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Music in Muslim Societies - The Divine Chant?

Aziz Ahmed 

The Islamic music emerged, elaborated both from pre-Islamic Arabian music and from contributions by Persians, Byzantines, Berbers as well as certain Semitic nations of the Middle East. In this development, the Arabian element acted as a catalyst, and within a century the new art was firmly established from Central Asia to the Atlantic. Such a fusion of musical styles succeeded because there were strong affinities between Arabian music and the music of the nations occupied by the expanding Arab Empire. Not all Arab-dominated areas adopted the new art; parts of Africa and the Far East, for example, retained their native musical styles. The folk music of the Berbers, Turks and Persians also remained alien to classical Islamic (or Arabian) music. The further one looks form the axis extending from the Nile Valley to Persia, the less one finds undiluted 'Islamic' music.


In pre-Islamic times, music was closely connected with poetry and dance. Being essentially vocal, pre-Islamic music was an emotional extension of the solemn declamation of poems in Bedouin society.  After the advent of Islam, a deep change occurred in the social function of music. Emphasis was laid on music as entertainment and sensual pleasure, rather than as a source of high spiritual emotion.  

Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) was said to have been hostile to music and musicians of his time - yet he tolerated, indeed encouraged, functional music such as war songs, and public and private festival music.  In, addition, Islam instituted the unique call to prayer (Adhan), chanted by the Mu'adhdhin.  For this task, the prophet chose an Abyssinian baritone with a booming voice, Bilal, who became the patron of Mu'adhdhins throughout the Islamic world.  

Except in Sufi brotherhood, religious music is rather curtailed or eschewed because of the opposition of religious leaders. The orthodox religious authorities frowned upon music, with its clear association with erotic dance and drinking; and these stimulated hostile reactions. In this controversy, three main groups emerged:

(1) uncompromising purists opposed to any musical expression, except cantillation of the Qura'n and adhan ;

(2) people favouring music, believing that there is no conflict between secular and religious music; and

(3) mystical fraternities, for whom music and dance are a means towards unity with God. These mystical fraternities in Central Asia, Persia, the Indian Subcontinent and the Far East have traditions of devotional music, which is euphoniously melodious, tuneful and harmonious, spiritually moving - and dare one add – simply divine?  ( Aziz Ahmed: In the souvenir booklet of the Iqbal Academy (UK)'s 1995 International Conference on "Iqbal and the Fine Arts: The Heritage of Islamic creativity".)