Learning and Patronizing the Science of Music among the Elite of Medieval Baghdad

In: Journal of Abbasid Studies
Mohammad Sadegh Ansari Columbia University in the City of New York NY USA

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Scholarly writings on music during the medieval period were often composed at the request of private patrons or were otherwise dedicated to members of the Baghdadi elite (e.g., caliphs and other rulers) who were not professional musicians. The existence of such treatises suggests that this Baghdadi elite had an interest in learning and/or patronizing the science of music. In this article, I examine the various functions which learning the science of music fulfilled for the elite of medieval Baghdad (third/ninth-seventh/thirteenth century), and which in turn prompted their interest in the patronage thereof. The two most important of these functions were to enhance the appreciation of performed music and to evince a status marker in a culture that celebrated mastery of the Greek-inspired sciences as a sign of one having socially arrived.


Some of the most famous treatises on the science of music during the medieval period were either composed upon the request of private patrons or were otherwise dedicated to members of the urban elite, such as caliphs and other rulers.1 The role of these patrons was so important that the final product was occasionally tailored specifically to their needs and level of knowledge. In his Risāla fī ajzāʾ khubriyya fī l-mūsīqī (Treatise on the Details of Expertise in Music), composed in response to an unnamed patron’s request, al-Kindī (d. ca. 259/873), the great Arab philosopher of the early Abbasid period, opted for a simpler language, stripped of difficult philosophical proofs since the person who asked for the treatise presumably was not adept in philosophy.2

The dedicatory prefaces of these musical treatises suggest that their originally intended audience was not professional musicians, but rather members of the Baghdadi elite, who wanted to learn about the science of music.3 Whether they were commissioned by the elite or simply dedicated to them in hopes of soliciting funding, these treatises reflect an interest in the science of music among this urban Baghdadi elite.4 Contemporary scholarship thus far has primarily focused on these treatises as data sets from which to extract information about the practice of music in medieval Islamic societies. While this approach has been fruitful and rewarding in shaping our understanding of the medieval period’s musical culture, this article examines the roles and functions that learning and patronizing the science of music played in Baghdadi elite life during the Abbasid period.

In this article, I first explore the possible impact of learning the science of music on music performance and listening, as well as its possible impact on obtaining poetic skills. I will argue that while learning the science of music was not part of the training process of becoming a professional musician or poet, it nevertheless was seen by some members of the elite as a means to better understand music and enhance the pleasure one could extract from it. Furthermore, through the study of various anecdotes about learning the mathematical sciences — the science of music included — as well as anecdotes about social interactions that involved these disciplines, I investigate the social roles that possessing knowledge of these sciences played among the Baghdadi elite of the Abbasid period. The science of music, as I argue in this article, was studied like any other mathematical sub-discipline as part of a growing Greek-inspired educational model whose social implications spilled beyond these disciplines’ practical applications.5 for the most part, knowledge of the mathematical sciences was regarded as valuable in terms of marking one’s social standing between members of the Baghdadi elite. Possessing knowledge of sciences such as geometry and music, I argue, allowed members of the upper class to best their co-elites. But before broaching the subject, I will first elaborate on the science of music, the periodization, and the sources used in this study.

The Science of Music, Periodization, and Sources

Medieval Arabic furnished a multiplicity of terms for what we nowadays understand by “music,” such as ṣawt (song), laḥn (melody), ghinā’ (singing, art song), and mūsīqī, among many others. While the first three terms explicitly designate auditory forms of music, the last one, mūsīqī, was often used to designate the science of music.6 As the term itself suggests, mūsīqī was borrowed from ancient Greek mousikē and introduced into Arabic through various feats of translation and transliteration. The borrowing, however, was more than just terminological and encompassed how the science of music was articulated. Similar to the ancient Greek classification of the sciences, in Arabic writings on the subject, mūsīqī was categorized as a sub-discipline of mathematics alongside arithmetic (ḥisāb), geometry (handasa), and astronomy (hayʾa). This classification was taken as a given by medieval audiences, since the science of music involved a great deal of discussion surrounding the mathematical ratios of musical intervals, tuning, and temperament. At the same time, it should be noted that this science involved a number of discussions, such as the cosmological and therapeutic dimensions of music that do not fall under the delimitation of our contemporary discipline of mathematics. Yet all of these discussions were categorized under the same subject of music and as a sub-discipline of mathematics.7 Mathematics itself constituted one of the primary branches of philosophy, according to Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sīnā (d. 428/1037) and al-Fārābī (d. 339/950), making music ultimately one of the sub-disciplines of philosophy.

As for the periodization, the main focus of this study is elite culture in the city of Baghdad between the third/ninth and seventh/thirteenth centuries due to the prominence of the patrons and scholars who lived in Baghdad during that timeframe in respectively patronizing and producing some of the most important treatises on the science of music. Al-Kindī, the author of the earliest treatises on the subject, lived in third/ninth century Baghdad, and al-Urmawī (d. 693/1294), arguably the most influential scholar of music in the Islamic world, lived and died in Baghdad in the seventh/thirteenth century. At the same time, I have gathered evidence from other locales to enhance the picture of learning the science of music in medieval Baghdad. In justifying this borrowing of evidence from other locales and periods, I have relied on Muḥsin al-Musāwī’s assertion of a “medieval Islamic republic of letters” — i.e., a network of intelligentsia across the various locales of the Islamic world in the wake of the fall of the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad — which has also demonstrated some parallels to the period before the fall of the caliphate, the primary period under investigation in this article.8

With regard to the primary sources used in this study, the subject itself poses some difficulties. Treatises on the science of music are, for the most part, silent as to why someone might be inclined to learn the science. By reading between the lines, however, we can speculate about some of the possible functions that scholars of the science of music envisioned for this science and the necessity of learning it. These functions, as I demonstrate, consisted of learning the science of music for the purpose of enhancing the pleasures one could extract from listening to music. Per these scholars and their arguments, the more one knew about the science of music, the better they would comprehend music and thus enjoy it more.

In addition to the picture drawn from treatises on the science of music, the perspectives provided by the literature on the etiquette of boon companions (adab al-munādama), as well as the genre known as “advice literature,” are valuable in depicting the role of music in the intellectual lives of the Baghdadi elite. What constitutes advice literature and how different manifestations of the genre varied from one another has been the subject of discussion among the scholars of the field.9 While these discussions are valid and their arguments sound and reasonable, I have avoided imposing contemporary scholarship’s distinctions among the different types of advice literature in demarcating my sources. As variegated as these sources may be, their common thread is advice to the readers on how to refine their character. They might have resorted to different methodologies and sources to drive their point forward, but for the most part they all advocated learning the science of music (albeit each in its own particular way), which makes them of interest for my arguments here. Another set of sources that have proved fruitful for this article are treatises containing anecdotes about the lives of the Baghdadi elite, such as Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī’s Kitāb Akhlāq al-wazīrayn (The Ethics of the Two Wazīrs). I have used some of the anecdotes presented in these works as evidence regarding how mathematical sciences in general and the science of music in particular contributed to the intellectual environment of the Baghdadi elite of the period in question.

