Ceiling, music chamber, Al-Qapi Palace. 16th century. Isfahan (Safavid capital) Ceiling, music chamber, Al-Qapi Palace. 16th century. Isfahan (Safavid capital)
Pages 74-78

By Nasib Goyushov

Mugham is music that carries the cultural and spiritual values of Azerbaijan and other peoples of the East. This rich and highly developed art form spread across a huge cultural and geographical area, from the Indian subcontinent to Islamized Spain and now appears in different types and genres, in some countries it is called maqam. Over its long history, not only have the components and composition of mugham undergone modification, so have the content and philosophy. But it is clear that it has had a significant impact on Spanish and African music, as well as that of the East. In this article we go deeper into the philosophy and origins of the inspirational sound of mugham.

An individual mugham may be relatively short or can extend for 30, 40 minutes or longer and as the full cycle (destgah) develops, instrumental dance-like interludes (rengs) and rhythmic songs (tesnifs) are performed between the main sections (gushe or shobe). The art has survived and thrived through all the socio-cultural changes of the centuries. Despite sharp changes in cultural values in the modern era, it has preserved its originality and sophistication, smoothly adapted to the spirit of the time, and has secured its place in the future. It is true that this unique musical genre, although distributed widely across the Muslim world, is now most popular in full destgah form in Azerbaijan and Iran. The skilful combination of mugham with operatic and symphonic music by Uzeyir Hajibeyov and Fikret Amirov formed a 20th century bridge between the musical cultures of East and West. The issue now is to achieve an adequate understanding of the essence of the art, as well as the secrets of its astonishing impact on a person’s mood. The subtleties of mugham can only be grasped by a study of its components, categories and concepts in the context of the principal spiritual phenomena of the East.

Accentuate the cogitative

It is evident that any work of art has a material base (in poetry – words, in painting – colours, in music – sounds etc.) and appearance, which has a direct impact on one’s psychology and emotions. However, it is never perceived simply as a material or physical phenomenon, it is rather a product of mental activity, involving natural talent, artistic imagination, mind and spirit. Mugham also contains elements of mythology and spiritual-mystical colour. Like other forms of art, it should be perceived primarily as an intellectual and aesthetic phenomenon, contributing to the perception of beauty, creating high taste and spiritual pleasure. Thus, one must avoid not only over-idealization and fakery when unveiling the essence of this art, but also any overemphasis of its material aspects. In general, medieval art, including mugham, involved mutually exclusive poles: the secular and sacred, earthly and heavenly, sensual and spiritual. Then, in addition to its emotional and aesthetic mission, it brought the human imagination into play, providing food for thought, contributing to internal enlightenment and the acquisition of knowledge.
Music world. Miniature painting Music world. Miniature painting

Although the origins of mugham lie further in the past, its development into types and genres occurred in the 10th and 11th centuries, while its final evolution and the establishment of its canons were completed in the 13th and 14th centuries. General issues of musical theory were addressed in the writings of famous philosophers Abu Nasr Farabi (870-950) and Abu Ali ibn Sina (980-1036), but the basic tonal-melodic structure of mugham was outlined in treatises by Gutbaddin Shirazi (1236-1311), Safiaddin Urmavi (1217-1294), Abdul Qadir Maraghai (1353-1435) and Fathullah Shirvani (1417-1486). There were no further significant works in later centuries and mugham was passed on from master to apprentice through the traditional canons and orally via the individual skills and improvisational talents of individual performers. This probably explains the changes that have occurred in the primary forms of destgahs and their makeup. The renowned composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov referred to the destruction of a gigantic musical monument, which originally consisted of 12 mughams and 6 avazes (quasi destgahs). These changes can be traced through the whole history of development. For example, Dugah, Segah and Chahargah consisted, as their (Persian) names suggest, of 2, 3, and 4 parts respectively. Then a number of changes and updates to the names of genres, sections and sequences in destgahs occurred, new cyclic forms and other elements between the sections emerged, and parts moved from one destgah to another. The music has also been enriched by the creative innovations of talented musicians, as well as by the dynamic nature of the tonal-melodic space and compositional structure of mugham, without destroying its fundamental principles and canons.

