The Muslim Musical Metronome: My Journey Through Music in Islam


A few weeks ago, the internet experienced a minor rumble about a story regarding a supposed fatwa issued by 42 clerics against Indian singer Nahid Afrin. International media caught wind and it became a story about religious clergy banning someone’s freedom of expression. As is the case with such a story, the world got riled up.

Of course, now there’s some speculation if the “fatwa” was even a fatwa at all, or rather just an appeal made by citizens concerned with hosting a concert at a college.

Now, I’m not here to comment on the story or vilify or condemn one party over the other. Instead, I’m using this story as a launching point for my own personal story about my relationship with music.

Growing with music

Music was always a central piece of home.

As a kid the synth-rock of 80s bands like Genesis or Men Without Hats would blast from our home, car or truck stereo—Mom’s music of choice. Occasionally, the smooth, warm tones of Dad’s jazz CDs would be played instead, or the sweeping gentle epicness of classical music would warm my heart as it played by the fireplace. My brother would listen to pretty much anything.

For myself, I mostly ignored the kind of songs you’d hear on the radio. Sure I’d gladly listen to bands like Sum 41, Our Lady Peace, The Tragically Hip, and even System of a Down in my teens. But I found myself drawn to two polar opposite sounds: orchestral and techno. Specifically, I became captivated with film soundtracks and video game remixes. The wide array of styles and sounds and loops and movements were fed into my life. While watching a movie, I could usually guess the composer based on the style of music—the quirky oddities of Danny Elfman were different from the bass-heavy electronic fusion of Hans Zimmer were different from the sweeping orchestral sounds of Howard Shore. And video games, well, you wouldn’t think that the Super Mario Bros. theme could be remixed into everything from a classical ensemble to a smoky jazz piece to a heavy metal head banger.

I took piano lessons for almost 5 years and played in band throughout school. In Grade 7, the school band played at the Edmonton Winspear Center and I was given a short piano solo. I took after-school band throughout High School. This eventually grew into a hobby of composing music on the computer, using Garage Band or Cakewalk. I even scored a few stop-motion LEGO movies that I made, along with a couple computer-animation projects I did for school.

In short, music was an integral part of my life. And, as with many things about my life, that changed after I became Muslim.

Music, post-Muslim

After becoming a Muslim, many things in my life changed. The man who would be my mentor for over 5 years was, at least initially, quite strict when it came to music. I was told that music—music in general—was haram, or forbidden.

This was more than a little difficult for me.

All those years of piano lessons, all those movie soundtracks, all the sweeping sounds that tickled my ears and raised the hairs on my skin—all of that was now for nothing. I would often catch myself listening to the background music of a movie or a familiar song while walking through the grocery aisles.

As the years went on, I would find myself getting more and more distracted by music. I tried to tune it out of my life as much as I could, even sometimes playing video games on silent. At the time I worked at The Source, and we had music playing in the background to demo stereos. Over time, my boss/mentor began to ease up on his restrictions of music; basically as long as it wasn’t crass, he allowed it to play in the background. I started making mix CDs to play in store—the usual collection of movie and video game music.

As with much of my faith, I wasn’t content with simply being told that something was haram; I wanted to know the reasons why. So I continued my search into Islam and music.

Music in Islam

The issue of music in Islam is not as black-and-white an issue as people make it out to be. The status of music in Islam has been widely debated throughout history. The opinions range from “complete and total ban” to “everything is permissible as long as it’s not vulgar”.

I’m far from a scholar, so I won’t be giving any fatwas or ruling or anything like that. I’ll merely be sharing some of the little bits I’ve learned from my own study into the subject.

So the main point of contention is with regards to the use of instruments in music. This comes from a hadith where the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:

“There will be a group of my people who will make permissible for themselves adultery, pure silk, intoxicants and musical instruments.” (Bukhari).

A general rule in Islam is that things are permissible unless otherwise stated by a clear proof or evidence. Without getting into too much technical detail, proof must come from the Qur’an or the Sunnah (the life of the Prophet). Some exceptions do exist; for instance, in the Sunnah there is evidence that instruments like the duff (a type of drum) were allowed.

Now, it would seem like this is a cut-and-dry evidence—and for many, many people and scholars it is. However, some scholars, including well-known ones like Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, state that there is a problem with the chain of narration for the hadith, and so it can’t be used as evidence for an Islamic ruling. His status on the ruling of music is that it is permissible, with instruments, based on this ruling. Most scholars, however, say that the chain is fine and the ruling stands.

