Sufi Music, Dances and Festivals

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Sufi Dhikr singing

Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that dates to the ninth century, when soldiers stationed on the Islamic empire's distant borders developed it as a way to worship. "It is a form of mysticism mingled with entertainment," Viktor Sahab, a prominent Lebanese music historian and critic, told the New York Times. [Source: Neil MacFarquhar, New York Times, October 30, 2004 /*/]

Neil MacFarquhar wrote in the New York Times, “Under strict Islam, instruments, like alcohol, are banned as overly sensuous. In the most traditional Sufi ceremonies, tempo and melody are reduced to a religious sheik singing and, at most, tapping out a beat with his hands. Some brotherhoods introduced the drum and an occasional flute. Sufi music follows rigid formulas, with the melody often improvised but the words all drawn from poetry written in Andalusia starting some 1,000 years ago after southern Spain was conquered by Islam. One paradox of Sufi poems is that they can be odes to wine or handsome youths, both religiously aberrant in Islam, but interpreted as a metaphor for worship. Hence the more strait-laced Muslim mainstream disparages Sufis as degenerates.” /*/

The union of the body, spirit and music lies at the heart of Sufism. Sufis believe: "Music is the food of the spirit; when the spirit receives food, it turns aside from the government of the body." Sufis are credited with keeping the spirit of music alive in the Muslim world while orthodox Muslims tried to stamp it out. Sufis traditionally criticized those who criticized music.

Sufi spiritual music is often highly-syncopated and hypnotic. One Sufi dancer said, "The music takes you over completely. It's a healing thing." According to 9th-century Baghdad philosopher Abu Suliman al-Darani Sufis believe that "music and singing do not produce in it that which is not in it" and music "reminds the spirit of the realm for which it constantly longs."

Some Sufi songs are popular villages songs about love with lyrics changed so the Muhammad is the object of love rather than a woman or a man. One songs goes, "It is he, it is only he who lives in my heart, only he whom I give my love, our beautiful Prophet Muhammad, whose eyes are made-up with kohl,"

Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss, a Sufi musician told the New York Times: "You can be prolix in the choice of poems or choose just two verses and repeat them over and over again, "It takes a certain amount of training to understand not only the meaning of the words, which are not that important, but the aesthetic, the beauty of a style of music very different from Western music." /*/

Websites on Sufis Divisions in Islam ; Sufism in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World ; Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders – Sufism's Many Paths ; The Threshold Society ; Mysticism in Arabic and Islamic Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; Risala Roohi Sharif, translations (English and Urdu) of "The Book of Soul", by Hazrat Sultan Bahu, a 17th century Sufi ;Sufism - an Inquiry

Sufi Festival Music and Ecstatic Dances

Mystic Music Festival in Tunisia

Fixtures of Sufism include secret recitations and annual 40-day retreats known as chilla . Sufi mulids , religious festivals that honor the saints of mosque, sometimes attracts hundreds of thousands of people even though they are denounced as "heretical" by orthodox Muslims. Members of Sufi clans often walk to the festival from their home villages, carrying banners and flags. Groups of musicians make their living by traveling from one mulid to another.

Describing a Sufi ritual at such a festival David Lodge wrote in the Rough Guide to World Music: "To a binding hypnotic rhythm, heaving movements and respiratory groans, the leader conducts the congregation by reciting Sufi poetry, guiding them from one maqam mode to another. Bodies sway, head roll upwards on every stroke as they chant religious devotions with spiraling intensity." Said Guissi's Aissawa produces a form of hypnotic, highly-syncopated from of Sufi spiritual music. “The “nay” (flute) played is a style depicted in the pharonic tombs, alternates short, two-beat pulses on a simple melody line. Lifeless arms dangle, saliva slaps from open mouths, and eyes stare without seeing. Men collapse, convulsing, on the floor, while other run to lift them up, reciting to them verses from the Qur’an. The beat slows, and rows of sweating heads drop their gaze on the floor. Slowly, exhausted, the ecstatic return to the fray."

