Classical Music and the Qur'an, Chapter 9, Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari'ah in the Modern Age

By Khaled Abou El Fadl


Years ago, purely out of curiosity, I bought a group of cassettes that would change my life.  Normally, whatever money I had, or even did not have, was spent on books.  My whole childhood could be summed up by an endless quest for books, and the never-ending chase for money that could be spent on books.  For reasons that never became clear to me, this one time I managed to save some money but did not feel like buying more books, and instead, on an impulse bought a set of cassette tapes titled “Classical Music Jewels” by Gramophone.  What I heard was enthralling and enrapturing—as if I had managed to find the key that made all the books fall into place with perfect synchronicity.  In ways that defy description, it did not matter that all the books that I read did not lead me to a perfect conclusive result.  Each book left me with innumerable questions and puzzlements, but that did not seem to matter.  All these books—the ones that confirmed my beliefs and the ones that defied them—the ones that strengthened my faith and the ones that caused me to be skeptical and critical— just like a symphony or concerto, all flowed together as a whole, making up a single expression of beauty.  Each book was like a group of notes that could express tension and contradiction or express harmony and melody, but in their totality they expressed a symphonic beauty.  For me, it was an odd experience to find myself affected by what I heard to this extent, and still suffering from a considerable amount of legalism, I became scared.  It did not seem right for a student of Islamic law to fall in instant love with something so Western as classical music, and not only that, but to find so much meaning in it. 


With the box of cassettes in my arm, I went to visit Shaykh ‘Adil ‘Id, one of my Islamic law teachers who spent twenty years of his life in a political prison accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood organization in Egypt.  With considerable alarm, I played about five minutes of, I think, a Chopin concerto, and confided in my teacher the reason for my plight.  It was as if the music I heard, I explained, expressed a primordial beauty left concealed only for human beings to uncover.  Like the physical laws of nature, God created them, but human beings discover and harness these laws to their benefit.  It was as if God had created the secret of this rhythmic beauty, but left it hidden only to be found and restructured to pay homage to the very idea of beauty.  Breathlessly and incoherently, I continued explaining to the graceful Shaykh, that as I listened to these cassettes over and over again, I started seeing the interactive back and forth between authors and books as if a piece of music.  In fact, creation started looking the same to me—a garden like a harmonic melody and a swamp like an atonal tension—that made sense only when considered in its totality.  The Qur’an as well seemed like a composition giving expression to a primordial truth, and although a single symphonic work, it was expressed in divergent tonalities and moods.  Shaykh ‘Id looked at me with what seemed like annoyed puzzlement.  It was clear that he was not enraptured by the music I played, but he also did not seem to see the problem.  Suffering his confused gaze, I finally said, “How could something that shook the foundation of my life be authored by non-Muslims?”


I think that what was most troubling to me was that this reality which had thoroughly affected the way I understand my world did not arise from and was not rooted in my own culture.  Was it possible, for instance, that I could borrow a paradigm anchored in a non-Muslim foundation and use it to better understand my Muslim context?  In a completely matter of fact way, Shaykh ‘Id said, “Didn’t our Prophet say, wisdom is the province of a Muslim, wherever he may find it, he follows it?”  The tradition cited by the Shaykh expressed a straightforward principle: wisdom is of a universal character, and so regardless of the source, if a Muslim finds what is wise he should follow it.  But what I appreciated the most about my teacher is that although he did not see the wisdom that I saw in this music, he let me follow my own path.  He did not attempt to talk me out what must have been to him a most odd obsession.


Many years later, my obsession with classical music has continued unabated, and I continued to learn an enormous amount from this majestic creation where the mundane and temporal appear to meet.  The wisdom of classical music is manifold and if I had musical talent, I could have learned so much more.  What seemed to be confirmed by this music is the fact of beauty—the space in which we exist and the air that surrounds us seems to be filled with beauty that waits for those who can discover the instruments and tools to bring it out.  People can disagree on whether Chopin’s or Mozart’s compositions are beautiful or not, but what they cannot disagree on is that these compositions are expressions of beauty.  In the same way, one person may prefer a flower or not, but the essential beauty of flowers is undeniable.  All compositions seem to reach towards a primordial archetype of perfection, but none fully embody it.  Whether I or anyone else at one time prefers to listen to Bach or Vivaldi—Schubert or Schumann is relative, but what is not relative is the objective reality of beauty that these composers express.  In addition, taking a symphony, concerto, or sonata apart and breaking it into groups of notes one could end up with a beautiful melody or nothing at all, but only when the parts are combined together as a totality does the balance and beauty fully appear. 


