In review - Review essay

The lost soul: Qawwali’s journey from ecstasy to entertainment

Updated Jun 23, 2016 02:12pm

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Afzal Sabri Qawwal performing at Junagadh House, Karachi | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Afzal Sabri Qawwal performing at Junagadh House, Karachi | Arif Mahmood, White Star

Abida Parveen was scheduled to perform in front of a crowd in Toronto in May 2016. A portion of her performance, by popular request, would be devoted to the singing of qawwalis. She, however, would not be the first or the last of the many globally recognisable performers to sing qawwali for an audience that pays significant sums of money to listen to them. In Toronto alone, for example, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan has become a regular attraction for the members of Pakistani and Indian diaspora. The Aga Khan Museum in the same city hosted Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal within two weeks of opening its doors to the public in September 2014.

The demand for these performances coupled with the costs associated with bringing the performers to North America means that organisers are able to price tickets with relative freedom. This commodification of qawwali, though, is not an exclusively diaspora phenomenon. It is simply that such performances in the diaspora are decidedly easier to keep up with than the innumerable ones within South Asia.

The commodification of qawwali goes hand in hand with the commercialisation of qawwali. For those interested in the Pakistan Super League (PSL), it is hard to miss the catchy Lahore Qalandars team anthem, released a couple of months ago. The anthem creatively adapts the musical form commonly associated with qawwali – retaining the laal qalandar refrain – which generates easy identification with the Lahore Qalandars cricket ensemble, besides alluding to the tribute paid regularly to Sufi Laal Shahbaz Qalandar at qawwali gatherings.

Also read: Qawwal gali: The street that never sleeps

What do these changes mean for qawwali? Are these a recent phenomenon or have they been around for a while? Are such changes consistent with what other forms of religious and devotional musical genres have experienced? Has the essence of qawwali changed or is it only being positioned differently? These are some of the questions that this essay seeks to explore.


Qawwali is best defined as classical, devotional music in South Asia that transcends religious categorisation. Though its origins are attributed to Sufi schools of thought within Islam, it has built up a steady and popular following of people with varying religious affiliations. Sufism maintains that ishq, or devotion, is humanity’s only path to God — or to any ultimate truth or salvation, for that matter. In making this claim, Sufis often express disdain for the beliefs, rituals and rites associated with organised, institutionalised religion. This idea of doctrine-free devotion has been instrumental in positing qawwali – and/or any Sufi music – as accessible to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation.

Up until the early 20th century, qawwali performances were largely restricted to Sufi shrines. These gatherings were male-only, were arranged on a Thursday night and followed a rather well-defined agenda in terms of what to recite and when. Qawwali relied on the synchronised use of percussion instruments as well as the metaphorical use of imagery in its lyrics to induce a state of ecstasy within the listeners. Qawwals, often coming from the same gharana (or family), were hereditary singers associated with a particular Sufi shrine. In most cases, they traced their lineage to that particular Sufi.

Hamza Akram Qawwal talks about changing the direction of Sufi Music

Though the lyrics of qawwali were largely based on the works of Sufi saints of the past – Amir Khusrau’s corpus of work was and continues to be regularly employed in these performances – the singers would not hesitate to include their own verses in their performances as a means of both individual creative expression or as competitive differentiation from other gharanas.

The explosion of access to and information about qawwali in the early 20th century resulted in lifting this rather esoteric music genre from the private, secluded sphere of the shrine to the public, open sphere of the marketplace. Qawwali began to emerge in areligious gatherings, concerts and musical recordings. In her 1992-1993 article,

“Muslim Devotional”: Popular Religious Music and Muslim Identity under British, Indian and Pakistani Hegemony, Canadian academic Regula Qureshi cites G M Joshi’s 1977 study to show that one of the very first recordings made in the early 1900s of religious music in the Indian subcontinent included performance by at least three qawwals. The shift from studio recordings to radio followed shortly afterwards. The programming schedule of BBC Delhi for January 30, 1936 (shown below) – as published in Times of India – shows a dedicated time slot for a qawwali performance:

It is interesting to note the type of qawwali that became commercialised was not the metaphorically ambiguous one sung at shrines late into the night. It was a new type of qawwali not meant to send men into ecstatic frenzy and, therefore, did not indulge in extravagant musical and poetic devices as the traditional qawwali did. This new qawwali was mass produced with the explicit intention of treating it as a commodity.

A good example of this type of qawwali, as documented by Qureshi, is Madine Ka Musafir Hoon (I’m a Traveller towards Medina) by Pearu Qawwal circa 1920s. Such a qawwali does not leave much room for musical and literary imagination because it explicitly, and literally, states the qawwal’s objectives in a rigidly set composition. We can contrast this qawwali with Khusrau’s cheeky Mun qiblah raast kardam janib-e kaj kulahi (I turn in worship towards the one whose cap is awry) that never made it into the mainstream in spite of its continued popularity at shrines because of its literary ambiguity and extravagant manifestation of love and devotion.

