What is the origin of music? If you ask a Sufi the answer to that question they will likely respond: Music begins with the very beginning of our own souls. It begins on a day that is known by the Sufis as the Day of Alast, which, in the Quran, is described as a day when the creator called forth the souls of all human beings that would ever live. At that time, each of us was brought face to face with our lord, our creator, our essence, our truth, and a question was posed: “Am I not the one to whom you belong?”
There was a great Sufi Sheikh, Abdul-Qadir Gilani, and God would tell him things. Once God said to him, “I have seen the souls of all human beings dancing from the very moment that I asked them, “To whom do you belong?” They all began dancing, and they’ve been dancing ever since. Within the body of every human being, souls are dancing, and those souls will keep on dancing until the end of time.
That’s a tradition of Sheikh Abdul-Qadir Gilani, and it tells us that music has its origin that is the same as the origin of the life story of each one of us. It also tells us that, even though we might be sitting down politely, inwardly, the spirits of each one of us are dancing. How do we come to know that our souls are dancing? Music shows it. Music parts the curtains in the body and shows that dancing soul. Hidden in the body is a dancing soul.
But here’s another secret: The body itself isn’t only a cover over the dancing soul. The body is musical itself. And the Quran says that the human body is made of a certain kind of clay—specifically, a ringing clay. It’s related to the word for chain. In Sufi, that’s a chain of transmission, but it’s also a chain that is known because of the sounds that it makes when you shake it. So the human body is made of a clay that vibrates, and so the dancing soul was placed in the ringing clay of the form of Adam and Eve.
One folk tale tells that, at first, this soul hesitated to enter the body. It had been dancing in the heavens and was reluctant to enter the apparent prison of the body. But then it heard the music in the body, and it was so beguiled that it fully entered the body. So music is part of the story of each of us and our spiritual journeys, going back to the early times.
Pir Zia Inayat-Khan familiarly known as Sarafil Bawa, is the spiritual leader of The Inayati Order, an interfaith mystical fellowship with branches throughout the world. His most recent book is Mingled Waters: Sufism & the Mystical Unity of Religions. This article was adapted from a talk that he gave at the Garrison Institute in 2016.