Sufi music: a beginner’s guide

Posted on July 21st, 2015 in Features, Recent posts by .

Islam is frequently portrayed as a religion that disapproves of music or even bans it outright. But for Sufis, the Muslim mystics, it’s their way of getting closer to God. Simon Broughton investigates Sufi music – and its message

Peaceful, tolerant and pluralistic. It’s not the image of Islam predominantly presented by the Western media. But it is the essence of Sufism – and its music is some of the most uplifting in the world. Unfortunately it’s hardline Islam that grabs the headlines and gets powerfully propagated around the world. Sufism takes many forms, but unlike the fundamentalists, the Sufis aren’t politicised and, their music aside, represent a silent majority who uphold tolerance and love. From West Africa to Indonesia there are hundreds of millions of Sufis. Clearly, with its message of peace, Sufism is needed more than ever right now and its ecstatic music can be heard increasingly on concert platforms, but most excitingly at religious shrines across the Islamic world in Morocco, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. This is a guide written by a non-Muslim, from a musical rather than spiritual point of view, looking at just some of the highlights. Islam is obviously central to the music, but just as you don’t need to be Christian to enjoy gospel or JS Bach, Sufi music has an undeniable power that transcends religious boundaries.

Woolly beginnings

Exactly when and where Sufism started is difficult to say, but Islam and Christianity share roots in the deserts of the Middle East. Suf is Arabic for wool and the name suggests that the woollen clothes worn by the Christian desert fathers and mystics who sat on pillars and occupied caves during the Byzantine period were adopted by the first Sufis after the coming of Islam in the seventh century. The mystical veneration of local saints and holy men as intermediaries between man and God is an important part of Sufi practise and the music adopts its own local forms across the Islamic world. Because Sufi thought is commonly expressed through mystical poetry, there are broad linguistic territories in which particular figures are admired – for instance in the Arab world Ibn Arabi and Ibn Al-Farid; in the Persian world Attar, Rumi and Hafez; in the Indian subcontinent poets like Amir Khusrau, Baba Bulle Shah and Shah Abdul Latif.

Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes

If there’s one figure who transcends these boundaries and has also become the best-known Sufi in the West, it’s Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) or Mevlana. The fact that he was the best-selling poet in the US in the 90s demonstrates his appeal. Rumi is the most universal of Muslim thinkers and his insistence that God is located in the human heart means you don’t need ritual to reach him. He’s as accessible to Christians and Jews as he is to Muslims. Musically Rumi is important for his mystical verses about the ney, the reed flute whose breathy tones make it the quintessential spiritual instrument in Turkish music, and as the founder of the Mevlevi, the famous Whirling Dervishes.

Rumi, born in Central Asia, lived and preached in Konya, the Seljuk capital (now in Turkey) where his shrine is now a place of pilgrimage. Music was central to Rumi’s philosophy and teaching. His most famous poem, the Mesnevi, opens with the sound of the reed flute. ‘Listen to the ney, crying out and lamenting its separation from the reed bed.’ It’s a poetic symbol of man’s separation from God. As ney player Kudsi Erguner explains:  “The ney must be animated by breath. A human being is the same, empty without the breath of God within him. That’s why in Mevlevi ceremonies the ney becomes the breath that invokes the name of God.”

It’s said that Rumi first started whirling to the sound of goldsmiths’ hammers in the Konya bazaar. What inspired him was not the formalised, classical music that accompanies the sema ritual today, but something much more elemental.

The sight of the ritual is certainly a spectacular and uplifting one. After ceremonially greeting the sheikh who presides over the sema, the dervishes throw off their dark cloaks to reveal their white whirling robes and start to spin anticlockwise. The right hands of the dervishes face up and the left hands down, as if to convey the spiritual energy from above to the earth. “The whirling ritual isn’t a dance, it’s a prayer,” says Nail Kesova, sheikh at the Galata lodge, historically the most important in Istanbul. “Everything is whirling in the world from the smallest cell up to the galaxies of the universe. Everything is turning. Our whirling is to join this universal prayer.” The atmosphere of the sema is formalised and controlled. “We are in ecstasy,” explains Kesova, “but we don’t lose consciousness. You observe the separation of your spirit from your body, but you remain conscious.”

The Mevlevi Sufis spread thoughout the Ottoman Empire and became particularly powerful in Istanbul where some of the Ottoman Sultans were amongst the devotees. Gradually a body of Mevlevi music built up, much of it composed by musicians at the court. The instruments used are those of the Turkish classical tradition with the ney playing a leading role plus rebab (fiddle), ud (lute), tanbur (long-necked lute), kanun (zither) and the distinctive kudum drums, like small timpani. The most celebrated composer of Mevlevi music was Ismail Dede (1777-1845) who composed the music for seven sema rituals. At the end of the 19th century there were over 700 Sufi lodges in Istanbul and it’s hard to under-estimate the importance of the Sufis – especially the Mevlevi – in Turkish culture.