In addition to the above, other things that continue to be debated include:

  • using electronic or synthesized sounds for music (eg dubstep, techno, or synth instruments)
  • using computers to modify someone’s voice to sound like an instrument
  • what types of percussion instruments are restricted (such as string, air or percussion instruments)
  • when it’s permissible to listen to music

Some exceptions do exist; for instance, in the Sunnah there is evidence that instruments like the duff (a type of drum) were allowed. Some scholars argue that prohibiting music is based on the context of the song; obviously, promiscuous beats like Nicki Manaj would be off the list, but if the meaning is good then it’s ok. There’s also a narration in Buhkhari where a girl was singing a song and playing the tambourine, and her lyrics contained the words, “There is a prophet among us who knows what will happen tomorrow”. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Do not say this, but continue saying what you have said before.” From what I learned, there’s also a difference between just hearing music, like in the background, and actively listening to it.

I waffled back and forth on the issue for a long time. Sometimes I would be drawn back into listening to music by a particularly moving score, or a song that really stuck with me. Then I would inevitably feel guilty and start pushing music away again—and eventually it would come back. It was like being on the end of a metronome, going from one end to the other, back and forth, without really finding a center.

Sometimes I would even play a piano if I saw one. The songs I knew—like the Mario Bros. theme, or Fur Elise—would drip back across my fingers like water as I played, my muscle memory knowing almost intuitively where to land on each key. But even still, I worried that I was doing something wrong. It was a restless spot in my heart, one that I needed to find some closure with.

What I listen to today

I attended Sheikh Saad Tasleem’s course called “The Fiqh of Chilling”, through Al Maghrib Institute, which covered entertainment in Islam.

We dissected the issue of music for several hours. Keep in mind that this is not a fatwa but a position that I learned in the class and which I feel is strongest, based on the evidence presented. After attending the class, I feel like I landed on a happy middle ground that I’m comfortable with.

The conclusions we drew from the class is that wind and string instruments were, basically, a no-go. Some exceptions existed in the form of percussion instruments. But anything that was exclusively vocal was ok, even if the vocals were altered to sound like instruments.

So what do I listen to today?

Generally, permissible forms of music are songs that contain Islamic themes and are done so without instruments. You won’t find many people arguing about that. Some Muslim artists, like Maher Zain, Native Deen and Dawud Wharnsby, have both instrumental and vocal-only versions of their songs to please both crowds.

From there I also began to explore the world of beatboxing and acapella more thoroughly. I learned that, just like all other genres of music, there is a broad range of sounds and styles from many different artists. You have artists like Edmonton-born Mike Thompkins, who uses a mix of beatboxing and vocal manipulation to create a lot of electronic and dubstep songs (such as a surprising cover of “Harder Better Faster Stronger”). Peter Hollens has a wide range of folk, pop and alternative covers, and even covers a lot of songs from Lord of the Rings and Disney. Surprisingly, video game acapella is another sub-genre that surprised me with its range. The most popular artist is Smooth McGroove, who does surprisingly faithful covers of video game music using just his voice (and ongoing cameos from his black cat) as well as Mr. Dooves.

I wasn’t much of a fan of nasheeds in my early days as a Muslim. The first nasheed group I gravitated towards was Native Deen. In fact, their song “Labayk” helped teach me how to say the talbiya to be recited while I was on Hajj. As I started listening to more nasheeds I found artists that I enjoyed. Maher Zain’s love songs became a shared favourite between me and my wife. Talib Al-Habib has a unique almost Celtic feel to his nasheeds, coupled with a subtle drum beat, that give his songs a unique flavor.

Much to my surprise, there has been a lot of amazing music that you can make without instruments.

Slowing down the metronome

The debate and considerations regarding music are far more extensive than I can cover here. The point is that these differences do exist. And as such, I never go around telling people that “music is haram”. I ran the gamut of music’s permissibility. I continuously went from one end of the spectrum to the other, like a metronome. Eventually settled on what I felt to be the middle ground. To some Muslims, it isn’t, and they have their evidence. Some Muslims will listen to the orchestra; some will only listen to the songs of birds.

5 thoughts on “The Muslim Musical Metronome: My Journey Through Music in Islam

  1. It’s also very tricky area – especially for those who came back to Islam after being oblivious for so long. Khalid Baig has a good, in-depth analysis in his book “Slippery Stone”.

    It gets even more tricky once kids arrive, because music is so widespread in anything child-related. Many even consider it a healthy part of development…so it’s far from a simple issue.

    Makkah and Madinah are the only places on earth I’ve been that were relativ “safe” from hearing it all over.

    I console myself in the idea that self-limitation and restraint now is for the right reason, and in the Hereafter, I’ll get to indulge in this. So it’s just a matter of patience.

  2. Anita Jenkins

    This is incredible. I hadn’t heard this about Islam before. Music is the centre of my existence even though I earned my living with words. And musical instruments are far more important to me than voices. So I guess I won’t be converting!

  3. Anita Jenkins

    Are all those great Indian musicians who play the sitar and so forth no Muslims? Are there not famous musicians who have Muslim roots?

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