Listening and Understanding

In the early 9th century, when the Muslim mystics organised their Sufi brotherhoods or orders, they adopted music as a support for meditation, as a means of access to the state of grace or ecstasy, or quite simple as ‘soulfood’, in other words, something that would give new vigour to a body and soul tired by the rigours of the ascetic life. In Sufism the sama’ (meaning literally ‘listening’) denotes the tradition of listening in spiritual fashion to music, chanting and songs of various forms, all ritualised to a greater or lesser degree.

The very meaning of the word sama’ suggests that it is the act of listening that is spiritual, without the music or poetry being necessarily religious in content. Moreover this ‘listening’ can refer to any sound whether natural, artificially created, or artistic, as well as the ‘subtle’ sounds of the hidden world or of the cosmos in general. In its predominant sense, the word is synonymous with ‘understanding’, that is an understanding and acceptance of the call from God, which can lead as far as ecstasy, rapture, bliss, the unveiling of mysteries.

The major preoccupation of the Muslim mystics was to give the ecstasy a real content and the music a true meaning. They had also to reply to the doctors who tried to proscribe this practice, and put the novices who might think of it as pure entertainment on their guard. Some basic myths behind the practice were invoked, such as that of the Original Covenant (Alast) when God asked of Adam’s potential offspring trapped in his loins: “Am I not your Lord?” (alastu bi rabbikum), to which everyone in pre-eternity replied: “Yes, we do testify”.

Even now Mevlevi hymns still return an ecstatic reply to the sweet voice of the Creator, of Whom music is the allegory or metaphor. “Yes, my Beloved, yes my Lord, yes my Friend” (Bali Janam, bali Miram, bali Dust).

The first sama’ was attributed to the angels who used it to capture Adam’s soul in its state of bliss and confine it within his body. This myth has its absolute opposite when we remember that music can also enable the soul to escape the physical body and move outside the contingencies of time and space. Thus music is the vibrant echo of the divine verb, of angelic harmonies and sounds (the wind of paradise or the squeaking of its door) or of sounds from the cosmos (the music of the spheres). According to gnostic teaching, it is one of the elements in the essential order of the world and through its intervals, it draws its nature from the music of the spheres and the world of numbers, in other words, from the intelligible.

Certain great shaykhs only made moderate use of music, whereas others were passionate about the sama’ together with dance. Only a very few went so far as to advice against this practice and even the followers of the more sober trends of Sufism never actually spoke out against the practice of music in general, unlike certain ulema.

But what most of them did do, on the other hand, was to put great emphasis on the way of listening. In the great debate waged over the centuries between Sufis and more orthodox believers, about music, its legitimate status and proper use, the accent was always much more on the act of listening than on the music itself.

“You need to listen with your heart, rather than with your body” said Mawlana Rumi (d. 1273) speaking of the sama’. The same can be said about poetry, often set to music: “One should listen to these words with one’s heart and soul, not with the bodily self made of earth and water”, said ‘Attar. In concrete terms this means the dervishes are usually required to ensure a certain set of conditions so as to reap the fullest benefit from the sama’.

In Semnani’s (d. 1336) words, one must
– have given up the world
– have given up all desire
– have struggled against one’s overriding self
– practice the ‘remembrance’ or dhikr
– consider God to be present
– see everything with a pure eye.

There is also a right time, a right place, a right people; young people must not be allowed to take part, never force oneself to act or move, on the contrary one should remain utterly quiet, but as the Sufis or ‘sons of the moment’ recommend, always behave in the manner dictated by the moment (waqt)”.

All in all these recommendations would also seem to describe the optimum conditions for listening to music on a purely aesthetic level, for surely the experience of the beautiful and the experience of the holy are two paths that meet up on their way to perceiving the divine?