Sixth century


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themes: 


al-qiyān, the songstresses, to whose names, careers, and influence most of 

his book is devoted, and the poet al-Aʿshā, to whom al-Asad devoted the remain-

der of the book. The poet belonged to the tribe of Bakr, in northeastern Arabia, 

who wandered in various places in the Peninsula and the Fertile Crescent, but his 

main inspiration was from the East, especially Ḥīra in Sasanid Persia’s sphere of 

 

1  See H. G. Farmer, 



A History of Arabian Music to the XIIIth Century (1929; reprint, London, 

1973). The first nineteen pages are devoted to the pre-Islamic period.

 

2  See N. al-Asad, 



al-Qiyān wa al-Ghināʾ fi al-Shiʿr al-Jāhili (1960; reprint, Beirut, 1988), which 

devotes some three hundred pages to the pre-Islamic period. Al-Asad’s book was briefly noticed in 

A. Shiloah, “Music in the Pre-Islamic Period as Reflected in Arabic Writings of the First Islamic 

Centuries,” 



Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 7 (1986), 109–10. Although Shiloah implicitly 

expresses reservations about al-Asad’s work and about the reliability of the sources for music in the pre-

Islamic period, al-Asad himself emphasized his dependence on contemporary pre-Islamic poetry, such as 

relying on the 



Dīwān of Aʿshā when writing on Aʿshā.

 

3 In 



Madhāhib al-Ḥusn (Beirut, 1998), S. Dāghir takes a lexicographical approach to the various 

forms of Arab art and aesthetics; for his views on music and song, see 111–65. 



183

Music and Song

influence. However, little attention has been given to the history of the two arts, 

music and song, in the 



western half of the Fertile Crescent, in Byzantine Oriens, or 

to the major poet of the Ghassānids—Ḥassān.

 

This chapter makes good the omission; its discussion of music and song 



among the Arab 

foederati of Byzantium in the western half of the Fertile Crescent 

in Byzantine Oriens is based mainly on the contemporary poetry of Ḥassān. The 

writer emerges as a major pre-Islamic poet of music and song, inspired by Byzantine 

Oriens and the urban ambience of Ghassānland, and as the counterpart of al-Aʿshā 

in Sasanid Persia.4

 

As the Arabic works of later times, especially the Abbasid, have been con-



sidered not entirely reliable, the discussion in this section of the two arts in pre-

Islamic times avoids drawing too heavily on the later sources. Thus, it primarily 

examines the best contemporary pre-Islamic source, the poetry of Ḥassān himself. 

In addition, prose works that mention the Ghassānids cannot be entirely ignored. 

They will be examined for their kernels of truth, and the details that appear to be 

embroidered will be ignored.5 The scanty information provided by the fragmentary 

extant sources may also be supplemented with some data on music and song from 

Ḥīra of the Lakhmids, under the influence of Sasanid Persia, and with data on 

social life under the Umayyads of Bilād al-Shām, who were heirs to the Ghassānid 

and Byzantine legacy.

 

Music played an important role in Arabs’ secular and religious life, as well 



as during their battle-days.6 Secular music and song, both at the court of the 

Ghassānids and at the tavern, will be discussed in the following pages, based on the 

few references in the 

Dīwān of Ḥassān.

II. Instrumental Music

“Music accompanied the Arabs from the cradle to the grave, from the lullaby to the 

elegy. . . . Indeed, the cultivation of music by the Arabs in all its branches reduces 

to insignificant the recognition of the art in the history of any other country.”7 

Thus concluded the distinguished historian of Arabic music Henry F. Farmer after 

 

4  A comprehensive history of music and song in the pre-Islamic period must do justice to the 



three or four main urban centers of the Arabs in this period: Jābiya in the Golan, Jalliq in Phoenicia 

Libanensis, Ḥīra in Iraq, and Najrān in ʿAsīr. There the arts must have flourished at a relatively advanced 

and sophisticated level, as these centers moved in the wider orbits of cultural dominance: Byzantium, 

Sasanid Persia, and Ḥimyarite Yaman. The last has received the least research.

