Perspective: Can music lead to spiritual communion?

by Darkeyed

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.

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16 thoughts on “Perspective: Can music lead to spiritual communion?

  1. Subhanallah.
    What a brilliant article and discussion.
    It has taken me a few days to get round to reading it all but here are my thoughts.

    I think the very question of whether religion (let alone Islam or Christianity) ‘allows’ music needs to be understood. I find that exploring the questions we have normally leads to a profound understanding of the essence of the question itself. This is because as religion is generally concerned with guiding us towards building a living relationship with God, music is generally and seemingly a worldly past-time.
    The question if whether music has any positive or negative effects in pursut of the purpose of our life must also be explored. For what are music and religion besides two words? For me this is a journey of understanding through definition.

    Now to define music is interesting. Hinduism says that the SOUND that created everything was ‘Om’. There are beats in nature we can not deny that exist from the mating calls of some animals, to the communication melodies of whales in the oceans and even to the very beating of our own hearts there seems to be a kind of melodious and ‘musical’ root. I do find it fascinating however that Allah has created Man to recognise beauty in the sounds we hear and I am in no doubt that this is also a natural miracle of Allah that in the complexity of the universe He has created humans with the ability to create the most complex and beautiful beats through music. Think of a radio player in deep space playing tchaikovsky- the very thought of it send one into praise of Allah and His power to create!

    The question of what is the state of our soul after listening to music is a good one.
    I give my personal experience…
    I spent one year at Kingston College studying post GCSE. I used to spend a total of one hour on the bus going there and one hour coming back totalling just over two hours travel time every day. During that time I used to listen to hip-hop and artists such as Tupac for the entire journey. One morning I was talking with my friends outside college and used foul language. Immediately I noticed and felt that I had done so, and felt extremly uneasy. During the course of the day I realised that it was because of the company I was keeping (2 hours of Tupac) on the bus, which had subconsiously had an adverse effect on my speech and thoughts.
    For me, that was that was the line crossed and crucially, understood. At that time I was (and still am!) studying the books of the Promised Messiah (as) namely “The philosophy of the teachings of Islam” inwhich he states the reason for the prohibition of swine in Islam is because of it’s effect on our various faculties. The same thing, in my opinion, is with music.
    Bruce Lee said “The mind is like a fertile garden in which anything that is planted, flowers or weeds, will grow.”
    This is a brilliant quote which further highlights the condition of our souls when dealing with external influences including, but not limited to, music. In my experience, music does effect us on a subliminal and hence spiritual level.
    The state of ones soul is, hence, influenced by the music we listen to.

    Now when it comes to giving a kind of ‘ruling’ on whether this influence of music is ‘right’, I look at it from the bigger picture of our existence as a human race as well as a personal one.
    Ibne Khalid rightly pointed to that it really does depends on which kind of music one listens to. There is such a vast array of music generes that it is simply narrow minded to refer to music as one specific type. This means we must look at it a as concept. Look, nature has also varying sounds dependent entirely on purpose. The warning sound of some animals, for example, to ward off predators is starkly different to the sounds of those used when calling offspring. All however are used in different places at different times to fulfil the objective of their life at that given time.
    One can understand this in light of sound because at different times of the day those who listen to music gravitate towards different types of music. At times of rest in the morning and evening we (at least I do) find, at times, it relaxing to listen to classical music. While when working out or racing we (athletes) would die of boredom if not for energetic music.
    There are days where I do not listen to music at all- it all depends!

    There is also the phenomenological approach which is that if In Islam music was to be officially and openly banned across the board, then how will Islam remain a religion that is universal? Also, as I remember Khalifatul Masih 4th (ra) once explain in a majlis-e-‘Irfan sitting that in Islam there are prohibitions and injunctions. There is also a “grey area” in which our own level of righteousness can be nurtured to develop to higher states of gnosis.

    Following on from this salient point raised by huzur (ra), I agree that music lies within this “grey area” of Islam where we can, through our choices, use music as a meduim to fulfil the purpose of our life. We don’t have to, but it is a choice.
    Yes, the purpose of life CAN be achieved without music, after all, didn’t people survive when music wasn’t as we know it today? Just as all humans have varying levels of understanding at different points in their lives, music may help to enhance the purpose of life at one given time.

