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What are the Islamic teachings regarding art and music?

Short Answer:

The Holy Quran has taught us about the principle of “laghw” or vain and useless things which Muslims are encouraged to keep away from [1]. However, because of variance of spiritual levels and acquired tastes in human beings, what proves to be useless for one individual may not be for another. Art and music also fall under the territory of laghw. The philosophy of Islam is that if these activities become a pursuit of life that interferes with higher values for which man has been created, then to that extent they become forbidden.

If activities such as art and music do not interrupt with the higher purposes of life and keep man from worshipping his Creator and only serve to provide temporary relaxation of nerves, they are not categorically forbidden. Each Muslim must make the distinction on his or her own regarding activities that serve as laghw in their lives and make the effort to avoid them. [2]

[1] The Holy Quran 23:4
[2] The Muslim Sunrise, 2nd Quarter 1987, pg. 36.

Detailed Answer by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(rh):

This question is in fact a question which applies to different situations and the relative answer would differ from situation to situation. The Holy Quran speaks in principle about Laghv. The believers, Ebaadul-Rahman are mentioned, Anilaghvi Mo’rizoon, they keep away from useless, valueless, nonsense things (23:4). Now it all depends. It varies from person to person. What is nonsense to one may not be nonsense to another. Also, the acquired tastes differ and the spiritual levels differ. So I am not in favor of declaring something totally wrong for everybody because there are stages of prohibition in Islam, and in some places Islam also leaves a measure of decision to the believers. And there, a sort of freedom of thought and action is given for which no hard and fast rule should be made or declared. Because then life would become very difficult for the whole society. Somehow some people tend to ask questions on such aspects and want such answers as would be very difficult to follow if given according to their own desire.

Again, the Holy Quran tells us in principle not to ask about matters which if answered would make things difficult for you. Don’t ask about things which if answered may be heavy on you, may not be liked by you. So there are some regions unattended which are kept unattended by Islam consciously.

The philosophy I have already explained. Various people are found at various levels of development and attitudes and tastes. So Laghv could be interpreted differently according to different persons.

For instance, take one who is accepting Islam from a Western society. If you immediately declare a fatwa [an Islamic Judicial judgment] against his interest in art, not only will he not understand, he will be more inclined to lose faith in Islam because it would appear to be so unnatural. So where Islam has not categorically prohibited, it diverts attention to more serious persuits in life. And as I understand this word, this is the best definition.

And if the pursuits of life are of a higher order and a person who is pursuing a way of life is more serious minded, his Laghv would be different from just, say, a child’s Laghv. A child can play hop scotch for instance. But hop scotch could be Laghv for an elder gentleman, for his age and for his respectability and everything, and won’t be Laghv for this child who has given us the name of this game. It would be, in fact, a very good thing for the child to do.

People are at different levels of spirituality too. Those who have acquired a taste for the recitation of the Holy Quran, or the reading of serious books on religion, if you give them a novel they won’t be interested. It would be just Laghv for them. And there are certain people who apply their minds with difficulty to such serious pursuits. So if their attention is diverted too much to novel reading, for instance, at the cost of serious pursuits and they don’t try to divert their attention from vain to serious, from useless to useful, then this Laghv would become prohibited for them. It will interfere with their progress in life and to that extent it should be forbidden for them.

So according to this definition, if the Laghv begins to interfere with the serious pursuits of life and creates damage for one in some degree, in certain spheres of activity, to that extent it becomes Laghv and it should be avoided.

And Laghv has a very wide field of definition. In fact, it can become a very grave sin, one of the serious offenses in Islam. For instance, suppose you are watching television, some light show or a fiction or something, and the time for prayer comes. Now that is Laghv. Of course, it is not forbidden directly so much that it becomes a crime in the eyes of Allah. But the call for prayer is made and you can reach the mosque. But you are so deeply involved in that play which is being televised that you forget about the prayer and continue pursuing the game or play or whatever it is. That Laghv becomes a sin then. It adopts a quality of idolatry, setting up partners with Allah, because a vain pursuit or interest has stood in the way of a very serious and important pursuit in life for which man is created.

So Laghv is a very difficult word to define. Although in essence I have defined it, it acquires different importance in different situations. Laghv can become a grave sin, and laghv can be just ordinary. Even some people who are grown up and have a very strong acquired taste for spirituality, and who are very pious, indulge in some sorts of laghv. And those laghv, in which they indulge, apparently or superficially they are laghv. But because they are serving some type of purpose, they can’t be called that type of laghv which is to be avoided. So laghv in ordinary situations can lose its quality of being laghv in another situation.

For instance, when you are on a picnic, your mood is completely different. You are playing with your children and you are doing things which in ordinary life you would not think of doing. That is no longer laghv as described by the Holy Quran. That is not the laghv which is described because that has become something which serves a purpose and it relaxes you for a while. Not at the cost of other innocent hobby or play. You can even play cards there without gambling. You can play Ludo or anything, or while away your time in some way that relaxes you. The purpose is relaxation. And for that, some means are adopted. Those means in ordinary life may be declared as laghv, meaningless, or diverting your attention from serious pursuits. But in those situations, they serve a purpose and they don’t become laghv anymore. So it’s a very wide subject.

