by Sipko A. den Boer
translation from Dutch by van Essen translations
According to legend, there once was a man who objected to Rumi’s interest in music. By orthodox standards, this interest was not permissible. The famous Persian poet and mystic Mevlana Rumi (1207-1273) answered the man in the following way:
“Music is like the squeaking and creaking
from the gates of Paradise.”
The man answered:
“I don’t like the sound of squeaking
and creaking doors!”
Mevlana: “I hear the doors when they open,
you hear them when they close.”
Sufis and more orthodox adherents of the Islamic faith have argued about the influence and spiritual merit of music for centuries. They eventually reached a compromise: whether music is permissible or not is determined by maqâm (place), zamân (time) and ikhwân (company).
Do not open the door of worry
Sufis have always focussed on both the outer as well as inner sciences. The outer sciences study the world around us, while the inner sciences study how the outer world impacts us. Our lives are marked by moments of pain as well as joy. Music can unify these contradictory experiences into a coherent, harmonious whole.
Today, like every other day
we feel ruined and lost.
Don’t open the door of worry,
pick up the lute.
There are hundreds of ways to pray –
bowing and prostrating –
for the one whose prayer niche
is the beauty of the Beloved.
Meditation, memory and song
The ancient world had its muses, the Greek goddesses of the arts and sciences. The first muses were known by the names ‘meditation’, ‘memory’ and ‘song’. These muses represented the ‘spiritual inspiration’, also called inhalation. The ancients knew that music can help us recall and revisit memories. The use of music by Sufis in their ceremonies is directly connected with ‘memory’ or ‘remembrance’. At the beginning of the Whirling Dervish’s sema ceremony, the drumbeats are a recollection of the moment when God brought the world into existence with the word Kun, Be! [Qur’an, Surah Ya Sin, 36:82]
Every morning the reed complains,
remembering your lips.
Your love fills the mouth of the reed
with sweets and sugar.
Beauty often springs forth from inner necessity. A simple example of this is how you are often and painfully confronted with the fact that your life on earth does not last forever. Since you do not know when or how you will meet your end, or what it means to no longer physically exist, the thought alone is discomforting. And yet, the life and death drives are the principal driving forces behind our (unconscious) actions. Non-existence makes you reflect on the integrity of life, and brings your life back into motion.
Look at yourself, trembling,
afraid of non-existence.
Know that non-existence
is also afraid
that God might bring it into existence.
If you grasp at worldly dignities,
it’s from fear, too.
Everything, except love of the Most Beautiful,
is really agony.
It’s agony to move towards death
and not drink the water of life.
Lamakan — the unseen world
The Persian words adam or nisti (non-existence) and la makan (without a place) correspond with each other because they all refer to the unseen reality (al-ghaib). La makan is a semi-philosophical term that refers to the non-sensory world beyond space and time. It refers to the essence of life and the world of meaning, which is opposite to the world of form and place (makan). Like a non-dimensional point both within and without, essence is connected to the realm of oneness, and yet grants access to the realm of attributes (the divine names) and the eternal, infinite reality.
Each moment contains
a hundred messages from God:
To every cry of “Oh Lord,”
He answers a hundred times, “I am here.”
In the eyes of God his backsliding
is better than obedience.
Compared to his unfaithfulness
all faiths are worthless.
Every moment he experiences
his own ascension.
Upon his own crown He puts
a hundred crowns.
His form is on earth,
his spirit in the unseen world (lamakan = “no place”) –
a world beyond the traveler’s mind.
It’s not a world to conceive or imagine.
No, place and placeless are under his control
like the four rivers of paradise
are under divine control.
Don’t waste words
because God knows best.
Choreography, poetry and music
Existence (hasti) and non-existence (nisti) are recurring themes for Rumi, which are developed further in his didactic poem the Masnawi. After Rumi’s death, Rumi’s son adapted this paradox into the choreography of the whirling dervish ceremony. The whirling and music are practiced in order to bring beauty to life from the wisdom Rumi imparted on every page of his writings; specifically that life is sustained and nourished by an unceasing, invisible love.
