Sufism as a religion and philosophical movement has been hugely influential on the world since its inception in the ninth century. Spawning a wealth of poetry, prose, art, philosophy, musical reflections, and poetic settings, Sufism has left its mark on artists worldwide. Coming from Persian roots, Sufism has had a profound effect on my work as an artist as well, across all of my works (of direct Persian influence or not), regardless of instrumentation or style, the underlying thread of my study of Sufism is palpably present. I will trace this phenomenon into three main aspects which branch out: time experience and manipulation, inherent/created/ “divine” nostalgia–Ishq, and the ecstatic phenomena of hāl and shathiyat.
One of the principle and wholly metaphysical facets of Sufism is its approach to time and the way we experience it, expounded on here by Sufi expert Caner K. Dagli:
“What we give the name “time” is a state of affairs where forms exist in a different kind of relationality, where even a single given thing is able to be separated from its previous state and yet still be connected to those states by virtue of its being a single thing. Thus its states also exist in a kind of continuum. God’s light in static mode is space, and His light in dynamic mode is time. The identities themselves are not space and time, for the identities are pure forms in the knowledge of God, but when God casts His light upon them they enter into the dance of spatial and temporal interaction we call the world. This light enables the realities of sound, color, shape, smell, feeling, number, mass, and energy to connect and manifest the forms. Light is the vessel, both in static and dynamic mode, upon which the identities journey in between the plenary darkness of God’s knowledge on the one hand and the uninhabitable darkness of pure nothingness on the other.”[i]
Through Dagli’s illumination, we are shown a Sufi snapshot of time experience and its relative malleability: time exists abstractly on a continuum who’s visage is shaped, pushed, and pulled depending on the casting of the “light of God,” flowing seamlessly between these various states. This selfsame temporal experience is one which is of primary interest to me in my work as a composer, performer, and listener: how can I, regardless of medium, affect the flow of time for all those who come into contact with my work? How can I make two minutes feel like two hours, and two hours as two minutes? What works (musical, visual, etc.) engender this phenomenon for me as a consumer? Can my work influence consumers’ experience of time outside of my work? These are answers I routinely try to address and explore in every engagement as an artist.
Another particularly fascinating part of Sufi philosophy which has been a fixation of mine is the idea of Ishq or divine nostalgia, discussed here by Phillip Gowan, apprentice of Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, spiritual leader of the Sufi Order International:
“Ishq expresses a divine love that is a kind of divine nostalgia–a longing that we all experience at a very deep level, even though we do not know exactly what the object of that longing is. This Ishq is a longing for a reunion with the Beloved, even if we are not certain who who the Beloved is; it is an elusive sense of incompleteness that can be remedied only by communion with an undefined aspect of ourselves that is somehow very difficult to connect with, or even to understand. Such is the meaning of Ishq.”[ii]
How, musically, can I (and other other artists) create a sense of nostalgia or longing through our creation, performance, or immersion? When I experience the work of Chopin, I am regularly stricken with a deep sense of nostalgia: despite having never listened to his music as a child, I still experience a distinct nostalgic presence in nearly every work of his–why is this? What am I longing for? What wistfulness is being arisen in me? I am fascinated with the idea of created or inherent nostalgia in works of art, regardless of prior exposure or experience. How can I create a sense of incompleteness and subsequent completeness (or not) with my work? I believe these sort of experiences inform our lives outside of the concert hall/gallery/etc., and make us reconnect with a part of ourselves we are not usually conversant with–art as a nostalgic medium between ourselves.
Although the Persian musical tenant of hāl is not directly linked with Sufism, it can be viewed through the lens of shathiyat or words of ecstasy, ecstatic utterances. Hāl is described by the great Persian music master Dr. Daryush Safvat:
“In traditional Iranian music, the manner of playing is much more important than what one plays. And the manner of playing is conditioned by hāl. How to translate this word which escapes definition? Hāl is an intense state of the soul, it is the interior fire which must animate the artist like the mystic. . .When he attains the high point of this state, the artist plays with an extraordinary facility of execution. His sound changes. The musical phrase liberates its secret. The creativity gushes forth. It seems that the very essence of the music manifests itself delivered from the usual interferences of the human personality. The world becomes transfigured, unveiling its marvelous visages, and across an ineffable transparency which abolishes the actual barriers between the musician and his auditor, offers itself to the direct comprehension of every being capable of sensing. Hāl is the fruit of authenticity. The authentic musician is he who plays or sings under the force of an irresistible interior impulse.”[iii]
This otherworldly state is discussed routinely in Sufism as well, and those under the influence of this condition are often cited as uttering phrases while in ecstasy. Two famous examples are of Hallaj who said, “I am the Truth,” and Bayazid Bastami who uttered, “Glory be to me, how great is my majesty.” Both phrases were found to be highly blasphemous to their contemporaries, and Hallaj was even killed for his shath. The defense from those who enter into these ecstatic states and utter these mystical, paradoxical phrases, is that they feel so connected with God during the state, that a condition of oneness is achieved, walls and barriers do not exist, differentiation becomes irrelevant. Is it possible to create spaces in art which achieve these “states of ecstasy?” If so, how can we as artists achieve these states? For ourselves? For our audiences? How can we become one vehicle for art to reach a higher plane than our usual experience? A heightened state of reality and perception, realized during a close connection of intimacy and empathy through a common and communal experience of art making.
-Daniel Sabzghabaei (2017)
[i] Dagli, Caner K. “The Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society.” The Time of Science and the Sufi Science of Time by Caner Dagli. October 2005. Accessed April 17, 2017. http://www.ibnarabisociety.org/articles/timeofscience.html.
[ii] Gowins, Phillip. Practical Sufism A Guide to the Spiritual Path Based on the Teachings of Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. Wheaton: Quest Books, 2012.
[iii] Miller, Lloyd. Music and song in Persia: the art of āvāz. London: Routledge, 2011.