The initial encounter of Easterners and Westerners with each other’s music did not, in most cases, result in love at first sight, or rather sound. Instead of poetical associations or feelings of delight, the other’s music often reminded the novice listener of a dog’s barking.
In the mid-tenth century, an early Iraqi traveler to Europe, Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, reported, “I have never heard worse singing than that of the people of Schlesvig. It is a humming that comes out of their throats, like the barking of dogs, but more beastlike.” In August 1648, the French traveler M. de Moncoys attended a dervish ceremony in Cairo, which he described in macabre terms: “They all danced for more than an hour with horrible shoutings and screamings; they whirled with violence and a vertiginous speed to the extent that their dance went beyond what the wildest imagination can conceive of the witches’ Sabbath … They frequently alter their screaming to voices which sound now as enraged wolves and now as the barking of suffocated dogs.” More courteous in his observations was the Ottoman envoy to Spain, who wrote in 1780, “All the great men, by order of the king, invited us to meals, and we suffered the tedium of their kind of music.”
Coming closer to our time, we find from the sardonic pen of the French composer Hector Berlioz such evaluations as, “The Chinese sing like dogs howling, like a cat screeching when it has swallowed a toad.” Or the following judgment on Oriental music, “They call music that what we designate by charivari … Their song consists of nasal, guttural, groaning and hideous notes similar to the sounds that dogs emit, when after a long sleep they stretch their limbs and yawn with a marked effort.”
Music is not automatically a universal language. It is subject to misunderstanding as are other aspects of culture, but music, the language of feelings and symbolic values, reflects thoughts and beliefs, and is thus able to encounter other worlds.
The Development of Arab Music
The general name Arab music covers a variety of musical genres with a long history of development, spreading over a huge geographical area stretching from central and west Asia to the Islamized lands of black Africa. It comprises the communal songs and dances of the desert Bedouin going back to the period before the advent of Islam, diverse rural styles found among the numerous ethnic groups that embraced Islam, the learned and sophisticated type of music which was elaborated in the context of the supranational Islamic civilization, and, last but not least, the sacred music of various forms and complex relationships of different religious denominations.
The advent of Islam in A.D. 622, its rapid expansion over vast territories and its encounter with old and prosperous civilizations led to profound social transformations including changes in musical concepts and behavior.
One of the most striking illustrations of transformation was that even in the first century of Islam, the two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, became celebrated places of entertainment and diversion. Witnesses recount the magnificence of the daily gathering in the literary salons that attracted crowds of female and male musicians, poets, intellectuals, and notables of the ruling class. There were competitions and distribution of prizes, and well-known musicians demonstrated their talents to an enthusiastic audience.
A contemporary musician's chronicle, in which a great deal of legend is found, describes the brilliance of these musical fêtes. One account tells that on the occasion of a concert the great crowd gathered to take delight in the singing of a famous musician, but their combined weight caused the collapse of the balcony on which they stood. Another account comments on the magnificence of the Medina songstress Djamilla’s cortège on her pilgrimage to Mecca. She was escorted by fifty singing slave girls who, lutes in hand, accompanied her singing. On her arrival in Mecca, she was welcomed by leading musicians and poets with great pomp and ceremony. In the same way, the charm exerted by the singing of the eminent Meccan musician ibn ‘Aicha occasioned a huge traffic jam on the way to the holy shrine of the Ka’aba.
The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1405) wrote in his Prologmena to History that Islam on its first appearance avoided music to some degree, because the art of music is naturally associated with luxury and easy living, usually originating in a society free from the necessities and urgent needs of survival. After the great conquest, he says, “Luxury and prosperity came to them, because they obtained the spoils of the nations. They came to lead splendid and refined lives and to appreciate leisure.” So, following the example of the Byzantines and Persians, they encouraged the elaboration of a new musical art to which numerous talented musicians contributed, both Arab and “alien” slaves and freemen from different parts of the Empire who brought their traditions and the fruits of their talent to it.
No one can tell us now how this music sounded. It was transmitted orally. Information about it is confined to thousands of pages that describe and extol its characteristics and marvels, sometimes in anecdotal form and sometimes with a scholarly speculation. The character assigned to music in these writings is sometimes entertaining, sometimes sensual, and sometimes embodies the excitement associated with getting drunk. Only the philosophers continued to extol its moral virtues.
