Asyah Al Bualy Articles

Islamic Mysticism: Theoretical Overview and the Connection between Sufism and Music

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This study attempts in its theoretical overview to present the complexities of defining , Mysticism and Sufism, in terms of their language and terminology. The study also highlights the fact that Mysticism as phenomenon is not merely confined to the Islamic religion. In its dealing with Islamic Mysticism, it outlines the religious fundamentals of Islamic Mysticism. Moreover, it illustrates that Islamic Sufism as a lifestyle and methodology has its objectives, and appears in numerous supernatural forms. Furthermore, the study focuses on the role of music and dancing, in general, with regards to ancient religious rituals, and particularly, their roles in Islamic Sufism. This is explained through revealing the relationship between Sufism and art – music.


According to scholars, the first problem that arises with the definition of the Arabic noun “Al Tasawoof” (Mysticism or Sufism), is the lexicon derived from the root word “Safaa”; which means “The infinitive of a pure thing” (1). Therefore, some consider “Al Tasawoof “to mean, purity or refinement, when translated into the English language. The latter is due to the well established definition of a “Sufi” (Mystic – Sophist) as a person “Who catharsizes his heart by prohibiting the soul from all worldly temptations”(2). Another point of view, finds that (Sufis) are referred to by this noun, because of a preference for “wearing (Soof) woolen clothes out of abstemiousness “(3).

Some scholars associate the noun” Al Tasawoof ” to Greek origins, concluding that it is correlated with the word ” Sophos” meaning, the wise or the sage. They also affirm that, “Sufi “as a noun is related to the Greek word “Sophia” which means wisdom or aphorism (4).
If we cast aside the issues of “Mysticism’s” derivation in lexicon, and focus on its terminological definitions; it is noticeable that, “Mysticism” as a term, has various definitions. One of them being that “Mysticism” is a science that cognizes the condition of souls, moral purification and longevity of both the internal and external (heart and soul), in order to acquire eternal happiness. While another defines “Mysticism” as an internal issue that cannot be cognized, or have its truth judged according to outward signs which people commonly depend on, when labeling a person a “Sophist “Mystic.

Furthermore, Mysticism as a term, is defined as a self- training; to prohibit the Sophist’s habits from vice ethics (5). In addition, “A Sophist is a person who is capable of ascending above existing empirical matters and sensual symbols. He is able to reveal the hidden truth and cognize divine facts through either, inspiration which is the method of saints (Holy men) or revelation which is the prophets’ method”(6).
For a “Sophist” to achieve the stages above, he has to strive hard to purify his heart, control his instincts from temptation and pleasure. He also has to absorb himself with performing Dhikr (the constant recitation of God’s name) “Allah “. Consequently, Sophists identify Mysticism as a religious experiment. This is clear from both of the following definitions:

“Mysticism is to worship Allah as if you are seeing him, and if you cannot see him, he sees you”.

Mysticism “is to be with God with no relation” (7).

From this religious perspective, it is possible to conclude that Mysticism is not a doctrine, but a lifestyle pursued by the worshipper to reach, know and acknowledge the Almighty “Allah”. There are, however, five conditions required for a person to fulfil in order to be a Sophist: Goodness, poverty, Sophist attire, unemployment and isolation.

When these characteristics are fulfilled, along with diligence, striving in worship, deep belief, evading taboos, self training and purifying the heart from bad morals by embellishing it with virtuous ethics; a Sophist reaching this stage is gradually qualified to ascend to the higher stages – until he arrives at the state of revealing the veil which separates him from God, and ultimately leads to the prospect of recognition of the Almighty.

Mysticism in Islam

In Islam mysticism’s origins and branches are derived from the Quran and “Al-Sunaa “; (Prophetic Traditions). It moreover, derives from Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) teachings, and efforts of scientists in the absence of clear texts. Numerous books on the subject of Mysticism were documented. Such titles are, “Mysticism-ology”, “Science of Recommendation” and “Ethics”; authored for the purpose of filling knowledge gaps, and completing the needs of religion in all of life’s activities. Furthermore, the production of these books intended to prove Mysticism’s superiority, reverence and its virtues in comparison to all other sciences.
Examples of Mysticism’s books

Examples of outstanding titles of these books are :” Letter of The Al- Quoshairya ” written by Imam Abo Quasim Al- Quoshairy surnamed ” Zain Al Eslaam ” ( 376- 465 H) ,” Reviving the Religious Sciences “ authored by: Imam Al Ghazaly died in (505H) and “ Basis of Mysticism” documented by : Sheik Ahmed Zarwaqu ( 846 – 866 H) . In addition to books written by many others.

