Decades ago, a shaykh of the Darqawa tariqa (Sufi order) instructed one of his muqqadims (deputies) to go to South Africa with the Diwans of Shaykh Muhammad ibn al Habib because the Zulu people love to sing. These songs can be sung alone or in a group with the purpose of guiding the one whose goal is to be with his Lord. This instruction contains timeless wisdom if we are to delve into its meanings and examine the peoples to whom it was sent.
Tribes in southern Africa are traditionally animist. Animism is the belief that there are spirits that permeate, organise and animate the material universe. Among the tribesmen there are a select few who devote their lives to intuit with the spirit world. In so doing, he can mediate between the spirit world and the living by guiding his fellow tribesmen on how to attract benevolent spirits and how to deter malevolent spirits.
Anthropologists call such a practitioner a witchdoctor, diviner or healer. In the Nguni languages, of which isiZulu is one, such a person is called a Sangoma. This word derives from the word ngoma, which means song. Therefore, a Sangoma is a person of song, and by implication, dance.
The author of this article was witness to an Ilanga Lokufa ceremony. This ceremony marks and initiates the graduation from training to be a Sangoma. During the ceremony, the author saw the graduate display her gifts to the attendees through song and dance. She sang with a group of established Sangomas whilst dancing barefoot on live burning coals spread on the earth.
Amongst the Chewa tribe, which is found in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique, there is a ceremony called the Gule Wamkulu – the Great Dance. During the ceremony songs are sung and a special group of dancers come to the fore. These dancers are not there to entertain, they are the living embodiment of spirits that are responsible for commenting upon issues affecting society – materialism, dispossession and inequality.
In the Togolese village of Glidji, the Guen tribe congregate for the Epe Ekpe festival. One of the highlights of the festival is a group of Egungun dancers who through song and dance enter a trance state whereby they can be corporal embodiments of the spirit world. In so doing, they become mediators between the spirit world and the living. It is believed that if one were to touch the dancer during a trance that he will meet instant death.
These above examples demonstrate the importance of song and dance in African animism and show how they are used as a means to access the unseen. Furthermore, through song and dance; the self of the dancer gets annihilated in the unseen. In the past, these practices have been caricatured by missionaries as ‘devil-worshipping’, and currently they are dismissed by materialists as mere superstitions.
Muslim jurists know that dance can annihilate the self (or nafs) in the Unseen and it is for this reason reason that the subject of song and dance has been a point of great controversy for centuries. Essentially, there are two opinions with regards to song and dance. Some jurists argue that music is haraam (forbidden) because the musician has the power to by-pass one’s psychological citadel and gain access and manipulate his inner most being.
This theory also finds traction in the secular world. Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany’s, introduced a low-cost radio called the Volsempfänger. Through the Chamber of Culture, a sub-division of the Ministry, the Nazi regime managed to mold public opinion by blacklisting Jewish compositions and promoting songs that adhered ideas of the Third Reich – such was the power of music over people.
The second group of jurists argue that we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. Some songs are dangerous, as noted above, however there are some songs which are beneficial. The prophet David, peace be upon him, had a beautiful voice and he would would sing in invocation to Allah.
We also look to the following report of Lady Aisha:
”The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, came to my house when two girls were besides me singing songs of Buáth. The Prophet laid down and turned his face to the other side. Then, Abu Bakr came in and spoke to me harshly, saying, ‘Musical instruments of Satan near the Prophet?’ The Prophet turned his face toward him and he said, ‘Leave them alone.’ When Abu Bakr became inattentive, I signaled to the girls and they left.
It was the day of Eid and the Abyssinians were playing with shields and spears. Either I asked the Prophet or he asked me whether I would like to watch and I said yes. Then the Prophet made me stand behind him while my cheek was touching his cheek and the Prophet was saying, ‘Carry on, O tribe of Arfidah. ‘I became tired and the Prophet asked me, ‘Are you satisfied? ‘I said yes, so I left.”
Commenting on the above, Imam al-Ghazali wrote in the Ihya Ulum al-Din:
“All of these traditions are reported in the two authentic books, Al-Bukhari and Muslim, and they demonstrate that singing and playing is not unlawful. From them we may deduce the following lessons. First, it is permissible to play as the Abyssinians were in the habit of dancing and playing. Second, it is permissible to do this in the Mosque. Third, the Prophet’s saying to Arfidah was a command and a request that they should play, so how then can playing be considered unlawful? Fourth, the Prophet prevented Abu Bakr and Umar from interrupting and scolding the players and singers, and he told Abu Bakr that this festival was a joyous occasion and that singing was a means on enjoyment. Fifth, on both occasions he stayed for a long time with Aisha, letting her watch the show of the Abyssinians and listening with her to the girls singing. This proves that it is better to be good-humored in pleasing women and children with games than to disapprove of such amusements out of a sense of harsh piety and asceticism. Sixth, the Prophet encouraged Aisha by asking her if she would like to watch. Seventh, singing and playing the drum is permissible.”
Shaykh Abdalqadir As-Sufi once said, “Islam is not culture, Islam purifies culture.” That is, it takes the culture, puts it through the sieve of Divine Law, discards all the elements which are displeasing to Allah and elevates all that is pleasing to Allah.
From this perspective, we may now approach the African animist with a new attitude – not the condescending attitude of the Christian missionary, nor the arrogant dismissive attitude of the materialist atheist. We can therefore approach the animist with the view of purifying, empowering and strengthening his culture to worship Mvelinqangi, the Sole Creator.
Therefore we say to the Sangoma, the people of song and dance, that your songs and dance aims to annihilate the self so that it can be replaced by the spirits. We say that by entering the door of Islam and accessing the treasures of Tassawuf, you can tap into the full potential of your craft. For the Sufis, the Muslims of song and dance (the people of qasidas and hadra), the yearning is for the self to be annihilated in Allah, what the Sufis call fanafillah.
We say that the Diwans of the Shaykh Muhammad ibn Al-Habib are a crowning African achievement. Indeed they are the highest and a pure culmination of the African tradition of song and its author is one of the greatest Muslim Sangomas or Muslim Men of Song. He wrote:
“O seeker of annihilation in Allah
Say constantly, ‘Allah! Allah!’
Submit to Him and humble yourself
And you will win a secret from Allah.”