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Ali Jihad Racy, Virginia Danielson, Stefano A. E. Leoni, Stefano A. E. Leoni
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


    [This entry contains four subentries:


    The music of the Islamic world can be studied from a wide variety of perspectives, as a historical legacy extending back to the middle ages and antiquity, as a performing art, as a branch of science, and as a medium of spiritual devotion. In the Middle East, its domain spreads throughout North Africa and eastward to include the Arabian Peninsula, Arab countries east of the Mediterranean, Turkey, and Iran. Furthermore, certain patterns of musical culture can be found in various parts of the Islamic world, including countries of the African Sudanese regions, Central Asia, Pakistan, and North India. For more than a millennium, Islamic ways of life have provided a framework for the creative contributions of individuals from diverse ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds.

    Musical outlooks have been influenced by Islamic beliefs and institutions. Although the Qurʿān contains no strictures against music, the ḥadīth, which consists of sayings attributed to the prophet Muḥammad and his companions, presents numerous statements that caution against music and musical instruments. In Islamic history, however, music has played an extensive role and emerged as an art form of extraordinary popularity and significance. To begin with, the formal strictures appear to have addressed music primarily as a secular profession, thus exempting the various folk and ritualistic expressions, including religious genres, generally considered outside the domain of “music” proper. Furthermore, music acquired special recognition and prestige through medieval court patronage. Following Muslim exposure to ancient Greek philosophy, science, and cosmology, music also developed as a speculative branch of knowledge, ʿilm al-mūsīqā, literally “science of music.” Meanwhile, music gained distinct prominence and spiritual meaning through the practices of the various Ṣūfī, or Islamic mystical orders.

    In Middle Eastern life, folk music appears in a wide variety of regional contexts. Throughout history, music has been incorporated into religious festivals and used in conjunction with manual labor and events associated with the human life cycle, including birth, circumcision, and marriage. Today, folk musical expressions, although often connected with social and religious events and with dance, differ in terms of performance style, instrumentation, and textual subject matter. Examples include the group-performed fjirī, or pearl-diving songs of the Arabian Gulf; the heroic and love-related songs of the shāʿir, or bedouin nomadic poet-singer, who plays the rabābah, a single-string upright fiddle; and the Anatolian aşik, or bard, who performs songs of moral and devotional themes while playing the saz, a long-necked plucked lute. A further example is the music played on a large double-sided drum and an oboe type of wind instrument, together known in Turkey as davul and zurna and in some Arab countries as ṭabl and zamr. In many Middle Eastern communities, this combination accompanies folk dance, particularly at village weddings. Also songs, as well as dramatic representations, appear in the taʿzīyah, or passion play, held during the Islamic month of Muḥarram in Shīʿī communities (for example in Iran, Iraq, and India) to commemorate the martyrdom of early religious saints.

    Islamic liturgical and devotional forms with musical components are numerous. As a rule, Qurʿānic chanting, or the reciting of the divine text of the Qurʿān, is soloistic, unmetered, governed by established rules of enunciation (ʿilm al-tajwīd), and melodically improvised, usually in accordance with the tradition of melodic modes, known as maqāmāt (sg., maqām) in certain parts of the Arab world. In the adhān, or “call to prayer,” traditionally performed from minarets to announce the daily times of prayer, the text is usually delivered in a stylized, semi-improvised, melodic format.

    Islamic mysticism, which became prevalent throughout the Islamic world from the thirteenth century CE, has generally treated music and dance as vehicles for spiritual transcendence. Expounded by early Ṣūfī scholars such as Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (1058–1111 CE), the notion of spiritual music as a mode of attaining divine ecstasy was expressed through the concept and practice of samāʿ, literally “listening,” or “auditioning.” Today, music and dance constitute essential components within the rituals of various Ṣūfī sects. In many cases, the liturgies incorporate sections of dhikr, literally “remembrance” or “reiteration,” in which religious phrases repeated by the chorus form an ostinato, or repeated pattern, that accompanies vocal improvisations and precomposed hymns, as well as rhythmic body movement. Meanwhile, the Mevlevî order, established by Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī in Konya, Turkey in the early thirteenth century, is particularly known for its elaborate musical performances, the use of musical instruments such as the nāy, or reed flute, and a type of religious dance consisting of circular motion, or “whirling.” In India and Pakistan, Ṣūfī-related musical expressions include the Urdu ghazal, and the qawwālī. These and other comparable genres are often performed by highly skilled and widely admired vocalists. In addition to these religious expressions, there are numerous liturgical and semi-liturgical traditions belonging to various non-Islamic communities, for example, Christian groups such as the Copts of Egypt, Maronites of Lebanon, and Assyrians of Iraq, and Jews from different parts of the Middle East.

    In the realm of secular music, certain traits appear widely prevalent, although tend to vary in detail and application from one context to another. Generally speaking, the melodic component is highly intricate and embraces distinct embellishments, such as the taḥrīr, commonly used by Iranian classical singers. The textures include solo, unison, octave-doubling, the occasional use of a drone or ostinato for accompaniment, and heterophony (when subtle differences in detail are created within two or more coexisting, essentially similar, parts). Specific melodic intervals are recognized and applied, including certain types of whole-tones, half-tones, and “neutral-tones,” or microtonal steps created when notes are partially flattened or sharpened. Intervals are measured in various ways. In Turkey, for example, the comma (roughly one-ninth of a Pythagorean whole-step) is used as a unit for determining the size of scalar intervals. Melodic modes, namely schemes encompassing individual scales, notes of emphasis, and usually general modalities of execution, serve as foundations for precomposition and improvisation in many traditions in the Middle East, Central Asia, and India. In the case of the Arab maqām and Turkish makam modal systems, a musician, for example when performing an instrumental improvisation (taqsīm in Arab music and taksim in Turkish music) may shift between modes in the middle of a performance. In the case of the Iranian dastgāh, the performance (for example, an improvisatory āvāz) may pass through gushes, namely inner, or subsidiary, modes that are intrinsic to each of the twelve dastgāhs and are part of the entire radīf, or recognized modal repertoire. With some exceptions, modal improvisations in various Islamic traditions are nonmetric, in other words, not bound by regular-beat structures.

