Thursday, September 30, 2010


All loves are a bridge to Divine love.

September 30 is the 803rd birthday of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, known more popularly to the West simply as Rūmī. As a Persian mystic and poet, he makes an excellent escort as we enter contemplation of the virtue Samā (Worshipful Listening).

What makes a virtue? One definition is “a kind of moral excellence,” such as the virtue of Patience. So far, most of the virtues I have profiled here at TTV have fallen into this category. To date I have described virtues from the Theravadan Buddhist, Asatru, Chinese Confucianist, Japanese Shinto, and Lakota Native American traditions, among others. For each, some cultural authority (and typically multiple authorities) held up the quality as an ideal of his/her tradition.

“Virtue,” however, can also mean “a particularly efficacious, good, or beneficial quality,” and it is into this broader category that Samā, as I choose to interpret it, falls. (So does Symphony, from September 12.) The term Samā refers to a specific form of Islamic prayer called dhikr, which at its simplest involves chanting the names of Allah (God). Samā is a unique ecstatic form of dhikr invented by Rūmī that involves multiple worshippers, in costume, singing, playing instruments, dancing, and/or reciting poetry and prayers.

Thus, while concise, translating Samā to its literal meaning of “Listening” seems woefully inadequate. Even “Worshipful Listening” leaves out oceans of meaning. Another English translation of Samā would be “Spiritual Concert,” which has some promise but even so is still like the tip of an iceberg. Samā involves the use of music and dance to allow the worshipper to leave the bounds of their ego and reach wajd, a trance-like state of ecstasy, through which they can connect with the Divine.

How did Rūmī create Samā? The Sufis, a mystical tradition of Islam of which Rumi was a member, tell the following story: Rūmī was walking through the marketplace in his town one day when he heard the rhythmic hammering of goldsmiths. Rumi heard the dhikr, "la elaha ella'llah" ("no god, but Allah") in the beating of the gold. In response to the pulse of the hammers, he entered an ecstatic altered state, and in happiness stretched out his arms and started spinning in a circle. The famed “whirling dervishes” of the Mevlevi Sufi order trace their birth to this moment:

I find it interesting that the practice of Samā arouses controversy in Islam, with some opposed to the use of music as being against the wishes of the Prophet Muhammed, and therefore bidah (heresy). So many religious traditions embrace the use of music as a form of worship, to eschew it seems baffling. And yet, in my own experience, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries also have a proscription against music and singing--with the exception of the chanting of mantras, which is done mostly in a guttural monosyllabic sussuration. (Still, one night at Kopan Monastery outside Kathmandu, I was privileged to participate in a group chant by the Western students that was magically beautiful, and to my ear certainly qualified as music.)

So, what does the virtue of Samā mean for a non-dervish, non-Sufi, non-Muslim reader? For me, looking at the many ways in which the term is translated, I suggest that to strive for Samā is to listen for the Divine in beautiful music, and when heard, to welcome the Divine with ecstasy and without hesitation.

May we see the gates of Samā, and perhaps make a home there.

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