Learning the Science of Music among the Elite of Baghdad

There is a treatise attributed to the famous jurist al-Māwardī (d. 450/1058) entitled Naṣīḥat al-mulūk (Advice for Kings).10 Regardless of whether al-Māwardī was the true author of this treatise, its general tone is rather jurisprudential.11 Naṣīḥat al-mulūk delineates all the modes of proper conduct expected of a just ruler presiding over the Muslim community, from the distribution of justice, to a ruler’s responsibilities towards his subjects and servants, to the appropriate ways of spending his time. The permissibility of listening to music — a pastime upon which the jurists (fuqahāʾ) did not look favorably — is one of the issues raised.12 The title of the section on music reads: “The Permissibility of Listening to Wind and Stringed Instruments.”13 Unsurprisingly, the treatise’s attitude toward music is not particularly positive. At the very beginning of the section, the author states that “Scholars have differed on the issue, with many of them forbidding it (fa-ḥarramahu kathīr minhum),” since they classify music under the rubric of frivolous (and hence sinful) games and pastimes (lahw wa-laʿb).14 In a discussion on music, the author also makes reference to other frowned-upon activities, such as hunting for pleasure and playing polo. So it comes as a surprise when, in the same section, he validates the contents of the compositions of the Greek philosophers on the science of music, which he associates with David, the Jewish prophet:

And from David, may peace and blessings be upon him, came various traditions on [music], on the stature of auditory music [samāʿ] among the ancients, and permission to delve into the treatises on [the science of] music composed by the philosophers, who had not been inactive in this regard.15

Nota bene that, while David here condones scientific writings on music and while he affirms that music was considered magnificent by the ancients, there is no mention of the religious permissibility of listening to music.16 The entire discussion, as mentioned earlier, appears in a book on kingly etiquette. The question here is why a jurist with a relatively low opinion of music would countenance kings and rulers delving into the science of music. Regardless, our author, whoever he might be, was not alone in promoting the science of music to his readers. Many jurists, belletrists, and philosophers held that learning the science of music was beneficial and encouraged rulers and members of the elite to either learn the subject or patronize it. In what follows, I will examine a number of possible reasons that the elite might have had in patronizing and learning the science of music.

The Connection between Learning the Science of Music and Performing Music, Poetic Skills, and Listening to Music

George Sawa has argued that, during the Abbasid period, professional musicians, such as members of the Mawṣilī family, suffered because of the low esteem in which the general public and the elite held them.17 In his argument, even those who loved and listened to music (albeit mostly in secret), “looked down upon musicians, especially professional ones,”18 and “even the participation of the aristocracy in music making did not help to enhance the status of music and musicians.”19 While his observations about the status of professional musicians are enlightening, it appears that his extension of their status to that of music itself is slightly exaggerated, particularly among the elite. The evidence against his interpretation in this regard comes from the same Kitāb al-Aghānī that Sawa used for his own study. There is an entire section of Kitāb al-Aghānī dedicated to caliphs, princes, and other members of the Baghdadi elite who engaged in music-making.20 Among the more well-known elite musicians, one finds names such as the caliphs al-Muʿtaḍid (d. 289/902), al-Muʿtazz (d. 255/869), al-Wāthiq (d. 232/847), al-Muntaṣir (d. 248/862), al-Muʿtamid (d. 279/892); the princes Ibrāhim b. al-Mahdī (d. 224/839), Abū ʿIsā b. Hārūn al-Rashīd (d. ca. 209/825), and ʿAbdallāh b. Mūsā al-Hādī (d. 169/786); and the princess ʿUlayya bint al-Mahdī (d. 210/825), among others.21 In other words, Sawa’s argument about the disreputability of those engaged in music may have pertained to professional musicians, but not necessarily to other social groups.

While the author of al-Aghānī limits himself to caliphs and princes, one can assume that other members of the Baghdadi elite, as well as other courts around the Islamic world, engaged music as fervently as did these Abbasid elites themselves. In Qābūs nāma, a “mirror for princes” treatise written in Persian in early fifth/eleventh century Iran, the author, himself a local Zīyārid ruler, advises his son to learn the basics of playing music. This advice is given in the context of the son wanting to become a boon companion to a king or caliph. The point of learning music performance, our Zīyārid ruler explains, is that if the professional musician of the court is not present, a companion needs to know enough about playing music to entertain the ruler until the professional musician arrives. The author does not limit his advice to music learning alone: his son should also learn the basics of medicine and astrology (ṭibb wa-nujūm) as well in case the court physician or astrologer are absent.22 Elsewhere in the same treatise, the author provides a relatively thorough guide to the customs and habits of playing music in a majlis.23 Here, again, his goal is to educate his son on the art of entertaining higher-ranking elites in case he is invited to their court.24

Through these examples, one can see that some elite members of the medieval Islamic courts actively engaged in producing music and presumably spent time and money to learn this skill. Furthermore, one might be tempted to hypothesize that the science of music had a similar function to what music theory has in our times in learning the performance of music, meaning, as part of their education in learning to perform music, these medieval elites might have also wanted to learn the science of music. There are, however, two significant considerations with this hypothesis which are cause for caution. The first point of consideration touches upon the very nature of our musical treatises. While these treatises contain useful information about the performance of music, unlike modern music theory, they are descriptive rather than prescriptive.25 With the exception of a musical étude presented in one of al-Kindī’s treatises, there is not much in any of them that could serve as performative exercises for amateur musicians.26 Even the partial information provided in Ibn Sīnā’s Najāh about different plucking techniques does not address how one should execute them. Instead, Ibn Sīnā’s discussion mostly concerns the varieties of existing techniques; his explanations about their performance, meanwhile, are vague at best.27 It is hard to imagine that anyone would have learned how to perform music through these primarily descriptive treatises. The more plausible hypothesis is that those who wanted to learn to perform music did so through attending master musicians’ circles, as Kilpatrick has found in al-Aghānī in the case of Ibrāhīm al-Mawṣilī (d. 188/804). What is interesting in al-Mawṣilī’s case is the complete absence of any mention of books and treatises in his educational path to becoming a musician.28

The second point of consideration with the use of musical treatises in learning the performance of music revolves around the patrons themselves. At the beginning of this section, I listed a number of Abbasid caliphs and princes who were engaged in producing music. One name that is missing from that list is that of Aḥmad b. al-Muʿtaṣim, for whom al-Kindī composed some of his treatises on the science of music.29 If the purpose of these treatises was to somehow teach their intended audience the skill of playing music, one would assume that we would find Aḥmad’s name among the many musically-inclined Abbasid elites recorded in Kitāb al-Aghānī. Yet, his name is completely absent from this book. Kilpatrick believes that it is possible that al-Iṣfahānī did not include the names of all the musician caliphs and princes in his book, and it is indeed quite possible that Aḥmad’s name was among those omitted by al-Iṣfahānī.30 But it is, at the very least, peculiar that the name of the prince who was the originally-intended reader of some of the earliest treatises on the science of music that we have in Arabic is absent from the most complete extant book on early Abbasid musical culture, i.e., Kitāb al-Aghānī, suggesting that those who learned the science of music, such as Aḥmad b. al-Muʿtaṣim, did not necessarily proceed to become musicians.

