Music in Muslim Civilisation

by Rabah Saoud Published on: 1st April 2004

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People who are familiar with traditional Arab music as well as Flamenco will know the obvious historical connections. What is less well known are the deeper connections from Western musical instruments and theory back to Islamic civilisation.


Summarised extracts from a full article:
The Arab Contribution to Music of the Western World by Rabah Saoud

In dealing with the subject of music in Islamic civilisation one cannot avoid falling into various arguments about the Islamic views on this art. Views on the subject have been widely debated between scholars and theologians. With the absence of any Quranic verses explicitly forbidding or permitting music, and the continuous dispute about the authenticity of the few relevant Prophet hadeeths, the disagreement between opinions continues even to present time. Dr. Yusuf Al-Qardawi, for example, in his book

Al-Halaal wal Haraam fil Islam, permitted music (under some conditions), saying in regard to the existing hadeeths on music:

“As for what has been mentioned by way of prophetic traditions (relating to the subject of music), all of these have been assessed to have some point or another of weakness according to the fuqahaa (scholars) of hadeeth and its scholars”.

In the opinion of some academics, including some Muslims, a number of Islamic rituals have some musical relevance. The first of these is the call of prayer by the mu’ethín, the caller to prayer. Scholars stress that the choice of the right mu’ethín is to be based on his musical voice and its emotional impact. The second musical act is in reading the Quran where the musical voice gained popularity, especially with the development of ‘ilm al-qiráa , “science of the recitation”. The prevalence of readers such as Abdel Bassit Abdel Samad, Khalil Al-Hussary, and Al-Manshawi, are good examples of the perfection of voice, pronunciation, and tune. The chanting is evident in acts such as Talbiya in pilgrimage “Hajj” and Tasbeeh of Eid prayers. The religious use of music including chanting among the Sufis is also well established and documented.

However, Al-Albani accepts the authenticity of at least one hadeeth which forbids music. This was narrated by Al-Boukhari who states that the Prophet (pbuh) having said:

There will be (at some future time) people from my Ummah (community of Muslims) who will seek to make lawful: fornication, the wearing of silk, wine-drinking and the use of musical instruments (ma’azif). Some people will stay at the side of the mountain and when their shepherd comes in the evening to ask them for his needs, they will say, ‘Return to us tomorrow’ Then Allah will destroy them during the night by causing the mountain to fall upon them, while He changes others into apes and swine. They will remain in such a state until the Day of Resurrection”.

It is left for the reader to search and take the appropriate position regarding this issue. The aim here is solely to highlight the contribution of Muslims to the development of music as a factual truth in the same manner and approach followed in other subjects dealt with in the Muslim heritage. The author is not encouraging nor criticising various opinions and reserves his own judgement on the issue.

Muslim Musical Achievement

Arabs always cherished and respected good language skills, making it one of man’s prerogatives of perfection and qualities. This high esteem for man’s culture was the driving force behind their striving to achieve a good quality of speech (Fasaha) and chivalry (Furussiya). Consequently, the elaboration of a complex behavioural order based on sophisticated system of manners was paralleled with a considerable development of arts and literature. Before Islam (Jahiliya), poetry (Mu’allaqat) and music had long been Arab traditions. In addition to the pursuit of chivalry, Arabs of pre-Islam spent their free time listening either to poetry or music. These two were interconnected; the poetry composition could not be successful if it did not follow a musical pattern in its verses while the music mode (nagham) or song (ghina’) is dependent on the type and form of poetry. Therefore, musical rhythm pervaded poetry adding a new dimension extending beyond Fasaha. Historical records, especially “Kitab al-Aghani” (10th century) of Al-Isfahani (897-967), showed the presence, during early years of the Muslim Caliphate, of a number of musicians including Sa’ib Khathir (d.683), Tuwais (d.c.710), Ibn Mijjah (d.c.705-714). The spread of Islam over Arabia, Persia, Turkey and India, regions known to have possessed music traditions, brought this art into the Muslim Caliphate in its early days, reaching its apogee under the Abbassids. Muslims also translated a number of Greek musical treatises, especially under the Caliph Al-Ma’mun, as part of Bait Al-Hikma project of acquiring knowledge. The translation work included treatise of Aristoxenos, Aristotle (384-322 A.C.), Euclid, Ptolemy (90-128), and Nikomachos of Gerasa (Jordan, fl.c.100 A.C.). This inherited musical knowledge was refined and adapted to Islam’s rules, as much of it was essentially secular or incorporated pagan practices. Under the Abbasids, the courts of Caliphs sponsored regular poets; most of the Caliphs were themselves poets and men of literature. It was under their rule that music gained greater respect due to the works of the famous Ishaq Al-Mausili (767-850) who revived the Arabian theory.

