Music: Music and Religion in the Middle East

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Highly developed musical cultures entirely devoted to religious worship flourished in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Each was distinguished by a well-organized ritual, a rich hymnody, numerous musical instruments, and an established musical theory. In Mesopotamia cuneiform texts, artworks, reliefs, plaques, and seals provide a wealth of information concerning the musical culture. In Egypt musical scenes frequently appear on the walls of tombs because the Egyptians believed that pictorial reproductions of domestic life secured a pleasurable existence in the other life. Few musical instruments have been excavated in Mesopotamia, but a great many have been found in Egypt, where the aridity of the desert has preserved them from decomposition.

Despite the great variety of cultures in the region, the general approach to sacred music, its nature, function, and meaning, was imbued with a spirit of unity. The music has been characterized as normative and refined, and as giving primacy to such diverse performing styles as singing to a solo instrumental accompaniment, performing with an instrumental group, dancing, and other ritual gestures. Performances were confined to a distinct class of well-trained male and female musicians and dancers.

It is tempting to conclude that this music lacked the freshness, spontaneity, and devotional expression characteristic of folk worship, yet despite its refinement and professionalism it remained linked in many ways to its magical antecedents and the divine origins from which it drew its vitality. Being essentially associated with worship, sacred music served to honor the gods in the performance of the daily liturgy in temples and to accompany the traditional funeral rites and the annual festivals. The link between past and present and between humanity and the cosmos is evident in this music in many respects. Thus the Babylonian New Year festival symbolized the reduction of the primordial epoch to a scale of annual duration. This annual celebration of plant life and fertility has been associated with a wedding of the gods and with the epic of the creation of the world, recited on the fourth day of the festival.

Both in Mesopotamia and Egypt, sacred music has been associated with divinities and celestial protectors. The head of Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of heaven, love, and sacred music, was usually surmounted by the sistrum. This shaken musical instrument, consisting of a handle and a frame with jingling crossbars, was used to accompany ritual ceremonies associated particularly with the goddess. The bull, a symbol of fertility and divine power, shown frequently in the gigantic Assyrian reliefs surmounted by a human head as a guardian against misfortune, was associated in the Ur period (26002350 bce) with the lyre, whose sound box was modeled after the body of a bull. The lyre had a yoke-shaped frame consisting of two arms and a variable number of strings stretched over the frontal soundboard. In a later stylized form, only the bull's head remained as an embellishment. Three precious specimens of the instrument have been excavated at the royal cemetery in Ur.

Any attempt to figure out how this music sounded would be fruitless. It is true that the earliest form of musical writing was the cuneiform system used from the middle of the fourth millennium bce by the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. However, the few written examples that have been deciphered in recent years do not alter the basic fact that sacred music of the ancient civilizations was oral by nature and conception and regarded as a priestly secret not to be divulged. Hence, like other musical traditions transmitted orally, it did not lend itself to a fixed definite version. However, regarding performance practices and particularly the numerous instruments and their functions researchers are on firmer ground.

Vocal music, which predominated, emphasized the religious texts through varying modes of expression, from a solemn recitation performed in a tense voice to a well-constructed song with instrumental accompaniment. Hymns were sung either by a solo performer or by a chorus in responsorial and alternating rendition. As with the superscriptions of the biblical psalms, Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts frequently included musical instructions whose meanings are still largely unknown. The most significant information concerns musical instruments and their ample usage in worship. They range from the rudimentary to the highly sophisticated. Among the simpler instruments, used mainly for ritual or apotropaic purposes in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, are various small clay or metal bells embellished with symbols of gods; clay rattles in the form of animals; clappers with animal heads or in the form of a human hand, found in Egypt; bronze cymbals of various sizes that can be struck in a vertical or horizontal movement and were used at sacrifices and funerals; and the sistrum.

Drums in various shapes and sizes were also used in worship, particularly in Babylonia where they attained great importance. A table of sacerdotal instructions from Erech, dating from the Seleucid period, gives precise details for making the sizable goblet-shaped drum lilissu, as well as a description of its ritual. Made of metal in the shape of a perfectly formed bull, this drum was prepared by means of a long ceremonial process accompanied by sacrifices, libations, and prayers. The instrument was used to raise lamentations of grief for the darkened moon and served as an object of worship in itself. The bronze trumpet made its first appearance in association with cult during the reign of Ramses II (13041237 bce). Two trumpets, richly decorated with bells, were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Pipes were rather common in Egypt but rare in Mesopotamia where strings were preferred. The same is true of side-blown flutes, which appeared in the Old Kingdom (c. 30002200 bce).

The richest and most highly developed category of instruments was that of the various harps and lyres. Harps appeared in two main types, one in which the body of the instrument forms an arch and the other in which the neck and body forms an angle. In both types the strings were either vertical or horizontal to the soundboard and were plucked either with or without a plectrum. The arched harp, the earlier type, first appeared in the Sumerian period. The vertical arched harp was most common in Egypt, where it is found in tombs of the Old Kingdom together with flutes and pipes. The lyre arrived relatively late in Egypt, not earlier than the New Kingdom (c. 15691085 bce).

Music in the Bible

The Bible is the chief and richest source of information about music and musical activity in ancient Israel. It seems that in the earliest nomadic period and during desert travel music did not play a significant role in worship. However, the biblical texts provide many references to certain types of folk music used for various popular occasions of rejoicing, such as the celebration of the arrival of the sacred ark in Jerusalem (2 Sm. 6:5), the singing of the canticle of the sea, which marked the victory over the Egyptians (Ex. 15:20, 15:21), and the welcoming of a hero on his return from the battlefield by dancing and drum-playing women (Jgs. 11:34, 1 Sm. 18:67). A magical character is associated with the various uses of the ram's horn, or shofar, the effects of which are depicted in relation to the theophany (Ex. 19:1319, 20:18) and to the fall of Jericho (Jos. 6:620). Two references reveal the important role music played in ecstatic prophecies (1 Sm. 10:5, 2 Kgs. 3:15). From the reproachful sayings of the prophets Isaiah and Amos concerning banquets and music, the existence may be inferred of a secular art music (Is. 5:12, Am. 6:5).

The bulk of biblical references concern sacred music associated with temple worship. This music was similar in many ways to the traditions mentioned above in its ceremonial aspect, organization, and performance practices. It also was confined to a distinct class of highly trained professional musicians, the Levites. The Book of Psalms contains many instructions regarding musical performance, as well as the names of the leaders who conducted the ensembles of singers and instrumentalists playing lyres, cymbals, rattles, clappers, and other instruments. However, this music excluded dance from worship and was exempted form all associations with deities or celestial protectors. As to the ultimate origin of music, the Bible ascribes its invention, in antediluvian times, to a human hero, Jubal "the father of them that play upon the harp and the organ" (Gn. 4:21). This statement occurs in a passage also naming other inventions including the products of bronze and iron.

Music under Jewish and Muslim Religious Authorities

After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans (70 ce) and the dispersion of the Jewish people, the attitude toward music in worship underwent a significant change. Individual and communal intimate prayer replaced the Temple's ceremonial worship, and theologians became more and more involved in the revision of norms regarding the place and nature of music in the synagogue service. The first consequence of this new attitude was the total banishment of musical instruments except for the shofar.

The exclusion of instruments usually has been justified as being an aspect of ongoing mourning over the Temple's destruction. The reasoning involved in the long-lasting debate over the use of sophisticated musical forms in synagogal singing was of a rather ideological nature. It is interesting to note in this regard that the basic views expressed in the rabbinical arguments, with reference to the scriptures, have much in common with those expounded by Muslim theologians very soon after the emergence of Islam (622 ce). In relation to samāʿ (Arabic for "hearing"; often also meaning the thing heard, for example, music) there developed a large polemical literature dealing with the question of the lawfulness of music from a theological point of view. The term samāʿ has been contrasted with ghināʾ, which means "singing," and, by extension, secular art music. This identification led the authorities of both religions to assign the concept of music to secular entertainment music. The resulting frictions and conflicts with that flourishing urban music, echoed in the literature, have determined to a large extent the intransigence of those who oppose music.