Everything is set into motion by love
Love without beginning or end
The wind is made to dance by the celestial spheres
The trees are dancing because of the wind. 
It is a meditation and embodiment of Sufism’s cosmology. The turning movement allows the spirit, the mind, the body and soul to unite. Life is conceived as a journey from divine nature (non-existence) through the arc of descent down to human nature and physical existence. The arc of ascent is the path of return from the transient and human nature back to the eternal, non-existent reality.
There is a phrase from one of Rumi’s ghazals (odes) that is sung in nearly every ceremony. In the Fourth Salam of the Sema, the practitioner (the whirling dervish) of sema aligns himself with his life’s purpose and task in the world. While the third part symbolises the arc of ascent to God, the fourth part is the sign for the journey’s completion, the descent into the physical world and the return to caring for and serving others. The Sheikh (elder) is like the sun among the Whirling Dervishes, who circle around him like planets. Essentially, the Sema is a celestial journey in which one first dissolves into the divine being and then returns with a new realisation. One recognises the truth (haqq) in creation and within oneself.
You are my King you are my King.
Within my heart and soul you are my faith.
If you breathe into me I come to life.
What is one single soul?
You are a thousand times my soul.
Music, a source of joy, healing and upliftment
Rumi’s poetry is full of references to music, which symbolise the knowledge of the heart. Musical instruments represent the different dimensions and aspects of the heart: the musicians personify those who uplift and inspire our hearts; the plectrum used to play the strings of a plucked instrument symbolises what life, which is in God’s hands, does to us. Instruments often mentioned include the ney (reed flute), rabab (boat-shaped lute), oud (pear-shaped lute), chang (harp) and kemenche (spike fiddle).
O God, give honey to the musicians.
Make their hands strong so that they can play well.
With hand and foot they are devoted to love.
Bless their hands and feet.
They have filled our ears with a message.
Give them thousands of eyes filled with joy
so that they may gaze upon the King.
Lamenting they are cooing like doves in love.
Through your kindness, give them a safe and strong nest.
They give happiness to our consciousness by praising you.
Tell them: ‘Well done’ and bless them.
With their melodies they give to the heart the water of life.
Give them running water from the Kausar, the fountain of Paradise.
Merciful God, I’ll be silent.
I don’t have to ask you for this or that. 
The power of the sema — an Arabic word which means ‘to listen’ — stems from the soul, the heart and how you look upon yourself and others. When you combine words with rhythm, the result is powerful. Music is sound and rhythm, and when put to proper use, is more than merely a pastime, but is a source of healing and upliftment. Poetry and music require a kind of focused openness that allows you to feel both joy and sadness more fully. In other words, the sema causes the heart to awaken. For Sufis, poetry is an important vehicle for expressing mystical thoughts and feelings, and through our involvement the sema becomes a deeply spiritual and emotional experience.
In the story of the reed flute at the beginning of the Masnawi, Rumi uses word-play to emphasize the power of music.
The reed flute is a companion
to all who are suffering
from the pangs of love.
Its melodies have torn the veils apart.
Twice in the second hemistich, he uses the Persian word parda, which means both ‘scale’ and ‘veil’. In other words, the reed flute’s parda (melody) has torn the parda (veil) from our mind. This tearing of veils, the opening up of a new horizon through music is the central theme in Rumi’s music metaphors.
Reed flute with your beautiful sound;
you capture our heart and bring us joy.
You bring us a warm breath and keep the cold away.
You are completely free from inner chains.
You empty a troubled heart and soul.
You draw an image of the Beloved for everyone.
You are illiterate, but in reality a visual artist. 
In the same way that sugar
is the essence of the sugarcane,
the divine truth is the essence
hidden in the reed flute.
Both reeds drank
from the same source,
but this one is empty
and that one full of sugar. 
