From the following angles Islamic music is important:
Considering its context and performance, the Islamic music can be divided into several branches and surely each of these branches can themselves be divided into a variety of subdivisions.
Of the above classifications the Ashurayi and passion plays are exclusively practiced by the Shia sect. Nevertheless, prayer and convent (khanqahi) music is also prevalent in the Shia faith. But the other branches of Islamic religion only employ prayer recitals, mystical and convent music.
The Ashura epic and the method of martyrdom of Imam Hossein (peace be upon him) is a turning point in the history of Shia belief throughout the Islamic world and enjoys special significance. The Karbala tragedy was such that among Shia elders and saints Imam Hossein is the most distinguished religious figure in Islam. For that reason Ashurayi rites and music is one of the outstanding examples of religious music in Iran.
According to certain records, the Moharram mourning ceremony was initiated during Ale Booyeh Period (4th century A.H. or 10th century A.D.) and this ceremony permitted the Shia Muslims to openly lament the tragic martyrdom of Imam Hossein and his followers.
According to Arab historian Ibne Asir, the Moharram mourning ceremony commenced during the Ale Booyeh Dynasty (1).
These ceremonies continued in Iran in several centuries until the birth of Safavid Dynasty when the Shia faith became the official religion of Iran and naturally at that epoch the Ashura mourning ceremony and its music was further expanded. Ashura music itself is divided into several branches such as lamentation, narration (recitation) and declamation of the tragedy, dirge, commemoration of Karbala martyrs (Rowzeh), war annals, etc.
Lamentation is divided into many sub-divisions of which the most important one is the Ashura music. I think the oldest mourning ceremony was lamentation which started with preaching and lectures and was later on perfected. Lamentation for the death of mythological heroes was popular before Islam also in Iran. In his History of Bokhara, Narshakhi says: "The people in Bokhara sung strange songs to lament Siavosh's death and the minstrels called these songs `The Wrath of Siavosh". The people in Bokhara lament Siavosh's murder and this custom was popular in all provinces and minstrels composed songs and singers chanted doleful lays and wept...(2).
Each of the episodes in the lamentation of the Karbala tragedy is important and distinct. Good qualities, bravery, the method of martyrdom of each of the heroes of Karbala tragedy form various themes for such lamentations. Among these episodes lamentation for the martyrdom of Imam Hossein (pbuh) is outstanding in quality and volume. In addition, the events occurred on each day of the first 10 days of the month of Moharram form a distinguished section of these lamentations such as lament for Hazrat-e Abbas (pbuh), for Ali Akbar (pbuh), for Ali Asghar (pbuh), for Zeinab (peace be upon her) and above all for Imam Hossein (pbuh). Besides these melodies and songs one might refer to the lamentation of the `The Last Supper' on the occasion of the female orphans who were left behind after Imam Hossein's martyrdom, the lamentation of the sunrise, etc...
Normally several other symbolic rituals are observed along with the lamentation such as breast beating, chain beating, stone beating, and dagger beating. Among these, breast beating is widely popular in different regions in Iran among the Shia sect. The Iranian tribes have been the first followers of Shia faith and from the beginning they have mingled the Ashura mourning ceremony to a collection of other traditions. The impact of native melodies on elegies and lamentations and inclusion of many local customs and rites in the Ashura mourning, are examples of such integration. Aside the fact that the melodies in different regions in Iran are greatly influenced by native music, symbolic rites such as breast beating, stone beating, etc. follow special body moves and figures which have an aesthetic origin. As a result, many breast beating figures used in Boushehr (in southern Iran) follows the customs of natives of Boushehr.
Lamentation related to breast beating, chain beating, stone beating, or dagger beating, etc. differs according to the instruments used or the physical movement of the body; it follows specific rhythm and speed. As a consequence each ceremony is accompanied by its specific lamentation rite. Nearly in all Shia populated regions in Iran breast beating is popular. Meanwhile chain beating also varies from place to place and each employs its specific lamentation song. The diversity in chain beating in different regions in Iran is notable in the different movements and figures and methods of beating the chain or the different chains used.
