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.”

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.

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.


Call & Response



Pre concert

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