Asian Music and Dance

Sufi Music – Lifting the soul to realms above

“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened,” noted the great Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi in the 13th century. “Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading,” he writes. Instead, “Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do.”

Music and poetry lie at the heart of Sufism. The power of melody and verse takes centre stage in praising the almighty. Whereas certain branches of ‘orthodox’ Islam actively discourage or in extreme cases ban music, Sufis consider music as a legitimate path to the divine. 

Sufi music and poetry pervade the Muslim world, from South and Central Asia through Turkey, the Middle East, as well as parts of Africa. In each area the music has fused with local traditions to create a diverse range of sounds and colours. The uninitiated may be surprised to discover that Qawalli from Pakistan is linked spiritually and historically to the ‘whirling dervishes’ of Turkey. However, all these different expressions of ritual and performance have the same goal: to lose oneself and draw closer to God.

In south Asia and, in particular the Punjab province of Pakistan, Sufi music is synonymous with Qawalli, made famous by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Almost single-handedly, Nusrat took Qawalli from the dusty plains of Pakistan to auditoriums around the globe. 

Many criticised him for taking sacred music to the secular stage. But Nusrat always said he never did it for fame: “Many have said I have compromised my faith by coming to the West. But this is not so. To travel the world and open the hearts of those whose were previously closed is a joy worth the other sacrifices.”

“Oh, music is the meat of all who love,
Music uplifts the soul to realms above.
The ashes glow, the latent fires increase:
We listen and are fed with joy and peace”
Sufi poem (translated by R.A. Nicholson)

The roots of Qawalli, a fusion of devotional poetry and Hindustani music, can be traced back to eighth century Persia (today’s Iran and Afghanistan). Migrations from the eleventh century brought many of the musical traditions to the Indian subcontinent. 

But it was not until the thirteenth Century that Qawalli began to take shape after Hazarat Amir Khusrao (1253-1325), who was of Turkish and Persian descent and an iconic figure in the cultural history of the Indian subcontinent, ‘invented’ Qawalli. 

Khusrao, a Sufi mystic and a spiritual disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi, was a notable poet but also a prolific musician, mathematician and linguist.  Called the ‘father of Qawalli’, he is also credited with enriching Hindustani classical music by introducing Persian and Arabic elements in it. He is considered the originator of the Khayal and Tarana styles of music. And if that wasn’t enough of a life’s work, he is also thought to have invented the tabla. In short, he reshaped Indian classical music. 

Qawalli can be broken down into the Arabic word ‘Qaul’ meaning an ‘utterance (of the prophet)’. A Qawall is someone who often sings a Qaul, and Qawalli is the style of singing of Qauls. 

“To be a qawall is more than being a performer, more than being an artist. One must be willing to release one’s mind and soul from one’s body to achieve ecstasy through music. Qawalli is enlightenment itself.”

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Traditionally, Qawalli which is sung regularly around the tombs of Sufi saints is raw, rustic, unrefined and pounds to the strident beat of the Dhol drum. Devotees,who gather at these shrines at traditional Qawalli performances, known as Mehfil-e-Saama, are often driven to an ecstatic frenzy by the high-octane, hypnotic rhythms and mesmerising singing. 

Qawallis tend to begin gently and build steadily to a very high energy level in order to induce hypnotic states both among the musicians and within the audience. This trance-like state or wajad is generally considered to be the height of spiritual ecstasy in Sufism, and a state where they feel at one with God.

Qawalli freely uses poetry and verses from Sufi masters across the world. Often the same line is repeated incessantly, sometimes broken up into parts of sentences, or fragments of words, or just sounds known as Tarana, against the pulsating beat and accompanied by stylised clapping. 

Today, many see Sufism through its words, deeds and music as playing a crucial role in presenting a tolerant, open and peaceful strand of Islam against some of its most negative stereotypes. Faouzi Skali, the organiser of the Fez Sacred Music Festival, says the annual gathering gives Sufis an opportunity to reach out to people across the world: “I believe that within Islam, Sufism has a role to play today. The world is not uniform. There’s a wealth of spiritual traditions that it’s important to know and preserve. That’s what we, and the next generation, need now or we will have a world without soul and that would be terrible.”

Legendary Qawals of the Past

Aziz Mian Qawal, one of Pakistan’s most famous Qawals, is responsible for the longest commercially released Qawalli, Hashr Ke Roz Yeh Poochhunga, which runs slightly over 115 minutes.

Ustad Bahauddin Khan Qawal is a household name in Pakistan who descends from an illustrious family of musicians whose history commences in the days of Hazarat Amir Khusrao.

Ustad Fateh Ali Khan was the father of the legendary Qawalli musician, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Their family has an unbroken tradition of Qawalli for over 600 years.

Mubarak Ali Khan, one of the foremost Qawals of his time, was the father of Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan, uncle of Qawalli musicians Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan.

Munshi Raziuddin was a renowned Pakistani Qawal and classical musician who belongs to the best-known gharana of Qawalli, Qawal Bachchon Ka Gharana of Delhi. Initially, he performed in the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad. However, after the fall of Hyderabad, he moved to Pakistan.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is Pakistan’s most famous Qawalli export. He featured in Time magazine’s 2006 list of ‘Asian Heroes’.

The Sabri Brothers enjoyed popularity up to the 80s when they split up into two groups.They rejoined in the 90s, but soon one of the brothers died, and this was the beginning of their end. The Sabri Brothers’ musical lineage stretches back to the time of the Mughal emperors. 

Well-known Qawals of Today

Abida Parveen is one of the foremost exponents of Sufi music.  Her forte is the kafi and the ghazal, and she is known for her particularly stunning voice, as well as her vivid musical imagination. 

Faiz Ali Faiz comes from a family of Qawals from seven generations in Pakistan. 

Fareed Ayaz belongs to the best-known gharana of Qawalli, Qawal Bachchon Ka Gharana of Delhi. 

Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is the nephew of the late Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. In addition to Qawalli, he also performs ghazals and other light music. He has toured extensively and performed in Pakistan, India and all around the world.

Waheed and Naveed Chishti are recognised as two of Pakistan’s most prolific and promising Qawalli singers. Sons of the late Qawal Qari Mohammed Saeed Chishti, they learnt Qawalli singing directly from their father, who sang in five languages including English, Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Punjabi. 



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