Emotion and Music
Tarab, a common and recurring concept encountered in most Arab sources to define the effect of music, originally designated a strong feeling of joy or of sorrow stirred, for instance, by hearing beautiful verses. Later it was applied particularly to the emotion engendered by music. Some related forms were derived from the word. Thus, musical Instruments were called alat al-tarab, the musician mutrib, and the science of music al-ilm al-matribi. In its various occurrences in the literature the term covers the whole gamut of sensations engendered in the heart on hearing an expressive song, ranging from a sweet sensual feeling to intellectual delight and solace, and including exaltation and uncontrolled excitement.
Since we are concerned in this context with learned music, assumed to conform to accepted rules and established norms and to arouse the response of well-informed listeners, it is interesting to look at the role played by the musician in tarab. Is the musician expected to experience the feeling supposedly being stirred in the listener’s heart?
The evidence provided by the sources clearly indicates that the desired emotional ambience in a public performance was achieved by an interaction between those who produced the music and those who listened and responded to it. An account of the Meccan musician Ibn Jami‘, who lived in the eighth century, says that he could attain the height of his expressiveness only when he experienced sorrow. In order to test this quality, the caliph gave an order to forge a letter announcing the death of the artist’s cherished mother. The stratagem was successful. Indeed, under the shock, Ibn Jami’ intoned a song so moving that the whole audience began to weep.
To render expression more effectively, the performer usually has recourse to facial and bodily postures as well as to special vocal productions. In turn, the response of the audience is manifested by concrete and frequent applause, which encourages the artist and stimulates his creative imagination. This indispensable give-and-take plays an important part in determining the quality of the performance as well as the content of the music.
One of the important aspects of this type of music making is the relative freedom enjoyed by the artist in rendering the traditional material. This freedom is expressed by a great deal of improvisation, a technique that achieved great prestige and cultural centrality. Another significant factor of this music making is the affection manifested by Oriental artists for the details composing a work. It is as if they were less concerned with a preconceived plan than with allowing the structure to emerge from the details. However, something like a hidden mechanism of control acts toward preventing the work of art from becoming just a random association of ideas. This kind of creative representation, which in theory can be extended infinitely, is also found in other Muslim arts and sciences.
Because the representation of living beings was prohibited, Muslim art developed an abstract art form known as arabesque, to which one geometric or plant-like shape grows out of the other, without beginning or end. This approach may give rise to almost innumerable variations that are only gradually detected by the eye. Similarly, the decoration of a carpet can be endlessly extended by the variations of its forms.
The Arabic classical poem elaborated in the pre-Islamic period is based on strict formal rules and fixed meters, with the use of monorhyme at the end of the multiple verses, each of which should be independent and represent well-rounded ideas. Successful verses may migrate from one poem to another and be incorporated in their new context. Generally speaking, therefore, an Arabic poem is not judged as a unit but according to the perfection of the individual verses.
This carpet-like pattern also characterizes many historical works in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Such writings, especially in classical times, contained valuable information that was put together without being shaped into a single cohesive work. Only rarely does the historian or philosopher reach a comprehensive, systematic view.
In music, the lack of deliberate “architectural” constructions, which characterizes the modal concept and composition, embodies a general value of the culture involved. Like the artist, the poet, the storyteller, the litterateur, and the historian, the musician embroiders on a canvas, improvising within the framework of given melodic patterns attached to modal variations of the greatest subtlety. The mode chosen may also be imbued with an ethical virtue and attached to a particular emotional meaning. The performer has recourse to specific timbres, which constitute a vital element in characterizing a style. Indeed, the microscopic occurrences in this monophonic music have an important role to play in music making. Timbre is the most difficult parameter to define because it does not lend itself easily to measurement and comparison. Individual artists basically draw their material from the traditional repertory, which they enrich by their own contribution in accordance to their creative capacity. Some of these contributions may take the form of innovation.
In many cases, musicians ascribed novelties to inspiration received from supernatural beings. Numerous accounts in the classical literature report that a djinn (genii) suddenly appeared from nowhere, usually at night, disguised as an old man come to teach the astonished musician a particular novelty or a new song. He disappears furtively leaving his host stunned. Eager not to let the new song be forgotten, the inspired musician urgently calls to his service a member of the family or a singing girl to have that person memorize it.
