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Origin and History of the Qawwali

Origin and History of the Qawwali
By Adam Nayyar, Lok Virsa Research Centre, Islamabad. 1988.


Lok Virsa (the National Iristitute of Folk and Traditional Heritage) has the mandate of collecting, documenting, archiving and projecting all aspects of our cultural traditions.

Under the Research Report Programme, preliminary work done on various elements of traditional culture is made available to the reader as soon as possible in order to ensure that the research work done by Lok Virsa does not remain only archival, but also can reach a wider readership.

The medium of qawwali to present the deep mystical ,philosophy of Sufi Islam is generally known, but very little has been written about it to date. In this report, Lok Virsa endeavours to give the reader a background to the origins and history of qawwali and the setting in the villages where it is performed. Among the performers, the focus is on a bearer of a great tradition of qawwali, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his group. Having had the honour of winning the President's Pride of Performance Medal, they are performing at the National Folk Music Festival of Pakistan 1988.

1 .1 Islamic Sources and Sama’

Qawwali as a musical form is closely linked to the sufic traditions of Islam and the particular practices that Sufi scholars developed to achieve closeness to God. Arab musicologists such as al-Kindi (d.873) and al-Farabi (b.872) wrote on the effects of music, but the first to take into account the relation between music and trance were the Brothers of Purity (lkhwan al-safa), "a group of philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, and litterateurs who flourished at AI-Sasra during the second half of the eleventh century"1 . lt remained for the great Muslim philosopher AI-Ghazali to unify the knowledge of his time.

1.1,1 AI-Ghazali and the lslamic Musical Tradition

Kitab adab al-sama:y wa al-wajd, the "Book of the Right Usages of Audition and Trance‘.’ - such is the title given by AI-Ghazali (1085-111 1 ) to the eighth section of his famous Ihya u’lum al-din, "Book of the Revivifying of the Sciences of Faith." Written at the beginning of the twelfth century AD, this book is one of the most

important treatises on Sufism.2

From this source and other contemporary writers, it is possible for us to reconstruct a description of a ceremony called sama’. Sama’ is a concept difficult to translate, since it covers a range of meanings from audition to listening to the spiritual aspects of a musical concert rendered for that purpose.3

By the end of the eleventh century, a sama’ was a spiritual concert in which the music was mainly sung, sometimes by a soloist, sometimes by a chorus, including instrumental elements of varying importance. The concert took place under the direction of a sheikh. The solo singing was provided by a cantor.

The faithful listened to the music seated, in a state of inner contemplation, and allowed themselves to be gradually overcome by trance. Return to calm and normality was likewise brought about by the sound of music suitable for that purpose.

1 .2 The South Asian Context - Qaul and Tarana

1 .2.1 Sufism and the Developed Musical Tradition in South Asia - Amir Khusraw

Hazrat Amir Khusraw (1253-1325)4, a famous Sufi saint and an expert both in Indian and Persian music at the court of Ala’ al-Din Khilji, Sultan of Delhi (12961316) is credited with the introduction of Persian and Arabic elements into South Asian music. Of particular importance are two musical forms: Tarana and Qaul, which is said to be the origin of Qawwali, a form of Muslim religious song.

However, there is evidence that qawwali predates Hazrat Amir Khusraw: the great Sufi Masters of the Chishtiya and Suhrawardia Orders of South Asia were admirers of the qawwali and the Saint Hazrat Outubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki is said to have died in 1236 while in a musical trance induced by a qawwali 5

1 .3 The Vehicle and the Message

1 .3.1 The All-male Nature of Qawwali

From the early beginnings of Islam, the public sphere was an exclusively male domain. Women did participate in scholarship and even warfare in extraordinary conditions, but the realm of worship at best permitted of equal but separate action. Thus a musico-religious gathering contained only men and this tradition has survived to this day. The only notable exception are the more secularised forms of Qawwali, such as functions at female educational institutions or film scenes in contemporary Pakistan.

1 .3.2 A Strong Musical Vehicle for Ecstasy

The strength and power of Qawwali as a form is used to convey a mystic religious message. To draw and hold the attention of a heterogeneous audience is the skill that the best Qawwal (performers of qawwali) excel at. Thus altering the state of consciousness of the audience in order to make them more receptive to the content is one of the basic reasons for the existence of this vehicle.