Because of limitation of space, I would briefly exemplify the contents of these books through the most prominent one which is the book entitled “Reviving the Religious Sciences “ by : Imam Al Ghazaly. This book is divided in to four volumes each volume named “Al Rubaa” meaning (The Quarter), each Quarter consists of ten books. The titles of these four Quarters are “ The Devotions” , “ The Customs ” , “ The Perditions “ and “ The Guarding “ (8).

Origins of Islamic Mysticism

According to the Islamic concept Mysticism as a way of living contains certain behaviors: an ascetic lifestyle, devotion to worship, abandoning worldly pleasure , evading the forbidden, discipline, self-training and constant mentioning of the name of Allah – a tradition that goes back to the time of Prophet Mohamed and his companions. This aspect considers Prophet Mohamed is the first” Sophist “Mystic since he was the first to enter the recess in the “Haraa” cave.

The source of Islamic Mysticism originates from the Quran and Prophet Mohammed’s teachings as embodied in ” Al Sunna ” . During the third century of Mohammedan Calendar, Islamic Mysticism was practiced at an individual level, throughout the Islamic world. These individuals’ practices aimed at attaining asceticism and religious devotion. After this period, these practices developed into specific methods of worship known as the Sufi’s Groups. Sufism emerged when Prophet Mohamed bestowed each of his companions with a “collect” (a short pray) in accordance to the companion’s situation and status. For example , Abu Baker Al Sadeq, the first Caliph (successor), received from prophet Mohamed the Dhikr recitation of the name” Allah ” by the singular noun ” Allah ” , while the fourth Caliph , Ali ibn Abi Talib took from the prophet the Dhikr by both forms ; negation and affirmation as revealed in ” There is no god but Allah”.

Followers of the former two Caliphs inherited the two Groups (methods) of Sufism named: Al Bakriya and Al Alawiya . These Groups were named after the first names of the two Caliphs. Subsequently, they merged and became a singular Group during the time of Imam Abou Alquasim Alginid who died in ( 297 H), then they divided again into two Groups named : Al Khalwatiya and Al Naquashabndiya . After that they developed into four main Groups of Sufism established by:

1- Ahmed bin Ali Alrafaie.

2- Abdul Alquader Algelany.

3- Ahmed Albadawi.

4- Ibrahim Aldosoquy.

Who are considered as being the four pillars of Sufism. These pillars added their own collects and prayers.

Islamic history is overflowing with Muslim scholars attributed to Sufism such as ; Alnawawy , Alghazaly, and Aliz iben Abdulsalam. In addition to leaders who also attributed to Sufism exemplified in Salah Alden Alayouby , Mohamed Alfateh , prance Abdul Alquader, Omer Almoukhtar and Aiz Alden Alquasim (9).
Mysticism is not merely an Islamic phenomenon

Since the fundamental sources of mysticism (Sufism) is the Quran and the Sunna , it is considered according to the Islamic perception, a practical application of Islam . Others who do not subscribe to this point of view see mysticism as a religious experience which preceded Islam, and the first embodiment of mysticism’s experiment was with the ancient Greeks as “all Greek ‘ religions were a part of the country’s political structure. Each city had its deities who were viewed as the city’s constructors and protectors, therefore, devoutness, respect; reverence towards the deities was considered a national duty. As a result of the afore mentioned values, three affections should emanate between the worshipper and the worshipped; recognition of kindness, personal interest, and fear of punishment. Apostasy towards the Gods was equal to betrayal of homeland.

In this environment, religious trends aimed to exceed the city’s boundaries, for the sake of inviting all people to go beyond the city’s political system and encouraged the establishment of what was considered a strong, superior spiritual life. Finally, as a result of this concept, the belief in the possibility of finding a relation with the Gods which was not based on the idea of a slave and master appeared (10).”
Some aspects connected mysticism with Christianity, Judaism, and other religions like Buddhism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism.

Objects of Sufism ’s curriculum

Sufism is a behavior that paves the way for the Sufi to elevate to superior levels or degrees in Sufism, where he is able to reach and cognize God. One of the first conditions to achieve this stage, a Sufi has to possess a ” Karama” ( Dignity). Dignity as religious term, means “splendid grants and evidence of God’s mercy on saints or religious people .These Grants protect saints and assist them “ (11).

