Maqamats, Sacred Geometry and the Celestial Worlds

For years I have tried to understand what the maqams are (or maqamats, known as nawbas in Morocco) and I hope these few words here don’t confuse things further. In these posts I have always sought out subjects where the global homogenisation of culture is forcing out the subtler and more indigenous remains of previous traditions – things which enrich and complete the human experience whether language, calligraphy, art, architecture or music. A great loss to us all and future generations. This mode of music is one of the things being pushed out by rigid modes of western harmony. But first I want to step back a bit for a more general view of things.

Sacred Geometry
In my early years I was very conditioned against the concepts of sacred geometry by views instilled in us in the early 1970s. We were taught to view it as a kind of masonic Schuonian conspiracy. Since the drugged days of the 1960s when things like numerology were the rage, I have been a bit suspicious of mathematical explanations of the universe as the truth is that it left us all confused. Like the teachings of Gurdieff and Ouspensky, it was all redolent of higher realities but in fact left you amazed, but helpless, with no prescription of what to do.

A few years ago I saw a short lecture in Granada by John Martineau, publisher of Wooden Books, about sacred geometry and I revised a lot of my opinions on the subject. He expounded on the empirical geometry in creation from flower forms to shell formations and crystal structures – the undeniable geometry underpinning, well just about everything. A recent BBC TV series called The Code presented by Marcus du Sautoy also explored the mathematics of everything in existence as the key to understanding it. Whereas John Martineau suggested a new interest for me in divine mathematics, Marcus Sautoy left me quite uninspired with little understanding of it. The Code was a triumph of form over content with admittedly stunning computer graphic presentations but nothing that really moved me or got to the nub. What both Martineau and du Sautoy had in common was that they described well something fundamentally true except that they shied from talking about the root truth which is what I was looking for. In this, they share where modern science leaves us all short changed. Like the Hadron collider, the multi billion pound white elephant buried in the ground under the French Swiss border, it may unveil secrets about the stuff of what we perceive as solid matter but seems likely to leave us none the wiser about what it all really means. This vast subterranean tomb will deeply puzzle future archeologists whose only explanation will be that it was an underground 28 km greyhound race track.

Such divinely ordained things as the Golden Section are remarkable in that they seem to underpin beautiful proportions in the natural world as well as man made creations in art and architecture. I only digress into geometry here to illustrate how I also perceive the musical maqams by analogy. Empirical geometry – empirical musical harmonies. The golden proportions of musical harmony. I have no proof for this but I have hunch that the maqams are what the Pythagorians called the music of the spheres. These are harmonic sequences which are empirical, in other words they are not man made. They have pre-existed everything and permeate all of the created universe which includes us.

Pythagoras connected the harmonic relationships of the earth and the celestial bodies with musical harmony and beauty and so should we with the maqamats. The origin of the maqamats is not known but my assessment is as follows. Most of us in western cultures understand the difference between the moods of major and minor keys. These are two modes which we are preconditioned to respond to. Minor – sad. Major – happy. Now imagine many more modes which we are capable of responding to involuntarily but which right now we are not familiar with. This is the clue. Given this we can enter into a new universe of musical experience. Not the arbitrary emotional and horizontal imaginal worlds of western musical composers but something truly celestial and in harmony with something greater than the human self and a form of worship in the right situation. This music is not one of sensuality but one of elevated and inspiring beauty. It is not some cold mathematical world either but one which unlocks the heart and its secrets. This understood, western music can still inspire and unlock incredible zones of emotional experience which can be beneficial but may not be very pleasant sometimes in its inner evocations, like the music of Wagner. But it can be a window into the world that produced that music and musically very moving. But it is not celestial music.

Music is for some a difficult territory. For reasons of culture and religious legal opinions, some people have forbidden it to themselves and their communities. I have never visited India or Pakistan but I know that some sublime music has come from the subcontinent and this aversion to music appears to be something that lives mostly in expatriate communities in Europe or wherever. This is a touchy subject and I have always tried to be understanding of others’ restrictive views but I get frustrated that it’s all looked at in a black and white fashion. I’d better say a few things here before anyone reading this shuts me off  and before I get back to the subject of maqams which is what I really wanted to write about.

