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Qawwali and the Art of Devotional Singing

Qawwali is a musical form associated with the sama’, spiritual concert, of the Chishti Sufi Order. In its religious context it functions as a way to bring members of the order into a trance-like state that makes them more aware of their relationship with God. The art is usually credited to Amir Khusraw (1244-1325), called the “Nightingale of India” for his contribution to South Asian music and literature. As a devotee of the the great Chishti master Nizam ad-Din Awliya, his copious output is attributed to his intense spiritual love for his master.

Structurally, qawwali is intimately linked to Khusraw, who not only birthed the style, but also created the elements to make it possible. It is usually performed with a lead singer and chorus, playing in a call-and-response style. These singers are supported by musicians playing percussion instruments, the dholak or tabla, and a sitar, a long-necked stringed instrument. Both the creation of the tabla and the sitar are connected to Khusraw. In addition to the formal instrumentation, hand-clapping serves to emphasize the rhythmic structure and engage the audience. In the modern period, the harmonium is used instead of the sitar. Technically, only men can perform qawwali songs, with female performers singing sufiana kalam, Sufi words. The most notable difference between the two is that a female tends to sing solo, although her troupe maybe equally as large as a male’s troupe. Because the differences in gendered performance are so subtle, the word qawwali is generally used to describe any performance of this type.

A typical qawwali concert will last several hours, with each piece lasting an indeterminate time as the qawwals will respond to audience reception. The material is not static and is focused on bringing the listeners into communion with the Divine. In traditional settings, the concert will start with slower songs, with the tempo getting increasingly more rapid as the concert goes on, and then slowing down again. If the audience responds well to a particular section of the piece, it will be repeated until the audience grows tired of it. A story is told in which a participant in a sama’ is overtaken by the passion of the verses being recited. The performers repeat the phrase for three days waiting for the ecstatic to leave his state, at which point they tire and stop. The result is the listener dies in ecstasy, unable to return to normal consciousness. The etiquette of interaction between audience and performers is almost ritualized in this highly interactive art form. In traditional spaces, audience members acknowledge the spiritual mastery and power of the performers by offering money, seeking to receive some additional blessing.

While the music is the most recognizable part of a qawwali, the music only exists to emphasize and intensify the words. The text is what Sufis rely on to open their minds and bring them to an ecstatic state. The most common poetic form to appear in qawwali is the ghazal, composed of several couplets in the rhyme scheme aa, ba, ca, da, etc., and dealing with unrequited love. Like all poetry appearing in qawwali, ghazal has a denseness of meaning that allows it to be understood in multiple ways. The love the poem describes is understood simultaneously as an earthly love and a Divine love. For example, a couplet that speaks of a night of passion can refer to either the physical act of love-making or a night spent in sama’. A ghazal is not necessarily sung in its entirety; structurally, the ghazal’s couplets exist independently of one another, described by the great Persian ghazal writer Hafiz (1326-1389) as pearls strung together. A qawwali text may be narrative and/or didactic, but is most often a thematic association of couplets from various poetic sources that remind the listener of a relationship to God. In addition, a qawwali may also praise important religious figures.

Perhaps the most important figure the Chishti Order, as well as for many other Sufis, is Ali ibn Abi Talib (599-661). The cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632), Ali is considered to the be the spiritual heir of Muhammad’s authority, most Sufi Masters trace their spiritual lineage back to him. One of the key moments relating to the transfer of authority from Muhammad to Ali is Muhammad’s declaration at Ghadir-e Khumm of “man kunto mowlahu fa-hadha Aliyyun mowlahu,” meaning “he whose master I am, Ali is his master.” This phrase is a key part of the first qawwali that traditionally opens the sama’. This opening song is called the qaul, meaning “saying” or “utterance,” and shares the same Arabic root as qawwali. The insertion of an Arabic phrase into a South Asian art form attests to the the transnational nature of Muslims who use Arabic as a potent symbolic language. It also hints at the multi-lingual nature of the qawwali. The lyrics draw on Hindustani — the common point of Hindi and Urdu — Persian, Arabic, and numerous South Asian languages, including Panjabi, Siraiki, Sindhi, and Gujarati. Once more, this adaptability of the qawwali is due to Amir Khusraw. He is said to have integrated the Persian ghazal tradition into the South Asian literary landscape. As a result, he mixed languages in his texts and sowed the seeds of the Hindustani language. This flexibility in language and musical instrumentation embedded in qawwali allows it to travel easily and to adapt to new environments.

Although the spiritual nature of the qawwali is its most salient feature, it cannot be divorced from its political nature. The Chishti were critical of religious and political leaders; they spoke for justice and against oppression. As qawwali spreads throughout the world, to Fiji, to Nigeria, to Israel, it transforms to reflect local sensibilities and concerns. In the US and the UK, qawwali is re-imagined in a way that emphasizes the social justice aspect, focusing on the figure of Ali. It also crosses religious boundaries, so that Hindus, Jews, and Christians produce qawwali music. Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Veder have worked with qawwals; MIDIval Punditz in India is working with qawwali and electronica; DJ Cheb-i Sabbah, born Jewish and of Algerian descent, actively works with qawwali in San Francisco. The tradition is very much alive, both in its spiritual and political meanings.

By By Hussein Rashid, Hofstra University

Further reading:
Qureshi, Regula. Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context, and Meaning in Qawwali. University of Chicago Press ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

The Muslim World 97, no. 4 (2007). [The Qawwali Issue]

Rashid, Hussein. “Qawwali.” In Encyclopedia of Islam in the United States, edited by Jocelyne Cesari, 527-528. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2007.