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Sufi Soul

First shown on Channel 4 in November 2005

The Mystic Music of Islam

Sufi Soul

Channel 4's fascinating programme, Sufi Soul: the Mystic Music of Islam, presented by William Dalrymple, shows a side of Islam that is a complete contrast with the frightening and negative images of the post-9/11 world. Far from depicting a ‘clash of civilisations’, Dalrymple points out that where Sufism is concerned the clash is more within Islam as the peace-loving, pluralistic and tolerant traditions of most Sufis find themselves at odds with and hounded by the puritans of political Islam.

Many of the Muslims most familiar to non-Muslims in Britain today were Sufis: poets such as Rumi, Al-Ghazali, Omar Khayyam; thinkers such as Ibn al-Arabi; and singers such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It is a measure of the Sufi message of universalism that their works continue to find audiences outside the Muslim world and in modern times.

Women's voices

Not so widely known is the contribution of women Sufis. One of the earliest and most revered is Rabia al-Adawiyya (717-801 CE). She is often credited with developing a concept central to Sufi poetry – of referring to God as the Beloved. One of the many stories about Rabia, noted by Leila Ahmed in Women and Gender in Islam, has her carrying a torch and ewer through the streets of Basra one night, 'intent on setting fire to paradise and pouring water on the flames of hell, so that those two veils should drop away from the eyes of the believers and they would love God for his beauty, not out of fear of hell or desire for paradise'.

Today, Sufism is credited with playing a major role in attracting more women than men to Islam as new Muslims, including leading figures such as Britain’s Irina Tweedie.

Hidden depths

But it would be wrong to see Sufism as the touchy-feely, New Age version of Islam. While its dynamic and diverse musical traditions have made it accessible and meaningful to a wide audience within and beyond the Muslim world, as with mystical traditions in all religions, the pursuit of unification with the divine brings the rigorous demands of asceticism and contemplation, abandonment of materialism and of the self. As young Turkish techno-beat Sufi DJ Mercan Dede points out in Sufi Soul, most who access Sufism are just dabbling on the shores of its oceans.

Not all Sufis are peace-loving either. In Central Asia, Sufi orders – tariqa – have for centuries been the only force to offer serious military opposition to infidel outsiders, from Mongols to the Soviets. They continue the tradition in Chechnya today, with some groups intent on establishing a theocratic state. In Britain, some of the bitterest clashes between Muslim groups for control over mosques in the 1980s took place between various Barelwi groups, many of whom are associated with Sufi orders.

Political challenge

Sufism has also been deeply political. During the period of regressive ‘Islamisation’ led by Pakistan’s military rulers in the late 1970s and '80s, the words of local Sufi poets such as Bulleh Shah (1680-1758) provided hope, inspiration, and a source of resistance. Much of his poetry decries the ritualism of formal Islam and its mullahs: 'if meeting God were just a matter of being all washed and clean (a reference to the Muslim pre-prayer ritual washing), then frogs and fish would be closest to God…'

In today’s polarised world, a religious practice that welcomes people of other faiths at its shrines and that also accepts Muslims praying at shrines to the Virgin Mary becomes a political statement – even if unintended.

Appeal to the people

By emphasising the divine in all aspects of life, Sufi thinkers, poets and musicians have inevitably remained close to the people. What stands out in Dalrymple’s journey across Syria, Turkey, Pakistan and Morocco in Sufi Soul is the appeal Sufism continues to hold for ordinary working men and women, on account of its fusion with local culture, syncretic traditions and the psycho-spiritual relief it brings.

But the Sufi voice is increasingly under challenge within the Muslim world and beyond. For example, the Bangladesh government has allowed the registration of cases against traditional Sufi baul singers under religious incitement laws, and the more pluralistic approach of Sufism does not easily lend itself to 6 o’clock news soundbites. But perhaps the enduring power of Sufi music will drown out the less tolerant interpretations and visions of Islam.