Music has always been a universal expression of human sensibility projected through the sounds and melodies of instruments and, often, a reflection of individuality, culture, and identity. According to religious traditions, it is believed that Adam’s bereaved grandson, Lamak, made the first lute from the leg of his dead son. He then used the lute to lament his loss and his elegy is considered the first song ever chanted on earth.
Arabs knew music long before the inception of Islam, though it was not the main artistic expression in pre-Islamic society. In the Arabian town of Ukaz, poets and singers gathered periodically and presented their talents for which they received awards and gifts from Arabia’s wealthy merchants and urban elites. Women musician-poets followed the warriors to their battlegrounds inciting them with ululations and chants. Thanks to their power to influence and entertain, musicians and poets of the pre-Islamic Arabia occupied a high rank in the social hierarchy.
Thanks to their power to influence and entertain, musicians and poets of the pre-Islamic Arabia occupied a high rank in the social hierarchy.
When Islam came, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) appointed Bilal Ibn Rabbah as his muezzin (caller to prayer from the altitude of a minaret). The choice fell on Bilal not because he was the most pious of the Prophet’s companions, for there were more devoted disciples like Abu Bakr and Omar, but because of the beauty, musicality, and strength of his voice which was comforting and deeply soothing. Whenever the Prophet felt grieved by something, he would say to Bilal, “Oh Bilal, comfort our hearts by the call to prayer.” Had it not been for the effect of Bilal’s mesmerizing voice, the Prophet would have chosen someone else as a muezzin.
The recitation of the Qur’an, though it is considered technically different from singing, also requires vocal strength and muscle reflexes. Impressed by the beauty of Abu Musa Al-Achaari’s recitation, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) praised him and said, as mentioned in the book of Bukhari, tradition 4761, “O Abu Musa, you have been given a voice for recitation from the instruments of the house of David.” During the Prophet’s time, however, the art of music, dance, and singing were not much tolerated, for they were considered lahw (distraction from the rituals and practices of worship).
During the Umayyad and the Abbasid caliphates, music thrived with the proliferation of musical treatises and the emergence of many musicians and singers. The cross-cultural exchanges and cultural inter-pollination between Arabs, Persians, Turks, and Byzantines during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties led to the development of musical instruments and the appearance of new musical styles and forms. The expansion of the Islamic empire and the acquisition of large territories in Asia, Byzantium, Africa, and Europe allowed more exchanges with the conquered nations apropos musical traditions.
The cross-cultural exchanges between Arabs, Persians, Turks, and Byzantines during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties led to the development of musical instruments and new musical styles.
In the Umayyad period, Ibn Misjah rose to prominence as a lutenist, singer, and theorist. Born to Persian parents in the Arabian city of Mecca, Ibn Misjah succeeded in incorporating aspects of the Persian, Syraic, Byzantine, and Arab music into his style. His legacy and contributions to the Arabian art song were enshrined in “Kitab al-Aghani,” or “The Great Book of Songs,” written by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani (897–969 CE).
The book is considered one of the most indispensable references for the history of Arabic music, as it preserves medieval song texts, indications of rhythmic and melodic modes for songs, and much more information on medieval Arab poets, singers, and composers. During this period of Islamic history, the complex rules of Arabic poetry and its rigid traditional rhythms and rhymes softened to freer and shorter meter to go with music. This development gave birth to the art of Ghazal (romance poetry) in which poems were sung along with music, especially the oud (lute).
During the Abbasid Caliphate, music became even more popular achieving its zenith with the Caliph Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Ma’mun. The latter’s Bayt El Hikma (House of Wisdom) served as an intellectual center where translation, including the translation of Greek musical treatises, flourished. Thus, the Abbasid courts soon became the hub of musical learning and performance, attracting musicians and musicologists as historically renowned as Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (d. 873), the Banu Musa brothers (800 – 860), and Ishaq Al-Mawsili (767-850) and his apprentice Zeryab (Abu al-Hasan Ali bin Nafi, 789-857).
Zeryab was particularly talented not only as a musician but also as a botanist, meteorologist, geographer, and fashion and cosmetics specialist. When Caliph Harun al-Rashid first met him in Baghdad he was deeply impressed by his mastery of a number of musical instruments, including the lute and the flute, and by his mesmerizing voice which was way better than his master’s. Feeling overshadowed by his student, Ishaq Al-Mawsili threatened Zeryab and commanded him to vanish from Baghdad. He would, therefore, take a different route by traveling to Tunisia and then to Islamic Cordoba following an invitation from the Emir of Cordoba Abdar-Rahman II (792-852).
Zeryab is considered the legendary progenitor of the Andalusian musical culture, which was preserved more or less intact in Morocco after the fall of Granada in 1492.
In Cordoba, Zeryab would initiate his musical and cultural project by setting up his own music conservatory to spread his music theory. With the help of a Jewish court musician called Mansur El-Yahudi and very generous support from the Emir of Cordoba, Zeryab managed to unlock the doors of fame in the Iberian Peninsula and beyond. He is considered the legendary progenitor of the Andalusian musical culture, which was preserved more or less intact in Morocco after the fall of Granada in 1492 and the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain. Zeryab’s contribution to the practice and theory of music departed from both the Greek and the Middle Eastern theorists who believed that each mode had a certain ethos. “Zeryab went further and developed a system of 24 modes – one for every hour of the day, each with ‘inherent’ temporal, seasonal, and emotional characteristics. At the same time, he set out detailed instructions for the formal structure of a performance,” Philip D Schuyler claims.
Today, Arab music is one of the richest and most lively musical traditions, reflecting its historical interaction with various cultures from the East and the West. The amalgam of tunes, tones, melodies, and musical instruments make a beautiful music tapestry of various genres and types, such as classical, rai, gnawa, pop, andalusi, and khaliji. And just as they have historically, Arab artists continue to produce art forms and music that contribute to the enrichment of societies throughout the world.
 Philip D Schuyler, “Moroccan Andalusian Music,” in: The World of Music, Vol. 20, No. 1, the Arab World (1978), pp. 33-46.
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