In these post -9-11 days it is odd to consider that the biggest selling poet in America in the Nineties was Islamic. The deeply philosophical works of Rumi, a poet of the Sufi branch of Islam, were outselling the biggest names America had to offer.
His Mustt Mustt album on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label (which came with a remix of the title track by Massive Attack) was one of the label’s biggest sellers. He too was a Sufi.
Sufism, an intellectual and enquiring offshoot of Islam, is deeply rooted in Islamic cultures across the globe -- the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent particularly -- and in each region it takes on local characteristic. The famous whirling dervishes of Turkey are Sufis, the yearning qawwali sound of Pakistan as performed by Ali Khan is a different manifestation of the same thought.
While anti-modernist Islamists would ban singing, dance and musical instruments as diversions from the true path of devotion and subservience to Allah, Sufi cultures are rich in these traditions -- and that is the subject of this doco by the noted English travel writer, historian and longtime resident of New Delhi, William Dalrymple.
A scholar who is knowledgeable about the great religious, philosophical and cultural aspects of Islam, Dalrymple makes a journey through half a dozen countries to explore the peaceful and pluralistic nature of Sufism -- and uses music as the framework. The subtitle of this doco is “the mystical music of Islam”.
The result is a fascinating travelogue punctuated by extraordinary voices, from the trip-hop clubland Sufi sound of Mercan Dede to powerful presences such as Adiba Parveen.
There is an exoticism here too: the nature of dances in which believers enter trance states; the colours of marketplaces and the decorative beauty of temples, homes and clothing.
At its core Islam has a common origins with Christianity, and the nature of this documentary allows for the benign and peaceful middle ground of Sufism to be revealed at a time when rather too many would set up the great faiths as polar and violent opposites.
Directed by Simon Broughton -- long a commentator on world music and editor of Songlines magazine out of the UK -- this fascinating 45 minute film (with an additional 35 minutes of separate music performances) is an adventure, a journey and a discussion.
All are worth participating in.