    To close, I would like to point out a subtle point to do with sound and the melody of our own human voice. As a student of Arabic, I find it amazing that the sounds of the Arabic language are so fine-tuned. For example, there are four `Z` sounds, there are two `Q`sounds as well as two `T`sounds. Also, the meaning of words can make a world of difference. For example, `Laa`in Arabic means `no`, whereas `la`means an emphatic `yes`! And the difference lies only in the length of the sound we utter. The fine-tuning of the sound we utter in Arabic matters when we want to convey meaning through communication.
    When one reads Arabic tajweed keeping in mind all of the rules, yet placing no effort on the melody, it still sounds like a melodious song, which has profound impacts on ones soul. Look at the conversion of Hadhrat ‘Umar (ra) when he heard Ta Ha being recited it changed his heart entirely. There was a man who was bent on the death of Rasulullah (saw) yet his reading of the Arabic script no doubt had a deep impact on his entire life!
    All of this combined with the notion that the language of Heaven itself is Arabic, in my humble opinion, leaves no room for the concept of music to be seen as something “unislamic” and something to be frowned upon, but on the contrary leaves no doubt that it is something that can enhance certain peoples faith and help them reach their ultimate goal in life.

  2. As with anything, it all depends on how you go about it. Nothing in this world is good or bad, but they take that form by the way you use them. Music is the same. It has the ability to affect feelings and emotions, depending on the type of music and its intention, it can elevate a person towards thinking of the Divine magnificence…i.e. like classical music. However it also possesses the ability to reduce a person to a uncontrollable fanatical freak, where emotions are encouraged to let loose the lowest desires hidden in the depths of the ego. This then leads a person towards all sorts of moral destruction. This is the problem with music especially in the modern age where the desire for freedom, not of thought but from morals is encouraged and is a huge contributor towards the downward spiral of society.

  3. “A person’s love of wealth or offspring or wife or his soul being attracted towards a musical voice are all indications of his search for the True Beloved. As man cannot behold with his physical eyes the Imperceptible Being, Who is latent like the quality of fire in everyone, but is hidden, nor can he discover Him through the mere exercise of imperfect reason, he has been misled grievously in his search and has mistakenly assigned His position to others.” –Promised Messiah (as), The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam

    Thus, the problem with music arises when it is given preference over prayer and God. Loving any of the things above has the potential to further distance one from God, but if viewed with the right perception, these things can also make one closer to God.

  4. I agree to a point. I think the purpose behind the article was to argue that in Islam, as with other religious teachings at their inception, creation is afforded a direct means of communication, and thus relationship, with its Creator – i.e. through worship (‘ibadah). Music was an apt example of something that the Christian tradition has allowed to become a bridge between the two – in addition to standard worship. Conversely, in Islam it would be seen as unacceptable that music, or anything else for that matter, should impact upon the process of formal worship (e.g. salah or other obligatory rituals).

    I don’t believe the article anywhere suggests that music or musicians are bereft of any good. In the same way that discussing finance and accountancy or bricklaying and builders in a religious context would not infer anything negative or positive upon those vocations in a general sense.

    So far as the use of music by Hadhrat Ibn Sina (ra), amongst others, who famously temporarily cured his next door neighbour’s son of an aliment through therapeutic music, this refers to a medical benefit which can transcend religious norms if necessity can be established.

  5. How many people here have watched Sister Act where Whoopi Goldberg as Sister Mary Clarence changes the words of the Mowtown classic “My Guy” to “My God”? That makes the song so much more relevant to me! It’s one of my favourite movies.

  6. We should get Yusuf Lateef to comment on this article. He is a grammy award winning Ahmadi Muslim jazz musician, still playing at the amazing age of 92! I am sure he is thought on this topic at length

  7. My spouse is herself a musician, and I must admit I enjoy listening to her playing the piano. Also, I find it very difficult to talk with musicians on this topic, because it seems as if I’m criticising their spiritual condition, which is far from my intention. I say this without false modesty that I genuinely believe that many ahmadi musicians are far more connected to God than myself.

    Regarding what has been written in response to my post, I’m certainly not denying that music can give us a spiritual feeling and, of course, anything beautiful is in some way connected to God. The Prophet (pboh) said, “Allah is Beautiful and He loves beauty”.

    I also agree that if a person is connected to God, then he will find God in everything beautiful. He will see a mountain and see God’s power, he will listen to birds singing and hear God’s melody. But ideally a person should connect to music through God, rather than connect to God through music. Unfortunately, the weakness of the human condition is such that this is rare. My observation is that for many people who say they feel heavenly when listening to music, this is a transitory and ephemeral experience. It does not reflect a real heavenly transformation in their character or spiritual status.

