Thursday, November 11, 2010


I love music. We all do, I am sure. The musical preference may differ but the love of music is universally shared. Everyone, from tyrannical dictators to saintly mothers, in their own peculiar way, has an inclination towards music in some form. Often music involves the transmission of humanist and spiritual ideals in formal or informal surroundings. It is therefore not surprising that at its very earliest conception, music was a major part of the spiritual transmission and experience of man.

Spiritual music falls into many specialized categories. We have the American-African gospel music of the South, which arose amongst the Negro slaves as an expression of their yearning for freedom and struggle against daily subjugation under the whip of their 'Masers'. In the Indian Subcontinent, Qawwali is just one form of (as practised by the late great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) music glorifying the Lord, and in remembrance of the extraordinary life and character of the Prophet. In many aspects of Classical, Baroque or Romantic concertos of Western composers (especially in the early traditions), there exists an inner and spiritual purpose; as an invitation and exhortation to spiritual improvement and elevation. It is interesting also that in many forms of music, and especially spiritual or folk music, the instruments utilized often reflect the landscape whence it came. Thus, in the haunting flute of the Cheyenne, one can almost imagine the flowing grassy
steppes of the Dakotas. In the beat of the murawiz and Ghazal, we are transported to Arabia. In the thumping orchestral performance of the Classics, we find ourselves seating in resplendent opulence of Renaissance Europe, glorifying Christ in stupendous arias. To each race and place, there arose its spiritual music equivalent.

My purpose however is not to dwell in music which is clearly spiritual and as intended by the songwriter. It is our suggestion that even popular music, or more commonly known as pop music (including Rock & Roll) has deep and at times, extremely thoughtful spiritual and mystical emphasis, perhaps beyond the original intention of the songwriter and composer.

A couple of years ago, I noted how pop songs, especially love songs, extols or demands love in the most complete and unconditional form with phrases like; undying, one and only love, faithful and complete, true and forever, cannot live without you, etc.. In my immature understanding I asked myself, surely this songs refer to no mortal love but God himself? Surely these songs are nothing less than expressions of love between God, Prophet and humanity? This was however an intellectual exercise. Intimate experience only occurred about 2 years on. For in those days, I used to recite dzikr (remembrance of Names of God) on the drive to work (no doubt to get as many brownie points as possible). One day however, being the unrepentant hypocrite that I truly am, I found my remembrance of God rather ritualistic and dry. I felt out of tune with the divine cosmos. Driving home later that day, I instead switched on the radio and the station was playing “Suci Dalam Debu” (Purity in the Dust) by Iklim. The lyrics (by S. Amin Shahab / Music by Wan Zul) shook my heart as they appear to transform a rock ballad into a haunting and exhaustive tale of the human spirit, repentance, and the all-encompassing outpouring of Divine Love and Mercy;

Kuharapkan kau kan terima – I hope you will accept (me)
Walau dipandang hina - Though I am dishonoured
Namun hakikat cinta kita – For the certainty of our love
Kita yang rasa - Is what we feel

Suatu hari nanti – One Day
Pastikan bercahaya - A Light will surely shine
Pintu akan terbuka - And a Door will open
Kita langkah bersama – Through which we shall both enter

Di situ kita lihat – And there we will see
Bersinarlah hakikat – The Light of Certainty
Debu jadi permata – Where Dust is transformed into diamonds
Hina jadi mulia – And the (once) dishonoured is honoured.
This song was not new to me. Yet its meaning changed for me from the time I originally heard it in 1990s. From that day onwards, I continue to listen, and experience many songs which were once understood only in its basic man-woman love dichotomy to something more beautiful. Even new releases astounded me, as Kelly Clarkson did, in “Breakaway” (Matthew Gerrard, Bridget Benenate, Avril Ramona):

(chorus) I'll spread my wings and I'll learn how to fly
I'll do what it takes til' I touch the sky
I'll make a wish
Take a chance
Make a change
And breakaway
Out of the darkness and into the sun …
… Wanna feel the warm breeze
Sleep under a palm tree
Feel the rush of the ocean
Get onboard a fast train
Travel on a jet plane, far away (I will)
And breakaway…

I must admit that some understanding of the 'trigger words' which have parallel meanings as understood and practiced by past and present mystics, greatly influenced the experiences of these songs. Common words and phrases will then carry different meanings, as in Breakway where the singer seeks to “… sleep under a palm tree, feel the rush of the ocean, get onboard a fast train, travel on a jet plane, far away…”. Sleep and dreams are ideas that arise again and again in Sufi lore, as do the Ocean, which is commonly also called the Mercy Ocean, in which humanity is sprung from and must return to. The concept of change and travel, reflects the concept of hijra, wherein one migrates and adapts to a new environment (or new self) for the sake of the Lord and His Prophet. Of course, when Kelly sings “…And breakaway out of the darkness and into the sun…”, the meaning is plain not only to the brethrens of Islam, but also believers of many other faiths. In Sufism however, the Sun may commonly be used in reference to God Himself. A Sufi lore speaks thus, Only by the Sun will you see the Sun. And this inevitably takes us further into the realm of Tawhid, which is the concept of Oneness of God, the cornerstone of all monotheistic faiths.