 

5  See the discussion of prose works in Chapter 3.



 

6  See al-Asad, 



al-Qiyān, 149–53.

 

7  H. G. Farmer, “Music,” in 



The Legacy of Islam, ed. T. Arnold and A. Guillaume (London, 1931), 

358.


184

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

studying the impressive number of books and manuscripts in Arabic on this art.8 

Exaggerated as the statement seems to be, the substantial element of truth in it can-

not be denied. The historian was, of course, primarily thinking of Arab music in 

Islamic times, when it indeed flourished.9 But for the pre-Islamic period, the pic-

ture is different. Attached as the pre-Islamic Arabs were to music and song, their 

own contribution to it is far from clear, owing to the scarcity of surviving sources. 

Those that are extant point to foreign influences that shaped the music, from 

Persia, Byzantium, Ḥimyar,10 and possibly Ethiopia. Music in this pre-Islamic 

period could have developed and matured only in the urban Arab centers of the 

Ghassānids, the Lakhmids, and the Ḥārithids: that is, in Jābiya and Jalliq, Ḥīra, 

and Najrān, whence it spread into other urban centers such as Ṭāʾif, Mecca, and 

Medina in western Arabia. The first is the concern of this chapter—the Ghassānids 

in Byzantine Federate Oriens.

 

For social life in federate Byzantine Oriens, the poetry of Ḥassān is our only 



reliable source; but it is practically silent on the subject of musical instruments, 

which are only implied in his reference to the songstress and the instrumentalist. 

One of the prose accounts ascribed to him, however, describes a musical party at 

the court of the Ghassānid king, Jabala,11 and refers to one musical instrument, 

the 

barbat, and to entertainers hailing from Byzantium; from Persia through Ḥīra, 

the Lakhmid capital; and even from Mecca. There is no doubt that music flour-

ished at the Ghassānid court in Oriens and in Ghassānland, where the Ghassānids 

inherited the musical tradition of the Rhomaic Arabs of Petra and Palmyra;12 nat-

urally, they were influenced by the music of Byzantium and of Arab centers such as 

Ḥīra. As for the musical instruments, these must have been the same as were used 

in other urban centers with which the Ghassānids were in contact, such as Ḥīra 

(especially after the fall of its Lakhmid masters around a.d. 600).13 The poets who 

 

8  Elsewhere Farmer states: “Music and song were with the Arabs from the lullaby at the cradle to 



the elegy at the bier” (

History of Arabian Music, 17). Farmer’s transports were modified by the reserva-

tions of D. S. Margoliouth (see vi). 

 

9  A zenith of the Arabic contribution to literature on music and song was reached in the tenth 



century in Aleppo at the court of the Ḥamdānid prince Sayf al-Dawla, where two great figures in this 

field met and were colleagues: Abū Naṣr al-Fārābi, the great philosopher of whose musicological works 

only 

Kitāb al-Mūsīqī al-Kabīr has survived, and Iṣfahānī, the author of al-Aghānī, which illustrates the 

employment of poetry in song that is discussed by al-Fārābi in 



Kitāb al-Mūsīqī.

 

10  On the little-researched music in Ḥimyar, see Farmer, 



History of Arabian Music, 2–3, 15. 

 

11  For the account, see Abū al-Faraj Iṣfahānī, 



al-Aghānī (Beirut, 1959), XVII, 105–6.

 

12  On music and musical instruments among the Nabataean and Palmyrene Arabs, see Farmer, 



History of Arabian Music, 5. 

 

13  Hence it was possible for Iyās ibn Qabīṣa to send Jabala songstresses from Ḥīra, as indicated in 



Ḥassān’s account (Iṣfahānī, 

al-Aghānī, XVII, 105–6). Iyās ruled Ḥīra after the Lakhmids were deposed 

by Chosroes Parvīz. He belonged to the tribe of Ṭayyiʾ, friendly to the Ghassānids; its poet and 



sayyid, 

Ḥātim, had visited the Ghassānids and eulogized them; see 



BASIC II.1, 246–59.

