Eshaq Mawseli: The versatile Muslim musician

Culture Nilanjan Hajra
Muslim musician

Not much has been written about musical performers of the early medieval age, and in that regard Muslim musician, Eshaq Mawseli is a shining exception. He was the court musician of Caliph al-Ma’mun as well as the legendary Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Caliph of the Abbasid caliphate. Eshaq was particularly reputed for his conservative approach to music. But not just a famous Muslim musician, he was also famous for his command over poetry, grammar, and history. Legend has it that Caliph Harun once famously told Eshaq, “Had you not been a musician I would have made you a judge.” As a musician, he was a singer, composer, and virtuoso lutenist.

Life and times of Muslim musician Eshaq

Abu Muhammad Eshaq Mawseli was born to Ibrahim Mawseli and Sahak in the Iranian city of Ray in 767 CE. His father Ibrahim was also a court musician in the Abbasid caliphate. Eshaq, therefore, grew up in an ambience of music right from his childhood. He was exposed to the finest literary scholars of the Muslim world of his times after his father moved to the capital Baghdad. Literary geniuses such as Abu Oayda Ma’mar and Abu Said Abd al-Malik Asma’I taught him literature. On the other hand, apart from his own father, the legendary ud player Zalzal taught him music. No wonder, in time Eshaq himself became a great Muslim musician of the Islamic world.

Contribution of Eshaq to music 

Eshaq was the originator of the earliest Islamic theory of melodic modes. Eshaq’s theory structured the modes according to the frets of the lute and the fingers corresponding to them. Aub al-Faraj Al-Isfahani’s 10th century 20-volume magnum opus Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs) notes Eshaq’s contribution to music in detail. Al-Faraj recognizes al-Mawseli’s conservative approach to music as more valid than other musical theories of his times. The Book of Songs mentions that Eshaq “is not only a composer but a transmitter of compositions of others”.

The great Muslim musician had a prodigious memory and could sing correctly thousands of songs, including the oldest ones. He also composed numerous new songs, and his training in poetry must have come in handy in writing lyrics. He wrote between 200 and 400 songs, and the collection of his songs ran into 50 folios. Following a request by Caliph al-Wateq, Eshaq published a revised version of the 100 most famous songs of his time, which were collected by his father and two colleagues for Caliph Harun.

Eshaq was also one of the great music trainers of his times. He trained both slave girls and men in music. This vocation along with performances for the wealthy in Baghdad made him one of the wealthiest men in the capital. It is said that Eshaq didn’t have a great voice, and to hide this he introduced a new technique of head voice, or maybe that of a falsetto (Taknut).

The great Muslim musician, unfortunately, became blind in his old age and stopped singing altogether. He died in 850 CE.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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