A Dignity is identified as Sufi’s super natural capacity. Furthermore, Dignity is a knowledge that extends beyond the brains’ limited capacities. “Theoretical, No difference between Dignities and Miracles, except the former belongs to Sufis, while the latter belongs to prophets” (12).
When Dignity is achieved, it has twenty images or forms. These images could overlap with each other, and not necessarily, all are achieved by the Sufi. Images of Dignities are epitomize by following capacities:

1 – To be able to fly in the air.

2- To be able to walk on water.

3- To be able to resist hunger, thirst, sleep and pain.

4 –To have the capacity of turning the ground in to an object that can be folded.

5- The ability to control and command angels, Jinn, animals, inanimate objects and other creatures.

6- To be able to help people when needed.

7- To be able to forecast the future.

8- To be able to cure others from illness and disease.

9- To be able to compose, write books and know all sciences and languages.

10- To be accompanied by light, and shade as was indicative of divine protection when a small cloud sheltered Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) from the glaring sun .

11- To be able to revive the dead and talk to them.

12- A Sufi’s life is usually commemorated, and remembered with ceremony subsequent to his death.

13- A Sufi’s conception, while still an embryo, is signalled by a harbinger. Just as a Sufi’s death is preceded by an omen long before it occurs.

14- To be able to achieve victory over enemies despite resistance.

15- To be able to fulfill hopes of both disciples and detractors.

16- To be able to opt for the time of death and to be aware of its impending arrival .

17- To be able to change the core of things while at the same time maintaining their original forms.

18- To be able to accompany and see Prophet Khidr , my peace be upon him .

19- To be able to be invisible.

20- A Sufi’s prayers manifest readily (13).

When some or all of the former Dignities’ images, are achieved, by the Sufi , these images have functional objectives; scholars in general specified two basic functions for a Dignity as a general genre ,which are : ” Affirmation of the custodian and speaking on of the society. The first function is attributed to Sufis, while the second function is a collective creative production of the society’s individuals” (14).

On one hand, some aspects refer the reason behind the first function so as to impart sacredness and reverence to the Sufi’s personality, as the latter needs to assert his custodianship to his disciples. Furthermore, he wants to affirm that he is the back bone of his time and God had added and inspired him with many Dignities “(15).

On the other hand, some viewers say the motivation for this first function is probably “Dignity satisfies a pleasure for a Sufi who usually survives without pleasures and Dignities compensate Sufi’s deficiency in love , energy and motion.” (16)

Concerning the second function, collective creative production of the society, is caused by economical, political and social suppression.” In such cases nations believe in Dignities in order to confront unfair ruler or to curtail social scandals or to accomplish social achievement that could never be actualized except through Dignities. Dignities probably are the result of nations suffering as victims in their vulnerability and weakness.” (17)

In such cases, nations tend to believe in “other supernatural and invisible powers to solve their problems. In these situations, believing in a savior who will fill the earth with justice, after being polluted with injustice become a necessity “(18).

Music and worship rituals

Music emerged as a need for mankind to be in harmony with rhythms, tunes and melodies. It developed through its relation with magic in the ancient temples. Music was used in those temples on a wide scale in applying different religious rituals. Moreover, it had a great role in harmonizing communities, and controlling them in systematic forms.

For music to be able to fulfill the previous role, cultures in temples, palaces and all social classes through all civilizations – since the beginning of mankind – were exploited to serve music in its purpose.

Hence utilizing music in worship existed early in religious rituals and in idolatry devotions which existed before Christ, at the Valley of the Nile (Egypt) and the Land of Two Rivers (Iraq). Music and dancing in those two locations were employed as arts and additional devices to reach religious trance. In addition to its usage as a devotional ritual in religious occasions, ceremonies and private masses for the purpose of maintaining closeness between the worshippers and their creator. This is apparent from the epigraphy engraved on the temple walls of ancient Egyptians and Assyrians (19).

Music as an art acknowledged improvement in Sumer, Babylon, Ugarit, Aleppo, ancient Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula (20). According to Isfahani’s narration in his book “Lyrics”, many caliphs and their sons were engaged by music. As examples of those Abdul Malik bin Marwaan, Omar bin Abdul Aziz and Ibrahim bin Al-Mahdi. Arabs also knew musical composition during the Omayyad’s period especially at the hands of Younis Al – Katib who wrote the book ” The Melody ” and the book ” Al Qian ” . Evolution of musical composition in both Baghdad and Andalusia took place during the time of Isfahani , Abraham Almusili and his sons Isaac and Zeryab…During this phase Arabs acknowledged a number of musical instruments, such as qanoon , lute( Oud), harp, violin ,mandolin , flute , tambourine and drums… etc (12).