185

Music and Song

roamed those regions in northeastern Arabia and in Lower Mesopotamia, close 

to Ḥīra, preserved in their verse the names of the musical instruments common 

among the Arabs of the pre-Islamic period. The most important of these poets was 

al-Aʿshā, who hailed from the region and whose poetry has been thoroughly stud-

ied for its importance to this aspect of Arab social life.14

 

The instruments used by the pre-Islamic Arabs mentioned in what has sur-



vived of pre-Islamic poetry, especially that of al-Aʿshā, may be listed as follows: 

mizhar, lute; kirān, lute; duff, tambourine; nāqūs, clapper; jalājil (plural of juljul), 

bells; 


muwattar, stringed instrument, played with the thumb; mizmār, reed pipe; 

miʿzafa, psaltery; qussāba, flute; sanj, harp; and ṭunbūr, bandore.

 

Among all these instruments, the 



ʿūd held primacy. Originally it was a 

mizhar, a stringed instrument with a leather belly, replaced by wood through 

Persian influence. The sources state that it was introduced to Mecca by the poet-

minstrel al-Naḍr ibn al-Ḥārith, a Meccan who had traded with the Ḥīrans. The 

lute had many names: 



mizhar, kirān, barbat, muwattar, and simply ʿūd. The names 

themselves of some of these instruments reflect foreign influences on Arab music; 

for example, 

barbat is considered Persian, and kirān Syriac/Aramaic-Hebrew.15

III. Song

Songstresses

Among the Ghassānids, the songstress rather than the male singer was the princi-

pal performer. An exception may be the 

musāmir, the nighttime companion, who 

in the poetry of Ḥassān is referred to as 



garid, an epithet that could imply singing, 

but the reference remains a 



hapax legomenon.16 Perhaps more important is the one 

who recited Arabic poetry in this pre-Islamic period, the 



munshid, but the manner 

of this recitation has not been determined. The 



singing of verse will be discussed 

later in this volume in a different context.

 

In the 


Dīwān of Ḥassān, the most common appellation of the songstress is 

 

14  See al-Asad, 



al-Qiyān, 209–53.

 

15  On the names of these instruments, see ibid., 106–9, and the still valuable discussion of Farmer, 



History of Arabian Music, 615–16 and notes. Al-Asad ferreted out the names of these instruments from 

pre-Islamic verses, which he conveniently quotes. He claims that he corrected Farmer on 



ṭunbūr, since he 

found it attested in pre-Islamic poetry (107–8), but Farmer had vouched for its Arabic pre-Islamic origin 

in 

History (5, 76). On the etymology of barbaṭ and kirān, see Farmer, History, 15–16, 16 notes 1 and 

2. For al-Naḍr ibn al-Ḥārith, see C. Pellat, “al-Naḍr ibn al-Ḥārith,” 



EI2, VII, 872–73. Barbat became 

a loanword in Greek, βάρβιτον, and is accepted as probably such in LSJ, s.v. For 



miʿzafah, see Farmer, 

History, 3, 16, 76; apparently, it was a sort of psaltery, or barbiton.

 

16 See 



Dīwān Ḥassān ibn Thābit, ed. W. ʿArafāt, Gibb Memorial New Series 25 (London, 1971),  

I, 279, verse 7. Since the same verse mentions the 



nadmān (boon companion), the musāmir/gharid may 

be a different individual, especially in light of Ḥassān’s reference to the 



ḥadīth, “conversation,” of the 

nadmān but the ṣawt, “voice,” of al-musāmir, al-gharid. Be that as it may, the overwhelming majority of 

singers in pre-Islamic Arabia were women.



186

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

the term 

musmiʿa—literally, “the one who lets her voice be heard.” The musmiʿa 

is a vocal performer and sometimes also an instrumentalist. She appears in the 



Dīwān in three different contexts, and only the first two are Ghassānid: (1) at the 

royal court, (2) in the local tavern, and (3) in private homes.17 Although the 



sāqi 

appears in this poetry as the one who serves wine to the tavern patrons, the song-

stress sometimes performs that function when she is not singing.

