Innenwand und Kuppel der Sheikh-Lotf-Allah Moschee in Isfahan, Iran

Mysticism for everyone

Sufism involves more than just taking refuge in a trance. Rather, it connects the Creator with Creation – among other things, with the help of music.

Among the many facets of Islam, Sufism is one of the most mysterious and most powerful. It is a source of fascination for people all over the world, including people who don’t believe in Islam at all, such as the author of this article. Sufism is often referred to as Islamic mysticism, but that is an insufficient definition, particularly in comparison with Christian mysticism. In Christianity, mysticism has remained a marginal phenomenon, primarily practised by individuals. Sufism, on the other hand, seeks to appeal to the faithful en masse. It has been organised in large, trans-national schools of thought since the Middle Ages. These different schools go back to a charismatic founder figure in each case; they have made their mark on most Moslems’ view of Islam for long periods of history, and continue to influence it to this day.

In the cult surrounding the tombs of the saints, which is found everywhere in the Moslem hemisphere with the exception of the Arab peninsula, Sufism also becomes comprehensible for outsiders. These »saints« were local figures at the outset, but it wasn’t long before internationally known Sufi poets, preachers and ascetics joined their ranks, with the faithful visiting their tombs to beg for help. Mosques, religious schools and foundations were often erected in the vicinity of these tombs; many still exist, and represent an attraction for pilgrims and tourists alike.

Sufi Festival

from 25 to 27 November at the Elbphilharmonie. With dancing dervishes, trance rituals, Persian love songs and classical music from Afghanistan.

Portrait eines Sufi mit Fell und Almosenschale (17. Jh.)
Portrait of a Sufi with fur and alms bowl (17th century) © MET

Regular, ritual visits to such tombs and shrines represent the popular side of Islam, so to speak. Salafism and other puritanical schools of Islamic thought prohibit the tomb cult as »superstitious«, but this has not harmed the popularity of Sufism so far.

Equating Sufism with mysticism without ado is misleading because it places excessive emphasis on the irrational and esoteric side of the belief. The fact is that the highly cultural, speculative and theological side is as much part of Sufism as the popular one with its tomb cult. What seem to be contradictory types of faith are actually closely bound by art, poetry and music.

Uplifting instead of sublime

The common denominator of all Sufist endeavour, be it the naïve belief in miracles or the inclination to abstract philosophical speculation, is the establishment and conjuring up of a communication, of a living connection between God and the world, between the Creator and Creation, between this life and the hereafter, between the individual and the cosmos. The hard-to-define relationship between God and Man in each case is reinterpreted in Sufi art, music and literature, and is experienced in the reception of these art forms. The majority of Moslem art is influenced by Sufism, and can scarcely be understood without it.

Beguiling sound

Sufism doesn’t want to keep the faithful at a distance or to instil awe into them, its aim is to take people on board and give them access to the divine and the sacred. This of course applies to music in particular. Religious music only exists in Islam in the context of Sufism; otherwise, it is frowned upon. Music, poetry, worshipping the saints, philosophy and even dance, in the shape of the so-called Dancing Dervishes of the Mevlevi order from the Anatolian town Konya, enter into an exemplary connection and even blend with one another. They are rightly seen as the embodiment of Sufi Islam, even though their complex ritual accompanied by rotating dance is somewhat atypical for Sufi music. As a rule, the followers of Sufism listen to the music without dancing.

The order of the Dancing Dervishes goes back to the Sufist poet and scholar Djalal ad-Din Rumi. Born in 1207 is what is now Afghanistan, he moved west in the turmoil of the Mongol invasion and died in Konya in 1273. His followers called him Mevlana, which means »our master« in Arabic and Turkish – hence the name Mevlevi. However, Rumi actually wrote in Persian, not in Turkish; it is no exaggeration to call him one of the greatest mystic writers of all time.

Dschelaleddin Rumi Dschelaleddin Rumi © Alamy

The lament of the reed pipe

»Listen to the story of the reed pipe, to how it laments the separation« – this is the opening line of Rumi’s famous epic poem »Masnawi«. The music of the reed pipe, which had to be carved out of a reed before it could be played, stands as a symbol for Man’s isolation, for his separation from the Creator. But, Rumi goes on: »Every individual who is far away from his origin longs to be reunited with it.« The origin he is referring to is of course God, or rather the cosmic whole, the Universal Being presented as God – another idea shared by all Sufis from India to Morocco.