With this background, I now come to your question about music. Music as such is not forbidden in the Holy Quran. In some instances we read about our Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be on him, permitting the use of a Daf which was a sort of musical instrument played in Arabia in those days. Yet he is also is known to have turned away from certain other musical instruments when he heard the voice, he didn’t like. So the correct attitude lies somewhere in between. You understand the philosophy in this and then you can truly understand why he did this and why he did not do that. The fact is that such music as diverts your attention from other important things of life, love of Allah, love of the prayer, and things for which man is made, that type of music should be avoided very strongly. And if it becomes an obsession with you, then it may become a sin. But to casually listen to music as it is played in every corner of the world nowadays, in fact even if you try hard you can’t avoid. For that reason I shouldn’t declare it for never listening, because that would be coming on too strong. And the Holy Quran has not said it in so many words.

The inference that Daf, exactly as it is, is permitted, and other music as it is, is forbidden, that inference I can’t agree with. Because it was a style of music found in Arabia. The style of music has changed a lot from that time. And while Daf was played, it was played for a purpose. At that time it was serving a purpose. So that definition which I have offered you, fits in very well. For instance, we hear of Daf being played when the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of God be on him, was entering Medina, and some ladies and young girls were singing a song in his praise and were also striking on the Daf. Now that is a special type of musical instrument. On one side it is covered, on the other side it is not covered. Because of this shape of the Daf, there are many Ulema [religious scholars] who have inferred that only that type of musical instrument is permitted and nothing else. That is stupid because The Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of God be on him, came to give us guidelines and principles and set examples for all times to come. Not for one particular time.

So if you particularize everything which he did instead of drawing general principles which would be applicable for all times to come, then you would remain restricted to a certain age in history and will not be able to proceed a step beyond that. He never rode cars. He never used those modern amenities which are provided to you. So why shouldn’t you infer in every respect that only the type of bread which the Holy Prophet Muhammad ate and bread made of that particular grain which he used, that is permitted and the rest is not permitted. That type of dress is permitted and this is not permitted. If you go on making your inferences in this fashion, then the whole life you are leading would become forbidden. Because very little of it is exactly on the pattern of our Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of God be on him, as he lived in those days. He didn’t use these electrical lights and, in fact, the camera was not invented at that time. So he never had a picture of himself taken. All this picture taking and posing for pictures becomes forbidden by those standards.

So open up your minds. Try to understand the philosophy of Islam. According to the Holy Quran, that which is forbidden is clearly laid down. That which is promoted is very clearly laid down. In between there are no-man’s lands on which some light is thrown by way of principles and the borders go on shifting from here to there like quick sand. Those no-man’s lands which I am referring to in do’s and do-not’s, differ from situation to situation which squeeze in one direction and swell in another at another time. This music and painting lies in this region under laghv. If this becomes a pursuit of life which interferes with higher values for which you are created, then to that extent it becomes forbidden. If it does not interfere with the seriousness of your life and it only helps a little bit to energize your nerves or relax your nerves for a while, I don’t think this could be forbidden, so categorically at least.

There are certain pursuits that become an obsession. For instance, I have known people, in Pakistan as well, who become fond of what we call Hindi gana. They sing songs and this becomes their obsession with the result that they neither pay attention to their studies nor to their religious obligations. They don’t read the Promised Messiah’s (peace be on him) books. They have no time for Ahadith, the traditions of the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of God be on him, or even for the Holy Quran. And that becomes a habit for them. A nonsensical song which, as far as the value of the song goes, is just a third rate thing. But because it is sung with music, that interests them so much and so deeply, that their whole life is thrilled when they begin to listen to such music and they can’t listen to anything else. That is a sort of addiction. In this regard when this happens, then it becomes haraam [forbidden] because it is interfering with the obligatory spheres of Islam. And it stands in the way of your making spiritual progress.

But if somebody is paying attention to his spiritual progress and for instance he turns on a radio and a song is being played he likes and he listens to it for a while, while he has time and he’s not wasting any time at all, to declare suddenly that he should stop it immediately or he becomes a kafir [infidel] or something, is stupid. That is not Islam’s concept of halal [allowed] or haraam [forbidden].

Similarly, some people could say that painting is totally forbiden because our Master, Muhammad, peace and blessings of God be on him, did not permit pictures, according to them, either to be kept in the house or to be drawn. But they don’t understand the fact that those pictures which the Holy Prophet forbade were invariably the pictures of idols. That was a time when (picture taking by camera was out of the question because they were not invented) drawing pictures or painting was entirely devoted to religious purposes for drawing pictures of imaginary gods. In the days of the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of God be on him, we don’t find any art in Arabia, not even remotely, in which people were being drawn or realities were being drawn. You will not find dimensions of any scenery being drawn by any artist of that time. You will not find the portrait being drawn by somebody, nor any particular situation of reality being drawn. All that was being drawn was not only fiction but fiction which was against the fundamental principles laid down by Islam. There were pictures of imaginary idols, partners of Allah. They were either drawn or chiselled out in the form of statues.

What our Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of God be on him, forbade were these things. Because we have no evidence that a real situation in life was ever being drawn in his presence which he forbade, my inference is that what he forbade was that purpose which you understand. To extend it further into a field which was never in his mind is incorrect. Nor could he have spoken against that because that (artistic realism) did not interfere with any religious purpose. Here we can understand the purpose easily. Idol making stands in hostility to the Islamic concept of Oneness of Allah. So whatever promotes idolatry should be forbidden. That’s quite understandable. But where nature as such, and realities are being produced somewhere, how could they be forbidden? Neither is it forbidden nor could it be forbidden to my mind. So I don’t think this should be declared haraam [forbidden] either. But if it becomes an obsession with your girls or boys and it begins to interfere with the serious pursuits of life, then I think it should be stopped to that extent. Then they become laghv. And that laghv is forbidden in the Holy Quran.