Jonas Otterbeck: Islamic reactions to the music of today

13 November 2007
 A working paper – by Jonas Otterbeck, PhD in history of religions

“States and local authorities have taken action against heavy metal musicians, female singers, music videos, and public concerts. Islamist and conservative Islamic organizations or individuals try to disturb and break up concerts, demand censorship on recordings, or call for the punishment of individuals for being blasphemous. At times musicians are killed or attacked physically…”

In this working paper Jonas Otterbeck, an Islamic studies scholar based in Sweden, analyzes and explains the reactions to the music of today in Islamic societies in the Middle East. The text is to be published as a chapter in the book ‘Religion, Media, and Modern Thought in the Arab World’, edited by Ramez Malouf & Ralph Berenger, Cambridge Scholars Press Ltd.


The moral implications of music have come under discussion again in the Arab world [1] during recent decades as the soundscapes of everyday life have changed. Video clips with the latest songs flood the TV-channels of the Arab world. Directors consciously balance on the limits of the accepted spurring debates in media and on the Arab street on morality, sexuality, the purpose of art but also the halal and the haram of music and musical instruments. [2] At the same time, a consumer oriented youth culture, borrowing from global cultural flows, changes local conditions. New styles in music, sub-cultural dress, consuming patterns of music and a new use of music in every possible device and place [3] , bring about an interesting, heated discussion.

As a reaction to changes, states and local authorities have taken action against heavy metal musicians, female singers, music videos, and public concerts. Islamist and conservative Islamic organizations or individuals try to disturb and break up concerts, demand censorship on recordings, or call for the punishment of individuals for being blasphemous. At times musicians are killed or attacked physically. Moderate Islamic scholars call for moderation and discussion, condemning the violence and hard-line attitudes, but at the same time ask musicians to be more restrictive when it comes to provocations and sexuality. Some liberal Islamic scholars try to create space for music while others urge for a competitive Islamic counter pop culture.

Since the possibilities of disseminating ideas through media and to come in contact with media have increased manifold the last two decades, all public actors have to reconsider their strategies when trying to reach out to the general public. The situation creates a new kind of public sphere outside the control of the different states. Commercial Satellite TV channels challenge the states’ possibilities of controlling broadcasting to their populations. Further, dissident usage of new media [4], in contrast to state radio and state television, to reach the general public causes much annoyance to many states since this type of media is almost impossible to monitor. As Eickelman and Anderson so aptly write: “Viewpoints suppressed in one medium almost inevitably find an outlet in others.” [5]

When considering the consequences for Islam, this new public sphere challenges and renegotiates authority and creates a forum for a plurality of interpretations. The spread of literacy, the creation of a consumer oriented broad middle class, new media and global cultural flows are all phenomena shaping the new public sphere. Due to different circumstances, music has become a symbolic question in the debate about this new public sphere. [6]

The aim of this article is to expose the main Islamic arguments of those involved in the discourse on music, and to understand the contexts of different interpretations. I will start by outlining how states have reacted to different aspects associated with music. Then I will dwell on other actors, their use of different media and their interpretations. Finally, I will present an analysis of the discourse trying to connect to the media of the Arab world and the spread of consumer culture.

Since this article is a part of a major research project in progress, I would like to draw the readers’ attention to the fact that I have relied, on several occasions, on reports given in the media without having the possibility at this stage of fully checking the accuracy of all the information. I have, of course, tried my best to double check the information.

Jonas Otterbeck, October 2007, Malmö Högskola

Jonas Otterbeck is a PhD in history of religions with a special interest in Islam

The working paper / article is 22 pages long and contains the following paragraph headlines:

The states and music
The Saudi Arabian case
Egyptian Censorship and Al-Azhar
Blasphemy in Lebanon: the case of Marcel Khalife
Local actors in Palestine
Who controls the public sphere?
Mediated Islamic voices
The moderate voices
The hard-liners: Conservatives and Islamists
The liberal possibility
Battling over the public sphere
Literature and Internet texts



Click to read the article (working paper)

Click to
read the article
(working paper)

Read the article:
Working paper in PDF-format Click to read the working paper 

1) With the Arab world, I refer to North Africa, the Arab peninsula and the Arabic speaking countries east of the Mediterranean.
2) For example, in March 2005 the Central Department of Censorship banned 20 music videos for showing too much female nudity, having indecent lyrics and connotations (Freemuse homepage). For a discussion about the video clips controversies not really discussing Islamic argument, see Armbrust 2005; Kubala 2005; Elmessiri 2005.

3) It is rumoured that al-Azhar students downloaded the adhân, the call to prayers, and Qur’anic recitation and used the sound clips as signal for their mobiles. It became so widespread that teachers banned its use.

4) Eickelman and Anderson (2003:8f) discuss what they call new media referring to new electronic technology like phones, faxes, computers, new printing techniques etc. in contrast to conventional print and broadcasting.

5) Eickelman and Anderson 2003:5.

6) Similar arguments, leaving music out, are found in Eickelman & Anderson (eds) 2003.



