The Role of Music and Dance in Sufistic Ritual Practice

Issue #2 • 3020

Come, let us cover all with roses And fill the glasses with wine, Shatter the heavenly vault And set a new foundation. If hosts of Sorrow come To spill the blood of lovers 1 will ally with the cup-bearer And we shall overthrow them. Take the sweet strings, Play the sweet song, my friend, For us to clap and sing, Loosing our minds in dancing.

Music and dance played a special role in the history of Sufism and in the evolvement of its various orders. In his verses Hafiz says that music and dance made him forget his sorrow and the pain of separation from the loved ones and come closer to the Truth, Harmony and Beauty.

On the one hand, the role of music and dance in ritual practice has always caused many debates; on the other hand, their practicing was not the least important factor that made Sufism popular nowadays. Sama’ ritual (ecstatic rite that involves dancing and listening to the music) of Mulavi brotherhood that developed in Turkey under immediate influence of Ottoman court etiquette is now performed on stage as the dance of whirling dervishes. A Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh AH Khan who has been trained to perform kakvali rite of Chishti order makes recordings all over the world and cooperates with American musicians in creating movie soundtracks. How these contemporary phenomena should be perceived given that role that music and dance played in medieval Sufistic tradition?

The practice of listening to the music and performing dances was not inherent in all Sufi persuasions. For example, brotherhoods such as Naqshbandi and Kadiri do not approve of these occupations (although there too had been some remarkable exceptions). At the same time, melodious recital of verses in Sufi circles was often accompanied by playing musical instruments and body movements, either spontaneous ones expressing the state of ecstasy, or measured ritual gestures.

A Sufi, being in the state of spiritual ecstasy focuses the attention of his heart on his Loved one, and his feelings for her become equal to the love for the Most High. Performing certain movements to the sound of rhythmical music he gives himself in self-denyal to the recalling of God. In this state a Sufi is at the height of “intoxication”, he does not remember anything else but God. All his senses and mind are turned to his Loved one, and he completely abandons and forgets himself. This practice requires special training, therefore not all apprentices participate in the sama’ ritual. As a psychophysical exercise it is accessible only to few, based on the judgment of the Spiritual Mentor who decides if there is a need in that. Sama’ can be identified with a medicine which is sometimes prescribed and sometimes prohibited. To psychologically and spiritually educate and supervise his disciples was the main duty of the Teacher. Going into ecstasy is not a mindless dancing, but a special kind of auto-training that is based on certain rules and psychological preparation.

When reaching ecstasy (vadj), Sufis make movements that resemble a dance; this is an indication of a very high degree of vadj. At this moment the body of the person performing the rite is possessed by the passion and striving for the Most High. Intoxicated by the Divine Love, he remains in the state of self-forgetting. Without any involvement of his will his feet may be stamping and hands clapping. This state is known as “The Unity Dance”.

In the dicta of the Prophet the involuntary movements of vadj are described as follows. Once the Prophet said to Ali, “You are mine, and I am yours”. When Ali heard this, elated, he went into vadj, and his feet began to involuntarily tap a rhythm. The Prophet once said to Jafar, the brother of Ali, “You are like me, both in appearance and character”. And Jafar also started stamping spontaneously (1).

The introduction of music and dance into the ritual of divine calling or zeal (sama’) was aided by the great sheikh Abu Saeed Abu-1-Kheyr. He was born on the first day of year 357 on Islamic calendar (967) in Meykhan, the city located on the plain of Khavaran in the vicinity of Serax, which is now on the territory of Turkmenistan on the border with Iran. Eventually he became a great poet and a well-known scholar whose company was sought by thinkers and statesmen. The fruit of his works are several hundreds of poems, various treatises and hundreds of disciples.

Abu Saeed believed that clapping and stamping may help young people to at least temporarily loosen the grip of worldly passions and desires. He used to say: “The nature of young people is such that they are not free from desires. Desires have power and control over them. If they clap their hands and stamp their feet, the intensity of their desires will decrease and they should be able to control their outward actions better. It is better to partially relieve oneself of the excessive intensity of emotions (in the name of God) in sama’ than to let them go out among people where these emotions can harm both a young man and people around him”.

Abu Saeed had played a prominent role in the development of Sufism; largely through his effort occasional meeting of the searchers with the master in private homes lead to the formation of universally accessible and organized Sufistic orders. His influence also extended over two different areas: disciplinary rales of behaviour in a khanaka as a special centre of Sufi life, and the introduction of music, poetry and dance as an integral part of Sufistic collective religious rite known as zikra or Divine Calling. His guidelines now referred to as “The Sayings of Bu Saeed” (Rosum and Bu Saeedi) were originally kept as a formalized set of rales passed on from generation to generation. In the 13th century these rales were translated into Arabic language, which facilitated their propagation in the Western part of Ismalic community.

Abu Saeed used poetry as means of teaching; he also included poetry into sama’ practice for spiritualization and bringing light into his disciples’ spiritual state. He created quatrains constantly and spontaneously just as Rumi did when he created the text of “Masnevi” right in front of his disciples who immediately wrote the text down after him.

Speaking about listening to verses, both sung and recited with instrumental accompaniment or without it, Sufis used the word sama’ (which literally means ‘hearing1, ‘heeding’). It turns out that the emphasis was placed more on perceiving rather than performing the music, which, according to custom, was the occupation of people of rather low social status usually hired actors and dancers.

