The Sufi musical tradition, or Sama’, has been used as a way to connect with the divine for hundreds of years by incorporating poetry, song, and dance to praise God. For many mystics, this blend is the single most powerful link to God, and is considered an even more elevated form of worship than prayer. Religious music is no new concept and is practiced in both Western and Eastern cultures, but many Sufis believe that the practice can cause visions of God and transport both musician and audience into a new reality. Although Sama’ generally includes both auditory and kinetic features, the aural component is considered the more significant of the two; “Sama’” literally translates to “what is being heard”. Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet, was particularly inspired by the ritual and dedicated an entire chapter to the subject in his theological texts, translated into English and condensed in The Sufi Path of Love. According to Rumi, music is in the heart of the universe, or as he says, “melodies are derived from the turning of the spheres”. Sama’ and its intricacies are alluded to in numerous poems, functioning as an allegory for faith through themes such as silence, spirituality, and longing. Through poetry, Rumi presents his own personal theology of both the ritual and music itself.
Ironically, silence is the backbone of Rumi’s beliefs about music. He stresses the importance of being empty, quiet, and still to what seems almost like the point of death; in fact, in one poem, appropriately titled “Quietness”, he asserts that soundlessness is “the surest sign that you’ve died”. This is meant metaphorically and symbolizes the powerful spiritual connection formed with God after a period of meditation. Still, negative associations made from this rather macabre diction suggest that spiritual connection requires a total disconnection from life, as though the two are mutually exclusive. In the same poem, he describes the moon as “speechless” – a rather literal personification that encourages a desire to become like the moon – inanimate, soundless, and peaceful in comparison to man’s frantic, noisy life. Silence not only connects us to nature, but to the rest of humanity. The poem “Only Breath” begins with a list of a few of the most popular religions at the time and appears to be an invitation addressed to all human beings no matter what circumstances they may come from. Rumi implies that he is not really of any of these religions, and that religion and identity are only small attributes that contribute to a greater whole. He suggests that the only feature that all human beings share is breath – not belief, origin, or opinion. The act of breathing represents unity across cultures in a world where language was frequently an unbreakable barrier. Silence is, in essence, humanity. Rumi even goes so far as to say that speech corrupts the human spirit, as demonstrated by the allegory described the poem “Enough Words?”. A frog swimming in a pond can only escape the fatal snake by remaining completely noiseless. If it were to croak or even attempt to emulate the snake’s language, the snake would wake up. It can only reach the grain of barley it seeks, a symbol for enlightenment, through silence.
The paradox between Rumi’s love for music and appreciation for quietness is reconcilable upon closer inspection. Many of his poems are signed not with his name, but with “khamush”, or “silence”. Silence follows Rumi’s message as a reminder to take time to understand the true meaning of the poem. A period of interpretation and comprehension after reading and listening is crucial; inner reflection cannot take place until the external cacophony pauses or ends. The kind of silence Rumi values is not eternal; it is the quiet solitude of post-enlightenment. The poem that concludes the section titled “The Night Air”, published in Coleman Barks’ The Essential Rumi, pithily summarizes this idea:
“There is a way between voice and presence
where information flows.
In disciplined silence it opens.
With wandering talk it closes.”
The imagery of this flowing information is comparable to the flowing of a stream, dammed by “wandering talk” and opened only with “disciplined silence”. Perhaps a better name for Rumi’s “silence” is “space”, as it will always be surrounded by noise.
Sama’ involves a silence of the same variety. Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar, an award-winning Indian classical singer, remarks that in addition to the tone and rhythm of the male voice, an essential element of Sama’ is shanti, or silence. This is not limited to the silence that follows a piece (after the ring of the last note dies but before the applause), but the “silence” that occurs when the vocalist rests during the piece’s instrumental sections. Although the Sufi tradition relies heavily on improvisation, the song follows a general format consisting of instrumental improvisational sections that break up lyrical verses, as well as an instrumental intro and outro. In this way, Sama’ emulates this mystical value of silence; Rumi’s poems pay homage to the tradition and reflect the quiet solitude so essential to Sufi music.