    The rhythmic component is usually organized in terms of patterns, or modes. A rhythmic mode, or meter, incorporates a specific number of beats and rests. As illustrated by regional variants, such as the mīzān in the Andalusian, or Moorish derived, music of Morroco, the Arab īqāʿ, and the Turkish usul, rhythmic patterns are traditionally played on percussion instruments and serve as building frameworks for metric compositions, such as the Ottoman classical instrumental peşrev and the vocal beste. Meanwhile, compound, or “suite-like,” forms are very common. As illustrated by the North African Andalusian nawbah, the Turkish fasıl, and the Iraqi maqām, such forms traditionally consist of individual sections that share the same melodic mode but differ in such areas as rhythm and structure.

    Musical instruments similarly reflect patterns of consistency and variety. Numerous types of reed flutes, double reeds (oboes), fiddles, plucked lutes, cylindrical and frame drums can be found throughout the Islamic world. At the same time, the ʿūd (lute), qānūn (zither), and nāy (flute) are typical of urban centers, particularly in Arab countries and Turkey. In Ottoman classical music, we encounter such instruments as the tanbūr (long-necked fretted lute) and kemence (upright fiddle). Typical of the Iranian classical ensemble, however, are the santūr (hammer-dulcimer), the tār and the setār (both long-necked lutes), the kamanchah (upright spike-fiddle), the nāy (reed flute), and the dumbak (hand drum). Further variety is represented by such instruments as the Afghani rubāb, a plucked lute which, like the North Indian sarod, has sympathetic, or unplucked resonating, strings and a face partially covered with skin. Meanwhile, a relatively recent acquisition, namely the Western violin, is fully adapted to local idioms and is prevalent throughout the urban Islamic world.

    During the last two centuries, increased contact with the West generated new interest in music as a “fine art” and led to the gradual assimilation of Western musical concepts and techniques. In Egypt, following the Napoleonic conquest (1798–1801), Muḥammad ʿAlī (r. 1805–1848), founder of the Khedive dynasty, established military schools in which Europeans taught military-band instruments according to Western methods of instruction. Later on, Khedive Ismāʿīl (r. 1863–1879), who sponsored Egyptian local celebrities such as ʿAbduh al-Ḥamūlī (1843–1901), built the Cairo Opera House and invited foreign ensembles to Cairo, where Verdi's Rigoletto was presented in 1869, followed by Aida in 1871. In Turkey, Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808–1839) abolished the Janissary army, and by extension the mehter, or the indigenous military band tradition, and brought in Western composers to teach Western military band instruments in Turkish military schools. Such efforts to assimilate European cultural and artistic models continued throughout the nineteenth century. Comparable importations of Western culture occurred in Persia, where the French Alfred J. B. Lemaire (1842–1902) established a musical institution for teaching Western military band instruments. By the turn of the century, a number of influential Middle Eastern composers, theorists, and music educators were already well versed in European music theory, notation, and conservatory-based pedagogical methods.

    The twentieth century witnessed further and more extensive musical developments. Governments in various parts of the Islamic world continued the process of modernization and Europeanization, an example being the systematic efforts of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938), the first president of the Turkish republic, to outlaw Ṣūfī orders, to ban Ottoman classical music, and to encourage folk and Western-derived musical forms. Meanwhile, the modern mass media made a tremendous impact upon the various musical traditions. In the first decade of the century, sound recording led to a growing mass audience in Cairo, Istanbul, and other Middle Eastern cities, and to the rise of new popular musical forms. Also the popularity of the musical theater in early twentieth-century Egypt and the musical film, first appearing in Cairo in 1932, led to the development of new musical expressions, for example the short eclectic film-songs of Muḥammad ʿAbd. al-Wahhāb (c.1901–1991). Later, the expanding domain of radio in the mid-1930s, the rise of vinyl recordings, and, even later, cassette recording, enhanced the broad dissemination of music, for example, recordings of live concerts by Egypt's recording celebrities such as Umm Kulthūm (c.1904–1975). In later decades studio recording contributed further to the creation of new styles, sonorities, and orchestral blends.

    Moreover, in large cities such as Istanbul, Damascus, and Cairo, older compositions are sometimes performed by large modern ensembles with mixed choruses and large accompanying orchestras. Also, Western-trained composers have created symphonic works in which indigenous folk themes are incorporated. Meanwhile, the end of the twentieth century has witnessed a significant degree of musical interaction among the various cultures of the Islamic world. For example, Cairo's urban musical model, with its lush orchestration, multi-layered unison and octave texture, and characteristic intonation, has been emulated in various urban traditions in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the eastern Mediterranean world. Furthermore, Cairo's influence is distinctly apparent in the arabesque, Turkey's newly developed and extremely popular urban genre. Other categories, however, use Western, particularly electronic, instrumental and musical techniques somewhat prominently, for example the Algerian rai, whose appeal has extended to musical audiences in Europe and North America.



