It's nothing new for the West to be predisposed to prejudice against the Islamic world. Our irrational hatred of Muslims dates back to the time of the Crusades when we took it upon ourselves to "liberate" the Holy Land from the rule of non-believers. The fact that the so called non-believers were native to the region and the "liberators" were invaders whose only reason for attacking those countries was religious intolerance has set the tone for Muslim and Christian relations for the past 1500 hundred years.
Of course the crusaders were indiscriminate when it came to the destruction of so-called "infidels", and wiped out villages of defenceless Jews with the same enthusiasm they showed for attacking Muslim armies. It's interesting to note that during the intervals between Crusades when there was no fighting, those Christians who settled in the Middle East learned how to co-exist quite peacefully with their Muslim and Jewish neighbours. It was only those who lived outside of the region, those with no personal experience of Muslims, who fermented hatred against them.
When you look at the world today not much has changed since those times. It's still the people with the least direct contact with the Muslim world who spew forth the greatest amount of hatred towards them. In the last sixty to seventy years this behaviour has provoked the rise of what we call fundamentalists among the Muslim people — radicals who are dedicated to a dictatorial interpretation of the laws of Islam. The fact that the West calls these people fundamentalists only proves the depth of our ignorance when it comes to the Muslim faith. Only people ignorant of the religion's tenets would consider people dedicated to the practices espoused by the radicals as fundamental to Islam.
Like the Puritans of old, and the conservative Christians of today, the radical Muslim, who we are convinced is out to kill us all, represents a minority of the total Islamic population, and have through out the history of the faith. Anyone who needs convincing of that only needs to watch the forthcoming DVD release from Riverboat Records, part of the World Music Network, Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music Of Islam, and they will soon see how great a difference there is between the radicals and the majority of the population. While the movie examines the practices of one specific sect of Muslims, the Sufis, it shows how much greater an influence those people wield on the population at large than do the radicals and explores its manifestations in various countries.
For nearly fifty minutes we are taken on a guided journey by historian and writer William Dalrymple of Sufi sites in Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and Morocco as he shows us examples of how music and poetry have been incorporated into Sufi worship and philosophy. Along the way he also explains through interviews with various musicians the basic tenets of Sufism, and gradually builds a picture of a faith that is far different from the one the majority of us have come to believe in. He doesn't deny that the more uncompromising practices exist, but he opens our eyes to the fact that just like there are more then one kind of Christian, Jew, Hindi, and Buddhist, there is more then one kind of Muslim.
In Turkey, where Sufism has been outlawed since the 1920s and followers are forced to meet in secret, the former rituals of dance and music have been turned into "performances". Whirling dervishes now perform for tourists instead of as a means of communicating with God as they used to, but that doesn't prevent the philosophies behind the dance from being remembered. Human beings see the world as divided between the physical and the spiritual. According to Sufi beliefs it's through dance and music we can be bring the two visions of the world together and bring ourselves closer to God.
In temples, meeting houses, and private homes Sufis in countries throughout the Muslim world gather to sing and create music in an effort to bring themselves closer to their God. In each country the approach is different as local musical traditions are incorporated into the practices. Some practices are raw, elemental gatherings where drummers play with an ever-increasing frenzy that whips themselves and their audiences into a frenzy that breaks down physical and emotional barriers, allowing them to enter into a trance-like state they believe necessary to best experience God.
In the temple to one Sufi saint who died in 1752 music has been played every day since his death upon the instrument that he invented. Plucked like a guitar or other strung instrument it is also beaten like a drum in accompaniment to the songs written by the saint praising God. Like Catholics, Sufis believe that God can be worshiped through veneration of their various saints, and celebrations held in the various temples honouring the saint on the day of their death, or the day they met God, can be extravagant festivals that take on the appearance of concerts with performers setting the words of the saint into song.
Translations of the lyrics might take people by surprise, because it was very common for the saints to describe the love of God in terms associated with human relationships. For them poems about the love between a man and woman were a metaphor for expressing and exploring love for God. So a poem celebrating the love a man feels for a woman would actually be celebrating the poet's love for God. Perhaps the most famous of these poet saints was the thirteenth century mystic Rumi whose poems and philosophy has shaped much of modern Sufi thought, and enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the 1990s when he became the best selling poet in the United States.
William Dalrymple is a wonderful guide as he is not only unabashedly enthusiastic about the subject matter, but wise enough to let the music and the performers speak for themselves. He is also honest enough to admit that he too was forced to overcome his prejudices about Islam when he was first introduced to Sufism while living in India. It was at a temple in Delhi that he first encountered the practice and he was amazed to find as many Hindus as Muslims attending ceremonies there. To him, and me by the way, this was more than enough proof that the Sufis weren't exaggerating when they say that all are welcome in their places of worship. For, if in India, where violence between Muslims and Hindus is a depressingly common occurrence, interfaith worship can happen, it can happen anywhere in the world.
While there is no denying that there are Muslims who teach and are taught to hate other religions and to work towards the establishment of an Islamic state, the DVD Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music Of Islam reminds us that another, peaceful aspect of the religion exists. The Sufis believe that through music and song people can learn how to love God. It doesn't particularly matter to them how you express that love, or whether you want to call that expression of love Christianity, Hindu, Judaism, or Islam; what matters is that you love.
As a special feature for the DVD the film makers have included bonus material of extended performances by five of the performers featured in the film. This gives you a chance to not only hear somebody talk about what the music is designed to do during worship, but an opportunity to experience it. Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music Of Islam goes on sale in the United States on September 30, 2008. Take the opportunity this disc offers to learn how much more there is to know about Islam than what we've been led to believe by centuries of prejudice and stereotypes.