Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 05/2011

Art and Ecstasy in Arab Music

A.J. Racy

December 2010

Center for Contemporary Arab Studies


Throughout history, the emotional power of music has concerned philosophers, scientists, educators, moralists, and musicians. Growing up in a small rural village in southern Lebanon, I observed such power first hand. When the mijwiz (a double-pipe reed instrument) was played, traditionally using the technique of circular breathing, I saw the local listeners succumb to the instrument’s magic spell. Its irresistible Dionysian ethos seemed to compel them to sing and dance. Some villagers maintained that the mijwiz enabled the shepherds, who often played it, to entrance their goats and make them stand still and listen. As an ethnomusicologist who specializes in music of the Middle East, especially of the Arab world, I have come across other similarly compelling cases of musical transformation. When singers chanted their poetry at medieval Abbasid courts in Baghdad, the listeners, including the caliphs themselves, displayed a variety of strong reactions, including moving their feet, dancing, sobbing, weeping, and tearing their garments—or in some cases listening to the performers attentively and bestowing upon them lavish compliments. Meanwhile, medieval Arabic treatises, which in the ancient Greek tradition often treated music as a science, left us ample writings about music’s extraordinary cosmological associations and therapeutic effects. And for the Sufi mystics, music and dance became an integral path to transcendence, or the attainment of spiritual ecstasy.