Music and singing are age old forms of human entertainment and expression. In fact, there is no known human culture, no matter how old or remote, that does not practice singing.
Muslim scholars are divided on the permissibility of which is normally categorised under the general designation of the term ghina in Islam. ‘Ghina’ can include instrumental music, singing, poetry, nasheeds etc. Whilst there is no doubt about the permissibility of reciting poetry or nasheeds, other forms of singing and listening to, or playing, musical instruments is a point of controversy. There is nothing explicit in the Quran on the permissibility or impermissibility of listening to music or singing. However, some scholars argue that certain verses do allude to the prohibition of music, and they back this with reference to hadith. On the other hand, there also exist narrations that permit music. The two sets of hadith can be reconciled to show that music and singing is permitted in Islam, provided that the lyrics do not encourage sinful behaviour or that it is not the type of music that is played in immoral gatherings.
The Quran does not directly mention the status of music. However, historically some Muslim scholars make recourse to the verses prohibiting false speech (qawl al-zūr),1 idle talk (laghw),2 and using amusement of speech (lahw al-hadith) to mislead people,3 to argue for the prohibition of listening to music.
The term ‘lahw al-hadith’ implies an amusement or diversion that completely absorbs a person, making him oblivious to everything around him. Scholars who rule on the impermissibility of music and singing use the historic context of revelation of the aforementioned verse to argue that it is a reference to music. According to the traditions, the tribal leaders of Mecca attempted to prevent people listening to the Prophet’s message by employing seductive slave women skilled in singing and playing music to distract them from the prophet’s teachings and the Quran. They also procured Persian folklore and translated it into Arabic in order to preoccupy the people.4 Those who advocate the prohibition of listening to music say that all forms of music fall into the category of ‘lahw al-hadith’ with the exception of certain types of poetry or nasheeds that are not accompanied by instruments.
In addition to the historical background, they also use supporting hadith to justify the impermissibility of music, for example:
1. Abu Basir, a companion of Imam al-Sadiq, reports: I asked Imam al-Sadiq about the revelation from God [which says] “avoid false speech?” The Imam replied: [the verse refers to] ghina.5
2. It is reported that the Prophet said
“There will be people from my ummah who will make immorality, silk, alcohol and ma’azif (instruments of music) lawful for themselves. There will be some arrogant people who will reside in magnificent dwellings, but not spend anything in the way of Allah by evading needy and poor. Allah will punish them transforming them into apes and pigs.”6
In contrast to such hadith, there also exist Prophetic traditions that indicate on the permissibility of partaking in such forms of entertainment:
3. Lady Aisha narrated that on the Day of Eid al-Adha, two girls were with her singing and playing on a hand drum. The holy Prophet was present, listening to them with his head under a blanket. Abu Bakr then entered and scolded the girls. The Prophet uncovering his face, told him, “Let them be, Abu Bakr. There are the days of Eid.”7
4. Abu Basir reports that Imam al-Sadiq said there is no problem with the earning of a woman who sings at weddings.8
Scholars who argue for the permissibility of listening to music have attempted to reconcile the two apparently conflicting sets of hadith to show that the Qur’anic verses and hadith prohibiting music are restricted to certain forms of music and singing.9
Accordingly, what is being forbidden in the Quran is anything that is used to encourage falsehood, deception, distraction, and misdeeds. If music, either instrumental or vocal, is used as a medium of immoral practices, then it is prohibited, otherwise there is no categorical mention in the Quran that prohibits music per se. The hadith also have to be understood in light of this context as this allows us to reconcile between the different hadith.
It is possible to conclude that there is no harm in listening to music provided that:
1. The subject matter of songs is not against the teachings of Islam and Islamic morality. For example, it is impermissible to listen to music or sing anything that encourages drinking alcohol or licentiousness. Similarly, it is obviously prohibited to attend concerts where drinking and the improper mixing of genders is openly taking place.
2. Even if the subject matter itself may not be against Islamic teachings, the manner of singing may render it impermissible. For example, if a song is being sung in a provocative manner.
 …So, avoid uncleanliness of idols and avoid false speech (qawl al-zur). 22:30
 And when they hear idle talk (laghw), they veer away from it and say, "We have our deeds, and you have your deeds. 28:55
 And of the people is he who buys amusement of speech (lahw al-hadith) to mislead [others] from the way of Allah…31:6
 Al-Baydawi, Tafsir al-Baydawi, 4:344-5; Al-Maududi, Towards Understanding the Quran, 848.
 Al-Kafi, 6: 431; Wasāʾil al-Shīʿa 17: 122-317
 Al-Bukhari, no 5268
 Al-Bukhari, no 949; Al-Muslim, no 892
 Al-Shaykh al-Kulaynī, al-Kāfī, 5: 119
 Ibn Hazm says: “This verse of surah Luqman condemns a particular behaviour, that of doing something to mock the path of Allah. Anyone who does this is an unbeliever; if he even should buy a copy of the Quran, doing so in order to make it the object of his mockery, leading people astray, he would be an unbeliever. It is clearly prohibited. On the other hand, the type of behaviour which is commended by Allah and not the idol talk (Lahw al-hadith) in which one may indulge for mere relaxation, without leading people astray, is a different situation. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi reports that many companions of the holy Prophet as well as second generation Muslim scholars allowed singing with the condition it is not accompanied with anything which is unlawful and leads towards obscenity. As for the hadith which have been reported against singing, they are all weak and have been shown by scholars to be unsound. The jurist Abu Bakr al-Arabi says, “no sound hadith is available concerning the prohibition of singing,” while Ibn Hazm says, “All that is reported on this subject is false and fabricated.” See Yusuf al Qardawi, The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam, p 302.