When the mayor of New York city, Eric Adams, wanted to ban Drill Rap, one can understand the instincts of rulers for order and harm mitigation. He is not the first to recognise the ill effects of music. 

Medieval Ulema, Islamic scholars, justified their regulation of music based on Kalaam methodology, a reasoning system for deriving laws called Usool al-Fiqh.

Since 10th century, inspired by Greek philosophers/truth seekers, this dialectic method was used for reaching complex truths.

Running a vast decentralised and diverse landmass, the Abbasid khalifs had accepted this way, the Shari’ah, in applying justice in their realm. Of course, the court in Baghdad acted as the High/Supreme Court of our times. 

Understanding the regulation

In banning music, the Ulema referred to Quranic ayah that they inferred had alluded to music. They justified their opinion based on an understanding called Ta’weel of Quran.

Ta’weel was likely popularised by the Fatimid Ulema in the 10th century, to justify their ‘Alid rule over Egypt. Basically it gives an esteemed person an authority to interpret the Quran. Of course, their peers knew it was only an opinion, though specialised. 

The Ulema also noted various ahadeeth revealing Prophet Mohammad (s) displeasure upon hearing string instruments – on more than one occasion.

Since these ahadeeth were deemed sahih by muhadithoon a few hundred years earlier, they were considered on par with any Quranic ayah.

This understanding was based on the rule, introduced by Imam Shafi’ in the early 9th century, that elevated any sahih hadeeth to the level of any ayah of Quran. 

Then the other secondary methods of Usool al-Fiqh were utilised: ill-effects of music on young impressionable minds and society were proven beyond doubt. 

Thus an authoritative ban on music, with some exceptions, was agreed upon by all the Madhahib. After 1258, when the Mongols killed the last Khalif in Baghdad, this ban was sealed by Taqleed, a practice where ‘following the precedent’ became a rule.

Left unused, the Fiqh App of Muslims went into sleep mode – for a very long time to come. 

This all made sense then, especially if one were a Muslim. It was also expected that the rule will be stretched for exceptions.

Since Hudood laws could not be applied to music, as capital punishments were applicable to iron-clad Quranic ahkaam, the judges loosened the strings that bonded them to the believers.

A fundamental problem of proof was ‘definition of music’. One cannot ban a thing that cannot be defined, another dictum proclaimed. 

Modernity: in the light of reasoning

In 1860’s British India, Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan attempted to understand rules like these in the new light of Modernity. He failed, as did various reformers in the next 150 years. 

Even instincts need a framework to fit and flow easily. Modernity could not define music either.

More importantly, he and his fellow reformers could not improvise the Kalaam methodology for the new era, nor could they invent a new method of deriving rules that could satisfy all the domains of higher human notions.

The medieval rules, grounded in universalist humane concepts, outlasted them. 

Contradictions cropped up sooner than expected, and often enough.

Colonisation brought these problems to the fore but frank bigotry procrastinated introspection. The beautiful tapestry of Fiqh was patched by ad-hoc rules for believers to retain some sense of coherence: music was banned in essence but condoned in numerous situations.

If Taqleed had legitimised Aurangzeb’s edict in 18th century Mughal India, by the end of 20th century, music was playing on the phone rings of urban Muslims.

In this interim, a thousand year understanding of the word contradiction got blurred. 

21st century: in the light of science

Today, we can define music (the art of arranging sounds), and the sound itself (vibrations transmitted through solid/liquid/gas with frequencies capable of being detected by a human ear).

We also know that music production is not dependent on string or other physical instruments; it can be produced digitally using electricity. 

Science unravels the truth, and helps clear confusion – even of a thousand years. There is virtue in accepting these understandings with humility. 

Understanding the past

As to the Quran, we can see Ta’weel as medieval Ulema’s opinion – their best effort given their era and understanding. They are not ma’soom, and are liable to fail in their understanding. 

Prophet Mohammad (s) displeasure on string instruments is based on ahadeeth which were deemed sahih, based on finite inclusion and exclusion criteria by the likes of Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim.

These criteria were never claimed as having Allah’s promise of integrity. Thus these ahadeeth can be reconciled or relegated as da’ef. 

As to secondary sources, they are considered as pros and cons in the larger debate of regulation. 

Do you still want to consider music as haram?

Given Free Will, as agreed upon by all madhahib, one can still believe in the notion of music being haram. However, one cannot force such an idea upon others without due reasoning, set criteria, definition, etc. 

The era of Taqleed is over, and leaders like the Taliban will have to understand the need for reason and persuasion in the service of humanity. 

So, why is your local doctor worried about music?

If Eric Adams has a tough job ahead of him, I, as a medical practitioner have a long job ahead of me: improving health and scientific literacy of my patients. 

I am hoping to use the old laws on music to help people understand how rules are derived, their complexity, their relationship to understanding of an era, and how we should accept change and practice best scientific methods. 

It was disappointing to see people question the solid scientific opinion regarding the benefits of COVID vaccination. I am here to share the blame of not transmitting our understanding of statistics and other rules that govern the evidence based approach to a healthy and productive life.

Of course, I want religion to play its part in mental well-being of our lives.