During the early times of Islam, music was considered a branch of philosophy and mathematics. In addition to his philosophical and mathematical brilliance, Al-Kindí (800-877) was the first great theoretician of music. He suggested a detailed fretting for the ‘ud, and discussed the cosmological connotations of music. In using the alphabetical annotation for one eighth he surpassed the achievement of the Greek musicians. Al-Kindí was also the first to realise the therapeutic value of music. It was revealed that he tried to cure a quadriplegic boy with musical therapy. He left fifteen treatises, but only five survived on music, in one of which the word music “musiqí” was used for the first time, in a book title.

Al-Kindi’s precedent was followed by his successors who dealt with music as a branch of mathematics, or a philosophical discipline. Al-Farabí (870-950) was the next prominent scholar in the chronology. His life at the court of Saif al-Dawla Al- Hamdaní of Aleppo, also known for his love for poetry and music, gave him an opportunity to develop both his musical skills and theory. His definition of the power of music shows his deep understanding:

“the man and the animal, under the impulsion of their instincts, emit sounds that express their emotions, as they can be the one of joy or fear. The human voice expresses greater variety – sadness, tenderness, rage -. These sounds, in the diversity of its notes, cause in the person that listens to them, such shades of feelings or passions, raising to him, controlling to him or tranquillising to him”.

It is thought that when Al-Farabí played the ‘ud he would make his audience burst into laughter or tears, or fall asleep depending on the mood of his tune. These same sources suggest that he was the inventor of two instruments; the rabab and qanun. Al-Farabi also wrote five books on music, one of which, Kitabu al-Musiqa to al-Kabir “the Great Book of Music”, is his master ouevre on the theory of music in Islam. In this work, he presented various systems of pitch, including one diatonic tuning to which certain microtones, or “neutral” intervals, were added. The influence of Al-Farabi continued to be felt up to the sixteenth century. Kitab al-Musiqi of Al-Farabi was translated by Ibn Aqnin (1160-1226) into Hebrew, while the Latin translation was made under the titles De Scientiis and the De Ortu Scientiarum.

In addition to these great theorists of music one cannot ignore the works of Ibn Sina (Avicena) whose works, especially al-Shifá (“the treatment”) and al-Najat (“the Salvation”), contained lengthy chapters on music. He treated the Greek theory of music and provided detailed description of instruments (used then). Ikhwan Al-Safaa’ (the brothers of Purity), with their sufi and mystical approach, took music into new dimension. Music became a means of contemplation helping both body and soul to invoke the remembrance and worship of Allah (God). This view is highly advocated and developed by Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (Algacel; 1058-1111) who argued for the power of music (and dance?) in intensifying the religious feeling and reaching the mystical experience. He distinguished between the sensual perception of music and the spiritual one. His thesis was:

“it is not possible to enter the human heart without passing by the antechamber of the ears. The musical, measured subjects, emphasise what there is in the heart and reveal their beauties and defects”.

Al-Ghazali devoted large sections of his books; Ihiá ‘ Ulum Al-Din (The revival of religious sciences) and, Kitab adab al-samá ua al-uae’dh , to the good use of music and songs in the spiritual life. In the former work, made at the beginning of twelfth century, he considers music to be a means for reaching the mystical union with God. These meanings were further developed by the famous Djalal Uddin Al-Rumi (1207-1273) and those who came after him. One must also mention Safiuddin al- Armawi (1216-1297) who based the intervals of the melodic modes used at his time upon a detailed systematic scale that incorporated small subdivisions within the Pythagorian scale. This consists of using the first ten letters of the Arabic alphabet to denote the positions of fingers on the strings. To denote the scale of sound level he added the tenth letter to the above letters.

Although Framer short-listed a total of 28 major scholars who wrote about music, but their real number exceeded this figure. This rich production resulted in widespread popularity of music described by Ribera as follows:

“… the pleasure of music had been diffused to such point that it was impossible in any Andalusian city to find a quiet district, street or a corner in which a person could get rid of the omnipresent sounds of musical instruments and songs”.


It appears that Muslims (of the Middle Ages), especially scholars, perceived their role in this world to consist essentially of serving Allah alone and assisting their human brothers to overcome the obstacles and difficulties facing them. As servants of God, they bore the task of making life easier, more comfortable and enjoyable to others but within the guidance, the Halal way, prescribed to them in their covenant. Thus, it is not surprising to find this dedication extends to music, a subject the lawfulness of which has been and is still being debated. Once more we find Muslims developing another art theme, raising it from the primitive ground of classicism to the high skies of the Renaissance. This paper has outlined the tremendous contribution of Muslims to the theory, notation and measurement of music. Above all, music was subjected, for the first time, to scientific rules explaining and measuring various tunes. These achievements revolutionised the way music was perceived, played and enjoyed in a time when the world, and Europe in particular, had hardly any knowledge or experience of this noble art. The strong evidence presented above has established, beyond doubt, that Muslims can rightfully claim to be the architects of this art. Europe, and the whole world, owes much of its musical culture to the Muslims.

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