The story of Middle Eastern music is immense and complex, and a short work such as this book cannot do it justice. What follows is only a summary, but you are encouraged to seek out more information.¹
Evidence of musical activity in the region dates back thousands of years. Both artistic depictions and literary accounts describe instruments and musical performances in Sumerian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures. The same is true of ancient Greece and Rome. Remarkably, fragments of songs and other musical phrases survive in notational systems that scholars have been able to decipher and transcribe, allowing us a small and precious window into the musical life of the ancient world.²
Periods of Middle Eastern Music History
In the Arabian peninsula (Hijāz), musical history, like the wider culture itself, can be divided into the pre-Islamic (until 632 CE), and the Islamic periods (thereafter). The pre-Islamic era is referred to as the jāhilīyya (translated as “ignorance,” and sometimes as “pride” in Arabic), characterized by tribal affiliations and blood feuds.
Poetry and music had an important place in this culture, particularly in the figure of the qayna (pl. qiyān) a woman who was a singer and servant combined. She sang songs, poured wine, and often performed other sensual services.
The qiyān were active in cities such as Mecca and Medina, as well as in Yemen, and were praised as master singers with a great knowledge of poetry and poetic structures. They also played a lute-like instrument called by many names, but resembling the ‘ud. They sang in two styles: sinad and hajaz, the former being lengthy and serious works, while the latter were simpler and intended for the entertainment of audiences. Their music is considered to be more complex than that of the nomadic Bedouin peoples, and was created and intended for the settled peoples of the Arabian peninsula.
Individual qayna could grow very wealthy through generous patrons, and their legacy survived well into the Islamic era, even though there was more suspicion and opposition to musical activities. Indeed, it is said that at least one song by the Jaradah sisters, qiyān from the time before Islam, was still being enjoyed by the Caliph Harun ar-Rashid (of 1001 Nights fame) in the 8th century.³
Debate of Music in Islamic Society
The Qur’an neither specifically forbids nor allows music, and so the question of the place of music in Islamic society has been debated for over 1,400 years. Many devout Muslims are quite content to enjoy songs and music, even secular forms, while others insist that they be suppressed and that only the chanting of the Qur’an be allowed. The hadīth, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, are equally contradictory; he both approves of singing and condemns it in different accounts.
Regardless of these conflicts, music survived and even thrived in the early centuries of Islam, being cultivated as a high art form. Medina, the effective capital of the early Islamic Caliphate, attracted a veritable melting pot of cultural influences, from Greco-Roman to Egyptian, to Assyrian, to Byzantine. These were permitted if they did not explicitly contradict Islamic teachings, and so musical ideas entered into the city. The Arabs became quite enamored with ancient Greek musical works and philosophy, which certainly influenced their own output.
While the qiyān continued to sing, male singers known as mukhannathūn also appeared; interestingly, they mimicked their female counterparts, and their performances had homosexual overtones. They were frequently non-Arab converts, comprised of Persians, Africans, and Ethiopians. Indeed, Persian styles of singing and instrument playing would also deeply influence Arabic music-making over the next several centuries, though the style cultivated at Mecca and Medina, known as the al-ghinā’ al-mutqan, or “the perfect singing,” was influential enough to be considered the “Early Arabian School” of singing by later writers.
The Hijāz maintained its position as an important center for music-making and study into the later 8th century, and its singers would rise to prominence in the courts of the Umayyad rulers and later the Abbasids in Baghdad (from 750 CE). The Hijaz style would reach its height by the early 9th century, and then begin to recede, as new Persian influences filtered into Baghdad.
New Styles Prevail in Middle Eastern Music History
After a period of conflict between the new style and the old, the newer influences prevailed and changed Arabic music into a form that is still recognized today. That said, none of these pieces were written down. As no notation system existed, it is not possible to know exactly what the songs of the time sounded like. Interestingly, even though this was an oral tradition, the composer of a song could sell it to another. The buyer would listen to the composer sing the piece repeatedly, would memorize it, and then would be said to properly own it.⁴
The conflict between old style and the new may have had historic consequences. Tradition holds that the talented Persian musician Ziryab left Baghdad and the court of Harun ar-Rashid sometime after 813 because of the envy and resentment of his master who saw in his student a superior musician. However, more recent studies suggest he left after the death of the famous Caliph, and first traveled to Syria and Tunisia, before the Amir al-Hakam I invited him to emigrate to Córdoba in southern Spain.⁵
Al-Hakam died before his arrival, but his son ‘Abd ar-Rahman II was equally welcoming, and Ziryab soon established himself as a leading figure in the early Islamic musical world. He became a good friend to ‘Abd ar-Rahman, who rewarded him generously, and he created a new school of music for both singers and instrumentalists that would have a lasting impact.
Andalusian Musical Style
In addition to expanding the tonal capacities of the ‘ud by adding a fifth pair of strings (previously there had only been four), he composed a number of songs that would be played for generations. He is considered the founder of the Andalusian musical style, and his work may have led to the creation of the nūba system that flourished in southern Spain in the later Middle Ages and is still the principal art music of North Africa.
