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The Roots of Turkish Music: The Sound of Ney and Sufism


Music has always played an essential role for humanity. Since the early times, people tried to derive sounds of anything possible, and create music, that had sacred meaning, helped to relax, accompanied people during their work etc. Sufi music, and the sounds of Ney in the Islamic cultures were regarded as the signs of God’s love to the human. These sounds also represent the link with previous generations, with the cultural and religious roots, that are essential for the Muslim cultures. Zeynep Atik, the Ney, player, explained, that in spite of the western influence, the traditional music still stays rather popular, and it is regarded noble to be able to play Nay. The current paper is aimed to research the roots of the Nay Sufi music, and explain the significance of this music for the Turkish culture.

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The significance of music for any culture is was very high in any times. Originally, music had sacral and holy meaning, and the magic of deriving melodic sounds seemed was available only to those, who are closer to God than others. Those, who play this music, state, that they feel immense relaxation: “this is like meditation for me”, ‑ states Zeynep Atik, the Ney player. The language of music is the universal tool of expressing feelings, impressions, and thoughts. The Ney sounds sound very melodic and relaxing, and every Muslim knows, that the origins of these sounds are in the love of Allah to the humans. It is argued, that the manner and the style of playing the Ney stayed the same, and was not subjected to changes for the centuries.

Literature Review

First of all, it is necessary to define what Sufism is, and how music is related to religious beliefs in the contemporary world. National Geographic (2008) gives the following information on this matter:

Sufism is the mystical and ancient branch of Islam that emphasizes the seeker’s path toward ecstatic unity with God. This path is opulently embroidered with many means to “remembering God,” or dhikr, including chanting the names of God, prayer, meditation, poetry, Qur’anic recitation, praise and music. While “orthodox” Islam looks down on music, many Sufi traditions seek to utilize its emotive and communal power towards the goal of dhikr. Frequently, a spiritual leader or sheikh (called a pir in certain languages) will lead disciples in these practices in communal rites of remembrance. One central form of group dhikr is called sama’. While sama’ literally means “listening,” it has the connotation of a spiritual concert of sacred music, often with dance.

The music of the path seeker is widely spread all over the world, as almost any culture has the concept of the life path, and the necessity to find it. Mostly, it may be found after the enlightenment, that may be achieved through constant studies, prays and particular was of life. In Sufism, this enlightenment may be achieved also with the help of music, that helps to realize the origin of God’s love, and his wisdom, that created this world.

Originally, the bamboo Ney has the unique history of creation, and this history is closely connected with the philosophical cognition of the Allah’s wisdom. Zeynep Atik narrated that It is not an ordinary bamboo (reed hut); nay is the flame of love in a man of Sufis it is the love of the creator. They say that Saint David was passing by a field one day, with the wind the bamboos begun to make a sound. David stopped, and mentioned, that the sound was rather pleasant, relaxing, and sounded holy. He took one of them and started blowing. Later, he played aiming to reveal his love to God, worship His wisdom, and showing the gratitude for this pleasant sounding present. In Sufi culture, Ney represents the one who is in love of God and dedicated to God. The 7 holes that Ney has, represent the 7 holes in the human head such as ear, mouth, nose and eyes. It is also regarded as a symbol of maturity.

Hammarlund, Olsson and Özdalga (1999, p.11) argue that Music in Sufism is the means to draw the soul much close to God, consequently, its role in Sufi life is of great significance. Nevertheless, it is objected by many sharia-bound Muslims. It is known, that since the VIII century, the Sufis gathered in Baghdad in small groups. They relaxed after days and nights of extensive religious exercises. It was the way of relax that allowed them to taste the attraction of love.

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Those who supported the orthodox views objected to this practice, as “worldly love songs were recited which spoke of human love relations instead of concentrating upon the Divine Grandeur and Majesty as taught through the words of the Koran”. (Hammarlund, Olsson and Özdalga, 1999, p.13). Moreover, it often happened, that some listeners could whirl their axes, being in a state of rapture. This contradicted the holy principles of praying and worship, as the Muslims have to sit still, and touch the floor with the forehead while praying.

Avery (2004), states, that music was not only the religious tool, however, soon, the Ney sounds became the mean of entertaining the guests; however it still stayed the mean of achieving the altered state of the spirit (soul). These aural stimulations, such as chanting, playing music, poetry got its spread by the third and fourth centuries of the Islamic epoch (XIX – X centuries AD). Actually, such techniques were not limited to the ‘intoxicated’ Sufis but seem to have been widespread. For the conventional Islam, nevertheless, and mainly for those who condemned of the Sufis, such actions and experience were frowned upon and viewed as intolerable ‘innovations’ from the path laid down by the Prophet.

These practices were aimed to achieve the altering of the spiritual awareness that culminated in different ways of ecstasy changes in psyche and physical conditions and behavior. The influence of chanting on the psychical and psychological impact of chanting, Ney playing and recitation, was much more effective than the semantic power of the words. J. Spencer Trimingham reminds us that music, chant and recitation ‘not only has mystical power to draw out the deepest emotions, but also, when co-ordinated with symbolic words and rhythmical movements, has power over man’s will’ (Avery, 2004, p.4)

The participants of the 2001 festival of world sacred music showed their experience and skills in playing various instruments, however, it is necessary to mention that Ney players were the least numerous, however, the impression of their playing was the largest. The fact is that, if someone plays Ney, he devotes his whole life to it. The skills and experiences are often transmitted from generation to generation. One of the participators of the festival, Abida Parveen said that Ney music is a form of sacred Sufi music, that comes from the Arabic “to recite”. It is a form of dhikr – a way to open up the heart and to come to the soul in order to create the connection to the Divine forces. Parveen’s ensemble is smaller than the traditional ensembles, however, it is not an obstacle for their music to enter the hearts, minds, and souls of the listeners. Abida is very aware of the audience, and states, that texts that are Ney accompanied should take the primary position of the significance, as the texts entail the potential for carrying the listener directly to marifat.

