Qawwali: A Truly Mystical Encounter 6 December 2016
Qawalli is a mystical form of music from the Sufi sect of Islam that has inspired people worldwide for centuries. I myself have begun my own journey into its history and its influence in society today.
The event which really brought Qawalli into my attention was the death of Qawalli singer Amjad Sabri. Amjad was brutally murdered in the city of Karachi in Pakistan as he was heading home by a gun man from the Taliban. His senseless death has caused an outcry from fans. Amjad Sabri was a descendant of the Sabri brothers who were well known for introducing the qawalli form of music to the West. The Sabri bros had a performance at Carnegie Hall which was a popular sold out event in 1975. The brothers enjoyed great popularity from the 60’s and 80’s.
“The Sabri brothers were four brothers but Ghulam Farid Sabri and Maqbool Ahmed Sabri were well known because they were vocalists. The other two Kamal Sabri and Ghaznavi Sabri were instrumentalists… Their family lineage stretches back to Mughal era as they are direct descendants of of Mian Tensen, the legendary musician of the court of Akbar the Great.” (Shifana, Haqanni fellowship)
These facts show what a prestigious lineage that Amjad Sabri came from and only further seek to make his demise more painful. His tragic death has personally caused me to re-examine the dichotomy that exists between the spiritual Sufis of the region that enjoy and praise this form of music against the hardline legalistic scholars who oppose any form of music.
However I found that this tension just doesn’t exist within Pakistan but also within the hearts of Muslims growing up in the West who are introduced to different scholarly opinions. I have found the older generation of my grandfather’s age seemed to have more of sympathy for Qawalli as a spiritual form of worship than today’s younger generation do. Language barriers have also caused the younger generation to see it as something that is very much archaic and out of touch with their taste of (or lack of) for music. With most opting for nasheeds (Spiritual music but different in style) and music which has no instruments, Qawalli has almost been forgotten and it’s link with spirituality seen as unimportant.
However in the East, Qawalli has made come back as a popular music form and has re packaged itself, thanks to Pakistan’s coke studio and the Bollywood film industry. It has begun to compete for the first time with mainstream music and is now gaining an appeal with the younger generation. Due to English translations it is reaching far wider audiences than it has in the past, and people are now in the West are beginning to rediscover this ancient tradition modernising the music to suit current tastes.
Throughout history there seems that there has always been a need for a spiritual form of Music that creates a transcendental experience. Music has always been able to inspire all sorts of emotions which is why Qawalli originated to begin with.
“The word qawalli originates from the Arabic word ‘qaul’ which means to ‘sound’ or to speak or ‘utterance’ (of the prophet). It was the transformation of Arabic prose into a musical form.” (Qawalli revisited, Alvi)
It has been noted that the qawalli may have pre-dated Islam as an Arabic form of music however it has little to do with the Indian form that is currently present. The Sufi saint Amir Khusrow has been the integral figure that made qawalli popular by improvising uniqueness in its form and content.
Qawalli in its form tends to have a local folk sound structure mixed with Indian classical music. “The notes are the same but the style keeps changing, it goes back and forth between classical and folk… the universal aspect of Sufism and Mysticism is very much evident in the structure and form of qawalli.” (Alvi- Qawalli revisited)
There are also different types of qawalli music. There is hamd which is sung in praise of Allah and the angels and there are also Na’ats which are sung in praise of the prophet Muhammed. Such music is created to offer an easier access in understanding the mystical component of faith through the poetry and music which often induces a strong spiritual effect upon its listeners.
“The qawwal often dwell on one phrase or sentence, indicating both the obvious and hidden content by emphasising and repeating various words and syllables, taking the audience into the discovery of a hitherto not obvious meaning” (History of Qawalli, Nayyar)
Qawalli music is used as a form of gnosis and accepted by Sufi circles as providing inner spiritual knowledge which is not attainable through normal means. One of its chief objectives is to induce Hal a form of trance and spiritual ecstasy in a communal ritualised setting. It further acts as a vehicle of transportation taking its audience from the material realm to the spiritual through a musically induced ecstasy.
In Qawalli a dialogue is created between the musicians and the listeners whose goal is to induce hal which is based on their competence of the musician and the listener’s receptiveness. Such trance’s that are induced can be physically manifested and can “range from rhythmic moving of the head, dreamy dancing to such extremes of violent convulsions of the body, depending on the person affected.”(Nayyar, history of Qawalli) After the individual recovers from their experience no stigma is attached to them and they usually carry on as if nothing had ever happened.
The final spiritual stage within Sufism is called Fana. This is a state that is achieved when the believer has completely surrendered himself to God and the ultimate union between Man and the Divine takes place. In some cases there have been people who have died whilst listening to Qawalli experiencing Fana and reaching that final spiritual destination.
“It is said of the one who dies during Qawalli that his soul has travelled to many places leaving the shell of his body behind.” (Nayyar, history of Qawalli)
My journey into Qawalli has shown me that its need is greater now than it has ever been. With the rise of Islamic religious legalism in the West the lack of focus on spirituality needs to be addressed. Qawalli through the years has acted as a bridge between man and God, never judging an individual by their caste or creed and finding a home amongst those who are even non-Muslim.
It has further acted as a universal force unifying individuals into a common humanity and needs to be given its due worth. It has also shown me that not all religious practises need be required with rigour and austerity and that there is nothing wrong with acquiring such knowledge through pleasurable means. As long as there is a desire for a deeper connection with God Qawalli will always be important and will be used to transcend the material realm into that of the spiritual.