An Introduction to Qawwali: the music of the Sufi mystics

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

Qawwali music is the main communal worship ritual of the Sufis - a mystic strand of Islam. The act of listening to qawwali, usually at the shrine of a past Sufi master, is a vital part of Sufi spiritual practices. Although this music is very much part of the North Indian semi-classical corpus, is run along the same hereditary lines and taught to male descendants through oral tradition, its musicians differ from other Indian classical musicians in that by singing mystical verses while observing the rules of ‘raag’ (melodic structure) and ‘taal’ (loosely defined as rhythm), they are fulfilling a religious duty.

Qawwali not only utilises nearly all the raags of North India but has also contributed some its own to the mainstream tradition, as well as a musical genre known as tarana (short rhythmic pieces consisting entirely of syllables drawn from Persian words as well as the percussive sounds of tabla and pakhawaj).

The word qawwali comes from the Arabic word qaul which literally means 'utterance of the name of God', and refers to the genre and its performance. Performers are known as qawwals – singers and musicians – who usually operate in groups, which can consist of any number of people. However they always include a lead-singer, one or two secondary singers (who provide melodic counterpoints and also play the harmonium), and at least one percussionist.

Every member of the group joins in the singing, and junior members are also required to clap, rhythmically and usually in syncopated fashion. Under the guidance of a religious leader, or sheikh, these groups of highly trained classical musicians present a vast treasure of poems in song, in a number of languages articulating and evoking a mystical experience for the spiritual benefit of their audience.

The form of qawwali we hear today is believed to have been invented by the multifaceted poet musician Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), who some also consider to have invented the sitar and tabla. He was a favourite disciple of the Sufi master Nizamuddin Awliya of Delhi, and a sizeable section of Khusrau’s qawwali songs – the original classical repertoire of Delhi qawwali – were composed specifically for the master, either in medieval Hindi or Farsi. These were the original languages of qawwali, with Urdu being a relatively recent addition.

Over the centuries, other songs also found their way into the qawwali repertoire, most notably the mystical verses of various Punjabi Sufi poets, popularised by the 20th century’s greatest qawwali performer, the late Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

When performed in its right context, qawwali is a gathering for the purpose of feeling connected to something larger-than-life and to arouse mystical love and even divine ecstasy – the central experience of Sufism. It can be a very high-energy and even a somewhat frenzied affair, causing a trance-like state in listeners, many of whom cannot help but get up and dance.

But, in recent years, with qawwali arriving on concert stages, the spiritual impact is somewhat blunted, not least because the musicians are required to sit some distance away, on a stage, whilst the audience is in a darkened auditorium, with house-security rules requiring the gangways be kept clear – definitely ruling out any trance-induced dancing.


Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.

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