Sounds of Sufism

One of the disciples would start to sing a devotional song in praise of their Sheikh. Many of Abdul Qadir's followers were musicians. There was Richard Thompson who sang with Fairport Convention, Ian Whiteman who was with Mighty Baby; Roger Powell who was with a group called The Action; and Peter Sanders, a photographer with a beautiful voice. In fact the Zawiya was a veritable den of stunning voices. In no time, the zihr session would be raised to another, more etheral plane. Then the fuqara would stand up, form a circle holding one another's hands, and be led by a high-ranking member of the Zawiya, standing in the middle of the circle, in chanting La ilaha illa'llah ('There is no God but Allah'), La ilaha illa'llah.

The dancing disciples would inhale with La ilaha and collectively exhale with illa'llah. The chanting would start gently but as it gathered pace, the circle would become more of an octagon, and fuqara would begin to sway, throwing themselves backwards as they expelled their breath for La ilaha, thrusting forwards as they expelled their breath with illa'llah. When the chanting reached frantic pitch the walls of the Zawiya would reverberate with La ilaha illa'llah. Soon the assembly would be in a state of total frenzy. Finally, Allah, uttered sixty-six times, would bring the exhausted assembly to a serene calm. Quiet would fall over the gathering.
That graphic description of a Sufi ritual led by Abdul Qadir in London in the 1970s comes from Ziauddin Sardar's thought provoking book Desperately Seeking Paradise - Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim. A Zawiya is the Sufi equivalent to a mosque and is used for meditation and rituals. The band Mighty Baby were influential in bringing Sufism to the rock scene and they were the closing act on the first day of the Isle of Wight Festival 1970.

Abdul Qadir, who is on the extreme right of the photo above, has led a colourful and somewhat controversial life. Born Ian Dallas in Scotland in 1930 he was part of the London media scene in the 1960s. His work there included adapting classic novels for the BBC and appearing in the Federico Fellini classic 8½. Folklore of the 60s has Ian Dallas giving Eric Clapton the copy of the ancient Persian Sufi parable 'Layla and Majnun' that inspired Clapton's song 'Layla'.

In 1967 Ian Dallas converted to Islam in Morocco and became Abdul Qadir. After living in London he changed his name to Abdalqadir as-Sufi. He then founded the Ihsan Mosque here in Norwich in 1977 before starting the orthodox Murabitun World Movement in Granada, Spain. He went on to open a centre for the education of Muslim leaders in Cape Town in 2004 where he now lives. Abdalqadir as-Sufi's articles on his official website clearly position him on the radical side of contemporary Islam. The photo of him above was taken at Jumu'ah Mosque, Cape Town in 2010.

Like other religous groupings Sufism has its dark side, but it has also been misappropriated and distorted, in large part due to the mysterious and ecstatic nature of the movement. In an attempt to shed a little light instead of heat I am presenting an hour of Chance Music inspired by Sufism this Sunday May 2 on Future Radio.

There is some fascinating music, both traditional and contemporary, connected with Sufism. But before discussing the music it is useful to understand its context. Sufism is Islam's mystical arm and its origins and beliefs are surrounded by mystery The name Sufi is thought to come from the Arabic word for wool which is suf, because the first Sufis wore white woollen robes. There are many definitions of Sufism. An early follower explained ‘Sufism is to eat little, to seek peace in God and to flee from the people’. Another described Sufism as ‘when you do not possess anything and when nothing possesses you’.

Under Islam Sufis are usually grouped into brotherhoods and it these orders which provide the popular image of whirling dervishes. But Sufism crosses all religious boundaries in its search for a higher level of existence. The term is used to describe a wide range of people who question prevailing social norms and who place greater emphasis on love than formal religion and material possessions. The Trappist monk, teacher, Joan Baez fan and author Thomas Merton had a deep interest in Sufism and a fascinating book has been published titled Merton and Sufisim: The Untold Story.

In recent years Sufism has come under increasing pressure both from Islamic fundamentalism and secularisation. In secular Turkey for instance, Sufism was banned by law in 1925. Turkey provides the opening music for my programme in the form of two tracks from Mercan Dede's album Seyahatnameh. Mercan Dede, seen above, was born in Bursa in Turkey in 1966 and is a composer, DJ and plays the ney, the Turkish flute used in Sufi rituals. Seyahatnameh is guided by the Sufi principles of balance and love, but mixes these with dance beats and ambient electronic music. I brought the CD back from a visit to Istanbul in 2007.

This is followed by more contemporary music from Dahfer Youssef’s album Electric Sufi which featured here in 2008. Dhafer Youssef is a master of the oud and on this album is joined by musicians playing a mix of traditional and modern instruments, incuding Markus Stockhausen, the son of Karleheinz Stockhausen, on flugelhorn and trumpet.

The core of the programme is a rare chance to listen in on traditional Sufi ritual music. This opens with a reading from the Qu'ran followed by an instrumental taqsim. Then comes extracts from the liturgy of the dervishes of Damascus with an instrumental introduction followed by singing based on the ancient art of Qu’ran recital. The performance is by the Syrian muqri (Koran reader) and munshid (hymnodist) Hamza Shakkur and the Ensemble Al-Kindi who are seen above. It comes from the CD of Taqsim and Sufi Chants on the German Network label.

Concluding the programme is an improvisation based on the ecstatic dance performed at the tomb of the Afghan Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. This is played by Titi Robin, a young French gypsy guitarist, and Pakistani vocalist Faiz Ali Faiz , who trained in the sufi art of quwwali devotional music, they are seen together below. The track is from their album Jaadu Magic which featured here in December last year.

* Chance Music from the Sufi world was broadcast and webcast on Future Radio at 3.00pm on Sunday May 2. A podcast of the programme is now available here.

Photos 1 & 3 were taken by me in Morocco and are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Photo 2 was is from the Muslims of Norwich website . Desperately Seeking Paradise by Ziauddin Sardar was borrowed from Norwich library. All CDs mentioned in the article were bought atretail price. 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


billoo said…
Look forward to the programme, Pli.

Could I recommend Titus Burckhardt's 'Fez, city of Islam', if you haven't read it already?
Pliable said…
billoo, thanks for that. I don't know Fez, City of Islam so it has gone on Amazon wish list.

By another of those extraordinary examples of synchronicity two books that I had ordered recently arrived in the mail minutes after this article was uploaded.

One is Robert Abdul Hayy Darr's The Spy of the Heart - which has had excellent reviews.

The other was the only reasonably priced used copy in the world of Ian Dallas aka Abdalqadir as-Sufi's novel The Book of Strangers. This book seems to have quite a cult (more ways than one?) following, I notice the cover blurb is by Alan Watts. The excellent quality copy came from, of all places, D & D Galleries in New Jersey and took precisely four days to arrive here in the UK despite the disruptive volcano.

The joy of reading ....
xxx said…
This book is the best introduction to Islam that I have found.

Also his other book 'Islam at the Crossroads" is a great read.

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