Sufi Music

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By Dina Lahlou

Sama'a is food for the soul." (Nasrabadi in Attar: Tadhkirat, 793)

Sound and music occupy an important place in the life of most Sufis. It is a tool for the believer to get closer to God, dissolving the physical realm into the spiritual one by polishing the heart and enhancing the spiritual aspect of the human being over the physical being. However not all schools emphasize this. Dhikr, or God's remembrance, "Mawlid Annabawi," praising and blessings of the prophet are what Sufis concentrate on. Depending on the different "Tariquats" or "schools of thought," it is done out loud or within the silence of the heart. Dhikr is also considered as a form of meditation to connect to God and draw the divine energy into the world of matter. "Mawlid," for some, is the expression of love one has towards the prophet, or for others it could also be to embody His qualities and to testify to God that He delivered the message He was entrusted to deliver.

Sufi music is not only based on God's remembrance and on the prophet. Certain schools use the vibrations emanating from this purpose to transcend the physical realm into the spiritual one. For Sufi mystics, each experience is different and no one session is similar to the other. Whether it's singing, listening or whirling, Sufi music reaches the soul of the mystic Muslim and awakens the soul's consciousness. From this space, transcending the physical world and connecting to God as a soul is sometimes achieved.
A deep spiritual connection is established and the Sufi releases all the worldly attachments, to be able to dissolve into God's light and power. Sufi music is easily qualified as "soul music" for Muslim mystics.

Although the role of music is a controversial topic in Islam, condemned by some "Mullahs," for the Sufis it is a path to further spiritual development and a medium through which the human soul may approach the Divine. At Sufi meetings, music and dancing play a very important role. Dhikr is often mentioned in the Koran and for the Sufi it is a main component of the religious and spiritual practice. It polishes the heart of the believer for God's reflection to be purer and clearer. Whether vocal or as a whisper or silently in the heart, Dhikr, for all Sufis, is a daily practice of contemplation and meditation with focus and concentration solely on God alone. Depending on the "Tariquat," it could be done in a musical rhythm, with or without instruments, just as songs praising the Prophet Mohamed (MPBUH).

The main instrument of the Sufis from the East (Iran/Anatolia/Uzbekistan/ Pakistan) is the "Nay." It is the symbol of the human soul that has to be totally void so that it can resonate. This reed flute of the Sufis carries a very important symbol through its emptiness: for the human soul to approach and connect to the Divine, it must be empty and pure to be a channel and a recipient for the Divine. The essence of Sufism and the connection it has with music is poignantly expressed in the opening words of the "Mathwani," the "spiritual couplets" written over 700 years ago by the famous Sufi poet and sage Jalal Al-Din Al-Rumi:

"Listen to the reed, how it complains
and tells a tale of separation pains.
"Ever since I was cut from the reed bed, my lament
has caused man and woman to moan.
I want a bosom torn my separation,
to explain the pain of longing.
Everyone who is far from his source
longs for the time of being united with it once more."


Al-Rumi's poetry also refers to the longing each devotee feels. The pain of separation from its source, God, is also a core subject of Sufi lyrics and music; hence the longing to reunite and "melt" into the Divine's love.

Another instrument often used by Sufis, especially in the West such as Morocco, is the "Bendir" or frame drum. It is used to bring about a repetitive sound which often takes the listeners into a trance. African Sufi music uses recurring sounds combined with rhythmic tones. It sounds like a melody following the rhythm of the "life pulse" in all its different stages, or as some may also say, the movement of the ocean under all kinds of weather: sunny, stormy, infinite, endless, repetitive movement, yet under the surface calm and powerful in a very subtle way. Just like our world, it forms one unity yet integrated in its diversity.

One cannot talk about Sufi music without referring to its main lands: from the sun of Africa, the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the mountains of Pakistan and Iran, the diversity of Sufi music is enriched by all the cultures it crosses in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Turkey/Anatolia, Persia, Uzbekistan and India. The Gnaouas and the Issawas of Morocco, Musa Dieng Kala of Senegal, the Ahl-Al-Haqq of Kurdistan, Al-Kindi and Hamza Shakkur of Syria, and Sohrab Fakir from Sindhi province in Pakistan, to mention a few, are our contemporary contributors to the tradition of Sufi music which dates back to Bilal the friend of the Prophet.

Dina Lahlou is a Moroccan Jordanian teacher living in Amman.

From by permission of the author.

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