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Volume 27, Number 3May/June 1976

In This Issue

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The World of Islam

Its Music

Written by John Sabini
Photographed by Peter Keen

In Islamic culture, music, like figural representation in the visual arts, occupies an ambiguous position. For although the Koran itself is noncommittal as to the admissibility of music, there has been a continuing debate on its role, with some Islamic circles frowning on the atmosphere of frivolity and sensuality often associated with it. Neither the call to prayer nor the Koranic readings are ever accompanied by instruments.

Beautiful sounds, nevertheless, are an integral part of Islam, the most familiar being the call to prayer chanted by a muezzin from the minaret and reciting a text from the Koran extolling the greatness of God and testifying to the faith: "There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God." As the recordings at the Festival suggest, muezzins are chosen for their powerful and expressive voices and they perform their task with all the artistry of which they are capable. The prayer is heard five times a day by Muslims in Islamic lands, although today it is often produced by recordings and loudspeakers rather than by the natural human voice.

Another regular feature of the traditional Islamic way of life is recitations of the Koran by men especially trained in the art. These recitations—although called "readings" rather than "singing"—incorporate many musical devices such as prolongation or accentuation of syllables, nasalization, pauses, changes of pace and repetitive variations. The response to them, like that to calligraphy, is at once religious and aesthetic.

There is also, in the World of Islam, as in every other human society, a strong tradition of folk music stemming directly from the work-songs of fishermen and sailors, the chants of camel drivers and shepherds, the wedding songs and the dirges at funerals. Like all folk music, the Islamic variety shows regional differences, but as in other Islamic arts there are also similarities across a broad area. It is predominantly vocal with emphasis on words and poetic content and follows a single repetitive melodic line within a narrow tonal range, achieving variety by means of rhythmical patterns and antiphony. It is often accompanied by hand clapping, drums or other rhythmic instruments. And if other instruments are used they tend to be the same in different parts of the Islamic world—lutes, reed instruments and one-stringed fiddles.

Classical music, on the other hand, was part of the great cultural flowering of early Islam. As Arab armies conquered countries which already possessed sophisticated and long-lived musical traditions, Arab musicians began to study them. It is reported that the great master-musicians of Damascus under the Umayyad caliphs studied the music of Persia and Byzantium and rejected only what was alien to the spirit of Islam.

But the Arabs also added a new element: their language and the poetry recited in that language. From this fusion came the so-called "New Music," in which the human voice asserted its primacy, with music used to enhance meaning and the form of verse often determining the rhythm and melody.

Muslims of the golden age of Islamic music—from the eighth to the 10th century—were well aware of the artistic importance of their invention. Greek treatises on musical theory were part of the ambitious translation programs of the early caliphs, but soon Islamic philosophers and mathematicians were composing their own treatises along Islamic lines. In the brilliant culture of Baghdad under the Abassid caliphs, a deep knowledge of music was considered essential cultural equipment for any educated man, and the musicians themselves were expected to be men of wide cultivation and were highly rewarded. The theory and practice of music were discussed and codified, performances criticized and instruments improved in a manner resembling that of 17th-century Venice or 18th-century Vienna. The Muslim mystics even admitted instrumental music into their ceremonies, where the drone of the flute and beat of the drum helped to induce the emotional state they sought. In Spain a branch of Islamic music, originally transplanted from Baghdad, grew into distinctive forms, influenced by the local Visigothic and Berber musical idioms.

Unfortunately scholars are not sure today exactly what this outpouring of golden song sounded like. It was not written down but was transmitted by ear and experience. Written descriptions and miniature paintings of musicians and concerts tell us most of what we know. Even the Festival's recordings, while using some of the same instruments as those of the golden age, were at best remote descendants, their authenticity and purity diluted by strains from Mongols, Ottoman Turks and even modern Europeans.

As today, Islamic classical music was based on the human voice and the instruments were used chiefly to accompany the voice or to provide introductions and continuity to vocal interludes. The number of instruments played at one time was not great. Each performer played essentially the same melodic line with great freedom of improvisation in rhythm and ornamentation within a strict framework.

The classical instruments of Islamic music par excellence are the lute, the zither and the flute, found in various forms throughout the length and breadth of Islam. The Arab 'ud, a short-necked lute, is the ancestor of the European lute, probably introduced into Europe through Muslim Spain. Most Islamic stringed instruments are plucked, with the exception of the rabab, a fiddle, which is bowed, but usually by moving the instrument rather than the bow. The sitar, or long-necked lute, is the characteristic instrument of Indian music. Among Islamic wind instruments are the bagpipes, probably the ancestor of the Scottish bagpipes. Rhythm instruments include a wide variety of drums, cymbals, castanets and clappers. Even the clinking of coffee cups or the pounding of coffee beans in a mortar are used to provide rhythm. But the human voice is really the preferred instrument in Islam, where everything stems from the Word.

This article appeared on pages 22-23 of the May/June 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1976 images.