SUFI MUSIC, DANCES AND FESTIVALS

SUFI MUSIC


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." /*/

See Separate Article on Sufism factsanddetails.com

Websites and Resources: Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? africa.upenn.edu ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Arab Cultural Awareness fas.org/irp/agency/army ; Arab Cultural Center arabculturalcenter.org ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence ; Arab American Institute aaiusa.org/arts-and-culture ; Introduction to the Arabic Language al-bab.com/arabic-language ; Wikipedia article on the Arabic language Wikipedia ; Islamic, Arabic and Persian Literature Islamic and Arabic Literature at Cornell University guides.library.cornell.edu/ArabicLiterature ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Wikipedia article on Islamic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Arabic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Persian Literature Wikipedia ; Persian literature at Encyclopædia Britannica britannica.com ; Persian Literature & Poetry at parstimes.com /www.parstimes.com ; Arabic Poetry web.archive.org ; Arabic Poetry from Princeton princeton.edu/~arabic/poetry ; Thousand and One Nights wollamshram.ca/1001 ; 1001 Nights fairytalez.com ; Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Burton, gutenberg.org ; Islamic Stories islamicstories.com ; Shias, Sufis and Muslim Sects and Schools Divisions in Islam archive.org ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought masud.co.uk ; Wikipedia article on Shia Islam Wikipedia Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency shafaqna.com ; Roshd.org, a Shia Website roshd.org/eng ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia web.archive.org ; shiasource.com ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) al-khoei.org ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) the.ismaili ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) alavibohra.org ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) web.archive.org ; Wikipedia article on Sufism Wikipedia ; Sufism in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders – Sufism's Many Paths islam.uga.edu/Sufism ; Afterhours Sufism Stories inspirationalstories.com/sufism ; Risala Roohi Sharif, translations (English and Urdu) of "The Book of Soul", by Hazrat Sultan Bahu, a 17th century Sufi risala-roohi.tripod.com ; The Spiritual Life in Islam:Sufism thewaytotruth.org/sufism ; Sufism - an Inquiry sufismjournal.org

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.

Traditionally, dervishes have been only men. In the early 2000s, some groups began allowing women to join. The sect has also been the subject fo a sex scandal. In the 1990s, a leader of a dervish sect was arrested and charged with having one-night “marriages” with young followers. Ataturk ordered the Sufi lodges closed in Turkey in 1925 after the dervishes were deemed too powerful.

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?"

Whirling Dervish Music and Performance


Whirling Dervish with their musicians

A whirling dervish ritual begins with prayers and meditation in which each dervish, one after the other, receives a blessing from a superior. Then flutes play an introductory melody which symbolizes man's desire for mystic union, and the dance begins. Each dance consists of three stages: the first is the knowledge of God; the second is the seeing of God; and the third is the union with God."

The conical hats the dervishes wear represents a tombstone, the dervish's jacket symbolizes the grave, and the dervish's skirt, a funeral shroud. As the dervishes dance they remove their jackets to show they are shedding earthly ties, and escaping from their graves. As they whirl, the dervishes raise their right hands in prayer and extend their left hands toward the floor. The meaning of these gestures is "what we receive from God, we give to man; we ourselves possess nothing." Their whirling symbolizes the rotation of the universe in the presence of God."

Mevlevi is a form classical Turkish music associated with the Sufi Mevlevi sect (the whirling dervishes). It uses the same modal systems and instruments featured in Ottoman classical music five centuries ago. The mystical melodies are played with the ney , a Turkish flute made from calamus reed or hardwood with six holes on the front and one on the back. Most of the compositions were written by Kocek Dervis and Mustafa Dede from the 17th century, Dede Efendi from the 18th century and Rauf Yekta from the 19th century.

The dervishes sometimes whirl around for six or seven hours at a time. The whirling inflates their white skirts and puts them into a hypnotic trance which they say brings them closer to God. They whirl by crossing their legs and spinning, crossing their legs and spinning, over and over, and they claim they don't get dizzy. Careful footwork and deep concentration it is said keep them from getting dizzy.

The fast, ecstatic dancing of Sufi mystics, scientists have said, causes hyperarousal and generates a feeling that one is channeling the energy of the universe. According to a Newsweek article on mysticism: “these rites manage to tap into a precise brain mechanisms that tends to make believers interpret perceptions and feelings as evidence of God, or at least transcendence. Rituals also tend to focus on the mind, blocking out sensory perceptions---including those that the orientation area uses to figure out the boundaries of the self."

Description of Whirling Dervishes From 1613


Whirling dervishes

Describing a group of Mevlana in 1613, the English traveler Thomas Coryate wrote, “I entered a pretty fair room, to which I passed through an outward court, which room before me was almost full of Turks that came thither to serve God...A little after I came into the room the Dervishes repaired into the middle void space...Their habits differing much from the other Turks... first the covering of their Head was of a differing sort from the other, for they wear certain gray Felts made in a form not unlike the blocks of Hats that we use in England."

