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The Mystical Side of Music

I have taken a serious devotion to learning piano during the past year. After completing a wonderful online course in beginning and intermediate piano and music theory, I have been continuing my musical journey by learning a repertoire of songs and pieces in a variety of genres, from classical to 80’s pop music. Lately, I have noticed that the only moments during the day when I can maintain an absolute silence is when my fingers are hosting my feelings and the piano in a conversation. Perhaps one might be inclined to think that this is the reason why my lips are sealed shut, because my hands are the ones participating in a dialogue with the instrument. Perhaps that is so, but I think there is another subtle power to music that only becomes evident once we compare this medium of communication with prose and poetry, for example. For Muslim mystics, such as Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-ʿArabi (d. 1240), prose is the ideal medium for communicating divine law, a body of knowledge that requires a definitive and non-ambiguous terminology and syntax. On the other hand, it is poetry alone that can satiate the passion of the mystic to express the ambiguous and perplexing nature of the mystical experience, where clear boundaries of the law give way to the paradox of the supra-rational. We may posit this distinction as one where prose operates within the realm of the intellect, with its abstract concepts and categories while poetry rules supreme in the land of the qalb (heart) and ruh (spirit). There, a constant taqallub (fluctuation) and murawaha (vascillation) is the definitive state of reality. However, anybody familiar with Ibn al-ʿArabi’s thought and the larger discourse on cosmogenesis and saintology in Islamic mysticism knows that there is yet another ‘beyond’ to these two realms of the intellect and spirit. In the human microcosm, this third aspect of the latifa rabbaniyya (lordly subtlety) that forms our cognitive faculties is called al-sirr (the secret). Alongside the intellect, heart, soul and spirit, the secret constitutes the communication center with the divine. It is God’s throne in our being and is, sine qua non, the lordly trace in the human body. Moreover, the very name of this aspect of the lordly subtlety of man, the ‘secret’, alludes to its purpose: it is the only trace of human volition that remains active when the mystical journey reaches its climax; amidst that presence where silence is no longer required, but inevitable. There, language loses its way and the human speaker must opt instead for constant stillness and impeccable hearkening, in order to experience the divine secret. It is also there, at that moment, that I believe music resides and conquers. Ibn al-ʿArabi reminds humanity that the reason our species enjoys beautiful voices and the sound of a musical instruments is because its reverberations pierce through the layers of our psyche straight to that ‘secret’, to that trace of divinity that has remained from the days of the primordial covenant; when God spoke to humanity and asked: “Am I not your Lord?” Between the placement of this question in the Qurʾan and the response by humanity that immediately follows: “Indeed!” there is an empty space between the words of scripture that reflects an abyss of annihilation we felt when we heard the very essence of Beauty speak to us... it is the spark of this memory of auditory ecstasy that is ignited through music, in all its forms. If prose mentions the Named through the name and poetry alludes to the Named through metaphor and imagery then music forces us to listen to the Named as he speaks to us. The power of music, then, does not lie solely in the fact that it operates from within the kingdom of the secret, but more importantly, it alone can transcend and pierce through the human layers of social division, intellectual abstraction and delimitation and take us instead to the realm of Din al-Haqq (the Religion of the Real), where there is only:

I’m the First and Last, Inward and Outward

Qur’an (57:3)

I’m the Alpha and Omega, First and Last, Beginning and End

Revelations (22:13)

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