Filed Under:

Sufi Mystics Get A Modern Soundtrack

Sufism is the mystical path of Islam. It is the inner, meditative branch of the religion that's found in many different forms, in many different countries, and seldom makes news like its Sunni and Shiite counterparts. The ancient spiritual practice of Sufism incorporates all kinds of activities to achieve a state in which the practitioner loses the ego and experiences God through singing, chanting, reciting, whirling — as in dervishes — and music.

Riad Abdel-Gawad, a noted Egyptian-American Sufi violinist who has come to Studio B at NPR West to play some of his compositions, lifts his violin to his chin, closes his eyes and inclines toward the microphone. The music that comes out of his instrument is insistent, exotic and transporting.

With a Harvard Ph.D. in composition, the Cairo-born virtuoso has played and taught his music around the world. Abdel-Gawad's compositions embrace Egypt's multihued, 7,000-year musical history, which he's updated with a New World sensibility.

He plays a fast, repetitive figure.

"We call this zikra lela," Abdel-Gawad says. "It means the remembrance of God. So you can use the music as a means to transport yourself to different stages and closeness to Allah, or God."

Sufism in America became popular in the 1970s, when it migrated here from the Middle East. People gather in small groups, in homes or lodges, to inquire, meditate and listen as they approach the disciplined life of a Sufi. The sect does not advertise or proselytize.

Kabir Helminski is a 65-year-old American Sufi author, lecturer and spiritual leader who runs sufism.org. He's also a whirler in the Turkish Mevlevi Order.

"Sufism is a spiritual path that people choose to have an experience of the divine," Helminski says in a phone interview from his home in Louisville, Ky. "There's quite a variety of music, but the important thing is that it happens within a sacred context, and music is there to take people to a very sublime and transcendent state."

Riad Abdel-Gawad is best known for his made-in-the-USA compositions that expand Egyptian classical music. Along the way, he creates new Sufi music by translating sacred chants to the violin.

"This is religious or sacred music," says Abdel-Gawad, "a little bit like Bach's time when he had music for the church. Similarly, now we have concert music that's growing out of this sacred Islamic music."

Through this work, he's ensuring that the ancient practice of Sufism has a modern soundtrack.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Where Did TV's Villains Go? Monsters, Anti-Heroes And Alexis Colby Carrington

TV has a bad guy problem. The rise of morally ambiguous anti-heroes like Tony Soprano has pushed chewier, more melodramatic villains aside. What we gained in nuance, we lost in sheer, hiss-worthy fun.
NPR

Minnesota Cracks Down On Neonic Pesticides, Promising Aid To Bees

Minnesota's governor has ordered new restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been blamed for killing bees. Many details of the plan, however, remain to be worked out.
NPR

Supreme Court Declines To Reinstate North Carolina Voter Restrictions

After the high court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, North Carolina and other states enacted laws that critics said were aimed at making it harder for minorities to vote.
WAMU 88.5

Results From Congressional Primary Races And New Concerns About Hacks Into State Voting Systems

Join us to discuss results from primary challenges to Republican Senator John McCain, Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz and others and new concerns possible Russian hackers breaking into U.S. state voting systems.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.