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Art Critique Essay History Nonfiction Social Sciences Theory

Gender and the politics of music in the early Islamic courts

By Lisa Nielson, 2012

Until the ninth century, the role of the professional musician in pre-Islamic Arabia and Mesopotamia was primarily fulfilled by women. Men were socially prohibited from working as musicians, though some transgressed gender and social boundaries by adopting feminine dress and playing ‘women’s’ instruments. With the advent of Islam, patronage of qiyān (singing girls), mukhannathūn (effeminates) and later, male musicians, did not substantially change. During the early Abbasid era (750–950 CE), however, their collective visibility in court entertainments was among several factors leading to debates regarding the legal position of music in Islam. The arguments for and against took place in the realm of politics and interpretation of religious law yet the influence of traditional expectations for gendered musical performance that had existed on the cultural landscape for millennia also contributed to the formation of a musical semiotics used by both sides. In this article, I examine the representation of musicians in the early Islamic court in Baghdad from the perspective of select ninth-century Arabic texts. First, I begin with a summary of the gender roles and performance expectations for pre-Islamic court musicians and point to their continuation into the early Islamic courts. Then, I suggest how the figure of the musician became a key referent in the development of a musical semiotics used in medieval Islamic music discourse.

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