    Fundamentally, I think music is a peculiarly transitory and subjective experience. The question is: what is the state of a man’s soul when the music stops? Furthermore, in many cases, I think it can act as a spiritual crutch. A person listens to a beautiful song, and is immediately carried away by an ecstatic experience which temporarily satisfies an internal yearning of his soul. But finding God can never be so easy. Finding God is a long, and usually painful, process of giving up all the obvious and disguised attachments which bind us to the pleasures of this world. And harsh as it may sound, I have a feeling that it’s better to crawl on one’s knees than walk with a crutch.

  8. Many thanks for your thoughts. I agree that there certainly are signs in all of Almighty God’s creation to point humankind towards the realisation / remembrance of God. Sound is one such powerful element.

  9. Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IV (may Allah have Mercy on his soul) spoke on the subject of music on numerous occasions. There is no doubt about it that music was heard and even played by the Prophets of Allah. However it has never been recorded that it ever changed the spiritual state of a people or brought about a change for the better, it has never been known to create any grand revolutions although it can give temporary pleasure and even drive people into a frenzy, (Address to Jalsa Salana USA, 22 June 1997).

  10. I should also stress I agree wholeheartedly with the immorality unfortunately present in today’s pop industry not being spiritually conducive. None of this is about that, take it to be about the good stuff 🙂

  11. Assalamu alaikum – very interesting article, on a topic which still remains ultimately mysterious to man.
    I myself am an Ahmadi musician – there are a good few of us, though most of the ones I know are all State-side and a whole lot older – jazz cats, predominantly. I agree completely with the logic that ultimately nothing is great enough to be worthy of being part of the *direct* link with God, ie Salat or general supplication, and that a direct connection is in fact what we strive for.
    However, I think the idea of music ‘leading’ a person to God would need to be looked at in greater detail perhaps. Essentially, you’ve already described it with the ‘spiritual feeling’. In light of everything created, the duty of everything created is to remind of God – to glorify, to project, to be a manifestation of certain Attributes. We can look at a huge mountain and, if blessed with spiritual vision, we are humbled at the fact we are observing God’s glory being manifested in front of us. Two stages of faith come to mind, described in ‘Our God’ by Mirza Bashir Ahmad sahib. The first is the notion that there *should* be a God, the next one is that there *is*. If the advice we are given by even the Holy Qur’an to observe and observe again the nature that is around us can lead someone to think that there should be a Creator, I don’t see why music can’t be a part of that (music is in nature anyway), because observation of it especially in natural surroundings ie birds singing can produce exactly the same result, and from man-made instruments there is no difference, as every sound and every instrument goes back to nature.

    I humbly state that a certain song I wrote, when performed live years ago, prompted my then music teacher to say that he was taken ‘to Heaven and back’. Also a brother once made an interesting point that the fact that good music gives you that ‘spiritual feeling’, as you rightly say, this can highlight to the common man that there *is* more to life than what you see – even they could recognise that ‘feeling’ they get being to do with the soul, so if you are in fact taken places with the music, that’s actually a good thing. I don’t know what the religious or existential mindset was that my music teacher had, but him talking about Heaven is surely a step closer to further belief in God.

    Again I stress that I absolutely agree music has limitations, like everything else. Prayer and connection with God will always be direct without mediums, and the stance that Sufis for instance have employed with it is certainly overstepping the mark. Music shouldn’t be used as a medium, but in terms of ‘leading’ someone to God, I believe it has its role amongst everything else created by God in this world of countless catalysts.

  12. I agree. Goodly poetry and the beauty of natural sounds (e.g. human voice) can all give greater meaning to religion when applied in a skilful and graceful way.

    I think that contemporary music is a skin that people moving towards God tend to shed at the appropriate time in their journey. And as the author stated, most modern music is highly immoral by all religious and reasonable standards.

  13. As far as I know, a beautifully recited poem, Hamd or Naat can excel a soul to some degrees of spirituality.I am no talking about instruments produced music but the natural harmony and tune in human voice or chirping of birds do affect mind. Lehan-Daudi for example.Also, when a moazzan (caller of prayer) has a good voice and calls, more people are attracted.It’s just my humble opinion.

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