The Third Circle – Interviews’ Summary

Music and dance performances speak to us in a variety of ways and while their impact may be beautiful and emotional, a specific religion’s canon or edicts shifts perspective on them. By applying the lens of Islam, the interviews explore the opportunities and limits authorized by Sharia Law with respect to all dimensions associated with dance and music (e.g. the CONTENT).

The often difficult relationship between Religions – or in this case, Islam – and Art is better described in the voice of one interviewee:

 “Every religious person who takes on the subject of religion needs to be a visionary, and perfect. I won’t hide from you that art is far from being a vital subject in Islamic debates, for two reasons. All this harks back to the fact that the starting point was extremely negative, since in the environment of modern Islam, art was linked, excuse me for using this expression, to brothels, to dance and everything which involved undressing, all these images are rejected by Islam. It is for this reason that we take a radical position on this subject.” (Quote from Interview 10)

While this citation appears to be based on Salafist views, overall the interviews reflect ten very different perspectives on the arts in general, music and dance in particular. The views cover the bandwidth from tolerance to strong limitations on what is permitted. Furthermore, the conversations rarely identify the specific branch of Islam the interviewee believes in and as such it opens insights into the personal opinions of the speakers. To understand the impact of Islam, its interpretation and the Sharia on expression by music and dance, it helps to understand the concept of circles in Islam:

 “The first is the family circle. The second is that of the “maharem” (for men: those women who they are forbidden to marry, and vice-versa), and the third circle is that of society, and it is called the circle of strangers, that is, all those who are not “mahram”, or a husband or a wife.” (Quote from Interview 4)

With that understanding in mind, obvious characteristics, such as TYPE OF PERFORMANCE, BODY, MOVEMENT and DRESS, appear directly governed by strict rules:

“Concerning the movements of this dancer for example it goes without saying that the faqih (Islamist judge) will not approve of certain parts of the body which must normally be hidden from sight, being uncovered.” (Quote from Interview 1)

 “Only the face and the palms can be visible.” (Quote from Interview 10)

“It is important to avoid dance which is only about the body. […] But showing physical beauty should not be the objective of the dance. We look for meaningful expression through movement not just the intention of seducing and attracting the audience through physical beauty.” (Quote from Interview 3)

Less obvious characteristics subject to religious review include transient relationships between the AUDIENCE and the PERFORMER, as well as the stimulation of SENSES, EMOTIONS, EXCITEMENT and PASSION. While the former relationship can be acceptable if within certain boundaries and with respect towards rules of decency and harmony; the latter - given the presumption of seduction – is considered unanimously as ‘haram’:

 “Music and instruments, which excite the feelings or which awaken human passions are formally prohibited.” (Quote from Interview 2)

 “We ban it when it is likely to lead to forbidden types of behavior or if it may harm health, by irritating the nerves for instance.” (Quote from Interview 4)

 “Dance is sensation linked to emotion.” (Quote from Interview 9)

 “It is certain that dance, the object of your question, which is a theatrical form of dance performed in front of a mixed or same-sex audience, is in an area which is forbidden by Islamic law.” (Quote from Interview 10)

 “Nothing prevents a woman from dancing in the presence of other women.” (Quote from Interview 4)

One of the conversations explains far more graphically the ‘harm’ and danger of music, but concurs with another on the relevance of HARMONY and spiritual context for music to be considered as being positive:

 “For example, rap, jazz, all these types of music, which make you move frenetically and which arouse passions and primitive, bestial behavior, they indicate insanity and totally unstable ways of thinking. When a man takes leave of his senses, his behavior becomes primitive and bestial, far from order and reason, and this has nothing to do with religious considerations. Of course, Islam does not encourage this type of music. But it’s not the same with harmonious melodies which are natural and whose existence we cannot deny. I think that if music is in harmony with nature, then it is acceptable.” (Quote from Interview 2)

 “On the other hand, music can be played by other people like us. In other contexts such as places of spiritual activity, where it has a whole other aspect and produces a strongly positive effect testifying to its glory through the various ways in which it is used.” (Quote from Interview 9)