In the earlier Suci Dalam Debu, the word hakikat mirrors the personal certainty of experience and belief in God, the Angels and the Prophet. It is the highest form of understanding and a quest for all Muslims. The idea of purity in the dust can be referred to the pouring of the Divine Light of Muhammad (NurMuhammad) into the earthly vessel of clay that we call our body; alternatively, it may also refer to man’s too common weakness in judging people at their exterior/manifest (zahir) without understanding the core (batin). Additionally, the nur or light plays a key role in Muslim literature. For darkness is perceived not as a substantive reality, but merely the absence of light. Just as evil is no significant matter, being merely an action devoid of good. These are all codes and keywords common in many Sufi poetry and lore, none more so than in the writings of Maulana Jelaluddin Rumi, whose writings continue to be in the bestseller list of the West.

What is attractive is that these experiences bring the Divine to a human level of understanding – a little gleam of joy stolen from songs which others may call mere entertainment, so-called 'low brow' pop songs. In any event, they show a very real and caring Lord, a very real and loving Prophet, and the fortunate happenstance that we, the children of Adam, are all in His care. This is not an academic discourse, but experience. Many a times, this intimacy is expressed in the separation between the lover and the beloved, and the terrible yearning for union with the Beloved, which in Christian mysticism may be “rapture” or in terms of Sufism, in the “annihilation” (fana) of the believer in the Lord. Often, the sense of longing is almost physically painful, as Jennifer Paige sings in Stranded;

You know it only breaks my heart
To see you standing in the dark
Alone waiting there for me to come back

… If it's coming over you
Like it's coming over me
I'm crashing like a tidal wave
That drags me out to sea
I want to be with you
If you want to be with me
Crashing like a tidal wave
I don't want to be
I can only take so much
These tears are turning me to rust
I know you're waiting there for me to come back
(Matt Brownleewe & Arbuckle Lee)

The fear of the singer turning into rust by her constant tears can be resolved through Alchemy which is the mythical science of changing base metal into gold, for gold does not rust. At another level however, real Alchemy refers to the transformation of man, locked in his earthly vessel, into a creature which mirrors his real (haqiqat) station as a member in the most honoured congregation (Mankind) of the most praised being (which is essentially the meaning of the name, Muhammad). Gold can also mean the message of the Messenger, the Quran and the Sunnah, which shall not be dulled by time, and is guaranteed by God Himself in an unbroken chain (silsalah) of the Prophet’s inheritors that is golden in name and nature.

There is a price however to be paid by these songwriters and singers. Such is the adulation of the fans and the material rewards that many, sadly, fall into temptation. But don’t judge them too harshly and remember the warning given by an old sinner;

Songwriters and stagewalkers,
Balladeers and raconteurs,
Playwrights and soul singers.

O’ artisans, be wary!
For thy nemesis has cultivated the skill
Thou both share far longer than thee;

The ability to weave a good story
And move the heart of thy most belligerent enemy.

This article is not knowledge. At best it is personal reflection, and perhaps a lot of what I may wish to communicate is lost in the transmission. There is no real rule, nor guide or manual that can help us understand a song(and dare I say it, life itself) save through the prism of love. And that is the only key. Every thing else depends upon the heart (and ears) of the beholder as each man and woman continue to create and recreate their respective and very individual universes. And if the Lord is how His servant makes Him to be, then may He be the Lord who leaves signals and signposts, in the most odd and unexpected of places, to guide the wandering soul home;

… Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There's still time to change the road you're on…

… And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll…
(Stairway to Heaven performed by Led Zeppelin, Paige/Plant)

God, Prophet and Rock & Roll was written 3 - 4 years ago as a magazine article. Perhaps you may notice that it isn't as light-hearted and mad as my normal postings. But I think the point is clear. And I hope you enjoyed reading the article as much as I did writing it. Let the Music play, Amadeus!
God bless you, and have a great Saturday, sunshine.
Pax Taufiqa.


Zul said...

This is another great stuff.This is what i mean.You came out with good stuff day by day.amazing Taufiq.Well singers just like preachers.So,the same thing,devil will disturbing them like what they did to prophets.Syabass! another great contains and worth to read.Especially....the song breakway.I uploaded the song in facebook last night.when i read your blog just now,it's in here too..amazing.SubhanaAllah..

Milky Tea said...

If what I write turn you on, then I am happy. Drunk happy. God bless you.