On Music and the School of Reason, Rationality, and Beauty

There is always the challenge of trying to think through all the challenges that confront us as Muslims. Once you have a full awareness of what Islam is truly about, in every fiber of your being, then it is as if you are privy to a truth, as if you have been handed the key to enlightenment. That key is the key of Islam. Once you know this truth, you know that many other religions have aspired toward monotheism but ultimately failed to achieve it. Other religions deified human beings. In non-rigorous intellectual ways, other religions accepted the idea that a human being can be the object of deification and worship, whether through the form of ancestral worship, the mythology of the Trinity, or the idea of human beings as somehow semi-gods or demi-gods. You know how only one true religion on the face of this earth anchored itself in monotheism and managed to defeat the various corruptions of polytheistic belief, or the corruptions of the idea of a chosen people, a chosen race, or a chosen group.


There was no such religion before the Islamic revelation. I am not including religions like Bahaism, which was born after Islam and was deeply influenced by Islam. Without Islam, there would have been no Bahai faith. But even the Baha'i faith, although it took monotheism from Islam, was ultimately unable to preserve and protect it in its unadulterated form because of the desire of its founder to be all-inclusive and to embrace all truth. In embracing all truth, one ends up adopting and believing in practically none at all.


The enlightenment that Islam gives us is a key. In Surah al-A'raf (Q 7), God reminds us that at its heart and core, what God permits for us, facilitates for us, and has made permissible to us through the vehicle of Islam is that fascinating expression, al-tayyibat. God has allowed every tayyib (Q 7:32). In the same surah, God says that God prohibits al-fawahish (Q 7:33). Al-Tayyibat refers to everything that is clean, pure, and good, while al-fawahish is everything obscene, unhealthy, and wrongful. With the key that God gave us through Islam, through that conviction and that belief, we have access to al-tayyibat, to all that is good, and with this key, we can steer away, isolate ourselves from, and avoid al-fawahish, all that is obscene, impure, and wrongful. 


It is a remarkably liberating concept. If you truly internalize this belief, then you embrace what gives air to your lungs, your heart, and your very soul. Through your belief in God, as a follower of the only legitimate monotheism in the universe, you believe that you have been handed a license for everything that is pure and good, and received a command to steer away from everything that is impure, wicked, and ugly. This is why God repeatedly tells the followers of this faith that God has taken us “from darkness to light” (Q 14:1, 5). Put differently, Islam is an empowerment of liberation, but not “liberation” in the sense of indulging in the hedonistic. Not the liberation to follow the principle of “do as you will.” In the empowerment of Islam, it is not “do as you will,” but rather “do what is good, what is fundamentally moral, what is truly beautiful, and steer away from its opposite.” 


But the picture for modern Muslims gets complicated fairly quickly. The Islam that we inherit is not just the Islam communicated to us through the words of the Qur'an. Attached to the words of the Qur’an is the historical legacy of Islam. The precedents of the Prophet, the disciples of the Prophet, and all the well-known followers of the legacy of the Prophet are all interlinked with this historical legacy.


We cannot get around this. There is a history attached to anything that comes from the past. The very memory of our yesteryears is complicated by history. Although you lived through your own childhood, the memory of your own childhood is not some objective thing that you retain in your intellect. It is a complicated thing that is contextualized and situated in your own history, so much so that you cannot even recall your yesteryears without its inextricable historical attachment. Can you imagine, then, when this history is not even the life that you personally lived, but the history of numerous individuals who lived centuries ago and who are interconnected, interlinked, and thoroughly wedded and embedded in the system of belief that you inherit?


God tells us that God empowers us, as Muslims, with all that is good and beautiful,  al-tayyibat, and God also commands us to steer away from all that is ugly, al-fawahish. If we take this text and thoroughly ignore the historical context, we will have plunged head-on into an irreconcilable contradiction. The very reason we have that text is because it was preserved and remembered by history. So if we try to pretend that we can take the text and thoroughly ignore the history, we will have plunged into a contradiction. For we will have taken a text as if we are capable of taking a text without its attendant history. On the other hand, if we take the history without discernment, scrutiny, or intelligence, we may well end up lost in the details. We may get lost in the many obscurities and vagaries of history, so much so that the text itself no longer has any normative impact beyond the history that it delivers.


