The Essence of Sufi Music

“The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. Let no such man be trusted.” Portia in the Merchant of Venice


If you have ever seen videos or live performances of whirling dervishes, you would get an immediate sense of Sufi Music. The music of the Sufis is not just devotional, it has qualities that make it mesmerizing and unifying. Of late there has been a resurgence of and a renaissance of sorts in Sufi music which calls for understanding what is it that makes Sufi music what it is.

Sufi music owes its origins to Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam.  Many people mistake Sufism as a sect in Islam but that is not quite right. The roots of Sufism go back to Prophet Muhammad and his cousin and son-in-law Ali. However, some attribute the origins of Sufism to the Naqshbandi order of Islam which traces its origins back to the Prophet’s father-in-law Abu Bakr. Although more widespread among the Sunni sect in Islam, Sufism also has acceptance among the Shia sect.

The essence of Sufi music is to provide a means to seekers to transcend the realm of the physical and instill virtues of compassion, love and egolessness. The love espoused by Sufis is not infatuation nor sensual but unconditional. The music achieves this through qualities that heighten a combination of devotion, discipline and Zikr (meditativeness in Urdu and Dhikr in Arabic). Sufis consider their music to have parallels with the creation of the cosmos just as before the music there is nothingness and it is from this emptiness that the first notes are struck. According to Sufiway, “we can only say it (music) is birthed from the infinite potential of the void. And then, what happens? It vanishes! Where does it go? It returns back into the emptiness of silence, into not-being.”

A common identification of Sufi music is with whirling dervishes spinning their bodies undergoing a trance like dance. The performance is part of a ceremony which involves Sama (listening) and Dhikr. The attempt is to attain Kemal (source of all perfection) and in the process melt one’s attachments and ego. The music is seen as a form of meditation with the dance consisting of repetitive circles symbolic of planets orbiting the sun. These dances, in their original form are carried out in three stages in which a whirling dervish first appears clothed in black (symbolizing darkness), then in red (search for liberation), and finally in white (attained liberation).


Turkey’s Whirling Dervishes, run time 2” 01’

The music of the Sufis is prevalent in many parts of the Islamic world, mainly in South Asia, parts of Central Asia, South Western Asia, and Northern African rim countries. India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco all sport incredible talent in Sufi music.


“Mystic Sound” performed by Kamil Reha Falay, run time 8” 05’


Sufi Music in Morocco- Lonely Planet, run time 4” 02’

Much of Sufi music is derived from the works of poets like Jalal-ud-din Rumi, Bulleh Shah and Amir Khusrow but sub genres of Sufi music abound depending on geography. These include Qawaalis, hamd, na’at, manqabat, marsiya and ghazal. Qawaalis are one of the most prominent forms of Sufi music. Qawwali is a form of Sufi devotional music popular in the Indian sub-continent and performed at dargahs (mosques). The musical instruments that go in the making of Sufi numbers are varied and include the harmonium, tabla and dholak, nay (reed flute) and bendir (Moroccan drum). The Nay symbolizes void or emptiness a required state to achieve the Divine. The bendir complements other instruments to provide the underlying heartbeat of the song or the rhythm of life.

One is spoilt for choice when looking at the exponents of Sufi music. Some of the best exponents of Sufi songs are Pakistani singers, late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, his nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Begum Abida Parveen. Singing maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is credited with popularizing qawwali over the world and is affectionately known as the “Shehnshah-e-Qawwali“, meaning “The King of Kings of Qawwali”. In recent times Bollywood has taken a big leap in infusing Sufi tracks into its films. Music wiz A R Rahman along with a host of other singers like Kavita Seth, Salim Suleiman, Kailash Kher and Shankar Mahadevan have doled out several numbers. Notable among these are Khwaja mere Khwaja (from Jodha Akbar); Maula mere Maula (from Anwar) and Shukhran Allah (from Kurbaan).


Khwaja mere Khwaja from Jodhaa Akbar- sung by A. R. Rehman, run time 6” 34’

The very interesting phenomenon of Sufi music is that its exponents are also to be found well outside traditional Islamic culture. The U.S. and Europe sport several local chapters that promote Sufi music. In India the Sounds of Isha performed a Sufi song Rising which is one of the most bewitching tracks you can get to hear.


Rising (mere Rabba) performed by Sounds of Isha, run time 5″ 21′

Consider some of the lyrics from Rising…

mere khuda ya paravaradigaar    my God or Lord

tujh mein basii ye jaan                     it is in you that my heart and soul rests

tujhi pe nisaar                                     it is for you I am ready to sacrifice myself

mere sahib mere allaah                  my lord, my Allah (God)

mere naseeb mere maula               my destiny, my lord


It’s very clear that though Sufi music owes its origins to Islamic culture, referring to it as an Islamic art form is limiting given it’s universal appeal. If anything, the Islamic world needs to look within and bring out its hidden treasures in full view. Music is powerful enough to help us transcend narrow domestic walls of religion, nationality and gender.  Let us all be a part of this great performance.


Feature image credit: svklimkin on unsplash

Shakti Saran is an Inclusive World Citizen, Writer and Senior Fellow at PYXERA Global. All views expressed are his own







2 thoughts on “The Essence of Sufi Music

Add yours

  1. Dear Shakti Sir,
    Always a pleasure reading Your blogs. This one is Truly Fantastic. Very beautifully articulated and well written with lots of informative material and great videos.
    Look forward to reading this many times again and to the next one too.
    Keep writing.
    Best regards.

    Liked by 2 people

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