 The 


Dīwān of Ḥassān does not describe how the songstress was dressed, 

but the poets of eastern Arabia did, and the woman singer in Ghassānland must 

also have dressed similarly. The same is true of the jewelry she must have worn, 

also described in the poetry of the bards, and of her movements, which may have 

amounted to a dance.18 But Arabic poetry had to wait some three centuries before 



musmiʿa was featured in a poem exclusively devoted to her, in which the poet por-

trayed her figure, her face, her musical performance, and her voice—namely, Ibn 

al-Rūmi’s famous ode on the songstress Waḥīd.19 Whether Ḥassān had composed 

similar odes remains unknown, since only a fraction of his poetry on that period 

has survived. But it is clear from the fragments of Ḥassān and from other poets 

who mentioned the 

musmiʿa in Arabia and in the Lakhmid capital, Ḥīra, that the 

songstress became the most important single figure providing entertainment in the 

social life of the Arabs.

 

In addition to 



musmiʿa, the native Arabic term for the songstress, other labels 

were also coined, such as 



dājina, mudjina, ṣadūḥ, ṣadīḥa, and jarādaMusmiʿa, 

which was sometimes used for the instrumental performer, was the most common, 

and lasted into the Islamic period. But it finally gave way to another term that 

became dominant in Umayyad and Abbasid times: namely, 



qayna (plural qiyān).

 While 


musmiʿa was an Arabic term derived from a root s-m-ʿ, meaning 

“hear,” which easily and immediately suggested her function, 



qayna was an old 

Semitic term, introduced in the pre-Islamic period, whose root meaning has been 

lost. The songstress was an entertainer whose popularity increased in Umayyad 

times, reaching a climax in the Abbasid period, when she very often emerged as a 

talented poetess.

 

It was these 



qiyān who are found in the prose sources that describe the social 

life of the Arabs, including the Ghassānids. According to the detailed studies of 

these 

qiyān in pre-Islamic Arabia, they were found in at least three major cities of 

western Arabia: in Najrān, Mecca, and Yathrib/Medina. Their names are known, 

 

17  One poem by Ḥassān is devoted to describing a drinking party in the private home of a certain 



Ṣālih ibn ʿIlāt in Ḥijāz; female instrumentalists performed, and probably also sang (ibid., 91).

 

18  See the verses of Ṭarafa, of the tribe Bakr in eastern Arabia, in al-Asad, 



al-Qiyān, 58, 64, and also 

al-Aʿshā’s verse.

 

19  For Ibn al-Rūmi’s 58-verse ode on the songstress Waḥīd, see A. Motoyoshi, “Sensibility and 



Synaesthesia: Ibn al-Rūmi’s Singing Slave-Girl,” 

Journal of Arabic Literature 32 (2001), 1–29.

187

Music and Song

as are the names of their patrons—wealthy and influential members of those com-

munities who could afford to hire these 



qiyān to entertain their guests, including 

the poets, who described these songstresses in their odes.20 South Arabia also had 

plenty of them, though they remained mostly anonymous; so did Eastern Arabia 

and of course Ḥīra in Lower Mesopotamia, the principal urban center of the 

Arabs in this period. Thus the statement that the Ghassānid king Jabala presented 

at a banquet five 



qiyān from Ḥīra and others from Mecca should be considered 

trustworthy. Ḥīra was apparently on good terms with the Ghassānids after the 

fall ca. a.d. 600 of the Lakhmid House of Naṣr. And Mecca had very important 

commercial relations with the Ghassānids, as did Yathrib/Medina and, of course, 

Najrān. The same account (discussed below) refers to five 

qiyān of Jabala who sang 

for him in 



al-Rūmiyya, Greek. Ḥāwi al-Funūn, which preserves a list of the names 

of songstresses, mentions Jabala’s 



qiyān but does not give their names. Since they 

are anonymous, it is not clear whether they were Arab; the fact that they sang in 

Greek might suggest that they were not.

 

A number of questions are raised by the appearance of these pre-Islamic 



songstresses.

 

1. Were they Arab, or were they foreign? The only explicit and detailed refer-



ence to them is in Ḥassān’s account of the court of Jabala. Five of these songstresses 

were 


Rūmiyyāt, that is, “Byzantines” who sang in Rūmiyyā (Greek). Jabala, the 

Ghassānid phylarchs, and the ranking officers in the 



phylarchia no doubt under-

stood the Greek of the songstresses. Even if some did not understand, they would 

have enjoyed the voices and tunes in much the same way that operas today are 

heard and enjoyed by those who do not comprehend their original language. 

