Source: Britannica

The history of Islamic music

The earliest extant writings on Islamic music are from the end of the 9th century, more than 250 years after the advent of Islam. In the absence of historical documents, musicians, writers, and philosophers began to speculate on the origins of their music. They filled the gaps by legendary sources or vague traditions. Thus Lamak is said to have made the first lute from the leg of his dead son, whose loss he lamented with it. His lamentation is considered to be the first song.

The pre-Islamic period

In nomadic encampments music emphasized every event in man's life, embellished social meetings, incited the warriors, encouraged the desert traveler, and exhorted the pilgrims to the black stone of the Ka'bah (in Mecca), a holy shrine even in pre-Islamic times. Among the earliest songs were the huda' from which the ghina' derived, the nasb, sanad, rukbani, and the hazaj, a dancing song. In the markets of the Arabs, particularly the fair at the western Arabian town of 'Ukaz, competitions of poetry and musical performances were held periodically, attracting the most distinguished poet-musicians. Their music, more sophisticated than that practiced in the nomadic encampments, was related to that of the qaynat ("singing girls"), who performed at court, in noble households, and in scattered taverns. Cultural contact with Byzantium was strong in the kingdom of Ghassan, where, in the 7th century, five Byzantine qaynat were known to have performed songs of their homeland at court. The culture of the other Arabic kingdom of al-Hirah under the Lakhmid dynasty was closely connected with that of Persia under the pre-Islamic Sasanian empire. The Sasanians esteemed both secular and religious music. In the belief of the Mazdak sect (a dualistic Persian religion related to Manichaeanism, a Gnostic religion), music was considered as one of the four spiritual powers. In the king's entourage musicians occupied high rank. Some became famous, such as Barbad, to whom is attributed the invention of the complicated pre-Islamic system of modes. The compositions of Barbad, who became a model of artistic achievement in Arabic literature, survived at least until the 10th century.

The beginning of Islam and the first four caliphs

Muhammad was said to have been hostile to music and musicians; yet there are indications that he tolerated functional music such as war songs, pilgrimage chants, and public or private festival songs. In addition, he himself instituted in 622 or 623 the adhan ("call to prayer"), chanted by the mu'adhdhin (muezzin). For this task he chose the Abyssinian singer Bilal, who became the patron of the mu'adhdhin and their guilds throughout the Islamic world. Within 12 years after Muhammad's death, the armies of Islam took possession of Syria, Iraq, Persia, Armenia, Egypt, and Cyrenaica (in modern Libya). The contact with the refined cultures of the conquered and the appearance of a new class of warriors who benefited from the spoils of the conquered nations deeply affected Arabian society. In spite of the austere regime of the four orthodox caliphs (632-660), joy of life and eagerness for pleasure dominated the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Wealthy men acquired slave musicians, who were often liberated and became the pillars of musical life. The wealthy competed with one another in the brilliance of the concerts held in their houses, and in sophisticated literary and musical salons, contests revealed and rewarded the best talents. In this milieu the great Islamic musical tradition began to take shape, to be firmly established and codified in subsequent periods. A new generation of musicians was educated in the traditional manner and refined through constant hearing of the best music performed by the best masters. Through the contributions of the conquered "foreigners," and through intense emulation of their music, new techniques, improved instruments, and elaborated musical forms developed. Persian lute tuning was adopted for the lute ('ud), which became the classical instrument of the Arabs. Melodies and rhythms were regulated by a modal system that was later codified. Among the most famous female musicians was 'Azza al-Mayla', who excelled in al-ghina' ar-raqiq, or "gentle song." Her house was the most brilliant literary salon of Medina, and most of the famous musicians of the town came under her tutelage. Also famed were the female musician Jamila, around whom clustered musicians, poets, and dignitaries; the male musician Tuways, who, attracted by the melodies sung by Persian slaves, imitated their style; and Sa'ib Khathir, the son of a Persian slave. Songs were generally accompanied by the lute ('ud), the frame drum (duff), or the percussion stick (qadib).