    • Danielsen, Virginia. “The Voice of Egypt”: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the 20th Century. New ed.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
    • Farhat, Hormoz. The Dastgah Concept in Persian Music. Cambridge, U.K., 1990. Thorough and systematic explanation of the twelve Iranian melodic modes on the basis of current theory and performance practice.
    • Farmer, Henry George. A History of Arabian Music to the XIIIth Century. London, 1929; reprint, 1973. Classic historical work on the music of medieval Islam by a major and highly prolific writer on the subject.
    • Farmer, Henry George. “The Music of Islam.” In the New Oxford History of Music, edited by Egon Wellesz, vol. 1, pp. 421–477. London, 1957. Detailed coverage of both music theory and practice in medieval Islam.
    • Marcus, Scott L.Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
    • Nelson, Kristina. The Art of Reciting the Qurʿan. Austin, Tex. 1985. Pioneering and well-documented study of Qurʿānic chanting based on fieldwork in Egypt.
    • Nettl, Bruno. The Radif of Persian Music: Studies of Structure and Cultural Context. Champaign, Ill., 1987. The most detailed and encompassing work on Persian music and musical culture by a well-known ethnomusicologist and expert in the area.
    • Qureshi, Regula Burckhardt. Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context, and Meaning in Qawwali. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
    • Racy, Ali Jihad. “Creativity and Ambience: An Ecstatic Feedback Model from Arab Music.”World of Music33 (1991): 7–28. First-hand study of how traditional Arab musicians perform, with specific reference to improvisation, creativity, and the ecstatic state experienced by performers and initiated listeners.
    • Racy, Ali Jihad. “Music in Contemporary Cairo: A Comparative Overview.”Asian Music13 (1981): 4–26. Penetrating analysis of music and musical attitudes in modern Cairo, with special reference to other Middle Eastern cities.
    • Sadie, Stanley, ed.The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. New York, 1980. Authoritative and extensive multivolume reference work. Includes entries, often several pages long, on the music of various Middle Eastern countries, ethnic groups, instruments, and genres written by different musical experts.
    • Sells, Michael Anthony. Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations. Ashland, Ore.: White Cloud Press, 1999.
    • Signell, Karl. Makam: Modal Practice in Turkish Art Music. Seattle, Wash., 1977. Rare, in-depth discussion in English of the modal music theory of Turkey.
    • Waugh, Earle H.Memory, Music, and Religion: Morocco's Mystical Chanters. Columbia, S.C., 2005.

    Ali Jihad Racy

    Devotional Music

    The most characteristic sounds of devotional expression in Muslim communities may be the call to prayer (adhān) and the recitation of the Qurʿān (qirāʿah al-Qurʿān). Neither of these is considered by Muslims to be music; rather, they are texts that are delivered and sometimes amplified or enhanced using selected musical devices, which are always subordinate to the text.

    In Middle Eastern Muslim communities, these sounds are familiar to almost everyone. The call to prayer is heard five times daily, often broadcast over loudspeakers from mosques, or called out by a muʿadhdhin (muezzin) without amplification in public places like airports or market districts. Qurʿānic recitation permeates life. Many Muslims recite verses to themselves; professional reciters provide inspiration at boThexplicitly religious and more secular public ceremonies, and they provide comfort to the bereaved and articulate communal sadness at the deaths of leaders or other misfortunes. Similar sounds signify Muslim community life worldwide. The sounds of the Qurʿānic texts are not only inspirational, but also beautiful in themselves, melodiously chanted by skilled reciters. The Indonesian, Indian, Pakistani, European, and North African communities, for example, all have their own favorite reciters, many of whose performances are marketed on cassette tapes and compact discs.

    Ṣūfī music—exemplified by the flutes and drums of the Mevlevī dervishes in Turkey and the chanting of men at the Ṣūfī dhikrs around the world—forms another important component of Muslim expressive culture. As a means of drawing closer to God, the Ṣūfī dhikr (ceremony of remembrance) is the quintessential vehicle. Chanting the names of God is a widespread practice with manifestations throughout North Africa and the Middle East, in Pakistan, Indonesia, North America, and Europe. Recordings and scholarship focused on these rituals have brought the attention and ears of outsiders to this repertory. See DHIKR and SUFISM, subentry onṢūFī THOUGHT AND PRACTICE.

    The use of music in devotional expression and in the rituals of Muslim holiday celebrations extends beyond Qurʿānic recitation and calls to prayer and beyond the individuals who would readily identify themselves as Sūfīs.


    The work of anthropologists such as Nancy and Richard Tapper reveals a large domain of variety of expression, neither definitely orthodox nor clearly Ṣūfī, that many participants consider to be Muslim and devotional and in which they partake in a variety of ways. Fazlur Rahman located such practices historically in the domain of popular Islam. Tapper and Tapper argue that they are not merely peripheral but in fact constitute important religious behavior in community rituals and daily lives of Muslims.

    Conservative theologians and historians of religion sometimes claim that these genres and practices of popular devotion are not truly “Islamic” because they are not canonical. In the strictest sense, they are right. The place of music in Islamic culture has been disputed, as has that of the voices of women in public places. The primary theological authority, the Qurʿān, has yielded no single theological interpretation, and the dispute about the propriety of music is centuries old; it is linked to the larger debate about behaviors that are either obligatory or recommended to Muslims and those that are forbidden or discouraged.

    The philosophical support for musical expression proceeds largely from the writings of al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) and Rūmī (d. 1273). An unimpeachable Muslim, al-Ghazālī argued that music, properly engaged, actually brought one closer to God. His argument served as the theological foundation for Ṣūfī practices and challenged the more conservative position so strongly that the role of musical performance in Muslim societies has remained contested terrain up to the present day. The propriety of musical practices and devotional practices that seem to be related to music has been continually negotiated in different times and places.

    Forms of devotional expression outside the domains of Qurʿānic recitation and dhikr have rarely been studied, and very little is known about them beyond the boundaries of the communities of practitioners. What is known suggests that Muslim devotional expression includes a wide range of activities, extending from the home and the mosque into public celebrations. As Margaret Kartomi observed in Sumatra, the occasions for performance of Muslim devotional song range from “formal state occasions to intimate personal” ones (p. 29). As such, they overlap, inform, and to some extent construct public culture in Muslim communities.


    The use of music in devotional expression and the construction of Muslim holiday rituals extends beyond Qurʿānic recitation, calls to prayer, and Ṣūfīs. Its forms are as diverse as the communities themselves. Its practices include elaborate, virtuosic solo singing of supplications, the reciting and singing of religious poetry, and group singing of religious hymns—for instance, songs of pilgrimage to Mecca or other shrines, the ilahîleri of Turkish and Balkan communities, and the indang of western Sumatra.