The nūba is a suite of vocal and instrumental pieces that hover around the same maqām. Originally there were said to be 24 nūba suites, one for each hour of the day, but about half that number now survive in the various North African nations. In addition to his revolutionary work with music, Ziryab was said to have had lasting influence in Andalusian culture in a great number of other areas including fashion, hairstyles, hygiene, and even introducing the three-course meal.
This Andalusian school of music was notably different from its Eastern cousin and would also influence Western music in the Middle Ages, introducing a variety of instruments that would be adopted by Christian Europe and morph into some of the most well-known instruments in Western classical music (see the glossary of musical instruments), as well as poetic forms.
Christian and Moorish Musicians
Cultural exchanges with Catholic Spain in the North alternated with periods of conflict as the Catholics initiated the Reconquista, a multi-century battle to regain the lands taken by the invading Moors, who had first invaded Iberia in the year 711. It would not be until 1492 that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (famous for their patronage of Columbus) would defeat Granada, the last Muslim kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula.
In the intervening centuries, there were periods of war and times of peace and relative tolerance. Moorish musicians were present at the Christian courts in the north, most famously that of King Alfonso X of Castile, known as el Sabio, “the wise,” in the mid-13th century. Manuscripts from his court depict Christian and Moorish musicians playing Andalusian instruments together; Jewish and Basque musicians are also portrayed.⁶
Music flourished in Baghdad in the 9th and 10th centuries, the same time that Cordovan culture was reaching its peak. This era is fondly remembered as a kind of golden age for music, as well as for the sciences, art, literature, and other such achievements. Arab scholars revered ancient Greek philosophy and learning, translating Greek texts (such as the writings of Aristotle) into Arabic and eventually taking them west to Spain.
By the 12th century, these texts found their way into Toledo in northern Spain, a center for translation and musical instrument-making. From here, they were translated from Arabic in Latin (still the language of the Church and schools) and made their way into northern Europe, to the new universities in Paris, Oxford, and Bologna, allowing European scholars to read them and build on their knowledge, which paved the way for the Renaissance.
Turkish and Persian Influences on Middle Eastern Music History
As Córdoba and Baghdad declined, Córdoba from the later 11th century and Baghdad from the 13th, due to military and political upheavals, Turkish and Persian influences became even more prominent in musical practice (though many of their musical styles were similar), as the Seljuk Turks migrated ever farther into Anatolia, taking territory away from the Byzantine Empire and warring with the Arabs. Indeed, in 1258, the invading Mongols from the steppes of Central Asia sacked and ruined Baghdad, and the city never recovered.
In the 14th century, a new Turkish dynasty appeared: the Ottomans, who over the next two centuries conquered the remaining territories of the Byzantine Empire, including taking the ancient capital city of Constantinople in 1453 (now known as Istanbul), and occupying much of the Arab Middle East and parts of the Balkans. The Ottoman juggernaut could not, it seemed, be resisted. Western European nations feared that they would be overrun, though the Ottomans were never able to take lands beyond Eastern Europe, and their failure on more than one occasion to take Vienna signaled that they were not invincible.
The Ottomans were firm but moderate overlords in their occupied territories, and yet they naturally were subject to much resentment and opposition from Europeans and Arabs alike, though many of the native populations also flourished under their rule.⁷ Important cities such as Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad, once centers of Arabic learning, became provincial towns overseen by Ottoman governors and their collaborators, who were more interested in collecting taxes than encouraging any form of culture. As a result, Arabic music and literature went into a sharp decline for several centuries.
Turkish music, however, flourished. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Ottoman courtly music began to mature and be codified. Contacts with Western Europe allowed for pieces to be notated using the system of classical music notation. Interestingly, two of the most important figures of the time were Ali Ufki and Dmitrie Cantemir, both Europeans.
Ali Ufki (1610/16-1675) was born in Poland as Wojciech Bobowski, becoming a Protestant church musician in a Catholic area, though he was later taken into the service of the Ottoman sultan, converting to Islam. He was not only a gifted musician, but an exceptional linguist, mastering something like 16 languages. His musical contribution was to produce two collections of Turkish music, the Mecmûa-i Sâz ü Söz (“Collection of Instrumental and Vocal Works”) that preserved not only Ottoman court music, but religious songs, folk songs, and instrumental pieces (several hundred in all), in Western musical notation.
A half-century later, Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723), prince of the small region of Moldavia (in modern-day eastern Romania), made important contributions to Ottoman music as well. He was trained in Western music, but spent more than two decades in Istanbul (1687-1710), where he learned all of the musical forms and composed about 40 original pieces in these styles. His works are still performed in Turkey, but perhaps his greatest legacy was the preservation of some 350 more existing pieces, writing them down in a notation that he devised to suit the styles of music.
By the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire was in decline, though it would linger on until the end of World War I. Indeed, so poorly did it fare throughout the 19th century that it became known as the “Sick Man of Europe.” Ottoman colonialism and power receded in the Balkans and the Middle East. In the latter, the gap was taken up by Western European interests, namely that of the British and French. Arabs who had been living under Ottoman rule for some 400 years now found themselves subject to new colonial powers, but also during this time, there was a small but significant beginning of a rebirth in Arabic art and culture, which went along with an increasing resistance to colonialism.
