What Instruments Are Allowed in Islam?

by Eleanor McKenzie

The topic of music and musical instruments in Islam is surrounded by a lack of consensus. Some Muslims claim that music is "haram," or forbidden. Others suggest that this is a narrow interpretation of Islamic teaching and that neither the Quran nor the Prophet Muhammad expressly prohibit music or instruments. Indeed, Islam has its own musical tradition, and its artists span the worlds of classical singing to hip-hop.

The Music Debate

The Islamic attitude to music is that it's allowed as long as it doesn't cause a Muslim to stray from his or her faith. Hussein Rashid of Hofstra University claims that the perception that music is banned in Islam dates back to an attack on music in the 10th century. He points out that the attack was on illicit musical forms, but over time popular opinion has held onto the notion that it included any music. He also notes that no Islamic scholar would hold the view that music is prohibited as there is no Quranic basis for it. An interview with Muslim singer Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, reveals the influence of the popular perception of music as forbidden by Islamic laws. Although his imam told him that music is permitted, he gave up playing the guitar and performing until the events of 9/11 prompted him to enter the public arena again. Essentially, music that praises God and the values of Islam is permitted. This covers a spectrum of musical styles. Music that encourages immorality or uses swearing is forbidden.

The Voice

The human voice as an instrument is an essential part of Islamic music. Many sing unaccompanied. The lyrics are frequently Islamic poetry, such as the works of mystical poet Rumi, for example. The program for Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas, a Muslim arts festival in New York, shows that Muslim vocalists range from the classically-trained to beatboxers, with international stars such as Senegal's Youssou N'Dour providing a blend of African and Western-style singing and musical accompaniment.

Traditional Instruments

Traditional drums are the foundation of Islamic music, and there is a proliferation of drum styles across the Islamic world. The daff is a Middle Eastern frame drum that comes in different sizes. Islamic music also features string instruments as well as wind instruments ranging from reed pipes and flutes to trumpets. European instruments such as guitars, lutes and bagpipes all descend from Islamic musical instruments, according to Muslim Heritage. Harps, zithers, fiddles and harmoniums feature in Islamic music as well.

A Modern Perspective

Muslim musicians do not always confine themselves to traditional instruments or to adapting Islamic musical traditions to the contemporary world. Younger musicians are exploring hip-hop. Muslim-owned Warbux Records' first project was a compilation of Muslim hip-hop based on the Five Pillars of Islam. The founders cite songs by stars like Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Mos Def and Eric B and Rakim as among the top hip-hop hits with an Islamic theme. The Warbux founders suggest that hip-hop's exploration of inequalities makes it a perfect musical vehicle for demonstrating the Islamic value of social equality.

About the Author

Based in London, Eleanor McKenzie has been writing lifestyle-related books and articles since 1998. Her articles have appeared in the "Palm Beach Times" and she is the author of numerous books published by Hamlyn U.K., including "Healing Reiki" and "Pilates System." She holds a Master of Arts in informational studies from London University.

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