Islamic music

Islamic music

Islamic music is Muslim religious music, as sung or played in public services or private devotions. The classic heartland of Islam is the Middle East, North Africa, Iran, Central Asia, Horn of Africa and South Asia. Due to Islam being a multi-ethnic religion, the musical expression of its adherents is vastly diverse. The indigenous musical styles of these areas have shaped the devotional music enjoyed by contemporary Muslims:


Secular and folk musical styles

Middle East

The Seljuk Turks, a nomadic tribe that converted to Islam, conquered Anatolia (now Turkey), and held the Caliphate as the Ottoman Empire, also had a strong influence on Islamic music. See:

All of these regions were connected by trade long before the Islamic conquests of the 7th century, and it is likely that musical styles traveled the same routes as trade goods. However, lacking recordings, we can only speculate as to the pre-Islamic music of these areas. Islam must have had a great influence on music, as it united vast areas under the first caliphs, and facilitated trade between distant lands. Certainly the Sufis, brotherhoods of Muslim mystics, spread their music far and wide.

North Africa

The Berber and Arabic speaking countries of North Africa, such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, share many of the musical traditions of Egypt and the Arab countries of the Middle East. Popular styles of music such as Raï and chaabi originate in the Maghreb. In addition, black African influences can be heard in the religious music of Gnawa.

Central Asia

Many of the countries in Central Asia such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have been heavily influenced by Turkish and Persian culture. Bowed instruments are common, as is bardic singing.

South Asia

The music of the Muslim populations of South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, India and Bangladesh, with Nepal and Sri Lanka) merged Middle Eastern genres with indigenous classical musical modes, and is generally distinct in style and orchestration, yet due to the strong links encountered between the Middle-East, Central Asia and South Asia, it is closer to Middle-Eastern styles than those of the periphery of the Islamic world, which tend to be purely indigenous.

Southeast Asia

Maritime Southeast Asia has a majority Muslim population, but has historically incorporated less cultural influences from the Middle-East than South Asia, due to the fact that they were not incorporated within the Islamic Empire, but rather maintained links via trade.

Music genres of these areas generally predate the coming of Islam or have very little influence from Arab or Persian styles, with exceptions being the Malay Zapin and Joget genres, and the IndonesiaIndonesian Gambus, all of which have taken a lot of influence from the Middle East via Arab settlement in urban centers.

Maritime Southeast Asia's music is related to other musical genres of South-East and East Asia. Gong chime ensembles such as Gamelan and Kulintang existed in the region before the arrival of Islam, and musical theory and method owe more to heavy Chinese influence, as well as Hindu-Buddhist principles, than to Arabic musical philosophy. Variations of one of two main scales prevail in the region among different ensembles: slendro and pelog (both of which originated in Java).

In Java, use of the gamelan for Islamic devotional music was encouraged by the Muslim saint Sunan Kalijogo.


Islam is the largest organized religion on the continent, although indigenous styles and genres are more prominent than those influenced by Middle-Eastern theory.

East African music styles include the highly Arab-influenced Taarab genre.

West African musical genres are more varied, and tend to incorporate both native and Berber influences, rather than those of Arab origin. A long history of court griot music based on historical accounts and praise-singing exists in the region. Wind and string instruments, such as the Kora or Flute are generally preferred to percussion, although percussion instruments such as the talking drum and djembe are also widely played.

Types of Muslim devotional recitation and music


Nasheeds are moral, religious songs sung in various melodies by some Muslims of today without any musical instruments. However some nasheed groups perform by using some percussion instruments. This type of singing of moral songs without instrumentation is considered as permissible (halal) by many Muslims.

Sufi music

Sufi worship services are often called dhikr or zikr. See that article for further elaboration.

The dhikr of South Asian Muslims is "quietist". The Sufi services best known in the West are the chanting and rhythmic dancing of the whirling dervishes or Mevlevi Sufis of Turkey. Some Mevlevi music can be heard on the Sufi Music CD recommended below.

However, Sufis may also perform devotional songs in public, for the enjoyment and edification of listeners. The mood is religious, but the gathering is not a worship service.

In Turkey, once the seat of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate, concerts of sacred song are called "Mehfil-e-Sama' " (or "gathering of Sama'"). Song forms include ilahi and nefe.

Qasidah is a form of poetry. In this form of poetry the praise is presented. Qasidah is four types, 1. Hamd (Hymn) 2. Naat (A poem in praise of Prophet Muhammad 3. Manqabat (A poem in praise of Saints) 4. Madah (A poem in praise of honourables)

In South Asia, especially Pakistan and India, the most widely-known style of Sufi music is qawwali. A traditional qawwali programme would include:

  • A hamd -- a song in praise of Allah
  • A naat -- a song in praise of the Prophet Muhammad
  • Manqabats -- songs in praise of the illustrious teachers of the Sufi brotherhood to which the musicians belong
  • Ghazals -- songs of intoxication and yearning, which use the language of romantic love to express the soul's longing for union with the divine.

