Music in Islam: Religious matter or cultural taboo?


Language is the only trait that differentiates a human from a non-human. Poetry and music are the ultimate artistic form of expression; a society that denounces it, denounces life and human existence. Religious scriptures are a testimony to the fact that there is no objection to this art even in religion.

Many years ago soon after my arrival in the United States, I was showing some of my pictures from Kashmir to an American friend of mine. Suddenly she asked me a question: How come all men wear western clothing and women are in traditional dresses? I was taken aback. Despite being a Kashmiri woman myself, I had never before realized this stark difference in the way men and women of Kashmir dress. As of today, to think of a situation where a Kashmiri woman, especially if she is a Muslim, comes out in broad day light in a pair of jeans and western tops sounds like a blasphemy. Such a behavior is an open invitation for numerous angry and insulting remarks even if it completely covers her body. Many thekedars of the Kashmiri culture and tradition will come out in extreme wrath and declare this behavior as un-Islamic, immoral, shameless, and so forth, not to talk about the opposition from her own family. What will people say? This is what a girl has to hear every time she chooses to question the norm. But why are women to be the torchbearers of our culture and tradition? What about men?

A little while ago, it so happened that a group of three young girls in their teens decided to pursue a dream of learning and playing music, much to the despair of many a jealous eye. Their family was brave enough to encourage and support them in pursuing this dream against the social norms. But suddenly their dream was shattered. Hordes of young Kashmiri netizens came out in severe criticism and condemnation of the group on the Internet in the name of Islam. Many even showered them with loads of verbal abuse and personal threats. This continued for days until the matter caught the attention of the media. Politicians, religious leaders and separatists were invited on the national television in preparation for sensational debates. The girls caught the attention of many government and non-government bodies, social activists and women’s organizations. The ruckus became very exciting and culminated in the form of a fatwa (religious decree) against the trio extended by a certain religious leader, a “grand Mufti”, whose political affiliations still are a matter of concern. The separatist leadership, as usual, came forward with their moral policing and talk of the “tradition” while the politicians pounced upon the opportunity to criticize them. Amidst all the controversy, the girls eventually decided to quit for “the happiness of all”. Now, after all the news hype about the matter, one could only predict that it would remain the talk of the town for some more days before people would eventually forget it.

For the priests, mullahs and their supporters regarding their unsolicited advice, here is something to ponder about. If music were actually haram (‘prohibited’) in Islam, it should be so for both men and women. Music and singing by men and women has been a normal practice in the Kashmir of the days bygone. In the present day, there are scores of men’s musical groups and bands in Kashmir thriving and performing for millions of people who listen to and enjoy different kinds of music on a daily basis. Given these numbers, how many more fatwas should be extended? As far as the question of whether music is actually haram in Islam, there has been a long debate and a lot of controversy over this topic. There are a number of references in historical texts where it is claimed that the Prophet and his wife (Ayisha) had, at various occasions, enjoyed and in fact encouraged or expected musical performances. Certain types of music were recommended for festivities of various kinds even during those medieval times. The best ever music that we enjoy and appreciate today comes from some of the important Islamic countries and Muslim cultures of the world. From the best recitations of the scriptures to qawwali and na’at (songs of devotion), music has been an important and intrinsic part of the Islamic cultures of the world. Yet Muslim women have been more or less deprived of this blessing on the pretext of music being “haraam”.

But perhaps the objection was more likely for the particular genre of music and the attire chosen by these girls? The question is why does the Kashmiri society become so nervous and panicked when women adopt western cultural values? Isn’t it absolutely unfair on part of Kashmiri men to suppress or restraint women from adopting the change that they themselves have embraced? Why is the burden of tradition to be carried only by women?

Modernization brings certain changes in the way of our life and it affects men’s and women’s thinking and behavior alike. Our cultural values, our way of speaking and our clothing, all are influenced and determined by our attitude towards various things happening around us. Globalization has brought in various changes in our life-style. Our language, our dress, our cultural traits, our literary and fine arts have all been influenced and enriched along with the changing world. In general, people tend to get a certain kind of excitement in trying and exploring new things. Even in the west, more and more people are trying eastern ways of clothing, music and food. This kind of change is continuing and it is inevitable. It is naïve on part of the extremist and nationalist ideologists to expect anything on the contrary that will be healthy for the development and survival of a society and its culture.

© Sadaf Munshi

(Note: This article appeared in the June 4, 2013 issue of the daily Kashmir Observer)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: