"Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened," noted the great Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi in the 13th century. "Don't open the door to the study and begin reading," he writes. Instead, "Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do."
Sufism is the mystical and ancient branch of Islam that emphasizes the seeker's path toward ecstatic unity with God. This path is opulently embroidered with many means to "remembering God," or dhikr (also transliterated as zhikr), including chanting the names of God, prayer, meditation, poetry, Qur'anic recitation, praise and music.
While "orthodox" Islam looks down on music, many Sufi traditions seek to utilize its emotive and communal power towards the goal of dhikr. Frequently, a spiritual leader or sheikh (called a pir in certain languages) will lead disciples in these practices in communal rites of remembrance. One central form of group dhikr is called sama'. While sama' literally means "listening," it has the connotation of a spiritual concert of sacred music, often with dance.
Sufi communities or orders are found throughout the Muslim world, from South and Central Asia through Turkey, Iran, the Levant and northern, eastern and western Africa. With that wide a geographical and cultural spread for Sufism itself, Sufi musical practice is itself equally diverse. Each Sufi order or brotherhood has its own traditions, and forms of Sufi practice vary greatly from region to region. It's not surprising, then, to find that Sufi musical forms are wildly distinct and varied; to the newcomer, it might even seem quite startling to discover that, for example, qawwali from Pakistan and India is linked spiritually and historically to, say, the "whirling dervishes" of Turkey or the Wolof-language praise songs from Senegal. However, all these different facets of ritual and performance have the same goal in mind: to lose oneself in remembering God and in drawing closer to the divine.
The Network label from Germany has released some excellent recordings of Sufi music, including the two-CD titles Echoes du Paradis: Sufi Soul and Hommage a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, both of which include performances by top artists from across the Sufi world. The French label Le Chant du Monde also has an excellent catalog of sumptuously packaged sets of Sufi music with excellent liner notes, including Syrian-focused recordings like The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus: Sufi Liturgy of the Great Ummayad Mosque, featuring Sheikh Hamza Shakkur and the Ensemble Al Kindi, and Aleppian Sufi Transe, with Sheikh Habboush and the Ensemble Al Kindi.
Another wonderful Chant du Monde release with many fine Sufi performances is their double-disc set of recordings made live in Morocco in 2001 at the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music. For a more "modern" take on Sufi dhikr, try Ocean of Remembrance: Sufi Improvisations & Zhikrs (Interworld), led by Turkish clinical psychologist and music therapist Orüj Güvenç, a member of the Mevlevi Sufi order. Anastasia Tsioulcas