“A certain singing man sitting apart in the upper room began to sing certain hymns, but with the most unpleasant and harsh notes that I ever heard, for the yelling and disorderly squeaking of them did even grate mine ears. Whenever he pronounced the Name of Mahomet all of them did cast down their heads to their knees” and “fell prostrate upon their faces and kissed the ground."

“Almost a quarter of an hour before he had done, three pipers sitting in the room with the singer began to play certain long pipes not unlike tabors, which yielded very ridiculous and foolish music...Having played for near a quarter of an hour...they sounded much louder than ordinary, whereupon some five and twenty of the two and fifty dervishes suddenly rose up barelegged and bare-footed, and casting aside their upper garment, some of them having their breast all uncovered, they began by little and little to turn about...Afterwards they redoubled their force and turned with such incredible swiftness, that I could not choose but admire it."

“This turning they kept for the space of one whole hour at least, during which time, sometimes they turned exceedingly swiftly, sometimes very gently. After they had half done, the singer in the upper room began to sing again, at the pronunciation of some of whose words," the dervishes mumbled out certain strange terms, with a most hideous kind of murmuring that did in a manner terrify and astonish us...The forms of their dancing is as strange as the continence of their swiftness, for sometimes they stretch out their arms as far as they can in length, sometimes they contract them in a lesser compass, sometimes they hold them about their heads, sometimes again they perform certain merry gestures, as if they were drawing a bow and shooting an arrow...The violence of their turning it so great, that I have heard some of them have fallen down dead in the place."

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.

Qawwali musicians view themselves as religious people entrusted with the responsibility of evoking the name of God. They are trained and led by a religious leader called a “sheik” and traditionally have performed during ceremonies to mark the death of a saint at the saint's shrine. Qawwali musicians also have traditionally performed at shrines on Thursdays, the day Muslim remember the dead; Friday, the day of congregational prayer; and times when many pilgrims arrive. Musicians who perform at Sufi shrines are often descendants of the saints for which the shrine is dedicated.

Qawwali Songs

Qawwali songs tend to be long and have a structure and organization similar to that of northern Indian music. They feature a singing melodic line supported by drones and rhythms. A typical qawwali song features "solo verses punctuated by a choral refrain and instrumental interludes." Qawwali songs also feature "a steady, accelerating beat, a refrain that is repeated with increased passion” and “ a voice that roses to joyful, inspired testimonials of faith."


Faiz Ali Faiz


Qawwali songs often have a structure defined by strict rules. They usually begin with a slow prelude, featuring the harmonium and drumming. After the prelude ends the singer begin intoning texts quietly as if in payer. As the song the progresses the tempo speeds up with calls of praises of Allah, the Prophet and Sufi saints. This is followed by call-and-response style exchanges between the soloist and the junior singers. The rhythms become more lively and up tempo, building to crescendo-like climax.

Most tradition qawwali songs are written in Persian or an old form of Hindi called “Braj Bhasha”—the languages used by Khursrau. Many new songs are in Punjabi or Urdu. On the surface many qawwali lyrics seem to be about unrequited love. A closer look reveals that are about longing for god. Both musicians and listeners talk about how the music intoxicates them with divine love. The words to one famous Qawwali song goes: "I have forsaken all and I stand forlorn at your doorstep/ Just one glance from you would fulfil my life's dream/ Take one look at me, and I'll never look back on the world I have spurned in order to cling to you.”

Songs are often extended with “girahs”, additional verses added spontaneously in the middle of a song. There is a repertoire of girahs that singer chose from and skilled singers now to thrown in girahs in unexpected way to keep a song fresh. “Tarana” is a vocalization technique "using syllables derived from esoteric Sufi tradition."

Qawwali Singers and Instruments

Qawwali singers are always men. Part of the reason for this is tradition. Another reason is the belief that women don't posses the stamina to properly sing qawwali. Most qawwali singers some from families of qawwali singers. If a singer has no sons he passes the music on to his nephews.

Qawwali singers learn their crafts beginning at an early age. They memorize poems from the classic repertoire and do certain exercises to train their voice. When they are good enough they join the party (musical group), first as response singer and later, if talented enough, as a soloist. Talented singers form their own parties.

The harmonium (a hand-pump accordion-like instrument) produces a droning sound that supports the melody. The harmonium replaced the “sarangi”, a fretless sitar-like instrument that required constant retuning and was deemed unsuitable for live performances. The rhythm is provided by “dholaks” (heavy, double-headed drums hung from the shoulders and played with the fingers) and tablas, played with a flat palm as opposed to the finger technique favored in Indian music.


