Monday, May 25, 2009


Qawwali is the traditional form of music found in sub-continent associated to the Sufi traditions. The word qawwali is derived from the Arabic word ‘Qaol’ which means ‘axiom’ or ‘quote’. Sufism is a school of Islamic thought which is based on the yearning to attain truth and divine love. The Sufi believes that it is possible to reach God through Zikr (the remembrance) of Almighty. Zikr can be silent or vocal. The qawwali may be viewed as an extension of the vocal form of the zikr or remembrance.

Qawali has developed from the Persian and Central Asian tradition of Samah or hadrah(hazrah in urdu) in Arabs. A group zikr (dhikr in Arabic) ceremony in Arab countries is called the hadrah. The typical hadrah is most often held on Thursday evenings after night prayer or on Fridays after Juma prayers. In Turkey the group ceremony is called Zikr-i Kiyam. Initially no instruments were used; later on Daf (A percussion instrument) became a common instrument. Samah included vocalist and instrumentalists and took place under the direction of a spiritual guide or sheikh.

Imam Al-Ghazali(1085-1111) discussed the spiritual effects of music and its principles within the Islamic context. These principles were later on expanded by the Chisti school of Sufism. It is this sufi-order which adopted qawwali for the propagation of the message in sub-continent.

Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti(1141-1230 / 1143-1234) was the most famous Sufi saint of the Chisti order. He was born in khorasan (Iran).He was a descendant of Imam Jafar Sadiq (AS).He was also known as Sultan-e-Hind. It was a practice of Sufi saints coming to the Indian subcontinent those days to first visit the shrine of Hazrat Ali Usman Hajweri Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore. Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti also came to Lahore to pay his respects at Data Ganj-Bakhsh. From there he went to Ajmer Shareef. He observed locals to be romantic, emotional and had an established taste for music. Instead of condemnation of the indigenous way of life, he introduced Zikr and Samah in his teachings.

Khawaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki (1173-1235) was Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti’s celebrated Khalifa or successor,he continued teachings of his Sheikh and established Chishti Order in India. Among Khawaja Qutbuddin Baktiyar’s prominent disciples was Hazrat Fariduddin Masood Ganj Shakar (1173-1265).Commonly known as Baba Farid, he not only was a highly revered Sufi saint but also one of the greatest poet of Punjabi-sairiki languages.He was based in Pakpatan near Multan,Punjab. Khawaja Nizamuuddin Aoulia (1238 -1325) popularly referred to as Mahbob-e-Ilahi (God’s beloved) was pupil of Baba Farid. His shrine is located in Delhi. From Ajmer, Pakpatan and Delhi, Chisti disciples branched out to various regions of Sub-continent. The shrine of Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti Sultan-e-Hind at Ajmer took on the special distinction of being the ‘mother’ dargah (shrine)of them all.

Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya was born in Budaun India .When he was 20, he became a disciple of Fariduddin Masood Ganj-i-Shakkar. After spending some time in Pakpattan, Baba Farid sent him to Delhi. He introduced samah in his gatherings. Delhi was the capital of Sultans of Slaves dynasty in India. There in Dehli, one of the most gifted and prominent scholar in the history of sub-continent Amir Khusro (1254-1324) became his disciple. Khusro’s father was a Turk soldier who migrated to sub-continent from Central Asia and his mother was from Delhi having Persian origin. Khusro hence had influences of Central Asian, Persian and Indian cultures in his upbringing. Later in his life he became a legendary musician, poet, statesman and a great intellectual. He mixed various elements of sama and Indian musical traditions to create Qawwali as we know it today. He can hence be regarded as the "father of Qawwali". The tradition continued with Chisti sufi saints. It had patronage of saints as well as rulers of the various sub-continent states.

Structure and Performance Format

Qawwali is performed by a group of vocalists unlike a classical performance which revolves around one or two singers. In a usual Qawwali performance, there is one or couple of main vocalist or qawwal positioned in the front and a group of supporting vocalists (humnowa) sit behind them who join in the chorus and also provide rhythm with clap of their hands.

In the wings are instrumentalists. The most common instruments used are harmonium, sarangi, and rabab but the use of guitar, mandolin, violin and clarinet is also quite acceptable. Percussionists are traditionally placed at the back. There is no particular preference for the percussion instrument and it can range from tabla or a dholak (Punjabi folk drum) to Arabic Daf to African drums. The most common taal is the fast dadra of 6 beats or the fast Punjabi folk Kaherva of eight beats. Unlike the classical music forms, the percussions (taals) are played in a way to produce a driving beat. The audiences are also considered participants.

