Previous PageContents PageNext Page


Arab Music - Part One

by

Ali Jihad Racy, Ph.D.

Reprinted here from the original chapter in The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance, John Hayes, editor, in the second edition (1983) by Eurabia (Publishing) Ltd. and in the third edition (1992) by New York University Press with the kind permission of the author, Professor Ali Jihad Racy, Ph.D.

The html code, hyperlinks, and linked knowledge webs associated with this chapter are not part of the original chapter cited above, and are authored by Jack Logan, Ph.D.

N.B.: Students might begin their understanding of the Arab world of music by testing their knowledge of the geography of the Arab world here.

Arab music covers a vast geographical area ranging from the Atlas Mountains and parts of the Sahara in Africa to the Arabian Gulf region and the banks of the Euphrates. Whether from Morocco, Egypt, or Iraq, Arabs are able to identify today with a multi-faceted musical heritage that originated in antiquity, but that gained sophistication and momentum during the height of the Islamic Empire between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries. Since the spread of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula towards the middle of the seventh century until the present century, Arab music has been shaped by five principal processes, some purely intellectual and cultural, others political.

Contact with Assimilated Cultures

The first process took place during the early centuries of Islam, with the growth of cosmopolitan cultural centers in Syria under the Umayyads (661-750) and in Iraq under the Abbasids (750-909). The ethnic blending that occurred during these centuries brought the music of Arabia into close contact with the musical traditions of Syria, Mesopotamia, Byzantium, and Persia. This contact resulted in the cultivation of new Arab music. While retaining strong local elements, such as the singing of poetical lyrics in Arabic – the language of the Qur'an and the lingua franca of the Islamic Empire – this music featured new performance techniques, new aspects of intonation, and new musical instruments. Proponents of the new trend included Persians and others from non-Arabian backgrounds.

Court affluence and acquaintance with the worldly splendor of conquered empires stimulated humanistic interests and artistic and intellectual tolerance on the part of the Arab rulers. In a short time court patronage of poets and musicians became common practice, in contrast to the antipathy of some early Muslims towards music and musicians. The Abbasid caliphs al-Mahdi (reigned 775-85) and al-Amin (reigned 809-13) are particularly known for their fondness for music. In contrast to the quynat, or female slave singers, who were prevalent during the early decades, the emerging court artists were often well-educated and from distinguished backgrounds. Among such artists were the singers and scholars Prince Ibrahim al-Mahdi (779-839) and Ishaq al-Mawsili (767-850), and the 'ud (lute) virtuoso, Zalzal (died 791), who was Ishaq's uncle.

Contact with the Classical Past

The second process was marked by the introduction of scholars of the Islamic world to ancient Greek treatises, many of which had probably been influenced previously by the legacies of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. This contact was initiated during the ninth century under the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun (reigned 813-33.) This ruler established Bayt al-Hikmah, literally "the House of Wisdom," a scholarly institution responsible for translating into Arabic a vast number of Greek classics, including musical treatises by major Pythagorean scholars and works by Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus.

The outcome of this exposure to the classical past was profound and enduring. The Arabic language was enriched and expanded by a wealth of treatises and commentaries on music written by prominent philosophers, scientists, and physicians. Music, or al-shymusiqa, a term that came from the Greek, emerged as a speculative discipline and as one of al-shyulum al-shyriyadiyyah, or "the mathematical sciences," which paralleled the Quatrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy) in the Latin West. In addition, Greek treatises provided an extensive musical nomenclature, most of which was translated into Arabic and retained in theoretical usages until the present day.

Theoretical treatises written in Arabic between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries established an enduring trend in Near Eastern musical scholarship and inspired subsequent generations of scholars. An early contributor was Ibn al–Munajjim (died 912) who left us a description of an established system of eight melodic modes. Each mode had its own diatonic scale, namely an octave span of Pythagorean half and whole steps. Used during the eighth and ninth centuries, these modes were frequently alluded to in conjunction with the song texts included in the monumental Kitab al-Aghani, or Book of Songs, by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani (died 967). In this system, each mode was indicated by the names of the fingers and the frets employed when playing the 'ud.

