al-Urmawi's works
A Collection of Safi al-Din al-Urmawi's work
dated: 2 Muharram 952 H.E. (15 March 1545) by the scribe Abd Allah ibn Shams al-Din.
on paper, 12.5 x 18.5 cm, 169 folios. Lots of figures and diagrams.
1. Al-Sharafiyyah fi al-Nasab al-Ta'lifiyyah, p. 1-160, Arabic, 80 folios.
2. Kitab al-Adwar, Arabic, p. 161-207, 24 folios.
3. A treatise on Music, Persian, p. 254-271, 10 folios.
4. A Persian commentary on Kitab al-Adwar by Qutb al-Din Shirazi (d. 1311), p. 210-253, 274-338, 54 folios.
Safi al-Din al-Urmawi (Arabic: صفی الدین الارموی‎) or Abd al-Muʾmin ibn Yusuf ibn Fakhir al-Urmawi al-Baghdadi (Sufi al-Dīn in some Ottoman sources) (born c. 613 H.E./1216 AD probably in Urmia died in 1294 AD) was a renowned musician and writer on the theory of music. He is perhaps best known for developing in the thirteenth century the widely used seventeen tone scale later expanded to the Arabic scale of twenty-four quarter tones. He died in Baghdad on 28 Ṣafar 693 H.E./28 January 1294, at the age of about 80.
In his youth, he went to Baghdad and was educated in the Arabic language, literature, history and penmanship. Al-Urmawi studied the sciences at the Mustansiriyya school in Baghdad and was well known as a celebrated writer of literature. He was also a good physicist. He made a name for himself as an excellent calligrapher and was appointed copyist at the new library built by the Abbassid caliph al-Musta'ṣim.
He had also studied Shafii law and comparative law (Khilaf Fiqh) at the Mustansiriyya Madrasa (opened 631 H.E./1234). This qualified him to assume a post in al-Mustaʿsim's juridical ministration and, after 656 H.E./1258, to head the supervision of the foundations (Naẓariyyat al-aqf) in Iraq until 665 H.E./1267, when Nasir al-Din Tusi took over.
Al-Urmawi become known as a musician and excellent lute (‘ud) player. His musical career, however, seems to have been supported mainly by the Juwayni family, especially by Shams al-Din Muḥammad and his son Sharaf Din Harun (put to death in 1285). After the demise of his patrons, he fell into oblivion and poverty. He was placed under arrest on account of a debt of 300 dinars. He died in the Shafii Madrasat al-Khalil in Baghdad.
Al-Urmawi and the Theory of Music
Al-Urmawi analyzed thoroughly the Greek sources and the works of Muslim scholars such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Ibn Sina. He studied the practical music of his time scientifically and systematized it in his Kitab al-adwar (The Book of Musical Modes) and in his main treatise al-Risalah al-Sharafiyyah fi al-Nisab al-Ta'lifiyyah (The Sharafian Treatise on Musical Proportions).
The contribution of al-Urmawi to the theory and the practice of Arabic music are of tremendous importance, as it occupies a valuable place in the chain of theoretical works in the history of music theory starting with al-Kindi. As a composer, al-Urmawi cultivated the vocal forms of ṣawt, qawl and nawbah. In practical music, he was a performer of the 'ud and invented two stringed musical instruments: the nuzha and the mughnī. He was accepted as a member of the private circle of boon companions, thanks to one of his music students, the caliph's favoured songstress Luḥaẓ. His musical talent made him survive the fall of Baghdad, by generously accommodating one of Hulaku’s officer. Hulagu the Mongol ruler was impressed by al-Urmawi and doubled his income relative to the Abbassid era.
The sound system that he systematized, known as the "Old Orient sound system with 17 notes", was considered by modern critics as one of the best sound systems. It is thanks to this system and other achievements that he was claimed as Zarlino of the Orient.
Many Muslim authors who wrote about the theory of music in subsequent centuries relied on his works in music theory; Kitab al-Adwar and al-Risalah al-Sharafiyyah. Among these we may mention Qutb al-Din Mahmud al-Shirazi (d. 1310), Abd al-Qadir ibn Ghaybi al-Maraghi (d. 1435), Fath' Allah Mumin al-Shirwani (d. 1486), Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Hamid al-Ladhiqi (d. 1494) and Alishah b. Haci Buke (d. 1500).
