The secret of secrets

Is it really true that the Islamic tradition condemns music?

The intimate correlation between music and religion has often been met by the mistrust and suspicion of intransigent fundamentalists and spiritualists. There are many stories of artists and musicians who still challenge the fatwa issued by Isis by their innovative artistic creations. Religious authorities and archaic Islamic courts swore vengeance upon brave musicians such as Aeham Ahmad, a Palestinian pianist who became (tragically) famous for playing his piano in between Syrian bombing, Helly Luv, nicknamed the Kurdish Beyoncé, who in 2015 produced a provocative music video in Erbil, right next to Isis’ strongholds, and Shaaban Abdel Rehim, an Egyptian pop singer condemned by Isis for referring to Al Baghdadi as “the emir of criminals”. So is it really true that the Islamic tradition condemns music? Are musical artistic experiences really a danger to the authentic transmission of Islamic religious values?

If, in the Christian experience, the use of sacred images and musical compositions in service to the liturgy has been the common patrimony of the Churches in East and West for centuries, the same cannot be said of Islam. The prohibition on representing the divinity has directed Islamic art towards the creation of truly splendid architecture, geometric designs, miniatures, calligraphy and embroidery. Despite a certain reluctance to allow the artistic world to cross paths with that of ritual prayer, the aesthetic experience has, in fact, always been highly valued in currents of Muslim mysticism.

In the reflection of the Sufi mystics, music, as well as art, poetry and dance are always licit to the extent that they help man enter into communion with God. They may, in fact, create those “aesthetic/spiritual” conditions that favour the experience of mystical union. On the other hand, the relationship between God and the believer cannot limit itself to the exclusively intellectual plave: spiritual taste (dhawq) is experienced through a physical body, since man is a physical creature who “feels” through the senses . It is this approach to the dimension of the divine that conditions the consideration of art: different artistic expressions contribute to the realization of those “aesthetic” conditions capable of developing a spiritual sensibility in man which places him in communion with God.

According to Al-Ghazali, it is also through music that the believer can open wide his heart to the encounter with the Absolute. For the believer who has reached the heights of perfection: “no sound strikes upon his ear but he hears it from Him and in Him. So listening to music and singing in his case is an arouser of his longing and a strengthener of his passions and his love and an inflamer of the tinderbox of his heart, and brings forth from it States (ahwâl) consisting of Revelations and Caressings”. Al-Ghazali understands music as an exercise in desire. In the words of the Sufi mystic, listening to music strengthens love for God, for music, above all, is an “inflamer of the […] heart” in view of the emergence of those “spiritual states” which are the outward expression of divine love, and the deep desire of the soul to reach the first principle from which everything originates.

Music is not a neutral phenomenon. It is able to move the heart, to touch its most intimate fibres, to place man in communication with the “Secret of Secrets”. The aesthetic experience is, therefore, not only licit, but desirable for the one  who allows himself to be attracted by the love of God: “The children of Illusion are shipwrecked in the music of my verses, but the children of Reality have penetrated my secrets” (FARID AL-DIN ATTAR, Mantiq al-Tayr, The Conference of the Birds).

Photo by Ali Arif Soydaş

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