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Orüç Güvenç’s Music Is the Closest I’ve Come to the Sound of Heaven

For the birth of my three children, I made a simple request to the doctors and the nurses. It had nothing to do with painkilling medicine (or lack thereof). It was a request that was met with amusement, a chuckle, and some puzzlement.

I wanted a CD to be played in the delivery room at the time of the birth.

“A CD? As in music?” they asked. Yes, most definitely music.

“What, like jazz or classical?” they asked. Almost. Not quite. For all three of these beautiful children, I wanted to have the sacred music of Orüç Güvenç, the Turkish Sufi master, playing as my children entered this world.

“Is it loud and distracting?” the doctors asked. No, absolutely not. The doctors reflected on the request and consented. At the last minute, they wondered: What’s the point of this music?

Somewhat shy, I shared the real reason: The music, the sacred chanting known as the repetition of the divine names (dhikr) and songs in praise of God and the saints (ilahi), especially in the way perfected by ethnomusicologist Orüç Güvenç is divine.

Listening to the great Turkish Sufi musician is the closest I have come to the sound of heaven. Yes, I imagine paradise as how the Qur’an imagines it: a garden with flowing rivers and the company of God and the prophets and other beautiful souls. I also imagine it with books and the sacred sound of Orüç playing this divine music.

Children are not mere bodies. They are not flesh and bones. They are spirits taking on human form. They have come from that realm of spirit and beauty and into this earthly realm. This is the reason I wanted his CD, Ocean of Remembrance, to play in the delivery room.

As my babies entered this world, I wanted them to know that somebody here, in this realm, knows who they are. Knows what they are. That somebody here knows that they are beings with a heavenly origin and a heavenly destination. I wanted my babies to know that I see them as God’s — and wanted divine music to welcome them here.

Orüç Güvenç passed away earlier this month — unexpectedly to us and not to him— from complications related to a surgery. He was so young, only in his 60s. The tributes poured out one-by-one from all over the world. People, who today are recognized as spiritual masters in their own right, wrote in to say that their own spiritual journey had started or been enriched by this magical recording.

The album consists of rhythmic chanting of familiar Arabic phrases: “Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim” (“In the name of God, whose ever-mercy enfolds us like a womb, whose all-compassion reaches out into eternity”), “Alhamdulillah” (“Praise be to God”), “Allah, Allah, Allah.

Saints, the friends of God, are here too. “Ali Gordum” is a beautiful song about seeing Imam Ali, beloved to both Sufis and Shi’a, at dawn. And there’s another song about the one companion of Muhammad who loved him even though he was never able to see the Prophet. This song, “Veysel Qarani” (the Turkish version of “Uwais Al Qarani“), is beloved to many Muslim seekers — those of us who, like Veysel Qarani, have also loved Muhammad without laying eyes on him. The chants are accompanied by beautiful ilahi, many of which are 400–700 years old, and musical instruments such as the ney and the oud. The combination is haunting, mesmerizing, uplifting, and transformative.

Last year we arranged for Orüç Güvenç and his beautiful wife, Azize, to come to Duke. We had arranged for multiple concerts and chances for them to speak with students. Azize, an Austrian citizen, was pulled off the airplane because she and Orüç had gone on a musical tour to Iran. Not only are citizens from Iran prevented from entering the United States, but visiting Iran is enough to prevent mystical European musicians from entering the United States. The realm of love, beauty, and sound that Orüç embodies is not separate from the racism and xenophobia that other Muslims experience.

So Orüç, beautiful Orüç, this master of heavenly music, Orüç who speaks Turkish and French but not English, came to America alone — without his beloved, without his musical partner, without his translator. This was the first time in some 25 years that they had been separated. He had to find his way through New York City without being able to speak English. He kept his dignity, composure, and unmistakable beauty.

Orüç came, and he performed. He played in New York, and he played in North Carolina. He performed a concert in which he took us by the hand, by the ear, by the heart, and moved us from Mecca to Medina to Jerusalem and Baghdad, Istanbul and Konya, from Iran to Samarqand and Bokhara and Uyghur regions. How effortlessly and beautifully he moved with complete mastery across languages, genres, and traditions. All of this was in him, inside his heart.

Orüç Güvenç leads a Sufi music workshop in Istanbul, Turkey in 2012 while the author and his daughter listen. Photo by Chris Heagle.

It reminded me of the first time I visited Orüç in his workshop in Istanbul. The workshop was covered wall-to-wall with ancient musical instruments. This was no museum but a living place, a tradition in the making. Over the next few hours, he moved from instrument to instrument, picked them up from the wall and performed them masterfully. String instruments, wind instruments, percussion, dozens of them.

Years later I went back to that same workshop with my daughter Roya. She was the first of my three children who had been welcomed into this world with the sound of heaven that flows through Orüç. I told Roya about the story of how she had been welcomed into this world with Orüç’s sacred music. My daughter (she who is a master of no-nonsense) looked at me and said:

“Baba, I have heard this music before.”

I offered that perhaps she had heard me play this in our home. She shook her head and insisted:

“Baba, I have heard this music BEFORE.”

To this day I believe that she heard this music in another heavenly realm, before being born.

I told Orüç about welcoming Roya — and my other children, Amir and Layla — into this world with his music. He smiled and put his hand on his heart and humbly bowed his head. He then honored Roya in a way that masterful musicians who are living embodiments of a tradition can do: He proceeded to have an impromptu concert in which the ending of every poem was none other than the word “roya“, meaning a dream or a vision of God. Roya — my bi-racial, spiritually seeking and as of then not yet persuaded of any one path, bold and beautiful beloved daughter — was mesmerized, amazed, and astonished at how one person could carry so much wisdom and beauty inside him. There were no notes, no paper. These gems came from Orüç’s radiant heart.

Let me share a few gems from this treasure of sacred music. If you have not yet listened to Ocean of Remembrance, please give it a listen here. Make it a habit.

Or, listen to his album Rivers of One, a beautiful example of how Orüç wove together the sound of running water and instrumental music. And, during his time at Duke, we recorded a lengthy interview with him about his life, background, and training. You can see it in short- and long-format.

We also recorded an interview of his music therapy session at Duke.

A few years ago, Krista Tippett and the On Being team came to Istanbul to record a Sufi workshop with Orüç and his community. You can listen to the entire workshop here:

There is one last item to share. There is a particular sadness about Orüç’s passing. Beings like him are a gateway to God’s own presence. We need gateways to walk through. When Orüç passed on to the divine — Muslim mystics call death a “union” with God’s presence — I realized that this gateway of teaching has closed in some way, though it lives on in an indiscernible, more subtle way. And it is up to us to continue to embody these teachings.

May we keep walking through these gateways of beauty. May we ourselves become gateways of the spirit realm, for ourselves and others.

Inna lilah wa inna ilayhi raji’un, Hocam.
Until we see each other again, insha’allah.

May you hear the sound of heaven,
here and now as you will there and then.

Orüç Güvenç exits. Photo courtesy of Azize Güvenç.

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