‘Music in a World of Islam’ Response

By Joyce Lee. Ms. Lee is a student in Denise Rotavera-Krain’s FYS Class: Questions of Identity Through World Music.

John A Maurer IV’s essay, Music in a World of Islam discusses the role of music in Islam. He describes that the concept of Islamic music differs from western music. There are followers of Islam who believe that music does not appropriately address the worship of God, as well as followers who believe that music enhances the spiritual connection to God. These notions also correlate to western musical expression. From a Christian perspective, I think that music can be a very spiritual act of worship that connects one to God when cathartics are taken out of the equation.

Music is a display of the Creators beauty that should be recognized and reflected back to the Creator. Some Islamic followers believe that music creates an environment of worldly feelings that detract from the character and tawhid (“unity with God”). Therefore, Islamic music is very detached and repetitive; leaving no space for individuality. I understand that focusing on the creation and beauty of music is the goal, but I also think that there is an intimacy and honor that comes with The Creator giving the creation the ability to create something beautiful. The responsibility of the individual is to recognize their ability and reflect their work as worship to the Creator.

I think the individual should recognize that music is an incredible medium for worshiping a Creator. Many Muslims believe that music is a “powerful intoxicating force, capable of creating excitement in listeners that can potentially cause them to lose control of their reason, diverting them from their devotional life and inviting sinful behavior”. Maurer also mentions that sometimes the “listener’s interpretation of music can be evil”. This is the only way I can see music hindering the worship of God. I agree to an extent that music can evoke many emotions that detract from focus on the Creator and bring attention to how the worshiper feels.

I found it interesting that Islamic music heavily relies on detaching oneself from the music itself. I understand that this allows the creation and beauty of music to be acknowledged and reflected to God, but I again think that we miss out on the value the Creator bestows upon us in order to create art and music. Techno, ambience, and trance follow the idea of detachment and static repetitiveness in western music. However, artists are often recognized for their work or stylistic approaches to music. If we applied this to say, Christianity, one could recognize the gifts and abilities God gave the artist to create something beautiful such as music. I believe that the same concept could be applied to Islam.

Overall, I see the effects of music being detrimental or valuable to Islamic worship of God. Nevertheless, I think that music has the greatest potential to respectfully bring praise unto a Creator without bringing the focus solely on oneself. I do think that some notice should be placed on the artist because their talent is a gift and reflection of the Creator’s beauty. It shouldn’t be in a conceded way or one that seeks attention or praise, but an attitude of humble appreciation and gratitude.

Sufi Music: Mystical or Monstrous

By Erin Posey. Ms. Posey is a student in Denise Rotavera-Krain’s FYS Class: Questions of Identity Through World Music.

In John A. Maurer’s article, Music in the World of Islam, he discussed the contradictions of music in the Islamic culture. There are certain groups who believe that music is a “magical tool of the devil” and others, like the Sufis, who believe that music “impels a person to seek the spiritual world” (Maurer, 1998) and become closer to God. He then compares the ideas of abstraction in Islamic music to those of Western music, although some of his examples were outdated. However, it is necessary to evaluate these conflicting ideas in order to understand the importance Sufi’s give to music.

Maurer points out that Muslims’ attitudes regarding music, whether positive or negative are based on the Qur’an and hadith literature. His Qur’an examples showed ambiguity in establishing whether or not they were actually addressing opposition or agreement on the position of music. For example, verse XXXI:5 says, “There are some men who buy diverting talk to lead astray from the way of God” and verses XXXIX:17-18 say, “So give good tidings to my servants who listen to al-qawl (the spoken word) and follow the fairest of it.” None of these passages actually mention the word “music”, so they cannot be used as concrete evidence, only conjecture. The hadith passages also did little to unify religious literature with socio-cultural ideas of music.

Along with the vagueness of these passages, is the idea of musical abstraction. Maurer quotes al Faruqi (1986), “Since tawhid teaches that God cannot be identified with any object or being from nature, He cannot be musically associated with sounds that arouse psychological or kinesthetic correspondences to beings, events, objects, or ideas within nature.” This statement is particularly interesting when paired with Maurer’s own statement that, “…not only does the music of Islam try to detach itself from the world, the musician himself in Islamic music tries to detach himself from his music” (1998). Basically, abstraction, particularly musical,  is a tool used in order to separate any natural, human stumbling blocks from full and entire focus on God.  However, his parallel examples in Western music do not fit into this mold. Maurer states that, “Detachment of the artist from his/her creation, as described of Islamic culture…, was and has again become the primary focus of Western creation.” Perhaps that was true at one time, but no longer. Today, Western music is all about “emoting” and expressing one’s “musical narrative.” Where Islamic standards of music seek to sever worldly ties to God and personal ties to the self, Western music does quite the opposite.

