About two years ago, I was doing a little soul-searching. I was in the midst of trying to discover my place in Allah’s plan. This period of reflection still exists and has led me to some rather fascinating territory.
While on this quest, I would often ponder certain questions. One of the questions I pondered was Islam’s position on art…or at least the most widely accepted position.
During this…period of reflection…I was trying to improve my understanding of Islam, increase my faith, become a better Muslim, improve my spirituality, and move closer to Allah.
Therefore, you are free to make what you will of what I write and I welcome you to contribute constructive comments. Just remember the words of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that a Muslim is one whom other Muslims are safe from their hands and tongue.
Recently I’ve started pondering upon some of the restrictions that exist in Islam. You know what they are.
- Don’t eat pork.
- Don’t drink alcohol.
- Don’t gamble.
- Don’t fornicate.
- Don’t commit adultery.
- Don’t rob.
- Don’t kill.
- Don’t participate in Riba (interest or usury).
- Don’t cheat.
- Don’t lie.
There are others, but I was trying to list some of the more obvious restrictions that are mentioned specifically in the Quran and were more or less physical restrictions, rather than spiritual restrictions (i.e. blasphemy).
And then there are other restrictions, found primarily in the hadith (sayings, statements, stories, and traditions of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him). These restrictions, in my opinion, seem to be against certain artistic forms; especially music and painting/photography/drawing.
So I began to think to myself, is Islam anti-art? And if it is, why? What harm does Allah and His messenger see coming from these art forms?
Of course, there are certain arts that Islamic culture doesn’t completely restrict. Poetry, if used to praise Allah or guide humanity towards the truth, is allowed. Also calligraphy is an acceptable art form as is architecture.
But why is music, singing, and by extension, dancing forbidden? And why isn’t this restriction mentioned specifically in the Quran like the riba, pork, and alcohol?
And what harm can painting, drawing, or photographing human figures bring? And once again, why didn’t our Lord specifically forbid this in the Quran?
Before going any further, I must say that I am aware that the rules and orders coming from Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) are sanctioned by Allah and are in fact, just as binding as restrictions found in the Quran.
Now, when it comes to the restrictions we find in the Quran, it is very clear that these things are dangerous and harmful to man. One needn’t be a genius to figure these out and only need to look at the facts surrounding the forbidden act.
- Pork – The pig has to the most disgusting and nasty animal in the world. It lives and eats in its own filth. I’ve seen a pigsty before and it was absolutely filthy. As dirty as dogs are, pigs are even worse. I don’t even see the difference between eating a pig and eating a dog. Both animals are equally nasty. Even cooked pork leaves a horrible stink. How anyone can put swine into their mouth is beyond me.
- Riba (interest, usury) – At small amounts, Riba doesn’t seem to hurt much. However, in the long run, participating in interest does nothing more than force the poor into economic slavery to the rich. It makes the rich greedy and the poor spend outside their means. Today, several poor nations are burdened under crushing debt from wealthy nations. Even some wealthy nations (like the U.S.A.) are beginning to buckle under their dependence on Riba. To me, Riba is like a fire that eventually consumes all wealth.
- Alcohol – Many people don’t see the harm in drinking alcohol in moderation. It is impossible to keep everyone from abusing alcohol. And unlike other vices (like eating pork and smoking), drinking alcohol often leads to the death of others. In 2008 almost 12000 people were killed in drunk driving accidents in the U.S.A. Furthermore, there’s little benefit to drinking alcohol except that it lowers our inhibitions and makes us do things we wouldn’t normally do when sober.
- Gambling – In the state where I used to live, there’s a big debate over whether Bingo should be legalized or not. The main argument for allowing gambling in Alabama is that it can increase tax revenues and create jobs. But these are pretty flimsy arguments, in my opinion. Gambling does not produce any tangible goods nor provide any useful service. It only succeeds when most of the people who participate lose. And in those cities and states where gambling has been legalized and taken root, organized crime has followed (e.g. Las Vegas and Atlantic City). And along with gambling, comes other abhorrent forms of entertainment such as strip shows and burlesque.
- Fornication – Do I really have to explain why fornication (i.e. premarital sex) is forbidden? If I must explain I’ll try to keep it brief. As the world has become more accepting of sex before marriage, we have seen more teenage pregnancies which leads to more youth crimes, more abused children, more violent crimes, and more imprisoned youth. I dare say that if the family structure was more revered and honored in the U.S., we’d see lower crime rates and a safer society in general.
- Lying, killing, stealing, cheating – These are all self-explanatory.
So I had to ask myself, why is music forbidden? How many people have died because they listened to The Beetles? Or Bach? Or Michael Jackson?
