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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
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.
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.
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
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,
7 H. G. Farmer, “Music,” in
The Legacy of Islam, ed. T. Arnold and A. Guillaume (London, 1931),
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 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
employment of poetry in song that is discussed by al-Fārābi in
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
Ḥātim, had visited the Ghassānids and eulogized them; see
BASIC II.1, 246–59.
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),
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;
Among the Ghassānids, the songstress rather than the male singer was the princi-
pal performer. An exception may be the
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.
Dīwān of Ḥassān, the most common appellation of the songstress is
14 See al-Asad,
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
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.
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.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
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
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.
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
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
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 jarāda. Musmiʿa,
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).
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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-
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.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
would reveal the only songstress associated with the Ghassānids known by her
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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