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Sallallahu 'alayhi wa Sallam

Siddiq Osman Noormuhammad

What is Recommended and Prohibited About Poetry

It is instructive at this juncture to turn to Imam al-Ghazali, a master of ma'rifa (spiritual knowledge) to differentiate for us the types of poems that are recommended from those that are prohibited. According to Imam al-Ghazali in the Ihya', poetry is recommended in seven instances:

  1. "Songs of pilgrims. They roam from one country to another with songs and flutes. These songs are lawful, as they describe poetry relating to the Ka'ba, the Black Stone, Hatim and other signs. They arouse feelings for visiting the Ka'ba and other holy places.

  2. The warriors should be given impetus to fight against the enemies by songs. It is lawful to call towards bravery and to lay down life for the cause of God.

  3. If two warriors meet in the battlefield, what they recite of songs and poetry is lawful because they incite them to fight. It is lawful in lawful fights and not in unlawful fights.

  4. Songs of mourning. These are of two kinds, commendable and not commendable. It is not commendable to recite songs which increase sorrow for past mishaps, calamities�.. Mourning songs are commendable when men express sorrow for past sins.

  5. Songs at the time of festivals. It increases joy and happiness at the time of festivals and other days of expressing happiness, for this happens at the time of the two 'Eids, marriage festivals, birth ceremony when a child is born, and circumcision.

  6. Songs of the lovers. These increase love towards God and give satisfaction and pleasure of mind. It is also lawful. Just as union with a strange girl or woman is unlawful, songs for her love are also unlawful.

  7. Songs on the part of one who seeks the love and pleasure of God and to meet with Him is lawful. Sama' (religious song) brings out from the recess of one's heart the power of sight of different matters and a deep feeling and unspeakable taste which can only be felt and not disclosed. This taste cannot be obtained by any other organ of the body. The condition of (spiritual) intoxication is termed by the Sufis as wajd or ecstacy. This appears in the mind as an effect of religious songs which did not exist before. The fire of ecstacy arising in the mind burns the uncleanliness of the mind as fire removes the accumulated refuse on invaluable jewels and diamonds. The result is the shining of the mind in which Mushahadah and Mukashafah appear. In other words, his inner eye is opened by which he sees the secrets of nature. This is the goal of the lovers of God and the last state of their search. He who can reach that stage gains the nearness of God. It is possible only by sama' songs".

Then Imam al-Ghazali gives five cases in which sama' is unlawful.

  1. To hear sama' from a woman whose look excites sexual passion.

  2. Instruments of songs of drunkards are unlawful as they remind of unlawful things and incite unlawful action of wine-drinking and intoxicants.

  3. Obscene talks in sama' are unlawful. If there is any obscene talk in poetry, useless talks and accusations against God, His Prophet and companions, they are unlawful.

  4. If any evil or immoral desire arises in the mind by hearing songs, it will be unlawful.

  5. If habit is formed of hearing sama', it is unlawful. Excess of anything is bad. If too much food is taken, it is bad for health. If too much oil is besmeared on the face, it looks ugly. So also, if too much sama' songs are heard, it forms a habit which is bad. After strenuous efforts and hard labour, sama' songs and innocent enjoyments are not bad" (Ihya', Vol. 2, p. 208-213)

Those in the Ba 'Alawi tariqa (a spiritual path leading to Allah) as well as the Chishtiyyah seek ecstatic inspiration in music. It is well-known that Khwaja Gharib Nawaz Mawlana Mu'eenuddin Chishti (passed away 633 A.H/1236 C.E) who was personally commanded by Rasulullah Sallallahu 'alayhi wa Sallam in a dream to go to Ajmer in India to spread Islam, fulfilled this command through his taqwa (reverential awe of Allah), ihsan (spiritual excellence), and karamaat (miracles). He also instituted qawwalis (religious songs rendered with music) which attracted a lot of people to Islam.

Imam al-Ghazali's reference to kashf (spiritual ecstacy) is interesting because many Sufi mashaayikh (spiritual masters), including Hadrat Data Ganj Bakhsh 'Ali al-Hujwiri (passed away 465 A.H) in his Kashf al-Mahjub (Unveiling The Veiled Spiritual Aspects of Islam) also expound about kashf in sama'. It is a common observation that many eyes well up with tears and some start flowing when the blessed Names of Allah Sub'hanahu wa Ta'ala and of his beloved Prophet Sallallahu 'alayhi wa Sallam are mentioned, or when there is discourse on Islam in a way that touches one's heart.