Like language, music can be profane or sacred, and it springs from whatever the intention is. George Martin, erstwhile record producer of the Beatles, (who I briefly worked with in the 196os), is famous for saying there’s only good music and bad music. And I’m with him there 100%. Music has been a huge part of my life and I know it inside out from Thomas Tallis to Verdi by way of Tamla Mowtown and John Coltrane from Gilbert and Sullivan to British Folk Rock and Classical Andalusi Maghrebi music, both as performer, writer or audience. Forgive my pun but music underscores western civilisation, as it has my own life, in the sense that it gives you an emotional taste of a period of time that has gone and timelessness in the case of timeless music. And you can learn from that. But with mass commercialisation of music it is not what it was and in many ways I enjoy more and more silence and the sounds of nature as there is too much pointless music around, horribly amplified, unconnected to meaning or context. Music in cars, radios, TVs, ipods, supermarkets, planes, hotel foyers, ringtones – absolutely everywhere.  Just too much. The real power of music is not now understood, having become another commodity to be exploited for a quick dollar. Much as I love music I’d be the first to warn of its dangers but also the first to advertise its huge benefits. But no reason to ban it. You would need an Inquisition to do that.

On the plus side music (singing included) can elevate the spirit, provide a release from stress and even be applied as a therapy for psychological and physical illnesses. Music therapy, was /is something specifically related to the maqamats and well known to the Ottomans and the Andalusians as it restored some kind of harmony, with the use of mainly instrumental music, to disturbed souls. Whilst maristans in both east and west were dedicated to this treatment in times past, it is now almost a forgotten science. Something well worth reviving. There is a quite a bit on the web relating to this subject and its revival in Turkey.

Dar-ül Kurr’a Madrasa, Erdine, Turkey. This hexagonal building was dedicated to music therapy as well as hydrotherapy in Ottoman times.

The maqamats exist in many musical cultures: in Egypt, Syria, Western China, Turkey, India and of course Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. They share much of the basic maqamat harmonic sequences and have very similar names but reflect the local musical traditions and to the uneducated ear can sound quite unrelated. I can’t claim to be an expert on this but am exploring this intuitively from what I do know from 40 years practical experience of Moroccan qasaid.  I do know that Ziryab brought this musical science from Baghdad to Cordoba where he created the great Andalus maqamats blending Arab music from the Persian courts with Iberian music, Christian and even Jewish music of the peninsular. It left Spain for north Africa after the overthrow of Granada but only half of it is left extant passed down through families and now taught in conservatoires. is an interesting web site dedicated to explaining the modal system of arabic music. Worth a visit but it might be just a bit complicated for most people. And pity its interactive bits don’t work on a Mac. It’s pretty difficult for the western mind to wrap itself around the concepts involved on the site but it’s useful as a reference point.

About Ian Whiteman

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13 Responses to Maqamats, Sacred Geometry and the Celestial Worlds

  1. Shukhran Sidi for this reflection,

    I recently went to Edirne to study the Selimiye – where none could deny some appreciation of a sacred or dizzingly circular geometry – and was taken to Beyazid II kulliye, the adab or best behavior of the orchestration of space was astounding – within the section pictured entrances turn away to grant privacy to each patients ward room from the various activities in the central domed hall, which breaks out of the plan to look out towards the river and over the plains surrounding Edirne beyond (the balcony on the left), the acoustics engulf the listener as a recording hints at what once was, the sound of the fountain throwing sound and light, another broken waqf which at least is preserved as a museum for the likes of me to go and learn something – so much to learn from and take forwards, ways of seeing and hearing as relevant now as ever.

    Finally I second the importance of singing, singing the diwan of Shaykh Muhammad Ibn al Habib last night… such celebration clears the lungs, relaxes the limbs, stills the mind and opens the heart!

    Ma a Salaama Yusuf Abdalwadud

  2. Novid Shaid says:

    Masha Allah, fascinating! Many thanks for sharing your insights Sidi. I agree, the breadth and the feelings behind the maqaamat do instil a variety of emotions and spiritual states. Al Hejaz evokes for me the mystery of the Divine presence and As Saba evokes both the jilted lover and the arif whose glance has fallen on otherness… Geometry has always bemused me!

    For another interpretation of the maqamaat al musiqeeyya, have a read of this poem when you get the chance, jazak Allah, Novid Shaid

    “The Lover, the Birdsong of Baghdad, and the Mythical Story of Inshaad”

  3. Abdurrahman Fitzgerald says:

    You write, “…With mass commercialisation of music it is not what it was and in many ways I enjoy more and more silence and the sounds of nature..” I’ve reached the same point. Is it actually that the music being produced is so bad or is it age? At any rate, in respect to the maqamaat — is it possible that this are modes that have arisen from the sounds of the Quran? I know that they may much further back in time, but if they are universal, they might be recapitulated in the Quran. And while I know that here in Morocco, for example, there is basically one very popular “sigha” used for Quranic recitation in a group, still in individual recitation (and I am not speaking of the Egyptian style which came to dominate recitation) the verses themselves — the sounds of the words and phrase length — produce, as it were, modes. Wa’llahi a’lam.

