By Fathima Abdul Rahman

Music, defined as any ‘vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion’, has always been a controversial issue among the Muslim scholars. Discussions and debates regarding its permissibility and impermissibility in Islam are still not at rest. But music enthusiasts will nevertheless find an immense wealth of musical traditions in Islamic civilization.

There is a type of what we might call ‘music’ in Islam that all Muslims unanimously not only agree upon but also appreciate and try mastering. What come under this category are the tajwid, adhan, and the talbiyya. Tajwid refers to the recitation of the Holy Qur’an; but it is not as simple as it sounds; there is the whole different science of recitation that is quite complex and takes time to master. The adhan is the call to prayer that is made out loud from the mosques five times a day. This too has some music to it, although it is not a song. Lastly, the talbiyya is what the Muslims chant in unison in the pilgrimage rites in Makkah. These are not exactly music, but there is very much part of it, and these are very fundamental aspects in lives of Muslims.

Now, moving on to some real music, although we do have stories of songs being sung and the duff being drummed from the time the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), they’re not very many. We know how the people of Madinah sang the song of ‘tala’a l-badru ‘alaina’ as they greeted the Prophet of God into their town. During celebrations like the Eid and weddings and such, the Prophet himself would encourage singing and enjoying such occasions. But, when it reads through the history of the Muslims, it is clearly noticed how music played so much less a role in the lives of the earliest Muslims compared to the later ones. We don’t find so much information about such traditions from the time of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. But then again, it is understandable; in the initial stages, the Muslims had better and more pressing concerns than developing and enjoying music; there were more territorial expansions taking place among other nation-building endeavors. Also, since the Companions of the Prophet and the tabi’in (the generation of Muslims after the Companions) were still around at these early times, the use of music and other arts would have been restricted to what was completely within the moral boundaries of Islam and the Muslims, in general, would have had more after-lifely concerns than listening to music for the pleasure in this world. For when we look at it, the highest points of cultural developments in Islam were not necessarily the highest points of religious adherence of the Muslims; boundaries were crossed not only geographically, but culturally and also religiously too. But that is not the discussion we will have here. So we shall move on to examine how, whether in religiously correct ways or not, Muslims added their strokes to the canvas of the musical world.

During the time of the Umayyads, Muslims really found themselves being assimilated into numerous cultures and traditions. And with everything else like language, clothing, food, etcetera, music also became a subject of this culture-mixing development. The Umayyad period initiated the assimilation of musical traditions of the Sassanians, Byzantines, and others into the Arabic one. Arabic lyrics began to be given rhythms that were a mixture of them. But the Umayyads were more of expansionists than cultural developers. The latter was not their major concern. But with the Umayyads, we see the Muslim world in much greater enthusiasm in the fields of arts and sciences; music was definitely not left out from this. And from the years of the Abbasid rule, we have an immense treasury of information about ‘Islamic Music’, if you may so call it.

The people during the Abbasid times were themselves great music enthusiasts, but their enthusiasm was perhaps the result of how much the caliph’s court used to celebrate the art. With the Abbasid caliph al-Mahdi inviting musicians to perform at the capital, Baghdad, vocal music became an established tradition in royal courts. Not only did the singing tradition continue on to be an integral part of the Abbasid courts, it went to be so for the majority of the courts of Muslim dynasties around the globe. Rulers would patronize singers and composers. Some dynasties, like the Fatimids of Egypt, were particularly noted for the patronage of singers. Where a class of noteworthy merchants emerged, they too encouraged forms of art, music, and singing. Regional traditions developed, for example, in al-Andalus, where a suite form, the nuba evolved with local pieces incorporating strophic muwashshahat and zajals. As a part of the Bayt al-Hikmah project, ancient musical treatises of the Greeks were translated into Arabic, further adding to the richness of Islamic musical tradition. We may now briefly look into some specific and some distinct aspects of music in the medieval Muslim world.[1]

Al-Mughanni/ The Singer

The term al-mughanni was not only used for the singers but also included those who composed the songs and those who accompany the singers with their musical instruments. Although the singer was expected to have an all-around culture, a particular emphasis was given to their expertise in the Arabic language and poetry. It would not do for a singer to just be good at singing and be a possessor of a fine voice, he was to an agreeable companion and preferably had an entertaining character. His knowledge in the field of music had to be deep down to the technicalities of the modes and rhythms if he wanted to be counted among the prominent ones. There were elaborate and also intricate details in music that the singers were to master; but although the modes of a setting were given, popular singers were those who had the talent of improvising on their own, building upon those set rules and giving elevation to the ecstatic mood (tarab) of the audience. As it is evident, the training of singers was very demanding on them, as we can know through the biography of Ishaq al-Mawsili, one of the greatest figures in Islamic musical history.

