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  • UNESCO Collection Week 28: Sufi Ritual Music and Practice

    This week’s UNESCO releases offer a glimpse into two musical traditions arising from Islamic mysticism (Sufism), respectively focusing on the instrumental music of the Mevlevi Order, whose practitioners are best known as whirling dervishes in The Turkish Ney, and the group "remembrance" of the Rifa'I Order in Syria: Islamic Ritual Zikr, recorded in 1973, which features the Brotherhood of Aleppo, a city which is now a major battleground in the Syrian conflict.


    By James Mayer

    The Turkish Ney and Syria: Islamic Ritual Zikr, recorded in 1990 and 1973 respectively, offer two examples of the diverse musical traditions of Sufi Islam. The role of music and dance in Islam has been a hotly contested issue since the religion’s earliest days; some legalists argue that sema (“listening” or “audition”—also the name of the Mevlevi ceremony featuring the Turkish ney flute) constitutes immoral amusement.1 In many Sufi orders, however, music plays an essential role in ritual, practice, and community building. While the music from the sema and zikr rituals is strikingly different, both utilize music and ritualized movement to empower participants to achieve transcendence or mystical union with God.

    As commentator Christian Poche states in the liner notes to Syria: Islamic Ritual Zikr, one of the best-known thinkers to illustrate the importance of music and dance to Muslims is the twelfth-century scholar al-Ghazzali, who posited that the study of text alone is not sufficient preparation for spiritual union with God. Music and dance—and the rituals associated with them—are necessary tools to prepare for the mystic experience. These albums represent two fascinating Sufi rituals that ready participants for the metaphorical journey toward union with God. The music of Islamic Ritual Zikr and The Turkish Ney makes for an interesting listen, even without any historical or cultural background, yet it is difficult to separate the music from the ritual. As argued by Jonathan Shannon in his article “The Aesthetics of Spiritual Practice and the Creation of Moral and Musical Subjectivities in Aleppo, Syria,” the music and physical aspects of Sufi rituals help elevate the mind to a state of transcendence by altering the participant’s perception of time and movement. The ritual is integral to understanding the music, just as the music is essential to properly executing the ritual.

    In the context of Islam, zikr refers to a ritual invocation of God through prayer, ritualized motions, and the repetition of God’s names: meditating on the power and omnipresence of God.2 The rituals associated with the music from Islamic Ritual Zikr—zikr and the more extreme-sounding darb-shish (“piercing with sword”)—are characterized by recitations from the Qur’an and the repetitive chanting of several prayers and verses, as participants experience melodic elevation and rhythmic acceleration, gradually altering their perception of time and deepening their awareness of the divine. In Aleppo, the ritual is known to occasionally inspire participants to perform feats such as chewing glass or getting pierced by a sword.

    At first listen, the Aleppo zikr does not seem to have a great deal in common with the Mevlevi sema, recorded on The Turkish Ney. Islamic Ritual Zikr is primarily vocal: chanting (punctuated with the occasional scream as masters pierce themselves on the shish) accompanied by swelling drumbeats. The participants provide their own music as they perform the ritual. Meanwhile, The Turkish Ney highlights the delicate melodies of the ney, or reed flute, which is the principal instrument used by Mevlevis in their sema ceremony. The sema usually features Turkish classical music performed by a professional orchestra, not by the participants themselves.

    On the other hand, both the zikr and the traditional Mevlevi semas feature ritualized movement set to music, which allows participants to achieve mystical union with the divine presence. While participants in the Aleppo zikr crowd the zawiya (Sufi lodge) shoulder-to-shoulder and sway from left to right in unison, the Mevlevi sema is the famous ceremony of the “whirling dervishes”—an elaborate, highly formalized ritual that has become a tourist attraction throughout Turkey.

    Despite the differences in the music of the two rituals and in the details of executing the rituals, both the Aleppo zikr and the Mevlevi sema empower participants to dwell upon divine power and the unity of existence, and to express their relationship to God. As al-Ghazzali wrote, “The flute is a reference to the human essence…and the breath which penetrates the flute is a reference to the light of God penetrating the reed of man’s existence…and the dancing is a reference to the circling of the spirit round the cycle of existing things…”3 Additionally, both rituals serve as mechanisms for preserving and passing on the traditions of Sufi music and practice, as well perpetuating community and identity. Indeed, the Mevlevi sema has been inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. These albums inspire exploration into the rich and diverse traditions and cultural heritage of Sufi Islam.

    James Mayer is Strategic Communications Assistant at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He was a Fulbright Fellow in Konya, Turkey for the 2011-2012 academic year.

    1 Amnon Shiloah, “Music and Religion in Islam.” Acta Musicologica 69, no 2 (1997): 143-144. [And] Jonathan Shannon,“The Aesthetics of Spiritual Practice and the Creation of Moral and Musical Subjectivities in Aleppo, Syria.” Ethnology 43, no 4 (2004): 387.

    2Christian Poche, liner notes to Syria: Islamic Ritual Zikr, UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music, 1975, compact disc

    3Amnon Shiloah, “Music and Religion in Islam.” Acta Musicologica 69, no 2 (1997): 151.

    UNESCO Collection Week 28: Sufi Ritual Music and Practice | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings