Music has inspired Islamic artists to depict musicians and dancers in all media. Dancers are featured on the walls of the eight-century palace of Khirbat al-Mafjar in Jordan and on the sides of early Islamic silver bottles from Iran. Musicians adorn a tenth-century ivory perfume bottle from Islamic Spain as well as in an eleventh-century Fatimid ivory plaque. Whenever princes, kings, and other notables held gatherings, musicians played various instruments and sang at these events.
Musicians in the Islamic world played a variety of instruments including stringed instruments such as plucked and bowed lutes and harps as well as drums, tambourines, horns, and pipes. A tenth-century Arab treatise on music theory classifies the instruments according the highest status to those that most closely resemble the human voice. Both men and women played musical instruments, sang, and danced.
From the eighth to the eleventh century, authors gathered collections of popular songs, the best known being the Book of Songs (Kitab al-Aghani) of al-Isfahani (d. 967). The terminology of the treatises reveals a sophisticated understanding of distinctions in vocal and instrumental techniques.
Another form of music applies specifically to the Sufi mystics. This music, called sama, meaning ‘hearing’ or ‘that which is heard,’ implies the hearing of music which can produce an ecstatic state in the mystical listener. The sama expanded from singing of the ayats of the Qur’an, prayers, and poetry in praise of God and Prophet Muhammad to include dancing. The sama is often performed in context of dhikr – the repetition of words or phrases to induce concentration on God.
In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed the “The Mevlevi Sama Ceremony” of Turkey as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Sheila R. Canby, Islamic Art in Detail, Harvard University Press. Cambridge. 2005
Research by Nimira Dewji
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