Sufism, Music and Society in Turkey and the Middle East

Sufism, Music and Society in Turkey and the Middle East

Sufism, Music and Society in Turkey and the Middle East

Sufism, Music and Society in Turkey and the Middle East


After decades of prohibition, Mevlana ceremonies of whirling dervishes attract renewed interest as forms of sacral music, both in formal and popular genres. This trend runs parallel to an increasing concern for cultural, ethnic and religious identities, where the rising tide of religious revivalism sets the tone.


One of the most powerful memories from my first visit to Istanbul in the legendary student movement year of 1968 is the sound of the ezan, the call to prayer. Especially the ezan of early dawn, called out before the noise of the swarming streets deadens the distinctness of any single sound, has ever since then been coupled with undefined, but excited expectations on my part of a different, at that time undiscovered world-life itself, as a matter of fact.

One summer night a few years after my first visit, I was sitting in a coffee-house in Eskişehir, a middle-sized town in Anatolia, when the müezzin called out the evening prayer. Wishing to share my appreciative feelings for the ezan, I said in halting Turkish: "How beautiful he sings!" Since people at the table smiled, almost with a kind of embarrassment, I understood that I had said something wrong. The ezan is not sung, but read! The proper expression would have been: "Ne güzel ezan okuyor!" (lit. How beautifully he reads the ezan!) Having corrected the sentence, however, I had second thoughts. What if, by insisting in evaluating the ezan from an aesthetic point of view, I had made another, yet more subtle mistake. Perhaps my first expression had been wrong in a double sense, not only grammatically, but also ethically.

This question touches on the complex and sometimes controversial issue concerning the role of music in different religious rituals. As for Islam, the opinions widely diverge on this question. The traditionally most common and most orthodox view is that liturgy (especially the reading of the Koran) admittedly may be supported by different forms of chanting, but the musical element in a religious ceremony should be kept under strict control, and not entice the listener or performer to neglect sacred meaning for musical enjoyment. This puritanism is not all-embracing, however. Within Sufism, the tradition of Islamic mysticism, music has developed more freely. The Sufi order (tarikat) which is especially connected with the development of sophisticated forms of ritual music, vocal and instrumental, has been the Mevlevi order, inspired by Mevlânâ Jalâl ad-Dîn Rûmî (d. 1273).

One of the most remembered Psalms (Nr. 42) in the Bible reads: "As the hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God." The same mystical longing is expressed by Mevlânâ in the very first part of his massive Sufi poetical work, Mesnevi, but through another metaphor, the ney, the reed flute. In the hands of the neyzen, the ney expresses its longing for the root, from which it once was cut off. The fact that the ney, a musical instrument, is chosen as an essential symbol for the mystical longing of the Mevlevi dervishes, is a telling evidence of the importance of music in this order.

The Mevlevi order has been especially important for the development of music in Ottoman society, both as sacral, mystical music and as secular, art music. It is characteristic of the development of Ottoman art music, mainly played at the court, but also in homes of people of high station, that many of the performers were

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