Summary and Info
Benjamin D. Koen, Beyond the Roof of the World: Music, Prayer, and Healing in the Pamir Mountains. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, 225 pp.
Dr. Koen's research is penetrating into the cultural and spiritual landscape of Pamir Badakhshani Ismaili community on the one hand, and insightful representation of the role of its devotional music, meditative and prayer practices in healing on the other hand. The book is also a valuable contribution to the medical ethnomusicology in which it skillfully applies the clinical and ethnographic approaches to the healing process using Pamiri cultural, religious and environmental symbols amazingly effectively and further enriching the discourse with personal experiences and comments. This is a book on spirituality as much as on medical ethnomusicology and therapeutic transformation and healing.
In chapter one, drawing on integrative, complementary, and alternative medicine (ICAM) and traditional healing system literature, the author defines illness as an imbalance between human beings and spiritual forces and health as restoration of the equilibrium. In his findings, belief, spirituality, emotional and psychological states of an individual are integral to the proper functioning of physical body. The spiritual and physical realms form the sacred clinical reality in which diversity is viewed as a fabric having infinite strands within the unity of its whole. In this framework, harmony between the multiple domains of knowledge and ways of knowing and ways of healing are centrally connected to transformative experiences. The author finds an integration of ancient music, prayer, meditation, and classical Persian mystical poetry in the maddâh, which is a genre of devotional music in Tajikistan's Pamir region. Among other purposes, the Pamiri Ismailis used maddâh for healing. The healing process involves attaining a state of cognitive flexibility which enables an individual to transcend a low state of consciousness to attain a higher level of consciousness through music, prayer and meditation. The lower state of consciousness is characterized by disease and illness and higher consciousness by health and healing.
In chapter two, the author introduces the notion that the power of music and prayer in healing is inextricably interwoven with cultural and religious beliefs and devotional practices, particularly prayer. In a meditative state of consciousness, the confluence of culturally significant sounds, symbols, metaphors, and beliefs forms a medical intervention by bringing about change in participants' being at multiple levels. He views the Badakhshani/Pamiri practices to be uniquely illustrative of what makes certain principles and processes culturally transcendent. In local etiology, according to the author, illness and disease are seen to be rooted in the physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual dimensions of life and so are health and healing. Prayers which generate baraka (spiritual power) can heal, bless, protect, guide, edify, enlighten, and ultimately transform people. In the process, the maddâh participants strive to transcend the lower self and enter into a purified state of consciousness.
Chapter three focuses on a model that considers both, the individual and integrated uses of music and prayer for the purpose of healing. In the music-prayer dynamics model as the author calls it, the khalifa's role is central. In his role as a religious leader which is regarded a sacred duty and honor, the khalifa explains the multilayer meaning of the devotional performance. As for the religious symbols, the number five is regarded as the most significant and power-laden symbol and metaphor according to local belief. The number five represents the five figures in the Prophet's household (pajtane pk), namely the Prophet Muhammad, his cousin and son-in-law Ali, his daughter Fatima and his two grandsons Hasan and Husayn. The author observes: "Five is a symbol intimately linked to baraka, giving sacred meaning to and even defining many elements of Pamiri culture, including the architectural design of the Pamiri home and maddâhkhâne, the individual, the Ismaili community, central religious beliefs, the natural and mystical landscape, poetry/prayer forms, and the music of maddâh"(75).
Chapter four introduces the concept of entrainment whereby two or more autonomous rhythms, processes, or oscillations synchronize with each other when brought into close enough physical proximity. Building on this principle, Koen invokes spiritual entrainment in which the weaker rhythmic processes surrender to the stronger rhythm or energy. This, in the maddâh context, means that the participants surrender their weaker energy of the lower self (nafs) to that of the stronger energy of their higher self (ruh/jân). During prayer and meditation, participants concentrate on the words, music, sounds, and symbols which have special meanings for them and and carry baraka (divine energy). In the process, they seek to weaken the lower self and strengthen the higher self. The symbol "five" once again plays a dominant role to entrain the participants' thoughts.