    The diversity of practices is only suggested by the available literature. What is known indicates that forms of musical devotion are highly syncretic. Gamelan sekati forms part of the celebration of the Prophet's birthday (Mawlid al-Nabī) in Indonesia. Devotional indang in western Sumatra involves praise and inspirational singing with drumming and complex body movement performed from a sitting position. Qawwālī melodies in Pakistan use classical Indic ragas. The ensemble of Ghulām Farīd Ṣābrī and his brother Maqbūl recently brought qawwālī tradition together with musical devices from popular local music and classical performance to create concert performances that were “serious and spiritual as well as entertaining” (Qureshi, “Muslim Devotional,” p. 118). Qawwālī in India uses sung texts that are narrative, didactic, and pluralistic, intended for a pluralistic Indian population. Styles of singing religious songs bear strong links, in terms of musical system and genres, to local song traditions. Local musical and dance practices are typically coupled with concepts of samāʿ and Islamic religious texts to create locally viable devotional expression.

    Supplication is a common genre, exemplified by the duʿāʿ of the Middle East. This is a prayer text; ideally, it is chanted clearly and emotively by men who have license to improvise melodically on interjections in the prayer such as “Yā Rabb!” (“Oh Lord!”). Sayyid al-Naqshabandī (b. 1922) was a famous practitioner of this art; his recordings have been broadcast before the breaking of the Ramadan fast for decades.

    The singing of praise, usually of the prophet Muḥammad, characterizes devotional expression in many, if not most, Muslim communities. Panegyrics are sung throughout the world and are known by a variety of names, including naʿt (song in praise of Muḥammad), madīḥ (sung poem), and munājāt (secret spiritual conversation) in Arabic-speaking communities, indang in Indonesia, and kusama in Kenya. In West Africa, praise singing lies close to the practices of drumming the chief's name or the name of a potential patron. A contested subject, religious authorities in Hausa and Fulani communities have variously banned the practice or attempted to direct it toward Muslim saints and Islamic holidays. Praise singing and drumming helps constitute the Damba celebration of the Prophet's birthday in Dagbon, Ghana.

    In the Arabic-speaking world, panegyrics often take the form of the sophisticated qaṣīdah, a lengthy poem characterized by monorhyme and monometer, or the metrically complex tawshīḥ, and both are the province of accomplished singers such as ʿAlī Maḥmūd (1881–1946). venues for singing this religious poetry are numerous, from small coffeehouses to the New Cairo Opera House, home to an ensemble of male religious singers who ably perform this repertory to standing ovations and cries for encores.

    In more ordinary environments, maddāḥīn are common figures. These men, or sometimes women, sing in coffeehouses, at saints’ day rituals, and by invitation; they perform a panoply of religious songs of varying complexity. Sometimes they adapt the tunes of popular stars to religious lyrics.

    In Turkey, similar religious songs called ilahî contribute to the repertories of classical and folk music. In Muslim communities of the Balkan peninsula recently, performances of this genre have been adapted to express the current political strife. They have helped construct and affirm the identities of Muslim communities.


    Celebrations such as saints’ days, the feasts of Islam, and the nights of Ramadan offer venues for expression. Saints’ day celebrations, notably the Prophet's birthday, include recitations of the Qurʿān and singing of religious songs alongside the Ṣūfī dhikr ceremonies. These celebrations often take place in public spaces. For example, during the nineteenth century in Egypt, the Prophet's birthday was celebrated in Azbakīyah Garden in the nascent theater district; more recently it is celebrated in the streets surrounding the Ḥusayn Mosque and in many neighborhoods, such as ʿābdīn and Bāb al-Lūq.

    Ramaḍan serves as an occasion for devotional expression, including the perambulations by the masaḥḥarātī, a man who walks through his neighborhood after midnight calling out, usually melodically and somewhat poetically, to wake his neighbors in time to eat before the next day's fast begins. Talking-drum orchestras mark the celebration of Ramaḍan among the Yoruba. Praise singing, royal drums and trumpets, and complex call-and-response singing with drum ensembles all form part of the feasts following Ramaḍan in Kano, Nigeria. Venues extend from village celebrations to national radio and television and commercial recording.

    Group singing about pilgrimage or other religious subjects while en route to Mecca, to a saint's tomb, or to a saint's-day celebration similarly expresses religious commitment or devotion. Saint's-day celebrations involve both spectators and listeners. The qawwālī rituals that draw large audiences at the shrine of Niẓāmuddīn Auliyā’ in Delhi, described in detail by Qureshi (Sūfī Music), exemplify these activities. On a more modest scale, Elizabeth Fernea's studies of saints’ days in Morocco, focused as they are on the behavior of women, also aptly illustrate common singing behavior.

    In Shīʿī communities worldwide, music accompanies commemoration of a slightly different kind in a passion-play ritual (taʿzīyah, also called tabut in Sumatra, etc.), which commemorates the martyrdom of Ḥusayn with religious songs and ritual reenactments of his death and the mourning of the community. See TAʿZīYAH.

    In a general sense, all these practices are related to the Ṣūfī theology of samāʿ, or engaged listening aimed at bringing the listener closer to God. This listening itself constitutes devotional behavior. Samāʿ lies at the heart of dhikr and forms part of its raison d’être. Importantly, samāʿ admits levels of sophistication and the possibility of learning and experience increasing one's ability to attain closeness to God. Samāʿ is accessible at some level to the uninitiated and is not restricted to the learned or the committed Ṣūfī. Thus participation extends beyond the Ṣūfī brotherhood into the larger community of Muslims who participate in the celebration of saints’ days and religious feasts. See SAMāʿ.