 “Listening to music is not haram in absolute terms. (…) Music which has a strong, damaging effect on people and which is played in debauched places is forbidden. Whereas listening to and performing classical music is permitted.” (Quote from Interview 8)

Additional descriptors – such as INSTRUMENTS, TYPE of performance/music (e.g. folkore vs. modern) as well the OCCASION (e.g. weddings, Achoura commemoration) define - in conjunction with the IDEAS and COMPOSITIONS transported - what can be critical to assess conformity with Sharia Law:

 “Any melody or words that make up a musical composition whether it’s the ideas within a song or the rhythms produced by musical instruments, if the ideas or the rhythms are likely to corrupt the mind, it’s important to forbid them through Sharia, rather than to allow their use. If for example musical instruments are used in war with the aim of stimulating the troops or intimidating the enemy, this is an important benefit and completely justified. On the other hand, if we try and stimulate primitive instincts through music, and encourage seduction between men and women, this is forbidden.” (Quote from Interview 2)

One would assume that familiar Arabic instruments are accepted, maybe subject to limitations. According to the interviewees however, often the outright contrary is the case:

 “For example, the tambourine – Daff is refered to in the verses: “Proclaim your wedding by playing the Daff”. But this means the Daff without cymbals.” (Quote from Interview 2)

“Basically, all musical instruments are haram, except those that we have classified as halal.” (Quote from Interview 7)

 “For example, the oud, which despite the beauty of its melodies and its sounds and because of its usage in debauched places cannot be played, bought or sold. However, contemporary scholars and judges consider that its use is allowed in patriotic or revolutionary songs and in music, as long as it is not linked with places of iniquity. The instrument is considered in itself, it is forbidden where it is forbidden and allowed where it is allowed.” (Quote from Interview 8)

“Musical instruments such as the oud, the piano, the violin, plus others, are forbidden. (…) There are no exceptions no matter what the type of instrument; stringed, percussion or wind. The only exception I know is the tambourine (Daff).” (Quote from Interview 10)

 “No, there is no instrument which is forbidden as long as it not used to make forbidden music according to the classifications we use. Take the oud for example. We can use it to make prohibited music or authorized music, or the organ, or any other instrument.” (Quote from Interview 4)

Navigating these seemingly arbitrary opinions seems impossible and leaves plenty room for insecurity among artists and for debate among religious scholars how to define conformity with Sharia Law:

“The Daff (tambourine), for example, is authorized by certain scholars, whereas others consider it to be illegal. It’s a widely debated question.” (Quote from Interview 10)

“There is no religious man who can force me to agree with him. It has to be my decision. We find a single point of view in judicial matters only when the legal situation is clear and absolute.  And even things which seem obvious and clear often lead to debate and discussion. Prayer is obligatory for us, and this is an obvious fact but how we pray is less obvious. As regards music, there is massive disagreement. Certain people, or maybe I should talk about myself, It’s in my nature to appreciate artistic values and music is one of these values and one of the universe’s greatest qualities, because it reflects the beauty of the heart, the mind and the soul. Sadness can be sung, and becomes easier to bear, joy can be sung, and is spread around.” (Quote from Interview 5)

The previous citation highlights the emotional purpose of music and dance, the idea of sharing the burden of sadness and the spreading of joy. Others offer explanations and distinguish different emotional purposes of music and dance as being relevant (e.g. if it motivates men at war then it is acceptable):

“For example, there is a well-known hadith which states, “may God condemn all those who blow and bow” meaning all those who play instruments. Percussionists were excluded. It is a famous fatwa, but not adopted by everybody. Some consider that it is not bad to play gentle music, which does not arouse the instincts, and brings a certain calmness, like classical music etc… This is not based on a religious text but on a judicial tenet which depends on the objective, As long as the objective is not to incite desire or solicit a diabolical act because, for example, as you know, the Satanists use music.” (Quote from Interview 6)

So far the general dimensions compliant to Sharia Law set up a narrow frame for music and dance. In addition, the differentiation by GENDER adds a very different perception on what is permissible, when and in what context.  As a rule, men and women are separate. As a further condition, it matters, whether men/women perform – dance and/or sing – for women, for men, for a mixed audience, for strangers and so on. While some pairings are ‘halal’ or ‘permissible’ (i.e. women performing for women only), others a strongly ‘haram’ or ‘forbidden’ (a woman singing to men):