Another possible reason for the Baghdadi elite to learn the science of music could have been music’s connection with poetry. Poetry and music often accompanied one another in social gatherings in urban centers such as Baghdad. In justifying the need to have musical performances in the court, the famous belletrist Kushājim (d. 351/962) argues in his Kitāb Adab al-nadīm (The Book of the Etiquette of Boon Companions) that listening to poetry that is sung to music increases the listeners’ comprehension of the poems while also making them more pleasant. Kushājim goes so far as to consider songs (i.e., poetry accompanied by music) to be more prestigious than plain poetry for this reason (anna l-alḥān ashraf min al-manẓūm).31

Within the treatises on the science of music as well, there is some information that strengthens the connection between song and verse. Indeed, some of our sources contain at least one chapter dedicated to explaining Arabic prosody and how the poetic meters can be performed to music. Al-Kindī discusses the matter in his Kitāb al-Muṣawwitāt al-watariyya min dhāt al-watar al-wāḥid ilā dhāt al-ʿasharat al-awtār (The Book of Chordophone Instruments: One to Ten Strings) as does al-Urmawī in his al-Risāla al-sharafiyya.32 The existence of such sections has led some scholars to argue that there was a deep nexus between music and poetry, at least in the case of musical rhythmic theory (īqāʿ) and Arabic prosody (ʿarūḍ).33 This nexus might suggest to some that the information provided in these musical treatises could have been used to learn about poetic prosody and how to put poems to music. At the same time, however, caution must be exercised in making definite statements about the relationship between poetry and music.

Most of the information about poetry that can be found in our musical treatises was derived from other literary sources geared more towards poetic skills. For instance, al-Kindī’s discussion of Arabic prosodic and musical rhythmic modes seems to be mostly derived from al-Khalīl b. Aḥmad al-Farāhīdī’s (d. ca. 169/786) studies on Arabic prosody as well as Isḥāq al-Mawṣilī’s (d. 235/850) discussions on the subject of musical rhythmic modes.34 This indicates that those readers who wanted to study Arabic prosody could likely have found more apposite sources than musical treatises.35 Furthermore, as Neubauer has pointed out, at least in the case of al-Kindī, there seems to have been a conflation of Arabic prosody (ʿarūḍ) and musical rhythms (īqāʿ). This conflation was already noticed by musicians of the time such as Isḥāq al-Mawṣilī, who considered people with such confused ideas about the relationship between music and poetry to be “ignorant of this art [music].”36 For musicians such as Isḥāq, there might have been a connection between Arabic prosody and musical rhythm, but melodies were not composed in accordance with prosodic rules and, as Geert Jan van Gelder has suggested, “the mapping of ʿarūḍ and īqāʿ on to each other is problematical for various reasons.”37

Of course, this is not to say that the patrons’ interest in music had no impact on writings on the science of music. The scholars commissioned to compose treatises on the latter inevitably had to include some information on the former to address the interests of their patrons. This could explain the inclusion of some performance-oriented information in scientific musical treatises of the medieval Islamic world. But the interest in listening to music possibly had a much more direct impact on production of scientific musical treatises as well.

In the last section of his Kitāb al-Mūsīqī l-kabīr, al-Fārābī discusses the reasons behind the necessity of music in human society.38 For al-Fārābī, this necessity lies in the role that music can play in helping humans to achieve the most perfect of human goals (akmal maqṣūdāt insāniyya), which is “ultimate felicity” (saʿādat al-quṣwā). What can lead humans to this ultimate felicity is setting oneself to serious matters (umūr al-jidd) and not indulging in the various types of frivolous games and pastimes (aṣnāf al-laʿb).39 Nevertheless, pastimes can provide a needed respite from the gravity of life, and in that regard can also facilitate attainment of the ultimate felicity. As long as pastimes serve this noble purpose, they have a place in society and should be pursued. The danger, al-Fārābī argues, is in over-indulgence whereby they become an end and not a means. It is precisely this extravagance that has resulted in many religions proscribing them (kathīr min al-sharāʾiʿ nāhiya ʿanhā). Music, then, is among those classes of entertainment that could potentially help humans achieve ultimate felicity by providing a moment of respite from serious activities.

Al-Fārābī’s discussion focuses on the need for music and not the science of music per se. However, we can speculate, as Fadlou Shehadi has done, that the necessity of learning the science of music is implicitly hinted at here. At the beginning of his treatise, al-Fārābī informs us that the purpose of the science of music is the study of music.40 If music has the potential to assist humans in attaining ultimate felicity, then possessing the knowledge of the science of music can certainly enrich this process. Shehadi sees al-Fārābī’s arguments as a way by which a listener can “measure the success or failure of what one hears,”41 which in turn can be used to guide us to choose better musical pieces that help us achieve the ultimate felicity.

Others were more direct in connecting learning the science of music with listening to music. Aḥmad b. al-Ṭayyib al-Sarakhsī (d. 286/899), a philosopher and student of al-Kindī, is among such scholars of the science of music. In a series of fragmentary quotations recorded in al-Ḥasan al-Kātib’s Kitāb Kamāl adab al-ghināʾ (The Perfection of the Etiquette of Art-music), al-Sarakhsī argues that the more ignorant a person is about what they hear, the easier it will be for them to be moved by simple music.42 He furthermore argues that whatever beasts and ignorant people (bahāʾim wa-juhhāl al-nās) find beautiful and moving will also be pleasing to the elite (ʿuliyyat al-nās). But that which moves the people of knowledge, such as discerning the sound composition (tamyīz ḥusn al-taʾlīf) and harmony of the structure (hindām al-niẓām), is exclusive to this class and possesses no effect on beasts and ignorant people. Knowledgeable people are more difficult to impress because failing to meet their high standards spells deficiency (nuqṣān) and interrupted enjoyment (khalal min iltidhādh).43 Al-Sarakhsī’s remarks are concluded by arguing that the possession of this knowledge requires both a sound innate nature (ṭabʿ) and effective education (taʿlīm), the latter of which requires either studying with a perceptive teacher (muʿallim ḥādhiq) or associating with the experts (mutaqaddim) of the field.44

Other than their very existence and their dedicatory prefaces, these musical treatises contain no indication within as to whether members of the Baghdadi elite actually made a connection between the science of music and listening to music.45 Fortunately for us, however, there is some evidence in this regard outside of these musical treatises. We know from contemporaneous belletristic literature that some members of the Baghdadi elite believed that learning the science of music could enhance the pleasure one would experience while listening to music. Ibn Khurdādhbih (d. 300/912), the postmaster, companion, and chief spy of caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 247/861) in the Jibāl region (modern day western and northwestern Iran), was one such person.46 In his book, Kitāb al-Lahw wa-l-malāhī (The Book of Entertainment and Amusements), Ibn Khurdādhbih first identifies music as the philosophical science of studying melodies (alḥān) and one of the four philosophical disciplines, with the other three being logic, medicine, and astrology/astronomy.47 He then goes on to tell his readers an anecdote about Alexander the Great:48

When a man of music appeared before Alexander, the latter paid his respects. His companions [julasāʾ] asked incredulously: “Why would you show respect to such a man?” Alexander responded: “It was not the man that I was respecting, but the music.” And he also said elsewhere: “He who comprehends melodies can dispense with all other pleasures.”49

Since Ibn Khurdādhbih had already identified music as the philosophical discipline of studying melodies, one can assume in this anecdote that by “music” he means the science. On the other hand, his invocation of “melodies” (luḥūn) at the end of the anecdote is most probably a reference to one of the auditory types of music. “Comprehending melodies” thus means possessing the ability to intellectually analyze and understand music. This ability in turn is acquired through learning the science of music. In other words, it is the knowledge of the science of music that can make one dispense with the rest of the pleasures, not just listening to music itself. If the science of music has such power, and if the purpose of listening to music is pleasure (or attaining the ultimate felicity, according to philosophers), it only makes sense for people to learn this science in order to enhance their experience of pleasure. Given Ibn Khurdādhbih’s close relationship with caliph al-Mutawakkil and his contemporaneity with Aḥmad b. al-Muʿtaṣim and the caliph al-Muʿtaḍid, two of the patrons who commissioned musical treatises from al-Kindī and Ibn al-Munajjim, it is plausible to consider his attitude toward learning the science of music as representative of the general attitude of the medieval Baghdadi elite.

