Sheikh Hamza Shakkur Talks About Sufi Music

Sami Asmar

Sheikh Hamza Shakkur’s voice emanates spiritual power that draws listeners into the mystical tradition of Sufism. Born in Damascus in 1947, Sheikh Shhakkur is a quranic reader and hymnist. He is also the choirmaster of the Munshiddin (reciters) of the Great Mosque in Damascus and serves at official religious ceremonies in Syria, where he is immensely popular. His bass voice with its richly rounded timbre has made him one of the foremost Arab vocalists. Shakkur is the disciple of Said Farhat and Tawfiq al-Munajjid and feels the responsibility to assure the continuity of the repertoire in the Mawlawiyya (Mevlevi in Turkish) order.

Damascus was the capital of the Ummayyad dynasty and a principal stage in the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Sufi mystical brotherhood known as Mawlawiyya met in places known aszawiya and adopted the original chants grouped in suites (waslat) in particular modes (maqamat) and rhythms (iqaat). The Great Ummayyad Mosque of Damascus possesses a specific vocal repertoire, where sacred suites are known as a nawbat, a term originally used for the secular songs developed in Arab Andalusia known as muwashshat. Typically accompanied by a choir, a vocalist such as Sheikh Hamza Shakkur extracts from the repertoire of the mosque the naming of God (dhikr) and the birth of the prophet (mawlid) in a serene expression that has a rigorously organized rhythm. Thus the vocalist progressively leads the assembly into a trance or a state of meditation (ta’ammul).

In the early ninth century, when the Muslim mystics organized their Sufi brotherhoods, they adopted music for their meditation as a way of reaching the state of ecstasy, a source of new vigor to the body and soul. In Sufism, sama’ denotes the tradition of listening in a spiritual fashion to music of all forms. This suggests that the act of listening is spiritual, without the music or poetry being necessarily religious in content. The major preoccupation of the mystics was to give the ecstasy real content and the music true meaning.

The Mawlawiyya order was founded in Konya, Anatolia, by the Persian poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi (1207–1273). Although the ritual is primarily associated with Turkey, local traditions have existed in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq since the 16th century. The Mawlawiyya of Damascus are very few and have been threatened with closure on many occasions. The personal prestige of Sheikh Hamza Shakkur has rescued them, for he has reached celebrity status that has allowed him to generate support for the small group.

We met with the Sheikh, who led the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus in a great concert in Los Angeles, accompanied by al-Kindi Ensemble.

Asmar: How do you describe Sufism to Westerners?

Shakkur: This is a very difficult question but nothing is too difficult for a Sufi. Tassauf is only for those with convictions about the belief in God and his prophet. Trust in God must be blind. When encountering Westerners who may not have reached the spiritual level required for full understanding, there are seven languages that the Sufi can use to communicate with them. The Sufi practitioner needs to be advanced and highly capable in order to communicate via these seven languages. First is the Arabic tongue, the language of the Quran, which is universally appreciated as a beautiful language. Second is the language of music, which is also universal, needless to say. Third is the language of the eyes; the eye is the window to the soul. Fourth is language of silence; this is an important one for a hymnist, reader or musician, for the appropriate length rest at the appropriate time is part of the communication scheme. The language of silence is also manifested in the saying that silence is the sign of agreement. For example, in an old tradition, when a man proposes marriage to a woman, her silence is taken as an acceptance. Fifth is the expression of feelings. Sixth is physical expressions (taabir) or body language. Seventh is the language of the soul, as Islam is as much a spiritual religion as it is practical. The key to all these is that they have to come from the heart, truly, or else the communication fails.

Asmar: What does the whirling of the Mawlawiyya signify?

Shakkur: It is important to note that the Mawlawiyya is only one of the expressions of Sufism, not its only representation. In the Dhikr of God, one can be moved to stand, sit, lean, whirl, rotate the neck, become silent or whatever other physical expression comes as a first reaction. The whirling of the Mawlawiyya is inspired by the rotation of the Earth and cycle of blood circulation in the body. Circular motion has great significance in the wisdom of the creator.

Asmar: What distinguishes the Ummayyad mosque from other mosques?

Shakkur: The Mosque of Bani Ummayya has very distinctive hymns and melodies, even the call to prayer (azan). Historically speaking, Salaheddine al-Ayyubi, several centuries ago, encouraged the people to sing specific chants in this mosque as he prepared them to battle the crusaders, and that started a long tradition of wonderful hymns in the form of nawbat. But this was not formally organized until the scholar Sheikh Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi who, inspired by al-Ayyubi, built on the tradition using his own amazing spirituality and added lyrics and tunes and eventually set up guidelines for the repertoire of the Ummayyad Mosque. He also introduced musical instruments. Before him, they only used drums.

Asmar: Are instruments allowed inside the Mosque?

Shakkur: No, not inside the mosque, but in the courtyard and the Mawlawiyya zawiya.

Asmar: What was the accepted use of these instruments?

Shakkur: Sheikh al-Nabulsi wrote a book on the proper use of music in our tradition called“Al-Dalalat Fi Sama’ Al-Alat” (The Signs of Listening to Instruments). He stressed that musical instruments have good uses to praise God and express spirituality and bad uses as a tool of seduction or material gain. He also composed two calls to prayer (azan) that are different from the standard ones you hear elsewhere. He created a group azan in which a soloist callsAllah Akbar (God is Great) and a choir repeats after him in a special melody. He is also credited for a different tune for the so-called Azan al-Imsak, which is the call to prayer 10 minutes before the sunrise azan. We also chant the azan in the maqamat siqah and Bayyati as well as the standard Hijaz and Rast maqamat known throughout the Islamic world. Damascus is unique in having options for four maqamat for the azan.

Asmar: Are you also saying there are extra azan (calls to prayer) beyond the standard times?

Shakkur: We have tarahim, special prayers between azans. Also every tower (maazanah) in the mosque has its own version of the azan. It is quite a sophisticated arrangement.

Asmar: What is the relationship between the Andalucian Arab heritage and the repertoire of the Ummayad Mosque?

Shakkur: There is a clear link between the two. Many traditions were carried back to Damascus through North Africa where they prospered more in the Mosque community than elsewhere. We even use the same terminology, such as nawba, that you still hear in North African classical music of muwashshat. What has developed in the repertoire of the Ummayad Mosque, however, is unique and clearly distinct from the Andalucian or North African traditions despite the historical connections.


This article appeared in Vol. 7, no. 36 (Summer 2001).
Copyright © 2001 by Al Jadid

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