Religious discord over music

Dilemma: After an Islamist provincial government in Pakistan condemns music as evil, Muslims are caught between the call for piety and the passion for song.
The Baltimore Sun, July 11, 2003
By Dan Morrison

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – He knew the police might be watching, and so would the holy men, shouting their disapproval, but Bismillah Jan decided it was worth the risk.

And so the wiry 26-year-old farmer left his village in the tribal areas of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province and made his way to Peshawar, to the dimly lit shops and shuttered windows of the provincial capital’s Dabgari Bazaar.

Climbing the listing stairs of an anonymous building, he met with a group of desperate men and made the deal: They would come to a hotel where Jan and other villagers could gather and play a night’s worth of traditional Pashtun folk music for 1,000 rupees, about $17.

“My whole village is convinced it’s un-Islamic,” he says as two friends nod. “At the same time, we want to listen to it.

“May God help us overcome our sin.”

As an Islamist provincial government clamps down on popular entertainment at this ancient gateway to the Indian subcontinent, harassing and arresting music shop owners and performers, farmers and street peddlers are wrestling with a pernicious evil: music.

It is an enduring belief here among many of the deeply religious ethnic Pashtuns that melody, singing and dancing are an affront to God. While musical tradition is ingrained in most, if not all, Muslim societies, music is described as a distraction from religion in several sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.

That belief stands in direct contradiction to an equally enduring tradition of singing and dancing in the tribal areas that straddle the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

That tradition dates back centuries to the days when wandering Sufi holy men first set foot in the Pashtun areas, influencing the tribes with their mystical and ecstatic brand of Islam.

It is not uncommon on Friday evenings, after prayers are finished, for village men to meet at the dozens of ancient Sufi burial sites that dot the Suleiman mountain range to smoke hashish, play wooden flutes and sing.

Tension between the two urges – the desire for piety as defined by an orthodox interpretation of Islamic tradition vs. a human appetite for musical expression – has increased since the Muttahida Majlis-e-Ammal, a coalition of Islamic religious parties, took power in January.

The provincial government has targeted symbols of impiety, from movie and music ads that depict the human form, and the female form in particular, to satellite dishes and Western-style shirts and pants.

The most conservative elements of society, the mullahs and their religious students, backed by the provincial government, are now emboldened to mute the musicians and shutter the record shops.

On June 4, legislators voted to make Shariah, or Islamic law, the legal blueprint for the province.

Now, public employees must pray five times a day, and men are barred from watching girls’ sports. Schoolboys are required to wear the traditional shalwar kameez, a collarless knee-length pullover shirt and baggy pants, instead of Western clothes.

The campaign has put the provincial government on the defensive against charges that it is emulating the bleak Islam that the Taliban imposed on Afghanistan before their ouster by a U.S.-led coalition.

Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who has become an important ally of the United States, has been among the critics of conservative Islam, and the week after the Shariah law was adopted, he made a speech against intolerance.

Local officials deny pursuing a rigid definition of Islam, contending they are providing something their people desire.

“This isn’t a step towards Talibanization,” Chief Minister Akram Durrani said in an interview. “This is an elected government. The Shariah bill was passed without opposition.”

On the street, however, the talk is of morality, not politics.

“It is the word of the Prophet that the listener of music and the music player both should have molten iron poured in their ears,” Maulana Mahaz Khan says, sitting in the doorway of a shop selling tablas and other drums in the Dabgari Bazaar. “And we must stick with the sayings of the Prophet.”

According to Marcia Hermansen, a professor of Islamic studies at Loyola University in Chicago, the Quran says nothing about music. The hadith, sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, seem to condemn music or limit its use to drumming.

Some rigid sayings of the hadith decry the use of the female voice in public; another says, “I was sent to destroy musical instruments.”

“But these extreme positions are not that authoritative,” Hermansen said in an e-mail message. “More liberal interpretations say that music is permitted in appropriate contexts, such as weddings and celebrations. Sufis use music in worship.”

The view of music as a vice is a minority opinion in Islam, she says.

“While Wahhabis and conservative Muslims seem to feel that music is almost polluting,” she says, “many local, court and folk cultures have rich musical traditions.”

During a 20-minute conversation, Bismillah Jan goes from defiant to resigned when asked about his predilection for the throaty folk music of his people.

“I pray five times a day and, being a Muslim, I have this beard,” he says. “If someone says it’s against Islam, I don’t want to be a part of that religion.”

He says he voted for the Islamic coalition “because I want Islam on high, for Islam to spread over the whole world.”

Asked whether he would vote for the party again if it meant that he couldn’t hear another folk song, he gently spits and is silent.

“Don’t confuse me,” he says with a laugh. “I love both. Yes, I love Islam more, but I need music.”

Nearby, on Cinema Road, flute salesman Muhammad Mairaj cleans his ears with a wooden match and laments the drop in business since the government crackdown began.

Mairaj says he has been arrested twice and beaten once for selling flutes on the street outside a local movie theater.

“The police said it was against Islam,” he says. “I’m the only one selling these flutes to the villagers when they come to Peshawar.”

Now fewer villagers come. Mairaj says it is probably because the movie billboards looming over his sidewalk perch now show scenes of mountains and waterfalls rather than the busty leading ladies and heavily armed men that are the hallmark of Pakistani cinema.

“My children are asking me why we don’t have a lot of money like before,” he says. “I say it’s because of Islam, but I don’t have the words to explain it to them.”

Deep down, he has his own conflicts and doubts.

“When I was learning to play the flute, I was mad for it,” he says. “When I think about it now, I feel it was a sin. But what is the bigger sin, if I sell a flute or if my family doesn’t eat?”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday July 11, 2003.
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