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Happy Muslims: Should We Have Made a Song and Dance of It?

happy_feet-wideQuestion. Unfortunately I was unable to attend your talk last week about whether we should be making a song and dance about the Happy British Muslims video? I would be interested to hear what questions you raised during the talk and what your feelings are about the video?

Response: Bismi’Llah, alhamduli’Llah wa’l-salatu wa’l-salamu ‘ala rasuli’Llah. Thank you for your query. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, and for what it’s worth, the following points more or less capture my take on the issue:

1. Issues of this nature shouldn’t be blown out of proportion or become the basis for a campaign of incrimination; nor must it become a source of division or discord among Muslims. Healthy debate and courteous engagements are one thing: acrimonious and mean-spirited disputation is another thing altogether. We would do well to recall the Quranic injunction: Call to the path of your Lord with wisdom and kindly exhortation, and reason with them in the most courteous manner. [16:125] Unfortunately, some of the voices on both sides of the debate have neither been helpful, nor respectful.

2. One discusses these matters in the spirit of sincerity and brotherliness/sisterliness. One states their case (and position, if need be), and then moves on. Whoever accepts the view, all well and good; if not, one has done their ‘duty’ so to speak. The received scholarly wisdom in this regard is simply: qul kalimataka w’amshi – ‘say your piece and move on.’

3. That the video had a well-intended goal behind it shouldn’t be called into question. For aren’t we required to: Avoid much suspicion? [49:12] Having said that, we must also keep in mind that good intentions aren’t always enough to meet with Divine pleasure and acceptance (ridwan). Ibn Mas’ud, may Allah be pleased with him, once put it like this: wa kam min muridin li’l-khayr lan yusibahu – ‘How many people intend good, but never reach the good.’ The Islamic validity of any act – that is, the act having its basis in either the Qur’an, the Sunnah, analogy (qiyas) or scholarly consensus (ijma‘) – is also paramount.

4. While various feelings for and against the video have been voiced, and praise and censure have been meted out to it in differing degrees, the main controversy concerns the question of singing, music and dancing. In the likes of such an issue, people are of two factions. Those versed in the ways of juristic inference and of weighing-up proof-texts, and those who aren’t. Those learned in fiqh and shari‘ah are, after a painstaking and thorough examination of all the relevant evidences, obliged to follow the result of their research. Those unqualified – well what can they really do? They could ask for a fatwa. They could try and gain an awareness of the issue via the internet. They could read and digest a book on the subject. But unless a person hasn’t examined both sides of the debate rigorously, from top to bottom, they are in no position to take a firm or principled stance. What they can of course do is follow the view of a scholar they trust or who is more practically accessible to them. They can also make others aware of the mufti’s view or fatwa, but without believing that it is irrefutably right: for without the required research, how would they know? Ibn Taymiyyah wrote about such muqallids; those not versed in fiqh and who are thus required to follow the fatwas or rulings of qualified scholars: ‘As for someone who knows the view of one scholar and his proofs, but not the other scholar or his proofs, then he is from the generality of the muqallids. He is not of those scholars able to evaluate or weigh-up [proofs].’1 The rule to follow here is: ‘The Muslims are unanimous that it isn’t allowed for a muqallid to declare that this is halal or that is haram, in those ijtihadi issues wherein he is a muqallid. However, what he can say is that this is the ruling in the school of the Imam he follows; or that having sought a fatwa, this is the fatwa he was given.’2

5. The issue of music is problematic in Islam, for it can seriously distract from prayer and remembering Allah; suggestively arouse emotions and passions; and significantly interfere with morality. A small minority of scholars have, nonetheless, argued for the allowance of listening to music; provided the above dangers are ensured against. For them, there is nothing definitive in Islam to prohibit music. If anything, they argue, there are hadiths where the Prophet, upon whom be peace, allows (encourages, even) singing and playing musical instruments. One of the main hadiths cited in this regard states that: The Lady ‘A’ishah said, Abu Bakr visited me while I had two young Ansari girls who were singing the tales of the battle of Bu‘ath; and they were not professional singers. Abu Bakr said: Musical instruments of Satan in the house of Allah’s Prophet! It was Eid day, so Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, said: ‘O Abu Bakr, there is an Eid for every people, and this is our Eid.’3 This hadith, some advocates of music state, shows how the Prophet, peace be upon him, did not interfere with singing and music, letting the performers and the audience enjoy themselves. Reports from a few notable Companions and some of the Followers (tabi’un) are also used to show the lawfulness of singing and music. Although how authentic these are, or how applicable they are to the issue of music (as opposed to songs or poetry recitals), is questionable.

