Dwight F. Reynolds, Medieval Arab Music and Musicians: Three Translated Texts (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Dwight F. Reynolds (DF): As I was researching my previous book, published last year (The Musical Heritage of al-AndalusRoutledge/Taylor & Francis, 2021), I realized that many of the most important texts on medieval Arab musicians had never been translated, or, in some cases, only selected passages had been translated, giving a distorted impression of the work as a whole. In other cases, texts had been translated by scholars who were not specialists in medieval music, which has resulted in translations where some of the most important musical information is garbled or incomprehensible. Eventually I conceived of a volume that would consist solely of fully and carefully translated and annotated texts on medieval Arab music and musicians, to bring some samples of this very rich literature to a broader readership.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

DR: These texts provide remarkably detailed accounts of the lives of musicians in the courts of Baghdad and Cordoba, including accounts of their successes and failures, the buying and selling of female slave singers, rivalries and competitions, love affairs and romantic encounters, the enormous rewards a singer could earn if their patron was pleased, and the abuse (including imprisonment and beatings) they were subject to if their patron was angry (see the excerpt below). These accounts of the daily lives of musicians of the court include fascinating descriptions of clothing, the functioning of their households, nights spent drinking in taverns, travels as boon companions to the caliph or emir, how they composed and practiced their songs, sly tricks they played on their rivals, and many other aspects of their lives. 

An excellent example of this is a text that has never been translated as a whole and appears as the first selection in this collection, the biography of the eighth- and ninth-century musician Ibrāhīm al-Mawṣilī from Abū Faraj al-Iṣbahāni’s enormous Kitāb al-Aghānī. Fragments from this text have appeared in quite a few scholarly publications because it is a fascinating account of the ‘Abbasid court in Baghdad, but no one had translated the full text (perhaps because it is over one hundred pages in length). Indeed, I soon realized that not only had this musician’s biography never been translated, in fact none of the biographies of musicians in Kitāb al-Aghānī have appeared in full translations. Scholars in the nineteenth century avidly translated the biographies of the major poets and some of the material on tribal histories, but the musicians and singers have attracted much less attention. So I am very pleased to present the full text for the first time, which allows readers to see the compiler at work. His methodology is fascinating and includes a “chain of transmission” (Ar. isnad) for every piece of information, but reading the full text also allows us to see how he juxtaposed different versions of the same event, leaving it to the reader to decide which account is most believable.

The second selection in this volume is the biography of the now nearly mythic singer Ziryāb who is said to have traveled from Baghdad to Cordoba in the ninth century and greatly influenced the music of al-Andalus. For many people, Ziryāb is the single most famous figure in all of medieval Arab music. The text is found in the eleventh-century historical compilation Kitāb al-Muqtabis by Ibn Ḥayyān, in a section of the work that has only recently came to light. A Spanish translation has been published (though it is rather difficult to obtain); however, some of the key passages on music were not well understood. So this translation offers both the full biography of this incredible individual to an English-speaking readership and also provides a more accurate reading of the most important musical information in the text.

The third and final selection is the earliest and most important medieval Arabic treatise on the muwushshaḥ song form, Dār al-Ṭirāz, a genre of music that is still sung across the Arab world, as well as in Sephardi and Mizrachi Jewish communities today. It is amazing to read this medieval text’s description of the birth of a song genre that has continued to be sung by modern superstars such as Umm Kulthum, Fairouz, Sabah Fakhry, and many, many others. Here again, a Spanish translation was published several decades ago, but oddly by a scholar who was vehemently prejudiced against music! Over and over again, the Spanish translator states in footnotes that the author Ibn Sanā’ al-Mulk was incapable of understanding the material he wrote about and that his claims about music were exaggerated. And yet, at several key points, the translator also admitted that he found some of the key musical passages incomprehensible. This new translation therefore not only represents a first translation into a language other than Spanish, but also provides a corrective to the deeply flawed Spanish translation, the only version that has been available until now.

Together I hope that these texts will offer readers a taste of the amazingly rich medieval Arabic literature on music and musicians. These are some of the earliest (perhaps even the earliest) substantive biographies of musicians in world literature, and deserve much greater attention. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

DR: This volume is to a great degree a supplement to The Musical Heritage of al-Andalus. In that volume, I tried to provide an overview of musical life in al-Andalus, drawing upon texts in Arabic, Old Catalan, Castilian, Gallego-Portuguese, Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, and Latin. This includes many fascinating encounters between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim musicians and patrons and, I hope, provides a convincing account of the remarkably complex networks and conduits of cultural exchange that were active at that time. It also tries to situate the music of al-Andalus within the broader context of musical cultures of the medieval Mediterranean.

Although that volume includes many passages translated from primary texts (some appearing for the very first time in translation), it does not include translations of complete texts. This new volume, on the other hand, presents texts that have been translated in their entirety and gives readers a sense of how each of the authors organized and presented their materials.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

DR: Although this volume will certainly be read by scholars and readers who are interested in medieval music, I have chosen texts that should be enjoyable and informative for anyone interested in medieval life in the Middle East and Iberia. So I am hoping that this book will reach a broader audience and that readers will find this a “good read”—which is not something we usually say about translations of primary texts from the Middle Ages. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

DR: Each of these recent two volumes has generated a sequel. The Musical Heritage of al-Andalus deals with music in Iberia up to the expulsion of the Moriscos in 1609-14. The second volume will deal with Andalusian music outside of al-Andalus and will bring us up to the present. The second volume of Medieval Arab Music and Musicians will be composed primarily of biographies of female musicians and singers. A number of these early figures, such as ‘Azza al-Maylā’, Jamīla, Salāmat al-Qass, ‘Arīb, and others, are truly remarkable musicians with strong, unforgettable personalities. I think that even readers who are not particularly interested in music will want to read these compelling life-stories of women who left an indelible imprint on medieval Arab culture.


