February 11, 2016

on my tussle with music and islam

I happened to find myself watching the Daily Show last night, and rather than interviewing a guest, Trevor Noah had an indie band play a few songs, told their inspiring story, and encouraged viewers to catch their debut album.

It got me thinking how, in recent years, I’ve consciously been cutting out instrumental music from my life. Not because I had some overnight conversion after reading fiqh. No doubt, that played a role. (I am well aware of certain contrarian opinions for its permissibility, and I wouldn’t ever get on the minbar and make this an issue). I even occasionally crack against my own self-imposed prohibition and indulge in some (carefully considered and wholesome) samā’. Why, then, or rather — how — did someone like myself, educated in the halls of “open-minded” elite liberal institutions, and a former snobby music connoisseur, come to hold a position that many consider supposedly anti-intellectual and regressive at best, and a pre-cursor to fanaticism at worst?

This piece isn’t really aimed at those of you who enjoy music. It’s for those Muslims who, like myself, consider themselves to be of a “conservative” bent. I really dislike the word conservative, personally. Coming from Latin (the intensifier prefix of com + servare, meaning to watch or maintain), modern standard Arabic translates “conservative” as “muhāfiz” (محافظ), from the Arabic root h-f-z, which connotes ideas of protection and guardianship. Such a translation doesn’t exactly map onto any terminology the ‘ulamā have used, at least none that I know of. I submit (and I welcome disagreement here) that a more accurate term, and one that actually has precedent in the writings of the ‘ulamā is the word “ahwat” (أحوط), meaning “more cautious”. This word is usually used to describe certain fiqh rulings deemed less “risky” with regards to maximizing God’s pleasure and averting potential consequences in the Hereafter. So, to take the present example, when faced with a choice between listening to music or not listening to music, the more ahwat opinion is the latter. Given this, I’ll be using the term ahl al-ahwat, i.e. the “people of more caution” to describe this “conservative” wing of Muslims.

In some circles of ahl al-ahwat in America today, there is a certain frustration towards the fact that many (if not most) Muslims don’t hold to their opinions. There is this idea that the common man (‘āmi) should recognize his or her relative lack of knowledge, and then alter his or her life accordingly when exhorted to do so. This is reflected in attitudes towards others that reek of condescension or even outright dismissal.

This, whether we like it or not, just won’t work here.

What the ahl al-ahwat needs to realize is that, for better or worse, in America, religion — in a reflection of capitalism — is a product marketed towards customers. As Mark Knoll wrote in his review of Moore’s Selling God (1995):

The subtlety in Moore’s book comes from the recognition that in the United States, it could not have been any other way. A free society, which prohibits a state church and discourages most kinds of governmental assistance to religion and a society, moreover, which, at least after the 1790s, organized itself in accordance with the reasoning of free markets is a society where, as Moore puts it, “Either religion keeps up with other cultural aspects of national life, including the commercial forms, or it has no importance.” The citizens of the United States “remained a religious people because religious leaders, and sometimes their opponents, found ways to make religion competitive with other cultural products.”

The takeaway from all this is that, if you’re trying to convince anyone of anything unpopular (such as abstaining from instrumental music) in the days of “I’m spiritual but not religious”, one’s teachings need to have comparative appeal. (For some, the answer here is that the teachings themselves need to “change with the times” — the overly-pragmatic approach). But for those trying to convince others to adhere to the ahwat, any fiqh where there is a (however remote) possible plurality of opinion can’t simply be propounded unto the masses from the kursī and accepted because someone learned said it. In a land where “we are (almost) all Protestants,” arguments from the authority of the tradition will only work for those who have a priori acceded to the authority of the tradition (and even then, they will have acceded by consciously being convinced of the merits of doing so! It won’t be taken as a given). For everyone else, though, the vision of life that follows from the ruling in question has to be justified on the basis on it being a “better deal” than competing options.

Take my choice to cut down on the tunes. My reasons for doing so were numerous and played off of one another. I liked the idea of being in as much control as possible of the emotions I feel, of being free of the need to augment my mood with music, and, furthermore, I was beginning to take issue with unseemly lyrics. Its absence also made me feel more viscerally present with God wherever He happens to place me, and in whatever state. Another part of it had to do with the how I, like TJ Winter, just eventually came to a realization that “the human voice is the most beautiful of instruments, and that by cultivating its correct harmonies we can produce genuinely spiritual sounds that are superior to anything that an instrument could generate.”

What perhaps factored most crucially in my decision, however, was experiencing an environment that demonstrated the appeal of an acapella life. I sat with people who lived this life, and, for brief, flashing moments, felt the peace they felt. I read their poetry and nashids, feeling vivified anew by their searing lines. I even began to modify the furnishings and decor of my apartment in the hope of bringing out this feeling of sukun in my everyday surroundings, the impact was just that strong. In short, it was through these repeated in-person experiences that I eventually decided to consciously yield to the idea there still yet exist religious authorities out there worthy of deference, and that I should seek to learn from them what it means to live the Islamic tradition as a moral path to God (dīn). (Again, you don’t have to agree with me, and neither do I expect you to — I just ask for your respect). I’ve been speaking about instruments throughout this article, but I could’ve just as easily used any other of the lightning rod issues — hijāb, zabīha meat, moonsighting, gender segregation, etc.

Aspiring ahl al-ahwat— whether parents, imams, zealous youth, or otherwise — would do well to heed this advice. The only other option is to create insular communities where rulings are listened to because they’ve become unquestioned communal norms (there are many of these in any social grouping). This approach will work only as long as Muslims keep themselves attached to similarly-minded communities, but in America, this is to hope against hope. The US is a huge country just geographically speaking, and Muslims are still a relatively small minority here (about 3.3 million people, 1% of the population). This is entirely different from a place like, say, the UK, where roughly the same number of Muslims form five percent of the (much smaller) overall population — this, in a country the size of Alabama. The “insular community” approach, then, is not likely to work out here in the long run.

I say this with love, but wagging fingers won’t get the ahwat anywhere beyond those already convinced. Muslims — of whatever mashrab— must instead work to cultivate environments where the beauty of the Law can shine through, or else be prepared to sit back and watch as they slide into irrelevance.

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