A discourse on Sufi music should begin with the question of voice. Early theoreticians of Sufism were completely aware of the power of human voice that is capable of arousing vivid emotions. There are mafty examples demonstrating the great impact of voice during the reading of the Koran, when listing the Divine names, or reciting poetry. Numerous hadith tell us that prophets were distinguished by a beautiful voice of remarkable saturation. The legend has it that when David was reading psalms, four bodies had to be taken away – these were the Israelis who breathed their last during his recitals. A bad voice, on the contrary, should be shunned. The Koran says: “The most unpleasant of voices is the voice of an ass”. One of the most common examples of a powerful voice in Suflstic literature is the cry of a camel driver who is capable of urging the tired animals to strain and hold until they reach the point of mortal exhaustion. A lot is said about the impact of bird and animal cries, in which a perceptive listener can discern praise to God. In all discussions about Suflstic music the key point is the receptiveness of the listener.

Usually Suflstic texts argued that music was not permissible for all, thus admitting that music should be approached from the stance of Islamic law. Music, like everything else, should be assessed according to its moral sound.

Here is what Saadi wrote in his “Gulistan” poem (M., 1957) about potential spiritual state of a person when he is affected by the sound of music:
“Sama’ can be of four kinds. One is a legitimate kind, when the listener is completely absorbed in God and not at all absorbed in the material. The second one is permissible, when the listener is mostly absorbed in God and only a little bit absorbed in the material. The third is condemnable, when we are largely absorbed in the material and only a little bit in God. The forth is forbidden, when we are not at all absorbed in God and are completely absorbed in the material… Yet the listener should know the difference between the legitimate, the forbidden, the permissible and the condemnable. And that is the secret between God and the listener”.

As a well-known Arabic saying goes, music should be perceived depending on who by, when and where (makan, zaman, ikhwan – literally, place, time, brotherhood) it is performed. It should not be performed following any established routine, neither should it be accessible to spiritually immature individuals, nor should it be performed in public places that cannot be controlled. As one Sufi put it, “Sama’ is forbidden in the crowd, so that people may not loose their souls; it is permissible for ascetics so that they can attain the goal of their labours; and it is recommended to our fellows (Sufis), so that they can revive their hearts”. Therefore, listening to music was taken very seriously. Just like before making a payer, one had to make a lavabo first and put on clean clothes. As the verses recited at these gatherings could be interpreted in a primitive, mundane way, the newly converted were instructed to concentrate on their spiritual meaning. It is also important not to get distracted by the voice and appearance of the singer, as physical beauty can easily outweigh the search for beauty Divine. The perception of music was assessed primarily on the basis of how a person is listening because of sensual desire or because of his craving for God. Music cannot produce a spiritual impact without moral purification.

When sama’ is performed correctly, a person goes into the state of ecstasy (vadj). There had been a lot of heated debate as to how to tell a true ecstasy from a show. As the measure of participation in the musical gatherings is the purity of intentions, hypocrisy becomes a serious threat. In the communities where one’s prestige was built upon spiritual attainments, those unable to reach ecstasy were tempted to pose as those capable of it. Sufistic guidelines are full of menacing admonitions against these false claims. As an example, here is an extract from a 14th century Sufistic instructions:
“If it is known that a musical gathering involves any forbidden and illegal things, such as food provided by the unrighteous, the vicinity of women and the presence of adolescents with reprehensible things around (wine, for instance), or the presence of someone not associated with Sufis, such as a feigned ascetic who does not like music yet dares not reject it, or a powerful nobleman who has to be treated with respect for show, or the presence of a hypocrite who displays sham ecstasy and confuses the mind of the participants by his false ecstasy – in these situations the sincere aspirants should avoid attending such gathering”.

If musical hearings cease to be a gathering for the sake of listening to melodious recitations as means of knowing God, they turn into an ordinary aesthetic act and the indulgence of individual musical tastes. Ibn Arabi or Ibn al-Arabi (Mukhiddin Abu Abdallah Mukhammad b. Ali al-Khatimi at-Taee, 1165-1240), the greatest Sufi thinker who rationalized mystic experience of Sufism presenting it in the form of a majestic system of “Unity and Singularity of Existence” (vahdat al-vujud), was very critical of those who believed that mysticism is basically nothing else but enjoying music.

“God is not about desire. He denounces those who deride their religion, who is now a fan of music, the acolytes of drum and flute, let us run from licentiousness towards God! For there is no religion in a drum or flute or entertainment: religion is attained through the

Those who focus on the external manifestations of music, ignoring its inner form, fall into illusion; for Ibn Arabi the utmost form of spiritual zeal in sama’ is the concentration on the presentation of beauty in the Divine Revelation itself – the Koran. Most Sufistic guidelines require mental and physical composure from the beginner. Each participant of a zeal should try not to be distracted by other people’s actions. However, there were also other rules of listening to music: they show that musical gatherings could accumulate a significant emotional charge that had to be let out through a ritual. The most substantial of these rules concern the ways to tear clothes in ecstasy and how to distribute parts of clothing that retain the aroma of ecstasy.

Sufis themselves actively participated in disputes about the merits of music and “permissibility” of listening to it. Different treatises contained special sections dedicated to “listening” (sama’), which was understood as “sacred listening”. The main arguments of the Sufis were: (1) Allah could be heard, as the possibilities for the faithful to see Allah in Paradise arise from listening (Al-Khujviri, ?-1071), and Sufis also say, “Stitch your eyelids if you want to see Allah”; (2) Music is the manifestation of beauty and gracefulness of the hidden world beyond (salam al-gaib va-l-malakut), the continuation of that other world in the beauty of this world (salam al-mulk va-sh-shakhada), visible and tangible. It is presented as a great mystery, as the manifestation of the inner beauty of a deity; (3) In the world of sensations all fruits of divine beauty can “drive one’s soul into motion”, “be imprinted in man’s heart”, and “bring listeners into holy ecstasy”.

Manzura Ruzieva, Guli Salomova

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