SAMA . . .

by Sharafuddin Maneri

Makhdum al-Mulk Sharafuddin b. Yahya Maneri, r.a. (d.1381) had met Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya, r.a. (d. 1325) but did not become a disciple of a Sufi master until he met the little known Najibuddin Firdausi, r.a. (of the Firdausi Order in India.). Later he became a great shaikh himself. What follows is a letter concerning sama that he wrote to a disciple who was unable to attend his presence.

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate

Brother Shamsuddin, may God honour you! Hearts and minds are the treasure houses of secrets, and are mines filled with precious gems of hidden meaning. The manner of concealment of those secrets and gems is like striking a stone upon iron and causing sparks to fly. Likewise listening to music brings forth sparks that were previously hidden in stone and iron! It is not possible for listening to bring about anything from the heart that is not already there, just as nothing can leak from a porous pot that is empty to begin with!

Know then, that whoever is overcome by the love of God and who yearns to see Him, finds that listening to music is a stimulant that excites his holy desire and further serves to strengthen his love and ardent yearning by bringing it out into the open. Listening brings out the hidden fire from his breast and makes it visible in elevated states, through clear manifestation and mutual enlightenment. This cannot take place within an obstructed heart itself. Know that if anyone is destined to experience His grace, and to have these blessings showered upon him, then in the language of the Sufis, these exalted states are referred to as ecstatic outpourings. At this stage, listening to music is not only lawful but desirable! Some even say that it is necessary for this step to be taken, because although something may be fanciful in this world, when it reaches the stage of hearing God Himself, it becomes something truly wonderful. How greatly a person can be transformed in his very essence! Whatever comes to him then will also be transformed.

Hence it is that spiritual guides have said that even though the verses that are sung to them might suggest a tavern, when they hear the word 'union,' this causes them to think of the vision of God,  just as the word 'separation' represents a veil between them and God, and the word 'eyes' represents a glance from Him. Imagine the pleasure of the person who hears: "I cast (the garment of) love over thee from Me: and (this) in order that thou mayest be reared under Mine eye." [Qur'an 20: 39]. The word 'tresses' reminds them of nearness to God "in order that they may bring us nearer to God." [Qur'an 39: 3]. It could easily happen that the word 'tresses' could provoke a person into thinking of the whole chain of attributes of God Himself, as the poet has noted:

I said: I shall count the ring of tresses upon her head,
In that way I shall remove all ignorance of what concerns her!
Laughing at me, she twisted sharply her billow of dark tresses,
And reduced to confusion all my careful calculations!
This means that if anyone aspires by using his own powers to grasp even a tiny hair of the wonders of God, he will fall into such confusion that all his speculation will not only be incorrect, but all his intellectual efforts will be utterly confounded! On the other hand, it may be that 'tresses' might be understood as the darkness of infidelity, and 'light' for the brightness of faith, as has been said:
Your tresses snatched away my heart, which belong to Your face.
Look at the Hindu! He has grasped what, by right, belongs to the Muslims!
Or again,
The darkness of Your tresses has darkened the face of fortune;
The light of Your face has turned the oppression of night into day!
By the word 'infidelity' Sufis understand it to mean concealing one's being and actions, and by the word 'apostasy' they understand it to mean turning away from the self. When a venerable Sufi heard the following couplet being recited,
Until you become an infidel, love will not purchase you:
Who but an apostate can do the work of a qalandar?
He raised a cry and passed out! When he recovered his senses, the people asked him what happened. He replied: "The dictionary meaning of 'infidelity' is to 'cover-up,' so an unbeliever is one who 'covers up.' A farmer, who hides his seeds in the earth, is also called an 'unbeliever.' " The meaning of this verse would then be, 'as long as the righteousness of your  being and your actions have not been hidden from yourself and also from other people, then you cannot genuinely claim to be a lover! And until you turn away from yourself and become freed from your animal soul, you should not say anything about being a qalandar!'

To mention 'wine' as well as 'intoxication' have different meanings for Sufis:

If you were to measure out two-thousand cups of wine
How could you relish it, unless you first tasted it?
These words are meant to suggest that religious matters cannot only be understood through hearing and knowledge, but must also be tasted. If you speak much about love, ardent desire, posterity, fear of God, and so on and even compose books about them, then you still will not profit until you yourself are changed by the particular virtue that you extol.