The aim is to dissolve this separation through the growing ecstasy and to re-establish the connection with the cosmos or the Universal Being. The rotations of the dervishes symbolise this cosmic connection: they are modelled on the orbit of heavenly bodies around a central point, just as the planets orbit the sun. But in Sufi teachings, what links the central point (God) with the individual bodies (the planets) that orbit it and are attracted by it is nothing less than love itself, which is seen as the force that moves everything in the cosmos.

This explains why the poets of Sufism are all great love poets. For them, love for another person is always and in the end only a version of divine love for Man and Man’s love for God, broken down to an earthly level. One is symbolised by the other, so that such questions as whether the famous medieval Persian poet Hafis is singing about his love for God or for a specific person miss the underlying point: a Sufi poet always sings about both.

Dancing Dervishes of the Mevlevi order »Istanbul Sema Grubu«

The metaphysics of love

The origin of Sufi doctrine that understands earthly love as a cosmic force, as the divine origin of Creation, stems from late antiquity, and first appears in the writings of Plato, who talked about the metaphysics of love in many of his dialogues. The neo-Platonists of late antiquity, starting with Plotinus in the third century, then linked this idea to their doctrine of »the One« from whom they believed the world »emanated«.

As Islam began to spread, many neo-Platonist writings were translated into Arabic. These had a lasting influence on the Arabic philosophers, likewise on the Sufi poets and philosophers.

In an effort to understand how and why the absolute One, which Moslem philosophers regarded as another name for God, is connected with the earthly, physical world, the neo-Platonists made their own comparison with love: it is the Supreme Being’s (i.e. God’s) desire to be loved and recognised that produces the world – just as humans want to be seen and loved, and in turn love their own creations. This is the essential meaning of a saying that is widespread among Sufis: Allah himself is credited with the statement:

»I was a hidden treasure and wanted to be recognised. That’s why I created the world.«

With this reference to God’s wish to be recognised and loved by His creatures, the Sufis solved one of the main problems in Islam theology, namely: how can the faithful develop a relationship with a god who is regarded as absolutely transcendental and without compare? Their answer was: with the help of the same cosmic force that brought forth the world as an emanation from the One – namely love, just as the neo-Platonist philosophers had taught.

Alireza Ghorbani sings Persian love songs

In every corner of the world

Moslem merchants, many of whom themselves belonged to a Sufi order, as well as itinerant Sufi preachers, poets and singers spread the doctrine of divine love and of Sufi Islam to the farthest corners of Africa and Asia. The global networks thus created were beneficial for the exchange of goods as much as of ideas, religious practices and forms of artistic expression.

This also explains why we encounter poetry and music influenced by Sufi spirituality all along the so-called Silk Road. This applies in particular to the kind of music that would nowadays be assigned to the Hindu tradition. Hinduism and Islam influenced one another from the Middle Ages on, and during Moslem rule in northern India, which lasted more than 500 years: so much so, in fact, that today we often don’t know whether a particular saint, a fakir or an ascetic was actually a Moslem or a Hindu, a Sufi or a Yogi, with the result that he is now worshipped by followers of both religions.

Crossing boundaries

The Mevlevi dervishes traditionally perform their rotating dance not separated from the audience by a stage, but in the midst of the believers who squat in a circle around them. By the same token, Sufi music is characterised in day-to-day practice by intimacy, directness and spontaneity. All the participants are directly involved and are part of the performance, and sometimes there is neither a beginning nor an end.

Sufi music overcomes the prejudices and boundaries of social strata and conventions as easily as the other, greater boundary which it sees as its mission to overcome: the boundary between the Creator and Creation. Thanks to a spirituality that is unmistakeable in the truest sense of the term, it finds an enthusiastic audience even among people who sees themselves as thoroughly modern, Western and secular in attitude.


Text: Stefan Weidner, last updated: 28 Oct 2022


Stefan Weidner is an author and an expert on Islam. His latest book was published in 2022: »1001 Buch. Die Literaturen des Orients« (Edition Converso 2022). The book is the source of the verses quoted in this article.

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