Music reference of the Sufi

The point of view , which allows linking mysticism with music, is based on the words of the Holy Prophet peace be upon him: “Embellish the Quran with your voices” and his saying ” who did not chant with Quran is not one of us” (22). It is clear from both sayings that a good voice is required in reciting Quran, as it makes it more desirable to the reader, even easier and more smoothly to follow its meaning. In fact all these issue have a psychological, emotional and spiritual impact.

The German orientalist Carl Brockelman(1868 – 1956 ) in his topics about mysticism he noted that sophists through their general lessons in mosques and in their various ambiances, they intensify their mystic senses by listening to music (23).

No doubt they are some mystical approaches which permit melodies and listening to music, while others reject them entirely as they considered them a cause of distraction and confusion.
Since there is no space to display controversies and different arguments between points of views, especially we are concerned with permission not prohibition to reveal the relationship between Sufism and music. We will just refer to the Al Mowlawiya (Dervish) Group : one of the most popular mysticism methods, established and lead by( Muhammad ibn Muhammad bin Hussein Baha Al Din Al- Balkhi ) , known as ” Mawolana : Jalal Al Din Al Rumi ” , (1207 – 1273 ). The mystic poet and scholar of Persian origin, who was the strongest supporter of listening (hearing) to music and dancing in Al Dhikr (24) . ( Note that the two word listening and hearing stand for music in Sufism terms , and the word Arabic word Al Dhikr means repeating to uttering one of the ninety-nine names of God mentioned in Quran with a certain rhythm and body movement)

Because hearing (music) from the standpoint of the Dervish is a way of imprinting the dear rhythms to souls, and dance movements of the Dhikr causes escalation of desires and also tames the soul. Moreover, music symbolizes the cyclical movements of the orbits, planets, and expresses the spirits’ engulfment with the divine adoration.

In general, we would like to clarify that most ways in Sufism relate to music in one way or another, whether through the usage of tambourines flutes and drums, or through lyrics which are sang according to certain rhythms, rhymes and tones .

The relationship between mysticism and art

One of the aspects of the relationship between mysticism and art , is the problem of finding a a specific definition for each of them. Mysticism, as noted above, had various definitions. These definitions, since the beginning of Islamic mysticism until the end of the second century, reached more than twenty-five definitions (25). This means it was difficult for scholars to find a specific comprehensive definition for mysticism. The problem of finding a specific comprehensive definition in the real sense of the word, is repeated with the word art which also has many definitions, including: that art is “the practical application of scientific theories which are the means of achieving art, and art is acquired by practice and study” . ” Art in totality stands for the methods used by man to stir up feelings and emotions, particularly emotions of beauty ( aesthetic ), such as in photography, music and poetry, “and it is a ” skill governed by talent and taste “(26).
If we exceed the complexity of defining mysticism and art , to their essence as two subjects , we come to realize that mysticism is a religious experience and behavior allows self ascendance and upgrading to the higher degrees of devotion , unto reaching the stage of acknowledging the Divine .This mystical experience according to philosophy terms requires a personal Esoteric Faculty ( internal capacity) which is different from the logical mind. The Esoteric Faculty grants the Sufi a contact whereby the union between the ” subject ” ; the Sufi, and the object, ” the creator is actualized .

Degrees of mysticism vary depending on the mystic’s abilities, diligence and endeavors in ascending and abolishing the boundaries of time and space which prevent the complete union with the superior idol.
The mystic, through his religious experience in reaching the top stage of mysticism; “Union with God” he assists his soul with external tools such as music , dance , body movements in a systematic manner with rhythms of varying intensity. Therefore, situations and levels in the idiomatic sense have a key role in all mysticism (27).
From the above we conclude that music as an art gender according to the Sufi is considered a factor or a tool, which helps the process of upgrading. Here we realize as mentioned before that the factor itself was used early in worship, rituals and rites of ancient pagan religions , for the sake of religious ecstasy. This asserts that usage of music in religious experiments is not merely limited to the mystic.
Why particularly the usage of music in mystical experience?

To answer the question, we have to flash back to music as a type of art and its definition as a (skill governed by taste and talent). Both words taste and talent lead us to the aesthetic dimension of art which is clarified in the philosophical definition of art ” Art is all products of beauty achieved in works carried out by existing conscious or feelings ” this aesthetic dimension of art was confirmed by many studies at the expense of several practical considerations. Followers of this trend see that art cannot be generated except when worries of life and the demands of living are caste aside. Only then within this span of time a dream “art” can emerge (28) .