It is not always possible to adequately convey all the shades of meanings in oriental terminology when interpreting descriptions of mugham in medieval sources. Concerning its primary sources, we should mention the Azerbaijani folk genre Bayati; a number of elements of mugham are to be found in its tonal-melodic performance. The names of several mughams derive from this word (Bayati-Shiraz, Bayati-Kurd, Bayati-Isfahan). Rhythmic-melodic elements and intonations of mugham are also heard in recitations of the Qur’an. In addition, in the Arab-Islamic cultural tradition, the word maqam means, firstly, stages in the mystical Sufi path of ascent to absolute Truth; secondly, a particular genre of rhymed prose – short stories in high literary style, full of poetic accents and rhythmic-melodic flourishes. The word maqam in the Qur’an means step, stand, steady state (17:79, 19:73). This state can be good (25:76) or bad (25:66), and in the Kaaba, holy to Muslims, there is a shrine of pilgrimage, called Maqam-Ibrahim (2:125, 3:97). The Sufi maqam, referring to the degree of moral purification and spiritual perfection, is taken from a verse in the Qur’an.

Mugham and cosmological harmony

It is interesting that many ancient cultures explained the nature of music in terms of the cosmos and heavenly world; every harmony is related to the cosmos. In Muslim cosmogony, everything that happens in this world is a manifestation of divine names and attributes. The highest degree of harmony is related to God’s substance, while all contradictions and disharmony occur in this material world. There are two principles laid down in man: material, the body, and the divine, the spirit. Creation begins with Lahut (the Deity), and the top-down process ends with Nasut (the person). Because the nature of the latter includes divine principles, he or she can purify the soul of earthly temptation and ascend to Lahut – complete harmony. This cycle in the world order is understood as unified and complete, consisting of two arc-like processes of descent and ascent. It is not coincidental that the 12 traditional mughams set out in medieval sources correspond to the 12 constellations, and the 7 destgahs to the seven known planets. Since the enlightenment of the soul is carried out in seven stages, similarly, the heart of a gnostic has seven states and seven steps, the apex of which is considered the most secret and mysterious meeting place of the human spirit with the divine. Mugham, in this context, is a special means of transition from sensual pleasure to spiritual bliss, as well as the way to achieve the highest level of the heart. Thus it is the music of divine pleasure and the highest aesthetic taste.

Oriental authors wrote that there was a natural desire for harmony in the human soul, and music, with its tonal-melodic nature, was able to concentrate and regulate feelings away from chaos and disharmony. God created everything to be harmonious, commensurate, proportionate, chaste and perfect. There was no defect or disorder in His creation. According to the Qur’an:
He created everything in exact measure; He designed everything precisely. (25:2);
And the vault of heaven, He raised it; and He established balance and equilibrium (55:6-7).

Thus the extreme is not tolerated and principles of harmony and balance in all respects are followed in Islamic culture.

Sama’ and Mugham
Music world. Miniature painting Music world. Miniature painting

The social acceptability of music has been particularly addressed within Sufism in respect of sama’ (blessed listening – the search for truth and perfection with song and dance, eg. the whirling dervishes). According to Abdul Qadir Maraghai, harmony in music is associated with God, who created musical scales, dismembered them in mughams and codified them in cycles (dovr). A person who has normal sense and taste inclines towards melody. Even an infant is calmed by the sound of a pleasant voice. Here we can point to the special intonation used when reciting from the Qur’an. It is said that the Prophet insisted on the embellishment of its words by reading them in a pleasant voice; this was given the special term talawat. Moreover, the text of the Qur’an is a magnificent example of literature for its rhythm, intonation, and melodic, musical and stylistic qualities.