2.1 The Meaning of ma’rifat

One of the concepts that defies easy definition is ma’rifat. Approximating closely to the Greek concept of gnosis, it indicates an inner knowledge not attainable by normal means. Islamic mystical tradition indicates several different paths to ma’rifat, which is arrived at by meditation and other practices. One of these practices accepted by certain schools such as the Chishtiya Sufic order is Qawwali, which is considered to be a mode which brings one closer to the experience of this inner truth by presenting the words (kalam) in the vehicle of music, thus providing an intangible; interplay between form and content, dwelling on certain words to give them a wider context, creating great depth in the apparently simple language of certain Sufic texts. The qawwal often dwell on one phrase or sentence, indicating both the obvious and hidden content by emphasizing and repeating various words and syllables, taking the audience into the discovery of hitherto not obvious meanings. A spinning wheel thus changes from a household instrument into the wheel of life or the wheel of hope depending on the shift of emphasis in one sentence.

Repeating a sentence until all meaning is exhausted and it becomes meaningless is another technique for bringing the audience closer to the elusive ma’rifat. Through this technique, semantic reality is negated and a purity of form is created. It is often this element that transcends linguistic barriers.

2.1 .2 Hal:: Ecstasy and Catharsis

One of the objectives of a qawwali is to induce trance in a group of listeners in a communal ritualized setting. The trance is induced, since the music is provided by others than the listeners and the trance is the effect of this music. Trance can also be experienced as a result of one’s own action, such as singing, dancing, chanting, etc. For the qawwali, however, the dialogue between the musicians and the listeners is initiated by the musicians, whose goal to induce trance is based on their own competence to evoke hal and on the receptiveness of the listeners.


The receptiveness of the listene~s, although connected with intention and readiness to go into trance, rests on cultural mechanisms as opposed to natural forces all too often credited with a mysterious power beyond explanation: Music as a product of culture confronts the individual with what formed him, exists before him and transcends him. The discontinuity of individual existence is complemented with the continuity of culture. The dichotomy of the individual and the collective is resolved temporarily in a realm or state of consciousness called trance.

Like other forms of Islamic vocal meditation, qawwali transports the audience into another plane of consciousness, bringing to the common people the complex and elusive ma’rifat. Regular attendees of qawwali sessions often use the concept of travel when they speak of their experience during a qawwali. They feel as if they are travelling to another domain or plane. The external manifestation of this transportation is the has, literally meaning "state of mind", often used to denote musically induced ecstasy. This ecstasy can range from rhythmic moving of the head, dreamy dancing to such extremes as violent convulsions of the body, depending on the person affected. This musically induced state of ecstasy is closely watched by the qawwal, who find the combination of music and content responsible for the state, repeating it with increasing intensity until a climax is reached, often creating enough resonance to pull in other members of the audience. The skill of the qawwal is severely tested before an audience not familiar with these concepts, but a master is able to move entire audiences to a hal, even if they do not understand a single word. The thoughts of the person experiencing hal go beyond the rational plane. The society around the individual accepts this ritualised loss of control and it is not uncommon in qawwali sessions for members of an audience to tolerantly embrace and hold an individual concerned spasmodically in a state of hal.. No stigma is attached to this state and after recovery, the individual carries on as if nothing had happened.

The last stage of Sufism is fana, the closest analogue in the Buddhist faith being Nirvana. In this stage, the plane of worldly consciousness is dissolved and the ultimate union with the eternal is achieved. The qawwali session may strike a sympathetic chord in the listener, bringing him to this state. Even today, cases of death during a qawwali session have been recorded, whereby the individual so dying is said to have achieved this final stage. It is said of one who dies during a qawwali that his soul has travelled to other places, leaving the shell of his body behind.

2.2 Religiosity and Pleasure

AI-Ghazali elaborates the relationship between trance and music, trying to explain the various effects music can have on the listener.

