By Nimira Dewji
The Ikhwan al-Safa (Brethren of Purity) was a brotherhood that flourished in Basra, in Iraq, in the second half of the tenth century. They wrote a vast encyclopedic work (Rasa’il) of fifty-two tracts dealing with sciences and philosophy. The section on music focuses on harmony, emphasizing the idea that music reflects the harmonious beauty of the universe. Similarly, said the Ikhwan, the proper use of music at the right time has a healing influence on the body. The Ikhwan devoted a special section to the making and tuning of instruments.
In his monumental work Qanun fi’l-tibb (Canon of Medicine), Ibn Sina (d. 1037) discusses a special relationship between music and medicine that recurs in Arabic and European texts even as late as the nineteenth century.
Al-Kindi (d.870), in his work Book of Sounds Made by Instruments Having One to Ten Strings, explains that instruments help create harmony between the soul and the universe; consequently, each society has instruments that reflect its nature, and each instrument is purported to express the specific beliefs and characteristics of the society to which it belongs.
Greek and Arabic literature refer to the healing of patients with music played on lyres and aulos (Shiloah p 51). In his encyclopedia, Mitfah al-tibb (The Key to Medicine), Ibn Hindu (d. 1019), acknowledges the healing qualities of music for some ailments so long as the services of professional musicians are employed. Ibn Sina (d. 1037) in his Qanun fi’l-tibb (Canon of Medicine), which was a standard medical textbook in Europe until the seventeenth century, writes about the musical nature of the pulse and the special relationship between music and medicine.
Shiloah states that from “about the fifteenth century on, the theory of music therapy held a prominent place in literature about music.”(p. 52).
Amnon Shiloah. Music in the World of Islam. Wayne State University Press. Detroit.1995
The Ikwan al-Safa and their Rasa’il: An Introduction. Edited by Nader Al-Bizri. Oxford University Press, New York, 2008
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