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Exploring Sufi Mysticism through Qawwali

Music not only rejuvenates people's minds and souls but also connects them to their origins. Indian music has many branches, each having its own essence and beauty. One of the most popular forms of music of Indian origin is "Qawwali" which has gone beyond all linguistic barriers and is now an internationally acclaimed musical experience.

Qawwali, as we know it today, originated in the Indian subcontinent in the 13th century.


Qawwali, as we know it today, originated in the Indian subcontinent in the 13th century. Its formation is often credited to the famous Sufi Saint- Amir Khusrow, one of India’s greatest Persian poets and Sufi saints. An ardent disciple of Nizammudin Auliya (a leader of the Chishti order of Sufism), Amir Khusrow expressed his spirituality through Qawwali- a fusion of music and poetry.

Other music forms similar to qawwali are referred to as “Sama” in Central Asia and Turkey, while in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the formal name used for the same is “Mehfil-e-Sama”. In Sufism, the term "Sama" is the practice of listening, to get closer to the divine, which is the core of all qawwali performances. While the word “Qawwali” stems from the Arabic term “Qaul” (قَوْل) meaning the "utterance (of the prophet)", Qawwal refers to someone who sings it. Hence, the performers of Qawwali are known as Qawwals.


Bobby Friction, a famous DJ from the United Kingdom, correctly observes that Qawwali’s “hypnotic rhythms and melodies celebrate God, love, and music as one". In fact, it is the physical and musical manifestation of the Sufi religious tradition in South Asia that aims at inducing a feeling of spiritual ecstasy amongst its listeners. It is believed that through qawwali, common people can experience a complex state of being termed “ma’rifat”, meaning inner knowledge that cannot be attained via normal means. It is this unique atmosphere that is created through qawwali that has attracted a global audience.

Qawwali has been highly popularised worldwide due to Bollywood.
Qawwali in Bollywood


Like all art forms, qawwali also comes with its own set of rules which have evolved over time. Initially, only adult males were allowed to perform qawwali. Qawwali was never considered to be sung by women as the traditional prohibition didn't give them the right to sing in the presence of men. As the world became more receptive to the idea of equality, women also started participating in the same, however, to a great extent, it still remains a male-dominated territory. Some budding female artists have definitely sung songs with similar techniques of qawwali like Abida Parveen, but still, they are not considered Qawwali singers. Despite the limitations, some women managed to get acknowledged, such as the famous sister duo- Nooran Sisters.

Women in Qawwali

Another rule that qawwali had at the time of its origin was the non-usage of any musical instrument. Today, music without instruments is unimaginable, but in qawwali, musical instruments were completely disregarded. In fact, many Sufi saints considered it “haram”. Nonetheless, instruments like sarangi, harmonium, and tabla found their way into Qawwali. Singers justified their usage by explaining that if Sufi Saints do not stop them from playing instruments near their shrine, why prohibit them in Qawwali. Hence, at present, qawwali parties (a group of qawwali singers) are always incomplete without harmoniums.

The other two conditions that need to be fulfilled are the criteria of Sama- the listeners must only listen to everything in the remembrance of Allah, and the words that are sung must be free from obscenity and indecency, and they must not be void. Although qawwals perform in different parts of the world having different cultural values but still, they have still retained the basic pattern of sitting cross-legged and in the prescribed order.


Traditionally, the opening segment of Qawwali is "hamd" followed by "na’at", meaning a song in praise of Allah and Prophet Muhammad respectively. In all traditional programmes, there is a manqabat which is a song in praise of one of the Sufi saints or Imam Ali. Apart from that, there are various forms of qawwali such as marsiya, ghazal, kafi, and munajaat that have their own unique characteristics. For instance, ghazal is a form of poem consisting of five to fifteen couplets where the listener is required to interpret the essence of each couplet's meaning whereas munajaat is a very different form that is basically used to seek forgiveness in the form of prayer. Generally, qawwalis begin gently and build steadily to a very high energy level to induce hypnotic states, both; among the musicians and within the audience. Almost all Qawwalis are based on Hindustani classical music tradition, again an area with a significant contribution of Amir Khusrow.

Even though religion is intertwined with music in qawwali, modern performers like Sabri Brothers and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan use secular concepts in their works that attract a large audience irrespective of their religious faith. Almost everybody who attends a qawwali session can understand the notions of spirituality and humanity, making qawwali one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiential forms of music.


The man behind the immense popularity of qawwali in the International domain is the legend- Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. His legacy is continued by his nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan who is known for his songs about love and separation, ideas which even ordinary people can relate to.

The man behind the immense popularity of qawwali in the International domain is the legend- Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

In India, Wadali Brothers - Puranchand Wadali and Pyarelal Wadali – are Sufi singers and musicians from Amritsar District in Punjab. They are widely credited for their contributions to Bollywood. Bahauddin Qawwal, born in British India (1934) is another important name in qawwali. He belonged to the Qawwal Bacchon Gharana of Delhi, which was founded by Hazrat Khwaja Amir Khusrow himself.


The way qawwali was interpreted in the times of Amir Khusrow was really different from its present form. Localised in the era of the Mughals, qawwali has evolved with new rules and newer themes. Now qawwali has taken various forms and can be heard on many platforms that seek the attention of youngsters too. Hence, we can say that the legacy of qawwali shall continue for years to come not just in South Asia, but in other parts of the world as well.

Riya Hirani


Riya Hirani

Pratha Content Writer

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