The Umayyad and 'Abbasid dynasties: classical Islamic music

Under the Umayyad caliphate (661-750) the classical style of Islamic music developed further. The capital was moved to Damascus (in modern Syria) and the courts were thronged with male and female musicians, who formed a class apart. Many prominent musicians were Arab by birth or acculturation, but the alien element continued to play a predominant role in Islamic music. The first and the greatest musician of the Umayyad era was Ibn Misjah, often honoured as the father of Islamic music. Born in Mecca of a Persian family, he was a musical theorist and a skilled singer and lute player. Ibn Misjah traveled to Syria and Persia, learning the theory and practice of Byzantine and Persian music and incorporating much of his acquired knowledge into the Arabian art song. Although he adopted new elements such as foreign musical modes, he rejected other musical traits as unsuitable to Arabian music. Knowledge of his contributions is contained in the most important source of information about music and musical life in the first three centuries of Islam. This is the 10th-century Kitab al-Aghani, or "Book of Songs," by Abu al-Faraj al-Isbahani. In the 8th century Yunus al-Katib, author of the first Arabic book of musical theory, compiled the first collection of songs. Other notable musicians of the period were Ibn Muhriz, of Persian ancestry; Ibn Surayj, son of a Persian slave and noted for his elegies and improvisations (murtajal); his pupil al-Gharid, born of a Berber family; and the Negro Ma'bad. Like Ibn Surayj, Ma'bad cultivated a special personal style adopted by following generations of singers.

By the end of the Umayyad period, the disparate elements of conqueror and conquered were fused into the style of classical Islamic music. With the establishment of the 'Abbasid caliphate in 750, Baghdad (in modern Iraq) became the leading musical centre. The 'Abbasid caliphate is the period of the Golden Age in Islamic music. Music, obligatory for every learned man, was dealt with in varied aspects-among them virtuosity, aesthetic theory, ethical and therapeutic goals, mystical experience, and mathematical speculation. The artist was required to possess technical proficiency, creative power, and almost encyclopaedic knowledge. Among the finest artists of the period were Ibrahim al-Mawsili and his son Ishaq. Members of a noble Persian family, they were chief court musicians and close companions of the caliphs Harun ar-Rashid and al-Ma'mun.

Ishaq, a singer, composer, and virtuoso lutenist, was the outstanding musician of his time. A man of wide culture, he is credited with authorship of nearly 40 works on music, which were subsequently lost. According to the "Book of Songs," he is the originator of the earliest Islamic theory of melodic modes. Called asbi' ("fingers"), it structured the modes according to the frets of the lute and the fingers corresponding to them. Indications above each song in the "Book of Songs" show the mode, the type of third (major, minor, or neutral), and often the rhythmic mode. (The third is the interval encompassing three notes of the scale. It can vary considerably in exact size without losing its character. Western music uses the major and the minor third; much non-Western and folk music also uses a neutral third, between the major and minor in size.) The neutral third, introduced into Islamic music about this time, increased the number of melodic modes from eight to 12 by making more intervals available from which to build melodies. At this time the number of rhythmic modes varied from six to eight, their actual structure and content differing from author to author.

Ishaq and Ibrahim al-Mawsili actively participated in the contemporary controversy between modernism, a Persian romantic style tending toward exuberance of embellishments, and Arabian classicism, characterized by simplicity and artistic severity. The Mawsilis represented the older classical tradition; the proponents of modernism were Ibn Jami' and the celebrated singer Prince Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi.

In the second half of the 8th century, the extensive Islamic literature of music theory began to flourish. Greek treatises were translated into Arabic, and scholars, who were acquainted with the Greek writings, began to devote books or sections of books to the theory of music. In their works they expanded, changed, improved, or shed new light on Greek musical theory. The well-known philosopher al-Kindi, who was deeply immersed in Greek learning, wrote more than 13 musical treatises, including the earliest Arabic musical treatise that is known to have survived. He also dealt with the theory of ethos (ta'thir) and with cosmological aspects of music. Members of the Ikhwan as-Safa, an important 10th-century brotherhood, dealt also with these two themes and advanced a theory of sound that went well beyond ancient Greek theories. Philosophers such as al-Farabi, author of the monumental Kitab al-musiqi al-Kabir ("Grand Book on Music"), and Ibn Sina (known in Europe as Avicenna) dealt with such topics as the theory of sound, intervals, genres and systems, composition, rhythm, and instruments, as did others such as as-Sarakhsi, his contemporary Thabit ibn Qurrah, and Avicenna's pupil Ibn Zayla. The last important theorist to emerge during the 'Abbasid period was Safi ad-Din, who codified the elements of the modal practice as it was then known into a highly sophisticated system. His achievement became the chief model for subsequent generations. In the numerous treatises written between the 13th and 19th centuries, the system devised by Safi ad-Din was split into multiple local traditions.

