THE WHIRLING DERVICHES OF DAMASCUS: The Great Master Junayd was asked why the Sufis felt such powerful emotions in their spirit and the urge to move their body when listenning to sacred music. This way his
reply : « When God asked the souls in the spirit world, at the moment of the First
Covenant : « Am I not your Lord ? », the gentle sweetness of the divine words penetrated
each soul for ever, so that whenever one of them hears music now, the memory of this
sweetness is stirred within him causing him to move. »
In the early 9th century, when the Muslim mystics organised their Sufis brotherhoods or orders, they adopted music as a support for meditation, as a means of access to the state of grace or ecstasy, or quite simply as « soulfood » in other words, something that give new vigour to a body and soul tired by the rigours of the ascetic life. In sufism, the sama’ (meaning literally ‘listening’) denotes the tradition of listening in spiritual fashion to music, chanting and songs of various forms, all ritualised to a greater or lesser degree.
The very meaning of the world sama’ suggests that it is the act of listening that is spiritual, without the music or poetry being necessarily religious in content. The major preoccupation of the Muslim mystics was to give the ecstasy a real content and the music a true meaning.
The Sûfis mystics brotherhoad known as Mawlawiyya (Turkish: Mevlevis, more familiar to us in the West as the "whirling dervishes") was founded at Konya (Anatolia) by the great Persian poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi (1207-1273).
Although we associate this ritual above all with Turkey, local traditions have been in existence in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq since the 16th century. They survived there after the dissolution of all Sûfi fraternities in Turkey in 1925 and the suicide of the Great Master 'Abd al-Halim Thsélébi Bashi.
Damascus is one of the principal centers of Islam, the former capital of the Ummayyad dynasty and a stage in the pilgrimage to Mecca. In their meeting places there (takiyya or zâwiya), the Mawlawîyah adopted the original suites (wasla), modes (maqâm) and rhythms. The ritual may not be performed in the mosques, where musical instruments are either completely forbidden or else only allowed in the form of percussion instruments, which are generally played in the courtyard. Certain great mosques, such as the Umayyad Mosque (also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus) possess a specific vocal repertory . The sacred suites are known there as nawba-s, a term reserved for secular suites by the former inhabitants of Andalusia and the Maghreb.
Generally accompanied by a male vocal choir (bitâna), the reciters (munshid) work into the "samâ" (sacred concert) extracts from the repertoire of the Great Mosque, the naming of God (dhikr-s) and extracts from the Birth of the Prophet (mawlid). Their expressivity (hiss) is fundamentally serene, always subtly inventive and rigorously organized rhythmically in order to progressively lead the assembly into a trance (inkhitâf) or a state of meditation (ta'ammul) a choice which depends on each individual fraternity.
SHEIKH HAMZA SHAKKUR: If properly lived out, Islam is a religion that preaches a message of clemency and mercy, beauty and harmony. The spiritual power emanating from Sheikh Hamza Shakkur's songs draws us into the mystical tradition of Islam embodied in Sufism. Born in Damascus in 1947, he is a muqri (Koran reader) and a munshid (hymnodist). He is the disciple of Sai?d Farhat and Tawfiq al-Munajjid; his task is to assure the continuity of the repertory proper to the Mawlawiya order. He is the choir master of the Munshiddin of the Great Ummayad Mosque in Damascus and serves at official religious ceremonies in Syria, where he is immensely popular. Shaykh Hamza is an impressivley large, charismatic figure. His bass voice with its richly rounded timbre has made him one of the foremost perfomers of Arab vocal music. His art is uncompromisingly sober and introverted, to the exclusion of all affectation. He develops his improvisations within the framework of a centuries-old modal art, where orison blends with dance, and prayer with art. The Islam he represents, far from being fundamentalist, is that of mysticism and happiness in the Faith.