The soul of music: Kalaam-e-Aarifaan edited by Dr Hasan Aziz

Published September 6, 2015
Kalaam-e-Aarifaan: Poetry of Mystics & Sufis

(POETRY)

Compiled and edited by Dr Hasan Aziz
Kalaam-e-Aarifaan: Poetry of Mystics & Sufis (POETRY) Compiled and edited by Dr Hasan Aziz

There is something mysterious about music. And there is a universal appeal about it. When mystery combines with the esoteric sources of music’s appeal a spiritual experience results. Layers of ambiguity, cultural diversities and religious mythologies have informed this music-inspired spiritual experience in such a way that it is almost impossible to determine how and whence it originated, and what makes its impact on the human soul enduring and pervasive across civilisations, time and beliefs.

To the devotees of spiritual music, these questions are mere noise as these negate what is already an established fact for them — that music and spiritualism go as far back as the origin of life on earth, maybe even earlier; music has always been there and always will be. Dr Hasan Aziz makes this viewpoint the bedrock of his voluminous compilation, Kalaam-e-Aarifaan (Poetry of Mystics and Sufis). In the prologue to the book, he states that music’s elemental presence is a manifestation of the Aristotelian idea that ‘essence’ precedes ‘existence’. He cites the example of anhad — a mythical instrument in Hindu lore that has been producing a perpetual sound since before the beginning of time. The author, trained as a medical professional, follows this up with anecdotal and quasi-psychological explanations to argue as to why the human body always responds to rhythmic sounds whether originating from human vocal chords or from some musical instrument. His objective is straightforward: to establish that music is quintessential to what makes us human and that music touches the heart and stirs the soul regardless of whether one understands it or not.

With this premise, Aziz explains that some form of religious music has always been present in Muslim culture or at least in the Sufi part of it. He quotes from the writings of the 11th century saint Data Ganj Bakhsh Ali Hajveri to argue that those who find no “pleasure in sounds and music” belong “neither to the human category nor beasts”. Aziz then goes onto argue that there is nothing un-Islamic about music. “[I]n all religions of the world, including Islam, ‘musical notes’ exist in their rituals,” he notes in the prologue and cites qawaali, samaa, zikr and the whirling dervishes of Rumi as examples of forms of music which have existed for centuries in Muslim societies.
Once the music of the soul — and for the soul — gets going, more often than not in a Muslim milieu it takes the form of a qawwali. The author gives us a brief overview of this music genre before describing some of the most popular themes therein, such as love and longing, union and separation, worldliness and spirituality, and, most important of all, the search for truth. He, however, warns that readers should not take the words and allusions of a qawwali — or, for that matter, any Sufi poetry — in a literal sense. Though many of these words and allusions have been taken from popular love and folk stories, these are mere analogies and similies for mystical encounters and spiritual experiences, he cautions.

Aziz also distinguishes qawwali (which sometimes can be secular, such as a filmi qawwali) from samaa (which is always devotional), on the one hand, and devotional music from what in modern times is known as Sufi music on the other. “[A] lot of music being produced by certain individuals and groups of musicians under the caption of ‘Sufi music’ has nothing to do with true Sufi tradition,” he writes. “Here it needs to be highlighted that the term ‘Sufism’ is restricted to Islamic mysticism,” he adds. Aziz, however, does not explain how he arrived at this definition of Sufism. As many historians have pointed out, Islamic Sufism is also linked to monastic traditions in pre-Islamic Christianity on one hand, and the philosophical heritage of scholasticism on the other. The book is replete with such restrictive interpretations, but more on that later.

The bulk of Kalaam-e-Aarifaan consists of scores of examples of Sufi kalaam — or poetry. Written by some of the most well-known names in the Sufi history of Islam — great mystics such as Sultan Bahu, Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, Abdul Rehman Jami, Shah Shams Tabrizi, Bu Ali Qalandar and Amir Khusrau, among many others — this kalaam is sung by qawwals and musicians in a particular order. With small variations informed by sectarian and spiritual affiliations of the singers and the audiences, this order generally starts with hamd, an ode to Allah, and ends with rung, a celebration of the spiritual experiences attributed to Khusrau and his mentor Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya. In between, the singers recite naat, an ode to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), manqabat, an ode to Hazrat Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet (PBUH), and myriad other verses and poems on romantic, religious and spiritual themes.

The book not just provides the original text of each piece of poetry, it also gives its Urdu translation, transliteration in Roman script and an English translation, the latter two done by Dr Zarine Mogal, a student of the author. In order to make the verses accessible to readers who may not be familiar with the languages in which they were originally written Aziz provides Urdu meanings of the most arcane words and terms used. A surprise omission, however, is the meanings for many Persian words. He ends each piece with a short interpretive note on the themes in the verses and an index note, alluding to the biographical details of its author given towards the end of the book.

Such a multidimensional compilation of the most popular Sufi poems should serve as a great source of an enhanced understanding — both textual and interpretative — of devotional music in Islam. This, indeed, has been the rationale for the book. As Aziz describes in the prologue, Kalaam-e-Aarifaan evolved from lists and texts he circulated during qawwali sessions with the objective to make Sufi poetry understandable to a young generation of qawwali listeners. This generation, according to him, is neither conversant with the history of qawwali nor familiar with the languages in which Sufi kalaam is written, ranging from Punjabi and Seraiki to Persian, and from Urdu and Brij Bhasha to Arabic. This explains copious explanatory notes and indices as well as the focus on making the book look attractive. Lovingly produced, with eye-catching calligraphy, beautiful floral patterns at the start of the sections, and printed on rich cream paper, Kalaam-e-Aarifaan is bound to attract attention.

Yet, the books only half achieves its objective. It suffers from typographical and textual errors; texts in Seraiki and Punjabi are especially problematic since they are in the Urdu alphabet rather than in their own well-established alphabets. Transliteration also becomes cloying at places especially when it veers away from known and familiar rules. In addition, a whole lot of academic research exists on almost all the poets included in Kalaam-e-Aarifaan which could have helped the author to sift the verified version of their poetry from the multiple oral ones. More careful proof-reading could have rid the book of other minor problems.

A book on poetry and music perhaps never needed to reconcile the unabashedly romantic and sensual imagery employed frequently in Sufi verses with Islamic moralism, as the writer attempts to answer complex questions about the relationship between music and spirituality on the one hand, and qawwali and Islamic precepts on the other. Instead Aziz could have paid more attention to the history of the subcontinent’s musical tradition, and how and why certain religious poems have come to be sung in a particular format and style. The author does not dwell on the subject beyond a brief note on how the music of the subcontinent is different from the music in the rest of the world: it consists of thousands of raags and ragnis, all orally transferred from one generation to the next, compared to the Western tradition in which all compositions are written down in detail.

One solution to these problems could have been to source the information in the book more solidly than what Aziz has managed. Even the biographical indices only summarise the most commonplace facts about the people mentioned therein rather than in-depth personality sketches. Except for one and a half page of bibliography and sporadic informal references to historical sources, there is no way of knowing where all the information in the prologue and the rest of the book has come from.


Kalaam-e-Aarifaan: Poetry of Mystics & Sufis

(POETRY)

Compiled and edited by Dr Hasan Aziz

Published by Kalaam-e-Aarifaan

ISBN 978-9699840005

502pp.

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