Ecstatic Dance at Sufi Festival in Pakistan

Sufi festivals known as “urs” are held annually to mark the anniversaries of a saints’ deaths and their “marriage” to God. They attract thousands of pilgrims from both sexes and have accompanying meals. Pilgrims arrive in specials buses, trains and trucks. There is a singing and dancing. Food and entertainment is offered at the accompanying fairs (“mela”). The fairs are open to anyone, regardless of their beliefs, and many of those in attendance normally don’t set foot in a mosque.

Description in the Insight Guide to Pakistan of a Sufi festival in the Sind: “There is constant music, singing and dancing, keeping pace with the booming of the big copper drums. One party follows another and the ritual continues from morning to the evening. The drums thunder, men and women celebrate the occasion by ritual dancing and achieve grace with quick steps, forward and backward, hands flailing above the shoulders. The singing girls of whom Qalander is patron saint gyrate furiously, tossing their heads and swinging their long hair, drenched in sweat, wanting frenzy to reach the state of “la hoot la makan”, no self space, perfection union and peace with the divine.”

Sufi Saint and Poet from Pakistan

Nicholas Schmidle wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “A man in white linen lunged flamboyantly into a clearing at the center of the crowd, tied an orange sash around his waist and began to dance. Soon he was gyrating and his limbs were trembling, but with such control that at one point it seemed that he was moving only his earlobes. Clouds of hashish smoke rolled through the tent, and the drumming injected the space with a thick, engrossing energy. [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2008 |+|]

“I stopped taking notes, closed my eyes and began nodding my head. As the drummer built toward a feverish peak, I drifted unconsciously closer to him. Before long, I found myself standing in the middle of the circle, dancing beside the man with the exuberant earlobes. |+|

“"Mast Qalandar!" someone called out. The voice came from right behind me, but it sounded distant. Anything but the drumbeat and the effervescence surging through my body seemed remote. From the corner of my eye, I noticed photographer Aaron Huey high-stepping his way into the circle. He passed his camera to Kristin. In moments, his head was swirling as he whipped his long hair around in circles. "Mast Qalandar!" another voice screamed. |+|

“If only for a few minutes, it didn't matter whether I was a Christian, Muslim, Hindu or atheist. I had entered another realm. I couldn't deny the ecstasy of Qalandar. And in that moment, I understood why pilgrims braved great distances and the heat and the crowds just to come to the shrine. While spun into a trance, I even forgot about the danger, the phone calls, the reports of my disappearance and the police escort. |+|

“Later, one of the men who had been dancing in the circle approached me. He gave his name as Hamid and said he had traveled more than 500 miles by train from northern Punjab. He and a friend were traversing the country, hopping from one shrine to another, in search of the wildest festival. "Qalandar is the best," he said. I asked why. "He could communicate directly with Allah," Hamid said. "And he performs miracles." "Miracles?" I asked, with a wry smile, having reverted to my normal cynicism. "What kind of miracles?" He laughed. "What kind of miracles?" he said. "Take a look around!" Sweat sprayed from his mustache. "Can't you see how many people have come to be with Lal Shahbaz Qalandar?" looked over both of my shoulders at the drumming, the dhamaal and the sea of red. I stared back at Hamid and tilted my head slightly to acknowledge his point. "Mast Qalandar!" we said. |+|

Whirling Dervishes

whirling dervish

The Mevlevis, or whirling dervishes, belong to a Sufi mystical sect inspired by a spiritual poet named Mevlâna Celaleddin Rumi (1207-1273). The order was created in 1273 after the death of Mevlana in Konya, which was a center of learning and art in the 13th century under the Seljuk Turk sultans.

The Mevlevis stress personal devotion and value the idea of relinquishing one's earthly ties to reach a state of tranquility, love and harmony. They believe that death is meant to be celebrated because a union forms with god. The sect often blends local practices into worship, is open to members of all religions but is based on the principals of Islam. Many were wandering mendicants.