I suppose we could extrapolate that some harm comes from listening music. Maybe some people listened to gangsta rap or heavy metal and then decided to kill someone. But that’s rare and both forms of music are pretty modern. If music is bad now, it should have been bad for centuries. Hence, I don’t think that’s a good reason for it to be forbidden.
Maybe we can say that listening to music has led to fornication or premarital sex. And yes, most modern music is about sex and love. But music was around in the 1700’s also and it doesn’t seem to have led to an epidemic of fornication. I really don’t see that as the reason either.
Then when we look at where the prohibition of music comes from, I was left even more confused. I know there are some verses in the Quran that forbid “vain speech.” But they aren’t as direct as the verses that forbid pork and alcohol and gambling.
So far, I’ve only been able to find two hadiths that allude to music being forbidden in Islam.
The first was during the ‘Eid (festival) in Prophet Muhammad’s time (peace be upon him) when some girls were playing a tambourine and singing in his house. Abu Bakr came in and shouted “The instruments of the devil in the Prophet’s house?”
Even though Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) allowed the singing and music for the festival, the words of Abu Bakr clearly indicate that the Muslims of that time felt they were sinful.
The other hadith is the one most often quoted concerning music. It is when Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
There will be some people who will consider extra-marital sex, wearing silk, drinking alcohol, and the use of musical instruments, as lawful.
Since the prophet was speaking of people in the future making music lawful, it is obvious that it was unlawful during his time.
I do not doubt the authenticity of these hadith, but I am still forced to ponder why was music considered unlawful in the first place (I guess we could ponder the same for wearing silk, but that’s for another time).
And then we go to visual arts that create representations of people and animals. This would include painting, sculpture, drawing, and photography.
Once again, there are no verses in the Quran that forbid these arts. But there are multiple hadiths that seem to show that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) forbade them.
But why were they forbidden? How many deaths have been caused by Da Vinci’s The Mona Lisa? Which families were destroyed because they read a Sunday morning cartoon strip? I understand that many statues were worshiped in the past, but who’s bowing down to the Statue of Liberty today?
These thoughts have been swarming through my head for the past three days since my last post. What is the harm in these things? Why did Prophet Muhammad tell us to leave them alone? Is Islam anti-art?
And then one day, during this period of reflection, I received some unsettling news.
A young Muslim man I knew back in Atlanta died suddenly yesterday. He was younger than me (I was 33 years old at the time) and had four very young children. The oldest was only 11.
He went into cardiac arrest while he was driving. An ambulance revived him, but he had a seizure later at the hospital that ended his life. It appears he had a clogged artery.
While me and this young man were not really close friends, we were always friendly. His oldest son was best friends with my son. His ex-wife and my wife were also very good friends. He was a person I knew of; when we saw each other we would chat for a while, but we were not the best of buddies.
What strikes me most is the suddenness of his death, his youth, and the four little kids he left behind.
This is not the way I wanted to understand the prohibition of music and some other art forms. Nonetheless, I think I get it now.
All of these things are just a waste of time, and time is one thing we just don’t have that much of. I’m not saying that this is the only reason or even the primary reason that they were forbidden. But I do believe that leaving them behind will give us more time to spend in the worship of Allah.
Think to yourself: “How many hours have I wasted listening to music and admiring/creating art?”
Instead of listening to music, I could have been reading Quran. Instead of drawing, I could have bee studying Arabic.
In general, I must now reevaluate how I spend my time and to what I devote my life. I don’t know when I’m going to return to Allah. I don’t know if I’m going to see another Ramadan, or see my children grow up. So with whatever little time I have left on this planet, I realize that I must seek to use every minute of it in a more beneficial manner.
I’m not exactly sure what this means, but I know it doesn’t mean that I’m going to spend my life reading dusty books. But I do hope that going forward, I will try to utilize my time more wisely. This would include:
- Cutting back on movies and television.
- Spending more time with my children.
- Fasting more regularly (Mondays and Thursdays, three middle days of the month).
- Performing the night prayer.
- Becoming more involved with the Muslim community here.
- Exercising more.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you shouldn’t listen to music. I believe you should do your own search and sincerely ask Allah to guide you towards the truth.
I remember a quote from one of my earliest Islamic teachers as a young man. It seems this man always spoke in parables and wise sayings.
There are three things we can never get back: The spoken word. The arrow that has been shot. And wasted time.
When I was in Senegal, I learned to never say “I’m bored” around Brother Muhammad. He would always counter with:
Have you learned all the rules of tajweed? Have you committed at least forty hadiths to memory? Have you memorized the entire Quran? Don’t tell me you’re bored ’cause I’ll find something for you to do.
I encourage you to think about how you spend your time everyday and if there is a way for you to use it more wisely. Is there something you do too much of that can be cut back? Are there certain Islamic acts that you know you should do, but never seem to have the time for?
If you were to suddenly go into cardiac arrest, would you be satisfied with how you’ve spent your time on this world?