The lawfulness of music has been the subject of an ongoing debate from the time of the advent of Islam. Opponents and proponents alike have accepted the basic concept that music works on the emotions; the question has been whether or not music seemed to contradict religious faith, as its opponents have argued in numerous writings.
There are many differing views within Islamic culture about the proper role for music: what it is, what it does, and what its importance is in people’s lives. There is a sharp contradiction between supporters who show a predilection for music and others who express a marked mistrust, which in the most extreme cases becomes hostile denunciation and a call for complete banishment of the art. As a result, we are confronted with a gamut of conflicting opinions.
The central concept shared by all parties is that music produces emotions. Its innate message is thus realized through its influence upon the soul. Since music is essentially a language of the heart, the musician’s art should emphasize emotion, relying to a great extent on instinctive control and inner wisdom. Although the musician is an indispensable part of the trinity--music, musician, and listener--the relevant literature on Arab music is more concerned with the nature of the effect on the listener and his physical or spiritual response to music.
The philosophers of the first centuries of Islam considered the variety of effects aroused by particular melodies; it was considered that these melodies in turn inherently possessed the character that they imprinted on the listener. In contrast to this sophisticated theory, however, most authors prefer to refer vaguely to the power of music, without troubling themselves to consider the question of whether a specific type of music caused a specific effect. They assumed that human beings are necessarily responsive to the charm of music and are incapable of resisting its power, whatever its character may be. This “truth” is reflected in a statement made by a mystical author, al-Hudjwiri, who lived during the 10th century in Ghazna, Iran: “Anyone who says that he finds no pleasure in sounds and melodies, is either a liar or hypocrite, or he is not in his right senses and is outside the category of men and animals.”
A central concept thus emerges within Islam ascribing to music an overwhelmingly influential power whose effect may take different forms: religious ecstasy and mystical union, ethical equilibrium, sensual excitement resembling intoxication, and healing for physical and mental disturbances if administered to possessed, haunted, or anguished patients.
The great importance attached to the actual effect on the listener, especially in a religious context, was expressed by the term sama. This word means “hearing” and, by extension, “the thing heard”--music. It contrasts with the term ghina (singing), which is used to designate secular urban learned music. Under the general title sama, one can, in most treatises on mysticism, find sections dealing with instruments, performing, practice, dance, and the perennial debate on the lawfulness or morality of music.
While accepting the basic concept that music possesses an overwhelming power capable of exerting a strong effect on human beings, the leaders of the different mystical orders offered a wide variety of explanations. The first manifestations of mysticism as an organized movement go back to the middle of the eighth century. By the time the first organized ritual emerged, music and dance were already playing a prominent role in the spiritual exercises that sent the worshiper into ecstasy and mystical union. The problem of music was thus vital. In the numerous beautiful lyrical poems dedicated to music, there are statements crediting the sound of music with the power to awaken spirits immersed in the slumber of ignorance and to make them stand up and dance like the dead who will rise at the resurrection to the sound of the last Trumpet. (Dance helps people uproot their feet, which are stuck in the terrestrial mud, and transports them upward to the summit of the world.)
Beyond such eloquent reflections and sayings, the mystic leaders also paid attention to allegations regarding the harmful effect of music. One of the early Sufi leaders, al-Darani, said, “Music does not produce in the heart what is not in it.” This aphorism was widely used in subsequent periods to argue that music is not directly responsible for the effects it produces; the effect depends exclusively on the virtues of the listener or the degree of mystical initiation. More explicit are the words of al-Hudjwiri: “Listening to sweet sounds produces an effervescence of the substance moulded in men; true if the substance be true, false, if the substance is false. When the stuff of man’s temperament is evil, that which he hears will be evil too.” Therefore, virtue, spiritual preparation, and premeditated attention are essential factors in receiving the true message through music. This high achievement was not and perhaps could not be attainable by everyone, even including adepts of the mystical brotherhoods, many of whom belonged to the lower social classes, as well as the marginal groups that turned to extravagances and practiced exorcism through frenetic trance and self-mutilation.
Set more or less within the same traditional material and on the fringe of the mystical doctrines and philosophy is the 10th century treatise of the ikhwn al-Safa (Brethren of Purity). One of the most comprehensive and eloquent presentations of music theory and behavior in Arabic sources, the treatise was part of a comprehensive encyclopedia composed by a group of scholars who called themselves the Brethren of Purity.
Different currents of thought are combined in his treatise, centering on the concept that music equals harmony in its broadest sense, that is to say, as a symbol at equilibrium and orderliness in the universe (the macrocosm) and in humanity (the microcosm). Human beings cannot know all that is in the universe by going about and studying it. Life is too short in the world too large; only by studying oneself can one attained knowledge of all things, which already exists within one. Music is said to act as a focus whose purpose is to explain and illuminate the wonders of creation, the phenomena of nature, and matters lying within the domain of human creation.
The declared aim of the Brethren was to release the reader's soul from its bonds by awakening the knowledge of the exalted harmony and unity of all created things, and the knowledge of possible progression beyond material experience. Musical harmony in its most exalted and perfect form is embodied in the heavenly spheres and the music that they make. Earthly harmony, including that characterizing the music made by human beings, is only a pale reflection of that same lofty universal harmony. Whoever sets his mind to that task will necessarily acquire the knowledge that, in order to enjoy the pleasures of the most celestial and exalted music, one must free oneself from the defilement of matter and release oneself from the shackles of this world.
The last part of the treatise includes sayings of philosophers and anecdotes that illustrate the blessed benefits of music and its determining power to affect the souls of its listeners, ideas illustrated In the following home, which extols the capacity of music to speak and teach the mysteries of the heart:
Do not be astonished if the plant of the zir (the
highest pitched string of the lute) draws the
savage beasts of the desert.
Although not an arrow, from time to time, it
pierces the heart, like an arrow.
Sometimes it weeps, sometimes it moans at the
break of day and during the day until the dawn.
It speaks without tongue. Who can interpret the
speech If not lovers? Sometimes it restores
good sense to the mad, sometimes it
enslaves the man of sense.
The ideas sketched above formed part of the everlasting debate, which began soon after the advent of Islam, on the lawfulness of music. Since all the opponents accepted the basic concept of music as a producer of a motion, Islamic writers asked in what way music contradicted religious faith on the ideological or ethical grounds, or whether the opponents of music were reacting to the discrepancies between religious normative expectations and the actual behavior and experience characterized by the flourishing of learned music and its Increasing importance in social life.
— Amnon Shiloah (from The World & I
A Chronicle of Our Changing Era
- Feb 1987)
(This was a secondary text inserted into the story from the preceding post, originally a magazine article … and it deserves to be printed along with it)
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