Music to my Ears

My Ramadan afternoons, when the blood sugar reaches low levels, have been spent watching some of the lectures by Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter) on YouTube given in his college’s annual retreat last year. I can strongly recommend his lecture on Riding the Tiger of Modernity, something which we are all trying to do in this strange period of history. 

Ottoman Music Therapy. Pictured possibly in the Erdine Therapy Clinic illustrated below.

But today I just watched his talk on Music in Islam which is a subject close to my heart about which I’ve already blogged a few times in recent years. His lecture is worth watching as he explores some of the finer points and secrets of the Islamic musical traditions from the medical benefits of music therapy to the some of the different legal positions scholars have made over the past 1400 years. To those unfamiliar with this particular discussion it is because over past centuries every single aspect of the human situation has been filtered through the minds of Muslim scholars endeavoring to apply their knowledge and wisdom of the Qur’an and the Sunna to guide people aright in their lives. The use of instrumental and sung music being one of them. Abdal Hakim also outlined some of the technical details of the maqamats, harmonic frameworks which could be described as the empirical auditory harmonies of this created universe. Man’s knowledge of them predates Islam and is most likely what the Pythagoreans called the music of the spheres. My understanding of them is likened to the example of the western concept of major and minor, the listener comprehending happiness and sadness respectively. But there are many more maqams than major and minor and which can also involuntarily affect and inspire the listener. 

This is a vast subject and Abdal Hakim was obviously not going to cover all the ground available. The broad range of scholastic opinions on this subject is proof of how vast the subject is and why the differences of opinion is a mercy, as people can legitimately fit in wherever they wish. It’s not black and white. Unlike matters of law, music is a qualitative thing, fundamentally about the emotions of sound and how it affects the heart. What people do with it is another matter. Applying law to what is essentially art is tricky ground and given the limited practical knowledge and experience most people have of music, any strong legal statement against music by a scholar is going to very likely shut some people’s ears to something of beauty in God’s creation for fear they may be doing wrong. 

As I understand it, the four schools of law generally rule against instrumental music and I’m pretty sure the reasons for that are based on the premise that it is better to avoid doubtful things though I would need confirmation of that. I’m well aware that there is ugly music as well as beautiful music and in these times just too much music altogether so if you do music then you have to do it with care, beauty, discrimination and a good intention. But how often I have heard of people denied musical education for legal sharia reasons who end up listening to the worst kinds of music or worse still have no music in their lives at all apart from their phone ringtone. I’ve seen how it diminishes people. You cannot just say no, if there is nothing else to fall back on. But the important subject of music education, which you won’t see in any Muslim curriculum, is for another day. To me music is like a language and there are many such languages and if you wish to speak something profound to people you have to speak their language and not be looking over your shoulder all the time wondering if someone is going to catch you out on some legal point. Everyone these days is bombarded with these myriad musical languages (or genres if you like), unaware of their effects as they don’t know the language and their often malign meanings. Another reason to educate not legislate.

MT hospital
Music Therapy in action in a Turkish hospital.

The prophetic traditions invoked to forbid instrumental music (the Qur’an doesn’t specifically mention it) generally linked it to lewdness and alcohol and these are well known and always trawled out in this debate. But one scholar I know pointed out that the use of profanity does not invalidate language so why should the use of a stringed instrument in a dubious situation invalidate musical instruments when the same instrument could be used to spiritually inspire and beautify? A good point. I want to suggest a different approach. Are we not to be judged by our intentions, if God judges us thus?  Not using instruments in a spiritual gathering is no guarantee of it’s worth if it is done with bad intentions. There could be much good in a whole orchestra of instruments if the intention was to uplift the spirit and to better humanity or to heal sickness. Are we to deny the value of music therapy, which is exactly that?

Music Therapy Erdine
The Music Therapy Chamber, Erdine, Turkey. Now a museum.

In earlier posts on this blog I’ve inveighed against vacuous mindless music, and how in these times it’s linked to money, advertising, drugs and alcohol and worse. I know how the music business works. But there is an artistic component to this debate. How do we define beautiful music when so much of the appreciation of music is subjective? The technological noise that surrounds modern man is a terrible intrusion on his birthright to a bit of peace and tranquility. It’s noise without art. Like the noise of war. All the environmental noise of this age, inside and outside our houses, is seriously desensitizing us which is why I value silence most of all these days. I’ve said it before on this blog.

Tunes and musical ideas all have history and if some pedants query the use of maqams as being from a time prior to Islam (which they do), then stop to consider that much of culture and language has passed down from disbelieving but extinct civilisations. A real spiritual culture takes what has been inherited and refines it. The same with music. All of life is grafted on to the tree of our ancestry. Even the Celtic maqams beloved of Abdal Hakim are likely to have some alcoholic origins but that doesn’t mean when they are used in Qur’anic tajweed they aren’t beautiful, for they are. In Abdal Hakim’s CD the Rawdhat as-Shuhudat, Ali Keeler breaks new ground with his Qur’an recitation in Celtic modes. It’s the one thing I most appreciate on that album. We have left Damascus and are nearer home, now safely in a Scottish glen. •

About Ian Whiteman

This entry was posted in miscellaneous, music, music in Islam, religion, sacred knowledge, Sacrilege, tassawuf, typography / design. Bookmark the permalink.

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