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.

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.

Local Beats and Global Sounds

By Molly Laubernds. Ms. Laubernds is a student in Denise Rotavera-Krain’s FYS Class: Questions of Identity Through World Music

The article Transnational Musics and Cultural Authenticity: Between Global Beats and Local Sounds by Hugh Lovatt, analyzes the effects of globalization and cultural developments through world music in great detail. Music is starting to play a larger role in society with the development of different media outlets and the ability to travel more often. This essay will show how cultural brokers attempt to homoginize local music through de-localization as well as how local markets try to heterogenize music through cultural localization. I think that the outcome is a hybrid type of music that incorporates different types of Western sounds as well as local sound clips.

With the spread of Western music throughout different cultures came the incorporation of local music into Western style songs. Many up and coming Eastern artists have recently appeared in performances alongside American artists and bands. “Western singer Cheb Mami provided backing vocals in Sting’s ‘Desert Rose,’” he was given this opportunity because many Western artists wanted to dominate, localize, and naturalize their own music. With the development of the mixed and hybrid music came the development of mixed albums. The albums were created to reach the sub-genres within the different types of music thus allowing more diversity for the buyer.  Although albums claim to be becoming more diverse, with the development of Western cultural songs the local tunes are losing their roots. No longer is Sufi music authentic or spiritual.

With the development of media outlets the small venues that Sufi performances once took place in were a thing of the past. Now Sufi music is performed in large concert theatres across the world. Western behaviors have been imposed on their culture and have taken out the spiritual aspect of Sufi music in order to make a profit. Western consumers are “presented with the complete commidification of musical performances for the benefit of Western consumption,” which means that in order to make a greater profit Sufi ensembles are willing to compromise spiritual and historical values. Although Sufi music is losing their originality there has been a large development of world fushion music that has lead to an intense hybridization of music. The new hybrid mixes provide a unique sound and a new transnational identity.

With further development of the hybrid music also comes considerable difficulty from a cultural stand point when blending the different styles together. A once banned rap culture is now  amongst the most popular three genres listened and performed by Arab youth. “This shift in musical tastes is widely seen as marking the first time that the Middle-East youths no longer consume the same music as older generations,” this is very true however, extremly popular local artists still remain a source of inspiration for youth today. It is wrong to say that the different musical sides East/West are diverging when in fact the two are slowly converging.

I think that the outcome of the fushion of Eastern and Western music is a hybrid type of music that incorporates different types of Western sounds as well as local sound clips. Because of the varying sounds and music styles many different people from different age groups, cultural status, and gender are all able to relate to the new music in some way. I believe that this co-development of the two styles of music is a positive thing that is helping to merge the divide between the two cultures.

‘Music in a World of Islam’ Response

By Joyce Lee. Ms. Lee is a student in Denise Rotavera-Krain’s FYS Class: Questions of Identity Through World Music.

John A Maurer IV’s essay, Music in a World of Islam discusses the role of music in Islam. He describes that the concept of Islamic music differs from western music. There are followers of Islam who believe that music does not appropriately address the worship of God, as well as followers who believe that music enhances the spiritual connection to God. These notions also correlate to western musical expression. From a Christian perspective, I think that music can be a very spiritual act of worship that connects one to God when cathartics are taken out of the equation.

Music is a display of the Creators beauty that should be recognized and reflected back to the Creator. Some Islamic followers believe that music creates an environment of worldly feelings that detract from the character and tawhid (“unity with God”). Therefore, Islamic music is very detached and repetitive; leaving no space for individuality. I understand that focusing on the creation and beauty of music is the goal, but I also think that there is an intimacy and honor that comes with The Creator giving the creation the ability to create something beautiful. The responsibility of the individual is to recognize their ability and reflect their work as worship to the Creator.

I think the individual should recognize that music is an incredible medium for worshiping a Creator. Many Muslims believe that music is a “powerful intoxicating force, capable of creating excitement in listeners that can potentially cause them to lose control of their reason, diverting them from their devotional life and inviting sinful behavior”. Maurer also mentions that sometimes the “listener’s interpretation of music can be evil”. This is the only way I can see music hindering the worship of God. I agree to an extent that music can evoke many emotions that detract from focus on the Creator and bring attention to how the worshiper feels.

I found it interesting that Islamic music heavily relies on detaching oneself from the music itself. I understand that this allows the creation and beauty of music to be acknowledged and reflected to God, but I again think that we miss out on the value the Creator bestows upon us in order to create art and music. Techno, ambience, and trance follow the idea of detachment and static repetitiveness in western music. However, artists are often recognized for their work or stylistic approaches to music. If we applied this to say, Christianity, one could recognize the gifts and abilities God gave the artist to create something beautiful such as music. I believe that the same concept could be applied to Islam.