Also understand about verses which refer to taverns.

Whoever has never being to a tavern has no faith:
In the tavern is the very foundation of the faith!
The poet says here that until those predominant human qualities that are within you are destroyed, those other hidden qualities that remain within your inner being cannot come to birth and begin to flourish.

It can happen that when a Sufi is in a mystical state, he might understand some Arabic verse to mean something other than what the words actually say. For example, someone said:

Even when I dream, it is all about You!
And a Sufi upon hearing this was overcome. He was asked, "What is this? You don't even know what he is talking about!" He replied, "What do you mean by saying that I don't know? He is saying that I am rejected, abandoned, and in great danger."

One of the venerable Sufis was walking in the bazaar. He heard a cucumber-seller calling out, "Ten cucumbers for penny!" He fell into an ecstatic trance. The people later asked him about what had happened. He said: "when ten just men are sold for but at penny, what must the wicked be worth?"

It can happen that a person will hear this exact same couplet and will understand it much differently from the next person and this can be attributed to his own condition and outlook. For example, a slave girl while filling a pitcher at the river bank in Baghdad, sang this couplet:

Undoubtedly the Master of the heavens is pure;
But lovers are caught up in grief and difficulties!
One man fell into rapture  and exclaimed, "You are right!" Another also fell into an ecstasy, muttering, "you are wrong!" Both were correct! The one who said she was correct fixed his attention on all the grief and effort of the lover; and on the other hand,  the one who disagreed with her saw only the spirit, contentment, and union with the Friend that is found in love. Sometimes it happens that the mere sound of the words, without ever understanding their meaning, is enough to send them into a trance.

Finally, have you ever heard about Arab camels that become so intoxicated by the singing of their drivers that, even though they are carrying a heavy load, will run so swiftly that when they arrive at their destination and the singing ceases, they  immediately fall down into a heap and die? That is the sort of listening that befits this group! Whoever is overcome by whatever happens to him, no matter what he listens too, hears God. Wherever he looks, he sees Him. If he rejects anything he sees or hears, he rejects a chance to experience Him. Whoever has been inflamed by the fire of love of God -- or even of some insubstantial creature -- should understand this matter very well!

For the present, it is necessary to pay close attention to one fundamental thing in order to escape from the possible pitfalls and calamities that are involved in listening to music. Thus, you should understand that anything that pertains to defective qualities or to change refers to yourself, while you should understand that whatever is concerned with qualities such as beauty, glory, existence, beneficence, and anything that evokes similar perfections as referring to God Almighty. If someone, for example, hears this couplet,

Where now is that inclination to kindness I used to experience?
What is the reason for such dejection today?
then, even though he had originally been strong in facing up to adversity, he might suddenly become weak and, so when he hears this couplet, imagine that God Almighty used to favour him, but has now changed. Except, to suppose that a change had taken place in God Himself would be blasphemous. He should understand that there is no possibility whatsoever of change in God. There is simply no way that any rejection, evil, or vexation would proceed from that direction. The Divine threshold remains open to everyone, just as the sun showers its light upon all and sundry. But should anyone remain in the shade of say, a wall, then it is that person who will remain veiled as far as the sun is concerned. The change is in him, not in the sun, as has been said:
O Beloved, the sun has risen a long time ago:
If it does not shine on someone, it is his own misfortune!
The responsibility for this veil should be ascribed to a person's own misfortune, or to some fault that he has committed -- not to God. For He remains completely unstained by these things. Those who are impure, narrow-minded, frustrated, or ill-fortuned are astonished to discover that anyone could derive pleasure in listening to such music. Listening with pleasure, ecstatic utterances, an agitated condition, and change of colour -- will all astonish them. Remember that beasts marvel at the delicious taste of almond syrup, the impotent are surprised by the pleasure of intercourse, and the ignorant become awestruck by the pleasure of mystical knowledge of God, His glory, His greatness, and the wonders He has fashioned. A person so greatly blessed by God is beyond the estimation of man! No matter how importunate someone may be, it is impossible to praise Him adequately in this abode. It is no wonder that a blind man will not interested in the site of greenery or flowing water, for he has no eyes with which to see. Also, if a child rejects the enjoyment of kingship and domination, why is that so astounding? The child is only interested in play! What use does he have for the satisfaction of ruling a kingdom?