After the founding of the Turkish republic, Atatürk banned the Sufi lodges in 1925 partly because of their close links with the Ottoman regime, but mainly because they didn’t fit with his idea of a modern secular state. Things eased in the 50s and annual sema ceremonies were started in Konya, initially for tourist purposes, to mark the anniversary of Rumi’s death. All Sufi shrines have these annual celebrations, but, like Ramadan, they move according to the Muslim calendar. However, as a secular state, Turkey fixed Rumi’s anniversary on December 17th, the day it fell in the year he died, 1273. So unlike the equivalents in Pakistan or Morocco, the Rumi celebration is fixed in the Western calendar.

It’s ironic that Turkey uses Whirling Dervishes extensively in its tourist promotions, when Sufism is still technically banned. The beautiful Galata lodge in Istanbul is a museum with Whirling Dervish presentations each weekend. There are other Sufi lodges in Istanbul which survive under the category of ‘museum’, but more religious in atmosphere. And there are many groups of Sufis who meet ‘underground’.

Reconnecting a younger generation with Sufi tradition is the club Sufi Mercan Dede who, using Rumi as an inspiration, fuses the ney with electronic beats and whirling. He’s enjoying a cult success in Turkey and festivals worldwide.

Pakistan and India

While Sufism remains rather hidden in Turkey, it is omnipresent in Pakistan. There’s music at shrines on a weekly basis at least, on a Thursday evening (the eve of the Muslim holy day), and the annual urs (spiritual union) celebrations attract literally thousands of people. Sufism – and its music – is credited with spreading Islam to a predominantly Hindu population in the Indian subcontinent from the 13th century.

The best-known Sufi music from Pakistan and India is qawwali, which was popularised worldwide by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997). Over pulsating tablas, vigorous handclaps and harmoniums, the qawwals’ voices soar like birds in flight. Nusrat believed in spreading the Sufi message by popular qawwali fusions like Mustt Mustt (Real World) and also recorded music for Bollywood and Hollywood films.

Qawwali was created by the poet and musician Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), disciple to the Sufi master Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi. Qawwali has become the predominant Sufi music across North India and Pakistan. Khusrau’s qawwalis are still sung regularly at the Nizamuddin shrine in Delhi by the Nizami family, who’ve been resident there for 668 years. The music usually begins with composed sections of set verses, but then moves into faster, freer sections where the singers repeat the name of God or other saints, like Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed.

There are many magnificent qawwali groups in Pakistan – two of them related to Nusrat. His nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan performed regularly with Nusrat from a young age and has become a charismatic singer busy on the shrine circuit in Pakistan. The younger nephews in Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali are better known in the West having performed regularly at WOMAD and recorded for Real World. The Sabri Brothers, Mehr and Sher Ali and Bahauddin Qawwal are also highly recommended.

Other Sufi music in Pakistan

The most celebrated Sufi singer in Pakistan is now Abida Parveen, virtually the only woman in the genre. She’s frequently compared to Nusrat and her live performances are usually sensational as she works her audience into a frenzy. She shakes her head, hair flying, throws up her hands and then holds a note for what seems like minutes on end. Her father was a singer at Sufi shrines, particularly at urs celebrations, and she has followed in his footsteps. “God’s light is spotlighting the saint,” she says, “and when the poetry is sung it’s like a medication for humanity. The poetry is a conversation between God and man.”  She sings a form of music called kaafi – solo songs backed by harmonium and tablas – in Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi.

Sindh, the southern province of Pakistan, is much poorer than Punjab, but contains even more Sufi shrines. The beautiful blue-tiled shrine of Shah Abdul Latif in Bhitshah is home to a remarkable musical tradition. Abdul Latif (1690-1752) was a poet and musician, often called the Rumi of Sindh and influenced by his work. He founded a music school and created an instrument called the danbur with five strings, a large belly and a long neck (the 18th century original survives at Bhitshah). They held night-time music sessions, intoning his poetry in an intense falsetto as they beat and plucked the danbur. Musicians have performed this music at the shrine every night since Abdul Latif died in 1752. “This is the only music in which there has been no change,” claims Khan Mohammad Fakir. “All others in the world have changed over time but not this.”

In Lahore, the Sufi minstrel Sain Zahoor sings some of the most beautiful music you could wish to hear at a Punjabi shrine. With multi-coloured tassles, he carries a one-stringed ektara which he plucks to accompany gorgeous love songs to God. He sings into the small resonator on the instrument and his voice seems to float in the warm evening light. The music is simple, but encapsulates the feeling of peace, tranquillity and benign warmth that you so often find at these shrines. By contrast there’s a drumming tradition using the dhol drums that provide the familiar beat of bhangra music. The Baba Shah Jamal shrine hosts an incredible ritual performed by pairs of drummers with huge dhols slung round their necks. Brothers Gonga and Mithu Sain raise the temperature with thunderous drumming until Gonga, with sweat pouring down his dreadlocked hair, starts to whirl around. The drum lifts off his chest as he turns faster and faster still playing as he spins. It’s thrilling and terrifying as it would be death by dhol if the string broke and the drum hit you. While qawwali music is magisterial and sophisticated, this is wild and raw.

