I’ve recently had an online disagreement with a Christian friend about whether music can lead to spiritual improvement. He believes it can, but I have my doubts. Thinking about this topic a little bit more, I realise that there’s some important differences between Islam and Christianity which underlie our different perspectives on music.
Islam basically teaches that there should be no intermediary between a human being and God. Each human being has a direct link with God. Christianity is very different. Christians in the majority believe that humans are born sinful and they can only be forgiven through the crucifixion of Jesus. This very important spiritual disparity leads to different physical manifestations of the two religions. For instance, mosques are empty of all physical statues or pictures which may distract the Muslim from God. When a Muslim prays, it is just him (or her) and God. By contrast, when a Christian prays, it is often in front of a statue of Jesus on the Cross. Now some Christians may say, “We’re not really praying to the statue… it’s just a way of reminding us of God… the statue represents God… we’re praying to God through the statue”. But for Muslims, this is in opposition to our entire approach to God. We regard all physical forces or objects as essentially illusions which veil us from God. In essence, Islam teaches that the only reality is God, and this world is a transitory illusory phenomenon.
Which brings us to music.
I think some music, both Muslims and Christians would agree, is not conducive to spirituality. For instance, many modern songs are full of sexual and violent references, which clearly lead away from spirituality towards carnality. But what of “pure” music? What of Beethoven or Mozart, for instance? Well, I certainly agree that such music can give a spiritual feeling to us. Similarly, I agree that the image of Jesus suffering on the Cross can certainly carry a spiritual and emotional charge, and this image would certainly move Muslims as well as Christians, because Muslims also have great love for Jesus. But the idea that music, which is a physical phenomenon, can lead a person to God… in my eyes, this is an idea that may sit well with Christian philosophy, but is alien to Islamic philosophy. For a Muslim, ideally, no physical medium is required to bring him (or her) close to God. Of course, very very few of us are at such a spiritually elevated state that we can pretend we have a direct living relationship with God. But this is our aspiration, and this is why I believe that Muslims don’t employ music as a spiritual methodology.
Of note, Jesus himself did not employ music or instruct his followers to use music in their religion. I believe that this was because he himself had a direct relationship with God. In my opinion, it is usually the later followers of religions (including Islam) who try to introduce music into religion, to compensate their own inability to establish that direct living link with the Divine.