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Sufi Music

March 26, 2010

Sufism is notoriously hard to define.   Often described as Islamic mysticism, Sufism (tasawwuf in Arabic; tasavvuf in Persian and Turkish) is a Muslim tradition of contemplation and worship organized around a diverse group of religious orders or brotherhoods, known as tariqas or tarikats.  Sufi practitioners seek spiritual communion with the divine through study, meditation, and worship, often involving music and poetry.   Jalaladdin Rumi, Hafez,  Yunus Emre, Bulleh Shah, and Omar Khayyam are some of the famous Sufi poets whose poems have also been turned into songs.  For more information about Sufism, check out Dr. Alan Godhas’s resource page on Sufism and Sufi orders.

Most Sufi orders conduct worship ceremonies focused on dhikr or zikr (rememberance), an Islamic devotional practice of reciting the names of God.   While not all Sufi orders use music, in most Sufi dhikr, the presence of the divine invoked through chanting, singing, playing musical instruments and sometimes dancing.  Here’s an example of the sema ceremony conducted by the so-called “whirling” dervishes of the Mevlevi order in Turkey:

One of the most famous Sufi musical styles is the South Asian tradition of qawwali, which stretches back some seven centuries in what is now Pakistan and northern India.   Qawwali songs, usually performed by groups of singers and musicians at shrines and saints’ tombs, focus on themes of praise, thanksgiving, and love.  As in much Sufi poetry, the Beloved, for whom the speaker expresses devotion and longing, is taken to represent God.  Here’s the late Pakistani qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his group performing Bulleh Shah’s “Mera Piya Ghar Aaya” (“My Beloved Came Home”), with English subtitles:

Moroccan Gnawa music is performed by members of a Afro-Arab community descended from former slaves.  The word “gnawa” can refer to the community itself, the Sufi order associated with it, and their musical tradition.  Gnawa fuses Arab, Berber, and sub-Saharan African sounds with religious influences from both Islam and animist African traditions.  Gnawa musical ceremonies, called lila, often involve trance, possession, and healing.  This clip shows part of a lila in Marrakesh:

For more on Sufi music, see this article by Dina Lahlou at MidEast Web, and check out the’s extensive music page.

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