What is Sufism?
Sufism is Islamic Mysticism, it is a tradition bound into the history of Islam and an element within it dating back to its foundation. Its focus is upon devotion, contemplation, learning, and creativity. It is not a sect or a tendency, it is a dimension of Islam, the spiritual interiority of the faith, akin to Zen in Buddhism, and manifested as a host of Orders and brotherhoods led by teachers (called Sheikhs) and their followers (called Mureed), who compose a vast network of adherents spanning the Earth, from West Africa to the Middle East, to the Indian Subcontinent, Indonesia and China, and further East into the “West”.
Sufism shares similar touchpoints to aspects of the mystical traditions of Christianity, Buddhism and other religions, and embodies in its nature (and in the life of the Sufi) a metaphysical journey towards understanding oneself, the world, and God. In this great journey of life, Sufis value music and other creative arts as powerful vehicles towards connection with the Divine.
Music, song, dance or other rhythmic, repetitive movement are used to attain a trance-like state by the adherent. The heritage of this tradition manifests in different practices around the Muslim world, such as the Sema, or Whirling as it is sometimes known, which comes from Turkey and in which a gentle spinning movement is carefully considered and intended to honour God; or in the Qawwali, which is a South Asian tradition with a 700-year history.
Although the legacy of Sufism can be seen in most images of Islamic Culture that you could think of, perhaps most famous in the artistic heritage of Sufism are its poets, most notably Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, or just Rumi for short, a 13th century cleric from Persia who is amazingly today the best selling poet in the United States. His 800-year old epic the Mathnawi is hailed by scholars as the greatest piece of mystical poetry ever written.
The wildly articulate and descriptive poet Rumi is famous for his message of universal love and tolerance, which has defined the path of those in his footsteps ever since his many hundreds of verses were composed in the 13th century. The story of Rumi’s own life and the germ of his great poetic talent is a fascinating one – and audiences will be gifted with an account of it and a reading of Rumi’s epic, the Mathnawi, at the Sufi Festival.
It is said that when he died, with countless quatrains and verses and three epics dedicated to a great inimical love for his fellow human beings and for God, that mourners of all religions and backgrounds came from far and wide to attend his funeral.
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.
~ Only Breath, Rumi (translation by Coleman Barks)
Omar Kayyam and Al-Ghazali are others revered by history for their work as poets, but also as scientists, philosophers, astronomers, and mystics, which points to the all-encompassing nature of Sufism as a world-view and practice that places equal focus on the illumination of the beauty of the world, the human spirit, and God, through art as through science.
All Islamic art is linked to Sufism as the higher dimension of Islamic spirituality, and its influence is seen in arabesque architecture, and the design of carpets, tileworks, and paintings. In kind, mathematics, science and astronomy blossomed in the Islamic world from this thirst for further understanding of the divine and the human experience in relation to it, reflecting and impacting upon the creative and performative arts, which sought to do the same.
The influence of Sufism on European culture has a thousand-year history, impacting the sciences, visual art, and literature – with some contemporary academics even proposing clear influences on the work of Shakespeare.
Sufi music has had an influence on popular music’s development in the West too, with the so-called “Raga Rock” sound coming from the appreciation (not to say appropriation) of British and American pop and psychedelic rock groups of rhythmic and tonal aspects of traditional music from the Indian sub-continent.
Likewise, the rise in popularity of World Music has seen Music from the East gain its own platform in the West, and Sufi Qawalli ensembles have ridden this storm since the 1970s to capture the hearts of audiences around the world. The late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is credited with popularising the Qawalli outside of the East and enrapturing millions across the world with his incredible, haunting vocal talent, widely considered to be one of the greatest voices in recording history.
The 2022 Sufi Festival in Glasgow is in fact truly blessed to be welcoming Qawalli group Shah e Mardan, whose lead vocalist and harmonium player, Mohamed Zubair, was apprentice to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and certainly does his legacy justice. Akin to a multi-vocal, multi-instrumental, transcendental jam session – Shah e Mardan can play for three hours without stopping.
Contrary to some contemporary assumptions about Islam, the message of Sufism is and always has been one of universal love, peace, and understanding, advocating openness and tolerance. As such, this Sufi Festival will be an immersive experience that brings different sections of the community together to share in cross-cultural exchange, keeping the flame of this most ancient cultural dynamism burning, to shine light on the path to mutual understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.
If Sharia is the effort toward following the correct code according to the Quran of living in the external world, Sufism is the effort toward following the right path in the internal and spiritual world, that of the soul, and the mind, seeking the path that was walked by the Prophet (peace be upon Him) himself.
Sufis live simple, somewhat ascetic lives, shunning excess wealth or material “success” and dedicating their time to practicing their faith, aiding others in the community, and actively trying to nurture the spiritual life of themselves and others around them.
Though highly dedicated and devoted, Sufis are far from fanatics, and diversity in the practices of the faithful is accepted and to some extent celebrated, an indispensable aspect of the practical quest of mysticism. The openness of Sufism is what has brought so many people within Islam – and indeed outside of it – into its fold.
Conversely, in parts of the Islamic world, throughout history and today, Sufis have faced persecution from some sections for their open-mindedness, suffering as much from so called “Islamic terrorism” as non-Muslim groups. Curiously, it is in countries such as Britain, France, the United States and Canada today, with their secular religious tolerance, that Sufism has come to flourish, experiencing a new wave of enthusiasm and opening up ever-more important pathways to discourse and harmony between differing voices in the community.
That being said, this popularity has led to some interpretations of Sufism being a little watered-down, not to say trivialised, and can be forgotten that this is a religious practice. Sufism does offer a wealth of aesthetically rich and pleasing creative outputs and ideas about kindness, love, and humanity that can be readily accessible at a surface level, but these all relate to something much deeper, and ultimately all come from the same root as the tradition of Sufism itself: Islam.
In many countries in the world Sufism has been a positive influence, with young people embracing Sufism to live a more cultural and intellectual life. Abd Al Malik is a French-Congolese rapper who has gained popularity across Europe, and he changed course from a destructive path to a positive one when he discovered Sufism. He fuses Sufi music with rap and is reaching out to other young people to become more spiritual, loving, and non-violent.
Though contemplation and inward searching is a big part of Sufism and some Sufis do choose to live somewhat withdrawn from social life, many more seek to satisfy their spiritual journey through altruism and dedication to social justice in their immediate community. Though shunning violence, Sufism is not passive, and its adherents take responsibility to act as citizens.
It is in this vein, and in a continuation of a long and proud history of cultural exchange and with an optimistic view to the future of this relationship that the 2019 Sufi Festival brings this exposition of Sufism to Glasgow, to enrich the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and to unite all in the joy that music, art, poetry, theatre, food, community, and faith can bring.