Another argument found in this polemical literature concerns the respect for the holy texts and for their adequate rendition. Beautifully composed melodies with instrumental accompaniment and dancing were considered distractions that prevented the faithful from concentrating on the message in the text. Those having the most extreme form of this attitude considered music harmful, capable of affecting adversely the behavior and judgment of the hearer. Some authorities went so far as to attribute the origin of music to satanic forces and held that its direct influence on the listener's soul was basically a temptation of the devil or a delusion.

A Jewish Midrashic exegesis of the biblical verse concerning the invention of musical instruments singled out the fact that the inventor, Jubal, belonged to the posterity of Cain. Cain's descendants were plunged into amusements that combined music, adultery, and drinking of intoxicating liquors. This combination of music making and depravity was said to have incurred God's wrath and thereby contributed to bringing about the flood. (See Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, vol. 1, Philadelphia, 1956, pp. 116118.) Some Muslim theologians, referring to this exegesis, actually included Satan among the inventors or promoters of music.

An interesting Arabic version of the origin of music, cited by several writers, attributes the invention of music to Jubal's father, Lamech. It relates that Lamech, at an advanced age, lost his only son. In his grief he refused to be separated from the boy and hung his corpse in a tree so that he could be near him and see him. He later made a ʿūd (lute) from a leg of the corpse and sang laments to its accompaniment. Lamech's invention and the lament corresponding to the first biblical song (Gn. 4:19) may refer to ideas concerning the making of a musical instrument out of human bones, thus suggesting the incorruptibility of the corpse, the rebirth of the defunct spirit, and the identification of that spirit with the sound of the instrument within which it continues to vibrate.

Music and the Mystical Experience

The Jewish and Muslim mystical movements concerned themselves with various complex views regarding music, its role, effects, and origin. In qabbalistic literature all musical topics are interwoven with a multitude of qabbalistic symbols that are correlated with the whole of creation. Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, which can be traced back to the eighth century, developed complex congregational ritual and spiritual exercises in which music and dance play a determinant role. A related system of symbolism has been elaborated in the appropriate literature.

As to the question of music's origin, both Jewish and Muslim mystics advanced in different formulations the idea that music is neither monogenetic nor monovalent, that is, it oscillates between the divine and the satanic, the celestial and the terrestrial. The impact of music on the listener depends on the individual's virtue as well as the degree of mystical cognition of God and his revelation. In its highest form the listening experience becomes entirely spiritual, according to the Spanish Muslim mystic Ibn al-ʿArabī (11651240). He claimed that this form of the listening experience consists of hearing with a spiritual ear the singing of all things in creation praising the glory of God, and in seizing and enjoying the significance of this. The role assigned to music as leading to knowledge and the constant repetition of music's revelation through mystical intention indicates, according to the qabbalists, that music was God's creation. He created it on the third day, making angels out of his own breath to sing his glory day and night. This highly spiritual function of music led the founder of the Mawlawīyah order, the poet Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (12071273), to declare: "There are many ways leading to God; I have chosen that of music and dance."

The analogy between humankind and the universe and the sought-after resonance and harmony between them are frequent themes in mystical speculation. The music created by human beings is considered a pale reflection of the most exalted and perfect harmony embodied in the heavenly spheres. Therefore whoever sets out to learn to enjoy the pleasures of the celestial music will find that in order to do so he must first shake himself free of the defilement of matter and release himself from the shackles of this world. On the level of individual experience, music helps the devotee untie the knots that bind the soul to matter, allowing it to go beyond the barriers of its own personal existence. Indeed, human spirits, whose origin is the superior world, recall their homeland when hearing music. The ascent of the soul from its earthly existence to its divine home, which signifies redemption, has been symbolized in the mystical imagery of certain ūfī orders by dance and movement. It is said that dance uproots the foot of the worshiper, transporting him to the summit of the world.