Lute (from the Arab word "al-'ud") players are among the most common themes
of early Abbasid art, as in this Iraqi lusterware bowl of the tenth century.

Another major contribution was made by the philosopher al-Kindi (died about 873), who in his treatises discussed the phenomenon of sound, intervals, and compositions. Al-Kindi presented an elaboration on the diatonic 'ud-fretting known at his time and proposed adding a fifth string to the four-stringed 'ud in order to expand the theoretical pitch range into two octaves. Al-Kindi is also known for the cosmological links he made between the four strings of the 'ud and the seasons, the elements, the humors, and various celestial entities. Comparable emphasis on cosmology and numerology was presented by the Ikhwan as-Safa', "Brethren of sincerity," in their tenth century epistle on music.

One of the most prolific contributors was Abu Nasr al-Farabi (died 950), whose Kitab al-Musiqa al-Kabir, The Grand Treatise on Music, is an encompassing work. It discusses such major topics as the science of sound, intervals, tetrachords, octave species, musical instruments, compositions, and the influence of music. Al-Farabi provided a lute fretting that combined the basic diatonic arrangement of Pythagorean intervals with additional frets suited for playing two newly introduced neutral, or microtonal, intervals. Al-Farabi also described two types of tunbur, or long-necked fretted lute, each with a different system of frets: an old Arabian type whose frets produced quarter-tone intervals, and another type attributed to Khorasan with intervals based on the limma and comma subdivisions of the Pythagorean whole-tone. Discussions on the phenomenon of sound, the dissonants and the consonants, lute fretting, and references to melodic modes by specific names are also found in the writings of the famous philosopher and physician Ibn Sina, or Avicenna, (died 1037.)

Another influential theorist who contributed to the knowledge and systematization of the melodic modes was Safi ad-Din al-Urmawi (died 1291) In two authoritative treatises, Safi ad-Din discussed various aspects of musical knowledge including rhythm and meter. He also expounded on the subject of melodic modes, describing the intervals of each mode in accordance with a detailed theoretical scale similar to the one found in the Khorasani tanbur described by al-Farabi. Accordingly, each Pythagorean whole step in the seven-tone scale was divided into two limmas (90-cent intervals) and a small remainder or comma (a 24-cent interval). Thus, it was possible to accommodate the neutral intervals found in certain modes. Safi ad-Din's contribution to modal theory had a profound influence upon later scholars and particularly upon the musical systems of contemporary Iran and Turkey. Although there is no evidence that musical notation was employed in actual performance, al-Kindi and Safi an-Din left us fragments of songs recorded in a system of notation based on alphabetical symbols.

Contact with the Medieval West

The third major process affecting Arab music was the contact between the Islamic Near East and Europe at the time of the Crusades in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries and during the Islamic occupation of Spain (713-1492.) This contact had a widespread impact on both Islamic and European traditions. The westward movement of scientific scholarship into the Muslim universities of Spain is known to have influenced the Christian West and to have promoted the translation of Arabic works, including commentaries on Greek sources, into Latin. Although it is difficult to assess precisely the nature and extent of the Near Eastern musical impact upon medieval Europe, such scholars as Julian Ribera, Alois R. Nykl, and Henry George Farmer have argued that substantial influence existed in areas ranging from rhythm and song forms to music theory, nomenclature, and musical instruments.

Ivory plaque of the Fatimid period in Egypt.

The 'ud, known as the "amir al-tarab" or "the prince of enchantment" was a favorite instrument among composers and amateur performers. Here, from The Story of Bayad and Riyad, the courtier Bayad sings to Riyad and her handmaidens.

