Music Education and Islam: Perspectives on Muslim Participation in Music Education in Ontario

By Izsak, Kristin | The Canadian Music Educator, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Music Education and Islam: Perspectives on Muslim Participation in Music Education in Ontario


Izsak, Kristin, The Canadian Music Educator


In addition to being the fastest growing religion in the world, higher birth rates, immigration, and conversion to Islam over the past 25 years have led Muslims to become the principal non-Christian religious group in Canada. Since 1991, the population of Muslims in Canada has increased by 128% - from 253,000 in 1991 to 842,000 in 2007 (Niyozov, 2010). As educators, we need to ask ourselves what impact this has in the classroom. How does this guide our instruction and the choices we make as teachers? What responsibilities do we have to understand the religious beliefs, cultural customs, and value systems of our students? How do we meet the expectations of the curriculum, while still meeting the needs of those in our classrooms? What resources and support systems are available for teachers regarding these issues?

Despite increasing numbers of Muslim students in Ontario classrooms, music educators in particular are presented with unique challenges and considerations relating to teaching Muslim students and are often not readily equipped with the knowledge to address these concerns until they arise. Diane Harris (2006) articulates the need for further exploration of this issue in her book Music Education and Muslims:

Whilst it cannot be assumed that all Muslims have an issue with performing arts, music, dance and drama in schools, there has been sufficient unease in Muslim communities for it to merit attention. Music presents an ethical dilemma for some Muslims and this needs to be recognised, (p. 6)

Vague, overarching claims made by students or parents that musical activities are against one's religion can lead to confusion on the issue if the teacher is unfamiliar with Islamic beliefs. Problems relating to participation in music education can also arise when parents and students do not articulate their concerns due to a fear of negatively affecting grades, language barriers, or deeming certain subjects inappropriate for student-teacher or parent-teacher discussion (Halstead, 1994). Consequently, these misunderstandings can lead non-Muslim music educators to homogenize or misinterpret the Islamic position as forbidding all music in all circumstances, perpetuating misconceptions of extreme conservatism.

Music and Islam

Islam does not differentiate between religious and secular. To be a Muslim literally means to "submit to the will of Allah" and live in accordance with the teachings of the Holy Qur'an and sacred texts. Consequently, all behaviour is organized into four main categories, halal, mubah, makruh, and haram, which exist on a continuum (Harris, 2000):

Those who are devoted to their faith will choose to refrain from activities that are seen as forbidden or discouraged in Islam.

If music educators are unaware of religious or cultural beliefs, practices, and attitudes relating to Islam, music activities taught with the intention of achieving Ontario music curriculum expectations can conflict with one's Islamic beliefs. Common concerns that may contradict Islamic practice may include issues of dancing, singing, playing instruments, listening to music with a storyline deemed immoral by Islamic law1, listening or participating in musical activities that celebrate religions other than Islam, and/or performing with students of the opposite sex (Harris, 2000).

Issues surrounding participation in music and Islam cannot be clearly defined for music educators. Unlike actions such as praying five times daily, or refraining from gambling, it is impossible to extract an absolute Islamic stance on participation in music from the Qur'an. This leaves the debate to rely upon the interpretations of other sacred texts called ahadith and sunnah, the reported actions and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. Within these texts verses exist that can be interpreted as being in support of music, as well as those which can be interpreted as disapproving of specific musical activities, or contexts where music is performed. …

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