The ecstatic feeling—the feeling of balance and beauty I experienced when listening to classical music reminded me most clearly of my emotions when reading the Qur’an.  The feeling is one of elevation—of aching for a greater fulfillment of beauty, and for a perfection that can never be fully realized.  The Qur’an is like a message that aims to ignite in its audience an aching for greater fulfillment and a fuller achievement of emotional and intellectual beauty.  The Qur’an opens the door to venues of moral achievements that in their essence are conditions of beauty.  A person could hear a musical composition, and not finding much nuance or many possibilities of meaning, the listener quickly tires of what he hears.  Put differently, the most successful musical composition is that which ignites many possibilities for reaching new realms of beauty.  Similarly, Muslims who presume the Qur’an to be a closed book—a book that takes its reader to a predetermined and preset stage of beauty but that cannot transcend that stage—deny the Qur’an its richness.  It is not the compositions that sounded the prettiest that were the most impactful—rather, the most powerful compositions were those that created infinite potential for reaching the most diverse and higher plains of beauty.  Similarly, the Qur’an is not powerful because it takes all its readers to the same exact level and point of beauty.  It is powerful because it creates trajectories of beauty—each one reaching a different level and point—with infinite possibility for continuous growth. 


There is another regard in which experiencing the beauty of classical music allowed me to gain insight into the beauty of the Qur’an.  I can approach a symphony, sonata, or concerto and listen to a comprehensive part—an allegro, menuetto, or adagio for instance.  No doubt, I might very well hear something wholesome, seemingly comprehensive, and I might even be propelled towards further possibilities of beauty.  But if I wish to understand the full nuance of a piece and achieve a fully balanced perspective, I must hear and consider the full composition from beginning to end.  I simply do not know the full potential of a violin or piano concerto unless I hear all the parts and consider the message in its totality.  The same logic is clearly applicable to the Qur’an.  Most interpreters and scholars through history have approached the Qur’an in a piecemeal fashion.  They would consider each verse or group of verses independently, or they might even focus on a full chapter at a time.  Often, however, readers would not consider the Qur’an in its totality, as a comprehensive work, and would not attempt to understand the parts in light of the whole.  Each part can express a tone, mood, melody, counter-melody, tonality, or atonality, but a fully balanced perspective does not emerge unless the text is considered as a whole and in its totality.  Only then can one truly appreciate the moral thrust of the Qur’an or start to consider the possibilities it offers or the potentialities towards beauty that it sets in motion.


Failure to understand the Qur’an as an ethical message with a strong moral thrust led to the overly legalistic and mechanical treatments that one often finds in Islamic literature.  The Qur’an has often been treated as a road map that guides the reader to the straight and narrow path—a path with clear determinable boundaries and a specific and particular destination.  This situation I think is similar to a listener who listens to a symphony in order to discover its one and true meaning.  Instead of opening up possibilities of higher aesthetic consciousness and the potential for realizing new levels of engagement with beauty, for that listener, a symphony simply communicates a set of identifiable facts the meaning of which are predetermined.  Importantly, for that listener, every engagement with this same symphony should reach the same conclusions and realize the same set of facts.  Not only does this approach deny the symphony its richness, but the dynamic with the work of art will necessarily become despotic and authoritarian.  It is impossible for every member of the audience to reach the same conclusions about a symphony without someone assuming the power to define the only legitimate meaning and then coercing others into accepting this predetermined meaning.  The Qur’an does lead to a straight path, but it is not narrow.  It is a path towards the unbounded discovery and realization of beauty—of unbounded discovery and realization of Divinity.