Music in Islam Series: The Art of Music in Islam

By Nimira Dewji

Earlier: (1) Is listening to music unlawful? (2) Development of Music

The Poet with Musicians and Singers
“The Poet with Musicians and Singers,” illustration from Kitāb al-aghānī (Book of Songs) by Abū al-Faraj al-Iṣbahānī, 13th-century manuscript; in the National Library, Cairo. Encyclopaedia Britannica

As Islam spread, the music of the community became entwined with the musical traditions of the conquered lands. The elite, who were enriched by the influx of wealth, sought amusement that was best expressed in music and song. The migrants brought their art and music with them, thereby influencing the cultures of the local peoples. As long as it did not contradict with Islamic teaching, the Arabs assimilated the new artistic forms creating unique styles. The musicians enjoyed high status as a result of increased importance given to musical activity by the wealthy rulers.

Numerous male and female singers composed their own music in Damascus and Medina during the time of the first four caliphs (632-661) and the time of the Umayyad dynasty (661-750). The prominent singers of Mecca and Medina established a school of singing that lasted for more than a century. (Touma, p. 7). Many women had respectable careers as musicians and singers. Koskoff reports that in “Fatimid times, there seems to have been self-employed female singers, who lived in respectable districts, sang at private parties.” (p 72). 

The bulk of the information on music and musicians of this period comes from the monumental work Kitab al-aghani (Book of Songs) by the historian and poet Abu’l-Faradj al-Isfahani (d. 967). The Book of Songs is one of the most celebrated works in Arabic literature. It contains a collection of poems from the pre-Islamic period to the ninth century, all of which had been set to music and includes biographical details about authors, composers, singers, and writers on music.

References:
Amnon Shiloah, Music in the World of Islam. Wayne State University Press. Detroit.1995
Habib Hassan Touma, The Music of the Arabs. Amadeus Press, Portland Oregon. 1996.
Ellen Koskoff, Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective, Greenwood Press Inc, Westport, 1987

Next: The Healing Power of Music

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