Overall, I see the effects of music being detrimental or valuable to Islamic worship of God. Nevertheless, I think that music has the greatest potential to respectfully bring praise unto a Creator without bringing the focus solely on oneself. I do think that some notice should be placed on the artist because their talent is a gift and reflection of the Creator’s beauty. It shouldn’t be in a conceded way or one that seeks attention or praise, but an attitude of humble appreciation and gratitude.

Sufi Music: Mystical or Monstrous

By Erin Posey. Ms. Posey is a student in Denise Rotavera-Krain’s FYS Class: Questions of Identity Through World Music.

In John A. Maurer’s article, Music in the World of Islam, he discussed the contradictions of music in the Islamic culture. There are certain groups who believe that music is a “magical tool of the devil” and others, like the Sufis, who believe that music “impels a person to seek the spiritual world” (Maurer, 1998) and become closer to God. He then compares the ideas of abstraction in Islamic music to those of Western music, although some of his examples were outdated. However, it is necessary to evaluate these conflicting ideas in order to understand the importance Sufi’s give to music.

Maurer points out that Muslims’ attitudes regarding music, whether positive or negative are based on the Qur’an and hadith literature. His Qur’an examples showed ambiguity in establishing whether or not they were actually addressing opposition or agreement on the position of music. For example, verse XXXI:5 says, “There are some men who buy diverting talk to lead astray from the way of God” and verses XXXIX:17-18 say, “So give good tidings to my servants who listen to al-qawl (the spoken word) and follow the fairest of it.” None of these passages actually mention the word “music”, so they cannot be used as concrete evidence, only conjecture. The hadith passages also did little to unify religious literature with socio-cultural ideas of music.

Along with the vagueness of these passages, is the idea of musical abstraction. Maurer quotes al Faruqi (1986), “Since tawhid teaches that God cannot be identified with any object or being from nature, He cannot be musically associated with sounds that arouse psychological or kinesthetic correspondences to beings, events, objects, or ideas within nature.” This statement is particularly interesting when paired with Maurer’s own statement that, “…not only does the music of Islam try to detach itself from the world, the musician himself in Islamic music tries to detach himself from his music” (1998). Basically, abstraction, particularly musical,  is a tool used in order to separate any natural, human stumbling blocks from full and entire focus on God.  However, his parallel examples in Western music do not fit into this mold. Maurer states that, “Detachment of the artist from his/her creation, as described of Islamic culture…, was and has again become the primary focus of Western creation.” Perhaps that was true at one time, but no longer. Today, Western music is all about “emoting” and expressing one’s “musical narrative.” Where Islamic standards of music seek to sever worldly ties to God and personal ties to the self, Western music does quite the opposite.

While reading the article, it became quite obvious that Sufi’s opinions of music are the opposite to those of more traditional Islamic beliefs. “[Man’s] soul, which originates in the world above, remembers its homeland [through music] and yearns to attain the state that would enable it to untie the knots binding it to matter, thereby facilitating mystical union with God” quoted from Shiloah (1995)  is a statement that Maurer uses in order to explain the Sufi’s mystical understanding of music’s relationship to God. They believe that music cannot be of the devil because it is Divinely blessed. However, they understand its power and choose only to let those who have been released from the “the clutch of the carnal soul” (Shiloah, 1995) to partake in the gift of music.

Even though the Sufi’s opinions of music differ from those of traditionalist Muslims’, all agree that the influence and effect of music is powerful and should be treated with reverence and respect. So the ideas and beliefs that music can evoke unwanted worldly feelings is not without reason, because from Sufi examples, music is definitely able to evoke strong feelings. The feelings being evoked are what both viewpoints want to be able to monitor. It is safe to say that the binary opinions can agree that music is acceptable, as long as it is being used towards the purpose of glorifying God.

World Music: Changing and Staying the Same

By John Mulvihill. Mr. Mulvihill is a student in Denise Rotavera-Krain’s FYS Class: Questions of Identity Through World Music.

It can be easy to become trapped in a “safety net” and be stuck in one’s own personal world. A good way to learn about the world is by simply listening to the music of other cultures. Music from other cultures and other parts of the world show how things change and how they sometimes stay the same.