If a person's heart is captivated by ardent love for someone upon whom it is unlawful for him to look at, then everything that he hears at a musical gathering would turn out to be understood with respect to the forbidden person. In this case listening to music is strictly prohibited for such a person, since he would be agitated by thoughts about the person, and deliberate upon various actions that are both exciting and dangerous. Anyone or anything that incites a person toward something that is forbidden is itself forbidden. No-one disagrees on this point. If the love of God is not uppermost in a person's heart, so that listening to music becomes something commendable for him, as well as an occasion for overcoming sensual fancies, then that listening would be unlawful for him. Others say that listening to music is permissible for him, just as other kinds of actions are permissible for him.

Listening to songs can be divided into three categories: lawful, forbidden, and permissible. Hence it is that a venerable Sufi, when questioned on the matter, said "Listening to music is desirable for those devoted to God, permissible for those who vacillate, and improper for people given over to sensuality and pleasure!" All the Sufi Shaikhs agree that, while a person is engaged in reciting the Qur'an, it should recited in such a way that no obstruction is placed in the way of understanding it.

One day the Apostle was asked about odes and poetry. He said: "They are merely words. As such, they can be either good or bad." In other words, whatever it is lawful to listen to -- whether it be wisdom, advice, rational demonstrations of verses concerning God, the remembrance of His blessings and favours, the qualities of the righteous and those who fear God, in verse or prose -- all are lawful. On the other hand, listening to anything that pertains to something which is forbidden, such as backbiting, shameful things, disparagement, satirizing someone, or blasphemous talk (both in verse and prose) -- are all forbidden. The description of cities, houses, past ages, peoples, and so on, is permissible; while descriptions of 'moles,' 'shapely figures,' 'tresses,' 'lips,' 'eyes,' and other similar things that pander to the sensual soul are all improper. This admonishment also applies to both verse and prose as well.

As for those who were close to God, who are given over to struggle with self and various austerities, and who can differentiate between what originates from human nature and that which is from on high (as described in the first category) then to listen to any sort of music becomes permissible for them. The Messenger of God (the Prophet Muhammad, p.b.u.h)  listened to recitals of verse, while the Companions composed verse and also listened to recitals.

In this whole matter many are at fault. Some condemn the listening to all verse as forbidden by the Law, yet they will spend many a day and night backbiting their fellow Muslims! Another group proclaims that it is lawful for anyone to listen to any music that is pleasing, and act accordingly. Yet they spend their time listening to frivolous songs and arguing with one another about them. Realize from all this that it would be quite wrong to make any categorical statement about any matter that is under dispute and of doubtful value.

The author of the Kashf ul-Mahjub [Revelation of Secrets], Ali Hujwiri, a radiant luminary of his age, said: "Once when I was in Merv, one of the leading traditionists said to me, 'I have written a book to demonstrate that listening to music is permissible.' I replied, 'A greater difficulty has appeared in the faith. A noted leader has legitimized that frivolity which is the root of all wickedness.' 'If you don't consider it lawful,' he retorted, 'then why do you practice it?' I said, 'Any instruction concerning it must depend on the circumstances. No blanket statement can be made about it. If listening to music produces a commendable effect on one's heart, then it is lawful. However, If its effects are unlawful, so too is it. Similarly, if the effects of listening are permissible, so too is that listening.' " It is impossible to make an absolute statement about something that on the surface seems to be bad, but is inwardly illuminated by many compelling reasons.

Consider dancing too. Imam Ghazzali cited three reasons for dancing. He said: "The command about dancing refers to what moves a person to dance. If something praiseworthy stimulates the person to dance, and so dancing helps him grow and strengthens him, then that dancing is also praiseworthy. If something despicable stimulates him to dance, then that dancing also is despicable. But if it is something permissible that inspires him, then the dance also is permissible." He also declared: "It became customary for a group of Companions to dance for joy when anything wonderful happened."

There are, moreover, some good people who dance with a swaying motion to and fro even though they have not been overcome by the ecstasy of union; they simply move around in order to imitate other dervishes. Many more are moved to a perfectly balanced movement in order to show that they are not in any ecstasy or trance, 'to save themselves from any falsehood.' Yet, despite all that has been said, people attest that it is not good to make a habit of dancing. For the most part, the states of people who merely imitate others take their origin from sports and frivolity or from such other similar activities. Men of spiritual insight should shun their example lest they become of little worth in the eyes of people, who would then cease to follow them. As far as the Law and the mind are concerned, there is something unseemly in all forms of play. In short, it is impossible for the most excellent of men to engage in these activities.