Describing a whirling dervish Sufi sect in Istanbul, Thomas Abercrombie wrote in National Geographic, "The service began with a kind of deep breathing exercise, and congregation repeating, 'Alll-ahhhh, Alll-ahhhh, Alll-ahhhh. Then, to the rhythm of a slow drum, a young dervish in a conical hat and skirted robe began to spin counterclockwise. Edip pulled me into the congregation forming a concentric circles around the dance, shoulder to shoulder, chanting the sonorous Muslim creed, "La ilaha illa llah!" slowly at first, then faster and louder: 'There is no god but Allah.' We circled the spinning dervishes, in the opposite direction. Faster and faster we circled, at one with the atoms and the planets, cosmic sleepwalkers belying time and space, lost in the whirling and the rhythm of the chant: 'La ilaha-illa llah, La ilaha-illa llah.'...Only afterwards dir I realize we had spun for nearly an hour. Where did the time go?"

Western-Infused Sufi Ritual in Aleppo Syria

Reporting from Aleppo, Syria, Neil MacFarquhar wrote in the New York Times, “The weekly zhikr ceremony organized by a brotherhood of Sufi Muslims noisily escalates toward its climax, with some 50 male participants in a double circle grunting God's name repeatedly at an ever faster pace while swinging rhythmically from side to side. Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss loses himself in the choreographed prayers, rocking in a place of honor near a renowned Sufi troubadour wearing a large green turban and long white robe, plus several religious grandees wearing beanies and lengthy beards.” "It has a liberating effect on the energy of the body," Weiss told the New York Times, "It's a release from the psychological tensions of the day and so it is a kind of group therapy."[Source: Neil MacFarquhar, New York Times, October 30, 2004 /*/]

at the Mystic Music Festival in Tunisia

“He and his ensemble incorporate a variety of styles including Sufi chanting, Arab music composed during The Crusades and music based on poetry from the ninth-century Abbasid court in Baghdad, the period considered Islam's highest cultural flowering. "The originality of my work," explained Mr. Weiss, never shy about his own talents, "is that I introduced what is forbidden — musical instruments." Mr. Weiss took the common music of Sufi prayer halls and mixed in Middle Eastern versions of the flute, lute, tambourine and zither.

Aleppo boasts a long musical heritage, with some 200 Sufi brotherhoods. Sheik Ahmad Haboush, a Sufi troubadour who collaborates with Mr. Weiss, calls him a hard worker who orchestrates Arab chants, "which is a very important labor and a challenge to those who said it can't be done."

Qawwali Music

“Qawwali” is a kind of Sufi devotional music with a high-pitched and fast-paced stye of singing. It developed in the 13th century when Sufism was becoming popular on the Indian subcontinent. “Qawwali” literally means "philosophical utterance" in Arabic and has come to mean performing Sufi poetry to music. “Qawwali” songs are based on devotional Sufi poems and often have romantic themes that can be interpreted as love between a devotee and his God or between a man and a woman.

“Qawwali” has a very distinct sound. The "sweeping melodies" and rhythmic hand clapping and the drone of the harmonium is instantly recognizable. It is often featured in Indian films and clubs and gatherings. Describing the appeal of qawwali music, Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times, it is music "a rocker could love; it favors rock-hewn, hearty voices and an unstoppable beat."

Qawwali music evolved out of Sufi poems and chants of God's name (“zikr”) to achieve a trancelike state. The poems are regarded as links to Sufi saints and ultimately to God. The origin of qawwali is attributed to Amir Khursrau (1253-1325), a talented Sufi poet and composer who has also been credited with inventing the sitar and the tabla. He was a disciple of the Delhi-based Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. Poems by Khursrau are the core of the qawwali repertoire. Qawwali music has endured through the tradition of “Mahfil-e-Sama” ("Assembly for Listening"), which remains the central ritual today. The act of listening to music (“sama”) is an expression of mystical love and the desire to be unified with the Sufi saints and God.