    In the twentieth century, devotional expression has found new venues—for example, public contests in which Qurʿānic recitation is judged. In Indonesia, women participate in these events and win prizes. Religious music has found its way into folk festivals such as those held in Konya, Turkey. Qawwālī performances are heard in films and on commercial recordings.

    Men, women, and children participate in devotional musical expression. Many women competently recite the Qurʿān and teach their children to do so. Some have been professional reciters, usually reciting for other women. Women and children characteristically participate in holiday celebrations at which devotional songs are sung: celebrations welcoming home pilgrims from Mecca, saints’ day celebrations, or during the long nights of Ramadan after the breaking of the day's fast.


    Generally the preferred medium of expression is the human voice; indeed, instrumental accompaniment has occasionally been banned. However, in some communities, musical instruments accompany the singing (even in mosques), and professional singers of religious songs have employed instrumental accompaniment for at least a century. Drums of various kinds and flutes are common in religious expression. The frame drums and hourglass drums of the Middle East, the dholak on the Indian subcontinent, and the talking drums of West Africa have all accompanied devotional expression. The Arabic qānūn (stringed instrument) has accompanied religious song in Egypt, the harmonium in India, and gamelan sekati (instrumental ensemble) in Indonesia.

    Religious singing and supplication is commonly marketed on commercial recordings. Professional singers of less weighty repertories—stars of stage and screen, for instance—have recorded topical religious songs, especially for holidays. Scaled-down qawwālī have appeared in Indian films. The accomplished female Lebanese singer, Laure Daccache, became famous for her rendition of “Amint billāh” (“Āmantu bi-Allāh”), possibly also her own composition, which has passed into the Arabic heritage (turāth) of religious song. Songs such as Sayyid Darwīsh's “Yā ʿushshāq al-Nabī” (“O Lovers of the Prophet”) use the language of religious devotion for weddings. This practice is very common, and the boundary of the “devotional” is not always easy to locate. Sayyid Darwīsh composed for musical theater and wrote many popular songs, but in his personal life he was hardly a scrupulous Muslim. However, his upbringing in Qurʿānic school and under the tutelage of Muslim family members and his utilization of the aural components of this background cast him among the mashāyīkh or learned religious people, the bearers of Muslim law and custom and Arabic literature and poetry. Throughout the twentieth century the mashāyīkh, popularly represented by figures such as Sayyid Darwīsh, have been invested as the “authentic school” of Egyptian culture. Thus Muslim devotional music moves from the circumscribed duʿāʿ (individual prayer) into the larger domain of public culture and Egyptian social identity.

    Muslim devotional expression has infused the musical traditions of many communities to the extent that it serves as a conservative force in the maintenance of what is perceived as authentic expressive culture. As noted above, the mashāyīkh in Egypt are often credited with the transmission of historically Arabic poetry and vocal aesthetics. These distinctly religious songs have passed into the turāth of Arab music, and an ability to sing them, even when displayed by singers of nonreligious popular songs, marks an artist as aṣīl (authentically Arabic). Akin Euba (1971) suggests that Yoruba tradition is similarly kept alive through Muslim song. In many places, as Qureshi writes of northern India and Pakistan, Muslim devotional expressions form “part of the musical language” of the community (Sūfī Music, p. 46).



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    • Markoff, Irene. “Introduction to Ṣūfī Music and Ritual in Turkey.”Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, December 1995.
    • Neubauer, Eckhard. “Islamic Religious Music.” In New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 9, edited by Stanley Sadie, pp. 342–349. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1980.
    • Pacholczyk, Jozef M.“Music and Islam in Indonesia.”The World of Music 28, no. 3 (1986): 3–12.
    • Qureshi, Regula B.“ ‘Muslim Devotional’: Popular Religious Music and Muslim Identity under British, Indian, and Pakistani Hegemony.”Asian Music24, no. 1 (1992–1993): 111–121.
    • Qureshi, Regula B.Ṣūfī Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context and Meaning in Qawwālī. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
    • Rahman, Fazlur. Islam. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
    • Schuyler, Philip D.“Music and Meaning Among the Gnawa Religious Brotherhood of Morocco.”The World of Music23, no. 1 (1981): 3–13.
    • Shehadi, Fadlou. Philosophies of Music in Medieval Islam. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995.
    • Shiloah, Amnon. The Dimension of Music in Islamic and Jewish Culture. Aldershot: Variorum, 1993.
    • Tapper, Nancy, and Richard Tapper. “The Birth of the Prophet: Ritual and Gender in Turkish Islam.”Man22 (1987): 69–92.
    • Waugh, Earle H.The Munshidīn of Egypt: Their World and Their Song. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.

    Recordings and Videos

    Sound recordings of devotional music are often produced and marketed in Muslim communities worldwide. The best examples of current practices may be obtained by requesting the genres and performers from specialized dealers. The following list is a sample of ethnomusicological recordings which represent a variety of traditions and are available in library collections. (Some of the LPs listed here may be reissued as compact discs.)

    Sound Recordings

    • Ceremonial Islamic Ritual from Yugoslavia: Zikr of the Rufaʿi Brotherhood. Recorded and edited by Bernard Mauguin. Unesco Collection/Musical Sources. Philips 6586 015.
    • Dhikr und Madīḥ: Islamische Gesänge und Zeremonien/Sudan. Recorded and edited by Artur Simon. Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin, MC 10, 1980.
    • Egypte: l’ordre Chazili ʿal-Tariga al-Hamidiyya al-Chaziliyyaʿ. Arion ARN 64211.
    • Islamic Religious Chanting from North Yemen. Recorded and edited by Joachen Wenzel and Christian Poche. Unesco Collection/Musical Sources. Philips 6586 040.
    • Moroccan Sufi Music. Recorded and edited by Philip Schuyler. Lyrichord LLSt 7238.
    • Music of the Waswahili of Lamu, Kenya. 3 vols. Recorded and edited by Alan W. Boyd. Ethnic Folkways FE 4093–95.
    • Musik från Tunisien. Recorded and edited by Krister Malm and Salah el Caprice CAP 1090.
    • Zikr: Islamic Ritual—Rifaʿyya Brotherhood of Aleppo. Recorded by Christian Poche. Unesco Collection/Musical Sources. Philips 6586 030.