The preference for the format over frenzy, as illustrated in the example above, is reflective of the type of religiosity preferred by the exclusively urban and often well-to-do group of populace that the early radio and television companies sought to cater to. This group of people preferred organisation over chaos, control over ecstasy and ritual over unrestrained spirituality. The introduction of a literalist religious vocabulary into the mix turned qawwali into an Islamic genre rather than a spiritual one that was accessible and appealed to people from all faiths and beliefs. This went against not only the universally inclusive claims of earlier qawwali, but would also impact the many debates over the use of romantic phraseology and Sufi terminology by qawwals.

Also read: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: His maestro’s voice

Commercialisation, thus, led to the bifurcation of qawwali. Broadly, the new mainstream qawwali began to – in both form and content – differentiate itself from the traditional qawwali performed at Sufi shrines. In terms of form, mainstream qawwali became easily accessible through phonographs and cassettes that, in turn, determined that each qawwali would be of a specific duration compared to the traditional qawwali, which could go on for a whole night.

Additionally, qawwali could be enjoyed from within the comfort of the home instead of having to visit a shrine on a particular day to listen to it. The popularity of qawwali when compressed into recordings easily available to everyone created new and attractive career opportunities for many singers trained in the classical tradition; they began incorporating qawwali within their performative repertoire.


CitySessions: Hamza Akram Qawal - O More Pardesi Balmwa

In terms of content, as Qureshi points out, the mainstream qawwalis were predominantly in simple Urdu, instead of being in Persian, stylised Urdu or devotional Hindi — the languages used in the traditional qawwalis performed at shrines. While Persian refrains have continued to stick around, stylised Urdu as well as devotional Hindi idioms have almost disappeared from mainstream qawwali. There has been a corresponding shift in the meaning of key words – such as ‘wine’ and ‘intoxication’ – that have been the staple of qawwali singing for centuries. The mainstream qawwals and their audiences would like to believe that references to drinking are ornamental rather than essential to the language of qawwali and, therefore, do not pertain to the act of consuming wine and getting intoxicated, but to some metaphysical and divine activity. Any suggestions to the contrary are immediately frowned upon and dismissed.

The traditional qawwali was predicated on inducing in its audience a spiritual trance. It focused on a complete submersion of one’s self in the mystical experience.

This change posed serious challenges to the hereditary singers of qawwali. They faced competition from the mainstream qawwals who began to enjoy the financial benefits of their commercial endeavours. Legislation such as the West Pakistan Waqf Properties Ordinance in 1959 (superseded in 1961 by an ordinance of the same name) and the Auqaf (Federal Control) Act in 1976 – which extended the writ and control of the state over shrines – would also hack down the familial orders associated with Sufis and thus endanger the survival of many traditional qawwal gharanas. Equally important would be attempts – both by the state and many parts of the society – to promote a literalist version of Islam that often makes Sufi shrines and the activities therein the first target of criticism and hostility.

All these factors together resulted in the dwindling popularity of shrines as well the emergence of a public attitude which looked down upon anything related to Sufism. Many traditional qawwal gharanas, attached to shrines, were to disappear soon without a trace. Of course, some of the mainstream qawwals do come from hereditary families and, therefore, continue to perform to this day at shrines with regular frequency. Others, who could not (or did not) make the transition to mainstream qawwali, have been restricted to performing the traditional fare to progressively declining audiences with drastically reduced frequencies.


Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal perfom at a fundraiser |Hussain Afzal, White Star
Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal perfom at a fundraiser |Hussain Afzal, White Star

The mainstream qawwali today is universally accessible through digital media. This has deprived it of the mystical character of traditional qawwali that relied, in large part, on the spatial-temporal atmosphere within which it was sung — the sounds and smells of the shrine, the aura of spiritual indulgence and emotional abandon, the emphasis on audience participation. The new qawwali, at best, leads to a mere appreciation of the transcendent experiences of love and devotion but it seldom, if at all, helps the audience to actively partake in those experiences. The mainstream qawwali’s audience today – whether at home or at concerts and public gatherings – does not seek to achieve a state of ecstasy. Most listeners are drawn to qawwali by its musical rhythm, mystical verse and its cultural significance as a traditional way of religious expression. The modern audience remains rather detached from any spiritual experiences that qawwali performers might claim to be having or creating.

The traditional qawwali, as mentioned earlier, was predicated on inducing in its audience a spiritual trance. It focused on a complete submersion of one’s self in the mystical experience. This continues to be a feature of performances at shrines where participants actively seek to generate in themselves a state of ecstasy. Access to such gatherings, especially in far-off rural areas, poses serious challenges to those interested in attending, but none that cannot be overcome. Yet, easier access to mainstream qawwali through recordings often means that many people will forego physical attendance. Modern religious sensibilities, as argued earlier, are also oriented towards the organised and predetermined format of mainstream qawwali rather than the chaotic ecstasy of traditional performances.