The Sociocultural Dimensions of Studying the Science of Music

Ibn Khurdādhbih’s praise for music does not stop with the Alexander anecdote. He proceeds to relate another aphorism from “the sages” (al-ḥukamāʾ): “Music guides the children [i.e., students] of philosophy and leads them to other sciences because its esoteric [meaning] is [entertainment] for the intellect while its exoteric [meaning] is [entertainment] for the senses.”50 What he has in mind is a distinctly Neoplatonic division of mental and bodily matters. Music in its mental dimension works as a gateway to learning the rest of the philosophical sciences, presumably mathematics. As I mentioned earlier, music was considered to be a part of the mathematical sciences by many pre-modern scholars. As such, learning music was on par with learning other mathematical disciplines and, even more significantly, at least according to Ibn Khurdādhbih, a prerequisite to learning them.

Providing the best possible education for their children was one of the responsibilities that kings and other elites were advised to carry out by the authors of the “mirrors for princes” literature. The prolific belletrist al-Thaʿālibī (d. 429/1038) was one such scholar. In his Ādāb al-mulūk, which he composed for Abū l-ʿAbbās Maʾmūn b. Maʾmūn Khwārizmshāh (d. 406/1016), he advises his readers (among whom, presumably, was the same king to whom the treatise was dedicated) to provide a thorough education for their children.51 Among the subjects that children needed to learn were Qurʾānic exegesis, Arabic language and grammar, poetry, and a host of philosophical sciences, including astronomy, geometry, logic, and arithmetic.52 Although he does not name the science of music among these disciplines, it is not implausible to think some of the elite would have wanted to go beyond his proposed curriculum and add it to the repertoire, especially since the science of music was, after all, considered one of the mathematical sub-disciplines.

From a slightly later period, Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 672/1274) is among those who did go beyond the conventional and include music in his proposed curriculum. His division of the sciences in his Akhlāq-i Nāṣirī is somewhat Avicennian/Fārābian. Mathematical sciences are one of three disciplines grouped under speculative knowledge (ḥikmat-i naẓarī). Mathematics has four principle branches (uṣūl), one of them being the science of music, which examines both compositional ratios and their uses in practiced music.53 In a section of the treatise on the subject of providing proper education to children, he includes speculative knowledge in its entirety after ethics.54 His rationale for the necessity of providing an education on the different scientific branches along with more on practical skills is rather straightforward:

When children learn a skill, their parents should force them to make a living out of it, so that they taste the sweetness of earning [a living] and hone their skills and learn its intricacies. They should also become adept at making a livelihood and managing their income, for so many children of the wealthy become hubristic with their wealth and are deprived of [learning] etiquette [adab] and practical skills [ṣanāʿāt] so that, when their fortunes turn, they have no recourse but to endure the ignominy of poverty and take in the pity and reproach of their friends and foes alike.55

Al-Ṭūsī’s advice addresses learning in a general sense. Far from limiting himself to the learning of the sciences, he has all kinds of learning in mind, including the learning of practical skills as well as the various branches of knowledge. In this particular quote, he does not explicitly mention ancient sciences like mathematics (and music by extension). However, since a few paragraphs before this point, he does mention speculative knowledge, which includes mathematics, one can assume he has the latter in mind as well. Furthermore, his audience seems to be the elite, although not necessarily members of the ruling family, since he only mentions the wealthy (aghniyāʾ).56 But once the upper class engaged in learning this branch of knowledge, their stature as status-bearers would have fostered cultural dynamics that would have ultimately prompted members of the ruling family — that is, the caliph’s children — to participate. After all, at least in theory, they were supposed to be the crème de la crème of their society. As al-Māwardī points out in his Aḥkām al-sulṭāniyya, the only difference between a courtier (e.g., a vizier) and the ruler is that the latter possesses a divine ordinance to rule over the people. Otherwise, they are both expected to have the same qualifications, including mastery of sundry branches of knowledge.57

Beside educating their children, some intellectuals of the period believed that the ruling class, be it kings or caliphs, also shouldered a responsibility toward furthering knowledge within the community at large. Al-Thaʿālibī in this regard asserted that:

Among the more propitious aspects of kingly rule…. is that the sages of the land, the scholars of the kingdom, and the chief artisans serve the king with the products of their knowledge, draw close to him with the fruits of their intellect, and adorn themselves with the wondrous things they bring forth and the treatises they compose in their king’s name to the extent that there is almost no sublime craft, or luminous philosophy, or exotic geometry [handasa gharība] that has not been dedicated to the king. And indeed, had it not been for the great kings of yore, much knowledge would have been lost and much glorious wisdom wasted.58

According to al-Thaʿālibī, both able-minded scholars and supportive rulers are required to produce knowledge and further wisdom, science, and the crafts in the realm. In the case of patronizing knowledge production through translation, Gutas has argued that the rulers of the Western empires (defined by him as the lands from west of India to the Atlantic Ocean) supported such efforts as part of the drive to consolidate their imperial dominance over the population of the lands they had conquered. In Gutas’s view, the ultimate conquest of the vanquished by the conquerors was exemplified in the conquest and appropriation of the formers’ knowledge systems.59 This is a point that Gutas makes throughout his Greek Thought, Arabic Culture as well; namely, that the patronage of the translation of the Greek body of knowledge by the Abbasid caliphs was an attempt to present to their Persian and Syriac subjects their dynasty as the true heir to the widely popular Hellenistic culture of late antiquity Mesopotamia and Persia.60 I would expand Gutas’s argument to include the patronage of other types of knowledge as a manifestation of this imperial ideological project. As such, al-Thaʿālibī’s advice can be perceived as a literary manifestation in the same vein. But even more interesting for the purpose of this article, particularly if we consider Gutas’s arguments, is that the drive to patronize the sciences could not have been limited to the practical sciences such as geometry mentioned in this quote. Even the science of music would have benefited from this largesse, as its patronage would have further burnished the socio-political credentials of the patronizing rulers. After all, the sciences in their totality were the subject of this imperial and royal patronage.61

Learning the ancient sciences such as geometry and music could have had other implications for elite social life as well. Possessing — or lacking — a rudimentary knowledge of these sciences could have acted as a signal of a person’s intellectual abilities to other members of the elite class. A story told by al-Sarakhsī recorded in Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī’s (d. 414/1023) Kitāb Akhlāq al-wazīrayn (and which has been translated by Franz Rosenthal) can shed light on some of these social interactions.62 Following Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī (d. 626/1229), Rosenthal believes that the story told by al-Sarakhsī is fictitious and that al-Sarakhsī himself invented the entire anecdote, apparently to ridicule the “narrow-minded orthodoxy.”63 Rosenthal’s slightly outdated terminology notwithstanding, there is no reason to question his (and al-Ḥamawī’s) assessment.64 Real or not, however, the anecdote reveals some interesting aspects of the place of the ancient sciences such as geometry and possibly music in early Abbasid social life, especially since al-Sarakhsī himself penned a number of treatises on the science of music.65

