SAMĀʿ is an Arabic term for the music or listening parties arranged by Muslim mystics in the belief that music serves as spiritual nourishment (qūt-i rūhānī ) and attunes one's heart to divine communion. The word samāʿ, which literally means "hearing," does not occur in the Qurʾān but was used in ancient Arabic in the sense of "singing." ʿAlī ibn ʿUthmān al-Hujwīrī (d. ah 469?/1076? ce) thought that through samāʿ the last of the veils between man and God could be lifted. Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) and others after him believed that mystics who devoted most of their time to austere practices such as penitences, vigils, and fasts needed listening parties to relieve the heart's boredom, to infuse it with fresh energy and vigor, and above all, to channel, rather than annihilate, emotion. Criticism of this institution by orthodox theologians, however, obliged the mystics to lay down elaborate rules and conditions for its organization. As a result, the legality of samāʿ became contingent upon the fulfillment of four conditions: (1) the singer should not be a youth or a woman but an adult man; (2) the audience should be continuously in divine contemplation alone; (3) no obscene verses should be recited; and (4) no musical instruments should be used.
Al-Hujwīrī laid down even more detailed rules with regard to samāʿ : (1) it should be practiced seldom and only in response to an inner craving for it; (2) the spiritual mentor should be present at the listening party; (3) no person unfamiliar with the mystic path should be permitted to join the assembly; (4) the singer should be a like-minded person; (5) the audience should cleanse its heart of all worldly thoughts; (6) the emotions aroused by the music should not be checked; (7) a beginner should not be allowed to attend samāʿ ; and (8) women should not look at the dervishes from house-tops.
Shaykh Abū al-Najīb ʿAbd al-Qāhir Suhrawardī (d. 1167), the founding saint of the Suhrawardī order, distinguished three groups who listen to mystical music: (1) those who are with their creator while listening to songs and who attain the vision (mushāhadah ) of God, (2) those who listen to music with their hearts fully absorbed in it and achieve the benefits of spiritual seclusion (murāqabah ), and (3) those who listen with their lower self (nafs ) involved in it and need spiritual penitence (mujāhadah ) to achieve their objective, because samāʿ is "for one whose heart is alive and whose nafs is dead." Suhrawardī considered music a means of igniting the fire of love in the heart of a mystic. Like al-Hujwīrī, he made the legality of samāʿ conditional. Samāʿ, he said, is like rain: it fertilizes the productive land but has no effect on barren fields. He also quoted Mimshad-i Dinawar (d. 911), who was told by the Prophet in a dream that there was nothing objectionable if the samāʿ meetings began and ended with the recitation of the Qurʾān. Suhrawardī considered that in music heart, soul, and the lower self (nafs ) are all involved. Its effect, however, varies from individual to individual; it is spiritual nourishment or medicine for some and poison for others. The early Islamic mystic Dhū al-Nūn al-Miṣrī (d. 861) used to say, "Audition is a divine influence which stirs the heart to seek God: those who listen to it spiritually attain unto God, and those who listen to it sensually [bi-nafs ] fall into heresy." For perfect spiritual enjoyment through samāʿ, the Iranian mystic Rūzbihān (d. 1209) considered three things to be essential: fine odor, a beautiful face to look at, and a lovely voice. He regarded the beauty of the singer as a prerequisite for spiritual happiness.
Saints of the Chishtī, Bektāshī, and other Ṣūfī orders constructed samāʿ khānah s (music halls) in their khānqāh s (lodges) for the exclusive purpose of holding listening parties. While listening to music, mystics often fell into ecstacy and stood up to dance, weep, and cry. Sometimes they gave everything they possessed, including the clothing they wore, to the musician. According to the rules pertaining to such ecstatic conditions, if any verse stirred up the emotions of a listener, the singer was expected to continue reciting the same couplet until the emotional storm had passed. It was said that Shaykh Quṭb al-Dīn Bakhtiyār Kākī (d. 1235) listened to a verse of Aḥmad Jām for several days and finally gave up the ghost while the verse was still being recited.
Mystics have adopted special types of behavior in samāʿ. Some of them have controlled their emotions in such a way that, except for fleeting expressions on their faces and tears trickling down their cheeks, there is no physical movement. By contrast, however, the Ṣūfīs belonging to the Mevlevi order of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī dance with amazing abandon. In India, disciples of Shaykh Burhān al-Dīn Gharīb (d. 1337?), who came to be known as Burhānīs, also danced in a special manner. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, the renowned world traveler of the fourteenth century, refers to the samāʿ of the Rifāʿī dervishes which had its own unique features.