Finally the celebrated drummer Pappu Sain plays and devotees whirl in abandon. It’s like coming full circle to the Whirling Dervishes – not the classical refinement of the Ottoman court, but Rumi at his most elemental.

The Arabic World

Some of the earliest accounts of Sufism come from ninth century Baghdad and describe love songs (to the divine) and whirling. While we can’t report on the current state of Sufism in Iraq, it’s important to point out that it transcends the Sunni/Shia divide. Sufi shrines are found in both Sunni regions (like Morocco) and Shia regions (like Iran) and there are shrines in Pakistan frequented by both. However, the Wahhabis, who came to power in Arabia in the early 19th century and are the progenitors of today’s fundamentalists, strongly disapprove of Sufism for its veneration of saints and music. They’ve destroyed Sufi shrines in Arabia and in Karbala, Iraq. The centres of Sufism in the Arab world are now Syria and Egypt. In Aleppo, Syria, the old city shelters hundreds of shrines where different brotherhoods will gather on different days of the week to hold a zikr (or dhikr), an ‘evocation’ of God. To the beating of drums, devotees will chant the name of Allah and other phrases over and over again, heaving their bodies back and forth and side to side. Hyperventilation, as well as the drumming and spiritual release, can induce a state of ecstasy. So-called munshid singers sing devotional songs. Aleppo’s most celebrated Sufi singer is Sheikh Habboush who holds a zikr every Wednesday evening. He has a voice and delivery which goes straight to the heart, whether or not you understand the words. He’s frequently travelled abroad with the Al-Kindi Ensemble taking Aleppo Sufi music on tour.

In Egypt the veteran star is Sheikh Yasin Al-Tuhami. He’s a Sufi munshid who performs at religious festivals and private celebrations from Alexandria to Aswan. He has the exquisite vocal ability of a classical singer with a dynamic and popular touch accompanied by a traditional ensemble of kemanja (fiddle), ney, qanun (zither) and percussion.  Around Port Said on the Suez Canal, there’s a unique style of music which is unknown abroad and little-known even in Egypt. Suhbagiyya musicians play Sufi songs and folk music accompanied by wonderful Pharaonic-looking lyres called simsimiyya, drum and tambourine percussion and handclaps. The band Al-Tanburah – recent collaborators with One Giant Leap – plays some of the funkiest Sufi music anywhere.


What gives Sufi music its tremendous variety is the way it absorbs regional musical traditions. Morocco is where the Mediterranean meets Africa and this cultural collision characterises its distinctive sounds and practices. Gnawa music is the best-known of these Moroccan styles. It is a real fusion as the Gnawa were brought to Morocco as slaves from sub-Saharan Africa. Their trance-inducing music is characterised by the deep, meaty plucking of the guembri and clacking of metal krakesh castanets. It’s been influential in popular music – thanks to Morocco’s most successful band Nass El Ghiwane and other fusion groups like Jil Jilala and Nass Marrakech. The Gnawa are celebrated for the healing powers of their music and all-night lila rituals and the way they communicate with the djinns or genies said to influence our lives. What’s remarkable, though, is many Moroccans will hesitate to call the Gnawa Sufis at all. Given that Gnawa rituals are laced with prayers to Allah and the Prophet, this amounts to racism and a feeling that the Gnawa are somehow ‘other’. Many aspects of the Gnawa rituals have been adopted by other Moroccan brotherhoods, notably the Aissawa, the most popular Sufi brotherhood in the country. They have the most spectacular music with wooden oboes wailing serpentine melodies over a thundering bed of frame drums and skin-covered pots. At key moments pairs of lengthy trumpets are blown and the players wave their bells around to dramatic sonic effect. The Aissawas, the Gnawa and other brotherhoods like the Jilala are also called on to put people into trance as a form of spiritual healing. It’s a regular practise at religious festivals or moussems.

Sufism is an important part of Moroccan religious life. Yet these loud and brash forms of Sufi music are only a part of the picture. There are also brotherhoods like the Qadiris and Tijanis who see themselves as more intellectual and refined and disapprove of the popular, folk-style brotherhoods. Others, like the Darqawi, have inherited the Arab-Andalus music of Moorish Spain where Sufism flourished in the pluralistic culture until 1492.

Ironically, while Morocco is a country politically open to the West, it’s one of the few where the mosques and shrines are closed to non-Muslims. This means that the Fes Festival of Sacred Music is one of the few opportunities non-Muslims have to experience first-hand the music of Moroccan Sufis. The festival was the brainchild of Faouzi Skali. “I wanted to create a place where people could meet and discover the beauty of each religion and culture on an equal footing. So in Fes people can see another image of Islam.” An increasingly popular part of the festival are the free Sufi Nights where different Moroccan Sufis sing and play their music. In a way these Sufi Nights have become symbolic of what Sufism offers on a wider level in the Islamic world. A pluralistic, non-dogmatic way in which anyone can feel closer to God through music. With extremism and terrorism dominating the headlines, never has that been more important than today.

This article originally appeared in Songlines #33 (Nov/Dec 2005). For more information about Songlines Magazine, visit: subscribe to Songlines.

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