Javid Bashir


Qawwali Music Parties and Performances

A group that plays qawwali music is called a party. It usually includes a lead singer called a “mohri”, secondary singers who usually play the harmonium, and at least one percussionist. Every member of the group joins in the singing and the youngest members provide the rhythmic hand claps.

Describing a qawwali performance, Mark Jenkins wrote in the Washington Post, "The party's lead vocal sang the principal lyrics...His verses were answered by the higher-pitched solo singing of his brother Mehr and the call-and-response and unison of the other eight musicians. While two harmoniums provided the drone." The tabla player "did an exemplary job of keeping and embroidering the beat. Still, much of the evening's music was made simply with trilling voices and clapping hands."

Qawwali refers to a performance and singer as well as a kind of music. At a traditional show, the audiences is made up of exclusively men in accordance with Sufi traditions. In the old days, qawwali was performed at a Sufi shrines on important religious days. These days it is performed in the West at concerts and in Pakistan and India at gatherings call mahfils.

Qawwali has traditionally been performed at a mahfil. Mahfils are social events in which the audiences and performers relax in comfortable positions on the floor. There is great deal of communication between the audience and performers, with performers adapting their music and performances to the likes and spiritual needs of the audience. Many Qawwali performs don't like performing in auditoriums because the feel intimacy is compromised there.

At marfils, musicians often direct their music towards an experienced group of senior listeners, who often show their appreciation by throwing money on the stage or handing musicians gifts (“nazir”) in appreciation for a particular phrase or riff. These gifts date back to a time when they were the performers principal source of income.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997) was considered the greatest “qawwali” singer of his generation. He was praised by Western artists such as R.E.M. and Peter Gabriel, and worked with Ry Cooder, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Peter Gabriel. According to Newsweek Ali Khan "sang of god and love in a voice with seemingly infinite range and startling flexibility." He won a Grammy in 1996 for music for the film “Dead Man Walking”.


Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Ali Khan was a native of the Punjab. He was born in Faisalabad Pakistan on October 13, 1948. His family had been singing mystical Sufi poetry set to music for 600 years. His father was a famous classical Qawwali singer who sang with his brothers in a famous party. Nusrat's father wanted Nusrat to be a doctor or other kind of professional—anything but a musician. Against his father's wishes, Nusrat listened to his father's classes and practiced on his own. At the age of nine he already displayed extraordinary talent.

In 1965, a year after his farther’s death, Nusrat began singing professionally. He studied classical music and then joined a party led by his uncle. Another uncle taught him the art of qawwali. In 1971, after his uncle died, Nusrat began developing his own style. He listened at length to recordings of his father and uncles and speed up the tempo of his singing to make it more audience-friendly.

Nusrat quickly established himself as the greatest qawwali singer of his generation. He performed widely in Pakistan and India and toured Europe and the United States. As a young man Nusrat dreamed that he would become a Qawwali and perform at a shrine in which no Qawwali had ever performed before. In 1979 that dream came true when he became the first Qawwali to perform at Hzratja Khwaja Mohin-du-din Chishto in Ajmer, India.

Nusrat weighed 105 kilos and always carried a small handkerchief to wipe the sweat that accumulated on his brow during performances. He died of cardiac arrest at the age of 49 on August 16 1997. Newspapers in Pakistan and India took time out from commemorating their 50 years of independence to praise him.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Performance

Nusrat usually performed while sitting down on rug surrounded by piles of books filled with religious and romantic poetry. A poem dating back to the 14th century was the oldest song in his repertoire. New ones were added all the time. Nusrat's party often composed songs while they performed. They usually select a poem and then choose a raag and taal to go with it. By improvising the party finds out what works and what doesn’t. The song is continually improved over a series of concerts.


Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and friends

Nusrat's group often performed requests that the audience demanded, and sometimes repeated a particular phrase an audience liked over and over to establish the Sufi state of ecstacy. Concerts in Pakistan usually begin with classical songs and then move onto songs that emphasize the words. The audience often chants the lyrics and go into a trance.

Nusrat moved his hands and body as he sang, sweating a lot and frequently mopping his brow. He did this both to convey emotion and to provide conductor-like cues that the members of his party picked up on. Nusrat sang with "acrobatic agility" and a "raw, impassioned tone" according to the New York Times: "Whether he was repeating a refrain with ever-increasing intensity, streaking through elaborate zigzagging lines, letting loose a percussive fusliade or sustaining a climatic note, he made music that united virtuosity and fervor.”

Nusrat recorded music for Indian films and had his music remixed with techno beats. His fans shouted, threw money and leaped in the air in ecstatic burst when he sang. In a typical performance, drums, hand claps and harmonium push his voice ever upwards

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 \+/]


Salman Ahmad

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. \+/

Junoon, See Pakistan

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Salman Ahmad, You Tube

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). 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, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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