    • ian whiteman says:

      The Qur’an holds many a mystery and maybe the maqamats are in there somewhere I don’t know. The Andalusi maqams numbered 24 but apparently only 11 or 12 remain having disappeared over time. Ziryab brought them from Baghdad but where did the Baghdadis get them from? I suspect the Persian courts had this knowledge who took it from civilisations before them. I’m sure there’s a musicologist somewhere who has put forward some theories. I’m no musicologist, just an end user!

  4. Salamat,

    The maqamat are certainly used in Quranic psalmody. Shaykh Muhammad Jibril of Egypt is a particular expert, and will modulate from one maqam to another according to the meaning of the passage he is reciting. See here:

    This lovely article has prompted a discussion on DeenPort (the thread is called Maqamat/Geometry). If would be nice if you could drop in – but if not, then thanks for the inspiration anyway!

  5. Abdurrahman Fitzgerald says:

    Thanks to Sidi Khalid for this. The Quran being recited in seven maqaamaat that you linked to Deenport ( is amazing. So — are these modes viewed as arising from the Quran itself or “fitting” the Quranic recitation into an extrinsic mold? We have relatively little, it seems, in the hadith about the actual sound of the Prophet’s recitation, may peace and blessings be upon him, but it is hard to imagine that it did not convey in its very tone the hope and fear, joy and sorrow, expansiveness and contraction, longing and contentment—- contained in the meaning of the verses. Wa Allahu a’lam.

  6. There is a hadith saying ‘Recite the Quran in the tunes (alHan) of the Arabs.’ I think this has been understood in different ways, but I’ve heard it used in the context of the maqams. The names of the maqams suggest a wide geographical area: ‘Hijaz’, or course is in Arabia – and that maqam seems to most Western ears to be the most ‘Arabian’ sounding one. Then ‘Ajam’ means ‘non-Arab’; and the Ajam is basically the major scale of Western music. Nahawand is a place in Persia … and so on. I suppose a metaphysician would say that the Maqamat are manifestations of the archetypes, and the Quran contains all the archetypes (tafsilan li-kulli shay’), so they must be in there in one way or another. Allahu A’lam.

  7. Abdurrahman Fitzgerald says:

    I asked my dear friend Sidi Fouad about maqamaat and recitation and he said, “Yes, a lot of Moroccans are trying to learn this now and so am I ! ” Then he gave me a link, with numerous examples from different suras. He also mentioned the inevitable disagreements about this. For him, the defining hadith is what is narrated about when the Prophet (S) heard Abu Musa al-Ash’ari reciting and said (in praise of its beauty), “This one has been given (a recitation) like one of the flutes (or horns) of the people of David” (mizmaaran min mazaamir Aali Daawuud). It’s nice to hear that this is possibly being revived here, wa’l-hamdu liLLah.

  8. Beautiful article – This is not religious music but something which might be of interest to those who like Celtic folk music and Algerian traditional music. Mugar

    Idir and Karen Matheson A Vava Inouva

  9. Attila says:

    Thank you so much —- once I started listening to various maqam traditions – there was no going back to the chastity belt imposed by “western harmony” …. 3 or 4 notes of a maqam played under the right circumstances are enough to send one into the higher realms. Western “harmony” just wants to hold on to you and not let you go until it is through with you! I enjoy the Persian dastgah, the Turkish makamlar and of course the Arab maqams. Even the Greek rembetiko dromoi- for all their shortcomings- have a lot to offer in emotional/hal states.

  10. Forgive me.. So do they ratios between the notes in maqams correlate with the ratios of sacred geometry? Thank you so much for your work.

    • The Circle of Fifths and the Fibonacci Sequence

      In the Circle of Fifths we see another way in which the musical scale is related to Sacred Geometry, for the musical progression is an exact parallel to the Fibonacci sequence.

      As we know, the Fibonacci sequence starts with the number 1, and proceeds by adding the two previous numbers. So the second number in the sequence also is 1, then 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on. And a graph of this sequence almost exactly matches the spiral graph of the Golden Mean sequence. One is finite, the other infinite. “As above, so below.”

      Fibonnaci realized that the natural branching, flowering, and spiraling forms in Nature followed the same uniform laws found in musical scales, for his sequence mathematically predicts all of the intervals that comprise the chords of music.

      Note A A D F E C E C# F# C# D F
      Interval root octave 4th aug. 5th 5th minor 3rd 5th 3rd 6th 3rd 4th aug. 4th
      Fibonacci ratio 1/1 2/1 2/3 2/5 3/2 3/5 3/8 5/2 5/3 5/8 8/3 8/5

    • Ian Whiteman says:

      Possibly, but it’s vastly more complex than we can imagine. Tbe golden section ratio is universal so I’m sure that applies to maqamats as well. It even applies to economics! Where there is beauty and harmony in music you are probably witnessing maqamats of some sort. What I know is very little and this knowledge is just a means to an end and not an end in itself.

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