The anecdote revolves around Abū l-ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. Muḥammad, known as Ibn Thawāba (c. 277/890), a secretary (kātib) in the Abbasid administration, who, upon a friend’s suggestion, delved into geometry. One of his motivations behind this move was his anxiety over the possible loss of his position vis-à-vis his rivals. In his own words, “I thought that I might learn a very good technique from him, or attain perfection in virtue, or some superiority over rivals.”66 He reiterates this last concern elsewhere: “Maybe, it [geometry] will give us some help in religious and worldly affairs, with regard to virtue and superiority over rivals …”.67 Of course, becoming a more virtuous man is also among his motives. But one cannot escape his emphasis on “worldly affairs” and “superiority over rivals.” What is even more interesting is that he believes geometry has the power to give him that edge over his rivals, which shows the elevated place of geometry, and the mathematical sciences in general, among members of the Abbasid Baghdadi elite.

As the anecdote goes, Ibn Thawāba invites two prominent geometry scholars to one of his social gatherings. Unfortunately, his ignorance of philosophical and mathematical concepts leads to his utter failure to grasp even the basic concepts of geometry, such as the indivisibility of a point in Euclidean geometry or the possibility of lines possessing only length and not width. In his ignorance about geometry, Ibn Thawāba believes the scholars to be engaging in magic and incantations to lead him astray from God’s path. He eventually accuses both scholars of disbelief, ordering them to be thrown out of his salon, going so far as to vow on behalf of himself and his descendants that none of them shall ever sully themselves with geometry again until the coming of Judgment Day.68

It is precisely this level of incredible ignorance that makes the anecdote, as Rosenthal has argued, a comedic scene whose purpose is to mock certain members of the Baghdadi elite for a lack of proper philosophical and mathematical training. Had Ibn Thawāba known what an “indivisible thing” is, which is expounded upon in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, he would not have opened himself up to such ridicule.69 What is even more telling of al-Sarakhsī’s audience — and that of al-Tawḥīdī by extension — is that one needs to be familiar with Euclidian and Aristotelian thought in order to appreciate the humor of the joke. We can almost imagine an elite Baghdadi circle sitting at a majlis retelling this anecdote and ridiculing those who cannot comprehend such basic philosophical concepts. The rite of passage in these circles entailed, of course, possessing a knowledge of these concepts, which required studying them with scholars such as the duo introduced in al-Sarakhsī’s anecdote. Another point that we need to keep in mind here is that, as far as this anecdote is concerned, there is nothing unique and inherently exceptional to geometry. What Ibn Thawāba lacks, which makes him the subject of ridicule, is not the ability to perform mathematical operations and geometrical proofs, but rather, the terminological knowledge of the discipline. Any science which had this type of specialized terminology and required training to obtain it could be substituted for geometry in this anecdote. Music, then, would have been one of these disciplines whose knowledge would have enabled one to participate in elite Baghdadi intellectual culture. Even though this anecdote is about another one of the branches of the ancient sciences (namely, geometry), al-Tawḥīdī reveals his anxieties about music in another chapter of his treatise.

The chapter in question is a refutation of Abū l-Faḍl b. al-ʿAmīd (d. 369/970), who was the vizier of the Būyid ruler Rukn al-Dawla (d. 366/976). In addition to being the vizier, Ibn al-ʿAmīd also happened to be a scholar and a tutor to Rukn al-Dawla’s son, ʿAḍud al-Dawla (d. 372/983), who himself later became the Būyid ruler of both Iraq and Iran.70 Through citing a letter written to Ibn al-ʿAmīd by another scholar, al-Tawḥīdī informs us of all the vices that the former had in his capacity as a vizier, including his cowardice, his lack of philosophical knowledge despite his boasts to the contrary, and his stinginess.71 Al-Tawḥīdī then reassumes the narrating voice and has the following to say about Ibn al-ʿAmīd:

He used to declaim in his insolence, recklessness, and complete disregard for those around him, “Music [mūsīqī] will die with my death and pass away into oblivion with my passing away.” Nevertheless, he never deigned to impart a single letter of his writings to anyone else nor relay the special insights that were supposedly revealed to him. Keep in mind that the esoteric dimensions of this — or any other — science do not arbitrarily open themselves up to anyone. This is particularly apposite for music [mūsīqī], since it has been ages since anyone could critically engage the scientific literature or authoritatively analyze the discipline in a holistic manner. Indeed, the sciences in general — may God preserve you! — have suffered great damage and loss due to the lack of those who yearn for them and seek them out: the people have completely turned their backs on this learning. Among the philosophical disciplines, music [most of all] has been deprived of its bearers, as its science cannot be maintained except through practice, nor can its practice be complete without the science, and how rare it is to find the combination of knowledge and practice in the right proportion in any discipline.72

We do not need to take al-Tawḥīdī’s characterization (and indeed character assassination) of Ibn al-ʿAmīd at face value to understand the core of his accusations and the tools he is utilizing to express them.73 Al-Tawḥīdī’s exaggerated lamentations about the loss of music as a philosophical discipline aside (al-Fārābī wrote his highly influential and important Kitāb al-Mūsīqī l-kabīr around the same time, upon the commission of another vizier in Baghdad), the quote reveals interesting insights from the elite culture of fourth/tenth century Baghdad. First and foremost, Ibn al-ʿAmīd seems to be using his knowledge of music as a selling point for his intellectual prowess to the extent that, according to al-Tawḥīdī, he claims he is the last person who truly possesses the knowledge of the discipline (again keeping in mind that al-Fārābī was in the same city at the same time composing his Kitāb al-Mūsīqī l-kabīr). But interestingly, at least according to al-Tawḥīdī, his boasts remain unverified as no one ever studied anything on the subject written by or with him.74 Whether or not we are to believe al-Tawḥīdī’s accusations against Ibn al-ʿAmīd, namely that he knows nothing about the subject, is beside the point. As per al-Tawḥīdī, Ibn al-ʿAmīd claims to be an expert on the science of music. This suggests that Ibn al-ʿAmīd flaunted his expertise as a form of social currency to demonstrate his indispensability (music will be lost with my loss) to the Baghdadi elite society. If the science of music was not so significant for the rest of the society, then who would care about its loss? Furthermore, similar to the anecdote about Ibn Thawāba, for al-Tawḥīdī and other members of the learned and elite society of Baghdad to pass judgment on Ibn al-ʿAmīd’s knowledge of mathematical disciplines and accuse him of being ignorant about them, they needed to have a proper knowledge of these disciplines themselves. This would have required a vibrant scholarly community in which the elite would seek knowledge of these mathematical disciplines, not just to learn these disciplines for their own sake, but also to access the elite social circles and gain the upper hand over their rivals in this elite intellectual environment.