 “But these movements, like those made in the context of a theatrical performance. In a scholarly Muslim environment, or in a Mother’s Day celebration, girls expressing their maternal love or the tender relations between mother and daughter or the son, through dance or song, etc… These types of dance are usually allowed. In addition, in other branches of Islam such as Sufism, dance is permitted.” (Quote from Interview 3)

 “This is why I say there is a contradiction... It’s easy to say to oneself, there are a few norms and values to respect the difficulty lies in applying them. If we really want to have Muslim dance made by women then we need to have fewer mixed community spaces women can only dance in front of women. The problem is how to reconcile our reality with modernity. It may not be possible.” (Quote from Interview 4)

 “From a religious point of view, people will say that dance in general is forbidden, and that a woman who dances is undressing in front of the gaze of men, that she is trying to excite them, is presenting herself like an object. I don’t agree. Her objective here is not to excite men (…) In this case, the woman is presenting a work of art where she is not attempting to arouse sexual desire.” (Quote from Interview 9)

It appears that it is not only the obviously associated qualities of seduction that women can have with the movement of their bodies and voices, but also – from a different perspective – the understanding of restraint as a symbol of respect for women as well as a means of protecting their ‘worth’ as future wives and mothers:

“For music to be tolerated by certain categories of Muslims, respect for women has to be guaranteed and it’s necessary to keep away from noisy music, which is refused by religious leaders, not for doctrinal reasons, but because believers tend to be calm and serene.” (Quote from Interview 9)

“Above all, in front of an audience, the woman must cover her body and protect it from the eyes of men who are not part of her immediate entourage, and who she could in theory marry. The second point concerns the covering up of the Awra (those parts needing to be hidden). I will not linger over that important condition which is to avoid awakening the desires of the flesh, since this condition is obvious. In conclusion, the woman must protect herself from the eyes of men who she could in theory marry even when this involves non-Muslims (if they are strangers, this does not give them the right to be present at such performances). (Quote from Interview 10)

Overall, the interviews express a large degree of INTERPRETATION of what constitutes sharia law-conform music and dance performance and interpretations. It depends strongly on which branch of Islam is followed. Often a certain uneasiness comes out concerning the interaction of Religion with the Arts:

“It’s important to be careful concerning any concessions we might make. We know for example that an artist will often try to push limits. Today there are far fewer limits than before.” (Quote from Interview 4)

However, and as a desirable way for Islamic scholars to approach the judging of the arts, two interviewees emphasize reflection and context:

“When we tackle a given theme, even if this [religious] school’s opinion contradicts all others. The important thing is to conform to practices of worship at that given time.” (Quote from Interview 3)

“I think there is a problem with religious thinking, the problem of blind imitation. If we declare that something is forbidden (haram) the subject is no longer open to discussion or consideration. Religious texts lead us to believe that the idea in itself is not forbidden, but becomes so by its association with other forbidden elements. I think that we should not generalize, but many others remain fixed in their opinions, refusing any re-interpretation of the texts. There is no way to convince these people because they refuse to reflect on the issues. But the fact that you’ve thought about it is a positive.” (Quote from Interview 9)

The present summary of the Third Circle interviews gives an overview on the concepts (see a list in the annex) that frame the discussion on how dance and music become compliant with Sharia legislation. Each could be explored deeper. And – as one of the interviewees summarizes below – while it appears not feasible to have stringent guidelines for artists, the exchange between scholars and artists can shape the interpretation by mutual recognition and validation of a good cause:

“Moreover, the artistic creations that you refer to, which serve a social and moral cause, and conserve high values, are very worthy, as well as their authors and instigators, for two essential reasons: firstly for the work and the effort put in, and secondly for their capacity to use the gifts and energy that God has given in a respectful way. We are aware of the many temptations to which people in the artistic milieu are exposed. This makes it even more clear why people who serve the cause of good, of truth, of beauty, and of all noble and dignified human values merit the highest consideration. We remind you of the norms and restrictions which can transcend this artistic work and render it still more important and noble.” (Quote from Interview 10)