The word “dream” in itself and the artistic process of alienation from all surrounding to produce this “dream”, which can only be generated through transcend and set free from constraints , where no concerns or demands are made upon the arts , all this bring us back to the point of view that considers art as “spiritual power” created from nonentity or nihility (29). Moreover, it enhances the concept that “art is the soul which contemplates itself in freedom” (30). Therefore, some people consider art’s experience “quasi-religious”, personal and emotional. It exists outside the scope of the usual senses where fact and logic are present .
Here lies the similarity between artistic experience and the mystic’s religious experience. Where the mystic through the personal Esoteric Faculty achieves liberation from all worldly pursuits and transcending beyond his own personal interests, perceptions, and knowledge heading toward righteousness, spiritual values, where the divine who is absolute in and of itself , enabling to uniting with God.

“Carl Jung,” ( 1875- 1961) considers this Esoteric Faculty must exist within the artist because “the artist is not an ordinary creature creates art works intentionally and deliberately, but he or she is just a tool in the hands of a superior force ; the unconscious” (31).Consequently, this leads to the concept “Spirit of Fatalism” which can be viewed another angle of similarity between art and mysticism. To Jung art makes the artist, not the opposite . In mysticism the same concept applies . Mysticism forms the Sufi not vice versa.
The relationship between the two concepts: art and mysticism are completely similar “Henri Bergson” (1859 – 1941). A philosopher, stated that “Art is an intuition which dominates self-knowledge and makes it correspond with the theme of its knowledge in a way similar to the Sufi ” (32). Therefore, if mysticism based on the ability of the Sufi to united with his subject “God”, an artist, according Henry Bergson, owns a “metaphysical eye” which enables the artist, through direct perception, to penetrate to the core of issues. The artist with this metaphysical eye “becomes like a Sufi in his ability to unite with his theme.

The similarity between the mystic and the artist is repeated again according to the philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860), who considered art as “a tool for knowledge and gnosis ” (33). The artist according to Arthur Schopenhauer is “a self with absolute knowledge, free from the will, physical constraints and slave to personal craving and desire. The artist nevertheless, survives in order to reflect the theme of his creativity, after having lost himself to a knowledgeable self , exclusive and totally naked from the will “(34).

On referring to the word “ Gnostic”, in Arabic Islamic heritage, we note mystics used it to denote a superior type of knowledge, cast into the heart in the form of ” revelation ” or “inspiration”. Moreover, Gnosis “is the science that permits knowledge of religions’ mystery and characteristics of God”. From the perspective of the Gnostic, this science is more superior, than religious science that depends on intellectual theories and subscribed by most modest believers or those who do not view matters with depth . A Gnostic is the non-convinced person by the religion’s superficial truth. He delves deeply in to the religion to acquire the innermost knowledge of its secrets and mysteries. This knowledge depends on the depth of the spiritual life and the substitution of will to replace the mind. From this perspective, knowledge does not mean acquisition of sciences , but sustained effort with an aim of purification and access to the formula (…) necessary for integration into the divine’s world of which, of mankind is from (35).

From the above mentioned we conclude, that art has an impact on mysticism and vice versa , not only on a historical level and involvement in emotional aspect as is clear in both, but exceeded this up to the similarity in structure striking in terms of the overall characteristics, and ambition to redefine things through the ability imagines mystic and artist that they can possess , based on “ the will “ they are capable of creation from non, based on “ the will “ (36).

Finally, to answer the question why does a Sufi use music in particular as tool of assistance to reach the peak 0f his experience? I would like to shed light on what Plato ( 427- 428 A.D/ 347- 348 B.C) documented in his book Phaedo ( 360 B.C.E) on behalf of Aristotle’s(384-233 B.C) dream in the last hour of his death . Aristotle narrated that the inspiration came to him and commanded him to compose music. This dream implies the superiority of the power of music as an art genre over science, in taking mankind closer to the final truth .(*)


(*) Note that the above paper was presented for the Symposium of “ Sufi Music And Inshad” at the Royal Opera House, Muscat, 12th January 2014. The paper was originally written in Arabic then was translated to English by the researcher, and edited by : Samiha Salem Rashid. The numbers written above refer to different references.



الكاتب: Asyah Al Bualy

Born in Zanzibar on 1962, An Omani citizen. PhD. in criticism with Honours from Cairo University in May 2000. The posts that she has held have been Assistant Professor at Sultan Qaboos University, from August 2000 until June 2006. Since June 2006, she has been working at the Research Council, as Adviser for culture and humanities upon a Royal Order by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The content on this space is written by Dr. Asyah, it is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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