Amanda Alstad paper
Clarifying the Anti-Music Perception of Islam in Western Culture
Islam has been accused as being Anti-Music. This debate began with the origins of Islam.
The debate is difficult to discuss because opinions are very widespread and personal.
In order to discuss this debate we cannot lump all people who are Muslim into one category. People can sit anywhere on the spectrum of conservative to liberal (where conservative is absolutely against music and liberal absolutely in favour of music). This also applies to Christianity.
The focus of my paper is proving that there is an equal anti-music debate in Christian tradition and that because of this fact, the western accusation that Islam is anti-music is simply an attempt to exert dominance over the Islamic faith.
I interviewed, mostly via email, ministers (including campus chaplains), and congregation members in various Christian denominations to get a sense of their views on music.
I also had the opportunity to meet Professor Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, Mufti Shaykh Abdul Fattah Bizim and Shaykh Hussan Din Farfour.
Interview Research Conclusions
The conclusions of this research are based on the interviews of several religious people participating in many different Christian denominations.
Most people were not aware at all or were vaguely aware of Muslims being accused of as anti-music. Most people thought the accusation was false.
Speculations on the reason for this accusation or the little knowledge that was known about the issue included:
-A gross exaggeration by the media.
-Islamic belief that music is “dangerous”
-Muslim worship being dominantly prayer centered
-Music being associated with emotions that overpower and ultimately distract the believer from God
-One person was totally confused by the accusation based on them hearing the “melody” of the call to prayer
-One person believed that certain Muslims allow only vocal and percussion music
None of the interviewed categorized themselves as anti-music, but identified specific restrictions in their preferred personal and worship music.
Objections included sexualized music, excessive swearing, music condoning violence, heavy metal, rap (Snoop Dogg was mentioned as objectionable), music manipulating and encouraging consumerism, racist and heterosexist themes.
Generally vocal music was considered more acceptable than instrumental music.
Generally everyone agreed that music can both separate/distract them from God but can also connect/strengthen their relationship with God.
When asked if music is vital to their worship experience, most people agreed that it was. In fact several people stated that song and music in worship is equally important to spoken word. Reasons included:
-Music enabled them to participate in the worship experience
-Gave them access to a deeper connection with God
-A way to release emotion, forget worries, re-focus to listen to the spoken word, etc.
Without music people thought worship would be:
-Dead, Boring and Lifeless
-Something would be missing
-Worship would not be in the “language of MY spirit”
Some people were open to the idea of silent worship feeling the importance of self reflection, meditation, finding God in the silence, etc.
Common Traits in the Restrictions
Both Christianity and Islam are open to the same kinds of music which is music that carries the meaning of love, praise for God, cries for social justice and human rights, etc.
Similarly, both Islam and Christianity seem to object to the same kinds of music which is the socially offensive lyrics that go against the meaning of each group’s holy texts.
However, there are sources there are “ultra-conservative” groups in BOTH faith practices that are anti-music; believe that music is forbidden, etc.
Strict Mennonite Church traditions practice unaccompanied singing.
Quaker practices are silent in worship.
In some cases these strong anti-music ideas are contradicting and inconsistent.
Differences between the Restrictions
In Islam, music is restricted not only on the basis of lyrics but also the music itself.
In Christian thought there is a general rejection of specific topics presented through lyrics in music and in some cases a rejection of music based on the lifestyle of the musicians themselves.
Speculations and Overall Conclusions
Islam and Christianity are, at their roots and in pure form, very similar. Unfortunately when discovering an alternate tradition, culture, or religious practice through the media there becomes a lack of pure representation with complete and accurate information. So, because in North America and Europe the most recognized religious tradition is Christianity, which usually offers hymns in its worship format, we reject the foreign ideas of a more silent style of worship.
Perhaps it is the fear of Western tradition being threatened or having to coexist with another cultural tradition that encourages the pointing of fingers at what is judged as possible deficiencies of another religious culture. This “pointing” places the “new/different” below the “old/familiar” despite the fact that both the different and familiar come from similar origins and currently hold similar debates and restrictions.
Clarifying the Anti-Music Perception of Islam in Western Culture
By Amanda Alstad 12/20/2010
This past month I have had the opportunity to discuss music within the Christian and Muslim denominations with multiple people including about twenty-five Christian contacts in Western Canada and two Syrian scholars Mufti Shaykh Bizim and Shaykh Farfour during their visit to Edmonton Alberta, Canada. These opportunities have shown me many similarities between the two faith traditions, thus negating the media’s placement of Muslim practice beneath Christianity. It would be possible to generalize these interviews to represent Christians and Muslims globally, but it would also be extremely presumptuous. Therefore, I aim to use this research with the realization that it does not represent the entire Muslim and Christian populations, but that its conclusions remain valid.