Pleasure (ladhdha), divine love, and beauty are three words that recur constantly in Ghazali’s account 6 of how sama’ produces trance. The cause of these states (ahwal) that invade the heart when one is hearing music is the secret of God Most High. The pleasure given by music is something that only madmen, the insensitive, and the hard of heart do not experience. Their amazement is like that of the impotent man who marvels at "the pleasure of sexual intercourse and the youth who marvels at the pleasure of governing". 7

Qawwali shares with mystical Islam the belief that religious knowledge is not only acquired through rigour and austerity. There is nothing wrong with knowledge imparting pleasure or the use of pleasurable media to transmit knowledge and is used by some Sufic orders.8

2.3 Language

2.3.1 Farsi as the Liturgical text of Qawwali

The Persian language or Farsi with its rich tradition of mysticism became rapidly identified with Islam in South Asia. However, while Farsi was supported in this by the various Muslim and non-Muslim rulers of South Asia, Qawwali went beyond Farsi after acknowledging its place in the liturgy.

2.3.2 The Flow to Other Languages

The languages of South Asia were freely used by Amir Khusraw in his compositions - Purbi (the language of Bihar) and Braj Bhasha. In Pakistan today, traditional qawwal still start their performance with a Farsi invocation, moving on to the South Asian language, Panjabi and moving further eastwards vvith Hindi, Urdu and Purbi. This west to east transition is also reflected in many Sufi texts of this region. This sequence is not followed in India, where the transitional link is not as strong. This flow from one language to another is an important characteristic of qawwali. The major thrust of qawwali as a missionary form for the propagation of islam in South Asia required the building of bridges between linguistic and culturai regions. Qawwali thus did not restrict itself to one language, but instead concentrated on continuously enriching different regions with words and concepts from other areas.

2.3.3 Universal Understanding: Overcoming Linguistic Barriers

In areas where the qawwal do not speak the language with any great facility, they must rely heavily on the musical form and rhythm to Convey the concepts, achieve a trance and induce ecstasy. This they do with a high degree of success, the ecstatic reaction of an American audience in Carnegie Hall bearing ample witness to this fact.9 The reason for the sudden recent popularity of qawwali beyond the borders of South Asia is this ability to alter the consciousness of the audience in a display of virtuosity. When asked, the qawwal explain that the message of ma’rifat does not necessarily need words to convey this deep secret. It can also be experienced directly and the qawwali is one such opportunity for direct experience. For an audience that cannot understand the content of the qawwali, the use of rhythm is the basic matrix through which the variation and pitch of the voice runs like a coloured thread.


3.1 Setting

A qawwali performance is usually heard at the shrine of a saint or at the meeting place of certain. Sufi orders, or in any place chosen by~people commissioning a performance. The usual day for performance at a shrine is a Thursday, which is considered to be a propitious day for most Sufic orders of the region. A major performance takes place at the annual festival (u~rs) of a shrine (literally meaning "marriage", an u’rs celebrates the passing of a spiritual leader from his finite body 9 Fatimi 1975a and his "marriage" with the eternal). The persons sitting closest to the qawwal are often living spiritual leaders or pir.

3.2 The Performers

Qawwali in South Asia is usually performed by a group of about eleven performers (traditionally, the number was odd, but this conventian is not followed any longer). The rhythm in the form of drums (tabla, dholak and pakhwaz) and hand-clapping is located behind the main singers, who must "feel the beat with their body". The front row is occupied by the lead singers with two harmoniums (an organ with bellows introduced from Europe into South Asia probably by early Portugese missionaries, after which it became indigenized and now forms a part of popular music throughout the region). The main singer himself is usually without an instrument, though he may at times have a harmonium with him.

3.3 The instruments

Traditionally, only the long two-sided drum (dholak) or the drum pair (tabla) was used to the accompaniment of, clapping {tari). Apparently in the sixteenth century (though the date is not known), the harmonium found its way into the qawwali. This is interesting because the harmonium was used as a mobile church organ by the Portugese ,lesuit missionaries for the spread of Christianity in South Asia. The purist music experts of Radio Pakistan forbade the use of the harmonium as it was not in their eyes an authentic instrument; however, they permitted the use of other instruments, the sarangi (a bow instrument used in South Asian Classical Music) and the clarinet. 3.4 The placement of the ensemble

