Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 088

"Islam and the Phonograph," by Snouck Hurgronje.  Moslem World 5 (1915), pp. 159ff.

[Through the kindness of Professor C. Snouck Hurgronje, we are able to give our readers a portion of a most interesting paper prepared by him for the "Tijdschrift van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen deel XLII. aftevering 5." The earlier part of the paper deals with the origin of Fetwas, or religious decisions in Islam, in regard to such matters as are not mentioned in the Koran or Tradition. Among them he mentions tobacco, the art of printing and photography, as well as the use of pictorial illustration. The decision given in Java in regard to the phonograph is typical. In spite of all Fetwas, however, the phonograph and the cinematograph are over-running the Moslem world everywhere, and for good or ill Islam must reckon with them as with Western civilisation in general. -- ED.]

THE phonograph is one of the most recent inventions that have come from Western lands to the countries of Islam. Its first public appearance on the Isle of Java was received with much astonishment by the Arabs, and before long a sayyid in Batavia bought such an instrument in order to show it to the public for money, using Arabic and Malayan records. Some verses of the Koran were included, especially the Fatihah, the Moslem "Our Father." They were reproduced by the "wonder box" to the great delight of the audience, which was mainly composed of Arabs, Chinese and natives. Scrupulous people and scribes as a rule remain away from such exhibitions, if only because of their dislike of a company composed of so many elements. The fame of this wonderful instrument, however, aroused their curiosity, and some of them had it shown to them in smaller, private gatherings. Those of a worldly turn of mind listened to the records with great delight, and in their enthusiasm they even spoke favourably of a phonographic recitation of the Koran; and some suggested that a phonographic Azan might in future be used instead of the human voice for the call to prayers which is ordered by law. Others shook their heads in disapproval and called the phonograph a useless toy, and such reproduction of the Koran verses a profanation of the Word of God. Sayyid Othman also was of this opinion, and a visit he paid to the owner of the instrument only deepened his conviction. Soon he wrote a fetwa in the usual form regarding the use of the phonograph, and when several objections against the fetwa were heard, he wrote a detailed essay to silence his opponents. We give below, partly as a translation, partly as an abbreviated resume', the contents of both his tracts and of some other fetwas on the same subject.

Question: What is the statement of the scribes (whose wisdom may Allah allow us to enjoy continually!) concerning the box (sanduq), in which there are instruments that draw into its interior sounds created in its neighbourhood? If, for instance, a person goes near such a box while he recites the Koran, his recitation is drawn into this box; in similar manner the song of a singer or a musical composition are received by the box. In such manner all the sounds are collected inside, each one preserving its own kind. When the owner of the box wishes to hear any one of the sounds received, he puts the instrument connected with those certain sounds in motion, and then the sounds are reproduced so that every one hears them who puts the wire of the box to his ear. The owner of such a box travels with it from one place to another, taking payment from the people who wish to hear the contents thereof; and among the audience there are non-Moslems as well as Moslems. This wonderful box excites the astonishment of the people as do electric lights, the electric tram, the "seer of the bowels" (R�ntgen rays), and other new inventions. What then is the decision of the scribes concerning the exhibition of this box for payment, and what is the teaching of the sacred law concerning the hearing of such sounds as are received mechanically? Does the Moslem who hears recitations of the Koran reproduced in this way deserve any reward for the hearing? Is it permissible for Moslems to listen to the sounds of musical instruments thus reproduced, or to songs sung by an unknown woman (i.e., of a woman who is neither the listener's wife nor a relative with whom conversation is allowed). Give us your statement (fetwa) on these questions, and may Allah give you His reward.

It can be seen immediately that there are four principal points to be considered:--

1. Is it an honest profession, in accordance with the divine law, to show to the paying public a phonograph that gives in turn recitations of God's word and songs of public women; or is it a forbidden enterprise, because infidels, as well as believers, from mere curiosity, listen to this recitation, and because it is not fitting for Moslems to delight in the song of women?

2. Are the sounds reproduced in this manner so much the same as the original sounds that the heavenly reward which Allah promised for the hearing of the Koran will also be given to him who listens to the phonographic recitation?

3. If phonographic sounds cannot be considered as a real human voice, is it permissible to listen to the song of women reproduced in this way, although as a rule the sound of a strange woman's voice is forbidden to the Moslem?

4. If the phonograph emits mere figures of sounds and not real proper tones, is then the prohibition of music according to the Moslem law to be applied to the musical sounds received in the phonograph and reproduced by it?

Let us now hear how Sayyid Othman discusses these questions from a legal point of view.

Answer: We pray to God for guidance to the true and right thing. Know (God guide thee and me) that the problem of the box in question and of the other new inventions mentioned in the question, is quite clear. We begin by three remarks of introduction.

1. All things that God created in heaven and on earth have their deep meaning, their particular character, and their use, as the Koran teaches. The deepest meaning and the greatest utility of all things lies in the fact that they testify to the Oneness of the All-wise Creator, to Whom alone the power of creating and producing can be attributed, and that the intelligent and those gifted with perfect reason may give Him thanks for His material and spiritual benefits.