Originally, the Ney playing was allowed only for men. The significant feature is that Abida Parveen is one of the few women in the world, who play the Ney equally with men. When asked what she thinks of this violation of the traditions, she replied: “We are all the same species–all humans have a representative of godliness, so there is really no male/female division. I have been given this gift by the Divine, who does not recognize differences between male and female singing. I am simply a medium, and if you listen to me sing, even over the period of a few days, it will be entirely different because the transmission is from the Divine. This is what I always go with.” (Cook, 2001)


In order to regard the historical origins of Sufi music in general, and playing Ney in particular, it is necessary to explain the term Dhikr. Originally, Dhikr is the remembrance of God, that is the superior divine power for the Muslims, and it is stated in the Qur’an. Initially, the engagement in dhikr is the practicing of the consciousness of the Divine Presence. Some types of dhikr are recommended for all the Muslims, and these practices do not require Sufi initiation, as these original practices are aimed for everyone, and are regarded universal for any seeker in any situation. However, there are some types of dhikr that require particular recommendations and some previous experience. Dhikr is the spiritual act, that includes the repetition of the names of God, Prophet and prayers, and the sections from the Qur’an. In more general meaning, any activity, the Muslims are engaged in, that is aimed to worship the God is considered Dhikr. (Fox, 2002)

The Sufi regulations and principles make the particular emphasis on Dhikr, and it is regarded as the source of Divine Love Love likewise in Qadri Al-Muntahi Sufi tariqa, which was originated by Riaz Ahmed Gohar Shahi. The main principle of achieving this Divine love is the visualization of the God’s name. The Sounds of bamboo Ney symbolize the sound of God’s name, and that is why they considered to be holy.

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The legend states that Saint Mohammed told about his love of God to his friend Saint Ali. Saint Ali kept this secret, but he could not stand, and full of God’s love, he went to the dessert. One day as he was walking around, he found water well, and he told the secret inside of hole and he felt better. Later the water came around of the water well, fed the soil, and lots of green bamboos started growing there. The first Ney was made of that bamboo stem, so it was the present of the God to humans, and since then it serves as the symbolization of Divine love, and the secret of God.

The Neys are divided into two categories: the Turkish / Ottoman has six finger-holes with the seventh reverse hole, while Persian is with five finger holes. The development of the playing techniques appeared to be different in Turkey and in the rest of the Arab world. The Persian Ney acquired the metal tube on the mouthpiece, while the Turkish is wholly made of bamboo.

The great musician, who then founded the school of playing the Ney was Rumi (Mawlānā Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī, also known as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī). He played the music in order to accompany samā. These playing consisted of the number of poems from the Maṭnawī and Dīwān-e Kabīr, or of Sultan Walad’s poems. Rumi invented the Mawlawī order of the Ney music, and currently, the music that is associated with Turkish all over the world is played in the Mawlawī order. This was discussed by the ethnologist Helmut Ritter in 1932. He found that the Mawlawī order comes from the Near East. He argued that Rumi stands in an old custom of flute stories; and it is also argued, that the Rumi’s playing maner has become the unsurpassable expression of the soul’s longing for its motherland in God’s infinity. (The Eighth Annual Sufism Symposium, 2001)

With the creation of the modern Republic of Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, all the religious prejudices were taken away, and the religion was divided from the social and political life. The techniques of playing Ney were also endangered to oblivion, however, the family traditions had preserved it, and currently, the admirers have the great opportunity to enjoy the sounds of Ney. The musicians, who made an essential contribution to the maintenance and development of the traditional play are Neyzen Teyfik, Mercan Dede and Kutsi Erguner. They popularize the Ney music, and thus promote the preservation of the Muslim traditions for the following generations.


In conclusion, it is necessary to mention, that the Sufi music and the techniques of playing Ney form the national and cultural identity of the people, devoted to Sufi traditions. This music is the essential link of the present generations with the ancestors, who lived to make the world better, and preserve this beauty for the following generations. The Ney itself, and the playing manner was developing for the centuries, and the Turkish Ney is the real symbolization of the whole history of Islam in the territory of Turkey: Ney has its own appearance and the manner of playing the melodies. Any other nation pays so much attention to Ney as the tool of approaching the Divine Love, and getting closer to God. The wonderful legend of inventing Ney only confirms its great significance for the Turkish people, and emphasizes its holy origin. Unfortunately, playing Ney is not so wide spread nowadays, because of the western cultural influence, however, there are some players, whose aim is to popularize this wonderful flute, and remind the Turkish who are they by the means of charming music, that thrills impression.


Avery, K. S. (2004). Psychology of Early Sufi Sama? Listening and Altered States. New York: Routledge Curzon.

Cook, B. (2001). The 2001 Fez Festival of World Sacred Music: An Annual Musical Event in Morocco Embodies and Reflects Sufi Traditions and Spirit. International Journal of Humanities and Peace, 17(1), 54

Fox, R. (2002). Prejudice and the Unfinished Mind: a New Look at an Old Failing. Psychological Inquiry, 3(2), 137-152.

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Hammarlund, A., Olsson, T., & Özdalga, E. (Eds.). (1999). Sufism, Music and Society in Turkey and the Middle East. Richmond, England: Curzon.

Kirby, S (2007) “Sufi Music and the Formation of Spiritual Community” SIT: Morocco “Culture and Society”. Web.

National Geographic (2008) “Sufi Music” National Geographic Society.

The Eighth Annual Sufism Symposium (2001) “Celebrating Our Divine Desire” 

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