Traditionally, the master singer was placed in the centre and given the title of mohri, meaning "leading chess figure". The tabla-player was directly behind him, while the prompter (with the books and manuscripts for the words of the mystic singing) sat behind him at his left shoulder. The mohri was flanked to his right and feft by two singers with harmoniums (avazia), while the rest of the chorus was aligned on both sides in two rows, the better singers up tront. During the past five decades, radic~l changes were made in the placement of the ensemble. These changes were undertaken by six famous qawwal groups. Ustad Fateh Ali and Ustad Mubarik Ali Khan

2. Ustad Karam Din Topai Vale

3. Ustad Chajju Khan

4. Ustad Mohammad Ali Faridi

5. Ustad Santu Khan

6. Ustad Bakhshi Salamat

During this period, the mohri or lead singer was placed to the right of the stage. The avazia was to his left and another good siriger to the left of the avazia. The task of this singer was to support the lead singer, have sufficient knowledge of musical theory and to take the place of the lead singer in emergencies. The tabla remained in the central position and was now behind this "backup" singer. The other positions remained the same. This change in placement is generally followed to this day by all qawwal in the Punjab. The creation of the "backup" singer was prompted by the fact that qawwal groups were often named after a leading pair of brothers or a father-and-son pair.

3.5 The Stage

3.5.1 . Height and Location of the Stage

Traditionally, the qawwal performed at the same level as the audience and needed no stage. Their area of performance was marked out with a white circular sheet (chi~ndni). The urbanization of the qawwali and the increase in technology such as the introduction of public address systems brought with it innovations. The stage today is fairly high (about 2 metres), so that people sitting at a distance can see the qawwal while they hear their performance from loudspeakers.

3.5.2 Proximity to Audience

The persons who had commissioned the performance sat directly in front of the performers at a distance of one to two metres, the less fortunate and the marginally interested sitting behind the qawwal. Thus in a traditional setting, the performers were surrounded by a circle of varying density, being thickest arid densest in front of them and thinnest behind them.

3.6 Techniques: feedback and resonance

The qawwali starts with the alap, i.e., without percussion or rhythm, and a mystical couplet is sung. This is a delicate stage where the absence of rhythm also sets the atmosphere.lo The alap is heard in total silence. While the performers are in the alap stage, they are closely examining the audience for response and looking for sensitised individuals or clusters of individuals who can be addressed with ease. Gathering the momentum of the first stage, the qawwal launch themselves into the main body of the qawwali, in.which rhythm is introduced with a moderate tempo. The tempo is slowly increased and the audience is carefully watched. Any line or musical mode that touches the audience or the master of ceremonies is repeated with renewed fervour to induce trance.

3.7 Vel

Vel is the term applied to the showering of money on the qawwal during a performance. Money is prepared before the performance in currency notes of low to middle denomination and kept with the people who commission the performance. Once the performance is in full swing, approbation and appreciation is expressed by throwing the money in front of the stage or even on the performers, who continue singing without break. Other members of the audience also participate and people in trance often throw away all the money they have with them in a state of ecstasy. The vel is always over and above the performance fee of the qawwal if they have been commissioned. In voluntary free performances, vel is given freely and spontanepusly by the audience.


4.1 The traditional tour

After the harvest in the Bikrami month of har (June-July), the qawwal set out on a tour of the villages and cities of the country. This tour is called saha and is usually arranged in great detail. The master singer (called the dere dar) brings the musicians together at his place and looks after their food and lodging. He makes the final decisions regarding the duration and places to be toured, though he usually consults each member. In the old days, the dere dar also had all the instruments to be used by the group at his places, which was the staging point for the tour. All the money coltected during the taur was given to one member of the party who acted as the treasurer (khazanchi). This coltective fund was called sanji.12 Once the tour was over, the expenditure on travelling and food was subtracted from the total, the remaining being called bakhra l3 . The bakhra was divided into shares proportional to the contribution of the member. A typical bakhra is shown below :


Team leader (dere-dar or mohri) 3 to 4

Accompanist singers with harmoniums (avazia) 2 to2 ½

Tabla player (tabla navaz) 1 to 1 ½

Chorus (vari kehan vale) and prompter (bol dasan vala) 1/8 to 1

4.2 Oral Traditions and Esoterics - Learning to be a Qawwal

Like the classical! Music tradition of South Asia, the learning of qawwali is a jealously guarded secret. The techniques are not divulged by the master qawwal to anyane except his immediate brothers or sons. The tradition is thus handed down by word of mouth from father to son. There is much secret knowledge about ecstatic techniques that the qawwal know which would be of great value, but unless they cart be prevailed upon to divulge them for posterity, they will continue either to impart it to their children or carry the secret with them to the grave.


5.1 qawwal in Pakistan

Two distinct traditions of qawwal dominate in Pakistan today - those who have migrated to Pakistan from India in 1947 and still maintain a link with the Indian tradition and those who are indigenous to the Punjab and linked with the Islamic shrines of Pakistan. To. the eastern tradition belong such qawwal as Aziz Mian, while Nusrat Fateh Ali falls in the latter category. The Sabri Brothers while belonging to that category, have expanded their scope and have often been instrumental in the emphasis on the secular domain. In general, it can be said that the more orthodox and sophisticated content is found in the eastern tradition balanced in Pakistan by the vigour and emotion of the western tradition. Nevertheless, the tradition ~of qawwali defies categorization, all agreeing that the basic message of gnosis and inner love is the common factor.

5.2 Nusrat Fateh Ali - the bearer of a great tradition

Nusrat Fateh Ali comes from an illustrious family of qawwali and classical music masters. He was born in 1948 in the city of Lyallpur (now Faisalabad). His father, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, who died in 1964 was renowed both as a classical musician and as a qawwal. His detailed and expert knowledge of South Asian classical music forms provided the inspiration to develop qawwali into a fine art. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan’s brother Ustad Mubarik Ali Khan was also an exceedingly talented qawwal.14 Even today, their fame lives on in the arsi meeting. Thisword normally means the death anniversary; among musicians, however, it means that the art of the departed person lives on and it is the immortality of the art that is celebrated at the death anniversary of the mortal body. The barsi of Nusrat Fateh Ali’s father and uncle is held every spring in the month of April in Faisalabad, bringing together a gathering of the country’s most illustrious musicians. These musicians perform for three days and nights in ,the memory of the late masters’ living art. In terms of art in the field of music, this gathering is both a meeting of the highest musical art performers and a place for musicians to win recognition. Under the critical and exacting eyes of an audience composed almost entirely of professional musicians, outstanding performers are by consensus awarded the title of Ustad, meaning "Teacher" or "Master". It was in such a gathering that Nusrat earned this title soon after he first began to lead the group of qawwals created by his late father.

Nusrat Fateh Ali as a child and young boy was given formal training only in classical music and not in qawwali, apart from the basic scales of the latter. It was only until after his death and when he had torned sixteen that he began to be taught the art of qawwali by Ustad Salamat Ali Khan , his other uncle.Two years after the death of his father, he started performing together with his father’s elder brother, Ustad Mubarik Ali Khan. This new partnership lasted about six years, when, in 1971, Ustad Mubarik Ali died.

This year became a turning point in the career of Nusrat Fateh Ali, for his fame began to spread throughout the country. At the annual festival of the great sufi saint of Lahore, Hazrat Data Ganj Bukhsh 15 , Nusrat was swept forward in a wave of devotional fervour and acclaim on the first night’s qawwali performance. Soon after, he began to be discovered by the western world and visited Europe and North America repeatedly. His art continues to grow in both innovation and depth: in 1987, his performance of classical singing at the-Musical Festival of Lahore-won him acclaim in the field that his father had taught him in his early years. During the same year, Nusrat Fateh Ali was awarded the Presidents Pride of Performance for his achievements in the field of Pakistani music.

The great skill and the solid background of classical music which few other qawwal could match has given Nusrat Fateh Ali the uncanny capacity of moving audiences regardless of their origin. . .

The dialogue between the audience and musicians is central to qawwali and qawwal often repeat and dwell on portions which strike a resonant chord in the audience. The effect of qawwali is likened by some Americans to "hard rock" in the sense of its ability to produce a trance-like state in a repetitive and forceful manner. However, qawwali is more than just hard rock, and the qawwals consider their own music as a high art form in no way less than classical music. Qawwali is still one of the most popular forms of musical expression among the people of Pakistan. The invasion of western popular music has not significantly affected the popularity of qawwali. Apart from the attraction of the rhythm in qawwali, its close linkage to heterodox Islam ensures a special place for it in Pakistan. Despite the almost painful impact of the hand-clapping, Nusrat Fateh Ali succeeds in weaving complex classical schemes into his art, thus bringing the sophistication of classical music to the common people. The interaction with the roots of classical music, i.e., the folk music, is thus assured.

