A historic event for Wooster

By John Finn

“Sufi orders from South Asia and Senegal have previously not played together or explored their collective cultural roots musically on a stage or in an academic environment.”

WOOSTER, Ohio — For students used to hearing artists like Taylor Swift, Owl City, Nicki Manaj, and Carly Rae Jepson, last week’s Forum event at The College of Wooster was an interesting and reflective alternative. Karim Gillani, a Canadian Sufi and Ghazal musician, and Moussa Dieng Kala, a Senegalese Sufi singer and poet, joined Altaz Ibrahim, Jim Feist, and Hans Utter, for “An Evening of Sufi Music” in McGaw Chapel. In addition, Sufi scholar Cheikh Babou of the University of Pennsylvania, who provided academic and critical context in multiple panels and class visits held over two days, also joined them.

Sufi is a devotional form of music based on the poetry of Islamic philosophers. While many orthodox Muslims reject the inclusion of music in worship because of the belief that it might lead to temptation, Sufis believe that their music provides a way to become closer to God.

Among those in attendance was Linda Morgan-Clement, chaplain and director of Interfaith Campus Ministry as well as an adjunct professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Wooster. “As a woman of faith, but not a Muslim, I found myself moved by the spirit of prayer and grateful that McGaw Chapel was filled with the music, silence, and prayer of this great World religion,” she said. “(I’m thankful) to the scholars who are also men of faith for this blending of intellect, history, culture, and faith.”

Student reaction was also positive on Twitter, which was ostensibly used for the first time during a Forum event, and in reaction papers that were assigned in classes that are now being uploaded onto the blog created for the symposium. “I thought it was absolutely wonderful,” said Chelsea Carlson, a first-year student from Waterford, Pa. “It was so obvious to me that all of the musicians had such a passion beyond words for the music they were playing. You could see it in (their) expressions and body language.”

Adam Hansell, a junior from Rockville, Md., described the music as extremely relaxing and slow. “It was quite clear that playing this music was a spiritual experience, not only for the musicians, but also for some of the audience members, who bobbed their heads back and forth, transfixed by the sound,” he said.

The overarching objective of the event was to showcase a more tolerant and peace-loving aspect of the Muslim world. “We also wanted to learn about parts of the Muslim world geographically divergent from, but in conversation with the Middle East,” according to Amyaz Moledina and Ibra Sene, both professors at Wooster and part of the organizing team. Hansell said in a blog posting “I felt that I learned a lot about Sufi Islam by simply watching the performance, and (I believe) people would learn more (about Islam) if it involved listening to Sufi music.”

The event was historic, according to Moledina, because Sufi orders from South Asia and Senegal have previously not played together or explored their collective cultural roots musically on a stage or in an academic environment. “This is the first time that Ismailis and Mourides have come together to meditate,” said Moledina. “We need to continue exposing and educating people about different Muslim narratives and practices.”

What I learned from the Sufi Symposium

By Chelsea Carlson. Ms. Carlson is in Prof. Mirakhor’s class “Writing in the Age of Terror”

In the first session of the day, two panelists were featured. The first speaker, Dr. Babou offered an overview of Sufism and its role in the Islamic culture; the second, Karim Gillani, discussed the specificities of Sufi music. Dr. Babou introduced Sufism as a little known Islamic musical tradition. He said that Muslims are always portrayed as either fighting or praying. However, he continued, music and dancing are a huge part of Islam. Sufis are “practitioners of mystical Islam,” and music and the use the voice is a immense part of worship. Sufi music occasionally uses the flute and drums; in South Asia, string instruments are used as well. Sufi musicians have certain rules for music making, said Babou. First off, music must be performed at the appropriate time and place. For example, music should not be played on the streets where players can be easily distracted. Second, all of the players must have a pure heart and be faithful to God. Proper instruments must always be used, and the musicians should always use proper body movements and positions. Lastly, women are permitted to play Sufi music; however, if they play, they must be dressed modestly to prevent sexual temptation. Sufis have faith in the possibility of union with God. They believe that music allows for nourishment of the spirit, which in turn helps the listener to be united with God. Sufi music encompasses several genres, of which samah is the most popular.

