Burnley Literary Festival (2016) day 7 – Sufi Music


The following has been rewritten from fragments / reconstructed following some difficulties with a Windows 10 upgrade that deleted my profile nearly 2 years back.

Burnley Literary Festival 2016 - Brochure front cover

Burnley Literary Festival 2016 – Venue Guide

Rumi and The Wings of Love

Be in the world but not of it, so it is said. You hang around with a secret because you know there are seekers. The answer is not what they expect and besides, there are other things to consume – with addictive properties. This ignores the purpose and function of that that is doing the consuming. I suppose this needs a little background explanation. For this we need to go back 800 years.

About the Destruction of Khwarezm

At the time, Genghis Khan was testing the water in Khwarezm, an ancient (and powerful) realm later crushed by the Mongols. Its population was around 40 million. How so many? This was a restored Greater Persian Empire – modernised for the time and empowered by a nomadic ruling class. Its destruction was traumatic and on a scale not witnessed since. Not everyone was slaughtered although a good few million were, however the Mongols wanted a pliable population which they could regularly plunder – suffering the Mongol yoke was somewhat worse than say a hated monarch. Rebellion could offer respite from a hater monarch and, if all else failed, it was possible to escape and journey to other lands where affairs were more tolerable. The Mongols however wanted a piece of every empire going: the Jin (who’s heard of them? they no longer exist) – once an empire in what is now Northern China were completely subjugated by the Mongols (1211-34). They had learned the patience required to starve a city to submission and were getting to grips with siege engines. The Sung (the rest of China) – came under the rule of the Great Khan in a series of wars (1235-79)

Khwarezm was a different affair. The task of appointed overlords was to oversee each city, ensuring that a suitable supply young men and young woman of were made available the former as expendable shock troops in Mongol wars and the latter as replacement army whores, and that it continued to pay taxes. The inhabitants often saw this as an inequitable arrangement  and as the main Mongol hordes were often busy subjugating other peoples – they could be gone for years at a time – the thoughts of those left behind turned to rebellion. Juvaini refers to these indirectly in his History of the World Conqueror. Mongols held city dwellers in contempt and sometimes – after crushing a rebellion by offering clemency to city inhabitants, would go back on their word and slaughter them all – after all there were plenty of other city dwellers on the Old Silk Road. Some of the rebellions are said to have been founded by Sufis.

Juvaini, was a senior administrator for the Mongols in the Il Khanate and would well have known the power and inclination of its rulers. He had little time for the Isma’ili and their mountain fortresses. It is doubtful he would have had sympathy for rebel leaders and their Sufi patrons.

When sizing up a city the Mongols would send spies to identify the best artisans, courtesans, musicians, war machine makers, richest traders etc. Once it was conquered those identified (should they survive) would be set to work for their Mongol masters, or in the case of the latter, shaken down. This was a systematic approach and resulted in the displacement of many things, even musical accents.

We are warned against casual consumption as if the effect were a confection; smoking, drinking – drugs of any kind – offer a change of perspective, but at a price. In times past there were those who might have been called seekers after truth. They were of course pursuing their addiction. No more need be said.

There are other means of perception – balance for example is a complex sense which is an extension of touch. An extension of balance is the inner perception of appropriateness. This atrophies under the  pressures of the modern day and age – we are pulled along by the conveyor-belt of our situation in life – the wage slave, the housewife, the careerist etc. meaning all our choices are made on a very narrow track – do |I let that car pull out / don’t I? do I buy this / don’t I? It’s linear and most of the time it’s all about satiation with me-me-me at the heart….

More delicate perceptions function poorly in the world of the direct. Grow. Learn. Love. Hate. Marry. Leave. Work Earn. Spend. Beget. Worry. Grow old and die. Action words create tension crowding out thought and reflection. At the height of the storm, your hand is less steady. The direct forces a reaction and in doing so blunts perception. Some things cannot be sensed.