With the emergence into the modern world, some of the above-mentioned characteristics underwent certain transformation or transvaluation. Indeed, foreign modes, instead of being integrated, were allowed to substitute for certain traditional forms and norms.
Islam and Music
After the advent of Islam, this sophisticated music became a “universal” element of the new supranational civilization. It was widely accepted, spreading over the vast territories under Moslem domination. Its great success came from the integration of disparate elements through a subtle process of Arabization of the diverse foreign borrowings. This process involved the predominance of the Arabic language, the adoption of Arabic poetry, prosody, imagery, vocal ideals, and intonations, together with the Bedouin’s aimless structure (which probably endowed musical creativity with its characteristic freedom). Thus, the manifestation of foreign borrowings in an Arabic context was experienced as genuinely Arabic.
Considering this universal music in the broadest sense, we must ask, how, if at all, it fits into the religious message of the Arabic prophet Mohammed, from which Islamic civilization developed. Was music included in the authoritative framework of questions and answers concerning the universe and humanity’s behavior in it? In trying to discuss this fundamental question, we run up against the major difficulty: In the Quran, the holiest book containing the original core of the religious message, there is simply no reference either censuring or exalting music. The opinion that Mohammed rejected it is based on an interpretation of his denunciation of poets regarded as soothsayers and of poetry identified with a form of possession.
If we examine the facts, it seems more likely that the whole issue of the lawfulness of music is a later question, generated by the transformations imposed by the expansion of Islam, including new standards of life and ideals, as well as the extension of intellectual horizons. In their attempt to give an authoritative answer to the problem of music’s lawfulness, the theologians and legists were most probably concerned with what they saw as the disruptive effect of the dark and sensual aspect of fashionable urban aristocratic music and the growing attention paid to it. However, the equivocal nature of the evidence to which the antagonists referred gave rise to the conflicting interpretations that fill numerous polemic and apologetic writings.
The banishment of music does not usually involve the basic forms of folk musical traditions. Moreover, on a conceptual level, folk songs and dances are not considered as music, and the term music is not applied to them. Music is exclusively reserved for the learned urban art form. Therefore, folk music may be regarded as something that is not to be listened to for itself; it is subordinate to the predominating text, communal rather than personal. Its presence is useful because It is said to fulfill necessary functions in the life of the community.
The same reasons are valid for the rudimentary forms of cantillation admitted in the framework of worship--the solemn reading of the Koran and the call to prayer with occasionally a few simple hymns, close to folk tunes, used to enhance religious feasts. Hence, we may say that with the exception of the ceremonial music of the mystical brotherhoods, officially, Islam does not possess specific mosque music after the manner of church and synagogal music.
Among the arguments advanced by theologians and legists, the question of effect occurs frequently. In connection with the concept of tarab, we encounter in this context a corresponding term, lahw, which designates game, pastime, amusement. In the diatribe of the intransigents, the verb laha, from which lahw is derived, is usually defined as denoting an action aimed at amusing and at securing tarab. In the same way that tarab and its derivatives were extended to music, musicians and musical instruments, lahw, and the derived term lalahi, became synonymous with music, musical instruments, and even dance and dancer. We may assume that those associations had some bearing on theological attitudes toward music.
One of the earliest virulent attacks on music is contained in a treatise called The Condemnation of Malahi. The author, Ibn abi ‘Ioh-Dunya, a Baghdad theologian and jurist who died in A.D. 894, argues violently against music, which he regards as one of the chief catalysts of diversion from the life of devotion and piety. He links music with games and other types of pleasure. All dissipation, he claims, begins with music and ends with drunkenness. The oldest extant work of this kind, this treatise became a source of inspiration for later generations of theologians and jurists who were opposed to music.
Diversion is only one aspect of the argument. A recurrent denunciation concerned the intoxicating effect of music: In their highly emotional state, listeners lose control over their reason and act under the dominance of their passions. Hence the music, as an intoxicant provoking worldly passions in the soul and associated with sensual pleasures such as drinking and fornication, has a harmful effect on the behavior and judgment of people, who are driven to act like lunatics. This quasi-somnambulistic state was held by opponents to go against the exigencies of the rationalized religious precepts. On a more sophisticated level, the competitive influence of a humanly created world of sounds might have been regarded as a kind of polytheism.
