ESḤĀQ MAWṢELĪ, ABŪ MOḤAMMAD, prominent musician at the ʿAbbasid court in Baghdad (b. 150/767-68; d. 235/850) and the successor of his equally famous father Ebrāhīm Mawṣelī (d. 188/803-4, q.v.) as leader of the conservative school of musicians of the time. He was born in 150/767-68 in Ray, where his father, who was pursuing his musical training, had met and married his mother Šāhak (Aḡānī V, pp. 3, 50). Soon thereafter Ebrāhīm was summoned to the caliphal court, and Esḥāq grew up among the cultured elite of Baghdad, acquiring a superb education from such leading literary figures as Abū ʿObayda Maʿmar b. Muṯannā and Abū Saʿīd ʿAbd-al-Malek Aṣmaʿī, as well as, in music, the celebrated ʿūd player Zalzal (d. after 227/842) and his own father (Yāqūt, Odabāʾ VI, pp. 7-8). In recognition of his erudition, he was permitted by the caliph al-Maʾmūn to attend court sessions in the company of belletrists and even legal scholars, rather than musicians, but his fame in fact rested solidly on his musical accomplishments (Aḡānī V, pp. 56-57).

Esḥāq was patronized by all the caliphs from al-Rašīd (170-93/786-809) through al-Wāṯeq (227-32 /842-47), as well as their viziers and other prominent figures. Musically, he insisted, like his father, on maintaining the classical tradition of the Ḥejāz, which put him into conflict with Ebrāhīm b. al-Mahdī, the dilettante ʿAbbasid prince who championed various forms of musical innovation. Our sources preserve many anecdotes about the rivalry between the two men, stressing in particular Esḥāq’s greater expertise (he once showed up Ebrāhīm by playing perfectly on an ʿūd that had been deliberately mistuned), as well as his extraordinary ear (he was able to pick out a single mistuned string among twenty ʿūds played in unison; Aḡānī V, pp. 54, 56). Yet the best of his colleagues and students, ʿAllūya and Moḵāreq, deserted him for the more progressive Ebrāhīm, and it seems clear that the future lay with the latter. The one successful innovation that was attributed to Esḥāq was his introduction of the singing technique of head voice (or perhaps falsetto—taḵnīṯ), which served to mask his one natural disadvantage, a relatively unattractive voice quality (Aḡānī V, p. 75).

Esḥāq is also important for his writings, all of them lost but extensively quoted in later works. In musical theory, he fixed the classical terminology for rhythmic patterns and musical modes, although later theorists such as Abū Naṣr Fārābī (d. 339/950; q.v.) criticized him for the imprecision of his exposition (Sawa, pp. 16, 37, 40, 73-75). Many of the thirty-two titles attributed to him by Ebn al-Nadīm (ed. Tajaddod, pp. 157-59) are accounts of earlier singers and collections of their songs. He also published his own songs, said to number between 200 and 400, and his own collected poetry ran to fifty folios. At the request of the caliph al-Wāṯeq he revised the collection of one hundred famous songs that his father and two colleagues had made for al-Rašīd , but this work was apparently superseded by another collection, the Ketāb al-aḡānī al-kabīr, compiled after his death and falsely attributed to him. All these collections were in turn displaced by the Aḡānī of Abu’l-Faraj Eṣfahānī (d. 356/967, q.v.), which remains our chief source on Esḥāq, his contemporaries, and his predecessors.

Esḥāq stopped composing during the caliphate of al-Wāṯeq and suffered from blindness in his old age. He died in 235/850.


Bibliography (for cited works not given in detail, see “Short References”):

Aḡānī V, pp. 49-124 and indices. J. E. Bencheikh, “Les musiciens et la poésie. Les écoles d’Isḥāq al-Mawṣilī (m. 225 H.) et d’Ibrāhīm Ibn al-Mahdī (m. 224 H.),” Arabica 22, 1975, pp. 114-52.

Ebn Ḵallekān, ed. ʿAbbās, I, pp. 202-5.

Ebn al-Nadīm, ed. Tajaddod, indices. Esḥāq Mawṣelī, Dīvān Esḥāq al-Mawṣelī, comp. M. A. ʿEzzī, Baghdad, 1970.

H. G. Farmer, History of Arabian Music, London, 1929.

J. W. Fück, “Isḥāḳ b. Ibrāhīm al-Mawṣilī” in EI2 IV, pp. 110-11.

M. A. Ḥefnī, Esḥāq al-Mawṣelī al-mūsīqār al-nadīm, Cairo, 1968.

E. Neubauer, Musiker am Hof der Frühen ʿAbbāsiden, Frankfurt, 1965, esp. pp. 64-70.

G. D. Sawa, Music Performance Practice in the Early ʿAbbāsid Era, 132-320 AH/750-932 AD, Toronto, 1989, index. Sezgin, GAS II, p. 578 and index.

Taʾrīḵ Baḡdād VI, pp. 338-45. Yāqūt, Odabāʾ VI, pp. 5-58.

(Everett K. Rowson)

Originally Published: December 15, 1998

Last Updated: January 19, 2012

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