Although Qawwali is not a classical form of singing but the presentation structure does have some common elements with khayal gayeki. It typically starts with an instrumental prelude, after which the main singers launch into the alap which establishes the melody and the tonal structure of the qawwali. This portion has no rhythm. After this, the introductory poetic verses are sung maintaining the melody. Then the main portion of the performance starts with the rhythm and percussions usually in a medium tempo. The song proceeds in a "call and response" format. The pace keeps on getting faster until a state of great excitement is produced. Qawwali usually has three or five sets of stanzas, which can be compared to the asthai and antra in eastern, and verse and chorus structure found in western music. The duration of a Qawaali is about twenty to thirty minutes on average, with a few lasting an hour or more.

The most common raags used in Qawwalis today are Bilawal, Khammaj, Kafi, and Kalyan. It is not unusual for Qawwals to use fast taans, meend, gamaks and the other forms of musical ornamentation of typical sub-continental classical music performances.


Qawwalis can be categorized by their content. Following are the major categories:

Hamd is the poetry in praise of Allah. Traditionally, a qawwali performance starts with a hamd.
Naat is in praise of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. A hamd is traditionally followed by a naat.
Manqabet is the poetry in praise of Ail-e-baat or the Sufi saints. It follows after the naat.
Manadjat (conversation in Arabic ) is a song where the qawwal thanks Allah. It is often in Persian. It is from the samah tradition and Mawlana Jalal-ud-din Rumi is credited to be its inventor.

Some Important Qawwals in Modern times

Sabri Brothers are arguably the most important exponents of this art who made invaluable contributions to its development. They set the format and standards for most qawwali singers that followed. Sabri brothers were four brothers but Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri and Maqbool Ahmed Sabri are more well known because they were the vocalists. The other two Kamal Sabri and Mehmood Ghaznavi Sabri were instrumentalists.

The eldest brother Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri possessed a deep and powerful voice where as Maqbool Ahmed had light and melodious voice more suitable for geet and ghazal. Together they produced a mesmerising effect. Ghulam Farid Sabi was born in Kalyan, in the district of Rohtak in East Punjab now part of India in 1930. Maqbool Ahmed Sabri was also born in Kalyan in 1941. Their family lineage stretches back to Mughal era as they are the direct descents of Mian Tansen, the legendary musician of the court of Akbar the Great. They learnt music from their father, Ustad Inayat Sien Sabri. He trained them in Qawwali and classical music. Their first public performance was at the annual Urs festival of Hazrat Mubarak Shah in Kalyan in 1946. In 1947,the family moved from India to Karachi,Pakistan. Their first recording was released in 1958 by EMI Pakistan , "Mera Koi Nahin Hae Taray'' Sewa which still is very popular today.

Sabri Brothers also took Qawwali to the West. Their performance in 1975 at Carnegie Hall, New York was a sold-out smash. Brothers enjoyed great popularity from the 60s to the mid 80s. In the late 80s, the party split up and that was the beginning of their downfall. Ultimately they rejoined in the early 90s, but the death of Ghulam Fareed in 1994 brought the the end of this amazing talent of the tradition of Qawwali. I met Maqbool Ahmed in 1998 in Islamabad, when he came for a cup of tea in my office. we had a long conversation about music, qawwali and their contribution. He was gracious enough to do few alaps also.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is credited for modernization of qawwali but in reality Sabri brothers were the true pioneers and lead the way to the popularity of the genre. Most of the vocal, instrumentation, and musical improvisations, use of variety of rhythms, grooves and percussions common today were introduced by them. And importantly, they remained within the format also.

Another very major qawwal in the modern era was Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed Khan. He was born in Dehli in 1912.He belonged to the best-known gharana of Qawwali, Qawwal Bachchon Ka Gharana, which performed at the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aoulia. It is claimed that Qawwal Bachchon kay gharana learnt the art of qawwali from Amir Khusro. Raziuddin was the court qawwal of Nizam of Hyderabad. After the fall of Hyderabad, he moved to Pakistan. In 1956, he formed Munshi Raziuddin, Manzoor Niazi & Brothers group, along with his cousins, Bahauddin Qawwal and Manzoor Niazi. He was a great qawwal and the group remained very popular till mid-seventies.

Abdul Aziz or Aziz Mian was born in Delhi but his family was from Meerath, India.They migrated to Pakistan in 1947 and settled in Lahore, Pakistan. Aziz Mian started qawwali at the shrine of Data Gunj Bhashk .He was very a educated person .He qualified Masters in Persian and Urdu literature, and History from the University of Punjab, Lahore.

Aziz Mian had a very powerful and raspy voice and wrote his own lyrics. He remained faithful to the traditional format of qawwali yet his style was unique. He paid little attention to musical ornamentations. He had extraordinary talent for reciting poetry and his live performances touched the hearts of his audience.The trademarks of his stage performances was swinging his head on the rhythm of his percussionist.

