Music and Revelation

Peace, one and all…

oud

Is it possible to lose one’s self completely in a piece of music?  Is it possible to be so utterly overcome by the beauty of sound that we are lifted briefly beyond our normal, workaday selves?

There are songs that make me feel this way.  There are songs which lift me.  There are songs that seem to speak to me so fully that they have, in some sense, become mine.  Perhaps this is why I love qawwali so very much.  Although I don’t understand all of the words, the right song at the right time moves me momentarily beyond myself, into beautiful rosegardens of the soul.  For me, at least, qawwali speak in a deep and powerful tongue, one that exists beyond the words themselves.  Indeed, music itself is that language, that rhythmic speech of the soul.  This is perhaps why it is called qawwali, coming as it does from an Arabic word meaning ‘speech’ or ‘utterance’.  This may also be why qawwali is such a participatory affair (at least in its traditional form), for ‘speech’ requires a ‘hearing’; a mouth requires an ear.

These mysterious qualities of music are, in some ways, like revelation: God’s word must be heard to be known.  Or, in other words, God does not speak without a purpose.  Perhaps this is why some 200 or so Quranic passages begin with the imperative qul (or ‘say’).  Divine revelation necessitates a response: God’s act requires us to re-act.  Thus, the Quran is replete with ways of responding to the descent of revelation.  It speaks of the proper attitude to be adopted: ‘we hear and we obey’.  This is not to compare God’s word with music, though the Quran certainly does have the power to lift the soul to the very highest registers of being.  Rather, it is simply to draw attention to the strong inward pull that both music and revelation exert on the human spirit.

Perhaps the essential difference between them is that revelation descends from God, it is sent down (tanzil) in the words of the Quran, and is thus pure in and of itself.  Music, by contrast, ascends to God and is therefore an inherently human phenomenon.  This is why music contains all the potentialities of the human soul.  Music can be Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or a beautiful ney solo.  Music can be the vicious racism of Screwdriver or the synthetic pop of Britney Spears et al.  Music can be everything in between those two extremes.  The Quran by contrast does not change.  The Quran is always God’s word, even though human beings (fools that we are) so often put our own limited understandings in the way.  God’s speech is always God’s speech, even though we may hear it all imperfectly, and reflect upon its implications less perfectly still.

May Allah open me to the hidden music of His voice in all the quiet spaces of my soul.

Wa akhiru da’wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen.

Ma’as salama,
Abdur Rahman

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16 thoughts on “Music and Revelation

  1. Salaam Abdur Rahman!!
    Vedanta speaks of the Anahata sound
    which is heard by those who know the Real.
    Srinivas Rau

  2. I think qawalli music was one of the tools which wons the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people of Indo-Pak. The intellectual struggle was also there, but the way the music resonated with the people and lifted them to ecstatic states led to mass conversions and modern day Pak is full of shrines dedicated to saints and the wonderful music they brought.

  3. Peace S. Srinivas Rau,

    I’ve heard tell of ‘the music of the spheres’ in Hindu thought. Is this the same thing? What is the Anahata sound? This sounds interesting, I’d welcome a further discussion.

    Abdur Rahman

  4. Salams Rashid,

    Welcome to my online home. Allah bless you always. Thank you for your comments. I think you’re right. Music does seem to have been a large part in spreading the message of Islam in the Subcontinent.

  5. Anahata apparently is a sound perceived by mystics ,not everyday frequencies, just as they see light which is unusual.I point again to the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna where he is asked “What is the Anahata sound?”
    I am not the man to expound these things!A misdirected honour,to be asked!
    Best Regards and Salaams!
    Srinivas Rau

  6. Dear Mr. Abdur Rahman, Assalamo Alaykum,

    For last few months, I am a regular visitor to your Blog. In this era of confounded confusion amongst thinkers and writers, your writings need sincere admiration. They are very clear in their messages.

    I would like to be in regular touch with you and your writings.

    I am an Indian – Mainframe computer professional settled in Canada. These days I am working in Saudi Arabia. I have my small circle of friends scattered in various continents. I send my articles as well as good essays from others to my friends so that every one can share it.

    I would like to share this beautiful piece “Music and Revelation” with my friends. I have thought to make the following introduction with your article. Is it OK with you?

    Was-salaam,
    Sayeed
    ===================================
    Dear friends,

    There is a British revert, now known as Abdur Rahman. He is in his thirties, reads a lot and is a prolific writer. He lives in the Valleys of South Wales (UK). I am a regular visitor to his Weblog.

    He is a Sunni Muslim adhering to Hanafi School but has vast knowledge of many related disciplines and is deeply drawn towards the spiritual path. He describes his relationship with Islam as follows:

    “My path to Islam was, by any stretch of the imagination, a gradual affair. Maybe the slow path is the best after all! In any case, my Islam was the result of a growing realisation of the centrality of God. Or, in other slightly less grandiose language, my eventual understanding of what Allah had always been trying to tell me! Or, once again, it was my awareness that I wanted God to be central to my life: the steering wheel and not just the spare tyre, as a song I once owned put it!

    “Although I took my time to investigate the teachings of Islam, I don’t think there was really any competition”.

    Here is a short and sweet recent piece by him on his personal Blog. I am sharing this with you

    =======================================

  7. Peace Shirhashirim,

    Thanks for the link. An interesting post, and I can see we are thinking along similar lines. For myself, I think music is indeed a form of language. Indeed, so is everything insofar as humans are a ‘speaking’ animal.

    Glad you love qawwali too! You must be a good sort then!!! 😉

  8. Wa alaikum salaam Sayeed,

    Welcome to my online home. Allah bless you always, and all that you do and are.

    Thank you for your kind words. Please feel free to use anything here (please just kindly cite anything of mine you quote). I have e-mailed you as well.

    Ma’as salama,

    Abdur Rahman

  9. Oops!

    I forgot to mention that I do not consider myself to be a possessor of ‘vast knowledge’. Knowledge belongs only to Al-Alim. Only the misunderstandings are mine.

  10. in terms of spirituality, i have found certain types of music are part of my way of remembering the Divine. of course, there are songs that distract, but there are also many songs that seem to be like an intimate conversation between my heart and the One.

  11. May holy God inspire you all to treasure His gift of music!
    Just as God is the giver of every human language, so too is He is the giver of pure music! Handel, for example, couldn’t have written The Messiah unless God had been inspiring him to write such wonderful music.

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