Music, like sculpture, was at first a sin in Islam.145 It was not forbidden in the Koran; but, if we may believe a dubious tradition, the Prophet, fearful of the songs and dances of promiscuous women, denounced musical instruments as the devil’s muezzin call to damnation. The theologians, and all the four schools of orthodox law, frowned upon music as raising the winds of passion; but some generously conceded that it was not sinful in itself. The people, always healthier in their conduct than in their creeds, held it as aproverb that “wine is as the body, music is as the soul, joy is their offspring.”146 Music accompanied every stage of Moslem life, and filled a thousand and one Arabian nights with songs of love and war and death. Every palace, and many mansions, engaged minstrels to sing the songs of the poets, or their own. In the startling judgment of an historian fully competent to judge, “the cultivation of music by the Arabs in all its branches reduces to insignificance the recognition of the art in the history of any other country.”147No Western ear, except after long training, can quite appreciate the quality of Arabian music—its preference of melodic elaboration (arabesques of sound) to harmony and counterpoint, its division of tones not into halves but into thirds, its florid Oriental patterns of structure and rhythm. To us it seems repetitiously simple, monotonously mournful, formlessly weird; to the Arabs European music seems deficient in the number and subtlety of its tones, and vulgarly addicted to useless complexity and monumental noise. The meditative tenderness of Arabian music deeply affects the Moslem soul. Sa’di speaks of a boy “singing such a plaintive melody as would arrest a bird in its flight”;148 al-Ghazali defined ecstasy as “the state that comes from listening to music”;149 one Arabic book gives a chapter to those who fainted or died while listening to Moslem music; and religion, which at first denounced it, later adopted music for the intoxicating dervish ritual.
Moslem music began with ancient Semitic forms and tunes; developed in contact with Greek “modes” that were themselves of Asiatic origin; and felt strong influences from Persia and India. A musical notation, and much musical theory, were taken from the Greeks; al-Kindi, Avicenna, and the Brethren of Sincerity wrote at length on the subject; al-Farabi’s Grand Book on Music is the outstanding medieval production on the theory of music—“equal, if not superior, to anything that has come down to us from Greek sources.”150 As early as the seventh century the Moslems wrote mensurable music (apparently unknown to Europe before 1190)151—their notation indicated the duration, as well as the pitch, of each note.
Among a hundred musical instruments the chief were the lute, lyre, pandore, psaltery, and flute, occasionally reinforced by horn, cymbals, tambourine, castanets, and drum. The lyre was a small harp. The lute was like our mandolin, with a long neck and a curved sounding board made of small glued segments of maple wood; the strings, of catgut, were plucked by the fingers. There were a dozen sizes and varieties of lute. The large lute was called qitara from the Greek kithara; our words guitar and lute (Arabic al-ud) are from the Arabic. Some string instruments were played with a bow, and the organ was known in both its pneumatic and its hydraulic forms. Certain Moslem cities, like Seville, were celebrated for making fine musical instruments, far superior to anything produced in contemporary Islam.152 Nearly all instrumental music was intended to accompany or introduce song. Performances were usually confined to four or five instruments at a time, but we also read of large orchestras;153 and tradition ascribes to the Medina musician Surayj the first use of the baton.154
Despite the Moslem madness for music, the status of musicians, except for renowned virtuosos, was low. Few men of the higher classes condescended to study the intoxicating art. The music of a rich household was provided by female slaves; and a school of law held that the testimony of a musician could not be accepted in court.155 Dancing likewise was almost confined to slaves trained and hired; it was often erotic, often artistic; the Caliph Amin personally directed an all-night ballet in which a large number of girls danced and sang. Contact of the Arabs with Greeks and Persians raised the status of the musician. Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs showered largess upon the great performers of their time. Suleiman I offered prizes as high as 20,000 pieces of silver ($10,000) for a competition among the musicians of Mecca; Walid II held song tournaments, at one of which the first prize was 300,000 pieces of silver ($150,000);156 these figures are presumably Oriental exaggerations. Mahdi invited to his court the Meccan singer Siyat, “whose soul warmed and chilled more than a hot bath”; and Harun al-Rashid took into his service Siyat’s pupil Ibrahim al-Mawsili (i.e., of Mosul), gave him 150,000 dirhems ($75,000), 10,000 more per month, and 100,000 for a single song.157 Harun so loved music that—against the wont of his class—he encouraged the talent of his young half brother, Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi, who had a voice of tremendous power and three octaves’ range; time seems an impish circle when we hear that he led a kind of Romantic movement in Arabian music against the classical school of Ishaq, son of Ibrahim al-Mawsili.158 Ishaq was by general consent the greatest musician ever produced by Islam. Al-Mamun used to say of him: “He never sang to me but what I felt that my possessions were increased.”159
We get a pleasant picture of Moslem society, and of the stir made by music in the Moslem soul, in a story told by Ibrahim al-Mawsili’s pupil Mukhariq; we need not believe it to feel its significance:
After drinking with the Caliph a whole night, I asked his permission to take the air,… which he granted. While I was walking I saw a damsel who appeared as if the rising sun beamed from her face. She had a basket, and I followed her. She stopped at a fruiterer’s, and bought some fruit; and observing that I was following her, she looked back and abused me several times; but still I followed her until she arrived at a great door…. When she had entered, and the door was closed behind her, I sat down opposite to it, deprived of my reason by her beauty…. The sun went down upon me while I sat there; and at length there came two handsome young men on asses, and they knocked at the door, and when they were admitted, I entered with them; the master of the house thinking that I was their companion, and they imagining that I was one of his friends. A repast was brought us, and we ate, and washed our hands, and were perfumed. The master of the house then said to the two young men, “Have ye any desire that I should call such a one?” (mentioning a woman’s name). They answered: “If thou wilt grant us the favor, well.” So he called for her, and she came, and lo, she was the maiden whom I had seen…. A servant maid preceded her, bearing her lute, which she placed in her lap. Wine was then brought, and she sang, while we drank and shook with delight. “Whose air is that?” they asked. She answered, “My master Mukhariq’s.” She then sang another air, which she said was also mine, while they drank by pints; she looking aside doubtfully at me until I lost my patience, and called out to her to do her best; but in attempting to do so, singing a third air, she overstrained her voice, and I said, “Thou hast made a mistake”; upon which she threw the lute from her lap in anger, saying … “Take it thyself, and let us hear thee.” I answered, “Well”; and having taken it and tuned it perfectly, I sang the first of the airs which she had sung before me; whereupon all of them sprang to their feet and kissed my head. I then sang the second air, and the third; and their reason almost fled with ecstasy.
The master of the house, after asking his guests and being told by them that they knew me not, came to me, and kissing my hand, said, “By Allah, my master, who art thou?” I answered, “By Allah, I am the singer Mukhariq.” “And for what purpose,” said he, kissing both my hands, “earnest thou hither?” I replied, “As a sponger”—and I related what had happened with respect to the maiden. Thereupon he looked toward his two companions and said to them: “Tell me, by Allah, do ye not know that I gave for that girl 30,000 dirhems ($15,000), and have refused to sell her?” They answered, “It is so.” Then, said he, “I take you as witnesses that I have given her to him.” “And we,” said the two friends, “will pay thee two-thirds of her price.” So he put me in possession of the girl; and in the evening, when I departed, he presented me also with rich robes and other gifts, with all of which I went away. And as I passed the places where the maiden had abused me, I said to her, “Repeat thy words to me”; but she would not for shame. Holding the girl’s hand, I went with her to the Caliph, whom I found in anger at my long absence; but when I related my story to him he was surprised, and laughed, and ordered that the master of the house and his two friends should be brought before him, that he might requite them; to the former he gave 40,000 dirhems; to each of his two friends 30,000; and to me 100,000; and I kissed his feet and departed.160