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.

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.