Asking someone about their religious beliefs can be a very personal question. Religion is usually a belief deeply rooted within a person and having it challenged or even inquired about can raise doubt and panic. People can become defensive. It is also difficult to generalize people’s beliefs because there are rarely two people who believe exactly the same thing whether or not they attend the same church. Through interviews and discussions with people I conclude that it is inappropriate to discuss practicing Muslims or practicing Christians as collective entities. Rather, it is necessary to discuss these people as individuals on a spectrum ranging from conservative to liberal minded. This is essential because the “lumping together” of religious believers is exactly what has lead to narrow minded accusations in today’s media and society. It is true that there are Muslims who believe that music is haram (forbidden), but this is certainly not the opinion of the majority. Similarly there are Christians who forbid all secular music that is not acapella vocal music in the form of a hymn, but again, this is not the majority. Despite these facts, the Western media has successfully distorted the opinions of a largely Christian audience to believe that Muslims are, among other things, “anti-music” neglecting to mention that there is an equal discourse in Christian belief.
When discussing the issue of music in Islam with Shaykh Farfour, he began by stating that opinions on the matter differ. His opinion is that vocal music is always halal (permissible) and that since the duff (a round hand drum) was used in the presence of the Prophet Mohammed it is also accepted, especially at celebrations such as weddings. All other musical practices seem to be more of a contentious issue. For Shaykh Farfour, what is important is the intent behind the music. If music encourages alcohol, illicit sex, mixed dancing with men and women, or involves disturbing language, it is haram. However, if the final intent of the music spreads ideas of love and the teachings of the Koran which is the purpose of Islam, for him, it is halal.
There are people whose ideas contrast Shaykh Farfour. To support their idea that music is haram, they use hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) and the opinions of scholars with similar beliefs. For example, on a website titled “Music in Islam” the author quotes, “One hadith from the Bukhari Shareef, the most authentic Book of Hadith, further confirms unlawfulness of music and singing : `There will be people of my Ummah who will seek to make lawful; fornication, wine-drinking and the use of ma`aazif (musical instruments).’” (Khutbah, 2010) Similarly, Yasir Qadhi claimed that a famous companion of the prophet stated that, “it is impossible to love the Koran and to love music at the same time.” (Qadhi, 2009) These interpretations are on the conservative end of the spectrum and go against the majority. However, these contributions are valid representations of the controversy of this debate.
Interestingly I found very similar opinions when interviewing practicing Christians. For them, vocal music was overall considered more acceptable than instrumental music. Music that was overly sexualized, contained excessive swearing, condoned violence, encouraged consumerism, and was racist was found objectionable. Specifically for some, heavy metal, punk, and rap music was absolutely intolerable.
In terms of heavier restrictions, while searching for current Christian positions toward music, I was pointed in the direction of a site adamantly denouncing rock music including the genres of “Christian Rock” and “Christian Rap.” This website claims that all of these artists have made a pact with or have sold their souls to the devil and includes a thirteen part sermon discussing these ideas, as well as various articles discussing specific artists from John Lennon to the Dixie Chicks. This somewhat informal website takes Biblical quotes out of context and is not entirely factual about the bands they are discussing. However, the emotional sentiment of the author of this site is clear contempt towards contemporary popular music. (Robertson, 2008) This website is made an example of the equally conservative Christian perspective towards music, proving that musically conservative positions are not exclusive to Islam.
While these parallels are significant, there are notable differences centered in the worship styles of Muslims and Christians. Muslim connection with God is very prayer based. In fact, practicing Muslims pray five times a day each time resubmitting themselves and their lives to God. Christianity instead employs song, sometimes instrumental music, and speech as forms of worship and connection with God. Typically these worship services take place once a week (sometimes two or three) and people pray at various frequencies, often whenever it is convenient and for some, whenever forgiveness is needed. Music, for the people that I spoke with, revives memories, invokes deep emotions, connects the mind to the heart, provides an outlet for grief or painful experiences, releases worries, and serves as a way for everyone as a community to participate in worship. For the Muslim faith, these memories and intense emotions are less important than prayer and submission to God and His will.