Instrumental music does not come with the same implications as speech in Rumi’s works. Not once does the poet mention the importance of meditating on music in the same way that speech should be contemplated. This seems contradictory, considering that music and speech are essentially the same in that both are created by humans, for humans. Furthermore, there is not one specific song that everyone can identify with, unlike the universal breath. Still, Rumi seems to value music above speech, and in one poem urges his readers not to “open the door to the study and begin reading”, but instead “take down a musical instrument”. Rumi suggests that this creative outlet can be used as a means to praise God, not just to entertain man. Creation for its own sake transcends the boundaries of time, and the space needed in speech is no longer necessary. In a manner that recalls the comparison between man and the moon, Rumi likens the human spirit to birdsong in yet another poem. He expresses a longing for divine inspiration, so that he can become as “ecstatic” as the birds. Here, the birds’ song is not just mere chatter, but a product of their love for life. Music is a gift given by Allah to humans, and then back again. The conversation only ends once man stops listening to divine inspiration. Rumi’s music is actually very similar to silence; it is a reflection on His word, a tranquility that follows the act of listening. In “The Music”, Rumi writes that although he often forgets to listen, the inspiration never ceases. His music is both an apology and a sign of gratitude to Allah.
Once again, it cannot be a coincidence that music reflects core religious values, mainly the idea that “God will provide” as a result of prayer. While this cycle begins on man’s end with the song itself which acts as a symbol for prayer, rhythm symbolizes “flowing” divine inspiration. Sama’ cannot produce its ecstatic effect without its hypnotically steady beat. According to an article on the subject in the Indian Streams Research Journal, Sama’s “powerful rhythm [suggests] the ceaseless repetition of God’s name”. The rhythm section acts as a steady engine, keeping the beat consistent and stable throughout the song. Unlike most Eastern music, which makes use of complicated rhythms, Sama’ tends to be very minimalistic. Oftentimes, there is only one musician playing a rhythmic instrument; the majority of the rhythm section is made up of the handclaps of the resting musicians. Clapping drives the piece. While most Eastern music places its emphasis off the beat, the claps in Sama’ occur almost before the beat, and contribute to the forward-moving nature of the song. Similarly, God’s inspiration “makes the universe turn”. Both rhythm and divine inspiration are foundational elements in their own respects.
The relationship between the musician and the instrument is also a major theme in Rumi’s works. On the surface, this relationship is inconsistent with mystic culture, as Sufis generally practice asceticism. Still, in his poem “Constant Conversation”, Rumi characterizes the relationship between the musician and the instrument as almost sexual. The imagery of the reed’s lips joining with the flutist’s is remarkably intimate, as is the imagery of the the tambourine, which “begs” for the musician to “touch [its] skin”. Music is born out of this contact, and is, as a result, a kind of love-child. This profound relationship between instrument, man, and music is the reason Rumi does not regard the flute as a mere earthly possession.
In other poems, Rumi suggests that man and reed are one and the same. Similarly to how man creates a flute, Allah creates man. The poet is uncharacteristically literal about this parallel, even making a direct comparison between a reed and a human being.
A craftsman pulled a reed from the reedbed,
cut holes in it, and called it a human being.
The second stanza is much more metaphorical, and suggests a comparison between man and music through the personification of the flute.
Since then, it’s been wailing a tender agony
of parting, never mentioning the skill
that gave it life as a flute.
The flute wishes to return to the reedbed, almost as man wishes to return to God. The “wailing” symbolizes man’s discontent with earthly pleasures on his path toward the divine, as he neglects to appreciate the life he has been given. “The Reed Flute’s Song” equates music with man’s longing to be with Allah once again. The music mingles in the “laughing and grieving” of life as a presence that is not recognized by all, but is always there. It is difficult to hear the message, but those who do not want to hear the song are not worth Rumi’s time.
Those who don’t yearn to be reunited with God are unable to reach an elated state as well. In an article for the British Journal of Ethnomusicology, Leonard Lewisohn observes that the modern Sufi believes that this absence of yearning is often the reason opponents to Islamic music exist; the opponent’s desire to be with God is not strong enough to reach this state of ecstasy, and such an opponent is unable to truly understand Sama. “Hearing” and “listening” are two very opposite terms in Sufi music. To truly listen is to take part in the song, or as Rumi would say, to “become one” with it – hence the movement component of Sama’. One author says that the dance, or “whirling dervishes,” “should be performed with the entire soul, spirit, love, faith, material and spiritual being.” This seemingly random, rapid twirling motion is more than just an aesthetic component of Sama’; the spinning causes the soul to be hurled toward the sun and joined with God. If done right, the motions will bring the dancer to a state of pure bliss, a feeling stronger even than the emotions evoked by prayer. Sama’ is a literal expression of the same yearning for God that Rumi expresses in his poems.
It is unlikely that this parallel is a coincidence. As the famous Indian singer Tahir Faridi Qawwal said, “Beyond the literal translation of qawwali poetry, there is a profound world of spiritual & cultural metaphor which can take years to understand.” Behind its at times simplistic exterior, Rumi’s poetry provides layers of depth.