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A Musical Gathering – Ottoman, 18th century

Islamic music may refer to religious music, as performed in Islamic public services or private devotions, or more generally to musical traditions of the Muslim world. The heartland of Islam is the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Africa, Iran, Central Asia, and South Asia. Due to Islam being a multi-ethnic religion, the musical expression of its adherents is vastly diverse. Indigenous traditions of various part have influenced the musical styles popular among Muslims today. The word "music" in Arabic, the language of Islam, (mūsīqā موسيقى) is defined more narrowly than in English or some other languages, and "its concept" was at least originally "reserved for secular art music; separate names and concepts belonged to folk songs and to religious chants". [1]

At least one scholar (Jacob M. Landau) makes the generalization about Islamic music that it "is characterized by a highly subtle organization of melody and rhythm", that "the vocal component predominates over the instrumental", and that the individual musician "is permitted, and indeed encouraged, to improvise". [1]

Historically, the question of whether music is permitted in Islamic jurisprudence is disputed. [2] Regardless, Islamic art and music flourished during the Islamic Golden Age. [3] [4] [5]

Secular and folk musical styles

Classical Islamic music

According to scholar Jacob M. Landau, "a fusion of musical styles" was able to develop between "pre-Islamic Arabian music" and the music of Persians, Byzantines, Turks, Imazighen (Berbers), and Moors, because of "strong affinities between Arabian music and the music of the nations occupied by the expanding Arabic peoples". The core area were this "new art" of classical Islamic music succeeded stretched "from the Nile valley to Persia". However, many parts of the Muslim world did not adopt the "new art" of classical Islamic music, or adopted it but also kept native music forms which were "alien" to classical Islamic music. [1] In general, the farther from the area between the Nile and Persia one travels, "the less one finds undiluted Islamic music." [1]

Middle East

All of these regions were connected by trade long before the Islamic conquests of the 7th century, and it is likely that musical styles travelled the same routes as trade goods. However, lacking recordings, we can only speculate as to the pre-Islamic music of these areas. Islam must have had a great influence on music, as it united vast areas under the first caliphs, and facilitated trade between distant lands. Certainly, the Sufis, brotherhoods of Muslim mystics, spread their music far and wide.

Khaliji music has roots going back more than 1,000 years, to the Islamic period, under the Umayyads and Abbasids. [6]

North Africa

The Berber and Arabic speaking countries of Central and Western North Africa, such as Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, share some musical traditions with Egypt and the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East. Popular modern styles of music such as Raï and Chaabi originated in Berber countries. In addition, West African influences can be heard in the popular music of Gnawa.

Horn of Africa

Somali oud player Nuruddin Ali Amaan

Most Somali music is based on the pentatonic scale. That is, the songs only use five pitches per octave in contrast to a heptatonic (seven note) scale such as the major scale. At first listen, Somali music might be mistaken for the sounds of nearby regions such as Ethiopia, Sudan or Eritrea, but it is ultimately recognizable by its own unique tunes and styles. Somali songs are usually the product of collaboration between lyricists (midho), songwriters (lahan), and singers ('odka or "voice"). [7] Instruments prominently featured in Somali music include the kaban ( oud).

West Africa

Islam is the largest and oldest organized religion in this region, although indigenous Sahelian and Saharan styles and genres are more prominent than those influenced by Middle-Eastern theory.

West African musical genres are more varied, and tend to incorporate both native and Berber influences, rather than those of Arab origin. A long history of court griot music based on historical accounts and praise-singing exists in the region. Wind and string instruments, such as the Kora harp, xalam lute, or Tambin flute (similar to the ney) are generally preferred to percussion, although percussion instruments such as the talking drum and djembe are also widely played among Muslim populations

Central Asia

Many of the countries in Central Asia such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have been heavily influenced by Turkic and Persian culture. Bowed instruments are common, as is bardic singing.

South Asia

The music of the Muslim countries of South Asia ( Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives and Pakistan) as well as countries with sizeable Muslim minorities ( India, Nepal and Sri Lanka) merged Middle Eastern genres with indigenous classical musical modes, and is generally distinct in style and orchestration, yet due to the strong links encountered between the Middle-East, Central Asia, and South Asia, it is closer to Middle-Eastern styles than those of the periphery of the Islamic world, which tend to be purely indigenous.

Southeast Asia

"Al-Ushyaaq" Arab-Indonesian Gambus musical ensemble in Jakarta, 1949

Muslim-majority Indonesia has been significantly less influenced by Middle Eastern traditions than South Asia. As a result, many local musical styles predate the coming of Islam, although exceptions include Malay Zapin and Joget, and the Indonesian Gambus (derived from Qanbus), all of which show strong Middle Eastern influence.

There are also local music genres in Muslim-majority regions in Southeast Asia that are influenced by Arabian traditions, such as the tagonian of the Sundanese people and glipang of the people of Probolinggo

The music of South East Asia's Muslim-majority regions is more closely related to the musical genres of South East and East Asia. Gong chime ensembles such as Gamelan and Kulintang existed in the region before the arrival of Islam, and musical theory and method owe more to heavy Chinese influence, as well as HinduBuddhist principles, than to Arabic musical philosophy. Variations of one of two main scales prevail in the region among different ensembles: slendro and pelog (both of which originated in Java).

In Java, use of the gamelan for Islamic devotional music was encouraged by the Muslim saint Sunan Kalijogo.