Among the religious leaders who defended music, one finds criticism of inconsistencies in the opponents’ attitudes. Al-Nabulusi, a 17th century mystic leader and theologian born in Damascus, wrote in his treatise The Clarification of Proofs Concerning Listening to Musical Instruments: “It is astonishing to see that some of the legists attend mystical ceremonies in privacy and take pleasure in the music whether sung or played on instruments, yet when they are in the mosque they deliver sermons against it.”
Most of the antagonists found further support for their doctrines in the ultimate origin of music, ascribing to it devilish inspiration. Ibn al-Djawzi, a 12th-century jurist and preacher, delivered a violent attack in his book, The Devil’s Delusion, against the allegations of the mistakes concerning music, dance, and ecstasy. The author argues that music is basically a devil’s temptation or delusion. The devil dominates the soul and makes it the slave of its passions. The devil’s devices are illustrated in a conversation between a theologian and the devil: “‘What are these anklets on your foot?’ asked the theologist. ‘I shake them for man,’ replied the devil, ‘to make him sing or to make somebody else sing for him.’”
In support of his views, Ibn al-Djawzi cites the theory of the historian al-Tabari (d. 922) concerning the invention of musical instruments. The tradition reported by al-Tabari states that the first inventor of the instruments of music (malahi) is a descendent of Cain called Yubal. This refers to Genesis 4:21, “The father of them that play upon the harp and the organ.” Al-Tabari claims that Yubal invented the reed instruments, drums, short-necked and long-necked lutes, the zithers, and the lyres. The sons of Cain were plunged into amusements, and their behavior was reported to the inhabitants of the mountains--the descendants of Seth. Some of the latter went down to the plain, attempting to turn the sons of Cain from their depravity, but they themselves fell into the snares of beautiful women, music, and intoxicating liquors. All the elements of this tradition are found in Jewish Midrashim--the homiletical interpretative literature on the stories of creation, on which Arab authors most probably drew.
The better-known tradition than al-Tabari’s is that crediting Yubal’s father, Lamech, with the invention of the first oud (lute) and the first song. This tradition, which recur is in the literature in numerous variations, relates that Lamech in his old age lost his only male infant. He grieved sorely on the premature death of his beloved son and refused to be separated from the corpse. He hung it on a tree until the flesh fell from the bones. Then he modeled a lute from the skeleton and sang a lament to its accompaniment, the first of its kind in human annals. This myth of creation is also based on elements found in Jewish exegetic literature, which contains other interesting motives such as the relationship between music and the human body, the perpetuation of the body as a musical instrument, the symbolism of rebirth, and the like.
The battle against music has not waned even in the present day, as recent events in the fundamentalist Islamic world testify--official banishment of musical manifestations and even public burning of musical Instruments.
The Origin of Music
At this point we reach a split in the ideas concerning the origin of music. The first, we have the opinion put forward in ibn al-Djawzi’s Devil’s Delusion crediting the devil with the invention of music in describing his permanently active role in music making. This point of view corresponds to the popular belief that the inspired poet, musician, and the crazy lover are mad nun (possessed by a spirit).
In considering music as an irresistible sorcery inspired by the devil we have a denial of the basic concept of a transcendental divinity ruling absolutely over the world and all human deeds. Secondly, the attribution of the invention of music to a descendant of Cain the sinner and its assimilation with depravity implies that music is a human invention reflecting human weaknesses. As such it is full of vanity and the company’s activities incompatible with the basic requirements of religious ethics.
In the opinions of attacking music, certain mystic doctrinaires considered music as God’s creation and divine effusion. They connected the music used in divine worship with the idea that everything that existed potentially before the creation of man became actual with his creation--including song. In this respect, the mystics also sought evidence in the antedeluvian legends in support of their arguments.
An Arab legend that refers to the origin of the flute illustrates this point of view and may conclude this tour d’horizon. This flute, held in great esteem by many mystics, expresses by its groaning, according to Djalal al-Din al-Rumi, the separation of man from God and invites him to unity. The legend tells the Adam was given at divine secret by the Archangel Gabriel. When he was expelled from Paradise, the secret troubled him and caused him great pain. He was advised by Gabriel to throw it into a well. Adam did so and was relieved. Around the well grew reeds, from which were fabricated special flutes for playing hymns of praise to God.
— Amnon Shiloah (from The World & I
A Chronicle of Our Changing Era
- Feb 1987)
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