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.