Sufi music is played with a variety of instruments. The Sufi tradition is facilitated by music and dance. Through these beautiful practices, a Sufi can express his or her devotion to God. Sufi Saints, and more broadly Mystics in Islam, give significant weight to sounds practices to bring a devotee closer to the Divine. (If you haven’t already, be sure to read What is Sufi Music and Is Music Haram for greater context/background.)
In the Islamic soundscape (setting aside those questioning is music haram), the most popular of these is the Turkish reed flute, known as the Ney. Others that represent African Sufi music are the benedir, a drum that is popular in Morocco, and the Gimbri, a stringed instrument also well known in the African region.
If one attempts to group them into different types, the categories would be melodic ones (sur) and those responsible for rhythm (taal). Within the strings category, the ney is accompanied by saz, santoor, rabab, oud and the komuz.
In the same region, different Sufis (Sufi orders) worship differently. And therefore a variety of instruments were created over the years, many of which can be traced back to ancient civilizations (present-day the Middle East, India, and Pakistan).
The reed flute is a commonly used instrument and produces a beautiful sound like no other. The Ney, primarily played in Turkey, is considered a symbolic representation of the human soul. It highlights the longing to be with God and the pain of separation from God. The Ney is known to be quite difficult to learn, and often its culturally compared to learning a new language. It produces a reedy, whispery sound that is heard in a lot of classical Turkish music and that of other countries in that region. In Turkey, the Ney is played while accompanying the popular whirling dervishes.
Harmonium Indian Pump Organ (Qawwali Instrument)
The Pump organ is an instrument seen in the Indian Subcontinent during Qawwali. It is operated by someone who harmonises the sound with the sound of themselves or the vocalist singing. It is able to produce sound, as the pump pushes air through a thin metal frame, generating an array of sounds.
The Gimbri, is a well known sufi instrument played in Africa, that has a low droning sound that leaves those listening to music on it, in a trance. It is similar to other instruments such as the Benedir, which is also known for its ability to induce a trance in those who listen to it being played. It is played by the Gnawa people and is similar to the lute. With three strings, a body carved from a log, it is the size of a guitar approximately.
The saz is a family of plucked string instruments, long-necked lutes which are commonly heard in turkish classical music, it has a deep round back and a long neck. It can be played with a plectrum or with a fingerpicking style. There are three main parts to the turkish version of this instrument: the bowl which is made from juniper or mulberry wood, beech, spruce or walnut, the spruce soundboard and a neck of beech or juniper.
The santoor is a trapezoid shaped instrument, where strings are stretched over it and it is meant for percussion. Typically it is made of walnut and has 25 bridges, and each bridge has 4 strings so the entire instrument has 100 strings. The traditional instrument was first present in Jammu and Kashmir.
Rubab or Rabab
The Rubab, originates from Afghanistan, which is carved out of a single piece of wood, with a hollow bowl that is covered by a head. Beautiful to the eye, the main body is made from the trunk of a mulberry tree, the head from the goat skin, and strings from nylon or intestines of young goats.
The Oud is an Arabic name, and is like a lute. It is pear-shaped and it has fretless strings, typically with a set of 11 to 13 strings. The oud is known to produce a romantic, rich and deep sound because of the hollow body, which vibrates as the musicians strum its strings.
The Komuz is a fretless string instrument used in Central Asian Music and is usually made from a single piece of wood, apricot, or juniper and three strings made out of fishing lines.
How are Sufi instruments used?
These instruments are quite intricate in their workmanship and in the way they are played. It is important to have qualified musicians who do not damage them but instead do their best to perform. They are used in unison with each other as often a troupe of musicians performs and each has a particular role to play. In Qawwali, for example, a group of musicians performs together which traditionally includes one vocalist, a few on percussion, one on the pump organ, and so on.
What are the different types of instruments?
The different types are usually based on their basic structure and whether they are string-based or for producing a beat. These instruments all have similar historical origins, yet they differ in the sounds they make.
How can one learn to play these instruments?
Unfortunately in many regions, art and their mastery is dying. But there are still those who follow the traditional arts and are keeping such traditions alive. It’s important to do the proper research and get in touch with the right people, who will teach you not just how to play, but the value of the skill you are learning and the spirit behind the music you aim to create.
Is it difficult to learn these instruments?
Frankly, it is difficult to a degree, because it is like learning a new language but it also depends upon the effort of the student. If you have a passion for it and put in the time and effort, then it is not as difficult. You are bound to enjoy the experience and add to your character as you’re learning such a unique instrument as it opens up a gateway to the exciting world of Sufism and mysticism.