    Video Recordings

    • Aita. Produced by Izza Genini. Icarus/First Run. Focused on a female singer who performs religious music.
    • Hymns of Praise. Produced by Izza Genini. Icarus/First Run. Focused on a day celebration in Morocco.
    • Lessons from Gulam: Asian Music in Bradford [England]. Produced by John Baily. Distributed by Documentary Education Resources, Watertown, Mass. Focused on a male singer of qawwālī.
    • Nusrat! Live at Meany Hall. Produced by the University of Washington ethnomusicology program and available from the University of Washington Press, 1994. A concert of qawwālī by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
    • Saints and Spirits. Produced by Elizabeth Fernea. Directed by Melissa Llewelyn-Davies. Icarus/First Run, 1979. Focused on a saint's day celebration in Morocco wiThemphasis on the experience of women.

    Virginia Danielson Updated by Stefano A. E. Leoni

    Trance Music

    Mysticism, which had developed in the Arab world by the seventh century and was formalized in the eighth, seeks out a direct and personal experience of divine reality, striving for unity with the Transcendent and attempting to experience the fullness of being. Islamic mysticism developed in diverse ways but was expressed in a sufficiently unitary manner to be identified as a movement, Sufism. It is in mysticism, especially Sufism, that we find the strongest affirmations of the importance of music and the particular effect achieved by its performance, as well as by the act of disposing oneself to hear it.

    The term used for this is samāʿ. For Ṣūfī Islam, both the music that acts upon the listener and the act of musical listening are considered samāʿ, as opposed to secular music, which is given various names (and is still considered capable of bringing about a certain ecstasy, or ṭarab). The philosophy of music with its theoretical framework is called, from the Greek, mūsīqī. Scholars, jurists, theologians, spiritual guides, Ṣūfīs, and philosophers have written about samāʿ. Their opinions are diverse, ranging from complete denial to the total acceptance of every musical form or act, including dance.

    Among non-Ṣūfīs, samāʿ is equated negatively with mahāhī, a state of detachment, as the ninth-century theologian and jurist Ibn Abī al-Dunyā believed. Attitudes towards music have always been ambivalent precisely because it is never passive and always absorbing, even when it does not bring about collective or private ecstasy. In marginal groups, rituals tied to music (samāʿ and dhikr) sometimes included behaviors shocking to orthodox Muslims, such as tearing of clothing, and reaching states of altered consciousness that permit them to walk on hot coals, chew glass, and perform other acts of self-mutilation. Among these groups are the Hamadisha community of Moroccan exorcists, the Tunisian Buri, the Ghnawi brotherhood of North Africa, the Haddāwah of Morocco, the Qalandar dervishes “joyful in God,” and the Yazīdīyah.

    Most communities of mystics, however, limit themselves to the use of musical rituals to attain the wajd, the trance. This could be either “musicated” or “musicizing,” that is, it could involve those who listen (or react by dancing) or those who play the music. The Mevlevî, the so-called “whirling dervishes,” perform a ceremony called mukabele (Turkish, literally, facing one another). The dancers (Turkish, semazen) place themselves on stage around their guide (Turkish, semazen basi, head dancer), wearing voluminous white robes, black cloaks, and pointed hats; they symbolize, through dance, victory in the face of death and the connection between the terrestrial and celestial worlds. When it is carried out in ceremonies and not for performance, the dance enables the dancers to enter a sort of trance, as a result of the rotation of the dancers themselves and of the slow shifting around their guide in a pantomime of the movement of celestial spheres. This carefully orchestrated, intellectualized, and strongly spiritual ritual contrasts at times with the frenetic trance reached in the course of the public dhikr (rhythmic “remembrance” of God through the repetition of the names of God or pious phrases).

    Arabian musical mysticism also includes rituals of healing (ḥaḍrah, literally, presence) based on the ecstatic excitement that often emerges from the communal dance of the healers and the sick; the Hamadshah of Morocco and certain Egyptian and Sudanese communities practice dances that are at times accompanied by self-mutilation for the purpose of exorcism.