6. The majority of jurists throughout the ages insist music is haram. To them, music is objectionable, frivolous, more likely than not to lead to immorality, and an unworthy activity for believers. People are often incited to think illicit thoughts and driven to do illicit things by music. Such is its undeniable power. The majority voice forbids music based upon the following chorus of hadiths – the most famous of them being: ‘There shall come groups of people from my ummah who will declare fornication, adultery, silk, wine and musical instrument to be lawful.’4 This prophecy informs us that some people will soon appear who will philosophise away the above prohibitions, declaring the haram to be halal! Another hadith says: ‘Verily Allah has forbidden wine, gambling and drums.’5 In another authentic hadith, it says: ‘Indeed, I did not prohibit weeping, but I did prohibit two foolish and sinful sounds: the sound of merriment with Satan’s wind instruments, in times of blessing and joy; and the sound of wailing while tearing one’s clothes and slapping one’s face, in times of grief.’6 Other hadiths, along with a volley of Companion and salaf-reports, all act in concert to establish the prohibition of lewd, enticing or immoral songs and singing, and of musical instruments generally. The majority view has exceptions, such as a small one-sided drum (duff) at weddings and on Eid days: some scholars extend this to other occasions too. Likewise, innocent and decent singing, humming or chanting during weddings, Eid celebrations, or while travelling, during hard or monotonous labour, or to fight off boredom, have also been permitted by jurists. Finally, although some jurists cite a consensus (ijma‘) on musical instruments being unlawful (exceptions aside), a few have challenged this conclusion. In other words, the truth about the forbiddance of musical instruments, or ma‘azif, is that: either there is unanimity concerning it, or at the very least it is the view taken by the great majority.7 And Allah knows best.

7. In view of the above, if we cast a glance back at the hadith usually used to prove the lawfulness of music (the hadith of the Lady ‘A’ishah in point five), can it really be used to justify its permissibility? For these were young girls singing without the use of any forbidden instruments. The song itself was about heroics in war, and hence perfectly lawful. And the young girls were not professional songstresses, as the wording of the hadith indicates. Moreover, even if music were halal or allowable, the restrictions it is hemmed in by would most certainly put the music which is today so intrinsically part of popular culture, off limits. Given all this, the stiff opposition to, and strong censure of, the Happy Muslim music video should come as no great surprise. A certain display of righteous indignation for Allah’s sake, by those who believed that an act was being committed in opposition to a consensus or to the verdict of the Four Imams, is surely a sign of faith; isn’t it?

8. There was something else about the content of the video which caused eyebrows to be raised: the dancing. In the shari’ah, the ruling about dancing (raqs) – ‘movements of bending, swaying and straightening’ – is differed over by jurists. One group (Shafi‘is) deems it to be permissible (mubah); the other (Hanafis, Malikis and Hanbalis) says it is disliked (makruh).8 All scholars concur that dancing is expressly forbidden (haram) if women dance in view of men; if it excites passions; or if it is suggestive, seductive or sexually provocative – be it women dancing in front of other women, or men in front of men. Given that the Quran instructs women do not be soft of speech, lest he in whose heart is a disease aspires to you, but speak honourably, [33:32] given also that they not stamp their feet in order to reveal their hidden ornaments, [24:31], the believing woman’s reticence and unassuming modesty would surely be compromised by dancing (even if casually, innocently and unsuggestively) where they may be seen by men? While some in the video were just jumping for joy, it could reasonably be argued that others were not. That the raqs caused a ruckus is again not surprising.

9. Away from all the fiqh and fracas, the video did force Muslims to again ask critical questions about their current standing in society and how they are publicly perceived: What of the growing public opinion which sees Islam and Muslims as being no more than embittered, angry and joyless (a ‘threat’ to society, even)? Don’t we Muslims have a duty to try and improve public perceptions? Shouldn’t we be taking positive steps to counter the bias, misrepresentations and smear campaigns against us by elements of the right-wing press? Shouldn’t we be putting serious efforts into tackling the climate of fear being created around British Muslims? Or do we let the deluge of propaganda, prejudice and anti-Muslim sentiments run their course, unchallenged and unabated? That a significant proportion of the British public hold negative views on Islam and, by extension, British Muslim communities, must be cause for concern. And whilst the Sunnah teaches that it is neither here nor there what others think about our religious practices (as long as we are on good terms with God), it does, nonetheless, allow space for taking public opinion into consideration. When the Prophet, peace be upon him, was asked if Ibn Ubayy – whose hypocrisy, political treachery and secret dealings with the enemies were known to him – could be executed, he simply replied: ‘Do not do so, lest people say that Muhammad kills his companions.’9 This is one of a number of instances in the prophetic career where public opinion trumped religious desirability. The video, no doubt, was birthed from the idea to improve the public image of British Muslims. Does the means justify the ends? It would seem not in this case.

