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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sufism is the mystical path of Islam. It is the inner, meditative branch of the religion that's found in many different forms and in many different countries. It seldom makes news, like Sunni and Shiites.

As part of our series, Ecstatic Voices: Sacred Music in America, NPR's John Burnett searches out Sufi music that is made in this country and which serves as the soundtrack for this religion.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The ancient spiritual practice of Sufism incorporates all sorts of activities to achieve a state in which the practitioner loses the ego and experiences God - singing, chanting, reciting, whirling - as in dervishes - and music. This was the reason for a visit from an intense, short-statured Egyptian-American to Studio B at NPR West.

RIAD ABDEL-GAWAD: I'm Riad Abdel-Gawad. I live near Los Angeles, California. And I'm a Sufi musician and composer. And I'm going to play the azan for you.

BURNETT: He lifts his violin to his chin, closes his eyes, and inclines toward the microphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: With a Harvard Ph.D. in composition, the Cairo-born virtuoso has played and taught his music around the world. Riad Abdel-Gawad's compositions embrace Egypt's multi-hued, 7,000-year musical history, but he has updated them with a New World sensibility.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDEL-GAWAD: We call this zikr, zikr Allah. It means, you know, the remembrance of God. So you can use the music as a means to transport yourself to different stages and closeness to Allah, or God.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

ABDEL-GAWAD: (Singing in foreign language)

BURNETT: Sufism in America became popular in the 1970s in California - where else - when it migrated here from the Middle East. People gather in small groups, in homes or lodges, to inquire, meditate and listen as they approach the disciplined life of a Sufi. The sect does not advertise or proselytize.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: A prominent American Sufi is Kabir Helminski. The 65-year-old author, lecturer, and spiritual leader runs the website sufism.org from his home in Louisville, Kentucky. He's also a whirler in the Turkish Mevlevi Order.

KABIR HELMINSKI: Sufism is a spiritual path that people choose to have an experience of the divine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HELMINSKI: There's quite a variety of music, but the important thing is that it happens within a sacred context. Music was there to take people to a very sublime and transcendent state.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Riad Abdel-Gawad is best known for his made-in-the-USA compositions expanding on Egyptian classical music. Along the way, he creates new Sufi music by translating sacred chants onto the violin.

ABDEL-GAWAD: This religious or sacred chant music - what I'm doing is a little bit like Bach's time when he had music for the church. Similarly, now we have sort of a concert music that's growing out of this sacred Islamic music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Through this work, Riad Abdel-Gawad is ensuring that the ancient practice of Sufism has a modern soundtrack.

John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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