Karim discussed the specificities of Sufi music, especially in his native Pakistan. Pakistan, he began, was officially created in 1947 as the world’s first Islamic republic. For about sixty percent of Pakistan’s existence, generals ruled the country. He argued that generals usually came into power because they already had power to begin with, through the military. He then introduced the story of Junaid Jamshed, member of Pakistani band Vital Sign.  Jamshed’s band was the first well-known pop group in Pakistan; they made prominent use of synthesizers and drums as well as Jamshed’s emotional pop voice. However, around 2000, Jamshed converted to Wahabi Islam and condemning Western influences. This led to a complete reversal in his musical style. Instead of his famous eighties pop sound, Jamshed began to use no instruments other than voices to perform his songs. Karim then discussed Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, one of the most popular Qawwali Sufi singers. As the he played a clip of one of Khan’s songs, he began to sing along, to the amazement of much of the audience. Junoon, the final band that Karim talked about, is also fairly well known in the world of South Asian Sufis . Instead of singing along during Junoon’s song, he simply snapped his fingers to the beat.

During the concert in the evening, two types of Sufi musicians were featured. The first, of whom Karim Gillani was the singer, included a full band with keyboards, sitar, guitar, and percussion. The second artist mostly sang by himself, with the addition of Karims’s ensemble in his last two songs. During Karim’s songs, the sound of the sitar seemed to mimic his vocals almost exactly. It was so obvious how much all of the musicians love what they are playing. They show it in their expressions, body language, and even in the way Karim handled the sitar with care while the player, Hans Utter adjusted his position. So much emotion, faith, and adoration are very clearly expressed in every aspect of the music. It appeared as if the musicians put their audience in a trance, especially when Karim’s band played. They did not seem like they were people when they played, but rather instruments of God. The experience was absolutely mind-blowing.

Symposium pictures and backstage at the event

Music as a way to understand Islam

By Adam Hansell. Mr Hansell is enrolled in Dr. Mirakhor’s class “Writing in the Age of Terror(ism)”.

Before attending the Sufi music performance, I found myself wondering what type of performance I was about to attend. Although I was aware that it was a music performance, I was fairly sure it was not going to resemble a huge rock concert or techno rave. When I arrived, I was surprised to see an arrangement of different musical instruments on stage, including several hand drums, two electronic keyboards, and a sitar which closely resembled a big guitar. The music was extremely relaxing and slow, and it was quite clear that playing this music was a spiritual experience not only for the musicians, but also for some of the audience members, who bobbed their heads back and forth, transfixed by the sound of the instruments. I was intrigued up until I heard it, as Professor Babou who introduced the music mentioned that Sufi music was meant to be not only spiritual, but also music that people have danced  to.  Ultimately he said that Sufi music is about practicing to control the lower self, “freeing oneself from their body and lifting the soul.”

A major fan of relaxing music, I was quite surprised that I had never heard of Sufi. However, the musicians explained that while very little is known about Islam, even less is known about Sufi music, which they claimed was due to a lack of exposure. They went on to explain that the objective of their work did not consist merely of pleasing people, but of also spreading a greater understanding of Islam, which is a religion that most Americans are familiar with, but few understand or are even aware of its doctrines. I certainly felt that I learned a lot about Sufi Islam by simply watching the performance. Certainly more people would learn more if it involved listening to Sufi music.

Pre concert

The musicians arrived on Sunday and have begun practicing. Here are some videos.

The Rough Guide to Sufi Music

Sufi music varies substantially across the world in terms of form. However, from LA to Kolkata or from Turkey to Senegal or South Africa, the poetry embeded in the songs has a universal message. In many ways, whatever the form, we are yearning to be closer to the Divine. If you want to purchase some of this music, here is one place you can get some Sufi music.

