Searching for the Sufi soul

Sufism can teach us so much, not least that the music and spirituality should be part of everyday life rather than luxuries only to be enjoyed in so-called quality time. The tantalising appeal of the spiritual arm of Islam is captured brilliantly in Esther Freud's 1992 novel Hideous Kinky which follows a young mother's search for the Sufi soul in Morocco through the eyes of her eight year old daughter.

Although I have read it several times I realised when I returned from Morocco a couple of weeks ago that I do not actually own a copy of Hideous Kinky, so I followed my usual route of ordering a cheap secondhand copy on Amazon for 1p plus postage. To my delight the copy that arrived was the hardback first edition seen above, rather than the standard garish film tie in paperback edition featuring Kate Winslet. That beautiful drawing of the novel's narrator is by Esther Freud, who is the daughter of Lucian Freud and the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud.

Given the central role of music and dance in its practice it is a mystery as to why Sufism holds so little appeal for Western classical composers. Buddhism has attracted many composers including Philip Glass, Jonathan Harvey, Edmund Rubbra and Claude Vivier, whose Siddhartha (1976) for orchestra is scandalously neglected, while Hinduism appealed to, among others, Olivier Messiaen and Gustav Holst. But few Western composers have been influenced by Sufism in the same way. Szymanowski, Zemlinsky and others set the verses of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore while that true bodhisattva Philip Glass set nine poems by the greatest of the Sufi poets, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi in his opera Einstein on the Beach. But I am hard put to name other composers who have felt the call of Sufism, however I am sure my dauntingly knowledgeable readers will soon add more.

Out on the fringes there is G.I. Gurdjieff, while Stockhausen and Sufism is worth exploring, even if it not Karlheinz. Then there is the little known and rather exotic Hidayat Inayat Khan. Born in England in 1917 he is the son of Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan and among his compositions which have been performed in Europe is a Gandhi Symphony. There is an interesting interview with Hidayat Inayat Khan on YouTube together with a performance of his choral Awake for Morning. A CD of his orchestral works including the Gandhi Symphony is available as a download from for just £3.95, and short audio samples are also available there.

In the absence of any other Western musical compositions my search has to end with traditional Sufi music. There is certainly no better place to finish than German label Network's magnificent 2CD compilation Sufi Soul. Any Western composer seeking inspiration should listen to CD2 track 1, the Turkish ney player Ercan Irmak performing the tekbir - the call to prayer. Sufi Soul is part of a magnificent series of beautifully compiled and documented 2CD sets from Network, their three volumes of Desert Blues also come highly recommended.

* Sufi influenced tracks from Jil Jilala and Tyour Gnaoua are among the music from Morocco in my latest Chance Music podcast which can be heard here.

Now read about the secret life of an Arab record label.

Sufi Soul was bought online. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Unknown said…
I think John Tavener has used some Sufi texts and has a keen interest in Frithjof Schuon and Martin lings.
Sadly no longer with us Hamza El-Din was a Sufi and a great composer.
Pliable said…
Eamonn, you are quite right. John Tavener's Requiem sets Sufi texts, and he has used them elsewhere.

Hanze El Din -
billoo said…
thank you for that fascinating post, pliable.

Hope you enjoy this (despite the poor sound quality)



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