I think I mentioned that I was in Australia for the month of February. That would be the end of summer down under, the start of Fall and the beginning of school. But for us Northern hemisphere folks, that was the heart of winter and coincidentally of the Winter Olympics. I’m not a winter sports fan—well, not a sports fan at all, but especially have no bleeps on my radar for winter sports. But you have to give the organizers credit: they put on quite a show. I was hooked for about two weeks. Never mind Australian television had an equally compelling local program to follow their Olympiads and that I had no other source of entertainment when I retired from my classes in the evenings, so it was either that or the Discovery Channel, which got its due in between.
The opening program was of course fabulous. There was some controversy about how Indigenous people and their cultures were represented. That’s also par for the course. We have to keep alert to these things. But here is where I enter: k.d. lang wearing all white, playing the piano, was raised on a dais, singing the Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah.” Wow. I was knocked off my feet and began a search of the singer and this song. It didn’t take much because she was interviewed by the Australian channel covering the Olympics, and apparently already a darling for the folks down under.
This week my daughter played another rendition of this song by the Fou Fous and it sent me searching YouTube for k.d. lang’s version again, either at the Olympics or elsewhere. I found a concert that had been watched more than 4 million times! It was awesome. It made me think about the mixed opinion regarding music in Islam. In my Salafi days I bought completely into the idea that music is haram. For a little while, that is. I had that morbid idea of Islam as some puritanical indictment against any and all kinds of pleasure and entertainment. Of course music had to be haram.
The idea of haram means forbidden by God. Technically, nothing is haram unless there is an explicit Qur’anic statement; or at least a confirmed and sound hadith from the Prophet saying such and such is haram. There are no such statements in the Qur’an making music haram, but still this idea persists and is given credence.
I became Muslim the same year as Cat Stevens, a musician, whom i loved dearly in my high school days. He also concluded that music was haram. Imagine. If you’ve never heard any of his music, go find some and especially listen to his lyrics. “Morning has broken like the first morning, black bird has spoken like the first bird… Praise the relations, praise every morning, God’s recreation on the new day…”—surely haram. Singing in praise of God? Singing in recognition of the creation of God? Yep, haram.
I’m a lyrics person myself. My children and I make our way on long family road trips singing at the top of our lungs as we breeze down the highway. Poetry put to music. Definitely haram. But here’s the thing: if music is haram, then Allah must have made a number of mistakes. For one thing, nature itself plays a cacophony of sound, musical in its own way. Waters trickle, flow, and fall, and the sound it emits is musical to anyone who listens. Birds caw and call in harsh voices, true, but alas the song of certain birds is an unmistaken soliloquy.
Yusuf Islam, that’s the name Cat Stevens took, has a song with these words, “I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul; Where I’ll end up, only God really knows.” Have you never heard the songs of the wind? So much of nature is musical—surely, music is haram, or else God just made a mistake. None of it is suppose to sound musical.
But here is something to ponder where God must have gone wrong; equally wrong with Allah’s creation. Have you ever stopped to wonder how Beethoven could compose such exquisite symphonies but you or I can barely hum in tune? That’s where God went wrong, clearly. For any one human being to be capable of making such stupendous compositions—well, that either has to be a mistake, or a stroke of genius. Nope, I don’t think God made a mistake, and I can no longer adhere to the notion that music is haram.
Even those of us so put off of tunes fall in love with little babies and have been known to sing a lullaby. How can that be haram? Every time I listen to k.d. lang sing “Hallelujah,” I am overcome with love, awe, and wonder. I feel blessed to be in the world and to be able to hear her sing—as well as countless others, like Yusuf Islam, who had an epiphany only last year, I think, because he’s back on stage, calling it a cafe to keep the pop star part at bay, I guess, but apparently the music just continued to overflow. He must have decided its not a mistake that he can praise God in song.
He joins Muslim cultures the world over who also, it seems, could not keep the music at bay; including but not exclusively that which is used explicitly to praise God. Music not only overflows in all of creation including the human creatures, but also invokes the sacred. I hear k.d. lang and my whole being overflows with the joy of divine love and beauty. That’s the key, I think. The beauty. If music was supposed to be haram, then it should not have been so beautiful, so harmonious, so awesome. Music is its own affirmation. God made no mistake, but did give us yet again another grace.