History of Arabic Music

Arabic music has been known to exist in preIslamic period between the 5th and 7th centuries in the form of oral poetry accompanied by a drum or oud respecting the poetic meter. Songs were simple using only one maqam or melody.

In Mizrahi and Sephardic Middle Eastern Jewish prayer services, each Shabbat the congregation conducts services using a different Maqam. The melodies used in a given maqam aims to express the emotional state of the reader throughout the set liturgy (without changing the text).

Islam arrived in the mid-seventh century with the revelation of the holy scriptures in the form of poetic verses in Arabic. The recitation of Qur’an has been also melodic relying on maqams for melody.

Isḥāq al-Kindī

Abū Naṣr al Fārābī

Safi al-Din al-Urmawi

In the early Islamic period, Greek music principles were translated by Muslim scholar Isḥāq al-Kindī (801-873 AD), who ultimate published 15 articles on music theory. The word “mussiqa” was used for the first time in Arabic. During the ninth and tenth centuries, scholars pulished the first encyclopedic collections of poems and music. A physicist named Abū Naṣr al Fārābī (870-950 AD) published the Large Book of Music in which he documents pure Arabian tone system of maqams, still used in Arabic music today.

Later in the 13th century, Safi al-Din al-Urmawi (1216- 1294 AD) developed musical notation for rhythm using geometric notation, which did not appear in the Western world until the late 20th century. By the 11th century, Islamic Spain was the center of manufacture of musical instruments, which ultimately found their way to Europe.

Later with the rise of the vast Ottoman Empire from the 13th to the early 20th century, Ottoman music had been influenced by Byzantine, Armenian, Arabic and Persian music. This confluence is likely due to the vastness of the Islamic Ottoman empire and the trade routes within it.

Consequently, when looking at the boundaries of Arab countries as we know them today, we find that Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, and Byzantine music have maqams for melody and the dumbek system for rhythm.

The maqams are the way Arabic music defines melody. The poetry and music in each region continued through oral tradition resulting in de facto standards for each area. The Arabic Music Conference in Cairo in 1932 established that regional variations existed in the intonation of Arabic maqamat (pl. maqam) and attempted to list the most popular maqams to establish a standard as in Western music (which use even- tempered instruments).

This is a daunting task since Arabic music does not have an absolute reference. In spite of the Cairo Music Conference and many other attempts, it is nearly impossible to find an exhaustive list of all maqams.