To point out that learning the science of music had social implications is not to negate the importance of pursuing the discipline for purely intellectual reasons. As I have argued in this article, philosophers and scholars of music themselves believed that learning the science had the power to enhance the pleasures of music, which itself was a useful activity as it assisted humans in achieving their ultimate felicity. Furthermore, there is evidence that some members of the Baghdadi elite agreed with this sentiment. What should be pointed out, however, is that there were limitations to the functions of the science of music in its connections with performing and listening to music. As I have discussed in this article, learning the science of music was not instrumental in becoming a musician or enhancing one’s understanding of Arabic poetry. The standard medieval training for becoming a musician was much more performance-oriented and focused on practical exercises. Beyond the direct practical applications for learning musical performance, studying and patronizing the science of music was more about the intellectual and social activities of the elite of Abbasid Baghdad. In this sense, the science of music was much more similar to other mathematical sciences such as geometry and arithmetic than it was to the performance of music. The elite needed to learn it in order to engage with the rest of their social and cultural class in an intellectual capacity.


I would like to thank my colleagues John Halliwell, Hengameh Ziai, and Philip Balboni, among many others who provided comments throughout multiple revisions of this article. I would also like to thank my advisors Prof. George Saliba, Prof. Andrew Hicks, and Prof. Mana Kia. My gratitude goes to the two anonymous reviewers of this article, who helped clarify my arguments through their generous comments.


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Of the many scholars whose treatises follow this model of patronage/dedication, one can mention al-Kindī (see Shiloah, Theory of Music, 258), Yaḥyā b. ʿAlī b. Yaḥyā l-Munajjim (Risāla fī l-mūsīqī, 236), al-Fārābī (Kitāb al-Mūsīqī l-kabīr, 35), and al-Urmawī (see Wright, Modal System, 1).


Kindī, Muʾallafāt, 115. It might be objected that al-Kindī, by invoking his unidentified, and possibly fictional, “patron” is simply following conventional tropes of medieval Arabic writings. Whether al-Kindī’s patron was a real person or just an established trope, however, is irrelevant. The very fact that al-Kindī is deliberately rendering his densely philosophical subject in a simpler language indicates the presence of a non-specialist audience interested in the science of music for whom he is writing.


“Music theory” is perhaps the most intuitively comprehensible concept that can be compared with “the science of music.” Throughout this article, however, I have opted in favor of the latter. This is because I believe “music theory” conveys very specific modern and Eurocentric connotations that inextricably link learning it with learning the performance of music. As I will argue in this article, this link was not necessarily present between the “science of music” and performing music in the medieval Islamic world. For more on this issue see below.


By “elite” here, I have in mind the set of social and political actors introduced in Dimitri Gutas’s monumental work, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture. These actors included caliphs, viziers, secretaries, local and provincial governors, and even scholars themselves, who occasionally, in addition to composing original scientific texts, became patrons and commissioned translations of the ancient Greek scientific texts into Arabic through these texts’ Syriac intermediaries. For more on these actors and their role in the appropriation of the Greek Classical heritage, see Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture.


These practical applications, which mostly involved complex mathematical operations, ranged from determining the times of religious duties such as prayer and fasting through astronomy, to calculating the amount of tax owed to the state through algebra, to performing land surveys and divisions through geometry, to finding consonant and dissonant musical intervals through the study of their mathematical ratios in the science of music.


For a discussion on the scientific connotations of the term mūsīqī in Arabic writings on the subject, and the distinction between the science of music and auditory types of music and their respective terms, see Shiloah, Music in the World of Islam, 59. For the meaning and various definitions of the terms ghināʾ, ṣawt, and laḥn respectively, see ibid., 5-6, 15, 22. For a survey of the different kinds of musical writings in Arabic, see Neubauer, Arabic Writings on Music. See also Farmer, A History of Arabian Music, and Shiloah, Theory of Music.


This is due to the difference between our contemporary understanding of mathematics and the medieval understanding of the same discipline. The scholarship on the different ontological conceptualizations of mathematics in the medieval world, whether in the Christian or Islamic context, is scarce, to put it mildly. Foucault acknowledges the ontologically different nature of Renaissance (and even more broadly pre-modern) categorizations of knowledge, but his study is more interested in the early modern epistemic shift than the pre-modern episteme itself. (For his discussions on the Renaissance episteme, see Foucault, The Order of Things, 17-45). Andrew Hicks (Composing the World, 29-109) examines the place of mathematics and music in the Latinate medieval Platonic cosmology. Hicks’ forthcoming book, tentatively titled “The Broken Harp: Musical Metaphor in Classical Persian Literature,” aims at discussing some of these ontological categorizations in the medieval Perso-Islamic philosophical tradition. To put it briefly, as I understand it, the medieval cosmos was understood as an infinite web of interconnected relations. As such, mathematics was rarely just about numerical operations and most often involved discussions regarding how numerical operations and even numbers themselves relate to the harmony of the universe, heavenly spheres, human soul, etc. It is this interconnectedness that is missing in our understanding of mathematics, which subsequently means the discipline has become limited to the numerical operations side of the pre-modern mathematics. For more on the pre-modern episteme and the ontological categorization of mathematics in it, consult the books referenced in this footnote.


These parallels can help us in understanding the interconnectedness of intellectual culture of different cities of the Islamic world, which transcended some of the more destructive historical events that befell the region. On the issue of the continuation of cultural dissemination after the fall of Baghdad, see Mūsawī, Medieval Islamic Republic, 8-12.


Louise Marlow (Surveying Recent Literature) provides a concise study of these discussions in the secondary literature. Ann Lambton (Mirrors for Princes, 419-442), one of the earliest scholars who studied the genre, considers it writings of belletrists and courtiers who were neither philosophers nor jurists. Their works and subsequently the advice provided in them, according to Lambton, more than dealing with the ideals of proper conduct, dealt with the practical and day-to-day affairs of the kingdom. Lambton’s arguments are critiqued by other scholars who see a proliferation of this genre among other medieval intellectuals who were not primarily known as belletrists. In addition, Lambton’s arguments regarding the practical nature of the genre (as opposed to ideal approaches) are also challenged. For Marlow’s discussion of Lambton’s arguments, see Surveying Recent Literature, 525-528. Another distinction that has been made by some contemporary scholars is between the discussions presented in ethical treatises (akhlāq literature) composed by philosophers and works composed by courtiers with a more advisory spirit. For more on these debates see Marlow, Surveying Recent Literature, 525-526.


There is an ongoing debate in the scholarly community as to whether this treatise actually belongs to al-Māwardī or not, with some scholars arguing that there is no mention of this treatise until Ḥājjī Khalīfa’s (d. 1067/1657) Kashf al-Ẓunūn. The lack of any mention of this treatise until much later after the time of al-Māwardī has led these scholars to doubt its attribution to him and the consensus in the scholarly community for the time being is that the treatise should not be considered his. For a full discussion on the issue see Māwardī, Naṣīḥat al-mulūk, 3-33; also Marlow, Counsel for Kings, 1-21.


For this author’s jurisprudential sensibilities, see Marlow, Counsel for Kings, 228-239.


Māwardī, Naṣīḥat al-mulūk, 380-384.


Māwardī, Naṣīḥat al-mulūk, 380.


Our anonymous author also mentions that some jurists had permitted music, as long as its content did not distract Muslims from God’s remembrance.