Types of Muslim devotional recitation and music


Nasheeds are moral, religious recitations recited in various melodies by some Muslims of today without any musical instruments. However, some nasheed groups use percussion instruments, such as the daff. Singing moral songs of this type without instrumentation is considered permissible ( halal) by many Muslims.

Sufi worship services are often called dhikr or zikr. See that article for further elaboration.

The dhikr of South Asian Muslims is "quietist". The Sufi services best known in the West are the chanting and rhythmic dancing of the whirling dervishes or Mevlevi Sufis of Turkey.

However, Sufis may also perform devotional songs in public, for the enjoyment and edification of listeners. The mood is religious, but the gathering is not a worship service.

In Turkey, once the seat of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate, concerts of sacred song are called "Mehfil-e-Sama' " (or "gathering of Sama'"). Song forms include ilahi and nefe.

In South Asia, especially Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, a widely known style of Sufi music is qawwali. A traditional qawwali programme would include:

  • A hamd—a song in praise of Allah
  • A na`at—a song in praise of Muhammad
  • Manqabats—songs in praise of the illustrious teachers of the Sufi brotherhood to which the musicians belong
  • Ghazals—songs of intoxication and yearning, which use the language of romantic love to express the soul's longing for union with the divine.

Shi'a qawwali performances typically follow the naat with a manqabat in praise of Ali, and sometimes a marsiya, a lamentation over the death of much of Ali's family at the Battle of Karbala.

The most well-known qawwali singer in modern times is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Another traditional South Asian genre of Sufi music is the Kafi, which is more meditative and involves solo singing as opposed to the ensemble form seen in qawwali. The most widely known exponent of the Kafi is the Pakistani singer Abida Parveen.

Sufi music has developed with the times. A Pakistani Sufi rock band, Junoon, was formed in the 1990s to bring a modern twist to suit the new younger generation. The band achieved wide popularity, in Pakistan as well as in the West.

Music for public religious celebrations

  • Ta'zieh music—Ta'zieh is a passion play, part musical drama, part religious drama, rarely performed outside Iran. It depicts the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, venerated by Shia Muslims.
  • Ashurah music—performed during the Muharram mourning period, commemorating the deaths of Imam Hussein and his followers. (Shia)
  • Thikiri (from the Arabic word "Dhikr") which means remembrance of God—performed by the Qadiriyya Sufi orders of waYao or Yao people in East and Southern Africa (Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and South Africa).
  • Manzuma—moral songs performed in Ethiopia.
  • Madih nabawi—Arabic hymns praising Muhammad.


According to scholar Jacob M. Landau, in Islamic music, "melodies are organized in terms of maqāmāt (singular maqām), or “modes,” characteristic melodic patterns with prescribed scales, preferential notes, typical melodic and rhythmic formulas, variety of intonations, and other conventional devices." [1]

rhythmic modes are known as īqāʿāt (singular īqāʿ), and they have a "cyclical patterns of strong and weak beats". [1]


Although there are a wide variety of opinions on the permissibility of musical instruments, those who produce Islamic music with instruments often feature the following instruments:


Differences of opinion over prohibition

Strictly speaking, the words ‘Islamic religious music’ present a contradiction in terms. The practice of orthodox Sunni and Shi‘a Islam does not involve any activity recognized within Muslim cultures as ‘music’. The melodious recitation of the Holy Qur'an and the call to prayer are central to Islam, but generic terms for music have never been applied to them. Instead, specialist designations have been used. However, a wide variety of religious and spiritual genres that use musical instruments exists, usually performed at various public and private assemblies outside the orthodox sphere.

— Eckhard Neubauer, Veronica Doubleday, Islamic religious music, New Grove Dictionary of Music online [8]

The question of permissibility of music in Islamic jurisprudence is historically disputed, [2] and with the advent of a whole new generation of Muslim musicians who try to blend their work and faith, the issue "has taken on extra significance". [9]

Islamic art and music flourished during the Islamic Golden Age. [3] [4] [5]

Contemporary Islamic music

Notable nasheed artists include:

Notable Sufi singers include:

Noted composers:

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Landau, Jacob M. "Islamic Arts. Music". Britannica. Retrieved 4 January 2022.
  2. ^ a b Al-Shawkani, Muhammed. Nayl Al-Awtaar. Vol. 8.
  3. ^ a b Bhattacharyya, Prasanta; Ghosh, Tapan Kumar (December 14, 2016). Mapping out the Rushdie Republic: Some Recent Surveys. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN  9781443855624 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ a b Bohlman, Philip V.; Werkman, Mary (June 7, 2013). Revival and Reconciliation: Sacred Music in the Making of European Modernity. Scarecrow Press, Chicago. ISBN  9780810882690 – via Google Books.
  5. ^ a b The Editors of LIFE (May 24, 2019). LIFE Aladdin. Time Home Entertainment. ISBN  9781547849031 – via Google Books.{{ cite book}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter ( link)
  6. ^ "Afropop Worldwide | Feature: Africans in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf".
  7. ^ Abdullahi, pp.170–171
  8. ^ Neubauer, Eckhard; Doubleday, Veronica (2001). "Islamic religious music". Grove Music Online. doi: 10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.52787. ISBN  978-1-56159-263-0. Retrieved 2021-04-12.
  9. ^ "Scholars and musicians hotly debate whether music is permissible or not". Irish Times. 21 July 2006. Retrieved 27 August 2021.

Further reading