Qabbalah went further by introducing the idea that the power of human sacred music exerts an influence in the celestial realm. Thus humankind is a protagonist in the cosmic drama. It is said in this regard that everything done by the individual or the community in the mundane sphere is magically reflected in the upper region, that the impulse from below calls forth one from above. Hence the singing of hymns on earth causes an immediate resonance in the upper spheres; by means of his mystical intention the devotee contributes to the establishment of perfect tuning and harmony between himself and the macrocosm. However, the ideal perfection, the harmony that signifies salvation, is hard to obtain. This is because the way leading to it is constantly obstructed by evil forces. Adam's fall and the interference of Satan have been the causes of the contamination of divine music and the disturbance of the original harmony. To overcome these obstacles and restore the original harmony, the realm of darkness must first be defeated. Sacred music and prayer directed by mystical intention are the most formidable weapons in the combat for salvation.

See Also

Chanting; Samāʿ.


Curt Sach's The History of Musical Instruments (New York, 1940) is an authoritative work on the history and morphology of instruments; it includes chapters on Mesopotamia, Egypt, and ancient Israel. Different forms of instruments are discussed in the following museum catalogs: R. D. Anderson's Catalogue of Egyptian Antiquities in the British Museum, vol. 3, Musical Instruments (London, 1976); Joan Rimmer's Ancient Musical Instruments of Western Asia in the British Museum (London, 1969); and Christiane Ziegler's Catalogue des instruments de musique égyptiens du Musée du Louvre (Paris, 1979).

Important contributions to the study of different aspects of Mesopotamian music include Wilhelm Stauder's "Die Musik der Sumerer, Babylonier und Assyrer," in Orientalische Musik, in the series "Handbuch der Orientalistik," edited by Hans Hickman (Leiden, 1970), and the same author's article "Mesopotamia" in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie (London, 1980). Among the various studies dealing with music theory and notation, I recommend Anne Draffkorn Kilmer's "The Discovery of an Ancient Mesopotamian Theory of Music," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 115 (1971): 131149, and Marcelle Duchesne-Guillemin's "Sur la restitution de la musique hourrite," Revue de musicologie 66 (1980): 526.

For discussion of Egyptian music, see Hans Hickmann's Quarante-cinq siècles de musique dans l'Égypte ancienne (Paris, 1956). A good general survey on biblical music is Esther Gerson-Kiwi's "Musique," in Dictionnaire de la Bible, supp. vol. 5 (Paris, 1957), cols. 14111468. Recent specific studies are Bathja Bayer's "The Biblical 'Nebel,'" Yuval (Jerusalem) 1 (1968): 89131, and "The Titles of the Psalms," Yuval 4 (1982): 29123. The institution of synagogal music and its development are studied in depth in Eric Werner's The Sacred Bridge, 2 vols. (New York, 19591984). On the rabbinical attitude toward music, see Israel Adler's La pratique musicale savante dans quelques communautés juives, 2 vols. (Paris, 1966), and the same author's "Histoire de la musique religieuse juive," in Encylopédie des musiques sacrées, edited by Jaques Porte, vol. 1 (Paris, 1968). The question concerning the ideological attitude of the Jewish religious authorities has been treated in my "Der Judaismus" in Religiöse Autoritäten und Musik, edited by Dorothea Baumann and Kurt Fischer (Kassel, 1984), pp. 6783. For discussion of the story of Lamech and Jubal, see my "The ʿūd and the Origin of Music," in Studia Orientalia Memoriae D. H. Baneth Dedicata (Jerusalem, 1979). The most important sources dealing with the lawfulness of samāʿ are analyzed in my The Theory of Music in Arabic Writings (c. 9001900) (Munich, 1979).

Amnon Shiloah (1987)

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Music: Music and Religion in the Middle East

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