Music in the World of Islam
handasah al sawt

November, 1998

Table of Contents:


In a discussion about music in the world of Islam, it is first important to distinguish that Muslims do not use the term "music" in the same manner employed in the English language and in other Western languages. The Arabic term for "music," musiqa, does not apply to all types of artistic vocal and instrumental arrangements of sounds or tones and rhythms; rather, the Muslims term this general case "handasah al sawt," or "the art of sound." Musiqa, or "music," applies rather "only to particular genres of sound art, and for the most part it has been designated for only those that have a "somewhat questionable or even disreputable status in Islamic culture" (al Faruqi, 1986). "Handasah al sawt" is a recently coined term used by Muslims to separate their Islamic conception of "music" from that held in the Western and non-Islamic world, which, as we will see, often contrasts in very fundamental and critical ways.

In this paper, it is my goal to study the influence of the Qur'an and Islamic religious beliefs on the role and realization of sound art in the world of Islam. My first step towards this end will be to look at the various ethical considerations that Muslims have made considering handasah al sawt. Next, I will look at how religious beliefs are manifested in the sound art itself. I will make comparisons, furthermore, to Western music where I am able. I believe many similarities exist between handasah al sawt and various examples from contemporary Western art music, especially, and also certain forms of jazz. Such comparisons are made in the hope of making the "sound art" of the Islamic world more accessible and undertstandable not only to myself but also to readers more familiar with developments in the musical world of the United States and of Europe.

I will use the term "music" for simplicity's sake throughout this essay, but in reference to Islamic culture I use the term music to mean handasah al sawt rather than the Arabic musiqa.

The (In)Admissibility of Music in Islam

"The attitude toward music [in the world of Islam] has always been ambivalent, as expressed in a series of contradictory feelings and concepts: predilection and mistrust; divine-devilish; exalting-disruptive; admissible-prohibited" (Shiloah, 1995). Views about the admissibility of music, or sound art, in the world of Islam run the gamut from complete negation to complete acceptance, even of dance. Many Muslims fear the "magical," intoxicating powers of music and prohibit it as a tool of the devil. Other Muslims, however, find music inspiring and entirely spiritual. Most Muslims fall somewhere in between these poles, restricting the practice of handasah al sawt to some degree but allowing it in various controlled forms.

Like other legal judgements in the Muslim world, judgements about the admissibility of music must be based on the sacred writings or on analogy and not merely on individuals' a priori decisions or opinions. Opponents and advocates of music, thus, base their arguments primarily on the (a.) Qur'an and on (b.) the hadith literature:

  1. As for the Qur'an, nothing of it deals explicitly with the topic of music, though legalists and religious authorities have recourse to a couple verses that they believe have implications on the role of music. Opponents of music claim that "diverting talk" in verse XXXI:5, refers to music: "There are some men who buy diverting talk to lead astray from the way of God" (Shiloah, 1995). Those who approve of music, however, claim verse XXXV:1, refers to a "beautiful voice": "He increases in His creatures that which He wills," and that verses XXXIX:17-18 refer to singing: "So give good tidings to my servants who listen to al-qawl (the spoken word) and follow the fairest of it" (Shiloah, 1995).
  2. These Qur'anic arguments are somewhat far-fetched, though, with no explicit mention of music. Stronger support for or against music can be found in the hadith writings, which describe the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. One hadith that is often used to defend the use of music is the story of two young girls performing song to a drum in Muhammad's wife A'isha's house. When Abu Bakr (later the first Muslim caliph) rebukes the girls for singing, Muhammad responds to "Let them alone" (Shiloah, 1995). However, this same hadith is also used by Muslims to oppose the use of music: Abu Bakr had called the above singing "mizmar al-shaytan," or reed-pipe of satan and Ibn Umar had once seen Muhammad plug his ears when he heard the sound of mizmar (Shiloah, 1995). The hadith literature, then, like the Qur'an, fails to come to any definite conclusions regarding the role of music in Islam.

