Karen Orton and
Santiago Rodriguez Tarditi
The mystical lineage of Sufism uses music and dance to unite with the divine through love—a form of devotion in which performers and audiences lose themselves to the moment. At Scorpios we’re exploring a global interest in Sufi music; we recently invited Syrian and Iranian musical group, Quieter than Silence, and Turkish musician, Mercan Dede, to perform at Scorpios. Together with a whirling dervish and framed by the Mykonos sunset, they ushered in a transcendental experience—forging a momentary connection with the sacred.
“There are many streams of sufism, the philosophical path and the practical path,” says Mehdi Aminian. One half of Quieter than Silence, Mehdi is an Iranian musician and academic based in Vienna with a lifelong interest in Sufism and the exploration of global musical traditions. “From India to North Africa and the Balkans, they all have different schools of thought—but one thing they have in common is that music is a phenomena that connects you to the moment. It’s through this connection that you can experience love, selflessness and reach the highest consciousness.”
Arshia Fatima Haq agrees. The LA-based visual artist, writer, and filmmaker has traveled extensively through Pakistan, collecting rare recordings at intimate Sufi gatherings for her album Ishq Ke Maare: Sufi Songs from Sindh and Punjab, Pakistan, capturing the ecstatic trance states that arise in performances at Sufi shrines.“Within Sufism, you have different schools—some in Pakistan and India are wilder and anarchic ,” she says. ”Sufism absorbs indigenous traditions, it blends with Hindu kirtan, for example, and while a lot of this devotional music is rooted in Islamic theology, it’s also very flexible, it absorbs a lot of influences.”
“Most authentic cultures have their roots in mysticism, from Armenia to China,” Mehdi says. As the founder of Roots Revival, an organization that opens up a dialogue between different musical traditions across cultures, he has initiated several projects that bring musicians together to collaborate and find common themes. In Quieter than Silence, Mehdi sings and plays the ney and the setar with Syrian musician Mohamad Zatari, playing the oud—together they create haunting refrains, underscored by subtle rhythms from Persia and Aleppo.
“It’s a practice that fulfills humans need for love; it goes against rigidity and responds to our human need to be in the moment.”
- Medhi Aminian
“The essence of Sufism is about being free of any limitations, of any categories and boundaries you create for yourself,” Mehdi says. “It’s a practice that fulfills humans need for love; it goes against rigidity and responds to our human need to be in the moment. Rumi started this path of Sufism—the Mevlevi Order—based on the whirling dance, but there are different approaches in Pakistan, India and North Africa,” he says adding, “dancing is just the means, not the goal. The objective is to reach outside of yourself.” Mehdi is currently working on a documentary on Persian female carpet weavers and the songs they sing while weaving. “This is spirituality to me,” he explains, “this love of the moment that pushes people forward to create something, whether it’s in Silicon Valley or in music.”
Sufi shrines in Pakistan are free from fundamentalist Islamic ideology—here, individuals create an immediate, personal connection to God, and each shrine is dedicated to a particular Sufi saint. “These saints were itinerants, they were social justice warriors going from one place to make spirituality accessible to people on the ground, away from the clerical control,” Arshia explains. In the songs, performers are “talking God as to a friend or a lover. There is that frustration that you cannot readily access this presence, but also you find the joy that one would have in any love letter.”
“These shrines are not just physical space, but metaphysical space„
The music is often inseparable from the devotional space within the shrine where it’s performed. “These shrines are not just physical space, but metaphysical space,” Arshia points out. “People come there seeking help and guidance, these are very inclusive spaces.” Describing the dynamics of the performance, she points to the lack of division between audience and performer as being key. “Everyone’s clapping and involved, people are seated at the same level and it’s circular, its not a stage, and the musicians will be in the middle.” She incorporates some of these concepts into her archival work, as well as her project Discostan, a global club night bringing together musical narratives from “Beirut to Bangkok via Bombay” that investigates the meeting point between the sacred and the secular.
Whether contemporary explorations of Sufism for the 21st century, or traditional forms of devotional song, love is the foundational concept underlying Sufi music. Describing the gathering she witnessed while in Pakistan, Arshia writes, “these songs unfold into an organic recursion of longing and despair, redeemed by an almost erotic promise of reunion with the divine entity. The singers themselves are ‘ishq ke maare’—in the throes of love.”
Continue reading about the evolution of sacred music in our three-part series on Encounters, from contemporary reinterpretation of Zoroastrian chants, to modern mysticism at the World Sacred Spirit Festival in Rajasthan.