10. The ensuing debate over the video raised other key concerns: Does our practice of Islam help recommend it to others? Does our conduct reflect the truths, beauty and balance of Islam? Does our adherence to the faith reflect its universality; its relevance for all people, in all places, at all times? Or are we giving the false impression that the din is an Arab or Asian things, well-suited to bedouin or rural life, but not twenty-first century Britain? These aren’t the times where we can ignorantly, naively or recklessly speak or act as we religiously please, without wider considerations and consequences. That ship has, alhamduli’Llah, long since sailed. Above all, shouldn’t we be reflecting the prophetic concern for peoples’ spiritual and eternal well being – despite growing mistrust and negativity towards us? It was by the mercy of Allah that you [O Prophet] were lenient with them. Had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would have dispersed from around you. [3:159]

Conclusion: No doubt, the video’s intent wasn’t to pander to the crass pop culture of our time. It was about portraying a more joyful and welcoming image of Islam to the public at large (and to young Muslims who often feel that religion is made to appear overly prescriptive – to the point of not offering them any leeway, breathing space, or joy). The hadith which insists that ‘this is our Eid,’ highlights the need to make things easy for people (without declaring halal haram, or visa-versa), while they’re still trying to make their way to the joys of faith and to the sweetness of submission that comes about when religious practice and obedience are steadily internalised. One hadith lets us know: inna hadha’l-dina matin fa awghilu fihi bi rifq – ‘This religion is strong, so go through it gently.’10 To be connected to our Muslim youth, and to help steer them, is something we all need to be a greater part of. To engage their anger, frustrations and confusions is a right they have upon us and a duty we’re still not doing enough about. To help channel their talents and vibrant energies into lawful expressions of art and culture is something our learned ‘ulema need to give us far better guidance and clarity on. Service, or khidmah, is the key concern here. And in all of this we must remember that good intentions are to be seasoned with shari‘ah wisdoms. ‘To bring religion to the people is a fine and necessary undertaking, but this is not a situation in which the proposed end can be said to justify the means. The further people have drifted from the truth, the greater is the temptation to water down the truth.’11 It is a temptation, I believe, that we must resist.

Wa’Llahu a‘lam wa huwa wali al-tawfiq.

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:233.

2. Bakr Abu Zayd, al-Madkhal al-Mufassal (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1997), 1:73.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.960.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.5649.

5. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.3698.

6. Al-Haytami, Majma‘ al-Zawa’id, no.4047.

7. The consensus on musical instruments being haram is mentioned in, among other sources: al-Baghawi, Sharh al-Sunnah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1983), 12:383, where he said: ‘There is agreement about the prohibition of flutes (mazamir), instruments of diversion (malahi) and musical instruments (ma‘azif);’ and Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali citing Imam al-Ajurri, Nuzhat al-Asma’ fi Mas’alat al-Sama‘, in Majmu‘ Rasa’il (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Hadithah, 2003), 2:244. A thorough discussion of both sides of the debate is given in al-Shawkani, Nayl al-Awtar (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Qayyim, 2005), 9:147-168, where he explains (p.167) that this is ‘an area of legitimate differing’, and points the reader to a treatise he wrote on the topic (Ibtal Da’wa al-Ijma‘ ‘ala Tahrim Mutlaq al-Sama‘) which shows that, although the majority prohibited them, there is no clear consensus on the prohibition of musical instruments. He concluded this fair and thorough discussion with the following caution: al-mu’minun waqqafun ‘inda’l-shubuhat – ‘Believers should refrain from doubtful matters.’

8. For the Shafii position, see: al-Shirbini, Mughni al-Muhtaj (Beirut: Dar al-Marifah, 1997), 4:573.

9. Al-Bukhari, no.3518.

10. Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 3:199.

11. Gai Eaton, King of the Castle (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1999), 17.

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