My interviews lead me to the discovery that it is rare for Christians to reject any musical instruments because of the fact that it is a musical instrument. Instead, heavy concern was placed on the content of the lyrics and the lifestyles of the musicians themselves. Conservative Muslims however, seem to reject instrumental music entirely and certain vocal music genres on the basis that it creates powerful emotions causing distraction from God, as well the belief that it is immoral and contrary to the Prophet’s message.
In light of these two separate opinions currently existing in both Islam and Christianity as a whole and between Muslims and Christians on a personal level, it is misinformed to believe that one religion is anti-music and the other is not. It is similarly incorrect to decide that one religion’s musical practices hold more authority than the other. Instead of using small differences between these two worship styles to create false generalizations and decide who is more right or who is more righteous, it is more useful to acknowledge the differences that exist. It is important to recognize that neither Muslims nor Christians are a group of clones, completely unified in their interpretations of their religion.
After ruling that there are anti-music feelings in both Christian and Islamic tradition, why is it Islam that is accused of being anti-music? Why not Christianity? It stems from a combination of misguided people. This includes the media (in all forms), immigrated Muslims in the west, and society at large. The media represents the extreme ultra-conservative Islamist groups as all Muslims. Western Muslims fear stepping outside of the boundaries of stereotypes placed on them. Censorship battles in the Arab world are attributed to Islam rather than to politics. Ignorant misunderstandings and an automatic rejection of what is viewed as unfamiliar by the West is aggressive. Ignorance and rejection is paired with the attempt for a predominantly Christian society to exert dominance over the Muslim faith.
Conservative Islamist groups are represented by Jonas Otterbeck in his paper on the Islamic reaction to contemporary music in this way: “As a reaction to changes, states and local authorities have taken action against heavy metal musicians, female singers, music videos, and public concerts. Islamist and conservative Islamic organizations or individuals try to disturb and break up concerts, demand censorship on recordings, or call for the punishment of individuals for being blasphemous. At times musicians are killed or attacked physically.” (Otterbeck, 2007). After reading this, it is easy to see that western misconceptions arise when all Muslim people are portrayed in this manner. What is important to understand is that these actions against musicians are being taken up by conservative, fundamentalist Islamist groups which is not the typical Muslim. It is instead, a very small minority of the Muslim population. Moreover, there is a difference between Islam and political groups in the Arab world which often have little to nothing to do with each other, despite their portrayal as one unit in the media.
In an article by Michael Frishkopf, the idea that there is a fear among Muslims arising from the confusion around the discourse of music (and other things) in Islam is presented. These thoughts are taken up through his experiences with the University of Alberta’s Muslim Student Association being unwilling to meet with a visiting Shaykh from Egypt who was also a popular performer and recording musician. When people are unsure of what is haram and what is halal, the most conservative path tends to be chosen in order to remain cautious or on the safe-side. This happens regardless of potential opportunities to learn or gain new perspectives in the process. (Frishkopf, 2009). The distortion of the pure ideology of Islam affects practicing Muslims in western countries. Confusion arises out of a generation becoming more and more separated from “pure” Islamic thought. This breeds a fear that is rescued by a conservative stance. Frishkopf writes, “Sermons often (though not always) exhibit a conservative and sometimes even intolerant line: railing against liberal society; warning against making non-Muslim friends; generally opposing “us” (Muslims) to “them” (others). From the perspective of such sermons, the Sunni community appears relatively closed’ Shiites are hardly recognized as Muslims, and Ismailis not at all. Fear of bid`a (innovation, i.e. heresy) is rampant.” (Frishkopf, 2009). Therefore, in some facets, Muslims in the west can further perpetuate the non-Muslim view of their religious practices.
Another source of the misconception on the Muslim standpoint on music is in the censorship battles in the Arab world. This, as Otterbeck points out, is a fact, but is not overly successful due to the phenomenon of the internet, pirating music, having no control of what is produced outside of your country, and the ease of hacking through blocked websites. He states that for the average citizen, “the rich folklore and classical music traditions of the Arab world are more often hailed than attacked.” (Otterbeck, 2007). However, instead of this mindset being portrayed in the western media, a story depicting political battles between Islamist leaders and artists in the Arab world are discussed frequently in Western society. “At times, Islamic scholars have proclaimed fatwas (opinion on Islamic law) accusing musicians of other countries of blasphemy. In March 2001 an over 80 year old Saudi cleric, Hamoud bin-Aqla al-Shuaibi, issued a fatwa claiming that Kuwaiti pop star Abdallah Rowaishid had put the opening chapter of the Qur’an to music. It proved not to be true and Kuwaiti clerics rushed to Rowaishid’s defence commenting that al-Shuaibi was not even qualified to issue a fatwa.” (Otterbeck, 2007).