When we study the historical evidence of religious poetry in the time of our beloved Prophet Muhammad Mustafa Sallallahu 'alayhi wa Sallam we realise that it was but natural for the 'ulama (learned scholars) of Islam since that time to have written on Islam in both prose and in verse. One such spiritual luminary was Qutb-ul-Irshad Sayyidunal Imam al-Habib 'Abdallah bin 'Alawi al-Haddad (1044-1132 A.H). He wrote more than ten kutub (books) in prose (with a sprinkling of qasaaid) and composed more than one hundred qasaaid (religious poems), all collected and arranged in alphabetical order by scholars who followed him in a Diwan which they lovingly titled Ad-Durrul Manzum Li-Dhawil 'Uqul wa'l Fuhum (Poetic Pearls For Discerning and Understanding Minds). According to him what anyone gains out of audition will depend on the motive behind it. He therefore advises in It'haaf-is-Saail (Gifts For The Seeker):

"The motive must therefore be a true one, free from capricious and passional desires, and one should listen only to what is deemed permissible by religious criteria. Audition is most beneficial when one listens to the Qur'an, Sunnah or appropriate discourses, however, the effects of listening to poetry, fine voices, and rhythmic melodies are also praiseworthy when related to religion; otherwise, they are (simply) permissible (mubah), and there is no harm in listening as long as they do not depart from the lawful". (p. 39)

Al-Habib Ahmad Mash'hur bin Taha al-Haddad has summed up the beneficial effects of sama' (audition) most beautifully in Miftah-u'l-Jannah (Key To The Garden).

"It is obvious that rhythmic harmonies shake hard hearts, move dormant souls, and have the effect of making character gentler and perceptions more subtle. They may turn cowards into heroes, misers into philanthropists, ease sorrows, and make misfortunes more bearable. The Sufis have always known the effect of audition (sama') on souls, and have therefore used it to refine them, attract them to virtue, remind them of their origin, and of their First Beloved and of His most beautiful address to them in the 'World of Atoms and Witnessing' ('alam al-dharr wa'l-ishhad)" (p. 119)

This is how the Sufi saints, the true spiritual masters have tried both to preserve Islam and to spread it.

We come to the broad conclusion then, on which everyone is agreed, that the composition, recitation and audition of qasaaid (religious poems) is meritorious. The only difference of opinion is about whether music should or should not be used in rendering qasaaid. And on this issue as on all such issues, there has been mutual respect through centuries among disciples in the various turuq (spiritual paths leading to Allah). Those who prohibit music in rendering religious poems, like the Qaadiriyya and the Rifa'iyya do not attack those who do use music like the 'Alawiyyah and the Chishtiyya. Neither do those who use music insist that this is the only way it can be done. This illustrates and exemplifies the splendid diction of "Unity in diversity" among the Ahl-us-Sunnah wa'l Jama'ah, those who are on the Sunnah (lifestyle) of the Holy Prophet Sallallahu 'alayhi wa Sallam and the Jama'ah (congregation) of his sahaba (companions) Rady Allahu 'Anhum, and those who faithfully followed them.

Let us then summarise the thematic content of the religious poetry in the time of our beloved Prophet Muhammad Mustafa Sallallahu 'alayhi wa Sallam as contained in Hadith Shareef. We find that it has

  • hamd or praise of Allah, the Creator and Sustainer of all existence and how He was helping the Muslims against oppressive non-believers,

  • madeeh or praise of the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad ibn 'Abdillah, Sallallahu 'alayhi wa Sallam, a record of his miracles, the fulfilment of his prophecies and how his prayers were answered in his life-time,

  • praise of his family (the Ahl u'l Bayt) and companions (sahaba), and an appreciation of the unshakeable faith and deep-rooted conviction that they had in Islam; and of their valour, generosity and simplicity,

  • du'a (supplication to Allah, the Glorified and the Exalted),

  • nasiha (sound advice),

  • expression of joy at weddings and on days of 'Eid,

  • a historical record of the oppression and the persecution of the noble Prophet by the polytheists; and of his achievements, together with his family and companions,

  • exhortation to non-Muslims to accept Islam,

  • challenge by the sahaba to their enemies to dare to face them in battle,

  • expression of yearning by the sahaba to become martyrs, and elegies on those who achieved martyrdom, and

  • the teachings of Islam in general.

Another broad conclusion we draw is that in the time of our noble Prophet Sallallahu 'alayhi wa Sallam, the teaching of Islam was conveyed both in prose and in verse and this tradition has been adopted by the 'ulama (learned scholars) since that time to the present.

We learn above all that one of the greatest miracles of our beloved Prophet Sallallahu 'alayhi wa Sallam was that he changed people's hearts. He was all alone when he started; and when he preached Islam, everyone turned against him and many wanted to kill him. He was persecuted and oppressed as no one has ever been persecuted before or after, yet he won over people to the True Faith of Islam to such an extent that even those who were his bitterest enemies became his greatest friends, adopted Islam and were prepared to lay down their lives at his command.

May Allah Sub'hanahu wa Ta'ala increase in our hearts love for Him and for His beloved Prophet Sayyidina wa Mawlana Muhammad Mustafa, Sallallahu 'alayhi wa Sallam. Aameen Yaa Rabbal 'Aalameen.

Mawlaaya Salli wa Sallim daaiman abadaa
'Alaa Habibika Khayril khalqi kullihimi

Allahumma Salli wa Sallim 'alayh

O Lord! Bestow blessings and peace for and evermore
On Your Beloved, the best in all creation.

O Allah! Bestow blessings and peace on him.


Toronto, 1421/2000

Note: This article was first serialised in The Islamic Times of the Raza Academy, U.K. as well in The Message International of the World Islamic Mission, Canada, 1414/1994. Since then, it has been much augmented.

Acknowlegements: I am grateful to Ustadh Harith Swaleh of Mombasa, Kenya; and Syed Mumtaz Ali saheb of Toronto, Canada for their helpful comments and dua.

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