A Jewish Wool Merchant-Philosopher from Mosul Discusses Music Under the Impact of Watching a Sufi Dance
Ms. Evr.-Arab. 1:1679 of the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg is a unique fragment from a work by Ṭābā ben Ṣalḥūn, a Jewish wool merchant and resident of Musul (today in northern Iraq). Ṭābā ben Ṣalḥūn was a member of a study group who used to meet in the local Rabbanite synagogue to discuss philosophical interpretations of select passages from the Bible. In 983 CE Ṭābā wrote an abridged version of these discussions in Judeo-Arabic under the title Kitāb al-manāẓir ("The book of observation posts"). The Saint Petersburg Ms. was copied in 1131. The fragment contains seventy-eight leaves and constitutes probably about a third of the entire work.
In previous articles, I have discussed the historical circumstances of this work and Ṭābā’s views on resorting to the works of non-Jewish philosophers. In general, the tendency of Ṭābā’s work is Neoplatonic, which is rather rare among Near-Eastern Jewish thinkers of that period, who follow mostly the system of Kalām. The present article deals with the sections of the chapter on music that have survived. Ṭābā tells that at a nocturnal stop of a caravan with whom he was traveling (in 978/9 CE), he witnessed a Sufi dance accompanied by song with a beautiful melody. This experience motivated Ṭābā to explain to a Muslim fellow traveler the inspiration of the singer's performance, the purpose of the composer and the benefit of music to one’s soul. The article includes a critical edition of the main part of the original text in which these questions are discussed accompanied by an annotated Hebrew translation. The topics discussed are:
1) The place of music in the spiritual creativity of human beings;
2) the effect of music on the human soul, both as a motivating positive activity of the soul in the realization of its aspiration for perfection (including rather extreme ecstatic experiences of Neoplatonic or Sufi origin), and as a healing and balancing power of the physical and spiritual temperament; and
3) the importance of the ʿūd and the meaning of the symbolic parallelism between its four strings and other groups of four in the world, such as the four directions, four seasons, four elements, etc.
Al-Kindī (mid-ninth century) was the first Arab philosopher to produce a detailed discussion of music along the lines of Greek philosophy. Saadya Gaon (882-942) was the first Jewish philosopher who relied on al-Kindī when writing about music, but similarities are at the level of vocabulary rather than concepts. In general, Ṭābā’s text is apparently more influenced by al-Kindī (and perhaps by the Rasāʾil ikhwān al-ṣafāʾ), following al-Kindī's philosophical perception of and approach to music. This text sheds an interesting light on the dialogue between medieval Jews in the Islamic World and their Muslim cultural surroundings.