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then compares the ideas of abstraction in Islamic music to those of Western music, although some of his examples were outdated.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.