Question: Is it permitted to play or listen to music? What about religious music?
There’s no evidence in the Quran that forbids playing or listening to music. But there are some narrations that are classified as “sahih hadith”, though they are not in compliance with Quranic principles. The most famous of those is:
“From among my followers, there will be some people who will consider unlawful sexual intercourse, wearing silk, drinking alcoholic drinks, and playing the musical instruments (maa’zif) as lawful….” (Bukhari, Drinks, 6)
Although the narrator chain of this narration seems to be sound, its text does not seem to be authentic because of its meaning:
Unlawful sexual intercourse and drinking alcoholic drinks are of the major prohibitions in the Quran, whereas wearing silk is only forbidden to men in a single-source narration (khabar ahad) from the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Even having a palm-wide piece of silk in a cloth is therefore considered permissible.
Those who consider alcoholic drinks and unlawful sexual intercourse as “halal- lawful” would be “deniers-kafir”. However, those who consider wearing silk as lawful cannot be judged as “kafir” because they would have denied a single-source narration (khabar ahad). Even if wearing silk and playing musical instruments (ma’azif) were forbidden, they could be called minor sins only. Yet, in that case, minor sins would be mixed up with major sins in the narration, which is against God’s will because He categorizes sins as major sins and minor faults/bad deeds in the following verses:
“If you avoid the greater sins forbidden to you, We will cover up your bad deeds and admit you into a place of honor.” (an-Nisa 4:31)
“(Those who act kindly) are those who avoid the major sins and immoralities but (may have committed) minor faults. Your Master is vast in forgiveness. He has been the most knowing of you when He produced you from the earth and when you were fetuses in the wombs of your mothers. So do not claim yourselves to be pure; He is most knowing of who fears Him.” (An-Najm 53:32)
Obviously, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) would not mix up major sins with minor faults. So, this hadith cannot be called authentic (or sahih).
Indeed, there are other narrations that condemn music. Scholars, such as Imam Ghazali, Kamal al-din ibn al-Humam, Abd al-Ghani al-Nablusi, Ibn Abidin, Taqiuddin Subki, Ramli, Ibn Hazm, and Shawkani have interpreted these hadiths. Their comments can be summarized as follows: “These hadiths have certain common points. In the texts of all these narrations, either having alcoholic drinks or unlawful sexual relations (zina) or acts that may lead to Zina is accompanied by music. That means, merely playing or listening to music is not forbidden, but if the music is used as a facilitator of unlawful (haraam) deeds, then it would be unlawful to listen to or play due to the principle “anything that causes haraam is also haraam” ” (Ghazali, Ihya, VI, 142-144; Ibn al-Humam, Fath al-Qadir, VI, 482; Nablusi, Idah al-Dalalat, Süleymaniye Library., Esat Ef., nr., 1762/1, vr., 7a-b, 8a-b, 9a, 11a, 27a, 28a; Ibn Abidin, Redd al-Mukhtar, V, 305, 307; Shawkani, Nayl al-Awtar, VIII, 113-119; Subki, Takmile, XX, 230; Ramli, Nihayat al-Muhtaj, VIII, 298; Muhalla, VII, 567).
A hadith about playing musical instruments and singing was narrated by Aisha (RA) in opposition to the one you mentioned:
“Abu Bakr came to my house while two Ansari girls were singing beside me the stories of the Ansar concerning the Day of Buath. And they were not singers. Abu Bakr said protestingly, “Musical instruments (mazamir) of Satan in the house of Allah’s Messenger (PBUH)!” It happened on Eid day and Allah’s Messenger (PBUH) said, “O Abu Bakr! There is an Eid for every nation and this is our Eid.”” (Bukhari, Eidayn, 3)
There is also another famous hadith about making music to announce weddings:
The Prophet (PBUH) said, “The distinction between what is lawful and what is unlawful is playing the tambourine at a wedding and announcing it.” (Tirmidhi, Nikah, 6; Ibn Majah, Nikah, 20; Nasai, Nikah, 72)
In both of these hadiths, music is used as an instrument to celebrate lawful events, such as Eid or a wedding. These are also other pieces of evidence that playing and listening to music is not unlawful (haraam) unless there are other factors that may change the ruling. In the first hadith above, the lyrics of the songs included stories of victory. However, playing or listening to a piece of music whose lyrics include words that insult the religion or encourage sins would be unlawful.
It is not true to categorize music as religious and non-religious. The important thing is its message. We often observe inappropriate and exaggerated lyrics that praise and deify beings other than God in many examples of so-called “religious music”. Such songs cannot be permitted to write, play, or listen to, either.