Rise of the Soloist Singer in Middle Eastern Music History
The importance of song, or ghinā’, began to grow, with its emphasis on a solo singer accompanied by one or more instrumentalists. Traditional Arabic music had never died out; the Ottoman rulers had no interest in the Arabs’ music one way or another and cared only that they paid their taxes and did not make trouble. Thus, various communities had kept their music and songs alive over the centuries, even if they had no outlet for them other than to share them at parties and in small groups. Now they were seeing a growing interest in reviving those traditions and properly teaching music to younger generations.
Touma notes that by the 19th century, there were five main musical centers—Iraq, Egypt, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa, each with their own different musical styles, forms of singing and musicianship, preferences for different maqām, scales, and rhythms, and types of poems. These distinctions are still present in these five Middle Eastern regions today.⁸
Turkish and Persian elements continued to influence Arabic music, as they had since the early Middle Ages, but Arabs were able to hold on to and develop their own musical identity, even while in contact with many other cultures, including Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, and other ethnic cultural identities in the region.
At this time, a music theorist named Mikha’il Mishaqah (1800-89), the son of a Greek Orthodox silk trader, made a hugely important contribution to the classification of notes in Arabic music, dividing the octave (composed of 12 notes in a Western musical scale) into 24 equal divisions of quarter-tone steps, a system that is still in use and is recognized as “Arabic.”
Mishaqah noted that his teacher, Shaykh Muhammad al-‘Attar, had proposed a similar system, so he was actually recording an idea that was already in circulation among Arab musicians at the time. Further, his system resembled that of the philosopher al-Farabi (ca. 872-950/51), a musical theorist of the Golden Age of Islamic learning, who had proposed a 25-note division.
Modernization vs Traditionalism in Middle Eastern Music History
The Ottoman Empire dissolved in the aftermath of World War I, but had ceased to be a major power in the region long before then. The colonial presence of Britain and France had certainly made a strong impact, leading to cultural friction between the modernists and traditionalists, in music and all other aspects of life.
Some Arab intellectuals pushed for Westernization, perhaps inspired by the efforts by the first president of the new Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to secularize and Westernize his new post-Ottoman nation.⁹ In one of his more dramatic moves, he ordered that the Turkish alphabet be changed from Arabic script as it had been under Ottoman rule to Roman script (the way Turkish is written today). Atatürk also essentially banned traditional Arabic music in favor of various forms of Turkish song; this included singing in Arabic.
By the 1930s
Many Arabs saw the push for modernization in music as a desirable goal, and traditional practices began to give way to new ones or to be blended with them. Ironically, Arabic music had survived under the long period of Ottoman rule, yet when it began to emerge in the early 20th century, was confronted with Western musical models and instruments which were being integrated with traditional Arabic styles to create new forms. By the 1930s, the presence of Western-style nightclubs and concert halls led to fundamental changes in what we now know as Arabic music.
¹ See, for example Habib Hassan Touma, The Music of the Arabs, Laurie Schwarts, trans. (Portland, OR and Cambridge, UK: Amadeus Press, 1996), 1-16. This work is highly useful as an introduction to all aspects of traditional Middle Eastern music, though the author has a bias against modernization and Western musical influences that he feels are corrupting the traditions. This is a fairly common complaint among musical traditionalists.
² The Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal (an Assyrian moon god) from ca. 1400 BCE is perhaps the oldest surviving piece that we have. There are some 50 pieces of Greek music from the ancient period, many in fragments, but some in complete condition.
³ See Touma, Music of the Arabs, 1-4, for a more detailed summary of the qiyān.
⁴ Touma, Music of the Arabs, 8, and see 7-10 for a more detailed summary of musical life at the time.
⁵ For a recent revised chronology of Ziryab’s life, see Carl Davila, Fixing a Misbegotten Biography: Ziryab in the Mediterranean World, Al-Masaq: Islam in the Medieval Mediterranean 21, 2 (2009): 121-36.
⁶ These are in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of over 400 songs in the medieval Gallician-Portuguese language. For more information see: http://www.cantigasdesantamaria.com, accessed March 10, 2014. For some of the images, see http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cantigas/images, accessed March 10, 2014.
⁷ For a good study of the Ottoman Empire at its zenith, during the 16th-century reign of Suleiman, see Clot, André. Suleiman the Magnificent. London: Saqi, 2012., both a biography and a very good survey of the times.
⁸ Touma, Music of the Arabs, 14-15.
⁹ Touma decries this movement, feeling that it betrayed traditional music, and that Arabic music has suffered as a result, see ibid., 16.
The content from this post is excerpted from Middle Eastern Music: History & Study Guide. A Salimpour School Learning Tool published by Suhaila International in 2018. This Music Book is an introduction to the music theory and main music exponents in the history of belly dance.
If you would like to make a citation for this article, we suggest the following format: Keyes, A. and Rayborn, T. (2018). History. Salimpour School. Retrieved –insert retrieval date–, from https://suhaila.com/history
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