Afzal Sabri Qawwal performing at Junagadh House, Karachi |Arif Mahmood, White Star
Afzal Sabri Qawwal performing at Junagadh House, Karachi |Arif Mahmood, White Star

The explicit juxtaposition of the mainstream and traditional qawwali – as well as the nostalgic preference for the latter over the former – raises many interesting questions about tradition and modernity, about idealised notions of the past and a lament for the present, about authenticity and the challenges to it and, above all, about the idea of change.


It is important to begin by acknowledging that any discussion of a historical phenomenon is likely to turn that phenomenon into a romanticised version of it. Biases – conscious or subconscious – can prevent both the writer and reader from accepting what a phenomenon it actually has been. We, therefore, must discuss qawwali based on not just what we see in it but also based on the historical origins of shrines it was performed at, the personalities it was written and sung by and the audiences that attended its performances. Equally important is that we should focus on what it is that we do not find in those sources but see in the discussions today. The central idea behind this approach is to argue for an objective assessment of history instead of taking recourse to historical subjectivity.

A romanticised understanding of what qawwali was prior to its commercialisation can take different forms. Firstly, it can manifest itself as a defence by the current practitioners – both mainstream and hereditary – that posits qawwali as a purely religious performance, devoid of any features that might blemish its sacred character. Practising and listening to qawwali is only permissible if you have attained a certain level of religiosity; for all others, it is an experience that they should not indulge in because it is beyond their religious and spiritual capacity to handle. Evident within such a defence is the rigid definition of religiosity and spirituality. It is as much about what counts as correct behaviour as it is about what does not. Such defence is suspect because it carries a strong orthodox tone which bears little to no resemblance to the earliest qawwali texts that openly defy orthodoxy.

The fact that people in South Asia remain a largely religious crowd allows the manufacturers of goods and providers of services to rope in religion to peddle their wares.

Another defence criticises – and dismisses – the very idea of change in qawwali. What has changed is the world around qawwali, the exponents of this viewpoint argue. This defence, too, is weak because it ignores the fact that qawwali has evolved in constant dialogue with and against the society it is performed in. Take the example of Sabri Brother’s famous qawwali O Sharabi Chor De Peena (Oh Addict, Quit Drinking) that attacks Aziz Mian’s Mein Sharabi (I, the Addict). Without having to agree on what Sabri Brothers may or may not have meant in their verses, what is clear is their insistence that Aziz Mian is mistaken about the path he has proudly chosen for himself. Their qawwali, thus, assumes a tone of pettiness and personal rivalry.

Also read: What is gained and what is lost in the mainstreaming of qawwali

Of course, no qawwal – mainstream or hereditary – would ever agree that qawwali and its performance could be petty or worldly because such an agreement would undermine their claim that qawwali transcends the mundane, that it has a rarefied atmosphere of self-abnegating spirituality about it. What everyone will agree on is that the format of O Sharabi Chor De Peena – as well as that of Mein Sharabi – is still that of qawwali. Both of these, thus, can be classified as mainstream qawwalis. This amply shows how qawwali as a mainstream musical genre both influences and is influenced by the world around it.

Hamza Akram and Brothers, the youngest generation of qawwals from Delhi’s Qawwal Bachchon Ka Gharan | Alifiyah Imani
Hamza Akram and Brothers, the youngest generation of qawwals from Delhi’s Qawwal Bachchon Ka Gharan | Alifiyah Imani

Insofar that qawwali does not have a pristine, immaculate past or a static existence throughout its history, it may serve as an illustration of the debate on tradition — or more accurately the lack thereof. Under the category of religious devotional music in Pakistan, for example, we can include na’at and nauha for comparative purposes. The former is a hymn sung in the praise of the Prophet of Islam and the latter is an elegy over the massacre of his offspring. Technology has significantly altered both the form and content of these genres. It has become hard at times to distinguish whether it is a na’at that is being played at full volume in a passing car or whether it is a new Bollywood tune. Harder still is to understand what kind of mourning a nauha is marking when it transforms into a eulogy for the Shia Ayatollahs. The transformation signified by the extremely creative video depictions that accompany both the genres – and that can be freely played on online platforms – is even more evident than the changes mentioned earlier. The older generation is often seen lamenting that the good, old classical works have been ruined by their newer versions; the younger generation, on the other hand, is seldom drawn to what is regarded as the most authentic form of na’at and nauha by their elders. By extension, this line of argument may suggest that what is original and authentic for a particular generation may not be so for a preceding or succeeding generation.

The crucial question is whether the commercialisation of mainstream qawwali confers a moral advantage on the traditional qawwali. It does not.