The main reason for Muslim reservations about music is that many believe it is a very powerful intoxicating force, capable of creating extreme excitement in listeners that can potentially cause them to lose control of their reason, diverting them from their devotional life and inviting sinful behavior: "...its maximal effect can send the listener into an emotional, even violent paroxysm.... This quasi-somnambulistic state is considered to be in contradiction to the exigencies of rational religious precepts" (Shiloah, 1995). Such a state of trance, furthermore, is seen as false ecstacy and "a temptation of the devil who dominates the soul and makes it a slave of passion" (Shiloah, 1995). These anti-music proponents of Islamic society point to music's lack of mention in the Qur'an as proof of its unimportance in life.

Muslims who have supported the use of music, on the other hand, include certain sects of the mystic Sufi Muslims, who believe that music impels a person to seek the spiritual world: "[Man's] soul, which originates in the world above, remembers its homeland [through music] and yearns to attain the state that would enable it to untie the knots binding it to matter, thereby facilitating mystical union with God" (Shiloah, 1995). Rather than a temptation of the devil, music and dance are seen instead as manifestations of "infinite, ecstatic love of God." These Muslims argue that "the nature of music's influence on man very much depends on the basic intentions of the listener" (Shiloah, 1995). Therefore, music is not inherently evil: rather, the listener's interpretation of musical experience can be evil. For this reason, these Sufis prohibit much of music for novices and noninitiates, who have not yet been saved from "the clutch of the carnal soul" (Shiloah, 1995). Advanced gnostics, however, are permitted all forms of music and dance and find inspiration and divine beauty in them.

Questions as to the admissibility of music, it should be further noted, are not unique to the Islamic tradition: one can also find heated religious debate concerning the role of music in Western history as well. In the Middle Ages, so-called Gregorian chant was formulated under strict rules of musical structure called "counterpoint" that had foundations in Catholic religious beliefs, restricting the use of certain musical intervals, like the tritone for example, for their supposed evocation of the devil. In ancient times, also, Plato had mapped out certain musical modes and scales in his Republic that were considered illegal for evoking certain undesirable and dangerous kinds of emotions. St. Augustine, furthermore, a Christian ascetic, had spent much focus trying to define the point at which music distracts the listener from reflection of God, at which point music thus becomes sinful.

Religious Manifestation in Islamic Sound Art
and its similarity to music in the West

Regardless of the admissibility or not of music in the Islamic world, however, Islamic music usually strives to realize and express as much as possible the ideas and beliefs of Islam as set down in the Qur'an. Qur'anic chant, for example, can be seen as the prototype of all Islamic music and the most pervasive genre of Islamic sound art. The point of much music in the Islamic world is, therefore, to express and encapsulate the most important concept of the Qur'an: tawhid, or "unity with God."

We will look at the various devices that Muslims use to express tawhid, but in sum these characteristics can all be described as forms of abstraction: "Since tawhid teaches that God cannot be identified with any object or being from nature, He cannot be musically associated with sounds that arouse psychological or kinesthetic correspondences to beings, events, objects, or ideas within nature" (al Faruqi, 1986). Thus, Islamic music must be nonprogrammatic and must not create events that would evoke or express extra-musical ideas that are associated with human emotions, human problems, or earthly/natural occurrences: "We refer to the saying of the Prophet in which he condemned artists who try to 'ape' the creation of God: in their afterlife they will be ordered to give life to their works and will suffer from their incapacity to do so" (Burckhardt, 1987).