Stone beating is another symbolic rite which is popular in several parts of the country accompanied by special melodies. Normally two pieces of stone are beaten on the sides of the mourner by special manners and movements accompanied by lamentation song. Apparently as a result of the physical damage caused by stones on the body, wood stick is gradually replacing stone. Lately instead of stone beating other terms such as Karbzani or Karebzani, playing cymbals and ratchets are used. In Mazandaran and some other regions like Komesh, south of Alborz mountain, the term Kareb and in Gilan the term Karb and in Aran (Kashan), cymbal is customary. This ceremony needs considerable physical strength by the performers and is popular in Lahijan and Aran, a district in Kashan, as well as Semnan and Sabzevar.
The lamentation music also varies in different regions. Some of the lamentation music originate directly from Iranian musical divisions. Others follow the popular music of the region and in some areas both the traditional Iranian music and local music is used simultaneously. The slogans used in the lamentation is also different and the Persian text is often preferred, but in some regions in Iran the lamentation is sung by local dialects. The lamentation music in the ceremonies follow two main rules i.e. rhythm and the rank.
Normally the lamentation starts with such songs which have less speed and dynamism but once the lamentation gains peep the tone grows rapid and one piece is immediately followed by another piece. The rhythm also varies from 4/4, 2/4 to 6/8 and 6/4 scales. Singers of lamentation music normally are attentive to the rank of the music as well so that if a single rank is employed in the lamentation ritual, the song is carried out on a continuous basis. Changing one rank into another rank in lamentation music is carried out very carefully and delicately. The wailing melody is normally sung by a solo singer (the principle mourner) and is responded by the chore of breast beaters, chain beaters, Karbzans, etc.
Except lamentation other rituals are observed in the Ashura mourning ceremony such as narration or recitation, description of tragedy, dirge and preaching. Each of these parts have a special place in the Ashura music which cannot be described here in detail due to lack of space.
Composition of Ashurayi music
With the exception of Ta'zieh or passion play, several musical instruments are used in Ashurayi music. These are mostly wind or drum instruments including the following:
Ta'zieh (passion play) music
Literally Ta'zieh means mourning, lamentation and commemoration of those who have died (4). Ta'zieh also means sharing other's grief and condoling the survivors or mourning for the departed (5), but in religious stage plays they are attributed to special rituals and traditions. Contrary to its meaning Ta'zieh does not necessarily mean a sad song (6). Ta'zieh is a religious dramatic play in Iran in which music is an inseparable branch. In the whole Islamic world, Iran is the only country which has developed a dramatic play for religious rituals. (7) Contrary to what is assumed, passion play or Ta'zieh is not a simple or specific cultural phenomenon or invented at a specific period in history, but it has gradually been developed and several centuries under the influence of different social, religious, cultural, artistic and philosophical conceptions (8).
The exact date for the emergence of dramatic Ta'zieh is not known but we are sure of two important points in that connection: First of all Ta'zieh is the product of a long evolutionary process and not the fruit of inspiration or creative talent of an individual (9). Ta'zieh play is a completed version of other mourning ceremonies such as lamentation, preaching, simulation, sketching, group marching, recitation, etc. (10)
Group marching and preaching during the Moharram season grew more and more complicated, refined and theatrical and at the second half of the eighteenth century they were fully integrated and converted into a modern theatrical and dramatic performance known as Ta'zieh (11).
Anyhow what we can gather from our past records is that Moezudolleh Ahmad ibne Booyeh popularized lamentation and simulation and in recent centuries the theatrical or simulation process was eliminated from these ceremonies stage by stage. The revolution in that area can be studied in the meticulous observations recorded by European travelers' in their copious travelogues and notes (12).
During the Qajar period the traditional passion play was preserved in villages but in cities and particularly in Tehran the simple and semi-theatrical system was abandoned and the Ashura ritual was converted from primeval play into full-fledged dramatic play (13).
Anyhow the method of perfection and the traditional roots of the passion play is an important subject which we do not have enough space here to elaborate (14).
Nowadays Ta'zieh music, the text and the play form three separate divisions of the drama which cannot be separated from each other in Ta'zieh or any other musical play. The Ta'zieh music can be examined from two distinct angels: singing music and instrument music. These two aspects of Ta'zieh are closely interconnected with the text and various forms of the drama. The main section of Ta'zieh music is singing. At one hand the songs are based on Iranian musical divisions and ranks and on the other hand in many aspects they protected and promulgated these songs and ranks during the course of decades.
