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Sing for joy in the Lord, O you righteous ones; Praise is becoming to the upright. Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre; Sing praises to Him with a harp of ten strings. Sing to Him a new song; Play skillfully with a shout of joy. - Psalm 33:1-3.
Music is regarded as a praiseworthy science at the Threshold of the Almighty… By virtue of this, consider how much the art of music is admired and praised. Try, if thou canst, to use spiritual melodies, songs and tunes, and to bring the earthly music into harmony with the celestial melody. Then thou wilt notice what a great influence music hath and what heavenly joy and life it conferreth. Strike up such a melody and tune as to cause the nightingales of divine mysteries to be filled with joy and ecstasy. – Abdu’l-Baha, from a tablet to an individual Baha'i.
Gospel music is alive.
Whether it’s singing the song We Are Soldiers In God’s Army, or shakin’ my feet watching the dynamic and funny 1992 movie Sister Act starring undercover choirmaster Whoopi Goldberg, gospel music lives. Participating in Sunday services at Trenton, New Jersey’s Shiloh Baptist Church confirmed it for me, although I was put on the spot and asked to hold out the donations basket while folks stood and walked over to me to contribute, a far cry from just passing the anonymous basket around the pews.
We lose our souls, our minds, our feelings, our hearts, especially our fingers, toes and feet, to the sounds and words of music. All musical genres—gospel, rock, hip-hop, country, pop, Latino, world music, New Age, R&B, EDM/Dance, Party, and much more—don’t just entertain and delight or sadden, but cause human wakefulness and mindfulness.
As a writer, before setting down the first word I listen to my daily inspirational dose of music in the background—or many times, in the foreground. I pick the genre that fits my mood at 4 a.m., and away I go, floating within the space of sounds and syllables. For Baha’is like me, music sings the praise of God:
…that the essence of all beings may sing Thy praise before the vision of Thy grandeur. Reveal then Thyself, O Lord, by Thy merciful utterance and the mystery of Thy divine being, that the holy ecstasy of prayer may fill our souls—a prayer that shall rise above words and letters and transcend the murmur of syllables and sounds—that all things may be merged into nothingness before the revelation of Thy splendor. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha'i Prayers, p. 71.
These days, I especially love love songs. Love songs have been popular, even if sung only to one’s beloved, since antiquity. The great Sufi mystical poet Rumi sang his love song like this:
I want to see you. Know your voice. Recognize you when you first come ’round the corner. Sense your scent when I come into a room you’ve just left. Know the lift of your heel, the glide of your foot. Become familiar with the way you purse your lips then let them part, just the slightest bit, when I lean in to your space and kiss you. I want to know the joy of how you whisper “more.”
Any student of Rumi knows his true love was not himself, nor a woman, man nor child—but Allah, God, the One Beloved.
My challenge to you, as I challenge myself when listening to music, is to imagine God, the One Beloved, as the object of the singer’s desires. Try it with the next love song you hear, and you’ll see how perfectly the analogy fits. Love songs, at their core, are all about God, and our love for that divine spiritual essence we see in others.
I didn’t think of this myself, of course. Years ago a close friend said, “I think God is the object of every love song.”
After listening to all genres of music at home and in my car with that deep observation in mind, I began to agree with my friend. Now I believe that all songs and all music are about the Unknowable one. The more I try to “test” music lyrics, the more I realize how true my friend’s comments are. The pounding beats and notes reinforce this feeling, and almost every song I listen to now transports me to that Rumi-like place of love.
That, I’ve concluded, is the essence of “Soul” music, “Heart” music, and gospel music, maybe the oldest forms of all songs about love and life.
The Baha'i teachings reinforce that feeling, especially when they encourage music as “spiritual food for the soul and heart:”
In this new and wondrous dispensation the veils of superstition have been torn asunder and the prejudices of eastern peoples stand condemned. Among certain nations of the East, music was considered reprehensible, but in this new age the Manifest Light hath, in His holy Tablets, specifically proclaimed that music, sung or played, is spiritual food for soul and heart.
The musician's art is among those arts worthy of the highest praise, and it moveth the hearts of all… play and sing out the holy words of God with wondrous tones in the gatherings of the friends, that the listener may be freed from chains of care and sorrow, and his soul may leap for joy and humble itself in prayer to the realm of Glory. - Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 112.