Take one example. I said in a recent khutbah that in all human societies throughout history, across many different contexts and settings, we will not find a single society that did not express itself in art. In that khutbah, I mentioned music in particular. I said that any religion that attempts to go against and be at odds with human nature, such as by prohibiting music, will end up defeating itself. Some people responded to this with a typical knee-jerk reaction. "This is very dangerous,” they said, ”because sex is a natural human desire too, so are we saying that sex is completely allowed?” Obviously, the people making these remarks are not very analytical thinkers. Islam did not prohibit or ban sex. Islam regulated sex. Islam says that there is a proper context and a proper channel for sex. In the same sense, there is a difference between regulating music and prohibiting music. 


But my point is much larger and more serious. Go back to al-tayyibat (Q 7:32). God tells us that what was handed to us was the key of Islam, the only real monotheism, the religion of all the prophets from Abraham to Moses. The faith that rejects the logic of someone sacrificing themselves for the sins of another. The faith that tells us not to apply human logic to understanding the magnificence of God. The only religion that, in every sense, taught us not to think of God in human terms because creation is far greater and far more dazzling than we can ever imagine. The only religion in which we can make sense of the idea that this entire universe will expire without challenging the premises of the very faith is Islam. It does not work with Christianity. It does not work with Judaism. It does not work with Buddhism or Hinduism. All these religions are vested in the created world and cannot go beyond it. But Islam does, because the Qur'an does. 


The example of music is an illustrative example, I have no interest in convincing you whether music is halal or haram. If you do not want to listen to music, that is fine. That is between you and God. But it is a good example of how words can become weighed down and interlinked with history itself. God tells us that everything that is good and beautiful, al-tayyibat, is not just allowed to us, but God affirmatively urges us to pursue all that is beautiful and good. In this example, a Muslim may come along and say, "Yes, but the historical context teaches us that music is haram." You may ask, "What historical context?" The typical response is to cite the opinion attributed to Ibn Masud, one of the earliest authorities on Islamic law. The opinion attributed to Ibn Masud is that God commands us in the Qur'an to avoid “lahwal hadith” (Q 31:6-7). “Lahwal hadith” means nonsense. The command is to avoid engaging in nonsensical talk. But “lahwal hadith” even goes beyond that and has a clear connotation of types of conversation that are harmful. People often point to the opinion attributed to Ibn Masud that “lahwal hadith” meant music. This report is in the famous collection of al-Bukhari. Al-Bukhari himself said that the hadith which attributes this opinion to Ibn Masud has a missing link, particularly a missing link to the Prophet. In other words, it is a defective hadith. Al-Bukhari included it in his text but died before verifying its authenticity. People who came after al-Bukhari claimed to have verified the authenticity of the tradition using his methodology.


The problem is the complexity of history and the historical context, because at the same time that we have this attribution to Ibn Masud, there is another hadith in which the Prophet clearly uses the “lahwal hadith” expression in a way that has nothing to do with music. Beyond that, there are many other narratives, including the well-known narrative that Abu Bakr walked into the home of the Prophet, found two girls singing and playing music, and attempted to stop them until the Prophet responded by saying, "Leave them." The context seems to indicate that Abu Bakr attempted to stop the girls not because music was haram, but out of respect for the Prophet. As was typical of the Prophet, he responded by saying, “Leave them, it is okay. They do not have to show me reverence by censoring themselves.” The record does not even stop there. There are many traditions that Abdullah ibn Ja’far, Imam Ali's nephew, not only listened to music but actually composed the music, played instruments, and would give his compositions to singers.