Al-Urmawi’s second book, Risālah al-Sharafiyyah, was written around 665 H.E./1267. It is dedicated to his student and later patron, Sharaf al-Din Harun al-Juwayni son of Shams al-Din al-Juwayni (Juvayn is a town in Khorasan). He was part of the scientific, literary and artistic circle of the Juwayni family. Through these gatherings, al-Urmawi was in contact with the Persian scholar Nasir al-Din Tusi. Tusi's short treatise on the proportions of musical intervals perceivable in the pulse may have stimulated al-Urmawī's interest in Greek science and music theory.
The treatise al-Risalah al-Sharafiyyah consists of five discourses under different headings. Its content is analysed in this article. A special focus is laid on the mathematical fundamentals of music in the second, third and fourth discourses of the book. The parts of the works of al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Ibn Sina that benefited to al-Umrmawi are also indicated. Finally, the traces of al-Sharafiyyah are tracked by showing references to it in some works written in later centuries, in order to emphasize the impact of the book on the subsequent studies and the innovations it brought.
Al-Urmawi studied the ratios between the numbers very systematically, named the intervals established with these ratios, classified them, and explained the consonant and dissonant intervals in detail. After al-Farabi, the tetrachord divisions had never been examined in such a detailed way in any adwar. Al-Umrmawi showed all possible divisions and pointed out the most consonant of these. He mentioned the tetrachords with four intervals and pentachordal kinds and explained the consonant ones. Some writers following him avoided this topic as it is complicated and full of details and did no more than following the same route as al-Urmawi which they called their master and praised him.
Al-Urmawi benefited from several sequencing forms of tetrachord, pentachord and tanini intervals while he was arranging two octave ranges. While forming one and two octave ranges, he arranged the intervals of tetrachord and pentachord in several ways and formed the maqams with the consonant ranges appearing after this work. In addition, he mentioned some topics such as the determination of 17 sound ranges, common tones of scales, transposition, performing of an instrument, the order of accords, and the performance with several accords and compositions.
The examination and naming of the maqams in Kitab al-adwar and al-Sharafiyyah were achieved for the first time. In al-Sharafiyyah, al-Umrmawi arranged 63 ranges with tetrachords and pentachords, and he produced 18 maqams out of them and showed the scales of 12 ones in the tables by adapting them into 17 tones/notes. Until the end of the fifteenth century, there were no great changes in the classification and naming of the maqams al-Umrmawi did.
Having a great knowledge over theoretical music in his age, al-Urmawi surveyed almost all the topics in al-Sharafiyyah with a clear and understandable language and style. With all these features, the Sharafiyyah treatise stands as a valuable work supplying substantial contributions which should be noticed by everybody writing over theoretical music in the Islamic heritage of the past.
The Kitab al-Adwār was translated several times into Persian language and there also exists an Ottoman Turkish translation.
The Kitab al-Adwār is the first extant work on scientific music theory after the writings on music of Avicenna. It contains valuable information on the practice and theory of music in the Perso-ʿIraqi area, such as the factual establishment of the five-stringed lute (still an exception in Avicenna’s time), the final stage in the division of the octave into 17 steps, the complete nomenclature and definition of the scales constituting the system of the twelve Maqams (called shudūd) and the six Awāz modes. It also contains precise depictions of contemporary musical metres, and the use of letters and numbers for the notation of melodies. It is the first time that this occurs in history, making it a unique work of greatest value. Al-Urmawi's 'international' modal system was intended to represent the predominant Arab and Persian local musical traditions.
By its conciseness it became the most popular and influential book on music for centuries. No other Arabic (Persian or Ottoman Turkish) music treatise was so often copied, commented upon and translated into Oriental (and Western) languages. The Kitab al-Adwār was conceived as a compendium (mukhtasar) of the standard musical knowledge of its time.
These two major books have become the foundation of academic discourse on Arabic music, most notably modern works by Briton Owen Wright. Commentaries on these theoretical works were written as early as the 1370s.
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