Such abstraction can also be readily perceived in Islamic art—"arabesque" art, for example, which never depicts images of humans, animals, or the natural world, but instead focuses solely on the creation of patterns. The point of abstraction in both Islamic art and music is to avoid focus on worldly concerns, which are of no value and only distracts man from focus on God: "Islamic art corroborates a void with abstract forms... instead of ensnaring the mind and dragging it into some imaginary world, it dissolves mental 'coagulations,' just as the contemplation of a stream of water, or a flame, or of leaves trembling in the wind can detach the consciousness from its inward 'idols.' This void which Islamic art creates by its static, impersonal and anonymous quality enables man to be entirely himself, to repose in his ontological centre" (Burckhardt, 1987; italics added). Rather than be transformed and defined by his own art, in other words, man without images of himself can remain more pure and uninhibited from contemplating God.

Example of Arabesque art.

A good comparison to Western music that displays a similar "impersonal and anonymous quality" is the music of "bebop," which is a special type of jazz created in the 1950s. Jazz is often perceived as a music of passion and energy, but, as described by 20th-century German composer Louis Andriessen, bebop is a very "cold," or impersonal, style of jazz: "This is very important: you think bebop is hot, but it's cold msuic. You can hear this more clearly listening to Miles Davis than to Dizzy Gillespie. But Charlie Parker most of all: he had an enormous distance from his musical material. I call that classicism, in that it's contradictory to romanticism. Romanticism takes you by the hand and leads you to another world; classicism has a certain distance always from the musical object...." (Andriessen, 1992; italics and boldface added).

To continue on the point of abstraction, however, not only does the music of Islam try to detach itself from the world, the musician himself in Islamic music tries to detach himself from his music: "The Moslem artist, by his very islam, his 'surrender' to the Divine Law, is always aware of the fact that it is not he who produces or invents beauty, but that a work of art is beautiful to the degree that it obeys the cosmic order and therefore reflects universal beauty" (Burckhardt, 1987). Again, it is Western Romanticism that had created the notions of "individuality," "genius," and "masterpieces" and had thus placed prime importance on the creator of music and art rather than on the creation itself. However, this is a relatively recent development in the history of Western music (late 18th century), and such principles had not been the modus operandi beforehand in the Classical and Baroque eras and nor are they held in most of modern art music in the West, though they may persist in mainstream styles of music. Rather, detachment of the artist from his/her creation, as described of Islamic culture in the above quote, was and has again become the primary focus of Western creation.

For example, let us consider the following quote: "For the Moslem mind, art reminds man of God when it is as impersonal as the laws that govern the movement of the heavenly spheres" (Burckhardt, 1987). An excellent literal interpretation of this quote in Western music are the Freeman Etudes of American 20th-century composer John Cage, which are based on no other principle than the alignment of stars on star charts! The points of stars on the star charts are mapped directly into pitches of music in the composer's attempt to remove/detach himself from his own composition, which fully embodies the aim of abstraction also found in Islamic music. In recent Western musical movements like serialism, furthermore, music is created solely through the realization of predefined mathematical systems with the same aim of removing the composer from the act of composition and defining beauty in abstract, unhuman ways rather than on the emotive a priori decisions of the composer.

One realization of abstraction in Islamic music is the absence of descriptive titles. Rather than give titles to musical pieces that evoke worldly images, Muslims mostly entitle their works based on the modes, or scales, that the music is based on (e.g. Hossein 'Omoumi's Dastgah-e Homayun; dastgah means modal system and homayun is one type of modal system). This is similar to much of serial music in the West, which has generally numeric titles (e.g. Karlheinz Stockhausen's Klaveirstucke XI) or titles that evoke simple abstract and non-emotive principles.