The Arab jurist and theologian Ibn Taymīyah (1263–1328) was a bitter critic of the institution of samāʿ, and under his influence contemporary and later generations of religious scholars (ʿulamāʾ ) severely criticized the practice. The followers of Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (1703–1787), founder of the Wahhābī movement in Arabia, were equally vehement in their opposition to this practice. Though some of the mystic orders, such as the Qādirīyah and the Naqshbandīyah, did not take to samāʿ, they rarely joined the ʿulamāʾ in their criticism of it. Shaykh Bahāʾ al-Dīn Naqshband (1317–1389) is reported to have remarked about samāʿ : "Neither do I practice it nor do I refute it." This remained the general attitude of those mystics who did not themselves arrange samāʿ meetings. However, Shāh Walī Allāh (1703–1762), a leading Naqshbandī saint of Delhi, went a step further and arranged samāʿ in his religious college, or madrasah, for the visit of the famous Chishti saint Shāh Fakhr al-Dīn (1714–1785).
The mystics who advocated samāʿ defended their position by referring to the Qurʾanic verses that attribute a sonorous voice to the prophet Dāʾūd (34:10; 21:79; 38:18–19, as explained by Mawdūdī in light of the traditions of the Prophet), to the tradition of the Prophet in which he is reported to have listened to the songs of girls on the eve of his return from a victorious campaign, and to the tradition that the Prophet did not allow people to disturb girls who were singing on a feast day. In the fourteenth century, Mawlānā Fakhr al-Dīn Zarrādī wrote a brochure, Uṣūl al-samāʿ (Principles of Samāʿ ) to refute the arguments of the ʿulamāʾ at the court of the Indian ruler Ghiyāth al-Dīn Tughlaq.
While there could be no method of testing the subjective state of a mystic's mind when listening to music, the other, outward conditions were strictly enforced and deviations sternly dealt with. Shaykh Niẓām al-Dīn Awliyāʾ of Delhi (1238–1325) reprimanded those who used musical instruments, and Ḥāfiẓ Muḥammad ʿAlī of Khayrabad (d. 1849) expressed his condemnation of mystics who allowed recitation of verses by women.
However, these restrictions were not always kept in mind by the mystics, especially during the later centuries when the mystic orders lost their centralized structure and many of them became specific to their geographic setting. A corollary to this process was the trend through which saints, using mystic channels and idiom to convey their message to the common people, failed, unlike their predecessors, to check the reverse flow of popular superstitions, distortions, and accretions to their own ways. Samāʿ was no exception to this tide, and conditions regulating it were flouted. The orthodox criticism of Samāʿ, which had never really subsided, only became more poignant.
Works in Arabic
Hujwīrī, ʿAlī ibn ʿUthmān al-. Kashf al-maḥjūb. Edited by Muḥammad Shafı. Lahore, 1967. An abridged translation of the Kashf al-maḥjūb was made by Reynold A. Nicholson in 1911 (2d ed., 1936; reprint, London, 1976).
Qushayrī, Abū al-Qāsim ʿAbd al-Karīm. Al-risālah al-qushayrīyah fi ʿilm al-taṣawwuf. Cairo, 1959.
Sarrāj, Abū Naṣr al-. Kitāb al-lumaʾ fī al-taṣawwuf. Edited by Reynold A. Nicholson. Leiden, 1914.
Suhrawardī, Shihāb al-Dīn Abū Ḥafṣ ʿUmar al-. ʿAwārif al-maʿārif. Beirut, 1966.
Zarrādī, Fakhr al-Dīn. Uṣūl al-samāʿ. Delhi, n. d.
Works in other languages
Macdonald, D. B. "Emotional Religion in Islam as Affected by Music and Singing, Being a Translation of a Book of the Iḥyaʾ ʿulūm ad-dīn of al-Ghazzali." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1901): 195–252, 705–748; (1902): 1–28.
Meier, Fritz. "Der Derwisch-Tanz." Asiatische Studien 8 (1954): 107–136.
Molé, Marijan. "La danse extatique en Islam." Sources orientales 6 (1963): 145–280.
Ritter, Helmut. "Der Reigen der tanzenden Derwische." Zeitschrift für vergleichende Musikwissenschaft 1 (1933).
Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill, N. C., 1975. See discussion of samāʿ on pages 178–186.
Amnon, Shiloah. Music in the World of Islam: A Socio-Cultural Study. Detroit, Mich., 1995.
Khaliq AḤmad Nizami (1987)