The Saudi Arabian case

Excerpt from the working paper by Jonas Otterbeck

Saudi Arabia, during the 1950s, had the most extreme form of restrictions any Arab country has seen up until now. The committee for the Advancement of Virtue and Elimination of Vice (AVEV) [14] in Saudi Arabia banned music and even singing. Instruments and gramophones were either confiscated or demolished. By attending musical gatherings you risked being beaten up by AVEV. [15] This was legitimated by Wahhabi scholars who saw music as connected with immoral behaviour, illegitimate ritual healing and Sufism (which Wahhabism was, and still is, highly critical of). When king ibn Saud was succeeded by Sa’ud, his eldest son (1958), and when Faisal, a younger son, became prime minister and later king (1964), AVEV eventually lost jurisdiction over music and singing. [16]

Today, censorship in general is common in Saudi Arabia. [17] Censorship is ordered by several different bodies like the Ministry of the Interior and the information minister, but also by individuals in their capacity as members of the royal family. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has the authority to demand censorship on, for example, journalism. [18] The Internet, which the public was introduced to in 1999, is closely monitored and sites are regularly blocked, but skilled Internet users know how to get around these blocks. [19]

When it comes to music, the state regulates recordings and live performances. Most licences to record are given to male musicians. During the 1990’s Saudi Arabia managed to develop a successful music industry with several superstar singers. But the industry is gendered; only a few female musicians have been allowed to make recordings. However, according to ethnomusicologist Lisa Urkevich, female musicians have a huge market for live performances at celebrations, wedding parties, etc. playing to all-female audiences. [20] If the female side of a party is to have any music, it has to be played by female musicians or female DJs due to the gender segregated society. Another arena for women’s music (and dance) was in connection with healing rituals, the zar ritual in particular, but Wahhabi theologians have deemed this practice un-Islamic and immoral because of its use of music and of “magical” rituals and have persecuted the practice for decades. [21]

At times, Islamic scholars have proclaimed fatwas accusing musicians of other countries of blasphemy. In March 2001 an over 80 year old Saudi cleric, Hamoud bin-Aqla al-Shuaibi, issued a fatwa claiming that Kuwaiti pop star Abdallah Rowaishid had put the opening chapter of the Qur’an to music. It proved not to be true and Kuwaiti clerics rushed to Rowaishid’s defense commenting that al-Shuaibi was not even qualified to issue a fatwa. Al-Shuaibi, who died shortly after the fatwa, lived in Buraidah, north of Riyadh well-known for its many Islamists but also for its many secular intellectuals. [22] Oddly enough, Kuwait’s parliament had, earlier in 2001, banned Lebanese male singer ‘Assi al-Hellani due to similar charges and due to pressure from Islamist groups. [23]

Other groups might also intervene. Hard-line Islamist at Saudi Universities attack (verbally and physically) those who listen to music, a situation criticized in 2005 in the national paper Al-Watan by Hamzah Muzeini, professor at King Saud university. For this claim he was tried and convicted by a Sharia court. The ruling was later nullified by King Abdallah disliking the trial. [24] According to Saudi journalist Rabbah al-Quwai’i some hard-line sheikhs encourage youth to ritually gather and burn instruments and books in public. [25]

As a matter of curiosity, in Saudi Arabia a specific ban on Christian mass implicitly forbids Christian psalms and hymns. An amusing detail is that “Jingle-Bells” is one of the few Christmas carols allowed in Saudi Arabia as “there is absolutely nothing religious about it”.

Read more in Jonas Otterbeck’s working paper ‘Battling over the public sphere: Islamic reactions to the music of today’. See link above.



14) An alternative translation is “The committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice”.
15) Grove Music Online homepage, “Saudi Arabia, Kingdom of, I. Introduction”.

16) Mostyn 2002:180f. According to Saudi Arabian academic, Mazin Motabagani from Al Madinah Centre for the Study of Orientalism, the first “legal” wave of popular music hit Saudi Arabia in the early 1960’s (personal communication, Beirut, Oct., 2005).

17) Censorship is practiced according to the 1982 royal decree on the press and publications. According to Reporters without borders (homepage 1), “any criticism of the government, the royal family, heads of state of friendly countries or religious leaders is liable to prosecution and imprisonment.”

18) Reporters without borders homepage 2, “Saudi Arabia – annual report 2004”.

19) According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (homepage 1), the number of banned Internet sites reached 400,000 in 2004.

20) Grove Music Online homepage 2, “Saudi Arabia, Kingdom of, V. Women and music”.

21) Doumato 2000:217.

22) BBC news homepage 1; Al-Homayed 2002.

23) BBC news homepage 1.

23) BBC news homepage 1.

24) Committee to Protect Journalists, homepage 1.

25) Human Rights Watch, home page 1.


Read the Freemuse report
from the Freemuse conference about music censorship in the Middle East, held in Lebanon in October 2005:

‘All that is Banned is Desired’
See video interviews 
Freemuse has conducted a number of interviews which
put special focus on the situation concerning music and
censorship in the Middle East:

Freemuse interviews about the Middle East

Religious music prohibition
Is music allowed or is it not allowed in Islam? Can we get a straight answer?

‘The burning music question in Islam’

  Click to read about the report
Home / News / Jonas Otterbeck: Islamic reactions to the music of today