While reading the article, it became quite obvious that Sufi’s opinions of music are the opposite to those of more traditional Islamic beliefs. “[Man’s] soul, which originates in the world above, remembers its homeland [through music] and yearns to attain the state that would enable it to untie the knots binding it to matter, thereby facilitating mystical union with God” quoted from Shiloah (1995)  is a statement that Maurer uses in order to explain the Sufi’s mystical understanding of music’s relationship to God. They believe that music cannot be of the devil because it is Divinely blessed. However, they understand its power and choose only to let those who have been released from the “the clutch of the carnal soul” (Shiloah, 1995) to partake in the gift of music.

Even though the Sufi’s opinions of music differ from those of traditionalist Muslims’, all agree that the influence and effect of music is powerful and should be treated with reverence and respect. So the ideas and beliefs that music can evoke unwanted worldly feelings is not without reason, because from Sufi examples, music is definitely able to evoke strong feelings. The feelings being evoked are what both viewpoints want to be able to monitor. It is safe to say that the binary opinions can agree that music is acceptable, as long as it is being used towards the purpose of glorifying God.

Reservation of Sufi Music

By Grace Sparks. Ms. Sparks is a student in Denise Rotavera-Krain’s FYS Class: Questions of Identity Through World Music.

In the article, Music in the World of Islam, by John A Maurer IV published by I-Epistemology; the author makes a point about music in the Islam culture and its uses. In the religion of Islam, music is not thought of the same way as it is in Western culture. Some types of Islamic culture believe that music is too passionate and only detracts from worshipping God. Other “sects” of Islam, like the Sufi’s, trust that music is just another form of worship, as long as it is done right. I think that the Muslim culture promotes self-reservation and that is reflected in their music but I think that music should be more celebratory.

Music is portrayed in Islamic culture as “handash al sawt.” This means the art of sound. Some Muslims think of their music this way in order to distinguish it from Western culture. Some groups in Islamic countries believe that music is sinful and evil. The main reason for not liking music is that it can be so powerful that it could drive the listener to desert their reason and logic. I think that it is difficult for someone to believe that music can be such a terrible influence. This viewpoint has stemmed from religion but many religious texts cite song and dance as a way of expressing ones love for God. This is a shared view of the Sufi’s.

However, some believe that, if done right, music can be a manifestation of God. This is an opinion put forth by the Sufi’s. The nature of the music depends on the intentions of the listener. Music is a good thing as long as it’s views also stem from the Qur’an. For example, there is a Qur’anic chant.  The point is to express the importance of unity with God. Muslims even have a word for unity with God: Tahwid.

Some music does express violent and hurtful aspects of the world. However some music is joyous with worship. For example, the musical Godspell written by Stephen Schwartz explores the different features of Christianity. Whether it be sinning, worshipping, or the death of Jesus Christ; Godspell features the power and passion that singing can have in religion.

There are many aspects of Islam that reflect the religions devout and reserved ways. This is expressed through the terms and the static of the music. Abstraction is a term meaning that God can be found in non-physical things, never in nature or an idol, but instead in things like music. The point of this is to avoid the focus on worldly concerns and draw the focus to God. Another term used is nonprogrammatic which means that music must not be associated with human emotions either.

Maurer compares Sufi music to Bebop in the West. Bebop was a sect of 1950’s jazz and it was often perceived as full of passion and energy. However, Bebop was actually a cold and impersonal style of jazz. It had a characteristic that was also present in Sufi music. This was the lack of form. Both types of music were considered non-developmental or static. This meant that they didn’t have a concrete end, beginning, or climax. To jazz musicians, this didn’t mean much, but for the Sufis it meant that the song was eternal and therefore divine.

While I agree that music is a valid way of expressing ones religion, I do believe that not associating music with human emotions is unhelpful and nearly impossible. Human emotions are what fuel the writing and thought process behind a song. A song cannot be written without a human emotion. I am of the opinion that the devoted and religious feelings are human emotions and being inspired to create music that worships God is a passionate ever-moving presense. While I respect Muslims for their ardent and pious love of their God, my view is that loving God should be a celebration of song rather than a hidden melody. 

William Chittick to speak tonight

Dr. Chittick will be speaking at McGaw Chapel tonight at 7:30pm. Here he speaks about Sufism. He says “To understand what Sufism is, you must understand Islam. Sufism began when the Quran was revealed although the word was only coined around the second Islamic Century. The Quran is concerned with three major topics: How to act correctly, how to comprehend the world, and the transformation of the soul or how to become closer to God. Around the third century you get specialists in these three areas. The first groups are called jurists, the second are theologians and the third are Sufis. So Sufism is the practice of transformation or becoming closer to God on the basis of Islamic teachings specifically the model of the Prophet Muhammed.” Additional thoughst on women sufis and mysticism are in the video below.