A Ruling on Music & Chess

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There are issues of contention that tend to invoke some quite unusual or even polarising responses.  Music and chess are of this category.  Often there tends to be quite a skewed approach to such issues, particularly that of music.  Opinion tends to oscillate at times between the unusual and the bizarre.  There are those which approach an issue like this with a dismissive attitude.  Largely because in their view, it is a non-issue.  While no one would dispute that there are issues of more pressing import, nonetheless, the approach must still remain, that which is set out in the Qur’ān at chapter 4, verse 59. Others have tended to marshal disapproving looks or the retort in anger; followed by the exclamatory assertion ‘music is ḥarām!

When pressed as to the reasoning behind this statement, things become much more opaque.  Answers vary from ‘all the scholars have said’ to ‘it’s a matter well-known;’ neither of which does suffice.  There is a peculiar approach that has gained some currency of late, that of seeking to relegate discussion upon a legal ruling of lawful / unlawful, and then to proceed with a circular argument upon the purported ‘harm’ that ensues.  That discussion is not grounded upon any empirical evidence, but rather a subjective and highly-skewed perception of what that ‘harm’ is.

Regardless of whether issues of contention are considered be to great or small, there must always be one recourse in determining them.  As set out in the verse, there is a procedure for determining any matter where a dispute may arise:

يا أيها الذين آمنوا أطيعوا الله وأطيعوا الرسول وأولي الأمر منكم فإن تنازعتم في شيء فردوه إلى الله والرسول إن كنتم تؤمنون بالله واليوم الآخر ذلك خير وأحسن تأويلا

O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority from amongst you; then if you differ about anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you believe in Allah and the last day; this is better and more suitable for final determination.

Indeed, the ultimate determiner of a particular ruling only rests with a single authority, as set out clearly in the Qur’ān at chapter 42, verse 10:

وما اختلفتم فيه من شيء فحكمه إلى الله

And whatever you disagree upon, the judgment thereof belongs to Allah.

To broaden the discourse upon this issue, we hereby present in English, Ibn Ḥazm’s critical analysis of this topic.  It is hoped that this small effort may help to steer the discussion of this topic in line with the mandated approach as set out in the aforementioned verse.  The Mas’ala (issue or enquiry) is taken from Ibn Ḥazm’s magnum opus treatise of fiqh (jurisprudence): al-Mualla bil’Athār [Vol.7, no. 1566, pp. 559/571].  Along with a minority of other scholars, notably al-Ghazāli, Ibn Ḥazm was famous for his rejection that there is any clear authentic textual prohibition relating to music or playing chess.  While that view has been echoed in many works to date, a full translation of his reasoning and analysis of the textual evidences has not.  In his unique inimitable style, Ibn Ḥazm conducts a very detailed assessment of reported aḥādith and athār that exist, as well as expounding upon the meaning of key Qur’ānic passages.  Many may be familiar with some of what the textual corpus says upon this matter. However, viewing that corpus holistically and placing it under scrutiny in accordance with the principles of ḥadith science is long overdue.

We have revised the translated text for this new edition, including making a Kindle version available.  This corrects some errata as well as greatly expands the accompanying footnotes.  These provide additional references to the evidences quoted as well as some background explanation where required.  For the sake of consistency, we have used only one translation of the Qur’ān, that produced by Professor M Abdel Haleem.  As is to be expected, translation from any language is never an exact science and at times it is more of an art.  This is particularly so when translating high-level works such as al-Mualla which contains at times difficult legal terms that often require further elaboration in English.

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