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Medieval Commentary about Tarab

Introduction to George's Tarab Series



translated by Dr. George Dmitri Sawa




Table of Contents



Dictionary Definition of Tarab

Lively emotion or excitement or unsteadiness of the heart or the mind by reason of joy or grief; setting of joy; departure of grief or sorrow; desire, or yearning or longing of the soul.



From Kitab al-Aghani
(Book of Songs, Baghdad, 10th century)

Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani was a medieval Islamic historian noted for preserving song lyrics and poetry who lived from 897 to 971 CE. His Book of Songs (Kitāb al-Aghānī) consists of 24 volumes with stories of composers, poets, and singers, including both men and women.

Dr. George Sawa has written a book An Arabic Musical and Socio-Cultural Glossary of Kitab al-Aghani. Dr. Sawa's glossary points to 495 entries in Kitab al-Aghani about tarab. Some are definitions, some are the effect of tarab, some are the context of tarab.

According to Dr. Sawa's analysis of Kitab al-Aghani, tarab can be caused by speech, poetry or singing.



Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi (d. 839) said about a song by Ibn Surayj (d. ca. 726):

“From the time I knew it, whenever I heard it, it made me cry, because if I heard it, or if I sang it, I would find an [emotional] flooding [drowning] (ghamr) my heart. It will not stop until I cried.”



This segment is about the ascetic poet Abu al-Atahiya (d. 826) reacting physically and emotionally to the tarab-imbued singing of Mukhariq (d. ca 846), which he also found medicinal, physically and emotionally. Abu al-Atahiya was the leader of the ascetics of his time.

Abu al-Atahiya knocked at the door of Mukhariq who came out [to greet him]. Abu al-Atahiya said:

‘O beautiful one of this region, O wise man of the land of Babylon, pour into my ear something to gladden my heart and please my soul’....

He sang, and Muhammad ibn Sa'id said: ‘I almost fell on my face because of the tarab.'

Abu al-Atahiya kept crying then said to him:

‘O medicine to cure insane people, you have made [yourself] soft and tender so that I almost was able to sip you little by little. And if singing were food, your singing would be bread enriched with tasty food and condiment that make that bread easy to swallow; and if it were a drink it would be the [sustaining] water of life!'



This anecdote is about the songstress Jamila who taught generations of men and women. The power of tarab can be emotional (crying), physical (clapping, slapping one face) or imaginational (earth shaking). In this short anecdote we find all three.

Jamila seated her slave girls behind the curtain, she sang while accompanying herself on the lute and they played with her on fifty lutes, and the house shook (as if from an earthquake). She then sang to her lute accompaniment as well as their accompaniment to her [lute] playing . . . Many people cried until the tears wetted their clothes and they heaved a deep sigh!



Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi (d. 839) said about a song by Ibn Surayj (d. 716]:

From the time I knew it, whenever I heard it, it made me cry, because if I heard it, or if I sang it, I would find an [emotional] flooding my heart, it will not stop until I cried.



ABOUT THE IMAGE: This image appears at the beginning of a manuscript of Kitāb al-Aghānī (Book of Songs) of Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani.




By Ibn Khurdadhba

Ibn Khurdadhba (died 911, Baghdad) was a Persian geographer of the 9th century. His oration in front of the Caliph al-Mu'tamid (died 892 CE) was reported in The Meadows of Gold of Al-Mas'ūdī (died circa 957 CE) (Volume 5, 131).

Al-Mas'ūdī was a historian, physicist, and mapmaker in the 10th century CE who traveled extensively throughout India, Iran, the Middle East, Africa, and the Caspian Sea area. He wrote a 30-volume history of the world and described his experiences as a traveler, which led to him becoming known as "the Herodotus of the Arabs".



Ibn Khurdadhba's Oration

The Caliph al-Mu’tamid asked Ibn Khurdadhba about the types of tarab. He replied: “There are three types O Prince of Believers:

  1. A tarab which moves and transports because of a generosity (munificence) which raises the spirit and nature when listening to music;
  2. A tarab which is sadness and grief especially if the poetry describes the bygone youth, or longing to one’s country, or lamentation for a departed beloved;
  3. A tarab which is caused by the purity of the soul, gracefulness of the sense especially when listening to well crafted poetry and perfection of musical composition. The one who does not know it or understand it would not be delighted by it, you would see him preoccupied away from it and so he is like a solid rock or bolder or a hard inanimate object ...