Sufi Rocker Salman Ahmad

Salman Ahmad, the lead guitarist in Pakistani rock group Junoon often enagaes in a battle of Islamic verses with imam who argue music is against Islam. Brian Whitaker wrote in The Guardian: “Salman Ahmad is the leading exponent of "Sufi rock" music, sometimes described as Pakistan's Bono and even hailed as the latest weapon against Islamic extremism. He's currently promoting his book, Rock & Roll Jihad. Though some would deem his music sinful – extremely sinful considering he has sold 25 million albums worldwide – Ahmad is a patently decent man. He's a UN goodwill ambassador for HIV/Aids, he's helped to raise money for refugees from Swat, and he played at the Nobel peace prize ceremony in 2007. "I love music," he said, "I feel also that my belief [in Islam] inspires my creativity, as it has inspired hundreds of thousands of Muslim artists over the last 1,400 years. That cultural heritage has been blurred by violence and fear...We need to counter the extremists' narrative through arts and culture ... Once young people do realise that this message of the Taliban is a false message, they won't be brainwashed by it."” [Source: Brian Whitaker, The Guardian, May 20, 2010 +/]

At “a madrasa in Pakistan where Ahmad repeatedly challenged a religious scholar. Where, he asked the scholar, does it say in the Qur'an that music is forbidden? The confrontation looked to be heading for a no-score draw...The scholar offered no theological argument, Ahmad said, suggesting that he – and others like him – simply regard music as a competitor of the madrasas: "They're afraid of losing their gig." The great music-and-Islam debate, though, is not just about music or even competing gigs. It's about competing value systems, with the puritanical Salafi influences on one side and the more laid-back Sufi influences on the other. Whatever views individual Muslims hold about the permissibility of music, they are linked to a whole lot of other issues too. +/

“That may be one reason why the London Muslim blog dismisses Ahmad's mission as a "discredited gimmick" – using "an ageing Muslim Pakistani rock star to sing a few songs which apparently should do the trick and prevent any tendency towards extremism". Of course, singing a few songs won't "do the trick" and nobody is seriously suggesting it might. The point is to expose people to alternative ways of being a Muslim – to challenge the idea that there is one officially "correct" Islamic way of doing things. Over time, the more people are exposed to these alternatives, the more they are going to have to make choices. +/

Faiz Ali Faiz

Sufi Singer Sentenced to Death for Blasphemy

Terry Matttingly wrote in the Wichita Times Record News, Kano State authorities in northern Nigeria accused the Sufi Muslim singer Yahaya Sharif-Aminu of circulating social-media messages containing lyrics they said attacked the Prophet Muhammad. What did the song say? It's impossible to find direct quotations, although his accusers say he sang praises for his Sufi faith and, thus, spread false teachings about Islam. Did Sharif-Aminu actually send those WhatsApp messages? Again, it's hard to separate facts from rumors backed by mob attacks. [Source: Terry Matttingly, Times Record News, June 17, 2023]

But this much is clear: Sharif-Aminu was found guilty of blasphemy in 2020 by a regional sharia court and sentenced to death by hanging. He remains imprisoned, while human-rights activists around the world — including the European Union parliament — keep urging his release and the end of blasphemy laws. "You're not sure, in many of these cases, what the person is actually accused of doing or saying because key people are afraid to discuss the details," said scholar Paul Marshall, who teaches at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and lectures around the world. He is the coauthor of "Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide," with Nina Shea of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

The Sharif-Aminu case is part of another trend, with accusations about alleged blasphemous acts and statements circulating instantaneously across the World Wide Web, often in smartphone videos, photos and audio soundbites that may or may not have been altered to twist the contents. "People who are hackable may be getting framed," said Marshall. "That's where the offenses and accusations are picking up."

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's special envoy for religious freedom issued a direct appeal to Nigeria's outgoing president, Muhammadu Buhari. Fiona Bruce urged him to "exercise clemency by granting a pardon to the young Sufi singer, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu" since his case is on appeal. "He was accused of blasphemy because a song he wrote was circulated — as I understand it, by someone else — on social media," she noted.

At the time of the original accusations, mobs "completely destroyed the family home and everyone ran for their lives," said Nigerian lawyer Kola Alapinni, who is working with ADF International on this case. The original legal proceedings were skewed by the fact that no lawyers stepped forward to defend Sharif-Aminu, since "they were scared for their lives." While singer's original death sentence was "quashed," he said, this sent the case back for retrial in the sharia court — which will almost certainly reaffirm the death sentence. "You can think of all sorts of trauma going on in his head. … The whole family is devastated," said Alapinni, in a video statement.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Salman Ahmad, You Tube

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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