A Brief History of Arabic Music up to the 20th Century

The history of Arabic music can be divided into several main periods.

The first is the pre-Islamic period – the period of Jahiliyyah – ignorance, as it is called.This term, of course, was coined by the Muslim thinkers of later times. All the information we have about the music of this period, which is described as simple and primitive, is from those thinkers of the 9th century and later. During the Jahiliyyah period music was probably comprised of songs of wandering and journeys, in which the lyrics were more important than the melody. It is known that there was already contact with neighboring cultures such as the Babylonian empire and the Assyrian empire, which flourished in the area at the time. The nomadic tribes also carried cultural messages to and from neighboring societies.

The prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570 A.D., and moved to Yathrib (later known as Medina) in 622. Within two years, the entire area embraces Islam as its religion. This begins a pathway of conquering which continues after Muhammad’s death in 632, by his successors, the Rashidun Caliphs – the Orthodox. Each one of them would expand the edges and spread the new religion, and with it the music, in genres related to the religion such as the adhan- the call to prayer, and the cantillation of the Qur’an.

Tariq ibn Ziyad conquers Andalusia, the Arabic name for Spain, in 711. Ibn Ziyad becomes a Muslim and begins 800 years of Islamic rule.

In the meantime, the empire’s base moves the Baghdad (762), and during the rule of caliphs Harun al-Rashid and until the rule of al-Ma’mun his son, between 813 and 833, culture and science develop: Bait al-Hikma (the House of Wisdom) is established, as well as an enterprise to translate all Greek writings into Arabic. The caliph’s court musician Ishaq al-Mawsili nurtures a musician named Ziryab, who surpasses him and is deported to Andalusia – Ziryab arrives in Cordoba in 822, and brings with him his musical outlook. He is credited with creating the Andalusi nubah, the Andalusian musical meta-structure, with 24 scales, for 24 hours in a day. Zriyab is also credited with beginning the use of a five-string oud rather than four-string one, and using a soft pick made from an eagle’s claw. See more about Ziriyab here.


This begins a golden age which includes cultural advancement and thriving of the arts by all residents of the area – both Muslims and Jews. Jewish contribution to this style of music is evident throughout history, and Jews in Arab countries saw this music as their own music in every way. Many of the most important musicians in those countries were Jews.

In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain completely by the Christian King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, as were the Muslims later. The music travels along with the people mostly to North Africa – Morocco, Algiers and Tunisia – but also to the Balkan, Turkey and Israel.

From this point and up to the 19th century there is a period without much documented growth. The next period is the connection with the west, bringing a desire to define and clarify the musical style, partly as a definer of the burgeoning Arab nationalism of the time, and partly to counteract the unavoidable collision with western music. The music evolves and undergoes a series of significant processes under those influences and more, starting at the end of the 19th century.

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