Māwardī, 380-381: Wa-ʿalā lisān Dāwūd ʿalayhi l-ṣalāt wa-l-salām ʿalā mā jāʾat bihi l-riwāyāt wa-li-jalālat ḥāl al-samāʿ ʿinda l-awāʾil wa-ibaḥatihi lahum bimā allafat al-falāsifa fīhi kitāb al-mūsīqī wa-ʿannū bihi l-ʿināya al-shadīda.


For a detailed discussion of the role of David in Judeo-Arabic writings on music and his contrast with Satan as the “false singer,” see Shiloah, Music and Its Virtues, 80.


Sawa, The Status and Roles, 70-75.


Ibid., 71.


Ibid., 73.


For a more detailed discussion of this section, see Kilpatrick, Making the Great Book of Songs, 28.


See Iṣfahānī, Kitāb al-Aghānī, vols. VIII and IX.


Badavī, Baḥs̲ Dar Bārah-’i Qābūs’nāmah, 183-184.


Ibid., 174-178.


For an English translation of Qābūs nāma, see Levy, A Mirror for Princes.


Bruno Nettl (Study of Ethnomusicology, 68-70) uses the descriptive/prescriptive dichotomy to distinguish between two types of notation that are intended for either analysis or performance practice, respectively. I am extending this definition to include other aspects of music theory as well, such as the ones discussed above.


See Kindī, Muʾallafāt, 161-165.


Ibn Sīnā, Sharḥ al-Mūsīqī, 296-299.


Kilpatrick, Making the Great Book of Songs, 247-251. This is not to say that all musicians would have invariably lacked knowledge of the science of music. Ṣafī al-Dīn al-Urmawī (d. 693/1294) is a perfect example of a musician who also possessed an excellent grasp of the science of music. Rather, the point is that learning the science of music was not a necessity for professional musicians. For a study of an episode involving al-Urmawī’s musical prowess, see Van Gelder, Sing Me to Sleep.


Shiloah, Theory of Music, 258.


Kilpatrick, Making the Great Book of Songs, 263.


Kushājim, Adab al-nadīm, 55. Van Gelder (Sound and Sense, 149-162) has collected a number of similar remarks regarding the relationship between musical rhythm and poetic prosody in medieval Arabic classical literature.


See Kindī, Muʾallafāt, 95-98; Urmawī, Risāla Sharafiyya, 219-241. It is worth mentioning that in al-Urmawī’s case, the discussion is more about musical rhythms (īqāʿ) and only occasionally about how one can connect them to the prosodic units. These occasional discussions involve putting beats of the musical rhythms (naqarāt) in conversation with the afāʿīl system that was used to discuss Arabic prosodic meters.


For an example of such scholarship, see Wulstan, The Muwaššaḥ and Zaǧal Revisited, 249-252. For critiques of this position, see Van Gelder, Sound and Sense, 149-162.


Sawa, Rhythmic Theories, 73-78. See also Neubauer, Al-Khalīl b. Aḥmad and Music.


By no means do I intend to argue that music and poetry were disconnected or that poets had no practical musical knowledge whatsoever. There are enough accounts of poets who were also musicians, both in the Persian and the Arabic poetic traditions, to convince us that music and poetry were closely tied skills. Furthermore, it is not too implausible to think that some poets, especially those who participated in the cultural practices of the elite in cities such as Baghdad, had some knowledge of the science of music as well. My point is to rather argue that learning the science of music was not a necessity in learning the art of composing poems and hence, treatises on the science of music were not composed with the intention of teaching would-be poets about music. For the science of music as being excluded from the basic curriculum for medieval Arabic poetry, see Bencheikh, Poétique Arabe, 51-53.


Neubauer, Al-Khalīl b. Aḥmad and Music, 81.


Van Gelder, Sound and Sense, 157. See also Bencheikh’s (Les musiciens et la poésie, 126) argument in this regard, who believes Arabic poetic prosody and musical rhythmic theory witnessed parallel but nevertheless independent developments.


Fārābī, Kitāb al-Mūsīqī, 1183-1187. Erlanger’s French translation of this treatise, to the best of my knowledge, albeit outdated, to this day remains the only translation of al-Fārābī’s book in any major European language. For a translation of the passages under discussion here, see Erlanger, La Musique Arabe, 2, 96-100.


It is worth noting that for al-Fārābī, in the matter of the purposes and goals of music, the model to be followed is that of poetry. Meaning, just as poetry can have a serious aspect and an entertaining aspect, music can have these two aspects as well. This is because, according to al-Fārābī here, the affairs of music are a function of the affairs of poetry (inna afʿāl hādhihi l-hayʾa tābiʿa li-afʿāl al-hayʾa al-shiʿriyya).


Fārābī, Kitāb al-Mūsīqī, 83.


Shehadi, Philosophies of Music, 63. For a more detailed study of al-Fārābī’s arguments about the place of music in human life and the role of the science of music in this regard, see ibid., 61-65.


Kātib, Kitāb Kamāl, 19-20. One issue with al-Kātib’s citations of al-Sarakhsī is that it is not clear where the latter’s statements end and the former’s begin. This is an issue that, as Shiloah has pointed out, al-Kātib has with his citations of al-Fārābī as well. The text demarcates the beginnings of quotes by inserting tropes such as qāla, but does not employ any marker to signal the end of the quotation. Despite the deficiency, however, as Shiloah has pointed out through checking al-Fārābī’s quotations against the relevant passages from Kitāb al-Mūsīqī l-kabīr, al-Kātib’s additions are written in the same spirit as the original source material. This means that even though we cannot be sure when al-Sarakhsī’s discussions end and al-Kātib’s begin, the latter’s additions aim to be trustworthy reflections of the former’s ideas. For Shiloah’s arguments on the issue of the reliability of al-Kātib’s citations, see Shiloah, Techniques of Scholarship, 91-94; al-Kātib’s treatise is translated in French by Shiloah, La perfection des connaissances musicales.


Kātib, Kitāb Kamāl, 20.


Ibid., 21. See also Shehadi, Philosophies of Music, 81-91.


Similar discussions about the relationship between music, pleasure, and its relationship with the human soul can be found in other musical treatises as well. I have refrained from discussing all of them and their varieties here to avoid repetition. For some of these examples see Kindī, Muʾallafāt, 150-153, Ibn al-Ṭaḥḥān, Ḥāwī l-funūn, 14-17; Ibn Sīnā, Sharḥ al-mūsīqī, 21-26; and Ibn Zayla, Kāfī, 19-21.


For a brief account of Ibn Khurdādhbih’s life and his role in al-Mutawakkil’s administration, see Zadeh, Mapping Frontiers, 16-20.


Ibn Khurdādhbih, Mukhtār, 13.


Alexander the Great was one of the most revered figures in pre-modern Islamic civilizations and was even identified with Dhū l-Qarnayn, a benevolent Qurʾānic figure, by some Muslim scholars and literati alike. He was responsible for walling off Gog and Magog and sparing humans from their menace until the coming of the Judgment Day. It appears that his invocation here by Ibn Khurdādhbih is a reference to his characterization as the model king and ruler according to these pre-modern Islamic views. For more on this matter, see Zadeh, Mapping Frontiers, 42-43, 82-83, 97-126.


