Qawwali – Music that Touches the Spiritual Strings


Abida Parveen – Via Flickr

‘Na dawa chaahiye, Na shafa chahhiye, main mareez e muhabbat hoon, mujhko toh bas aik nazarya habeeb e khuda chaahiye.’

The earning for a ‘nazar’ or look by the Almighty Khuda is the underlying meaning of this qawwali phrase. And there is no better way to understand the essence of this form of art without understanding and acknowledging its definitive spiritual purpose. 

Qawwali is a form of devotional music that finds its roots in the Sufi Islamic culture. Though prevalently performed at the dargahs or shrines of Sufi saints across South Asia, the qawwali has become a part of mainstream music too. 

Thanks to some stalwarts, such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers who have released their renditions in albums and stage performances that  made qawwali a very recognizable and known face of music. 

History of Qawwali

The winter diwan of a Mughal nawab – Source

Amir Khusrow or Amir Khusrau Dehlavi is often called the founder of qawwali. Born in the 13th century, Khusrow is credited with bringing together Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Indian musical influences together to create the qawwali as we know today. Student and disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi a Sufi saint of the Chisti order is also one of the most famous saints of India. 

Qawwali Rhythm and Flow

Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal Source:

Qawwali stands out for its powerful impact on the listener. All musical renditions or songs do have an influence on the listener. But qawwali tries to reach a crescendo of passion and involvement where the listener imperatively gets hypnotized and moved by the compositions. 

A party of eight to nine musicians with a lead singer and a few side singers together perform the qawwali. The musical instruments include the harmonium, tabla and dholak. The musicians and singers build up the songs to reach high energy levels. 

The songs themselves follow a sequence or have meaning to the occasion. If a qawwali is sung during the death anniversary or urs of a saint, a Rang or poem by Amir Khusrow is sung, whereas on the birthday the Badhawa is sung. 

The different types of a qawwali song depend on their content. Some of these include the Hamd or thankfulness to the God or Allah, a na’at or song in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, a manqabat in praise of Imam Ali or a Sufi saint, a marsiya that laments on the death of a saint or Imam, such as Imam Hussain. 

Ghazals are also a Sufi origin form of art. And though qawwali also like ghazals, speak of the devotion and love, they are rendered in the style of qawwali as opposed to ghazals which can be poetry and also the way of singing or rendering. 

Qawwali Mannerisms 

Qawwali Mannerisms 
Nusrat Fateh Ali khan

Qawwali is recognized by the way it is performed. The singers and musicians sit crossed-legged and with the accompaniment of the instruments the songs begin. 

As the tempo increases, there is clapping to the beats of the song and slowly but surely the strength and pitch of the song rise. The whole musical ambience turns into each participant and listener finding their beat and rhythm to the rising composition. 

The songs are usually long, ranging from 15 to 20 minutes or more. And though the songs have a distinct Islamic meaning and purpose, they resonate with the listeners of all faiths. This is because the idea is to seek the divine power which is all empowering and all knowing. 

Qawwali – Society and integration

Qawwali-in India
Ajmer Sharif Dargah – Wikimedia

Women were not a part of the qawwali performances earlier as they were not supposed to perform with men. But this has changed in recent times. Women qawwali singers are also well-known today, such as Abida Parveen and The Nooran Sisters (Jyoti and Sultana).

Qawwali is most popular in North India and also in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

For me and I guess for many who have seen a live qawwali performance, understand what its role in a sense of togetherness means. What starts off with a few singers and musicians ends with a large crowd joining in. People clap together, sway together and some even sit next to the qawwals to become a part of the performance. The rhythm moves beyond just musical notes, but encompasses a wide intangible sense of being one. There is a conforming pattern, yet the conformation is not binding. The actual lead singers are in a league of their own, but the listeners who may not even have an understanding of music let alone signing, also are immersed in its being. 

Nooran Sisters (Jyoti and Sultana) Image Source

Qawwali is a reminder of how everyone can come together to help each other elevate themselves in thought and spiritual connect. And perhaps, this is the need of the hour more than ever today.

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