And a number of philosophers and many wise men from Ancient Greece said that the one afflicted by a disease in his sense of smell would hate perfumes, and the one with crude hearing would hate listening to singing, would ignore it and would find faults with it and find it blameworthy ... tarab is the returning of the soul to its natural state at once."



Also from Ibn Khurdadhba

Persians used to say... "If good singing coincides with a beautiful face, that would increase your feeling of tarab. Don’t you see that singing coming out of the mouth of a beautiful songstress, as if she were moulded out of a white pearl or a ruby, singing for you from a mouth you’d love to kiss... more likeable to you than the mouth of an old man... with a twisted-haired beard, thick cheeks, cracked teeth, yellow and pale face!"




By Ibn al-Tahhan

Muhammad ibn al-Hasan Ibn al-Tahhan died after 1057 CE, Cairo. The following text comes from his musical dictionary called Hawi al-Funun wa-Salwat al-Mahzun.



Tarab is what arouses people as a result of joy or sadness and is not confined to singing alone or instrumental music. People get aroused as a result of poetry, speech, mention of good deeds, beautiful places, every clear and pure sight, nice garden. Tarab can also occur out of fear, mention of death, disaster, death notice, separation, generous gift and meeting of the beloved.



ABOUT THE PHOTO: Ibn al-Tahhan was known as an accomplished oud player and court musician. Therefore, it seemed appropriate to include this photo of ouds in a shop on Mohamed Ali Street that Shira took in February 2016.




Related Articles



About the Translator: Dr. George Sawa

Dr. George Sawa was born in Alexandria, Egypt. He has over 50 years of experience in Arabic music performance, history and theory, and has performed and lectured extensively worldwide: Canada, USA, Brazil, Mexico, Europe (Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Greece) and the Middle East (Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates). He studied qanun, theory and voice at the Higher Institute of Arabic Music.

After immigrating to Canada, Dr. Sawa studied ethnomusicology at the University of Toronto, and obtained his doctorate in historical Arabic musicology. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses on medieval, modern, and religious music of the Middle East at the University of Toronto and at York University.

Dr. Sawa is the author of:

  • Music Performance Practice in the Early Abbasid Era. 132-320 AH/750-932 AD
  • Rhythmic Theories and Practices in Arabic Writings to 339AH/950 CE (Ottawa: The Institute of Mediaeval Music, 2004 and 2009)
  • An Arabic Musical and Socio-Cultural Glossary of Kitab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs) of al-Isbahani (d. 971) (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2015).
  • Egyptian Music Appreciation and Practice for Bellydancers

Dr. Sawa has published over 50 articles on Arabic music in refereed journals and encyclopedias, and is frequently invited to give lectures and concerts worldwide. In 2005, he received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Egyptian Ministry of Culture for his research in Arabic music history.

George Sawa

George has been the musical director for several productions of the Toronto-based Arabesque Dance Company, and taught hundreds of dancers at the Arabesque Academy and Hannan's Bellydance Studio in Toronto, as well as studios in Canada, USA, Brazil and Mexico. His first CD release, The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun, Vol. 1, was nominated for a JUNO Award in World Music in 2009. A subsequent volume, The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun, Vol. 2, was released in 2009.

His book Egyptian Music Appreciation and Practice for Bellydancers has won international acclaim and serves as an invaluable - one of a kind - companion to bellydancers all over the world. (It is available in English, Chinese, French, Greek, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, German and Portuguese). A companion set of two DVDs produced with Lulu Hartenbach in Brazil includes over 50 tracks of dancing instruction from his CDs and book: Lulu and George Dimitri Sawa. Apreciação de Música Árabe para Bailarinas - Teoria & Prática 2 vols. Sao Paulo: Ventreoteca. Produzido por Kaleidoscopio de Ideias. Shimmie, 2015.

Presently Dr. Sawa is working on a book Erotica, Love, and Humor in Arabia which will be published by McFarland in 2016.

For more information on Dr. Sawa's books, musical recordings, and videos, see his web site at .

Dr. George Sawa




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