2. Non-Moslems have a share, as well as Moslems, in the natural reason that is implanted in the human race, and which enables man to understand sciences and to produce works of hidden and thoughtful art. He whose part is great and who gets help from others, is able to create works of art and produce inventions which another less fortunate and without help may not be able to accomplish. The perfect reason, however, is the spiritual enlightening which is put in the heart of the believer and which brings him to eternal happiness; and only he that believes in God and His prophet possesses it. The apostle of God said: "Reasonable is he who believes in God, acknowledges His apostle and renders obedience to Him." That is reason which, according to the exegetes, is meant by the word of the Koran "lubb" (i.e., the marrow, the kernel, the interior, the inner sense or reason), where God says: "Herein are the signs for those gifted with reason" (i.e., the reasonable), (Surah iii. 187). The owner of such reason is defined by God's apostle by the word kayyis, when he says: "Kayyis is he who keeps himself far from the domain of cares, and who works for the other world." Finally, this is the reason which the infidels owned that they lacked when they saw eternal punishment, and said, "Had we listened and had we possessed reason we would not now be among the people of hell" (Surah lxvii. 10).

3. It is incumbent on Moslems to be concerned about their living as well as the other world, and to occupy their minds with both. Many verses of the Koran and many traditions testify to the fact that one has to care first for the other world, and secondly for one's living. The command is further passed on to us to be moderate in the seeking of one's living, as the prophet of God said: "Fear God and be moderate in your earnings." Out of these two reasons and because of the lack of co-operation, there are only few Moslems nowadays that have the time and the zeal necessary for the investigations and examinations by which new inventions are produced, such as we find among non-Moslems, because the latter apply both body and soul to realise their worldly purposes by investigations and researches, and because they help each other. They are thus able to produce new and wonderful things, such as the box in question and similar inventions. Such are the results that they (the infidels) obtain by their science.

We have permitted ourselves this threefold digression in order to secure a proper understanding, and that astonishment and mistakes may be put aside. The following answer applies also to the question, "What is the opinion of the Moslem scribes concerning the showing of the box mentioned, etc?"

When the box is brought to a place that does not serve for mere pleasure, and when the hearers are Mohammedans, whose conduct while they listen to the reproduction of a Koranic selection, is decent, and in whom the hearing of those particular sounds does not excite sensual temptations, then it is permitted (mubah). When, however, the hearing of it is not attended by decency, and when it arouses lustful passions, then it is forbidden (haram). The same is the case when the instrument is shown in a place of amusement, or when non-Moslems are present. Here, where the recitation of the Koran may produce derision or mockery, it is to be feared that the use of the box tends to unbelief, from which may Allah preserve us.

To the question, Does the Moslem who hears the Koran reproduced in this way deserve heavenly reward? the answer is: No, for the thing heard is not the voice of man that recites the Koran, the hearing of which is commanded to us by God. The sounds have come away from the mouth of the reciter and are separated from him, and they arise anew from this instrument. There can be no question of a Koranic recitation, because the sounds of the Koran are no longer produced by the organs of speech destined for each one of them, and also because they do not possess the peculiar, legally demanded qualities, so that no heavenly reward can be given to the hearer. Even to him who listens to a real recitation of the Koran, no reward shall be given as long as the reciter does not fulfil the rules fixed by the masters of the tajwid (instruction of Koran recitation); yea, such hearing is in many cases forbidden (haram), the same as the act of such a reciter itself, as the texts of the authorities inform us. And the reason of it is that such defective recitation is a deviation from the right way of the Koran, and Allah's words are quoted here: "An Arabic Koran without crookedness (fault)." (Surah xxxix. 29).

If the teaching is so clear that the hearing of Koran recitations which do not conform to the fixed rules bring no reward, because such recitation is considered as crookedness and deviation from the right way of the Koran, what then can we expect of these crooked sounds which come out of the crookedness of these newly-invented and misleading instruments? At most one might say that where the sounds are right and clear, and where the hearer takes to heart the warning contained in the verses he heard, the recompense of his consideration may be given him.

To the question, Is the listening to the song of a strange woman, or to the sounds of musical instruments reproduced in this way, forbidden? the answer shall be: Where the listening awakens sexual desire, then it is forbidden because of that lust; just as men are forbidden to look upon the shadow of a strange woman or to gaze at her reflection in a mirror, thereby awakening tempting. Where that lust is absent the hearing is not forbidden. Our imams also clearly teach that to behold the image of a strange woman in the mirror is permitted where it is not accompanied by erotic imaginations. But Allah knows best!

This seems to me to be the proper answer to the question previously mentioned, although my scientific knowledge is not great, and my position is of a modest kind. Allah give His benediction and His salutation of peace to our Sayyid Mohammed, and to his relatives and associates, in the beginning and at the end; and praise be to God the Lord of the world. This has been written by the humble servant of God, Othman ibn Abdullah ibn Aqil, may Allah forgive him. Amen.

Objections were made to this fetwa by a learned Arab at Singapore. These we give in condensed form:

1. The hearing of sounds reproduced on the phonograph is allowed.
2. The hearing of Koran recitations carries with it religious merit, whether we hear the actual voice of the one who first spoke the words or the echo of the sounds.
3. When the phonographic sound is considered as that of one who reads, the proper responses and prostrations are also incumbent upon those who hear.
4. In regard to the records of the phonograph, they are to be regarded with the same respect and awe as that due to a written Koran, namely, "None shall touch them but the purified."
And, finally, there can be no legal objection to substituting the phonographic azan for that of the voice.

[The reply of Sayyid Othman to these objections, is given in extenso by Dr. Hurgronje, and is naturally in the negative, and quotes the familiar Moslem tradition: "The most evil things are those that are newly invented. Every new invention is heresy, every heresy is error, and every error leads to hell-fire."] Meanwhile the sayyid, who first travelled around Java with his phonograph, has made a good business of it, and many of the Javanese have since then introduced the phonograph into their drawing-rooms. The only result of the fetwas has been that those who consider themselves specially pious refrain from listening to phonographic records of the Koran, but even this will not prevent their use in this respect, for the best Koran reciters are far from being distinguished by their piety.

University of Leyden.