In Muslim mysticism a pleasant voice is regarded as a divine gift, and whoever does not experience spiritual pleasure from melodious sound has a dead inner world. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali identified three stages (maqam) of listening:

1 – the understanding of the sound and its reduction to mystical meaning
2 – a state of ecstasy in the heart
3 – the effects of ecstasy: dancing and tearing the clothes.

He also identified four levels of listening:

1 – experiencing pleasure from melodic combination of sounds (low level)
2 – the reconstruction of a visual image from what is heard (average level)
3 – the establishment of correspondence between the music and the person’s own state (initial level of the spiritual-mystical path)
4 – listening in a state of ecstasy, when the person doesn’t hear the sound (perfection)

Sama’ (blessed listening) was especially popular with the poet Mevlana Rumi Jalaladdin (1207-1273); most of his ghazals (a poetic form) were written during sama’. He learned the subtleties of this concept from his mentor, Shams Tabrizi, who believed that the particles of a being are brought into motion by a harmonic call sent down from the cosmos. So, through music a person’s heart can find its way from the sensory world to the spiritual, metaphysical world. This probably explains the origins of the name of the mugham Sama’yi Shams, from the Shur destgah.

The mugham Mansuriya, from the Chahargah destgah, expresses the ecstatic cry of the mystic and martyr Mansur Hallaj (875-922). And the mugham Khayrati refers to the state of wonder when the mystic, breaking free from this world, becomes the true essence through spiritual dissolution into the Deity, a process called Fana (annihilation in God).

We should add that Sufism and sama’ have had a significant impact on the art of the ashug (a kind of minstrel singer), in which four components: poetry, music, dance and declamatory narrative, are organically connected. Several elements of the introductory part of an ashug performance recall Sufi zeal during ecstasy. The singer exclaims the word Huva! Huva! – He! He! (i.e. God), and sometimes stops breathing, in a mystical state of ‘intoxication’ and complete oblivion. Several ashug tunes (eg. the melody Ruhani – spirituality) and the circle dance symbolize the spirit’s ascent to the divine. There are also two levels of sound register – low and high – and constant movement between them. In short, elements of sama’ and mugham are present in the tonal and spatial structure of ashug tunes, evidence of the impact of Sufism and mugham. Studies of this music, then, should be conducted in the context of the interrelated cultural traditions of the Muslim East.

Maqam – Hal and the art of mugham

The inner world of mugham and the pattern of tonal-spatial steps of individual elements and sections in the structure of a single destgah, are governed by two concepts of Muslim mysticism: Hal and Maqam. Maqam is a stage or step, achieved by the traveller (to a mystical station), and Hal is a mystical state, a gift from above. Maqam is a sustainable stage at a stable mystical level, and Hal is a volatile state. The traveller cannot stop at one stage. He moves from a lower stage to a higher. Hal is a moment of spiritual enlightenment and a particular psychological state. Maqam was described figuratively by Hafiz,

Singing is the path through stages of spiritual elevation.
Musical cycles (modal system) in The Objectives of Melodies, by A.G.Maraghai. 15th century Musical cycles (modal system) in The Objectives of Melodies, by A.G.Maraghai. 15th century

Thus Hal reveals the nature of mystical ecstasy, which is transmitted to destgahs by a sound in high register, as well as by declamatory performance, which is the height of spiritual pleasure. In a destgah cycle, Maqam, as a sustainable element, is its tonal-melodic core, while rengs (melodic pieces) and tesnifs (rhythmic songs) serve as intermediaries, gradually removing the tension arising from an ecstatic tone (Hal) and providing a smooth transition from one shobe or gushe (section) to the next. The transition from one Maqam to another, from one Hal to another, is achieved by a scheme of movement across the tonal-spatial layers of the destgah’s melodic composition. The mayeh (tone), which creates a balance between high and low sounds, is the main stabilizing factor here. A destgah ends with the same mayeh with which it begins. Thus, the Maqam, as a stabilising influence on the listener’s feelings, takes the mind from mental discomfort to rest, from discord and contradiction to agreement and mutual understanding, from abstraction to the concentration of thought. The Maqam is not a separate piece of music; it enables the dynamic development of melodic songs in all sections of the destgah.

