Critique of "Arab music" history

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Touma tends to read contemporary Arabism and ethnic identity into the past

My reading of "Arab music" is somewhat different. A continuous and distinctively Arab music history is impossible to trace, because the concept of "Arab music" (like that of "Arab") is always shifting, and has only come to its current meaning (centered on Arabic-speakers) in modern times. The contemporary definition tends all to frequently to be thoughtlessly projected onto the past.

In practice it is not easy to reconstruct concepts of "Arab" and "Arab music" over time.

Generally speaking, "ethnicity" as a collection of people sharing culture and language was not always prominent in the region; it may have been used situationally but the primary components of identity were more likely to have been:

  • genealogy: familial and tribal affiliation
  • religious affiliation (milla), including the Sufi brotherhoods (turuq)
  • empire: under which rulers did one enjoy protection? to whom did one pay taxes?
  • profession: guilds provided an important sense of identity, including musicians, butchers, etc.
  • class: social or economic (literacy and wealth)
  • language (perhaps) - but here differences might arise between language used at home, in the market, in writing


Here are some key points of the critique:

  • Early period, through Umayyads
    • Origins of "Arab" ethnicity are unclear. Label "Arab" was first applied by outsiders (Assyrians) in 835 BCE; only applied by Arabic speakers in 328 CE. Not used in Arabic poetry. Did Arab tribes of Arabia consider themselves to be Arabs? (Do English speakers today consider themselves "English"?)
    • Arab self-consciousness crystallizes with Islam (power, consolidation, greater linguistic unity, contrast to non-Arabs). At first Arabs live separately from conquered people.
    • Genealogical, linguistic, cultural identity is at first clear. Arabs are first class, non-Arabs second class.
    • Muslim conversions are limited; non-Arabs must first attain client (mawali) status.
    • But boundaries between Arab and non-Arab gradually become ambiguous, with mixing: multiculturalism, influence of non-Arabic-speaking cultures (esp. Persian), intermarriage, Arabicization of others.
    • Foreign influences enter immediately with Islamic expansions, especially from Persia
    • Islam tended to reject the non-Arab during this period, while absorbing non-Arab influence
    • Ironies:
      • Islam promotes Arabs, but Islamic universalism cannot forever exclude Arabicized non-Arabs, nor prevent mixing
      • With consciousness of "Arabness" comes wealth, urbanization and mixing, hence loss of "pure" Arab culture
      • Islam provides "morals" but also capital to fuel musical patronage
      • Islamic moral strictures catalyze the rise of effeminate male art music (mukhannath) to replace loss of the female (qayna)
      • Concept of al-ghina' al-`arabi al-mutqan (polished Arab singing) and the Hijazi school only arises with injection of Persian influence
      • Later, this musical period becomes the "classical" Hijazi school of Arabic singing (in opposition to newer Abbasid trends containing greater Persian influence), while "pure" "Arab" music is ascribed to the pre-Islamic inshad (Beduin ethos)
  • Abbasid multiculturalism
    • Abbasid empire shifted power from an Arab to an Islamic basis
    • Abbasid "golden age" was in fact less Arab, more Persian
    • Expansion of musta`riba (Arabized) class.
    • Intermarriage
    • Ethnicity and identity become ambiguous: Islam, Arabic language, lineage, family, region.
    • Ambiguous ethnicity, e.g. al-Farabi (b. 872 Farab, Kazakhstan; lived in Baghdad; d. Damascus, Syria 950 ) himself
    • Arabism or Islam is finally replaced by Greek-inspired universalism in philosophical treatments (e.g. al-Farabi)
    • Culture (including music) was correspondingly more diverse
    • The new music (Ibrahim al-Mahdi and others) comes closer to Persian
    • Later Abbasid period: Persian and Arabic singing share a single musical tonal system (see Owen Wright, 1981 - The modal system of Arab and Persian music : 1250-1300)
    • To what extent can Abbasid culture really be considered Arab from an "emic" perspective (i.e. during its currency, rather than in hindsight)
    • Chronocentrism: The reading of this culture as "Arab" applies contemporary standards (developed in the wake of Arab nationalism, and the contemporary view of linguistic communities as potential nations) to a very different past.
  • Andalusian multiculturalism. Similar considerations apply here.
  • Eclipse of the Arabs (1258-1800), inhitat (decline), refers to Arabic literature, and in hindsight rereads history in light of modern association of "Arabs" to Arabic-speakers (who were now no longer in power). But this era is far from being culturally sterile; much non-literary culture remained very much alive (e.g. architecture), and no doubt there was much music too (though records are scant). But contemporary concept of "Arab" also contracts with loss of power. Ibn Khaldun: "Arab" is pejorative, or primitive culture. Arabs are a kind of noble savage.