In order to get a sense of the common knowledge of the debate of music in Islam, I asked my Christian contacts a few questions. I wondered if they had even heard about the anti-music accusations toward Islam in the west. Most people hadn’t heard about this debate and most people claimed that the accusation was likely incorrect. I asked people where they believed this accusation came from. The answers that I received were that it stemmed from one, a gross exaggeration by the media of a few isolated events, two, confusion around Muslim worship being predominantly prayer based, and three, the Islamic opinion that certain music is “dangerous.” One contact was completely thrown off by the accusation based on the melodic call to prayer that Muslims use daily.
Through these answers it is evident that there is little to no education among non-Muslims about Muslim practices. There is a general ignorance towards the Muslim faith. This produces a fear of the unfamiliar and generates a human instinct to attack and belittle what is “different.” It is this lack of knowledge that the media uses to distort the image of Islam (or anything for that matter). For example Amnon Shiloah, an excellent scholar opens his paper on music and Islam by referring to an article published in a French newspaper. “One such report that appeared in the prestigious French daily “Le Monde” (12 October 1996), told of a presumably authoritative edict calling upon the Afghans, who are very fond of birds, to open their cages and free their feathered friends. They would thus avoid enjoying the singing of the birds, as Islamic law prohibits the listening to music.” (Shiloah, 1997). Similarly Islam Herald wrote an article on “The Perception of Islam” saying that, “Sometimes, a selective and unfamiliar aspect of a particular Muslim country's social behaviour is projected as if it were a universally practiced tradition of Islam. During the Gulf War, for example, Saudi Arabia's restriction on Muslim women's driving privilege received a good deal of publicity in American press.” (islamherald.com). These examples are two of many misconstrued projections of Islam for Western audiences. It seems that unless you know someone who is a native to the Arab world or go there yourself, you will never have an absolutely accurate opinion because it is unreasonable to rely on the media or on fundamentalist group’s projections of Islam.
This paper represents a spectrum of opinions within Christianity and Islam with respect to beliefs about music. It also demonstrates the tools that the media uses to manipulate its audience, blow events out of proportion, create fear of the uncommon, and encourage Christian thought over Islamic thought. This discourse is massive and contains complexity at many levels. Religion, being a sensitive and personal topic, brings with it a strong opinion and bias for each individual. It is impossible to summarize a religious group and their ideas. With this in mind, the media’s general portrayal of any religious group must be seriously examined prior to placing faith in its accuracy. Blindly accepting a newspaper article has the potential to create an ignorant society full of incorrect stereotypes and demeaning judgements. In spite of human nature to reject whatever is not the norm it is important to recognize that there is a distinction between treating someone as different from yourself and treating someone as wrong and therefore less than yourself.
Amnon, Shiloah. “Music and Religion in Islam.” Acta Musicologica. July-December 2007: 143-155.
Frishkopf, Michael. “Globalizing the soundworld: Islam and Sufi Music in the West.” Sufis in Western Society Global networking and locality. Ed. Dressler, Markus and Greaves, Ron and Klinkhammer, Gritt. United Kingdom: Routledge. March 2009. 1-29.
Khutbah, Jummah. “Music in Islam.” inter-islam.org. October 20, 2010. http://www.inter-islam.org/Prohibitions/Mansy_music.htm#Haram.
“MUSIC in Islam- affects the heart.” YouTube. April 9, 2009. darklight254. 2 December, 2010 < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMAmKYc4DHY&feature=related>
“Music in Islam Ignorance and Tabo.” YouTube. July 28, 2007. obaidkarki. 2 December, 2010 < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mk8moNi7PRo>
Otterbeck, Jonas. “Battling over the Public Sphere: Islamic reactions to the music of today.” Religion, media, and modern thought in the Arab World. Ed. Malouf, Ramez and Berenger, Ralph and Cambridge Scholars press Ltd. October 2007. 1-22.
Roberston, Lee. “Satan’s Music.” jesus-is-saviour.com. November 2008. http://www.jesus-is-savior.com/Evils%20in%20America/devils_music.htm
“The Perception of Islam.” islamherald.com. April 23, 2003. http://saif_w.tripod.com/explore/stereo/st_the_perception_of_islam.htm