    • Allen, Warren Dwight. Philosophies of Music History. New York, 1962.
    • During, Jean. “Revelation and Spiritual Audition in Islam.”The World of Music24, no. 3 (1982): 68–84.
    • Farmer, Henry George. Historical Facts for the Arabian Musical Influence. London, 1930. Reprinted in 1978.
    • Farmer, Henry George. “The Music of Islam.” In The New Oxford History of Music, vol. 1. London, 1957.
    • Faruqi, Lois Ibsen al-. An Annotated Glossary of Arabic Musical Terms. London, 1978, and Westport, Conn., 1981.
    • Guettat, Mahmoud. “La musique sacrée dans le monde arabo-musulman.” In Musica e liturgia nella cultura mediterranea, edited by Piero G. Arcangeli, pp. 157–166. Florence, 1988.
    • Jargy, Simon. La musique arabe. Paris, 1971. A third edition was published in 1988.
    • Langlois, Tony. “The Gnawa of Oujda: Music at the Margins in Morocco.”The World of Music40, no. 1 (1998): 135–156.
    • Leoni, Stefano A. E.“Masʿalah fī al-samāʿ. A Question on Listening to Music.” In La significazione musicale tra retorica e pragmatica. Proceedings of the Fifth International Congress on Musical Signification, edited by Luca Marconi, Eero Tarasti, and Gino Stefani. Bologna, 1999.
    • Mahdi, Salah el-La musique arabe. Paris, 1972.
    • Markoff, Irene. “Introduction to Ṣūfī Music and Ritual in Turkey.”Middle East Studies Association Bulletin29, no.2 (December 1995): 157–160.
    • Mondher, Ayari. L’écoute des musiques arabes improvisées: Essai de psychologie cognitive de l’audition. Paris, 2003.
    • Poché, Christian. “Zikr and Musicology.”The World of Music20, no. 1 (1978): 59–73.
    • Poché, Christian, and Jean Lambert. Musiques du monde arabe et musulman. Paris, 2000.
    • Racy, Ali Jihad. “Creativity and Ambience: An Ecstatic Feedback Model from Arab Music.”TheWorld of Music33, no. 3 (1991): 7–28.
    • Racy, Ali Jihad. Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Ṭarab. Cambridge, U.K., 2004.
    • Rouget, Gilbert. La musique et la transe. Paris, 1980. A new edition was published in 1990.
    • Schuyler, Philip D.“Music and Meaning Among the Gnawa Religious Brotherhood of Morocco.”The World of Music23, no. 1 (1981): 3–13.
    • Shehadi, Fadlou. Philosophies of Music in Medieval Islam. Leiden, 1995.
    • Shiloah, Amnon. The Dimension of Music in Islamic and Jewish Culture. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1993.
    • Shiloah, Amnon. Music in the World of Islam. Aldershot, U.K., and Detroit, Mich., 1995.
    • Shiloah, Amnon. The Theory of Music in Arabic Writings: Descriptive Catalogue of Manuscripts in Libraries of Europe and the U.S.A. Munich, 1979.
    • Touma, Habib Hassan. La musique arabe. Paris, 1975. Translated into English by Laurie Schwartz as The Music of the Arabs, Portland, Oreg., 1996.

    Stefano A. E. Leoni

    History of Arab Music

    Islam has historically been a powerful unifier of cultures. This has been true with regard to music as well. Although the status of music remains largely undefined in Islamic jurisprudence, there is a musical tradition common to all Muslim peoples, even though nourished by local differences. Three factors distinguish Arab music from that of other cultures, its origin in the demise of pre-Islamic cultures of the Middle East, its unification and transmission through the Arabic language, and the impact of Islamic heritage on the family and social lives of the Arabs.


    In early Arab music, even before the advent of Islam, one finds the indigenous musical art—often tied to the practice of poetry—of the Bedouin tribes of Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula. This art had relationships, through commercial channels, with the cultures of Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and Persia. From the sixth century, there is evidence of two styles of song, one tied to the nomadic life of the Bedouins and the other to the sedentary population. Singer-poets used the simple, traditional form of the ḥūdāʿ, which was performed in caravans to the rhythm of the camel's gait. And singers and slave-women performed complex pieces of a serious nature (sinad) or simple songs for entertainment (hazaj), probably of Persian origin. Among these singers, ʿAzzā al-Maylāʿ and Jamīlah, in the seventh century were especially well known.

    With the advent of Islam comes the formation of an classical Arabic music tradition extending roughly from the reign of the first caliph, Abū Bakr (632 CE), to the middle of the ninth century, particularly in Medina, where a singer of Persian origin, Yūnus al-Kātib (d. 765 CE), wrote treatises on music, collected songs, and kept a musical journal. Here and in other rapidly developing towns, such as Damascus and Mecca, male and female singers gained popularity throughout the Umayyad era (661–750 CE), giving rise to a recognizable school of Arabian song (al-ghināʿ al-mutqan, the perfect song) alongside Persian, Byzantine, and Ethiopian vocal traditions. The creator of this school is identified as Tuways (632–710), a teacher in Medina and first among the mukhannathū, the effeminate singers of the Hejaz. Ibn Surayj (d. 726 CE) was a student of his who in turn taught Algharid (d. 720). A contemporary of Tuways was Saʿib Khathir, who had as students the black musician Maʿbad and the renowned Yūnus al-Kātib, who was the tutor of Siyat (d. 785) and Ibrāhīm al-Mawṣilī (d. 804). Other famous singers were Nashīṭ, Ibn Misjah, and Ibn Muḥriz.

    Baghdad and Córdoba.

    By the middle of the ninth century, following the defeat of the Umayyads by the ʿAbbāsids and the foundation of a new capital, Baghdad, musical tradition had already developed in diverse ways. The singer and lute-player Ibrāhīm al-Mahdī (d. 839), supporter of a stylistic renewal, stands out, as does the opposition to renewal championed by one of the greatest musicians of the time, Isḥāq al-Mawṣilī (d. 850). His student was the famous Ziryāb, obliged by his rivalry with his tutor to leave Baghdad. He found fortune in Córdoba, where he was welcomed in 833 by the Umayyad sultan ʿAbd al-Raḥman II. Ziryāb then contributed to the diffusion of Arabian tradition in Spain, now with new characteristics, which gave rise to the “Andalusian” music which is still cultivated today in North Africa, whose musicians are heir to this school following the retreat of the Arabs from Spain from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries.

    Decline and the Reawakening in the Twentieth Century.

    The ninth century is the golden age of Arab music, exemplified by al-Mahdī in the ʿAbbāsid capital, Baghdad, and Ziryāb in the Umayyad capital, Córdoba. It is in this period that we find the most relevant theoretical works, by al-Kindī (d. 874), al-Fārābī (d. 950), al-Iṣbahānī (also Iṣfahānī; d. 967), Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna; d. 1037) and Ṣafī al-Dīn al-Urmawī (d. 1294). The period from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries, beginning with the assertion of Turkish influence on one side and the fall of the Islamic capital of Córdoba in the eleventh century, though a period of political decline, saw limited repercussions in the musical sphere. The Arabs continued to cultivate musical customs largely reflecting Turco-Persian influence.