Nevertheless, when any lightness appears in one's heart while listening to songs, and a floating of the heart, occasioned by divine intimations, takes possession of them, and as time goes by this gets stronger and a restless condition arises of its own accord, then all order and custom are removed. This agitated state can not simply be called "dancing." Neither is it the mere movement of one's legs, nor is it a pandering to nature, since it is a purification of one's soul. Anybody who considers this dancing would be very far from the path of truth, for, in fact, this is a state that cannot be described in words. Unless you have tasted it, you can not even know what is meant. All movement of this group would be an inner striving, not dancing. Anyone who talks about this state by itself proves that he has merely been dancing, and has not had this inner seizure!

There are Traditions that deal with genuine ecstatic states which can occur while listening to music. One such genuine Tradition confirms this matter, and I shall bring it to your attention here. Uns has related this incident: "I was near the Apostle when the great Gabriel appeared to him. He said: "O Apostle of God, here is some good news for you! The dervishes of your community will enter Paradise five hundred years before the rich.' The Apostle was filled with joy upon hearing this news and said, 'Is there anyone present who can recite a poem for the occasion?' A man said, "Yes, I can, O Apostle!' He replied, 'Then recite!' This was the poem that they all heard:

The serpent of love has stung my heart:
There is no physician, and none to administer a charm,
Except that Beloved with whom I am enthralled.
With Him is the charm and the antidote as well!
The Prophet and his Companions were so enraptured by this that the Prophet's cloak slipped off his shoulders. And when this condition subsided, Mu'awiyya ibn Abu Sufyan exclaimed: "What a good game you are playing, O Apostle!" "Get far away, O Mu'awiyya!" retorted the Apostle. "No one who fails to rejoice when hears the description of the Friend can possibly be favoured!" The Prophet's cloak was divided into four hundred pieces and distributed among those present. It has also been related that the Prophet was once seized with such emotion and clapped his hands so vigorously, because of what he heard, that drops of blood appeared on his fingers. He is also reported to have said: "Whenever a dervish claps his hands while listening to music, he expels any sensuality within him; whenever he stamps his feet on the ground, he ejects any lust inside him; and whenever he shouts out in praise of God, he drives away any desires that remain within him."

It is permissible to cry out in a musical gathering whenever one is inwardly overcome by ecstatic union, because one cannot help oneself in such a state. It is related that Moses was once saying something to the Israelites. Someone shouted. Moses scolded him. When he was next in prayer, God said to him: "He was shouting out on account of his love for Me. You should not try to stop him or anybody else who wails, cries out, or is comforted by being close to Me!"

Shaikh Abu Abdur Rahman has collected these Traditions [sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad, p.b.u.h.] in a book on the topic of listening to music. Realize now that everyone who has some standing in these musical gatherings can have his standing measured according to how much he imbibes, and the taste that he develops for it, just as every penitent is helped to foster his grief and repentance by whenever he hears, while someone who longs for God will  experience a growth in his eagerness to see the face of God; a believer would be strengthened in his certainty; a disciple would want to continue his investigation of Truth; a lover would be further cut off from creatures, and an indigent one would experience the real foundation of his placing no hope in others.

It is said that listening can be likened to the sun, which shines upon all things, but the measure of its effect on each creature depends on its quality and what is imbibed. One is burned, while another is made to shine. One is helped to flourish, while another melts away. If anyone were to ask how it could happen that someone who has no knowledge or awareness of himself nevertheless manages to dance according to the beat of the singer and recognizes the voice and melody of the singer, the answer would be that when a man is no longer shackled by the fervour of his animal soul and has no attachment to his own opinions and ideas, his heart then becomes both more illuminated and strengthened. And when this weakening of the animal soul takes place, and the heart is illuminated, inevitably he will understand the beat of the music and the meaning of the singers.