In this Rough Guide CD, one interesting musician is Moudou Gaye. Modou is from Senegal. He plays the “hang”, a metallic percussion instrument physically related to the steelpan. He uses this instrument to “cross borders instead of a passport…Modou tries out these new tonalities in improvised concerts and meetings with musicians. While singing Sufi poems with ephemeral jazz bands, Modou takes us into his “Soufi Jazz” universe where languages, instruments and cultures mix amongst each other. A remarkable person, he draws the East and the West closer together, thanks to his unique and witty music.” (Virtual Womex). Here are examples of him playing.



Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

I found this really neat recording of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing Allah, Mohammed, Char Yaar. The punjabi lyrics are here. This song is a Qawwali.  “Qawwali can be classified as an ecstatic ritual. One of Qawwali’s primary functions is to guide its listeners–those who understand the poetry and meaning–into a state of ecstatic trance (wajd). The music of Hindustani Sufi Muslims, it guides its listeners towards a spiritual union with the saints, with the Prophet, and eventually with God” (Ari Gold Films). Here Nusrat recites the names of the four (char) Indian Sufi saints: “Haji, Khawaja, Qutab, and Farid (Khan 1989). Khawaja is a title for Chishti, the founder saint of Chishtiyya Sufism in India (13th century), supposedly a direct descendent of the Prophet; Qutab was Chishti’s disciple; Farid was Qutab’s (see Begg). Farid, in turn, taught Nizamuddin Auliya, whose disciple Amir Khusrau is credited with many Qawwali compositions and innovations, including the use of Persian and Rekhta (proto-Urdu) languages (Thakur 275, Referenced in Ari Gold Films ), and who gave sama‘–the song–its legitimacy in the face of Orthodox Muslim opposition to music, with the words, “May GOD bless this tribe of music-makers who make even the day of retribution stand by when they perform” (Sarmadee 264). This song which Nusrat performs, then, connects the man who asked God to bless the sama‘ with a line of sainthood leading directly to the Prophet and to God. The Qawwali song affirms the spiritual legitimacy of Qawwali.” (Ari Gold Films)

William Chittick to speak tonight

Dr. Chittick will be speaking at McGaw Chapel tonight at 7:30pm. Here he speaks about Sufism. He says “To understand what Sufism is, you must understand Islam. Sufism began when the Quran was revealed although the word was only coined around the second Islamic Century. The Quran is concerned with three major topics: How to act correctly, how to comprehend the world, and the transformation of the soul or how to become closer to God. Around the third century you get specialists in these three areas. The first groups are called jurists, the second are theologians and the third are Sufis. So Sufism is the practice of transformation or becoming closer to God on the basis of Islamic teachings specifically the model of the Prophet Muhammed.” Additional thoughst on women sufis and mysticism are in the video below.

A note from the organizers

There is no God but God.

Ignorance about Islam and the Muslim world and perhaps even more so about Sufism remains widespread. This ignorance stems in part from lack of awareness but also the very human tendency to readily categorize things and indeed stereotype.  This ignorance results also from lack of exposure to this religion and its rich diversity. As a community of learners one of our duties is to address ignorance and stereotyping, and improve knowledge about and understanding of Islam in this case, and more specifically Sufism as a spiritual movement.  We wanted to bring the Wooster community together to experience disparate and dynamic Sufi orders and challenge  its members to question their preconceptions and assumptions about Islam and how Muslims practice their religion.

What do we hope to achieve?

  1. Greater (self) awareness about spiritual movements in Islam.
  2. Greater understanding of the Diasporic Sufi community and the border crossings.
  3. An understanding of how Sufi teaching was propagated through Music.
  4. How Sufi ideas have influenced politics, culture and philosophy.
  5. How Sufi ideas have influenced popular music.
  6. Start a healthy conversation on diversity in Islam and its implications

Please interact on Twitter by using #sufimusic and also contribute here. We hope you enjoy this website and look forward to seeing you on October 23rd and at the other live conversations and panels about Sufi Orders.

Sarah Mirza (Religion), Amyaz Moledina (Economics), Boubacar N’Diaye (Political Science and Africana Studies) and Ibra Sene (History).