The Mystic Sound of Sufism

by Mohammad Sarhan.  Mr. Sarhan is a student in Professor Mirakhor’s “Writing in the Age of Terror(ism)” 

Amid the repetitively harsh stereotypes about Islam, associating it with blood, terrorism, and hatred, a voice that asks for “forgiveness for all humanity, even the colonizer” chants out loud in Wooster’s chapel. The Sufi charming meditative performance was one of the most intriguing experiences that added to my understanding of both the Islamic rituals and faith. These stereotypes have merged from a lack of exposure to the community of 1.5 billion muslims, yet the performance broke that lack of exposure.

Despite its greatness, Sufism is not part of the lives of the common Muslims. It is found in almost all countries that have large Muslim societies. Their practices do differ from the non Sufi Sunnis who do neither use music nor dance as a way of reaching God. Sufism is the Muslim gate to spirituality. The word Sufi emerges from the Arabic word Suf which means wool which they wear as a symbol of their asceticism. Sufis say that they worship God, not because they are afraid of him, but rather because they love him.

Coming from North Africa, and South Asia, to one stage despite all their differences. Once the music started, a sense of clarity and serenity dominated the chapel. The first song was from the 15th century. It was a form of connection between the muslim and hindu communities as the song says “people worship the hindu god or the Almighty, yet both come from the first light.” Singing as a form of worshipping in Islam, is a concept that only exists in the Sufi sect. This music is part of the “internal” worshiping. The type of worshiping that this sufi music is clear the inner soulfrom the evil of “Satan.” The second song was more physical compared to the first one. Physical movement such as dancing and clapping in Sufi meditation is of a great significance. The more repetitive physical movement Sufis do, the more exhausted the become and the closer they become to a spiritual state of mind. The more spiritual this state is, the more one is connected to God and the more the become one. This state of mind is similar to the meditation techniques in both Buddhism and Hinduism. The “dance ecstasy” brings the soul to a level of spiritual enlightenment in which one explores his own soul. The same movement was also repeated in the fifth song that was played.

Moussa’s voice was another form of Sufi music. His deep voice reverberated in the chapel praising Allah, and his Prophet. His first song, No God, But God, is a form of thikr which is repeating God’s name. The song which did not need any instruments to express its spirituality. Its meditative repetitive tone which was separated by long breaths. The silence and breaths between each repetition gave the song the needed seriousness.

The Sufi poet Ibn Arabi said “I believe in the religion of love whichever direction its caravan takes”. The direction its caravans have decided to take is the road from South Asia to North Africa to our ears.

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.

Performance Setting and Authenticity

By Denise Rotavera-Krain.

Please imagine for a moment that you are in 18th century Europe and humor me for a few paragraphs.  Much of Georg Phillipe Telemann’s works were intended for amateur musicians in 18th century Germany.  For example, Canonic Duets for Two Flutes, was specifically designed to be performed in the home, meant to be played on wooden flutes of the day, and enjoyed by amateur musicians and their friends and family.  What happens when you take that work and its performers (out of the 18th century) and put them in Carnegie Hall, on a street in London, or on a stage in a middle school?  What challenges would these musicians face to provide an authentic representation of Telemann’s work?

Aside from the obvious problem of sending 18th century musicians into the future, these musicians would need to make certain compromises and/or adjustments to reach their intended audience.  In Carnegie Hall, for example, traditional wooden flutes may need to be connected to the sound system to be heard throughout the hall.  On the misty streets of London, a musician may not want their wooden instrument warped by the moisture and may opt for a silver flute instead.  In a middle school, perhaps repeats in the music might be avoided so that the program would fit into the daily bell schedules of the school.  Or perhaps, the musicians would arrive in period dress to fit into a history unit the students are studying.  While none of these settings suggest the intimacy of a small family gathering, do these compromises make the performance less than authentic?

Dr. Karim Gillani and Moussa Dieng Kala have been gracious in allowing us a brief glimpse into the beauty and wonder of Sufi music from a number of Sufi orders.  In bringing their music to the College of Wooster campus, they will share with us their expertise, their culture, their religion, and their love of Sufi music.  For sure they will have to make adjustments and compromises to accommodate their mostly college-aged audience.  McGaw Chapel is a very large venue for music that is meant to be intimate.  How will they create that intimacy in a space that seats so many?  Their time on stage may be limited to the time allotted by the Forum series.  How will they use that time? Instruments they use at home (and for that matter the accompanying musicians) may not be available here in the States.  Are there other instruments that will work equally well?  Will it be hard to find local musicians to fill in?  Can a performance with so many adjustments and so many compromises truly be authentic?

Of course the most authentic performance of Qawwali devotional music would likely be held in the Punjab region of Pakistan.  However, what truly makes a performance authentic is the intent of the performers and their motivation for performing.  If the performer’s goals are to share their culture, educate others about their faith, and perform with their heart, their performance is authentic despite any compromises they need to make.  Furthermore, if the musicians remain faithful to the purpose of the music, their performance should be considered an authentic representation of that musical tradition.

I for one am looking forward to experiencing Sufi music first hand next Tuesday, October 23.