My experience with discussions on music is they tend to be argumentative and I doubt this will be any different, but I’ll be happy to be wrong. In order to keep the discussion productive, however, let’s make a few things clear:
- This is not a discussion which seeks to establish one fiqh opinion on music over another. Instead, it examines a number of ways one particular opinion can be stretched.
- The opinion assumed is that the voice and dhaff are permissible, all else aren’t. This does limit the practical value for many, particularly those who consider musical instruments permissible.
- There will be videos that may (or may not, depending on your fiqhi orientation) be “controversial”. The point of these videos is not to promote them, but to illustrate the problem.
- You’re right, there are far more important issues facing the ummah – please contact us here to discuss submitting a guest article on them.
Life Without Music
The first time I was told music was forbidden in our religion, I was 17 years old, and the notion went right over my head – how could something so ubiquitous, so natural as breathing, be forbidden? My caffeine, my drug, my high, my buzz, my constant companion was music – how in the world could anyone get by in life without it? Whoever said it was forbidden must have made a mistake. Or maybe it wasn’t all that big a deal.
14 years later, alhamdulillaah, I’ve given it up and stayed away from it since 2002. With the exception of what is beyond my control, like when shopping in a grocery store, my life is music free, and I avoid it like the plague. My four year old daughter knows it’s haraam and knows to turn down the volume on any video she watches that has music, and my son who’s only two years old reminds her in case she forgets.
I’ve replaced that (and movie-watching) with reading books and taking up other hobbies. Without going into detail, I’m a much better and happier person today than I was 7 years ago when just leaving those addictions, and alhamdulillaah, I’m mega-grateful to Allah subhaanahu wa ta’aala for this guidance.
So music has been essentially obliterated from my life. Hmmm, well, except for one little thing.
The Voice / Dhaff – Only Opinion
Step 1: Ahmed Bukhatir and Bukhatir-esque Nasheeds
My introduction to voice / dhaff only performances was with Ahmed Bukhatir. Most of you, I believe, know who he is and the work he produces. Bukhatir’s lyrics center on inspiring people to become better practicing Muslims. In the backdrop of his nasheeds, you’ll hear a bit chanting and humming. For those unfamiliar with his work, here’s a sample from his latest album:
Step 2: BeatBoxing
I turned to Dr. Wikipedia for a definition on beatboxing and came out with the following:
Beatboxing is a form of vocal percussion which primarily involves the art of producing drum beats, rhythm, and musical sounds using one’s mouth, lips, tongue, voice, and more. It may also involve singing, vocal imitation of turntablism, the simulation of horns, strings, and other musical instruments. Beatboxing is connected with hip hop culture although it is not limited to hip hop music.
Although my first exposure to beatboxing came in my years of listening to hip-hop, it’s re-introduction into my life came after viewing the following video:
Before that, it hadn’t occurred to me that it was a viable means of “music” since it was “voice-only”. I didn’t see any discussion or disagreement with the video, and I assumed beatboxing must be good-to-go, otherwise someone would stand up and say something, right?
Not quite. I realized later that the more intelligent students of knowledge shy away from giving fatwas and prefer to give practical advice on new issues, as a fatwa cannot and should not be given lightly (as an aside, if you want to know when your teacher is avoiding giving you a fatwa, pay attention to the language – if they say, “You should stay away,” or “I’d avoid it,” thank Allah you’ve been gifted with a teacher who fears dispensing fataawa and don’t ask again after that – it’s a lot of pressure).
To make a long story short, over the years I had heard hints of disagreement from students and teachers alike, as well as some suggestions for different ways to make the videos, particularly after the following video was released at ISNA 2009:
As far as how it affected me personally, I found a nasheed artist named Shaheed alKawn who records tracks of himself making various beats and sound effects with voice only, then synchronizes them and sings to those beats (about Islam, his conversion, etc). He prefaced one of his CDs by stating, “What you are about to hear is the product of human voice – no musical instruments were used to create these soundscapes.”
His work can be sampled at the following link (audio quality is really poor):
Step 3: Youtube and Acapella
Acapella, for the purposes of this discussion, is singing without any sort of instrumental accompaniment (thanks again Dr. Wikipedia). My wife found a popular group known as “Straight No Chaser”, an all-men’s group that formed in Indiana back in ’96 and continues to this day. In their songs, some will be singing while others will be hum the beats of the song performed (they often perform songs that have already been done by mainstream artists). So long as the lyrics were clean, I didn’t see a problem with watching or listening – here’s a sample of what they’ve performed:
So far so good? Maybe, maybe not. Well, here’s where it gets really sticky.
Step 4: Vocal Play
Even Dr. Wikipedia was scratching his (or her?) head on this one – what’s vocal play? Here’s the definition:
To imitate, mimic, or become an instrument using only your voice to create the sound
The concept of vocal play differs from acapella in that with acapella, you might hum the tune of the instrument, or make a sound that sort of kind of captures the essence of the intent of the instrument, but it’s very obviously a human voice. In vocal play, the performer mimics the instrument much more closely (though still not perfectly). I like to think of it as seriously upgraded beatboxing and acapella wrapped in a neat package.
The group who pioneered the concept (and appears to be the only one at present doing it) is a band known as Naturally 7. I first came to know of them when a brother I met from Ilm Summit showed me a video of them performing one of their songs live on a subway car. When I returned home, I did a little more research, and honestly, their sheer talent just blew me away. Whether they’re live or in studio, they’re 100% instrument free – that’s their schtick, their trademark, their raison d’etre.
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, check out the following video, and in particular, cut to about 3:20 in the video where one person (who has a high-pitched voice) takes on the sound of a guitar (embedding of this video is disabled, so click on it, the message will come up to watch on youtube, right-click and open that link in a new window):
That last video was more a display of talent, the next one is the use of that talent to create a more mainstream sounding song:
To answer your question, yes, both of those videos are 110% pure voice. I played this for a friend who’s into music, and I asked him what he thought of it. He looked at me and was like, “Is there a new fatwa on music or something?” meaning, why are you, of all people, playing this? When I explained it was all vocal, no instruments, he couldn’t believe it, and I’ve had the same response from everyone else hearing them for the first time – they can’t believe no instruments are used because it sounds just like music (or close enough that no one cares to expend the effort discerning the difference).
Dealing with Doubtful Matters
As surprising as vocal play is, I have to admit, ever since the Bukhatir phase, there’s been a little voice in the back of my head saying, “Are you really sure about all this?” I never really had to face up to it because in the case of Bukhatir-style nasheeds, beatboxing, and acapella, I enjoyed it for a bit, became bored with it, and moved on.
When vocal play came on the scene, I had to do some serious soul searching because I was really enjoying what I was listening to, and that little voice kept asking me, “What’s the difference if there are or aren’t instruments if it all sounds the same in the end?” The story of the Jewish people who set up fishing nets to circumvent the order forbidding work on the Sabbath came to mind – are you looking for loophole minutiae and missing the spirit of the opinion you profess to follow, that voice kept asking.
In the end, I prayed to Allah for guidance specifically on the vocal play stuff and decided that for myself and only myself, it’s better to avoid it. However, since I’m not qualified to give fatwas to others (let alone myself), I’m not enforcing my practice on others. My children happen to like vocal play, so my wife and I allow them to listen to their favorite songs once (like in the car), and then shut it off.
With the many voice-only options available, the issue of what is permissible and what is not has become clouded. What I’ve tried to illustrate is my own experience in dealing with this issue, trying to balance between fatwa and taqwa, and I’d welcome feedback from others who follow the voice/dhaff only opinion.
There are many areas a person can draw the line – where do you draw your own line, and why?