Within the sayings and practices of both Sufism and music, one can find all the necessary conditions that are needed to cultivate higher states of observation and consciousness. Upon the attainment of these higher states, says scholar Irene Markoff, the seeker can finally achieve the desired “spiritual intoxication (wajd) and a unique and intimate union, even annihilation (fana’), in the supreme being.”
In Sufi music, this practice is known as Samāʿ (Arabic: “listening”). It is the mystical approach of practicing “listening” in order to achieve remembrance (Dhikr) of the divine spark in our heart of hearts. Through chanting — and while in a mystical trance — participants reinforce their ecstatic state with the aim of reaching a “direct knowledge (maʿrifah) of God or Reality (ḥaqq).”
According to the teachings of Sufi master and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan (Chishti Order and founder of Inayati Order of Universal Sufism), sound itself is so important to the process described above that the primary state of the soul itself is literally defined by it. As he writes in The Mysticism of Sound and Music, “Before its incarnation the soul is sound. It is for this reason that we love sound.”
The basis of this notion can be traced to the Vedanta, one of the six major philosophical systems (darshans) of India, which speaks of Nada Brahma, the Sound-God. As Khan says, “the sound that is God, of which all things are made.”
The above statement is an invitation for deep contemplation and one that led me to perceive Brahma not only as the divine word and the giver of all life, but as the lord of forms. This is an essential conclusion since the concept of harmony, as a concept, is primarily found in the symmetry and beauty of forms.
To summarize, we can view Brahma as the divine word, without which no form can exist, and thus no beauty or harmony can manifest in the cosmos.
In the world of science, the human voice is said to originate with the “spine, the diaphragm, the abdomen and the lungs.” But the mystic has a different approach – one based on instinct, feelings, intellect, and an undeniable reverence for the invisible, in which sound originates within “the soul, the heart, and the mind.”
Rhythm (The Law of Motion)
The law of motion lies at the heart of Creation, which is a dynamic environment and not a static one. Planets rotate around their own centers while circumambulating around others, and entire solar systems move harmoniously while positioned on the spires of galaxies. These, in turn, are part of bigger galactic clusters that also move together, and so on.
For the Sufi way, especially in music and dance, rhythm is not limited to ideas such as motion and progress, but also extends to ecstasy and intoxication. Motion in the universe means life, and rhythm is motion with pulse and force. This belief is based on self-evident truths, which the Sufi philosophers arrived upon after contemplation on nature’s laws. And they were not the only ones.
On the other side of the world, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (approx. 500 BC) spoke about logos (the word), and also believed that nothing remains the same. In Plato’s book Cratylus, we see the full extent of the above notion: “Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river.”
Vibrations and Polarity
In Sufism, this view of the universe and its ever-changing environment translates as the sustaining of life, while the opposite means death. This polarity of existence and non-existence is found across the creation at a micro and macro level. In musical terms, death would be equated with silence. In a philosophical context, and in relationship to music, this is best expressed through the phenomenon of vibration.
Vibration is an important and unique quality of motion, with its own characteristics and consequences. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as a “periodic back-and-forth motion of the particles of an elastic body or medium, commonly resulting when almost any physical system is displaced from its equilibrium condition and allowed to respond to the forces that tend to restore equilibrium.”
In my view, the most significant statement here is that the system is “allowed to respond to the forces that tend to restore equilibrium.” This is in perfect harmony with Sufi thought. It perfectly describes the process that matter uses to remain in perpetual motion by responding back to forces which want it to be silent and in its original state of peace.
To put it in simpler terms, vibrations are the forces that instigate the perpetual motion of matter, and rhythm is the particular flow of these forces at any given time. Both are essential to the process that will eventuate in what in my view constitutes the Cosmic Pulse.
In a musical context, that pulse represents the rhythm (or rhythms) that a musician uses to set the pace, and create the mood of a composition. On the other hand, vibrations are instantly produced at the moment the singer uses his or her vocal strings, the instrumentalist hits the strings of his or her instrument, and so on and so forth.
Harmony and the Music of Life
All the elements we have discussed need to come together, and be applied simultaneously, in order to contribute towards what in my view is the foundation of all beauty: harmony.
Musically speaking, harmony is the agreement of sounds, and as an extension of that, it is the unity in rhythm and the symmetry in form.
In our daily lives, this corresponds to the agreement of virtues, feelings, and thoughts within us. It is our duty towards our better health and wellness to strive to achieve a sacred symmetry between our mind, body, and soul.
Upon the achievement of this aim, we then ought to align our intellect with deity, nature, and society. This process, when it becomes second nature, manifests itself as beauty in our lives. It is only then that we can ‘play’ the inner Music of life.
Finally, this will allow us to unconditionally surrender ourselves to the Sufi way of the heart so that we can reach that ineffable beginning. Since it is next to impossible for me to put into words that which I play as a musician/guitarist, I will leave you with my favorite poem — “Music and Silence” — of Sufi master Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, and let the art speak for itself:
Lovers, union is here,
the meeting we have wanted,
the fire, the joy.
Let sadness and any fear of death
leave the room.
The sun’s glory comes back.
Wind shakes our bells.
We are counters in your hand
passing easily through.
Were you to put words with this
we would not survive the song.