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Experiencing Sufi Music in Pakistan

by Prof. Dr. Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

When I met Dr. Ashfaq Khan in October 1998 for the first time at a private mehfil (musical gathering) in Lahore, we discussed music after the concert, and he compared the different artistic forms of expression in Islam – poetry, calligraphy, miniature painting, ceramics, metalwork, carpets, fine weavings and many others – with the thirty-three beads of the Muslim rosary.

Pakistan Sufi music

Folk Sufi artists performing at a gathering in Pakistan – FILE Photo by GlobalCitizen2011

The voice and sound, however, the first original expressions of God, were like the minaret-shaped last bead, the crown of the arts, he emphasized. For him, music was like an oasis or a castle into which he could withdraw, he added.

Thus, for mystics in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world, spiritual music is a precious jewel in the treasure chest of the arts. Muslim cultures have developed their own distinct system of aesthetics and sensory categories accompanied by specific emotional expressions. The famous mystic, theologian and philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) states emphatically that the perception of Divine Beauty (al jamal, husn) leads to experiencing God in one’s own heart. For him as well as for other Sufis, earthly beauty, for instance perceived in the beauty of a human face, of a flower, in music or in an intricately ornamented object, is a manifestation of God’s power and light. A famous saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad is: ina Allaha jamilun, yu hebu al-jamal – ‘God is beautiful and He loves beauty’. Beauty means the heart and to create beauty appears as an act of remembering God and His qualities.

While situating spiritual music – both ‘mystical’ and ‘classical’ – in the matrix of beauty, one needs to emphasize its close relationship to Sufi religiosity. Music are so-to-speak the fruits of the Sufi tradition to be consumed after the hard work of spiritual discipline. Spiritual music which mystics hear with their heart and soul is seen in some less strict currents of Sufism as an antidote to law, dogma and rational thinking.

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