“Sinhala ithihasa pothe ran akurin liyawuna, Lassana podi punchi puthek lak manita nathiwuna…” He was a Muslim, singing in Sinhala. He was from the Eastern part of the country came to sing in the north. Bawa Nasrudeen Kaleefa was one of the performers who grabbed attention at the Jaffna Music Festival. Nasrudeen came all the way from Akkaraipattu to perform at the Jaffna Music Festival. He led a group of eight singers, all Sufi musicians, which represented Islamic Social Heritage Association.
“Performing at the festival makes me happy. It makes us all happy,” he said in an interview with The Nation at the Jaffna Municipal Grounds. He doesn’t speak Sinhala although he sings fluently in Sinhala. With the support of the coordinator of the Muslim Sufi Group Muszhaaralff in translating his words to English, he said, that performing their music at any event or time gives him immense pleasure.
Nasrudeen had started his journey in music when he was barely 20 years old. Today, he speaks about his 40-year-experience as a Sufi musician with pride. He didn’t attend any music school, but learned the basics about music and singing from his spiritual teacher and practiced what he learned until he became perfect. The purpose of his singing, he said, is to show his passionate love towards God.
According to Nasrudeen, Sufism is not a division of Muslim, rather it is considered a part of Islamic teaching that deals with the purification of inner self. They believe that focusing on the more spiritual aspects of religion as striving to obtain direct experience of God.
Sufi music is the devotional music of the Sufis, inspired by the works of Sufi poets, like Rumi, Hafiz, Bulleh Shah, Amir Khusrow and Khwaja Ghulam Farid. Sufi communities or orders are found throughout the Muslim world, from South and Central Asia through Turkey, Iran, Kashmir, India, the Levant and northern, eastern and western Africa and also England. Sufi love songs are often performed as Ghazals and Kafi, a solo genre accompanied by percussion and harmonium, using a repertoire of songs by Sufi poets.
With the wide geographical and cultural spread of Sufism itself, Sufi musical practice is itself equally diverse. As Nasrudeen explained, each Sufi order or brotherhood has its own traditions, and forms of Sufi practice which varies greatly from region to region. However he further said that all these different facets of ritual and performance have the same goal in mind. “We use music to remember God and to move closer to the divine,” he said.
He further defined Sufism as purely based upon the beliefs of Islam and the teachings of Muhammad although ‘ordinary believers’ of God have obligations towards Sufism and their aesthetic performances. He expressed his grief on how some sects of Muslims are reluctant to accept Sufi music. Some Muslims prohibits any form of music that is not entirely devotional to Allah. A general perception is that Islam bans all music, but Nasrudeen said that this is not true. Islam only prohibits non-devotional music and when it is associated with other sins such as drinking alcohol, which is entirely prohibited. “Music reflects Allah. It creates a path for me to address him,” he said.
Muslims believe that they will see God in the afterlife. The Sufis devote their lives to seeing God now, in this life, and becoming closer to the divine by following Islamic law. As he mentioned before, Muslims do not always agree with this aspect, but Sufism certainly does provide a spiritual, supreme root for the popular practice of Islam, as it is with most other religions.
Commenting on the music festival, Nasrudeen emphasized that setting effort to introduce different cultures to everyone and make them familiar to each culture in the country is a great way to rebuild harmony. “We lost many things during the thirty years of war. This is essential to bring everyone closer again. Each of our cultures has good things to share, good things we couldn’t share for a long time,” he iterated. “Especially music has components which can bring back harmony,” he said adding that music is understood by everyone although one language is not understood by everyone, taking himself as an example. He said that he enjoys listening to Sinhala songs and singing them although he can’t communicate in Sinhala.
He also expressed his sadness about the disputes between certain Sinhala communities and Muslim communities. He said that nobody who admires the spiritual aspects of a religion would fight each other. “None of the religions teach people to fight each other for materialistic themes. Religions teach people how to love and accept each other,” he stressed. “I believe the problems start when people try to focus more on the rituals rather than the spirituality,” Nasrudeen opined.
“As a Sufi, I have been taught to see everyone as God, every place as God and everything I associate as God. So, I don’t understand the reasons why we are quarreling with each other. Why fight with our own God?” he raised a question.