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Music and Muslims


This paper was delivered by Dr. Diana Harris in 2003. Dr. Harris has a great deal of experience in teaching music to Muslims in the UK as well as researching the information more widely. This paper, A Practical Guide on How to Teach Music to Muslims, is available freely on the UNESCO website or can be viewed here.

The paper begins with a comparison between Christianity and Islam which seems to be a problematic place to begin. Both religions - which are both 'ways of life' (p. 1) - are so multi-faceted that it is difficult to imagine what or whom she is meaning by the words 'Islam' and 'Christianity'. For example, examining 'Christian' views on music we would not have to leave the UK before realising that musical instruments are heartily integrated into worship in some areas, but respectfully absent from others, e.g. the Hebridean Isles. If this is the case for Christianity within Scotland why should we expect there to be clarity across all contexts of Islam? We need to think and act more contextually. I, therefore, need to research what teaching music to Muslims looks like in the specific context of the Arabian Peninsula. That being said, the article remains useful to the extent that it provides an overall grasp of the 'big ideas' of teaching music to Muslims. Here's a summary of these ideas:

'Use' of music

A main emphasis of the article is that the 'use' of music determines the acceptability of music:

There are three important considerations when it comes to deciding whether something is haram... or halal... and these are the time, the place and the circumstance surrounding the action.

How can I use these three considerations to enhance the view of music in education?

  • In a balanced curriculum, the time given to music will not cause undue concern for pupils or parents in distracting too much from other 'more important/more spiritually helpful' subjects.

  • Music is taught in school (place) therefore there are no other haram activities being actively promoted which might be traditionally associated with music.

  • The circumstances surrounding in particular the performance of music should be carefully thought out (e.g. mixing of genders?) so as to take into account this aspect.

That the article ends with a quote focussing on the use of music indicates that this ought to be a foundational concern of music educators:

The myth that as music educators we will be playing rock music with disgusting lyrics, or making children sing songs which are unacceptable to their faith, really must be laid to rest.

Opportunities to be taken

Firstly, the author notes that some Muslim parents in the UK expressed concern that their children might lose their culture if the were only exposed to Western music (p. 5). This presents an opportunity to show that we respect and enjoy the musical culture of the Arabian culture and use it in our teaching. For example, how about utilising the music associated with pearl fishing if teaching in a context in the Upper Gulf? That this musical culture runs deep may mean that it more accessible and non-divisive:

... nearly every person residing along the coast was in some capacity involved with merchant shipping, or perhaps more importantly, with the pearling industry... sea arts that were regularly heard on both vessel and shore remain deeply entrenched in the cultures of the Upper Gulf (Urkevich, 2015, p. 153).

Secondly, the author expressed that interdisciplinary learning projects could be a way of enhancing and encouraging music within the curriculum. Whilst she laments that this is a 'poor substitute' (p. 7), I feel that this could be an important first step as part of a progress, not the final destination.

Linked to this is the author's observation that music becomes more acceptable through the use of technology and computers (p. 7). This strikes me as a great opportunity due to my interest in the area of music technology. As we increase the amount of music technology into our curriculum, we may also be increasing the acceptability of music in our school to the Muslim students.

Thirdly, singing is a 'far safer activity than playing musical instruments' due to the two reasons that one can praise Allah in song (the use of the music is approved through this) and that instruments often have negative connotations (p. 6). The Qur'an also mentions singing in a positive light:

We bestowed Grace aforetime on David from ourselves: "O ye Mountains! Sing ye back the Praises of Allah with him! and ye birds (also)! (Qur'an: Saba 34:10)

The author goes on to claim that even songs in praise to Jesus, especially Christmas carols, may be acceptable for Muslims. The author's line of argumentation is like this: praise songs to Allah are acceptable therefore we can sing praise to Jesus, a prophet of Allah. I feel that there are two main problems with this idea.

I question the author's premise that singing praise to Allah is acceptable. Of course, in some elements of Islam (e.g. Sufism) this is totally acceptable. In the Arabian Gulf, I'm not sure. I asked a local friend of mine if he would sing praise to Allah and he admitted that he wasn't particularly comfortable with the idea. And he was definitely not keen on singing praise to Jesus! For some, singing may still be enveloped in the wider negativity concerning music.

Secondly, I question the author's wisdom in using Christian praise music for Muslims as a little underhanded. Even if singing praise to Allah is acceptable, is it acceptable to be led in such songs by a non-Muslim music teacher? There are greater depths to this argument than simply asserting that singing is 'safer'.

Challenges to be overcome

Two main challenges are presented by the article: a theological challenge and a sociological challenge.

I started this article by examining the three credentials to decide if the use of music was acceptable or not as this was where the author started her paper. However, I feel that for some Muslims these considerations may be trumped by a greater theological argument in that they consider the Qur'an to dismiss music (Qur'an: Luqman 31:6). In some instances this may be an insurmountable barrier for a time. It only is when this barrier is lower that these three considerations quoted above come into their own. However, in saying this, I do know some Gulf Arabs who agree with the theological argument against music and yet enjoy performing nonetheless. They live in a perpetual tension. The impact of this aspect a music educator is finding an appropriate professional response to this - does my role as a music educator include trying to break down this theological barrier?

Secondly, there is a sociological concern - the negative link between musical instruments and impure behaviour. I feel that we have a duty as educators to educate and highlight where there is most definitely not the case. We could showcase where music has enhanced the ability to be pure. One pertinent example could be looking at Baremboim's project concerning the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra where everyone is 'equal in music'.

#muslims #quran #halal #haram #dianaharris

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