Excerpt from the book (from the “Life of Ibrāhīm al-Mawṣilī,” pp. 19-21)

§ Isḥāq said – My father [Ibrāhīm] told me:

The caliph al-Mahdī did not drink and he wanted me, whenever I was accompanying him, to abstain from drinking as well, but I refused. I used to absent myself for a few days at a time, and when I returned I was often tipsy. My behavior angered him, so he had me beaten and imprisoned, and it was there in prison that I learned to read and write. Then one day he summoned me and reproached me for drinking in other people’s houses and my licentious behavior with them. “Sire,” I said, “I learned the craft of music for my own enjoyment and out of love of the companionship of my friends. If I were able to abandon it along with all the other things I do, I would do so, for the sake of God most Glorious and Mighty!” He became very angry and said, “Don’t ever go near [my sons] Mūsā and Hārūn, for by God, if you do, I’ll have you seized and dealt with severely!” “Understood,” I replied. Later he found out that I had indeed spent time with them and got drunk with them, for the two of them were acting recklessly under the influence of the wine. He ordered that I be given 300 strokes of the lash and had me fettered and thrown in prison.

§ However, Aḥmad ibn Ismā‘īl said in his account – my uncle Isḥāq said: 

My father, Ibrāhīm, told me that he was with Mūsā and Hārūn on an excursion along with a servant named Abān: This servant informed on us to al-Mahdī and told him what we’d been up to. The caliph summoned me and asked me about this, but I denied it. Then he ordered that I be punished– I was stripped and given 360 strokes of the lash, and I cried out to al-Mahdī while Sallām was beating me, “But my crime is not a capital offense – you can’t beat me to death for this! – out of loyalty to your sons I kept their secret – otherwise I’d be as despicable as that tell-tale slave of yours, Aban!” When I said that, he struck me with his sword in its scabbard and fractured my skull. I fell to the ground unconscious for a while. When I opened my eyes and saw the eyes of al-Mahdī, I could tell they were the eyes of someone who regrets what he has done. He said to ‘Abd Allāh ibn Mālik: “Take him to your house.”

Ibrāhīm continued:

But before he did so, ‘Abd Allāh ibn Mālik took the whip from the hand of Sallām al-Abrash and beat me. That beating at that hands of ‘Abd Allāh was a blessing compared to the beating that Sallām had given me. Then ‘Abd Allāh ibn Mālik took me to his house while I was still dizzy and seeing stars from the searing pain of the whip. He ordered that I be taken to something like a tomb and placed in it. Then ‘Abd Allāh called for a ram and it was slaughtered and skinned, and I was wrapped in the skin so that the pain of the beating would abate. He turned me over to a servant of his named Abū ‘Uthmān Sa‘īd al-Turkī who placed me in that tomb, and charged a servant-girl of his named Jashsha with taking care of me. I was in sheer agony due to the water seeping into that tomb and the vermin, but there were also a privy there where I found some relief. I told Jashsha: “Go ask for a baked brick with coal and frankincense on it to rid me of these bugs,” and she brought it to me. When I fumigated the tomb, everything grew dark from the smoke, and my soul almost departed due to my distress. But I was able to find some relief from my suffering where the water was trickling in – I held my nose close to it until the smoke lessened, and then, just when I thought that I was to be saved from the terrible situation I was in, two snakes slid out from a crack in the tomb and circled round me hissing fiercely! I was just about to grab one in my right hand and the other in my left – it was a do or die moment! – when I was inexplicably delivered from them, and they slithered back into the hole from which they had emerged.

I remained in that tomb quite a while until finally I was released. I sent a message to Abū ‘Uthmān the servant and I asked him to sell me Jashsha so that I might compensate her for everything she had done for me, and he did. I later married her to my chamberlain, and she remains a member of our household.

Isḥāq added:

She stayed with us until she died, and I married a daughter of hers, called Jum‘a, to a servant of mine in the year 234 [848/49].

Ibrāhīm continued:

I composed these verses when I was in prison:

The night grows long as I stare at the stars,

and rub the heavy fetters on my legs.

In the dwelling of disgrace, the worst of abodes,

I’m unjustly humiliated, but forbear with grace.

Friends abounded when I lived in luxury,

but now that I’m in prison, I find they are few.

My affliction has grown long, my friends have grown weary,

My intimate companions are no longer true.

Ibrāhīm continued:

Then al-Mahdī had me released and made me swear to divorce my wife and emancipate my slaves, and by every ironclad oath imaginable – without a single loophole – that I would never again visit his sons Mūsā and Hārūn and never again sing for them, whereupon he freed me.

Ibrāhīm added:

While I was in prison, I composed a melody to some verses by the poet Abū l-‘Atāhiya that he had composed when al-Mahdī had imprisoned him because of ‘Utba:

Woe is my heart now that anxieties are my companions,

woe are my legs from the ulcerous sores caused by these chains.

Woe is my soul, woe, and then again woe!

will I never be freed from these bonds of rope?

Woe are my eyes, my weeping has blinded them,

balm from the kohl jars offers no cure.

Leave me alone to console myself, for my eyes

are captives of cataracts, in a tomb in the earth.

Leave me alone to console myself with drink, for I see

that the rest of my life will not long endure.

The poetry is by Abū l-‘Atāhiya, though Ḥammād said that it was by his grandfather, Ibrāhīm; the music is by Ibrāhīm in the ‘ramal’ rhythm, with the middle finger for the first three verses, and in the ‘first heavy’ rhythm with the middle finger for the final two.