    An Arab cultural reawakening manifested itself in music throughout the nineteenth century, with personalities such as ʿAbdu al-Hamuli (ʿAbduh al- Ḥamūlī), Muhammad ʿUthman (Muḥammad ʿUthmān), Salamah Hijazi (Salāmah Ḥijazī), Mikhaʿil Mishaqah, Rahmal-lah Shiltagh, and Ahmad Zaydan (Aḥmad Zaydān) principally active in, but not limited to, secular vocal music (ghināʿ). With the fall of the Ottoman empire in World War I, Turkish culture was significantly reorganized, and the Arab world was subject to the colonial cultures of England, France, Spain, and Italy. The musicians of the maqām al-ʿirāqī in Iraq, Umm Kulthūm in Egypt, the singers of the muwash'shahāt in Aleppo, the musicians of the maʿlūf in North Africa, and the artists of “Andalusian” music all preserved a traditional repertoire that today survives alongside styles that create their own distinct figures out of the cultural mixture.

    Treatises on Music.

    During the period from the seventh to the tenth centuries, scholarly treatises refer to the concept of harmony in its broadest meaning, the harmony of the universe. Music, and especially tuning (required by the ʿūd) becomes a point of reference to combine elements, moods, qualities, characters, seasons, ages, colors, odors, signs of the zodiac, and planets. Other authors such as al-Fārābī, Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, Ibn Ṣīnā, Ibn Zaylah, focus on problems of mathematics and acoustics relating principally to two areas of study, the science of melody and the science of rhythm. The continuous recall to the practice, as in the case of the more traditional schools, the continual experimentation with the ʿūd, and the familiarity with various Greek treatises in which harmonist as well as “canonist” viewpoints are displayed, have all doubtlessly left their mark on the future of speculation in music theory. The Bayt al-Ḥikmah (House of Wisdom) founded in the ninth century in Baghdad—dedicated to the systematic translation of various texts, including those on the theory of music—is another notable point of contact between the Greek and Arabian traditions in Islamic culture.

    There are also many classical treatises on music in the Arabic language, reflecting a profound veneration for its mysteries from the point of view of listening (samāʿ). This is manifest in Ṣūfī musical mysticism and the ecstasy induced through music. Al-Hujwīrī, active in the tenth century and author of the oldest Persian treatise on mysticism, the Kashf al-maḥjūb (The Revealing of the Veiled), claims in the chapter dedicated to music that whoever says he does not find pleasure in sounds, melodies, and in music is either a liar and a hypocrite or is lacking in reason and cannot be classed among the living. From the tenth century, philosophers and scholars have investigated the nature of music, its objectives, its meaning, and its origin.


    • Bulos, Afif Alvarez. Handbook of Arabic Music. Beirut, 1971.
    • Cooper, David, and Kevin Dawe. The Mediterranean in Music: Critical Perspectives, Common Concerns, Cultural Differences. Lanham, Md., 2005.
    • D’Erlanger, Rodolphe. La musique arabe. 6 vols. Paris, 1930–1959. Reprinted 2001.
    • During, Jean. Quelque chose se passe: Le sens de la tradition dans l’Orient musical (Something's Going On: The Sense of Tradition in the Musical East). Lagrasse and Paris, 1995.
    • Engel, Hans. Die Stellung des Musikers im arabisch-islamischen Raum (The Position of the Musician in Arab-Muslim Lands). Bonn, 1987.
    • Farmer, Henry George. A History of Arabian Music to the XIIIth Century. London, 1929. Reprinted in 1973.
    • Farmer, Henry George. Historical Facts for the Arabian Musical Influence. London, 1930. Reprinted in 1978.
    • Faruqi, Lois Ibsen al-. An Annotated Glossary of Arabic Musical Terms. London, 1978, and Westport, Conn., 1981.
    • Guettat, Mahmoud. La musique arabo-andalouse: l’empreinte du Maghreb. Paris and Montreal, 2000.
    • Guettat, Mahmoud. La tradition musicale arabe. Nancy and Paris, 1986.
    • Jargy, Simon. La musique arabe. Paris, 1971. A third edition was published in 1988.
    • Jerkins, Jean L., and Poul Rovsing Olsen. Music and Musical Instruments in the World of Islam. London, 1976.
    • Maalouf, Shireen. History of Arabic Music Theory: Change and Continuity in the Tone Systems, Genres, and Scales. Jounieh, Lebanon, 2002.
    • Mahdī, Salīah al-. La musique arabe. Paris, 1972.
    • Mahler, Ella Zonis. Classical Persian Music: An Introduction. Cambridge, Mass., 1973.
    • Manuel, Peter. Popular Musics of the Non-Western World. New York, 1988.
    • Poché, Christian, and Jean Lambert. Musiques du monde arabe et musulman (Musics of the Arab and Muslim World). Paris, 2000.
    • Racy, Ali Jihad. “Arab Music.” In The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance, 3d ed., edited by John R. Hayes. New York and London, 1992.
    • Righini, Pietro. La musica araba nell’ambiente, nella storia e le sue basi tecniche (Arabic Music in Its Surroundings and in History, and Its Technical Fundamentals). Padua, 1983.
    • Sawa, George Dimitri. Music Performance Practice in the Early ʿAbbāsid Era 132–320 AH / 750–932 AD. Toronto, 1989. A second edition was published in 2004.
    • Shehadi, Fadlou. Philosophies of Music in Medieval Islam. Leiden, 1995.
    • Shiloah, Amnon. Music in the World of Islam. Aldershot, U.K., and Detroit, Mich., 1995.
    • Shiloah, Amnon. The Dimension of Music in Islamic and Jewish Culture. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1993.
    • Shiloah, Amnon. The Theory of Music in Arabic Writings: Descriptive Catalogue of Manuscripts in Libraries of Europe and the U.S.A.. Munich, 1979.
    • Touma, Habib Hassan. The Music of the Arabs. Translated from the French by Laurie Schwartz. Portland, Ore., 1996.

    Stefano A. E. Leoni

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