Islamic music in Spain

Parallel to the flourishing of music at the eastern centres of Damascus and Baghdad, another important musical centre developed in Spain, first under the survivors of the Umayyad rulers and later under the Berber Almoravids (rulers of North Africa and Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries) and Almohads, who expanded into Spain after the fall of the Almoravids. In Spain, encounter with different cultures stimulated the development of the Andalusian, or Moorish, branch of Islamic music. The most imposing figure in this development is Ziryab (fl. 9th century), a pupil of Ishaq al-Mawsili, who, because of the jealousy of his teacher, emigrated from Baghdad to Spain. A virtuoso singer and the leading musician at the court of Cordoba, Ziryab introduced a fifth string to the lute, devised a number of new forms of composition, and developed a variety of new methods of teaching singing in his well-known school of music. Musical activity spread to large towns, and Sevilla (Seville) became a leading centre of musical-instrument manufacture.

New poetic forms were developed, such as the muwashshah and the zajal, that were freer in rhyme and metre than the classical qasidah or formal ode. These innovations in prosody opened the way to further musical developments. Especially important was the nawbah ("suite"), a form that included songs and instrumental music, free or metrical, that were linked together by melodic mode and rhythmic patterns. The 24 traditional nawbahs were invested with symbolic and cosmological significance. After the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain in 1492 this musical tradition was transported to North African centres, where it partially survived.

After the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258 and the Spanish reconquest of Granada in 1492, the magnificence of Islamic culture gradually waned. Music continued to be cultivated, receiving new influences from Mongol and Turkmen conquerors. Persia enjoyed artistic independence for about 450 years, until 1918; but during this period a huge area, from the Balkans to Tunisia, was submitted to a strong Turkish influence, which itself was heavily influenced by Arab and Persian music.

The modern period

From the beginning of the 19th century, Islamic music was affected by the intensification of contacts and relationships with Western music. For the first time Islamic music existed in juxtaposition with Western music. For example, European composers and musicians were summoned to create military bands and conservatories in Turkey (1826) and in Persia (1856), and Giuseppe Verdi's opera Aida inaugurated the opera house in Cairo in 1871. Expanding contact with Western music caused certain alterations in traditional musical styles. There was a widespread musical renaissance, with two main centres: the leading school in Egypt was open to modernism and Western influences, while in Syria and Iraq traditional music was supported. Music in Syria and Iraq, together with North African, Iranian, and Turkish music, remained restricted to its own periphery. The Egyptian school developed Middle Eastern music in what can be called the mainstream style; and this music was widely diffused through the media of radio, television, recordings, and the cinema. Mainstream music borrowed instruments such as the cello, saxophone, and accordion; melodies and rhythms from European serious and light music; the concept of large ensembles; and the use of electronic amplification. Emphasis shifted from the display of individual virtuosity and personal creativity to performance as an ensemble, and the use of short songs underscored the separation, rather than the traditional union, of composer and performer. Classical and local genres coexist, however, with the innovative mainstream style.

Persian art music continues to be organized into 12 traditional modes, or dastgah, each of which contains a repertory of from 20 to 50 small pieces called gushehs ("corners"). In performance of instrumental and vocal music, the artist improvises on the chosen gushehs of a dastgah in a specific order.

Vocal music still predominates even in countries such as Iran, in which instrumental music is cultivated independently. Thus almost all of the Near Eastern musicians who are well known are singers; those particularly influential in the modern renaissance, in chronological order, include 'Abduh al-Hamuli, Dahud Hussni, Sayyid Darwish, 'Abd al-Wahhab, Umm Kulthum, Farid al-Atrash, Fayrouz, Rashid al-Hundarashi, Sadiqa al-Mulaya, and Muhammad al-Gubanshi.

Modern Arab theorists also have produced valuable treatises. For example, the 19th-century theorists Michel Muchaqa of Damascus and Mohammed Chehab ad-Din of Cairo introduced the theoretical division of the scale into 24 quarter tones. In 1932 the international Congress of Arabian Music was held in Cairo, providing a forum for current analysis of subjects such as musical scales, modes, rhythms, and musical forms.