Ibn Khurdādhbih, Mukhtār, 13: Fa-dakhala ʿalā l-Iskandar rajul mūsīqī, fa-aẓhara ikrāmahu. Fa-qāla lahu julasāʾuhu: kayfa akramta hādhā hādhihi l-karāma? Fa-qāla laysa l-rajul akramtu wa-lākinna l-mūsīqiyya akramtu. Wa-qāla l-Iskandar: man fahima l-luḥūn istaghnā min sāʾir al-ladhdhāt.


Ibn Khurdādhbih, Mukhtār, 13: Al-mūsīqī yudarriju abnāʾ al-falāsifa wa-yasūquhum ilā sāʾir al-ʿulūm li-anna bāṭinahu la-huwa l-ʿuqūl wa-ẓāhirahu la-huwa l-ḥawāss.


For a brief description of this treatise and the authenticity of its attribution to al-Thaʿālibī, see Orfali, The Works of Abū Manṣūr al-Thaʿālibī.


Thaʿālibī, Ādāb al-mulūk, 202.


Ṭūsī, Akhlāq-i Nāṣirī, 38-39. It is worth mentioning that despite its misleading label of “speculative,” mathematics, according to al-Ṭūsī, has some subdivisions that include practical subjects such as mechanical devices (jarr athqāl), algebra, and optics.


Ṭūsī, Akhlāq-i Nāṣirī, 227.


Ibid., 229: Va chun ṣanāʿatī az ṣanāʿāt amūkhti bāshad ū rā bi kasb va taʿayyush bidān farmāyand, tā chun ḥalāvati iktisāb biyābad ān rā bi aqṣā l-ghāya birisānad, va dar z̤abṭ-i daqāʾiq-i ān faz̤l-i naẓarī istiʿmāl kunad, va nīz bar ṭalab-i maʿīshat va takalluf-i umūr-i ān qādir va māhir shavad, chi aks̲ar-i awlād-i aghniyā ki bi s̲arvat maghrūr bāshand va az ṣanāʿāt va ādāb maḥrūm mānand baʿd az inqilāb-i rūzigār dar maz̲allat va darvīshī uftand va maḥall-i raḥmat va shamātat-i dūstān va dushmanān shavand.


Although rarer than the patronage of ruling elite, patronage of treatises on the science of music by the social elite who were positioned outside of the political circles happened on occasion in the medieval Islamic world as well. One example of such patronage is Ibn Kurr’s treatise on music, whose patron, per Owen Wright, was a member of the social and religious Arab elite of the early eighth/fourteenth century Cairo rather than a member of the military and ruling elite. See Wright, Music Theory in Mamluk Cairo, 19-21.


Māwardī, The Ordinances of Government, 23.


Thaʿālibī, Ādāb al-mulūk, 39: Min ḥusn āthār al-mulūk … anna ḥukamāʾ al-bilād wa-ʿulamāʾ al-mulk wa-ruʾasāʾ al-ṣināʿāt yukhdimūnahum bi-natāʾij afhāmihim wa-yataqarrabūna ilayhim bi-thamarāt ʿuqūlihim wa-yataʾannaqūna fī mā yastakhrijūnahu aw yuṣannifūnahu bi-asmāʾihim, fa-lā takādu taḥṣulu ghurra karīma aw ḥikma badīʿa aw handasa gharība, illā idhā kānū l-maqṣūdīn bihā wa-l-marjuwīn li-rtiḍāʾihā, fa-law lā l-afāḍil min salaf al-mulūk la ḍāʿat ʿulūm kathīra wa-buṭilat ḥikam jalīla.


Gutas, The Historical and Ideological Dimensions.


See Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, 11-104.


That rulers were a sine qua non of the patronage of sciences is not unknown to contemporary scholarship. Brentjes (El mecenazgo cortesano; Euclid’s Elements) has examined the impact of courtly patronage on the mathematical sciences in general, and Euclidean geometry in particular. In the case of Euclid’s Elements, one of the most fundamental books on the study of geometry, Brentjes (Euclid’s Elements, 441-452) has demonstrated how a continuous interest in this treatise by different members of the Abbasid family and their administration as well as later Būyid princes resulted in multiple translations of this treatise.


See Tawḥīdī, Akhlāq al-wazīrayn, 235-247; Rosenthal, Aḥmad b. Aṭ-Tayyib as-Saraḫsî, 86-94.


Rosenthal, Aḥmad b. Aṭ-Tayyib as-Saraḫsî, 86.


For Makdisi’s argument regarding the contemporary political dimensions of Goldziher’s introduction of the phrase “Islamic Orthodoxy,” see Makdisi, Hanbalite Islam.


Dānish Pazhūh, Pīshnamāz Zādah, and Banā Pūr, Fihrist-i Ās̲ār-i Khaṭṭī, 48.


Rosenthal, Aḥmad b. Aṭ-Tayyib as-Saraḫsî, 88.


Ibid., 89.


Ibid., 89-93.


For an explanation of “indivisible thing,” see Aristotle, Metaphysics, 160-163, 365-368.


For ʿAḍud al-Dawla’s political life and Ibn al-ʿAmīd’s role in his political education, see Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 230.


Al-Tawḥīdī, Akhlāq al-wazīrayn, 320-26.


Al-Tawḥīdī, Akhlāq al-wazīrayn, 328: wa-kāna yaqūlu bi-qiḥatihi wa-qillat iktirāthihi wa-tahāwunihi bi-man ḥawlahu: ammā l-mūsīqī fa-innahu yamūtu bi-mawtī wa-yufqadu bi-faqdī, hādhā wa-huwa lam yaqraʾ ḥarf minhu ʿalā aḥad min khalq illāh, wa-mā ūḥiya ilayhi bihi, wa-lā yajūzu an yanfatiḥa mughlaquhu juzāfan ʿalayhi aw ʿalā ghayrihi; wa-innamā kāna yastajīzu hādha l-qawl fi l-mūsīqī khāṣṣatan li-annahū lam yabqa mundhu dahr man yadullu min hādhihi l-ṣanāʿa ʿalā ḥarf bi-taḥqīq, aw yaʾtī fīhā bi-waṣf tāmm, li-dhahābihi wa-durūsihi. Wa-l-ʿilm kulluhu — abqāka Allāh — qad dakhalahu l-ḍaym, wa-ghalaba ʿalayhi l-dhahāb li-qillat al-rāghibīn, wa-faqd al-ṭālibīn, wa-iʿrāḍ al-nās ʿanhu ajmaʿīn. Wa-l-mūsīqī min bayna ajzāʾ al-falsafa fuqida ḥamaluhu, li-annahu lā yūjadu ʿilmuhu illā bi-ʿamal, wa-lā yukmalu ʿamaluhu illā bi ʿilm, wa-l-ʿilm wa-l-ʿamal fī ṣināʿa wāḥida qalla mā yajtamiʿān ʿalā l-tanāsub al-ṣaḥīḥ.


In fact, Ibn al-ʿAmīd was regarded a great scholar and politician by many of his contemporaries. For a much more favorable characterization of Ibn al-ʿAmīd, see, for instance, Ibn Miskawayh, Tajārib al-umam, V, 374-378.


Assuming Ibn ʿAmīd did indeed boast about his musical knowledge, as al-Tawḥīdī claims, the latter’s accusations seem to be correct, as there are no musical treatises known to us left from Ibn al-ʿAmīd.

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