The historical record goes far beyond this and extends even to Abdullah ibn ‘Umar, ‘Umar's son. We have a number of reports in which he listened to music or played a role in the performance of music. We have the same reports about ‘Uthman. We have the same reports about ‘Abdul Rahman ibn ‘Awf. We have the same reports about Abu ‘Ubaida ibn al-Jarrah. Even of the generation of Ibn Masud, we have reports that some of the earliest jurists, including Sayyid ibn al-Mussayib, Ata ibn Abi Rabah, and Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri, were all of the opinion that what was attributed to Ibn Masud is inauthentic, and that music is not haram.


This is why Ibn Hazm and Ibn Abi Dunya, centuries later, or even later still, figures like al-Shawkani, who wrote a famous treatise challenging the presumed consensus against music, or Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, leave alone even later jurists like al-Qaradawi, Mohammed al-Ghazali, and Muhammad ‘Imara, among others, were all of the opinion that none of these reports are authentic, including the rather infamous hadith that whoever listens to music will have something poured into their ears in the Hereafter. That is clearly an inauthentic hadith. No one has ever claimed it was authentic.


Generations of scholars have said that anyone who claims there is an ijma’ or a clear opinion prohibiting music does not know what they are talking about. Ibn Hazm, a known literalist, explicitly said that if there was any clear evidence that music is haram, he would happily embrace it, but none of the evidence stands up to scrutiny. Ibn Hazm is right. We also have those in Islamic history, like the famous Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, who went even further, saying, "Whoever is not moved by music, something is wrong with their intuitive nature. Tell them to get the birds to stop singing."


But there is an even more serious methodological issue and question. Given that all texts reach us embedded in a historical context and a historical complexity, how do we navigate these waters? What do we do about this complexity? God's message has to be effective and compelling for every day and age. Now, you can choose to be a specialist who actually deals with historical complexity. But if so, it means you must commit your life to scholarship. It means committing your entire life to taking history seriously and to understanding the vagaries and nuances of history. Nothing short of your entire life will do. Part of the problem with so-called Muslim “scholars” today is that they think they can access the Qur'an and the Sunna without being experts in analyzing history. It does not work. You cannot, if you are a scholar, say that you base your opinions on the Qur'an and the Sunna unless you are fully competent with the tools necessary for analyzing the history that comes with them. If you are not in a position to commit your entire life to scholarship, what is your primary duty? Your primary duty is to take God’s words not at face value, but at rational value. When you read God saying that we are empowered, in this religion, to pursue all that is al-tayyib and to steer away from all that is al-fawahish, your charge, as a lay Muslim, is to carry God's message and revelation. It is to deliver and embody God's message and revelation anchored in reason and rationality.


You are not a historical expert, so do not pretend to be a historical expert. You do not have the training, knowledge, time, or resources. But it is absolutely incumbent upon you that when the non-Muslim comes, you act as a representative of Islam and of the enlightenment of Islam. And what you say and do on behalf of Islam has to pass the test of reasonability. What you say and do must make sense. Otherwise, you embody a corruption of God's message. And what you say and do must make sense to your own time, not to the historical context of those who died centuries ago or even 20 years ago. You are a lay person. Be humble enough to recognize it, admit it, embrace it, and own it.


In our days, true scholars are few and far between. Knowledge of the Qur'an and Sunna is no longer adequate. To be a real scholar, you need the analytical tools that give you a clear command over the vagaries and challenges of history. But as a lay Muslim, you need to be a living example of God’s luminosity, and God's luminosity is not exhibited by communicating a medieval past. Nor is it exhibited by communicating what you cannot defend rationally and explain reasonably.


Music is a very good example. As a lay person, I can make a reasonable and rational argument why the music that curses, swears, and expresses obscenities is fahisha. But can I make that same reasonable argument when the music is that of Mozart, Beethoven, a violent concerto, or something that elevates you to the heights of spirituality? A Brahms concerto? Chopin's piano? I would like to see someone try. If you cannot make such an argument, but if you still insist upon your belief that music is haram, then, at a minimum, keep your mouth shut. Do what you believe. But if you are unable to defend the rational and reasonable in Islam, keep your mouth shut. The lay Muslim is charged with intuitive reasonability and intuitive beauty. What they must exhibit and reflect to humanity is what is reasonable and beautiful. Not to pretend to be learned.