Emotions and values, reproduced by Maqam:
The conflicting feelings produced by Maqam:
- joy and fun – sadness and grief;
- enthusiasm and excitement – obedience and peace;
- movement and fighting spirit – peace and humility;
- anxiety and pain – calm and comfort;

The artistic and aesthetic qualities produced by Maqam:
- harmony and beauty
- integrity and excellence
- infinity and eternity
- adequacy and balance

The spiritual values instilled by Maqam:
- generosity and kindness
- determination and endurance
- sincerity and purity
- self-sacrifice and courage
- dedication and patience

The educational qualities promoted by Maqam:
- concentration
- activation of imagination and consciousness
- deep thought
- spiritual enlightenment and opening the inner eye
- transition from sensory-mental perception to intuitive perception of the spiritual and esoteric.


1. The origins of music in most ancient cultures are explained in cosmological terms. The same is true of descriptions of mugham, which is understood as an attempt by the spirit to climb from earthly chaos to cosmic harmony.
2. Muslims created their own teachings, theoretical framework and canons in many fields, including music, from the scientific and cultural heritage of the past.
3. Medieval treatises on music usually describe the technical characteristics of the scales and tonal-rhythmic patterns of mughams. Their spiritual and philosophical aspects are very rarely described.
4. Certain materials in the works of Farabi, Ibn Sina, Imam Ghazali, Sheikh Ishraq (Suhravardi), Shams Tabrizi and Mevlana Rumi give us food for thought and discussion about the nature and sources of the spiritual and philosophical roots of mugham.
5. The canons of mugham destgah have usually been passed from master to apprentice via oral practice. But a number of special papers were written explaining the tonal-modal system of the music in detail. Thus this art cannot be considered only as an oral folk tradition. Mugham, as a classical music genre, has its own conceptual and categorial systems, together with well designed structures, canons and dynamic composition.
6. To understand mugham one should adopt a broad approach, using medieval treatises on Maqam, as well as considering the spiritual and aesthetic values of the Muslim East in that period.
Musical cycles (modal system) in The Objectives of Melodies, by A.G.Maraghai. 15th century Musical cycles (modal system) in The Objectives of Melodies, by A.G.Maraghai. 15th century
7. The study, translation and publication of primary sources on mugham are also an important step in understanding its history. Although much work has been done here, there are still gaps.
8. There are also failings in the study of the nature and philosophy of mugham, its relationships with Muslim mysticism and other categories of eastern spiritual culture. In Azerbaijan, this area has remained almost invisible. It should be added that mugham is not intended simply for sensual and emotional entertainment. It embodies a very profound spiritual-aesthetic mission, designed for intellectual and spiritual pleasure.
9. Ashug music has close ties to Sufism and it has certainly felt the impact of mugham. This merits special consideration.
10. There is another important component in the structure of mugham: the ghazal, whose semantic composition and rhythmic intonation is fully compatible with the spirit of mugham’s rhetorical declamations.
11. Although mugham is now geographically widespread, it has retained its basic canons in Azerbaijan and Iran. Naturally, however, its structure, composition, tonal-melodic structure, lyrics and manner of performance have undergone major change.
12. It should be recognized that a wide range of questions relating to a systematic study of the origins, evolution and development of this unique art form within the spiritual and aesthetic culture of the medieval East, remain unresolved.

About the author: Nasib Jumshud oglu Goyushov is a Doctor of Philological Science, Head of Division at the Institute of Manuscripts of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences. He has written books and articles on medieval poetry and the genesis and evolution of the national art of Azerbaijan etc.