Music, Modern Muslims and Mysticism (Part 1)

Raahim Zafar 

Raahim Zafar studied International Relations, Arabic and French at St Andrews (2016-20) and was President of St Andrews Muslim Students Association in his final year. He writes poetry under his pen name Asrar Hayder (IG @asrarhayder).

Welcome to Coke Studio Pakistan, a fusion of old and new, catering for contemporary spirituality in the age of internet.

As I begin to write this, the sound of a modern Pakistani worship song resonates in the background. It is predominantly in Urdu, with a healthy sprinkling of Arabic, and the odd high register phrase that wouldn’t go amiss in a Persian poem. The producers, however, have kindly added English subtitles for the less linguistically blessed among us. Hence, any attempts to render the song into vaguely poetic English that follow are my own, but heavily supported by the provided subtitles.

“You are the Lord of the one who was chosen! You are the Lord of the one who was pleased!” Allusions are made to the personalities of Muhammad and his cousin Ali, the spiritual inheritor of the Prophet in Sufi-Sunni and Shi’i traditions. “The Ark of Noah, I am able to see– I am drowning in repentance’s sea.” A universal image of salvation is evoked, but how do we get there? Keep listening and the song will take you on that journey. “You are that very light blind to which I became; By sinning ignorantly and knowingly, nothing at all I gained.”

The video shows a live studio performance featuring a singer well-known for his pop music and another who is trained in the subcontinent’s classical music tradition. The set includes an acoustic guitar, cellos, violins, and a drummer who becomes less and less restrained as the piece unfolds. There is also a traditional subcontinental flute called a Bansuri and a two-hand drum known as Dholak. A supporting cohort of Sufi Qawwali singers are seated on the ground equipped with their masterful voices whilst a magnificent beard and two female singers come in as backing vocalists. Meanwhile, an electric guitarist dons oversized shades in poor indoor lighting. Some are dressed in traditional Pakistani clothes, some more elaborately embroidered than others, whilst others wear jeans and t-shirts.  Welcome to Coke Studio Pakistan, a fusion of old and new, catering for contemporary spirituality in the age of internet.

Did I mention the man clad in a leather jacket with the intractably deep voice who proclaims “Allahu Akbar” at regular intervals? God is the Greatest. Or, if we want to be more precise, “God is greater than description.” That is to say, in the words of a supplication by Zayn al-Abidin (as), the great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (saw), the reality of the divine is far beyond what descriptions can describe. Perhaps that is why musical tradition has never been too distant from those who devote themselves to God. Music is something that inherently possesses the power to rouse the dormant and transcendent which lie within all of us and allows us to experience that which we don’t fully grasp.

The mystics have held that the Supreme Reality cannot be comprehended through the intellect, but its reality can begin to be perceived through the heart – although still ever escaping the constraints of verbalisation. God’s unfathomable reality can be evoked through paradoxical language, confounding the intellect, but piercing the spiritual heart and providing the human being glimpses of His essence, such as the saying of Imam Ali (as): “God is with everything but not through conjunction [not as a second thing joined to it], and He is other than everything but not through separation.” (Reza Shah-Kazemi discusses this at an interfaith conference [Video], 2020). Echoing Biblical phraseology, the Quran too acknowledges God’s seemingly contradictory reality: “He is the First and the Last, the Manifest and the Hidden,” the latter half sometimes translated as “The Inward and the Outward” (Al-Hadid, 57:3 [Alternative Translations]). Beyond paradoxes, I have found that music, both the lyrical and the purely instrumental, is also something that can awaken in the human being this ability to, in the words of one of Zayn al-Abidin’s whispered prayers, “taste” the “sweetness” of divine love and experience the “intimacy of proximity” with God.

During the month of Ramadan (April-May 2020), I received a message on my poetry tumblr blog from someone who was struggling with their personal faith.  One of the things they said to me was, “I’ve even resolved never to listen to music again… but all my life, music and art have been something really really dear to me.” You may wonder why they’re thinking of dropping music from their lives? This comes off the back of an Islamic culture of knowledge that has historically been cautious of music and its permissibility- even suspicious of its potential perniciousness. Here is what I replied:

“Music… has played a part in my life. In fact, devotional music- in Urdu and English- laid the road for me to eventually come to find enjoyment in listening [to] and reciting the Quran and Duas [supplications to God]. I wouldn’t throw music out the boat completely, not all of it is forbidden, and a good deal of it can benefit you and raise your spirits and help fill your soul with the love of God. Especially if you don’t understand Arabic, or even if you do, listening to ‘religious music’ [in your own language] is often the first step I find people take and it’s one that benefited me no doubt.”

In fact, I mentioned later in the message that it’s remarkable that they had asked me about music that very day because, “I’ve felt a bit emotionally distant from God [recently] and things haven’t been clicking, I haven’t been connecting… Yesterday [at night between opening the fast and the beginning of the next one] I ended up putting on an Urdu Song about God… the song really struck me and I found that the gates of my heart just flung open.” In fact, I found myself in quite a state with tears streaming down my face. It was indeed the very same song that I have been listening to while writing this article…

[Part 2 to come]

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