienate them or on the other hand, encourage any regressive or communal tendencies among them (like promoting or endorsing exaggerated narratives of victimhood) to change this.
***All those contending that intra-Muslim clashes are all inevitably the handiwork of non-Muslim powers fail to explain how and why Muslims fall for those fissures, or as to whether there are no inter-personal issues between Muslim individuals. And would they attribute conflicts between Muslim rulers in history, including one that broke out immediately following the demise of Prophet Muhammad or the battle between Babar and Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat, too to the then non-existent United States of America and Israel?
****While I have said that Khuda ke Liye was a brilliant film and it is indeed among my favourites, I must mention two things I found objectionable in the film.
First was the scene wherein the innocent Pakistani musician on being asked by an American official why all terrorists are Muslims even if the vice versa isn’t true, instead of rebutting the fallacious notion of terrorism being a Muslim monopoly, further goes on to describe all Muslims globally as a nation. And that too, he describes Muslims as being the only nation that has been subjected to injustice, as if no non-Muslim has ever faced injustice anywhere (or even that Muslims have never faced injustice at Muslim hands) and as if to rationalize to a certain extent, though certainly not justify, terrorism.
Second was when the Pakistani musician cites the construction of the Taj Mahal as a uniquely Muslim achievement. Pakistanis advocating the two-nation theory don’t understand what a shared heritage means. They look at the Mughals in an exclusively Muslim context, but Jahangir and Shah Jahan had Hindu mothers, and the Taj Mahal had much indigenous Indian influence when it came to decoration, though the architectural style was West Asian (and Hindu rightists, on the other hand, would do well to know that even the Modi sarkar has conceded that there is no evidence whatsoever to justify the Hindu rightist conspiracy theory of the Taj Mahal having been a temple of Lord Shiv). The Mughal army, bureaucracy etc. were full of Hindus, while many an ordinary Muslim, like many an ordinary Hindu, was a farmer or labourer. Just a Muslim head of state doesn’t make it only Muslim history; otherwise, Manmohan Singh’s tenure as PM should only count as Sikh history and the achievements of the Indian government under him as Sikh achievements. Indeed, Indian Muslims, who largely share the same ancestry as the Hindus, have every right to identify with India’s pre-Islamic heritage – the scientific work of Arya Bhatt, the amazing epic literature and the likes, as many Indian Muslims indeed do.