Mawsili’s Solmization and the Spanish Tablecloth


By Damhuri Muhammad

Over hundreds of years, Italian musician, Guido d’Arezzo (995-1033) has been credited as the inventor of musical notation, which we recognized as solmization. In the history of music, there is no musician or music scientist who does not intersect with Guido’s notation, which is arranged in a musical alphabet; Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Ut, Re. Since 1026, experts pinned the basic notation on Guido d’Arezzo, an Italian Benedictine friar, who was later noted as the right holder of the valuable invention that were very influential in the improvement of music theory in the world. The prominence of Guido d’Arezzo is said to be between the fame of Boethius and Johannes Tinctoris, two legendary European musicians. The achievement deserved, after Guido’s Micrologus, a treatise on medieval music widespread.


Nevertheless, in 1780, a surprising discovery emerged from a French scholar named Jean Benjamin de la Borde (1734-1798), as recorded in Essai sur la Musique ancienne et moderne. De la Borde emphasized that Guido d’Arezzo’s notation was a duplication of the Muslim music scientist’s invention in an earlier era. De la Borde’s claim is considered unreasonable by a number of music scientists in the western world. Because, they do not obtain empirical evidence about the influence of Arab-Islamic music in Europe. Although many scholars acknowledged the influence of the Arab-Islamic musical tradition in the west, it was only an instrument, there was no trace of music theory. In this polemical atmosphere, as stated by Rabah Saoud’s notes entitled The Arab Contribution to Music Western World published on (2004), a French musicologist named Guillaume André Villoteau (1759-1839) emerged to defend de la Borde’s claims. In his article Description des instruments de musique des orientaux, Villoteau compares the Guido’s notation with solmization in the Arab-Islamic musical tradition. In conclusion, if Guido’s notation reads Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Ut, Re, the Arab-Islamic solmization is composed in tones; Mi, Fa, Shad, La, Sin, Dal, Ra. Both from the aspect of the alphabet and the tone of intonation, it looks and sounds very similar. “According to all appearances it is this latter which served as the model for that of Guido of Arezzo,” said Villoteau.

So, where did Guido d’Arezzo get the musical notation based on the Arab-Islamic alphabet? Soriano Fuertes in Hitoire de la musica Espanola, as quoted by Rabah Saoud explains, Guido had studied in Catalunya, whereas Hunke S (1969) in Shams al-‘Arab Tastaa’ ala Al-Gharb emphasized that the Arabic syllable is found in 11th century Latin treatise, which was produced in Monte Cassino, an area that has been occupied by the islamic empire several times, and which was once the retirement place of Constantine Africanus, the great Tunisian scholar who migrated from Tunisia to Salerno, then to Monte Cassino.

Moreover, the role of Christian scientists who studied in Islamic lands was also a significant factor for the spread of Islamic cultural influence in Europe. One of the scientists whose influence in the western world is Gerbert Aurillac, who later became Pope with the title of Sylvester II. He is a graduate of Al Quaraouiyine University, the first university in the world built by a Muslim woman named Fatimah Al Fihri in Fes, Morocco. Pope Sylvester II contributed in the renewal of scientific thought in Europe, and also in spreading Arab-Islamic musical knowledge into music theory in Europe. In educating his students, he has used the quadrivium teaching method.

According to Rabah Saoud, the Muslim scholar who was suspected of being the original creator of the solmization which would later appear in Guido’s Notation version was Ishaq Al-Mawsili (767-850), a musician who lived during the time of caliph Al-Ma’mum in Baghdad. This is a century earlier than Guido d’Arezzo’s lifetime. The musical talent of Al-Mawsili’s came from his father, Ibrahim Al-Mawsili (742-804), a legendary musician in the golden age of Islamic civilization. Ishaq was born in Al-Raiy, northern Persia. At that time, his father was studying Persian music. It was said that Ishaq’s father always traveled to study and advance the art he loved so much. Once Ibrahim brought his young son to Baghdad. Later, it was in the center of the Abbasid empire that Ishaq’s name known as a famous musician. Experts say that Al-Mawsili is identical with a lute-shaped musical instrument commonly called ‘Ud, and later known in Europe as a lute. During the time of the caliph Harun Ar-Rasyid (766-809), Al-Mawsili’s musical instrument became part of the palace collection.

At the same time as Al-Mawsili, there was a multitalented artist named Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Nafi (789-857) who is also recognized as Al-Mawsili’s best student. He was so good at playing ‘Ud, it was said that the teacher was worried that his student’s achievements would reduce his reputation as a palace musician. “Leave Baghdad! Get away from this capital!” asked Ishaq to Abu al-Hasan, as told by Robert W Lebling in Flight of Blackbird (2003). For sure, Al-Mawsili’s threatening request was accompanied by his willingness to compensate for Abu Al-Hasan’s departure from Baghdad. Finally Abu al-Hasan anchored in Andalusia (Spain). He is known by the nickname Ziryab or Black Bird (Blackbird), because his skin is very black, but his voice is very melodious and enchanting. According to historians, Ziryab was a truly multitalented artist. In the John Gill’s Andalucia: A Cultural History (2009) as quoted by (2017) it is explained, the ruler of Cordoba trusted Ziryab to hold a position similar to Minister of Culture in the territory of Andalusia. Ziryab’s first project was to establish a music school. Unlike the the music conservatory in Baghdad, the music school in Cordoba encouraged experimentation in musical styles and instruments. For his great reputation, later Encyclopedia of Islam listed Ziryab as “the founder of the Spanish-Islamic musical tradition.” Ziryab composed nuba (or nauba), a distinctly Andalusian-Arabic type of music that has survived in the classical music scene of the North African region. In Libya, Tunisia and eastern Algeria, nuba are known as maluf. Ziryab created 24 types of nuba. Nuba forms were very popular within the Spanish Christian community and were very influential in the advancement of music in medieval Europe.

Not only managing music, Ziryab also introduced dress standards in Cordoba, table manners, and hair styles. Before Ziryab’s innovation, the matter of dining in Spain was simple, even crude. Just a legacy from the Visigoths, the successors of the Vandals, and from local customs. Plates were piled haphazardly on a wooden table. There is no table manners. Ziryab staged a kind of “dining table culture revolution” by introducing new fruits and vegetables such as Asparagus. He also familiarized three dishes which were served separately, namely appetizer, main dish, and dessert, the three-course meal tradition in European dining culture, which has survived today. He replaced European silver glasses with clear crystal glasses. Ziryab introduced tablecloths to enhance the ambiance of the dishes, including placing flower vases on them. He designed a soup ladle, even introducing the toothpick. In the field of fashion, Ziryab dresses the Cordoba people in clothes that are appropriate for every season and occasion. In spring, people are encouraged to wear brightly colored clothes, in summer for white clothes, and in winter, to wear fur clothes. He also taught Cordoba society how to take care of themselves.

The world’s first musical notation inherited by Ishaq Al-Mawsili and the ethical implications of Ziryab’s works have turned European human vandalism and rudeness into civilized people, even to the way of chewing food at the dinner table, show the reality of how attached art is (especially music) in the golden age era of Islamic civilization. Instead of being forbidden (haram), in the hands of Ishaq Al-Mawsili and Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Nafi, music actually has the power to refine rudeness and is instrumental in shaping the glories of western civilization that we admire today. At this point, conceivably the great Sufi Jalaluddin Rumi is right, who once said that haram music is the sound of spoons and forks clashing at the dining table of a rich family which is heard by their poor neighbor.


Damhuri Muhammad, is graduated from the Department of Philosophy at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta. He writes fiction, literary criticism, and opinion columns. He tweets @damhurimuhammad



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