“There are many ways to the divine, I have chosen the path of song, dance, and laughter,” said Mevlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, popularly known as Rumi.
Sufism is at the heart of Islam, and music is at the heart of Sufism.
Anyone who is slightly familiar with the mystical dimensions of Islam knows about the soul-stirring ecstatic music, that brings forth the intense longing to be one with the creator.
The acts of listening, chanting, and whirling to divine music are integral to Sufism. No one exactly knows, the birthplace of Sufism but over the time every culture has developed its form of expression through various musical genres and poetic way. Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Persia, Uzbekistan, and India, all have their own form, styles, and language.
Many will be surprised to know that the first Sufi poet was Rabia of Basra who added the element of love and mysticism to the concept of the divine. She was a slave girl who was set free by her master as he saw her engrossed in the single-minded devotion of one God. She was once carrying a burning torch in one hand and a jug full of water in the other. When asked why was she carrying both, she answered, ‘I want to throw fire into Paradise and pour water into Hell, so the difference between the two disappear. It should become clear that God should be worshipped out of love, not out of fear of Hell or hope for Paradise.
It is said that when Rumi heard the hammering of metal utensils in a street shop, he got carried away with the rhythm and broke into the whirling. It is said that whirling connects the human being to the creator.
In this world, everything whirls, from the cell in our body to our planet and this galaxy. One can see a similar notion in the Hindu philosophy. Shiva, the lord of destruction, is in an untamed, passionate, and continuous dance for creating a balance in the universe.
One can learn more about Sufism in a documentary by William Dalrymple.
Iranian movie, ‘The Silence’ by Mohsen Makhmalbaf is a lusciously beautiful and deeply philosophical film with surreal Sufi music and message. The movie is set in a village in Tajikistan.
The film is based on the life of a ten-year-old blind boy, Khorshid. Khorshid has an ear for music, rhythm, and harmony. He can hear music everywhere and in everything, which penetrated his soul. He had a deep personal connection with music and music set him free, but his feet were entangled in the world.
The movie starts with a buzzing sound of his pet bee. The bee is about to fly, and the little boy prays to Allah for the bee’s safe journey. His mother walks in and tells him to arrange money for the landlord to pay rent.
He lives alone with his mother and is the sole earning member. He works for a musical instrument shop in the city. Every day he makes a long journey by bus to the shop. On the way, he selects bread and fruits for his day. He picks bread from the girl who has the sweetest voice but has a dry bread. He buys cherries from the girl, whose skin is peachy to touch. Even the falling of cherries from the basket on his bread lightens up the face of Khorshid.
On the bus, he keeps his ears closed with his fingers; otherwise, he gets lost or drifts along with the sound of music. This also points towards the opinion that music is forbidden in Islam. This also has philosophical underpinning that we can not shut the voice of our heart for very long.
This could be a metaphor for how beauty and harmony are everywhere, we need an open heart to feel and experience it.
The movie is sprinkled with rich and mesmerizing Tajik culture, young girls in beautiful attire and Sufi music and symbolism.
In the bus, two school-going girls are learning the poem:
Speak no more of what happened yesterday
Don’t worry about what happens tomorrow
Do not rely on the future or the past
Seize the moment do not waste time
Khorshid learns the poem instantly. The two girls were surprised as to how a blind boy could learn the poems in minutes. Khorshid says, ‘Eyes distract you, if you close the eyes, you learn better.’
Life is hard for the little boy as he continuously tries to strike a balance between his passion, which is music and his duty to support his mother.
The most beautiful part of the movie was Nadira’s mesmerizing extempore dance. She is Khorshid’s friend and companion who helps him in tuning the music instruments.
The movie has some brilliant pieces of music and a couple of songs. My personal favorite is the following as it summarizes the whole of Sufi philosophy.
Don’t go astray, don’t go astray!
The pilgrim and dwelling both are me;
The trap and bait are also me;
The wise and fool are me too
The master is me and
the enchained man is also me;
The master of my destiny is also me;
Don’t go astray, don’t go astray!
This a not an ordinary musical film but an extraordinarily beautiful and enchanting philosophical lesson on following our passion in spite of all adversities.
Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai was a 17th century, Sindhi folk poet whose work has been compiled in Shah Jo Risalo. The Risalo has been written in a poetic form. Even after centuries, his poems that tell stories are quoted and sang across India and Pakistan. The most popular is the love story of Sohni, daughter of a potter and Mahiwal, son of a trader from Uzbekistan. On the surface, it may look like any romantic story, but deep hidden are many existential and philosophical questions.
Ultimately, there is no greater joy than tasting the divine nectar, and there is no better way than expressing it musically.