If it is said that since they want to listen to God and for the sake of God, then it would be appropriate that sitting in the company of those who are close to God should be for the purpose of hearing a recital of the Qur'an and not the singing of songs of merriment. The reason for saying this is that since  the Qur'an is the Word of God, that should come first. The answer to such an objection is that there are many gatherings where people do listen to the recitation of the Qur'an. It can happen that many individuals will fall unconscious when they hear it, whereas others will have even given up their souls when listening to Quranic recitals, as has been amply documented. The reason for substituting singers for reciters of the Qur'an, and songs for the Qur'an, in all respects, is not suited to all the states of the lovers of God. One finds in its stories about the infidels and commands concerning ordinary worldly affairs things such as this verse: "A mother is entitled to a sixth of the inheritance, and a half and share should be given to each daughter." [Qur'an 4:12]. Or again, this verse, "If a woman's husband dies, she should remain in seclusion for four-months and ten days." [Qur'an 2:34] These and similar verses scarcely serve to enkindle the fire of love and ardent longing. Even so, anyone who is enraptured with the Final End of life, hears Him whenever he listens to anything -- even if the meaning of the words is far from Him. Such a person would be quite rare!

A second reason to substitute songs for recitation of the Qur'an is that so many people already know the Qur'an by heart, while others simply read it. We know that we frequently do not pay all that much attention to anything we hear regularly. Do you not see that when the Arabs first came to hear the Qur'an, they would weep and various states would appear in them? Abu Bakr said: "I also used to be like you, but now my heart has grown assured. It is now stilled by the Qur'an!"

However, the condition of listening properly depends on the observance of three things (i) place (ii) time, and (iii) company. The place should be a hospice of the shaikhs, or some building that is clean, tidy, well lit and ventilated. The company should consist of friends and dervishes, people endowed with discrimination and able to converse properly. They should be people who practice austerities. As for the time, it should be when the heart is completely free from all preoccupations. Also, the proper conduct at such sessions requires that one should not take part until one's heart is freed from such things. Still, you should not make a habit of it. You should participate only occasionally, for fear that the effect upon your heart be lost. It is not fitting to try to look for an approving eye while in such a charged atmosphere. If anybody offers assistance, he should not be prevented from helping. There should be no attempt to control what is happening to anyone, nor should a person be judged because of the particular verse being recited, for that is very distracting and it is also useless. It should also be noted that if the singer sings in a pleasing manner, one should not comment, "You sing very well!" Or, if he does not sing well, or his verses are not nicely balanced, one should not declare, "Sing better!" There should be no altercation with him in your heart! In fact, you should not permit him to come in the way at all. Instead, you should concentrate upon listening attentively. If the group is seized by what it has heard, yet you are not granted a share in their rapture, it might be because when you yourself were sober, you looked with disdain at their drunken state. On such occasions, it behoves you to be full of supplication, so that God will shower His blessings upon you too. If you are not granted these blessings, then you should at least become closely attached to an experienced and blessed man.

The second point to be observed is that everyone should bow their heads and not look at each nother. They should not speak to each nother during the session, or have drinks of water. They should not look to the right or to the left, shake hands or their heads, or disturb someone else by any untoward movement. Brother, they should be as composed as they would be when sitting on their heels during formal prayer. Every heart should be raised to God, may He be Glorified and Exalted. Each one should wait patiently for Him, until, on account of his listening, the indescribable bounty is vouchsafed to him from the hidden world.

When anyone is overpowered by ecstatic union stands up, the others should support him by also standing up. If his turban falls off, they should put it back on his head. All of these are new practices, and are not found among the Companions or their immediate successors. However, not all innovations are to be disapproved. The vast majority are good, as Imam Shafi'i used to say. The practice of listening to the recitation of the entire Qur'an in the evenings throughout Ramadan dates from the Caliph Umar and was certainly a pious practice. A reprehensible innovation (bi'dah) would be one that goes against the practice of the Prophet. However, when men have been inspired by a good disposition and heart, and rejoice in such a way that there is no transfiguring of the Law, then this is something commendable. It would be a bloody business to interfere in the traditional ways in which a particular people are accustomed to do things. The injunction of the Law is, "Deal with people according to their particular behaviour and disposition," for people will be happy with what agrees with their behaviour, and will be scared away by anything that goes against it. What is agreeable to them would be like a binding practice for them. You know, of course, some of the Companions were unhappy to see the Apostle dancing. The reason is that they detested such behaviour. The culture of the Arabs is one thing, but the of the Persian's is quite another!

Let the matter rest for we have said enough in this letter about musical sessions and the rules that apply to them.


This letter was adapted from The Hundred Letters, by Sharafuddin Maneri