Sufi music isn’t melodic to Western ears. Iranian Sufi music is in accordance with a regional musical accent. There used to be 12 accents but at least 5 have been lost. Much was destroyed during the Turco-Mongol era – yes we’re talking that long ago. Iran used to be a province of a greater empire and those accents native to Iran are what have survived; what was lost relates to what was then the balance of the Khwarezmian Empire and now is split between Afghan-Khazak-Kyrgiz-Turkmen-Uzbek and Tajik. Conquerors and conquered. The former are a patchwork of peoples; descendants from nomadic peoples. The latter (Tajiks) are descendants of the long ago town and city-dwellers of the aforementioned Khwarezmian Empire. Cities and culture including musical accents, were destroyed those distant ancestors were driven from their cities and butchered. What survives are long nurtured grievances plus echoes of terror. For some answer to bitter internecine Islamic conflict, look no further than this.

Linguistic map of Central Asia (excluding Iran)

Linguistic map of Central Asia (excluding Iran)

In its normal setting Sufi music is halfway between reading a sacred text and performing poetry. The reading is likely to be from a Sufi text several centuries old.  There can be incense.  In this country the words need translation – classical Sufis didn’t write in English. The poems deal with love, transformation, loss, the search for reason and purpose, and answers to the question why (why, if there is a greater purpose and an ultimate being, was Golden Age ended?) Those that ask are descendants of both conquerors and conquered.

The Mechanics

This music session was held in the basement of the Mechanics in Burnley. The musicians were from Love and Etiquette, the readings were from Rumi and these were accompanied by instruments and incense. The instruments were unusual and I include details below. ¹

Depicts Whirling Dervish to accompany the performance: Rumi and The Wings of Love

Whirling Dervish depiction

Those who wonder why how seekers after knowledge become addicted to Sufi music can experience this first hand assuming they are properly attuned – becoming attuned takes say 30 years studying Sufi thought (in my case). So take this as a health warning – the pursuit of mental states isn’t an end in itself. Some there took pains to elaborate loudly on their pursuit of that mental change – if God and Truth could be achieved so easily, I am minded to ask how it is that those alcoholics who drown themselves in their addiction do not form a vast coterie of the enlightened.

Maulana Jalaludin Rumi has been highly regarded as a poet for centuries. He lived through the destruction of Golden Age Islam, was a mystic, a poet and the catalyst to provoke the establishment of a new Sufi order the Mevlevi (also written Mawlaw’īyya) known also as Whirling Dervishes. His teachings can be found in Mathnavii-Maanavi (Couplets of Inner Meaning) , Fihi Ma Fihi (Table-talk), Maktubat (Letters), Diwan (The Work [of Shams, Rumi’s master), and Munaqib El-Arifin (a hagiography). He is associated with a number of sayings, two I remember well are:

In it is what is in it (you get out of it what is in it for you).

When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men. ²

A description of the function of Sufiism is beyond the purpose of the post but for those with an interest, I suggest a reading of Idries Shah’s works. Idries Shah played a pivotal role in introducing Sufi thought to the West in the 60s, 70s and 80s. I would recommend: The Sufis, Thinkers of the East, The Way of the Sufi, and Caravan of Dreams. In context my interest in Sufiism relates to the broken connection between the now (Western civilisation) and what was lost in our past. ³

Thinkers of the East by Idries Shah back cover

Thinkers of the East

The Sufis by Idries Shah front cover

The Sufis

The Way of the Sufi by Idries Shah, front cover

The Way of the Sufi


¹ Instruments

Instruments are a Kamanche: bowed spike fiddle, and a Santur: a struck zither in the form of a shallow, regular trapezoidal box. The instruments are tuned to play a specific mode (or accent). The modes are split into primary (dastgah) and secondary (avaz), see following list:

  I. Shur: G Ap Bb C Dp Eb F G and its four derivatives.
 II. Avaz-e Abu Ata: G Ap Bb C D Eb F G
III. Avaz-e Bayat-e Tork: F G Ap Bb C D Eb F
 IV. Avaz-e Afshari: F G Ap Bb C D (p) Eb F
  V. Avaz-e Dashti: G Ap Bb C D (p) Eb F G
 VI. Homayun: G Ap B C D Eb F G
VII. Avaz-e Bayat-e Isfahan: G Ap B C D Eb F G
VIII. Segah: F G Ap Bp C Dp Eb F
 IX. Chahargah: C Dp E F G Ap B C
  X. Mahur: C D E F G A B C
 XI. Rast Panjgah: F G A Bb C D E F
XII. Nava: D Ep F G A Bb C D

Note: The underlined letters have approximately the function of a tonic. Small ‘b’ means “flat”; small ‘p’ indicates pitch approximately a quarter-tone lower than the indicated note or, in other words, a half flat.
II, III, IV, V & VII are secondary modes (avaz) the rest are primary modes (dastgah) which in practise is of little significance. Instead there are modal scales (which means rules for cadences and a hierarchy of tones) with accepted melodic patterns, on which performers are expected to improvise. The resulting sound is, dependent on the expertise of the performer, a complex series of improvisations suitable for carrying a narrative… or poetry. Some modes are no longer played. This is an inevitable topic which delves into the history noted above.

² I quoted Rumi

and I confess to using this (and a ton of other Sufi sayings) in my first novel  A Guide to First Contact.

³ My Interest? Our origins.

I’m primarily interested in pressure points on our species. The biggie – the one that underlies what we are – is Toba. Toba erupted just over 70,000 years ago. It reduced our long-ago ancestors to 10,000 breeding couples. That’s a genetically determined figure – more of us would have been alive, possibly in the millions. Few survived. Go check out the Toba eruption. This also put an effective end to other hominid lines. There were at least two other hominid types, probably more. Stuff I speculated on in A Guide to First Contact.

Other choke points. The Dark Ages + Christianity were a long but relatively speaking, mild choke point in Western Europe. East Europe had Byzantium – representing an unbroken link with the pat going back 1400+ years – until its sack by the greedy Venetians (under the auspices of the 4th Crusade) in 1201. Central Asia had the cities of the Silk Road until their spoliation by the Turco-Mongol hordes beginning 1219 and culminating in the sack of Baghdad in 1258. Central Asia through to the Middle East was overrun by nomads, a legacy that persists in the many Turkish speakers today. The ethnography of the region is complex but a core of Iranic speakers have survived.

What’s my interest? Primarily knowing what has conveyed from the past; history and pre-history. Again something speculated on in Guide. Some might say we have enough through Religion and Science. Science is belief systems, it is from Religion (certainly in the West). Yet Christianity = Judaism + Platonic thought plus a dose of local custom. Islam = me too. Easy algebra (al-Gibr….. the reunion of broken parts [al-Khwarizmi]) for thought.

Back to the point about Iran was just a province – the Silk Road world collapsed because the nomadic incursion ensured no rebuilding. This wasn’t a case of Turks hanging around and occasionally ripping down the odd building or two; the hordes dictated where rebuilding could take place. Cities were rebuilt…. … and then the hordes came back, destroying the city and slaughtering those presumptuous enough to disobey them. The remnants of the remnants were Tadjiks – city dwellers who became refugees – and Tadjik eventually became an ethnonym. The West found other routed to China and India and trade moved to the sea. A Silk Road land route would return prosperity – for its own reasons China has been investing in Silk Road corridor in its north west region, Xin Kiang – an action that could significantly tip the balance of world trade……… back to where it was in the C13th. Will it succeed? It’s a long term plan – all China needs is must have luxury products. So this is the C20th so scratch ‘luxury’…… but you never know.


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About Terence Park

Board games, US Comic books, SF Paperbacks, Vinyl records; I've plenty of them all. I write SF (the serious sort). I also do spreadsheets.
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