A very interesting incidence happened when Sabri Brothers criticized his Qawwali, 'Main Sharabi Sharabi' (I am an Alcoholic, I am an Alcoholic) through their Qawwali, 'Peena Veena Chhor Sharabi' (Quit Drinking, Alcoholic). Aziz Mian came back with 'Hai Kambakht Toone Pee Hi Nahi' (Alas You Haven't Drunk).

Fateh Ali Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan & Party were regarded as one of the foremost exponents of Qawwali in their time. Fateh Ali Khan was born in Lyallpur, Punjab in 1901. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan was the father of the legendary Qawwali musician, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Mubarak Ali Khan was the father of Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan and uncle of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. After the death of Fateh Ali Khan in 1964, he trained the family youngsters until his death in 1971.

The family claims to have over 600 years of tradition of Qawwali. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan were trained in classical music and Qawwali by their father, Ustad Maula Baksh Khan. Fateh Ali Khan was the leader of the family's Qawwali party. They are also credited for singing poetry of Allama Iqbal because Iqbal's poetry was regarded difficult for composition in music.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was born on October 13, 1948 in Lyllpur/Faisalabad, Pakistan. Nusrat's father Ustad Fateh Ali Khan wanted his son to become a doctor or an engineer or join civil service of Pakistan because Qawwals had a lower social status in Pakistan. After observing his son Nusrat's enthusiasm for Qawwali,he agreed to train him and further the family traditions. In addition to qawwali, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan taught him khayal , dhrupad and other forms of classical music . After the death of Mubarak Ali Khan in 1971, Nusrat became the official leader of the family Qawwali party and in due course of time it became world renowned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan & Party. Nusrat assumed leadership of the group, despite the fact that his cousin Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan was much older than him. This group was a rage world over till the death of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on August 16,1997.

Nusrat had a rich and expressive voice though it was not a voice of a singer or a 'gulo-kar' like Muhammad Rafi or Mehdi Hasan. His voice had an uncanny grittiness to it without being unrefined and had an amazing emotional intensity. He was also quite successful in introducing various innovations to the presentation of Qawali. He expanded the traditional introductory portion to a full-fledged classical alap. His extensive training gave him ability to interject sophisticated Khayal ornamentations like sargam, meend and singing of taals at is will during a performance. His instrumentalists especially the percussionists of the party were the best in the business and played a thumping groove.

Nusrat was successful in the west because he was more willing than his predecessors for improvisation and experimentation. He was not afraid to move away from the tradition and his fusion of traditional Indo-Pakistani and Western music was able to create quite a stir in the music world. However he was also part of some contentious projects. He worked with Peter Gabriel on the soundtrack of “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1985, which was a very controversial film. In 1995,he collaborated with Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder on two songs for the soundtrack of “Dead Man Walking”. He also contributed to the soundtrack of extremely violent film“Natural Born Killers”. Nusrat himself reportedly was unhappy about it. After his death, Peter Gabriel song "Solemn Prayer", which Nusrat sang was part of the Peter Gabriel’s album “Up” and also used in the soundtrack of the film “Blood Diamond.”He worked for many Indian productions.

Apart from these, Aziz Ahmed Warsi, Badar Miandad, Bahauddin Qutbuddin and Jafar Husain Khan Badauni are few important qawwals of the recent times.

Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan lifted Qawwali to a whole new level and world recognition, still despite all the success and fame, the type of music he was doing in the later part of his career was too far from tradition. It was not qawwali, it was sufi-pop. In a way he can be named as the father of sufi-pop. It might be early to ascertain whether his improvisations and departure from tradition lead to the downfall of qawwali or not but the absence of any credible exponents of this glorious sub-continent music tradition is quite depressing.

Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Amjad Sabri, Fareed Ayaz, Mehr Ali Sher Ali and few others are around and performing but they move away from tradition frequently and on the footsteps of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan moving closer to Sufi-pop.

  1. Origin and History of the Qawwali, Adam Nayyar, Lok Virsa Research Centre, Islamabad. 1988.
  2. Psychology of early Sufi samā By Kenneth S. Avery
  3. Ahmed Aqeel Ruby, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: A Living Legend.
  4. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan His voice was a conduit to heaven By Aryn Baker
  5. Yahoo Group Writers’ Forum Discussion


  1. A well composed effort, it will help a lot of reseachers to understand the true sense of qawwali and the various trends so far prevailing in this direction of teachings / preachings of islam.

    Keep it up

  2. A very good and balanced article, having substantial research and a very interesting way of building the tempo. I liked this effort more than your previous article. Keep it up!

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  4. Assalam walakum,

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