Rumi plays with multiple layers of meaning in the above verses as well. After the second Masnawi story about the greengrocer and the parrot (the danger of false comparisons), Mevlana cites several examples to show how misguided analogous reasoning (qiyas) can be. From the outside, sugarcane and the reed of a ney resemble each other, but while they both drank from the same water spring they are still fundamentally different. The main point is that people compare themselves to saints and prophets. The parrot compared the shaved head of the dervish with his own bald head, which was the result of having been beaten because he spilled a bottle of rose oil.
Form of the universal truth,
what key do you belong to?
Come out of the reed flute
like the sweetness of sugar.
Let us taste the joy,
the breath you feel in your throat. 
Without your lips
I am a frozen and silent reed –
what melodies I produce
when you blow on me! 
Cultivation and education
In essence, the Sufi tradition of Mevlâna Rumi is a life-long learning process, with love as its foundation. If directed in this way, one will awaken and be transformed. One is shaped by the exercises, opportunities and responsibilities that are offered. It is a unifying process that regards the true self as an essential part of the whole, in which the myriad divine qualities can unfold.
During my academic years of socio-cultural studies, I became interested in music therapy and read about a hospital in Edirne, Turkey where, in the 16th and 17th century, music was used in treating people with psychiatric conditions. When I had the opportunity to visit this special place with a group fifteen years ago, we learned that the staff consisted of Mevlevi dervishes who were trained as musicians, storytellers, cooks or dancers.
The hospital complex, which is now a museum, consists of various pavilions, a mosque, a space for the ritual of whirling prayer (sema‑khane) and eighteen cells, where the dervishes lived. This type of hospital worked according to the teachings of the Persian-Arabic healer-philosopher Avicenna. Rumi refers to Avicenna’s Book of Medicine about the elements:
When you are feeling pain,
ask for forgiveness:
this pain is useful.
When He wills, pain turns to joy.
Even slavery becomes freedom.
If you look closely,
you’ll see that from God
are both the water of mercy
and the fire of anger.
Air, earth, water and fire
are His servants.
For us – for you and me –
they seem dead,
but they are alive with God.
The Greek philosophers held the various scales (Phrygian, Aeolian, etc.) to be a reflection of the Harmony of the Spheres, the Celestial Harmony in which every planet moved within its own sphere, with resonance causing each to produce its own specific sound. Each scale has a specific effect on the body and mind because man is a miniature version of the cosmos.
In 2010 as I was letting go of something in my life that no longer fit, I re-dedicated myself to playing a musical instrument in earnest. A number of the positive benefits I can attest to include:
- being able to deal with disappointments with more ease;
- being able to transpose emotions into sound;
- being more confident in my ability to learn something new (practice makes perfect);
- experiencing an increased focus and capacity for overcoming obstacles and suffering from fewer distracting thoughts.
In short, music has aided me in letting go of the old and welcoming in the new. It has made me a happier, more joyous person.
Further reading (in Dutch):
Roemi, Licht op Licht
Synthese, Rotterdam 2010
Roemi, Van dag tot dag
Synthese, Rotterdam, 2018 (2nd printing)
Roemi, Liefde is de weg
Synthese, Rotterdam, 2018 (3rd printing)
 Jami, Nafahat al-ons in Annemarie Schimmel, Triumphal Sun, London, 1980
 Rumi, Diwan-e Kabir, Ruba’i 82
 Diwan-e Kebir, Ghazal 2313:4
 Rumi, Masnawi I, 3684-3687
 Masnawi I, 1578-1584
 Diwan-e Kebir, Ghazal 472
 Diwan-e Kebir, Ghazal 3137
 Diwan-e Kebir, Ghazal 2342 1-4, 5a, 6a
 Masnawi I, 11
Diwan-e Kebir, Ghazal 2994
 Masnawi I, 270
 Masnawi I, 247 ff.
 Diwan-e Kebir, Ghazal 2994 1-4, 6b
 Diwan-e Kebir, Ghazal 1641:3
 Masnawi I, 836‑838