The Musical Majalis

In the Muslim world, there were all different kinds of majalis (pl. majlis), or ‘gatherings’, like clubs, of literature, grammar, theology, Islamic jurisprudence, drinking, and the list is endless. Our concern here is the musical majalis, assemblies where people gathered to listen to music performances, competitions and also discussions and debates on the history, theory, criticism, and aesthetics of music. These majalis existed from the times of the Orthodox Caliphs. In fact, the tradition of such assemblies is traced back to the Sassanian empire.

The patrons of such assemblies could be caliphs, viziers, amirs, katibs (secretarial functionary) or wealthy commoners. Famous caliphs who had generously patronized musicians included Harun al-Rashid, and, more importantly, his son, al-Ma’mun, who not only patronized them but also encouraged scientific study of it by translating Greek musical treatises into Arabic at Bayt al-Hikmah. The Barmakids too were very enthusiastic patronizers of these majalis. There were also certain etiquettes that were to be followed by the performers in these formal assemblies. But then there were also informal majalis, where there was no strict patron-musician as there was in the formal ones. The performers could be relaxed and did not have to be in fear of offending anyone or be in a stressful competition for rewards like how they would from the caliphs and other elite.

Qiyan/ ‘Singing Girls’

This is rather a very controversial aspect of the musical tradition of the Muslim world. Qiyan is the plural of qaina, which refers to a female slave singer, who was usually well educated and strictly trained. The most talented ones among these were acquired by the caliphs or the wealthy elite, and they would have secluded lives in the luxurious courts of these owners. It is said that the Abbasid Caliph al-Amin purchased the distinguished slave, Bazl for an astounding 20 million dirhams! The qainas would perform for their owners and also his guests. And it was not just their skills in singing that was looked when these slave girls were bought, their physical charms also affected the price they would fetch for their owners.[2]

Something that is positive that can be said in this area is that, the practise of acquiring and training qainas added many foreign tastes to the music of the Muslim world. This is because these slaves were acquired from different parts of the world, like Byzantium, Persia,etc., and with them came their own musical traditions.

The Music of the Sufis

The whirling dervishes have always been a symbolic icon of Sufism, although, in reality, Sufism is a wide and comprehensive idea, which can hardly be put into words or represented in pictures. What concern us, however, is music used by some groups of Sufis as a means of getting closer to God. Music, poetry, and dance played important roles in many of these Sufi traditions. The dhikr ceremonies, which can be translated as ‘ceremonies of remembrance’ of God, included special rhythmic chants, repetitions and breathing techniques to enhance the spiritual excitement and enlightenment. Often dhikr rituals were accompanied by music (sama), and special genres of music were performed, such as the ghazal and the qawwali, which developed in India.

Medicinal Music

The use of music for therapeutic purposes developed with much momentum in the Islamic world. Prominent scholars like al-Farabi and Ibn-Sina produced treatises on how music would heal illnesses such as insomnia, depression and other. Many hospitals, especially those treating patients with mental disorders, made efficient use of this art form. A very good example is one from the Ottoman times, called ‘Darussifa’ opened in Sultan Beyezid II’s Kulliye (complex) in 1488. The modern Turkish government today has developed a museum on the premises of the hospital which had gone defunct due to many political factors. This museum boasts very detailed wax-representations of the activities of the original hospital.

In sum, these are just glimpses into the ocean of the Islamic world of music. After the Abbasids and along with them, other Muslim dynasties and peoples across the globe, like the Mughals, the Ottomans, the Andalusians, and many more developed and boasted great traditions of music with their distinct touches. To look at all of them would take a whole book to write. So here we shall suffice with these small glimpses; just enough to give us an idea about how truly splendid, albeit controversial, the musical tradition of the Muslim was in reality.


[1] George Sawa, Music Performance Practice in the Early ʻAbbāsid Era 132-320 A.H./750-932 A.D.

[2] Madeleine Pelner Cosman, Handbook to Life in the Medieval World, 3-Volume Set, Volumes 1-3.


The author is a second-year undergraduate student at the Department of History and Civilization, International Islamic University Malaysia