The argument over what kind of qawwali is authentic, therefore, tells us more about ourselves than it does about qawwali. Consider again the contrasting aesthetic choices of Sabri Brothers and Aziz Mian. The former appeared well behaved and were well-groomed in the musical and poetic traditions associated with qawwali. The latter, in contrast, wore bright colours and cared little about the formal requirements of music and performances. To dismiss one or the other as inauthentic on the basis of their accent and tone would be naive. To argue that their looks are reflective of the quality of their works would be foolish. Such a dismissive will, however, tell us about our own preferences and what we can and cannot stand to listen. It is possible that our parameters of qawwali’s authenticity are derived from our own worldview on such subjects as the nature and the history of the state, religion and society we reside it.

It is not just our preferences that we see reflected in the type of qawwali we endorse. It is also the consumerist culture we are part of that determines what we will like and what we will not. Mainstream qawwali has been successful because it does not need a physical participation by the listener in its performance. This freedom from physical involvement means qawwali can continue to be played in the background even as the listener engages in worldly activities such as working at an office or driving for work or pleasure.

Fareed Ayaz being showered with currency notes |White Star
Fareed Ayaz being showered with currency notes |White Star

The fact that people in South Asia remain a largely religious crowd allows the manufacturers of goods and providers of services to rope in religion to peddle their wares. It makes perfect sense in such an atmosphere that qawwali has also begun to surface as a means of product endorsement. Such endorsements manifest themselves in various forms. In one particular instance, a milk manufacturer invokes a qawwali catchphrase to bind the singer, his fans, milk consumers in general and the producers all in one seamless universal community of faith. In another example, we have a radically altered form of qawwali being used to sell nationalism in adverts by a sports television channel promoting its coverage of Pakistan-India cricket matches.

No mention of commercialisation of qawwali will be complete without a reference to Coke Studio. The versions of qawwalis rendered by the singers of Coke Studio are motivated by an appreciation of the art and the artist; they do not seek to use art as a means for a spiritual experience. The show encourages innovation and improvisation and is willing to challenge the very concept of what counts as “traditional”.

Also read: Festival melodies

Importantly, however, Coke Studio has been remarkably successful in generating an interest in its work as well as in attracting and sustaining a dedicated viewership. Yet, it must be remembered that its very name is a ceaseless promotion of its corporate sponsors. The show is as much an investment in brand promotion as it is an initiative for the propagation of the arts. One can, therefore, ask what it means for qawwali to have become dependent on corporate sponsorship. It is highly likely that commercial motivation of the sponsors working together with aesthetic motivations behind the production of new forms of qawwali will create unforeseen results. That the former may trump the latter is an outcome that seems highly probable.

Even outside Coke Studio, it is clear that commercial motivations of mainstream qawwali affect its production in terms of content and form which have to conform to the cultural and religious tastes, and choices of its consumers. The crucial question, however, is whether the commercialisation of mainstream qawwali confers a moral advantage on the traditional qawwali. It does not.

The romantic proposition that traditional qawwali will one day become dominant is also delusional given that the world we live in is driven by consumerist preferences and a money-oriented outlook.

The idea of paying for a qawwali performance is no different from how we are willing to pay for consumer brands in, for instance, fashion. Why listen to Faiz Ali Faiz Qawwal, who most readers would not have heard of before, when one can afford to pay for the concert of a more recognisable qawwal? Who we listen to is more important than what we listen to. Equally important is who we go with to a qawwali performance and where. In all of these preferences, qawwali itself becomes almost a secondary choice. Compare this with the motivation for attending a qawwali at a Sufi shrine where attendees are motivated by nothing other than devotion. This is the key difference between traditional and mainstream qawwali. This distinction, however, should not be seen as providing either of the two types of qawwali a moral advantage over the other.

A qawwali sung in a mainstream public arena will not be artistically better or worse than a qawwali recited without fanfare at a Sufi shrine. The two will only differ in how they are performed and how they are received. The dominant type of qawwali also does not tell us anything about the spirituality, or the lack thereof, in the contemporary world. It is, however, reflective of the society that we live in and the choices that we continuously make as members of such a society.

The only objective conclusion that can be drawn from all the discussion above is that mainstream qawwali is markedly different – both artistically and spiritually – from the one that continues to be performed at shrines, even as the performers stay the same in some cases. Any other conclusion will be delving into the realm of subjectivity.

The romantic proposition that traditional qawwali will one day become dominant is also delusional given that the world we live in is driven by consumerist preferences and a money-oriented outlook. As long as this worldview does not change, it is unlikely that qawwali will change. Traditional qawwali, however, will exist at Sufi shrines as long as these shrines continue to exist — though it is a matter of debate how long that will be.


This was originally published in the Herald's May 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a student of religion at the University of Toronto.