Another realization of abstraction in Islamic music is its use of form, which is non-developmental, or static. Often no perceivable beginning or ending exists to the music, nor any apparent large-scale changes in between: "Instead of exhibiting a developmental form with steady evolution toward one overall climax and a conclusive ending, the sound art performance of Islamic culture defies its experience as a single unity.... It is a dynamism that activates the human mind with the discovery of beautiful patterns that stimulates the contemplation of a greater cause, that leads it from concern for mundane matters and personal problems to a higher reality" (al Faruqi, 1986). A good example of static, non-developmental form in Western music can be found on the record Free Jazz (1964) by free jazz musician/composer Ornette Coleman, about which has been written the following: "Despite an abundance of motivic interaction, the overall character of Free Jazz must be called static rather than dynamic. Only rarely do emotional climaxes occur, and there is hardly any differentiation of expression. The wealth of musical ideas and the continuous exchange of thoughts take place on an unvarying expressive level.... It may be that Coleman set out to create a statical, homogenous whole...." (Jost, 1975; italics added). Another example of "static" Western music is that of today's techno, ambient, or trance electronic music, which often tries to create soundspaces for meditative listening rather than to create a musical narrative that must be heard from beginning to end, such as in the music of one of its important founders, Brian Eno.

The example of Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz brings up other similarities with abstractive techniques employed in Islamic music as well. Just as there is "hardly any differentiation of expression" in the Free Jazz composition, so too there is highly limited dynamism in Islamic music. Melodic and rhythmic elaboration is confined to small segments of musical scales, often encompassing no more than four or five tones (al Faruqi, 1986). Intervals of more than a third rarely occur, motivic materials are usually very short in content, and changes in dynamic level (loud vs. soft) are very minimal if at all present (al Faruqi, 1986). And just as "a wealth of musical ideas" exists in Coleman's Free Jazz piece, so too Islamic music is often very ornate and intricate: "Patterns can more effectively attract the attention and concentration of the listener if they are sufficiently involved and complex" (al Faruqi, 1986). Muslims create intricacy with extremely melismatic melodic lines and ornamental rhythmic figures, extensive use of trills and slides from one pitch to another, durational ornaments such as constant shifts of accent and tempo changes, and also in dividing the octave into more than twelve tones so as to include several microtones in between them. The extreme nature of this intricacy is used to steal focus from any single line of development and thus to strengthen the abstract and nondevelopmental form of the music. The lack of single themes and their elaboration and the lack of fixed meter "explains why foreign listeners unfamiliar with this music sometimes regard [Islamic music] as formless improvisation" (Touma, 1996). Free Jazz has met with similar criticism.

Other techniques that Muslims use to realize abstraction and thus tawhid are extensive use of repetition and the creation of infinite patterns. From single notes, to motives, to whole sections of music, outstanding usage of repetition is characteristic to Islamic music. This repetition is used to evoke a sense of the eternal and thus the divine: "Extensive use of repetitions is not the result of a poverty of musical ideas... instead it is a structural feature necessary for the creation of infinite patterns. Repetition denies individualization, but also contributes to the never-ending quality that the aesthetic expression of tawhid should manifest" (al Faruqi, 1986). Examples of extensive use of repetition are also abundant in modern Western art music, especially in a movement known as "minimalism" that employs "minimal" use of musical materials in repetitive ways that change very little (note: limited dynamism, as in Islamic music) and try to thereby recapture the essence and meaning of musical materials in Western music: composer like Louis Andriessen, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley to name a few. 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen, furthermore, was especially intrigued with the creation of "infinite patterns," as in his piece entitled The Crystal Liturgy, in which mechanisms of repetitions would take nearly two hours to get back to its starting state. Messiaen had a "concern with time beyond time—with the presence of the eternal in the transitory" (Messiaen, 1979), which is derived from his strong Catholic beliefs and focus on God, much in the way the Islamic ideal of tawhid influences Islamic music.


In sum, most Muslim musicians employ various techniques of abstraction to instill a fundamental sense of tawhid in their music, or "sound art" (handasah al sawt). Though the Western world does not explicitly refer to tawhid or to "unity with God" in their music, furthermore, similar abstractions can be seen to operate in much of Western music as well, outside of Romanticism and wherever its influence continues. Religion does play an important role on music throughout Western history, however, and both Islam and the Catholic Church have idependently debated music's very admissibility in light of their worship of God.


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©1998, john a. maurer iv