Influence in the case of instruments is indicated by name derivations: for example, the lute from al-'ud; the nakers, or kettledrums, from naqqarat; the rebec from rabab; and the anafil, or natural trumpet, from al-nafir. Added evidence comes from manuscript illustrations of instruments that have obvious Near Eastern origins. One such document is the thirteenth-century collection of songs entitled Cantigas de Santa Maria, prepared for the Spanish King Alfonso X, who was known as el Sabio (the wise). This work was decorated with miniature illustrations in color, showing musicians, including Moors, performing on a wide variety of instruments such as the lute, the psaltery, and the double-reed shawm.

The contributions of Moorish Spain to Arab music were profound and far-reaching. The Easterners' adaptation to a new physical environment and the introduction of Eastern science and literature into settings of wealth and splendor, as represented in the courts of Seville, Granada, and Cordoba, were inspirational to the new artistic life of al-Andalus. Zaryab (died about 850) was a freed slave who moved from Baghdad to Cordoba, where he became a highly respected singer, 'ud player, and music teacher. Zaryab is credited with compiling a repertoire of twenty-four nawbat, (singular nawbah or nubah), each of which was a composite of vocal and instrumental pieces in a certain melodic mode. The nawbat were reportedly associated with the different hours of the day. The nawbah tradition was largely transported to North Africa by the Muslims who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the late fifteenth century.

Moorish Spain also witnessed the development of a literary-musical form that utilized romantic subject matter and featured strophic texts with refrains, in contrast to the classical Arabic qasidah, which followed a continuous flow of lines or of couplets using a single poetical meter and a single rhyme ending. The muwashshah form, which was utilized by major poets, also emerged as a musical form and survived as such in North African cities and in the Levant, an area covering what is known historically as greater Syria and Palestine. In this area, the muwashshah genre became popular in Aleppo, Syria.

Tenth Century Abbasid Coin

Falling water activates the drummers on the water clock described and illustrated in
The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by al-Jazari.

The fourth major process influencing Arab music was the hegemony of the Ottoman Turks over Syria, Palestine, Iraq, the coasts of Arabia, and much of North Africa (1517-1917.) During this four-centuries span, the center of power in the Sunni Muslim world shifted to the Ottoman court in Turkey, while Iran was gradually emerging as a separate political, cultural, and religious entity, eventually instituting Shiism as the state religion, Musically, the Ottoman period was characterized by gradual assimilation and exchange. Arab music interacted with Turkish music, which had already absorbed musical elements from Central Asia, Anotolia, Persia, and medieval Islamic Syria and Iraq. This interaction was most obvious in larger cities, particularly Aleppo, Damascus, and Cairo. In the rural communities - for example, among the Syrian Bedouins and North African Berbers - musical traditions apparently maintained a fair degree of continuity and stability.

During this period in Arab history, certain aspects of musical life may have resulted from broader cultural and political contacts. In the Ottoman world, musicians, like members of other professions, belonged to specialized professional guilds (tawa'if). In Egypt, such musicians included the alatiyyah, literally, "male instrumentalists", and the 'awalim, literally "learned females." According to M. Villoteau, whose extensive description of Egyptian music is part of the accounts prepared by the Napoleonic mission to Egypt, the former groups entertained male audiences, while the latter specialized in performing for female audiences. Instruments associated with professional musicians of the cities, included the 'ud, the qanun (zither) and the nay (flute) and were commonly used in Turkey and in the Arab world.

The sama'i (or Turkish saz semai) and the bashraf (or pesrev), both instrumental genres used in Turkish court and religious Sufi music, were introduced into the Arab world before the late nineteenth century. Instrumental and possibly vocal and dance forms were transmitted partly through the Mevlevis, a mystical order established in Konya, Turkey, in the thirteenth century. Known for cultivating music and including famous composers and theorists, this order spread into parts of Syria, Iraq, and North Africa. Military bands, similar to the type connected with the Janissary army, existed in various political centers of the Ottoman world. (An example found in Cairo was described by Villoteau.) With respect to theory and nomenclature, Arab and Turkish musical systems overlapped considerably. Melodic and metric modes in Turkey and in the Arab world, particularly Syria, have exhibited and still exhibit strong similarities.


Previous PageContents PageNext Page