5.3 The Secularisation of qawwali in Pakistan

In more recent developments dating from the fifties; the powerful medium of qawwali began to separate itself ‘from the religious content: it found two uses in the non-religious context, i.e., art and dialogue.

5.3.1 Qawwali as Entertainment and Art

The mystic imagery of qawwali began to be used for secular purposes: for examples;: the concept of wine in sufism indicates the secret knowledge ma’rifat), but this concept was effectively used in an orgiastic qawali by ths Sabri Btothers:,. "men sharabi" ("I am a drinker"). This was done so skillfuly as to make the interpretation open to the audience, while a (loose religious symbolism was retained. The film industry in Pakistan, realising the potential of qawwali, began to use it as a form of entertainment. Starting as performances in the traditional context at a sacred shrine (such as the memorable qawwali scene in the experimental film "samundar" (the Ocean in which a quasi-religious atmosphere is created), it moved on to humour. In the latter case, the qawwali form was used as a satire and the content was so disparate with traditional mystic imagery that laughter resulted. Such an inversion of religious content to create a comic effect is generally frowned upon by the orthodoxy and not accepted by qawwal themselves.

5.3.2 Qawwali as Dialogue

Going one step ahead after the secularization of qawwali, it began to emerge in stage shows at urban centres as a dialogue. Humourous exchanges between opposed groups of male and female performers respectively became a feature of entertaining programmes staged by young students at college functions. The latest development of the qawwali form in this context has been the use of Pashto qawwali as a form of dialogue and social criticism. Qawwali cassettes in the Pashto language talk about the travails of Pushtun migrant ,labour in the major urban centres and Pakistan Television airs humourous dialogues between opposing groups (such as truckdrivers and the general public). Qawwali exists in most languages of Pakistan (with the exception of Sindhi and perhaps Baluchi) and continues to grow vigorously; the form being retained and the content changing with need and use.

5.4 Qawwali as a Theraapy

The therapeutic effects of qawwali were always generally known and indigenous doctors often told mentally disturbed individuals to attend qawwali sessions. Spiritual leaders even today often take the~r mentally disturbed followers to a qawwali session with the object of exposir~g them to the harmony and therapeutic powers of the music and words. Aware of this effect of qawwali and himself deeply interested in it, an eminent Pakistani psychiatrist is using "qawwali therapy" on some of his patients with marked success. While still in an experimental stage, this powerful medium can surely provide an effective indigenization of occidental therapeutic techniques.16 .

Refrences made in the text above

1 Farmer 1929:214

2 Al-Haj Maulana Fazul-ul-Karim (tran)

3 arberry 1983 :182-183

4 R. Nath et al 1933. 5 Fatimi 1975a.

5 Fatimi 1975a

6 ibid., I I, 230-33. 7 ibid., I I, 234.

7ibid 11 ,234

8 Nicholson 1J62/1914: see the section on the fvlalamati order.

9 Fatimi 1975 a

10 A steady muted clapping continues during the alap in the performances by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his group. This is a recent innovative practice that ensures audience attention from the outset. 11 most of this information is the result of conversations with Mohammad Ajmal of Lok Virsa, himself the son.of a qawwal.

11 Most of this information is as a result of of conversation with Mohammed Ajmal of Lok Virsa,himself the son of a qawwal

12 From Panjabi shsj/, "togetherness", "commonality". 13 From Panjabi vakhra, "separate",

14 For a representative example of the art of Fateh Ali and Ntubarik Ali, the reader is referred to Lok Virsa Audio Cassette No. PR-008 ("Qawwali").

15 The name popularly given to the great Sufi scholar and master, Abul Hasan ‘Ali bin ‘usman Hujwiri, who died after 1089.

16 Conversation with Dr. Nlalik fvl. Mubashar, Rawalpindi Medical College


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