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Reconfiguring Music for the Present, Waseelah Smedley

Waseelah Smedley is a singer, songwriter, musician and producer from the UK. Here, she shares her thoughts on reconfiguring music for the present...

Ottoman depiction of harem women playing music. Levnî, early 18th century. Topkapi Palace Library, Hazine, MS 1793.


The relationship between Muslims and music is uncomfortable. Although music flourishes, there is constant friction between textual interpretation and the listening practices of Muslim communities. The problems are layered: firstly, pre-colonial jurisprudential sources on music are often interpreted through a Eurocentric understanding of music that does not map onto the conceptualisation of music in these texts. The result is a confusing, decontextualized and contradictory reading of the law that cannot explain the legacy of musical practice within Islamic contexts. Secondly, modern technology brings new challenges, something that is beyond the wildest imaginings of previous scholarship. As artists, Muslim musicians are increasingly discontented in their attempts to negotiate making music for a world that primarily consumes music for distraction and hedonism. The result is the same the world over: Muslim musicians regularly leaving mainstream music. The nasheed industry is considered a better alternative but it often encounters great difficulty in attempting to create ‘Islamic’ music in an industry that celebrates the opposite.

Example of developments in musical notation. A sample page of Al-Shirāzī’s (d.1311) Durrat al-Tāj. Suleymaniye Library, Ayasofya, MS 2405.


However, this is not the first time that ethics around music in the Muslim world have been disrupted by cultural change and globalising. For example, as the Abbasids expanded their borders, the consequent influx of wealth and culture caused huge intellectual and technological changes, including in music. The corpora of al-Farābī (d.872) and al-Kindī (d.873), for example, perfecting the tuning of the ʿūd and developed new modal scales. Performances shifted from simple soloist compositions, usually of poetry sung a cappella or accompanied by a duff, to more sophisticated ensembles. Amongst the many arrivals from newly conquered Muslim lands were Persian musicians Ibrāhīm and Isḥāq al-Mawṣilī who entered the Abbasid court. Ibrāhīm al-Mawṣilī was responsible for establishing training schools for singing slave women, who became some of the greatest musicians in the Middle East, developing musical practices in their own right. Muslim music became highly developed, with ghināʾ (art music) at its pinnacle.

Page of Al-Farabi’s manuscript for eight string ʿūd



However, as music flourished, challenges appeared in trying to morally regulate the performance culture that came with it. Ghināʾ practices in the Abbasid courts became overindulgent and associated with promiscuity and the misuse of sexual slave laws. It is in this context that the first critical treatises on musical performances appear written by al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 868) and ibn abi’l Dunyā (d. 894). Both scholars were courtiers and had studied or were involved in music themselves. Their criticisms were overt responses to the political, social and cultural developments that manifested negatively in musical performance at court. They criticised the illicit nature of the musical-sexual slave trade, and the overindulgence of patrons and slave owners, all of which were products of the new context that caused rapid expansion and development of musical culture. At no point did they criticise music itself, but its misuse in the new culture that was being created.

We can draw parallels between the disruption to musical culture in the past and today. Like in the Abbasid period, changes in our context – social, political, technological – present challenges to us as consumers and creators of music. Although many previous traditions still thrive, as modern Muslims, the challenge is creating music that reflects the context of artists. We can learn from the example of earlier Muslims who developed their intellectual and spiritual thought to meet the challenges of their spaces.


Waseelah is a singer, songwriter, musician and producer from the UK. Also an award winning scholar, she has recently graduated from the University of Birmingham with a Masters in Global History, focusing on the persecution of singing slave women in the first four centuries Muslim society in the Middle East.

Find out more about Waseelah follow her on Twitter

The views of the interviewees who are featured in Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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