 

The account then refers to five songstresses who sang in the style of 



ahl 

al-Ḥīra, the people or inhabitants of Ḥīra, a description that provides no informa-

tion on their identity. But since Ḥīra was in the Persian orbit, especially influenced 

by such material aspects of Persian culture as food, song, and music, some of them 

may have been Persian or Persian-speaking.

 

The Arab identity of the third group of songstresses who used to come to 



the Ghassānid court is explicitly stated by Ḥassān, who says that Jabala and the 

Ghassānid court used to receive Arab songstresses from Mecca and other Arab 

places. Other songstresses might have been Rhomaic Arabs, from Nabataea or 

Palmyrena. One Arabic source suggests that a Ghassānid woman did sing on one 

occasion, although she was not a professional songstress.21 If authentic, the account 

 

20  Only one work pays some attention to pre-Islamic 



qiyān; an eleventh-century author who lived 

in Fatimid Egypt wrote the 



Jāmiʿ al-Funūn wa Salwā al-Maḥzūn, which contains a discussion on pre-

Islamic 


qiyān; see al-Asad, al-Qiyān, 265–72. The qiyān of Iṣfahānī are later Islamic songstresses.

 

21  See al-Asad, 



al-Qiyān, 271 on the qiyān of Jabala. The author, Ibn Taḥḥān, says their qiyān were 

known as songstresses in Islamic times; it is a pity that he does not give their names.



188

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

would reveal the only songstress associated with the Ghassānids known by her 

name, Dhalfāʾ.22

 

2. Where in Oriens did Ḥassān and others find the taverns which they 



patronized, and in which they drank their wine and heard the song of the 

musmiʿa? As has been indicated earlier, the songstresses could be heard in pri-

vate homes, in local taverns, and at the royal court. The sources are completely 

silent on the first venue and provide some insight into the third. But the second is 

the most desired destination: the local tavern



ḥānūt, which poets such as Ḥassān 

frequented, where he caroused, and which he described in his poetry. The pre-

ceding volume established a large number of localities associated with the seden-

tary Ghassānids in Oriens; the following places (all discussed in more detail in 



BASIC II.1) may be singled out as likely to have had taverns where song was heard. 

To these may be added locations in Byzantine Oriens where a strong Arab pres-

ence dated to the second and third centuries, when the Nabataean and Palmyrene 

political entities flourished.

 

a. Byzantine cities, whose wines were tasted by poets such as Imruʾ al-Qays, 



ʿAmr ibn Kulthūm, and al-Aʿshā: Emesa (Ḥims), Damascus (Dimashq), Bostra 

(Buṣrā), Heliopolis (Baalbak), Epiphania (Ḥama), Larissa (Shayzar), Andron/

al-Andarīn, Salkhad (Sarkhad), and Tādif.

 

b. Locations more closely associated with the Ghassānids and visited by Imruʾ 



al-Qays: Usays and Adriʿāt. Ḥassān, whose relations to the Ghassānids were closer 

than those of Imruʾ al-Qays, visited and referred to more Ghassānid locations: 

al-Khammān, al-Khawābi, al-Buḍayʿ, Dūma, Bilās, Dārayyā, and al-Qurayyāt. To 

these may be added a location named in Umayyad poetry: Maqadd.

 

c. The two capitals of the Ghassānids—Jābiya and Jalliq. They deserve special 



mention, for they were the sites of royal entertainments. Jalliq seems to have been 

the venue for the more sophisticated and highly developed songs, as described in 

Ḥassān’s account of Jabala’s feasts, rather than Jābiya. The Monophysite Ghassānid 

kings, both serious-minded and enthusiastic about song, were apparently too con-

servative to allow such secular entertainment to be held in their official capital, but 

they allowed it to be offered in the unofficial one, Jalliq.

 

3. Given the considerable development of song among the Ghassānids, was 



there a venue other than the tavern that was especially devoted to it and similar 



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