Peace, one and all…
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.