Music, Modern Muslims and Mysticism (Part 2)

Raahim Zafar 

Raahim Zafar studied International Relations, Arabic and French at St Andrews (2016-20) and was President of St Andrews Muslim Students Association in his final year. He writes poetry under his pen name Asrar Hayder (IG @asrarhayder).

Find Part 1 Here

The arts – music, architecture, painting – have been essential in making God a lived experience. Perhaps that is a good definition of spirituality: “to live theology.”

“I cannot possibly comprehend the severity of the Day of Gathering [when people are raised to be judged]” the song continues, “I have not brought deeds to earn your pardon… My plea is only, that you grant me your proximity…! Have mercy, have grace, the beggar is standing at your door…!” The song is conversing with God with a deep awareness of and grounding in profound theological ideas that are present in formal scholarship– ideas which, for sake of brevity, I won’t expand on, but equally ideas that don’t need to be elaborated here. This song is in the vernacular language, it is speaking to the people at the personal level, divorced from academic jargon. Theoretical studies of God, of course, have their place, but ultimately, God is there to have a relationship with; He is an entity, an Ultimate Truth with which one seeks to resonate, harmonize and synchronize one’s own life and actions (puns all intended). So, if music puts you into tune with the divine reality, if it brings you back to God, then there is surely good to be found in it. “When my plans fell apart, this I learned: In Your Kingdom, only Your word goes.” My favourite line.

There has been much discussion lately of the erasure of Rumi’s Islamic identity by Western translators (The New Yorker, 2017; Persian Poetics Twitter Thread, 2020), but it should be remembered that his celebrated Masnavi was dubbed “The Quran in Persian,” not because it was a translation, but because Rumi was, at heart, a Muslim scholar. Rumi was deeply grounded in Islam’s theological and jurisprudential traditions before he was a vague and badly-translated oriental mystic; his knowledge of the Quran and the Islamic Sciences formed and informed the basis of his spirituality and, ultimately, his poetry. The arts- music, architecture, painting- have been essential in making God a lived experience (Ogunnaike, The Silent Theology of Islamic Art, 2017; Scruton, Music and Morality). In fact, perhaps that is a good definition of spirituality: “to live theology.”

The danger, of course, is that music has this incredible potential that can and has been misused.

“In a manifesto released to coincide with the [2011] atrocities, Anders Breivik [the Oslo bomber] explains the crucial role that music played in developing and reinforcing his extreme right-wing militancy. As well as listing songs which inspired him, he emphasizes the importance of music as an aid to self- indoctrination and motivational control.” (James Garratt, Music and Politics: A Critical Introduction, 2018).

Daniel Levitin cites a study that showed that the intense emotions evoked in subjects from listening to music (“thrills and chills”) affected the same areas of the brains as gambling and drug usage and activated “brain regions thought to be involved in reward, motivation, and arousal” (Your Brain on Music, 2009). And of course, Islam and other religious traditions aren’t wary of music simply because of one mad maniac in Norway (Should Christians listen to Secular Music [Video], 2018), rather music can be (mis)used to channel and arouse the most base bestial aspects of the human being, the qualities which religious traditions around the world encourage their devotees to transcend. Music is not to be trifled with, and this is no modern realisation: we have known about music’s power for millennia, but only now we are beginning to understand the psychological effects and neurochemical changes that music produces. So, when a Muslim scholar says music, be it lyrical or instrumental, is effectively “a drug,” they are not simply being conservative killjoys. They are standing on solid ground. Music has a profound effect on us; precaution is not unwise.

Given I have spent most of this article discussing the benefits of music, it is clear that I am not of the camp that totally rejects it. But on the other hand, I am very meticulous, and possibly excessively selective, about the sort of music to which I do allow myself to listen. Shi’i Muslim scholars have issued rulings that permit music that does not distract from the remembrance of God (Ayatullah Khamenei) and so long as it is not music that is suitable for “gatherings of amusement and entertainment” (Ayatullah Sistani). The application of these rules however, and judging what is and isn’t suitable for entertainment, and what does and doesn’t distract from God, is left to the individual believer.

There is hence, an extent of cultural and individual relativity that can be invoked; detractors may call it a grey area and consequently, the reverent Muslim may go the extra mile and avoid it all out of supplementary precaution. The late Lebanese Ayatullah Fadlallah, whose English language website contains an extended dialogue on music, humbly responded to a question about the permissibility of classical music by saying, “I do not have the required knowledge to distinguish the different genres of music. However, it is generally acknowledged that Classical music is the music that inspires sentimentality rather than lewdness and rapture. If so, then Classical music is permissible” (Bayynat, 2012). From such a high-ranking scholar, I consider it admirable that he admits a shortcoming in his own personal knowledge of music, but it does point to a need for more specialised understanding among the scholarly class.

Therefore, I believe a great deal more research on music is needed in the fields of psychology, neurology, and sociology as starting points. My own undergraduate dissertation looked at devotional music as a political tool, but to diversify and deepen our collective knowledge it is necessary to study music from a scientific perspective as well. We need to learn a lot more about short-term and long-term effects of all different types of music on the psyche. If that information already exists, it needs to be better publicly circulated and widely understood because our world is drowned in music; it is saturated with sounds that are, effectively, drugs. They affect our moods; they affect our psychological and spiritual states; and they have just been given open welcome and unchecked rein to permeate and infiltrate our every public and private moment.

Those of you who clicked on the links for the Quran or Dua videos in Part 1 will have heard that they are effectively “sung.” Out of respect for their sanctity however, they are usually referred to as “recitations” in English; correspondingly, terms that differentiate them from potentially irreverent and impious music are utilised in Arabic and other languages. That the Quran is melodiously recited, that religions across time and space have incorporated music into their worship and devotion, that you can feel different by listening to music- is that not enough reason to at least be somewhat wary and seek to learn more about music just as we do about every type of food and drink we consume?

The Quran states: “Then let the human being look to his food.” (‘Abasa, 80:24)

In what appears to be a subtle reference to this verse, Hasan (as), the eldest grandson of Muhammad (saw), is reported to have said: “I am amazed at the people who are meticulous about what they feed their bodies, how they do not take care about what they feed their minds: They protect their stomachs from harmful food, but feed their minds that which brings them to destruction” (Safinat-ul-Bihar,V:2 P:84).

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