The lay Muslim is not even obligated to present the complexities of hadith and Sunna literature. They cannot navigate it. They have no command over it. Somehow, our institutions of real learning crumbled, and what used to be a normal social ethic, namely, that law is for the truly specialized, has been lost. In Islamic history, the most difficult academic training was in medicine and law. What required the most number of years and the greatest number of hours to specialize in were the fields of medicine and law. Colonialism entered the scene, and while medicine retained some of its status, law crumbled in the doldrums. Law became the realm of the dunces of the world. Every dunce claimed to be a legal expert. The problem is when every dunce speaks about what they do not know and expresses their frustrations and their feelings of disempowerment by making people's lives more difficult, and by making Islam more and more an exclusive club of absurdities. What gets lost is God’s rational, beautiful, and intuitive message. That is what we must reclaim. That is what we must regain.


Every week, I struggle with the layers of ugliness that plague the Muslim world. A news article has come out about how China is destroying historical mosques and can do so with hardly a peep, other than some U.N. bodies and human rights organizations. There have been articles on the incredibly degrading incident in which Pakistan, rightly or wrongly, took a position that it believed was consistent with its own interests, and refused to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The United States did what it has done with the militaries of so many Third World countries. The U.S. told the Pakistani military to oust Imran Khan for daring to say no to them, and the Pakistani military duly obliged. Whether it is the Libyan military, the Egyptian military, the Jordanian military, the Moroccan military, the Tunisian military, the Algerian military, or the Sudanese military, it is the same. I could go on and on. All of these militaries repress Muslims on behalf of Western countries. All these countries' prisons are packed with Islamic activists. Why? Because their Western masters keep them in power to perform their proxy role of suppressing Muslim organizations, Muslim activists, Muslim thinkers, and Muslim intellectuals. We see this everywhere in the Muslim world.


I look at a new story that talks about the rise of burnings of the Qur'an in Europe and about how, historically, genocides and holocausts have gone hand in hand with book burnings. That is quite true. It is as if you break the psychological bond that restrains you from assaulting a group of people by burning their texts. It is truly alarming. Burning the Qur'an is as if a prelude to saying, "You are an evil people that follow an evil book. Today we burn your book, but tomorrow we burn you."


I read an article that talked about Trump’s visit to India to hold talks with Modi. At the very moment that Trump was praising Modi, Muslims were being brutalized in the streets. They were being assaulted, murdered, burned, and raped. Apparently, Trump was informed, but it made zero difference. Every week, I hear of Palestinians killed by Israel and settlers attacking Palestinian communities. This week, a former Israeli general compared the treatment of Palestinians in Israel to Nazi Germany and described it as an apartheid. 700 Israeli academics did what academics in the United States would not dare to do. These academics wrote a statement describing Israel's treatment of Palestinians as apartheid, racist, and criminal. 


I then pause. What to do with this picture? The issue is not just that all of this is occurring. The issue is that the attention of Muslims is elsewhere. The issue is that in the midst of this misery, there are Muslims whose jihad is to insist that music is haram. In the midst of this misery, the best funded Muslim organization sits on the margins and says, "It is fine. It is God's will. Do not object. Do not protest."


We have lost our connection to God's pristine and primordial calling to our conscience. What God gives us, through Islam, is a key to all that is beautiful and good, but we have lost that primordial and natural connection. We got lost in the weeds of history, in the complexities of history. In short, we must reclaim our reasonability. We must reclaim our rationality. We must reclaim our very humanity to truly represent and embody God's message to humanity.


The Movement to Reinvigorate Beautiful and Ethical Islam has begun.  Join us.

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