Qawwali is the
traditional form of Islamic song found in India and Pakistan. The word qawwali is derived from the Arabic word Qaol which
means "axiom" or "dictum". A Qawwal is one who sings qawwali, or the dictums of the prophets and praises of God. The Qawwali
is closely linked to the spiritual and artistic life of northern India and Pakistan.
SPIRITUAL ASPECT OF QAWWALI
The qawwali is inextricably linked to the Sufi tradition;
Sufism is a mystical school of Islamic thought which strives to attain truth and divine love by direct personal experience.
In Arabic, this mysticism is known as tasawwuf. The difference between Sufism and mainstream Islam is simple. All Muslims
believe that man is on a path to God (tariqah). However, where the mainstream Muslim believes that it is only possible to
reach God after death at the final judgement, the Sufi believes that it is possible to reach God during ones life. To this
end there are a number of different techniques and methods.
The Koran instructs man to remember God. This remembrance, known as dhikr, may be either
silent of vocal. The qawwali may be viewed as an extension of the vocal form of this remembrance. The use of music as a spiritual
force was discussed in great length by al-Gazali (1085-1111).
By the end of the 11th century, there arose the tradition of the sama. The sama was often
a spiritual concert, which included a vocalist, and instrumentalists. These samas took place under the direction of a spiritually
respected man (shaikh).
There is a very specific psychological process which a qawwali follows. One starts with
the singing of the song. In this psychological state the song is received in a manner that is not unlike standard forms of
musical expression. The words are sung, quite repeatedly with variations intended to bring out deeper means of the lyrics.
After awhile there is a repetition to the extent that the words cease to have a meaning. It is the goal here to lead the listener
and performer alike into a trance (hal). In the ideal situation the participant is moved to a state of spiritual enlightenment
HISTORY OF THE QAWWALI
The origins of qawwali probably predate the birth of
Muhammad. The earliest Islamic scholars discussed the spiritual effects of music, but it was only in the time of al-Gazali
(1085-1111) that these principles were refined and codified.
These principles were then expanded by the Chisti school of Sufism. It is this order that
has been responsible for the propagation of the qawwali in India and Pakistan for then last few centuries. The origin of the
Chisti school is unclear. Most believe that it was established by Khwaj Moinuddin Hasan Chisti (1143-1234). However there
are a some who hold that the originator was Abu Ishaq Shami Chisti who died in Damascus in 940 C.E.
Khwaj Moinuddin Hasan Chisti was undoubtedly responsible for the widespread propagation
of this school of Sufism. It is said that he was born in Sijistan. At a young age, he was influenced by several saintly men,
including Ibrahim Qahandazi, and Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilli. He immigrated to Delhi and became a very respected saint. He later
grew tired of the life in Delhi and withdrew to the peace and quite of Ajmer (Rajasthan) where he lived the remainder of his
One of the followers of the Chisti school was a man by the name of Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya
(1236-1325). He was born in Budaun, but at the age of 20 he moved to Ajodhan and became a disciple of Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakkar.
It is said that it was here that he received the key to inner illumination. He was then sent to Delhi to instruct the populous.
Here he acquired a reputation for using music in his devotional gatherings. This created a great amount of friction with the
more orthodox Islamic elements in Delhi.
Nizamuddin Auliya was, and still is, a source of inspiration for countless people. Even
today there is an annual gathering at his tomb.
One man who was inspired by the Hazrat Nizamuddin was Amir Khusru (1254-1324). He was
born in Mominpur (Patiala). His father was originally from Turkey, this gave the young boy a broader exposure to the rest
of the Islamic world. His father died when he was eight years old, whereupon the job of raising him fell to his maternal grandfather.
Amir Khusru was a legendary musician, statesman and philosopher. It is said that he was the advisor to 11 rulers of Delhi,
particularly the rulers of the Khilji Dynasty (Deva 1973:76).
Amir Khusru is so important to the development of qawwali that he is often (erroneously)
said to be the inventor of it. It is said that he mixed the various musical elements from Turkey, greater Persia and India
together. Even today, we find the curious mixture of Persian moqquams with Indian rags.