Chapter five is devoted mainly to situate the maddâh poetry within the broader context of Sufism and Persian mystical poetry in which veneration of the holy figures is a central feature. In a mystical sense, the prophets, saints, religious leaders are viewed as a reflection of God. In this regard, the author quotes Rumi, "the meaning of the Book of God is not the text, it is the man who guides." The author draws strong connection between Pamiri religious beliefs and Sufism because both focus on the esoteric (bâtin), as opposed to the exoteric (zâher). In his opinion, the panegyric Sufi poetry has its roots not only in ancient religious and mystical expression, but also has a connection to the secular panegyrics of the Persian courts of the Khorasân region. In the Persian language, the poem's subject, the venerated figure, can be interpreted as God, king, religious leader and so on. It is this ambiguity that made the transition from secular panegyric to mystical panegyric possible.
In chapter six, the author introduces what he calls the Guided Attention Practice (GAP) model which is organized around five stages or steps to enter what he calls higher consciousness, being or the meditative mind. At the start, the model is teacher-guided practice and eventually becomes a self-guided practice for the students. The five stages are: engage the mind and body to change the present state, enter the state of the meditative mind, enjoy and experience the silence of the meditative mind and higher consciousness, introduce and incorporate a special word, idea, phrase or goal into the meditative mind, and finally extend stage four into life activity.
Koen returns, in the last chapter, to the ontological principle of wholeness and introduces what he calls the Human Certainty Principle (HCP), which is a certainty or knowing that emerges in human consciousness from an unknowable and hence uncertain dimension, and which underlies, accompanies, or facilitates the experience of healing. It is a quality of calm certitude, he asserts, that is borne of the higher self, which by definition is linked to and expressive of unity and wholeness, which, in the author's words, "here has been described in part, by the term tâwhid, vahdate vojud, the matrix of all matter." Experiencing and conceptualizing music, prayer-meditation, and healing in the context of his study, Koen found out that balance equals health, imbalance equals illness and reestablishing a balance equals healing.
The depth of understanding of the integrated use of devotional music, meditation and prayers practiced by the Pamiri Ismailis for various purposes including healing, their cultural transcendent values, and pluralistic worldview in recognizing the divine revelation which is present not only in Islam, but also in other religions, is truly remarkable. However, Koen in his analysis appears to have missed the role of the Ismaili Imam in shaping the values of the Pamiri Ismailis. In his view, the Pamiri Ismailis owe their principles and values to Sufism, which is not necessarily the case; they are inculcated primarily by the teaching of the Ismaili Imams rather than espousing them from Sufism. Nasir Khusraw, an 11th century Ismaili scholar who is revered by the Pamiri Ismailis, vividly explains the universality of the divine revelation: "What the ignorant consider to be differences among the Torah, the Gospel and the Qur'an are not differences in meaning at all, but only in the exoteric aspect of the words, similitudes and parables." He owes his own knowledge and spiritual wisdom to the Imam-of-the-Time (Imame Zaman) and says: "When the light of the Imam-of-the-Time shone on my soul, I was transformed from being like dark night to radiant sun." The purpose of using selected Sufi poems in the maddh is that they venerate the prophet, his family, the panjtan-i pak or ahl-albayt and in particular Ali, the first Imam in the chain of the Ismaili Imamat which, according to the Pamiri Ismaili beliefs, is everlasting. Chiragh Nama, the text on the Badakhshani Ismaili religious rites, states: "in rishta-i immat, sabt ast ta qiymat, behr-i nijt-i ummat, salawt bar Muhammad." "This rope of Imamat, is everlasting until the Day of Judgment, for the sake of salvation of the community, peace be upon Muhammad." Furthermore, the Badakhshani Ismailis' respect for and devotion to their local leadership or religious figures like Nasir Khusraw stems from the fact that they are linked with the Ismaili Imamat in their belief and responsibility.
Dr. Koen makes a link between Sufi poetry and secular panegyrics in the court of Khurasan. He attributes
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