Several musical factors can be traced in the Ta'zieh music of which the most important is the Iranian divisional music which forms the main ingredients of passion play songs. In the majority of cities each simulation imitates a certain rank such as Hazrat-e Abbas simulation = Chahargah; Hour = Iraq.
Among them the music played in different regions in Iran is playing an important role in the passion play. Besides passion plays performed in central regions and particularly in the capital, the passion plays in Fars, Gilan, Mazandaran, Azerbaijan and Koumesh (Semnan, Damghan and Shahroud), Lorestan and Kermanshah are accompanied by the local songs alongside Iranian musical divisions. One can easily spot the presence of Iranian traditional music in the majority of passion plays in the form of songs or instrument passion plays which are performed by instruments such as fanfares (trumpets) kettledrums and hautboy.
Of other aspects of Ta'zieh one might refer to chore music. In Ta'zieh rituals chores echo the solo singer. Pishkhan or lead solo singer is a sort of song which is played as a prelude to the Ta'zieh. In other words the lead singer starts a sort of solo lamentation which prepares the environment for passion play and this introduction is augmented by several wind and beating instruments.
Song dialogues or recitals apply special charm to Ta'zieh music. These recitals are also rooted in the ancient Iranian music. Such recitals consist of narrating stories accompanied by music or verbal narration of the Avesta, prayer narration, etc.
Narration is another important phenomenon of passion play songs. Nowadays two systems are still employed in passion plays: melancholy declamation which is related to those who echo the feeling of the oppressed and the remnants of epic narrators. The epic narrator is the phenomenon known as Oshtolom song in present passion play. This is a conversation type narration which has no written text.
Another section of the passion play is instrument music. The performance of instrument and singing music in passion play is different. Instrument music is another inseparable ritual in Ta'zieh. The instruments are bugles, hautboys, Karna, kettledrum, large drums, side drum, cymbals, clarinets, trumpets and so on. What the players do is too utter a combination of sounds which create the necessary atmosphere and sound echo. These intermingled sounds are in the meantime rhythmical and change according to episodes on the stage. Sometimes the songs strengthen the play and at times they help create the general feeling on the stage. Therefore, the composition of music in passion play depends on the dramatic variable. That which is important in passion play music is that the instruments never accompany songs except in rare cases when the flute, pipe or the clarinet is played to accompany the singer. Lack of accompaniment of song with the instruments has several reasons which cannot be explained here (15).
Contrary to Ashurayi music and passion play which are exclusively related to the Shia faith, prayer music is diversified and is practiced by a considerable number of Islamic tribes of Shia and Sunni (Hanafi, Shafeie, Maleki and Hanbali) sects. Islamic prayer music enjoys the following qualifications:
What has been mentioned above is part of the general qualities that we have observed in prayer music.
Quran recitation, recital prayers, communion, pilgrimage songs, call for prayer (Azan), commendation, incantations, and periodical prayers are examples of prayer musics which are more popular. Some prayers are connected to the nature. These prayers are related to laudation and commendation of the nature (prayer for seasons) or they demand boon from God during natural catastrophes (such as praying God to avert drought, prayer for rain, prayer to avert lunar or solar eclipse, or protect the people from harmful beasts, etc.).
An examination of this sort of music in Iran is important from different angels. The religious/ritual feature of many of these prayer musical pieces have ensured their promulgation from the inundation of time. Since this type of music has a wide and varied social audience and the narrators largely come from the ordinary masses, they have remained immune from the invasion of professional musicologists.
In some Islamic prayer melodies we come across melodies which lead us to our ancient culture. Some rare Quran recitative songs are explicitly comparable to Zoroastrian hymns. Surely the similarity is only in the province of melody and not in the text. During my research I have seen rare examples of Quran recitative melodies and some prayers, pilgrimage songs or eulogies which closely resemble the ranks, breaks, rhythm, and time length of Avesta and gatha recited by Zoroastrian Mubids. A study of this phenomenon has historical and cultural significance from the musical point of view and not religion.
Nevertheless nowadays many examples of prayer music follow Arab musical patterns. An imitation of Arabic music particularly in the recitation of the Quran and singing of Azan is due to the following reasons:
Many narrators and singers of prayer music believe that since many texts including Quranic texts and recitative pieces are in Arabic language, they must necessarily follow Arab music. But the existence of many Iranian musical tones and versions in these prayer songs has proven that this is a mistaken assumption.