In the western world, music which comes from outside it has come to be known as “world music.” This, of course, is generalizing a multitude of musical genres into one. Yet, the western world is still a large consumer of the world music genre and has greatly expanded the market for it. Western artists such as Madonna, Sting, and George Harrison had started using different sounds from different types of world music in their own songs. This has promoted different types of world music. Yet, they are not the only people who have brought different types of music to a western audience. Groups from across the seas have decided to promote their music to western audiences. A prime example of this is al-Kindi ensemble. “This Syrian based group markets itself to global audiences as an authentic Sufi ensemble and by relaying on Western notions of the sacred and in the Orient the al-Kindi Ensemble has been able to inscribe itself within the global sub-genre of ‘spiritual music’.” (Lovatt, 5)

Despite the fact that their music is constructed for, and consumed by foreign audiences, the al-Kindi Ensemble have nonetheless succeeded in constructing a globally accepted idea of authentic Mawlawiya music by becoming one of Syria’s most famous orchestras. Yet not all examples of world music are like this. Music of other cultures has changed along with the times and technology. Many types of world music have taken a more serious tone, and some of the governments of  respective countries have tried to stop that. In fact, many artist singers had to endure repeated criticism, censorship and even persecution. An example of this is Raï music. Perhaps the biggest source of local criticism that Raï faced were its lyrics which flouted many of the traditional values present in conservative Arab Society. “Raï songs openly discussed subjects traditionally considered off limits, such as prostitution, alcohol, forbidden love and sex, leading to strong criticism from conservatives and repeated violence against Raï artists.” (Lovatt, 9) There were even killings of some artists, such as the assassination of Cheb Hasni in 1994.

World music shows that the world is both static and dynamic. Some types of music change over time and others continue on as they always have been. I feel happy about the fact that the Western World (especially the United States) is learning more and more about different types of world music. Even if this has caused violence in some areas, it is a good thing that people are expressing themselves in new ways and old. The new forms of world music help attract a younger generation, and the old keep more mature generation’s attention. When different people from different parts of the world can come together and enjoy the same thing, it truly is beautiful.

Reservation of Sufi Music

By Grace Sparks. Ms. Sparks is a student in Denise Rotavera-Krain’s FYS Class: Questions of Identity Through World Music.

In the article, Music in the World of Islam, by John A Maurer IV published by I-Epistemology; the author makes a point about music in the Islam culture and its uses. In the religion of Islam, music is not thought of the same way as it is in Western culture. Some types of Islamic culture believe that music is too passionate and only detracts from worshipping God. Other “sects” of Islam, like the Sufi’s, trust that music is just another form of worship, as long as it is done right. I think that the Muslim culture promotes self-reservation and that is reflected in their music but I think that music should be more celebratory.

Music is portrayed in Islamic culture as “handash al sawt.” This means the art of sound. Some Muslims think of their music this way in order to distinguish it from Western culture. Some groups in Islamic countries believe that music is sinful and evil. The main reason for not liking music is that it can be so powerful that it could drive the listener to desert their reason and logic. I think that it is difficult for someone to believe that music can be such a terrible influence. This viewpoint has stemmed from religion but many religious texts cite song and dance as a way of expressing ones love for God. This is a shared view of the Sufi’s.

However, some believe that, if done right, music can be a manifestation of God. This is an opinion put forth by the Sufi’s. The nature of the music depends on the intentions of the listener. Music is a good thing as long as it’s views also stem from the Qur’an. For example, there is a Qur’anic chant.  The point is to express the importance of unity with God. Muslims even have a word for unity with God: Tahwid.

Some music does express violent and hurtful aspects of the world. However some music is joyous with worship. For example, the musical Godspell written by Stephen Schwartz explores the different features of Christianity. Whether it be sinning, worshipping, or the death of Jesus Christ; Godspell features the power and passion that singing can have in religion.

There are many aspects of Islam that reflect the religions devout and reserved ways. This is expressed through the terms and the static of the music. Abstraction is a term meaning that God can be found in non-physical things, never in nature or an idol, but instead in things like music. The point of this is to avoid the focus on worldly concerns and draw the focus to God. Another term used is nonprogrammatic which means that music must not be associated with human emotions either.

Maurer compares Sufi music to Bebop in the West. Bebop was a sect of 1950’s jazz and it was often perceived as full of passion and energy. However, Bebop was actually a cold and impersonal style of jazz. It had a characteristic that was also present in Sufi music. This was the lack of form. Both types of music were considered non-developmental or static. This meant that they didn’t have a concrete end, beginning, or climax. To jazz musicians, this didn’t mean much, but for the Sufis it meant that the song was eternal and therefore divine.

While I agree that music is a valid way of expressing ones religion, I do believe that not associating music with human emotions is unhelpful and nearly impossible. Human emotions are what fuel the writing and thought process behind a song. A song cannot be written without a human emotion. I am of the opinion that the devoted and religious feelings are human emotions and being inspired to create music that worships God is a passionate ever-moving presense. While I respect Muslims for their ardent and pious love of their God, my view is that loving God should be a celebration of song rather than a hidden melody.