Music is perhaps the most potent medium in all the arts, eliciting profound emotional experiences through its surging melodies and pulsating rhythms. The sheer ubiquity and variety of music found throughout the globe — Mexican mariachi, New Orleans jazz, Navajo night chants, Peruvian panpipes, Indian raga, Seattle grunge — suggests too that it is an innate part of humans, woven into the fabric of our very being.
It is almost incomprehensible, then, that violence and hatred could ever be directed towards this enriching artistic form and its audience; and yet, as demonstrated in Manchester most recently, this is exactly what happened.
Attacks of this nature, and the revulsion shown towards music by the Islamist aggressors, may be especially puzzling to liberal audiences. After all, the status afforded to many musicians across the world is matched perhaps only by royals, leaders and other dignitaries. (Within the UK, for example, consider Harold Wilson’s deliberate association with The Beatles throughout his term in office, or Tony Blair’s welcoming of Oasis’ Noel Gallagher into 10 Downing Street after Labour’s 1997 general election win.) In fact, some postulate that the increasing secularization of society leads to the sacralization of culture, with the concert venue replacing the house of worship, and the musician assuming the role of high priest.
Historically, however, both music and musicians have had a somewhat ambiguous societal position, far removed from the prominence they now enjoy. In the civilisations of antiquity, while music was recognised as an ideal form in which to communicate divine orders, musicians themselves were often slaves; and in Persia music was for a significant period an activity limited to prostitutes. Even the great thinkers of ancient Greece expressed some puzzling attitudes. In The Republic, Plato — in his usual emphatic way — wrote:
“Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten.”
Such a threat did Plato ascribe to music that in his ideal, utopian state, he stipulated that all musical activities should be tightly controlled. Even Aristotle, who praised musical training as an intrinsic element of a liberal education, said of musicians:
“We call professional performers vulgar; no free-man would play or sing unless he were intoxicated or in jest.”
The fact that these views strike the majority of us as bemusing and archaic is a testament to how far societies have progressed in their outlook towards both music and musicians. Yet even today, in the 21st century, there remains a conspicuous example that bucks this trend.
Islamist-inspired attacks on the Manchester Arena and Bataclan concert hall in Paris were deeply shocking, but were sadly neither surprising nor unique. And while some people may be familiar with specific features of Islamism, such as its advocacy of blasphemy laws evidenced by the abhorrent Charlie Hebdo attacks, its disdain towards artistic mediums such as music and dance is perhaps less well known or understood.
Underpinned by broader Salafist (an ultra-conservative sect of Sunni Islam) rulings on music, Islamists deem music haram (forbidden), with those who practice it deserving of punishment. This can be witnessed across the globe, such as in northern Mali, where Islamist insurgents banned the aural medium, forcing many performers into exile; and in Afghanistan, the Taliban decreed music to be unlawful — a deplorable act of cultural sabotage, equalled only by the group’s destruction of the Buddha statues of Bamiyan in 2001.
One of the more pressing issues, however, is that these puritanical attitudes towards music are not just restricted to Islamists. Though the vast majority of Muslims abhor the violence perpetrated against this art form, condemnation of music is still preached within some conservative circles. As James Brandon, a specialist on Islamist extremism, states: “Why do jihadists target music venues & bars? To appeal to non-jihadist Islamists/conservatives who think such activities should be punished.” Of course, any individual should be free to renounce music if they so choose, particularly if it conflicts with their own spiritual path. But for too long hatred and contempt for music has gone unchallenged, providing a fertile ground in which for extreme, anti-music views to grow.
In countering this narrative, certain Islamic scholars such as Sheikh Abdullah al-Judai have described the notion of outright music prohibition as historically inaccurate, and point to the fact that musical instruments in Arabian society predate Islam and remained there afterwards. Theologian and researcher Dr. Usama Hasan similarly highlights the lack of corresponding scriptural basis for these claims, and asserts that there is “no clear-cut ayah of the Qur’an specifically about music and/or singing.” He goes on to say that passages within some hadiths, supposedly condemning music, are weak or fabricated. Hasan also emphasizes instances of the Prophet Mohammed approving singing and the playing of music, such as at weddings: “O Ayesha! Did you not have any music and singing? For the Ansar love that!”.
Given how widespread the Islamist ideology has become, and its appeal is yet to show signs of slowing, it is essential that the ideas underpinning Islamism be delegitimized. Part of this process must be to encourage a shift away from a Salafi-inspired view of music, and the adoption of a more reformist approach to the relevant scripture. Music is much too important, too beautiful, too spiritually nourishing to be viewed with such disdain. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote:
“Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Restrictions on music are part and parcel of all schools of classical Islam. Music was present in classical Islamic society, but it was not theologically approved at any point. It is not just a matter of a few Islamists or ultra-conservatives, this is the mainstream theological view. Changing it is not going to be easy.