  • European Orientalism and philology (17th to 19th centuries)
    • Enlightenment discovery of the world, at first via texts. Tended to define "peoples" according to their language. Terms such as "Arabs", "Arab music" appear in European languages.
    • Concern to connect Europe to ancient Greece via the Arabs.
    • Marin Mersenne (1610), Benjamin de Laborde(1780): connecting music of Helenistic world to that of Europe via "Arabs".
  • European colonialism (19th century)
    • Concern with control, exploitation. More anthropological, ethnographic nuance. Egyptian music, etc. appear in authors such as Edward Lane.
    • Reinforces local and regional identity over uniform "Arab" identity.
  • Arab nahda (Renaissance), and rise of Arabism as linguistic community.
    • Arabism is always indebted to Europe for providing core ideas (nationalism, linguistic community as potential nation, self-determination, cultural expressive forms)
    • But boundaries of the "Arab" varied. Egypt was rarely included, North Africa even less. Levant and Iraq were central.
    • "Arab" competed with more local identities, e.g. Syrian, Egyptian.
    • Muhammad Ali and Europeanization, following Napoleonic conquests. Establishment of European music schools, Opera House, in Egypt.
    • Two forms of Arabism in the late 19th c:
      • Arabo-Islamic (Arabic-speaking Muslim reformers): move to restore pan-Islamic Ottoman empire (following Ottoman weakness and increasing Turkification) through inspiration from early Arab-Islamic community (e.g. Muhammad `Abdu in Egypt). Corresponds to "Oriental music" concept. (musiqa sharqiyya)
      • Secular Arabism (Levantine Christians). Direct European influence via French schools (e.g. Najib `Azuri, who advocated a secular pan-Arab state, stretching from the Tigris-Euphrates valley to the Suez Canal). Corresponds to Arab music concept (musiqa Arabiyya)
    • New patronage of great singers performing in Arabic (e.g. by Khedive Ismail), even if patrons were non-Arabs.
    • Development of "classical" turath (muwashshahat, dawr) along with Ottoman influence
    • Rise of musical theater (European influence; Ahmad Abu Khalil al-Qabbani) (ca. 1884)
    • New print media catalyzed "imagined community" (cf Benedict Anderson) of Arabs: e.g. al-Ahram newspaper from 1882, Jurji Zaydan and al-Hilal magazine, and his Literary history of the Arabs
    • In 1906, the first school for “eastern” music was established in Cairo in 1906 by the Syrian violin prodigy Sami al-Shawwa, together with his friend Mansur `Awad; becoming (in 1914) the Oriental Music Club (Nadi al-Musiqa al-Sharqiyya)
  • Secular Arabism. End of WWI: demise of the Ottomans, left way open for secular Arabism
    • 1920s and 30s: Arab nationalism: Sati al-Husri (Iraq) and Michel Aflaq (Syria)
    • New focus on music of the Arabs as opposed to the Ottomans
    • Gradual decline in "al-musiqa al-sharqiyya", rise in "al-musiqa al-`arabiyya"
    • 1929: Oriental Music Club was replaced by the Oriental Music Institute (Ma`had al-Musiqa al-Sharqi), built by King Fu’ad.
    • 1932 conference on Arab music in Cairo, convened by King Fuad I.
    • Irony: Europeans attendees favored preservation, Arabs tend to favor European modernization.
    • 1933: Oriental Music Institute in Cairo was renamed the Royal Institute for Arabic Music
    • 1945: formation of the Arab League with six members: Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan (renamed Jordan after 1946), Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
    • Arabism reached apogee following independence, starting with Egypt's in 1952, especially Gamal Abd al-Nasser's Pan-Arabism (and the United Arab Republic, Egypt's short-lived union with Syria, 1958-1961).
    • Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism declined sharply after 1967 defeat. There followed intra-Arab conflicts (Lebanese civil war; Sadat's peace with Israel leading to Egypt's expulsion from the Arab League, cold war divisions).
  • Rise of 20th century mass media (phonograms, radio) and its effects
    • Preserve vestiges of pre-mediated musics that developed in the 19th c with European influence (ironically: these became known as the "old heritage", turath qadim)
    • Disseminate for the first time a true pan-Arab music, the new tarab music (turath jadid) while deleting much of that music's "authentic character" (as Touma would have it)
    • Catalyzed rise of new kind of "imagined community": affectively imagined, and ultimately (with rise of competing media production centers for satellite TV) decentralized.

NB: Since in the modern period nationalisms (including the concept of "Arabs") tend to be defined linguistically, it follows that most Arab music (being text-centered) tends to support Arab nationalism affectively by promoting an "imagined community". This community extends to all Arabic-speakers when the text is fusha (classical Arabic) or Egyptian dialect (widely understood). By the same token, such music tends not to extend to the "world music" sphere. Thus Umm Kulthum became a key pan-Arab figure, but attained relatively little fame elsewhere.