What is Sufism? Why is music so important to the Sufis?

Sufism is often described as the ‘mystical dimension of Islam’. In the West, mention of the word may conjure up a disconnected jumble of associations – whirling dervishes, headlines about persecution by the Taliban, and links to various modern spiritual practices. But while the tradition itself is subject to much unnecessary mystification, its core tenets are not hidden from those who seek to learn about them. 

Broadly speaking, Sufism is a set of immersive approaches to Islamic spiritual practice, aimed at purifying the soul and connecting directly with the divine. It is less a denomination of Islam, more a ‘dimension’ of how some practice the faith.

Different Sufi strains are scattered across the globe, often united less by doctrine than by a shared focus on attaining heavenly knowledge through mystical means. Sufi worship rituals, known as Dhikr, can feature everything from ecstatic dance and mass chanting to long instrumental solos and meditations on the eternal wisdom of the Quran.

Sufis claim a lineage running back to Ali, cousin and son-in-law to the Prophet Muhammad, who is regarded by many as the founding scholar of Islamic metaphysics. Early adherents were central to the successful spread of the religion as a whole, espousing an attractive, flexible theology imbued with colour, action, and creative energy.

Many great Islamic thinkers have practiced Sufism, altering the course of the religion’s history and still leaving very direct imprints on modern thinking – Rumi, despite writing his esoteric verses in the 13th century, was for a time the best-selling poet in 20th-century America.

Rumi was also a keen musician, performing on the ney flute and the rabaab bowed fiddle. Sufis have always been inclined towards musical performance, and their wide, ancient diaspora has given rise to a huge range of sounds. Songlines magazine’s list of ‘10 Essential Sufi Albums’ takes you on a tour spanning Egypt (Sheikh Yasin Al-Tuhami), Syria (Ensemble Al-Kindi), Turkey (Kudsi Erguner), Iran (Ali Akbar Moradi), and Pakistan (Abida Parveen), and the Rough Guide to Sufi Music compilation CD adds in Morocco (Hassan Hakmoun) and Senegal (Boubacar Diagne).

 So, why is music so important to the Sufis?

For one thing, music’s inherently visceral nature is ideal for inspiring the elevated states of consciousness which lie at the heart of the tradition. Around the world, Sufi music is recognisable for its looping, rhythmic hypnotism, designed to induce trance-like states where believers can follow internal routes to self-knowledge.

Sufis hold that their spiritual practices are not the cause of such knowledge, but the occasion where it may be obtained – in other words, it is about how the direct, experiential power of particular moments can illuminate paths towards the divine. Music is so vital to this regard that some Sufis consider it to be wajab (required practice) rather than just halal (permissible).

Many orders choose to visualise Allah through the methods of Dhikr-e-Qalbi (‘invoking God within the beat of the heart’), chanting his name for hours at a stretch while they go about their everyday lives. It is said that past rulers of Morocco would exempt the master musicians of Joujouka from agriculture, animal-herding, and manual labour in respect of their powers to heal the sick. See if their microtonal rhaita flutes and rattling tebel drums cast any rejuvenating spells on your mind.

In addition, Sufism’s penchant for lionising the esoteric and creative has always piqued the attention of the musically inclined. Those who gravitate towards sincere expression will find kinship in moments of shared ecstasy with other searchers, and diverse creative traditions sometimes come up with similar modes of self-examination too: Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a 20th-century Sufi saint, founded his monastic order after retreating to the Sri Lankan jungle to meditate in isolation – much as Pandit Ram Sahai took his tabla into the jungles of Benares to practice alone, creating the now-famous Benares gharana.

By around the 11th century Sufism had taken root as far afield as West Africa, and began mingling with local folk religions. Its doctrinal openness allowed it to assimilate various aspects of the region’s established culture, naturally bringing many local musicians into its fold. (Whatever your background, if you spend your days immersed in music then you’re always going to be fascinated by the arrival of singers who believe they can see God in dreams…)

Today, most Senegalese citizens still follow Sufism, and the nation’s music genres are rich with its influences. Baye Fall is among the most oddball, mixing muezzin-style chanting with everything from reggae samples to droning keyboards:

It goes without saying that the connections between sound, music, and Sufism are far deeper and more complex than this. But like the tradition itself, they are best understood through direct, immersive experience – go to a Sufi concert if you can, and hear what the musicians have to say!

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