The development of the qawwali up to the latter part of the Mogul empire closely parallels
the development of the Hindu religious song known as bhajan. We find parallels in musical form and social settings. The degree
of cross influence is so great that some musician / saints such as Kabir (circa 1440-1518) are to this day revered by Hindus
and Muslims alike.
The tradition of qawwali has had numerous ups and downs. One particularly hard time was
during the reign of Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb is known for his Islamic fundamentalism. The liberal traditions of the Sufis were
not well received by this emperor. He took the fundamentalist injunction against music very seriously.
Aurangzeb's dislike of music is well illustrated in a common story. It appears that during
his administration a group of musicians, disheartened with their lack of patronage, took some musical instruments and wrapped
them in the manner of a corpse and held a funeral procession in protest. Aurangzeb enquires about the procession and is told
it is a burial to signify the death of music. Whereupon it is said that the emperor declares, "Good! bury it so deep that
never a sound should be heard again."
The collapse of the Mogul empire and political fragmentation under the British was both
good and bad for the qawwals. On one hand the political disarray meant that a major suppression of their artform was impossible,
yet it also meant that their patronage was also uneven.
The rising film industry in the middle of the 20th century was a major vehicle for the
rise in popularity of the qawwali. There was a period when a qawwali was a mandatory part of the formula Hindi films.
The film industry influenced the development of the qawwali in several ways. It is interesting
to note that since the environment of the cinema house precluded the artist /audience interaction, it set the precedent for
the more detached quality that characterises modern performances. The filmi qawwali also set the precedent for the "showy"
quality that one finds in modern performances. Another effect of the filmi qawwali was the downgrading of the religious /
devotional aspect. A typical example of a filmi qawwali is "Sharam ke Kyun Sab" from the film "Chaudvin ka Chand".
The secularisation of the qawwali is an interesting phenomenon. One can see that the seeds
of its secularisation are inherent in the qawwali itself. Themes of qawwali have traditionally revolved around very mundane
or even coarse occurrences. However, the coarseness of the situations have always been interpreted as the coarse spiritual
existence of our daily lives. The modern secular qawwali tends to strip the themes of their metaphorical and allegorical character
thus producing a shallow, yet commercially marketable entity.
Recent years have seen the qawwali thrust into the international arena by such musicians
as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. His fusion of traditional Indo-Pakistani influences with Western music has created quite a stir
in the music world.
The performance of a qawwali is typically a group
situation. This is different from a classical performance which revolves around one person. Within this group situation, there
is one main vocalist or qawwal, and a group of supporting vocalist. The audience too is considered a participant in this event
The musical accompaniment is varied; harmonium, tabla, dholak, sarangi, saringda, and
rabab, are common instruments. Furthermore, a simple clapping of the hands is a ubiquitous rhythmic support.
There are several tals in common use in the qawwali. The most common is the fast dadra
tal of 6 beats or the fast kaherava of four or eight beats. Unlike the more cerebral, classical forms these tals are played
in such a way that they produce a driving hypnotic beat.
Although the qawwali is not a classical form of singing, it does have some common elements.
One finds fast taans, meend gamaks and the other forms of ornamentation which are typical of Hindustani performances.
The structure of the qawwali is also similar to the classical forms. It typically starts
with the alap. This portion has no rhythm and is intended to create the right environment. One then moves into the main portion
of the performance; this is usually in a medium tempo. The pace slowly increases until a state of extreme excitement is produced.
It is very common for audience members, moved by their state of ecstasy to give money
to the performers. This is known as vel. The performance continues without stopping.
The most common rags used in qawwalis today are bilawal, khammaj, kafi, and kalyan. However
one often finds rags which are more in common with the modal forms of Persia or Afghanistan.
The qawwali is a very old form of Islamic devotional song. For centuries
it has been inspired and propagated by the Chisti school, of Sufism. Although it is of Indo-Pakistan origin it is today enjoyed
all over the world.
by David Courtney, Ph.D.