Shi'a qawwali concerts typically follow the naat with a manqabat in praise of Ali, and sometimes a marsiya, a lamentation over the death of much of Ali's family at the Battle of Karbala.

Kafi, Abida Parveen

Qawwali is increasingly popular as a musical genre and performances may attract those who want to hear virtuoso singing rather than contemplate the divine. Some artists may skip the long sequence of praise songs and go straight from the introductory hamd to the popular romantic songs, or even dispense with the devotional content completely. This is cause for much consternation among traditional enthusiasts/devotees of the form. One well-known qawwali singer is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Another traditional South Asian genre of Sufi music is the Kafi, which is more meditative and involves solo singing as opposed to the ensemble form seen in qawwali. The most widely known exponent of the Kafi is the Pakistani singer Abida Parveen.

Sufi music has developed with the times. A Pakistani Sufi rock band, Junoon, was formed in the 1990s to bring a modern twist to suit the new younger generation. The band achieved wide popularity, in Pakistan as well as in the West.

Music for public religious celebrations

  • Mawlid music—performed for the birthday of Muhammad, in various regional styles.
  • Ta'zieh music—Ta'zieh is a passion play, part musical drama, part religious drama, rarely performed outside Iran. It depicts the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, venerated by Shia Muslims.
  • Ashurah music—performed during the Muharram mourning period, commemorating the deaths of Imam Hussein and his followers.
  • Sikiri (from the Arabic word "Dhikr" which means remembrance of God—performed by the Qadiriyya Sufi orders of waYao or Yao people in East and Southern Africa (Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and South Africa).
  • Manzuma -- moral songs performed in Ethiopia.
  • Madih nabawi -- Arabic hymns praising the prophet Muhammad.



Some Muslims believe that only vocal music is permissible (halal) and that instruments are forbidden (haram). Hence there is a strong tradition of a cappella devotional singing.

Other Muslims will accept drums, but no other instruments.

Yet other Muslims believe that any instrument is lawful as long as it is used for the permissible kinds of music. Hence there is a long tradition of instrumental accompaniment to devotional songs. A wide variety of instruments may be used, depending on local musical traditions.


  • Drums (daf, bendir, zarb, rebana, Tombak...)
  • Gongs
  • Stringed instruments
    • Bowed (rebab, kemencheh...)
    • Plucked (tar, tanbour, oud...)
  • Wind instruments (ney...)

Recent introductions:


When lyrics are not simply repeated and elaborated invocations (Yah Nabi and the like) they are usually poems in forms and meters common in the local literature.[citation needed]

Permissibility of music

The question of permissibility of music in Islamic jurisprudence is historically disputed.

Some jurists of the classical era of Muslim scholarship opined that music is forbidden both by the Qur'an and by the Hadith. The chapters of Luqman and Al-Isra in the Quran in particular are used to support this view.[1] Those who do not allow music also believe that Muhammad censured the use of musical instruments when he said: "There will be among my Ummah people who will regard as permissible adultery, silk, alcohol and musical instruments".[2] Islamic scholars of the past who agreed upon this include Abu Hanifa, Al-Shafi'i, Malik, Ahmad bin Hanbal, Al-Tabari, Al-Hasan Al-Basri, Al-Bukhari, Al-Tirmidhi, Al-Nawawi Al-Bayhaqi, Al-Tahawi, and Al-Qurtubi.

Others, however, permit music stating that the prohibition of music and instruments at the time of the Prophet related to usage—at the time the polytheists used music and musical instruments as part of their worships. Those who saw the permissibility of music include Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi, Ibn Sina, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Rumi, Ibn Rushd, and Ibn Hazm. Al-Ghazali also reports a narration from al-Khidr, where he expressed a favorable opinion of music, provided it be within the usage limitation of virtuous areas.[citation needed]

Many modern Muslim interpretations allow music and singing under certain conditions, mainly if they do not encourage committing sinful acts.[3][4][5]

Contemporary Muslim music

Some notable Muslim nasheed artists include:

Noted Sufi singers:

Muslim Pop/Rock singers:

See also


External links

Islamic views on the allowance of musical instruments and singing

Islamic views on the prohibition of musical instruments and singing

Further reading

  • Jenkins, Jean and Olsen, Poul Rovsing (1976). Music and Musical Instruments in the World of Islam. World of Islam Festival. ISBN 0-905035-11-9.
  • Habib Hassan Touma (1996). The Music of the Arabs, trans. Laurie Schwartz. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0-931340-88-8.
  • Shiloah, Amnon (1995). "Music in the World of Islam: A Socio-cultural study." Wayne State University Press. Detroit. ISBN 0-8143-2589-0

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