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Qawwali at Ajmer Sharif Dargah

Qawwali (Punjabi: ਕ਼ੱਵਾਲੀ; Urdu: قوّالی; Hindi: क़व्वाली; Bengali: কাওয়ালি) is a form of Sufi Islamic devotional singing originating in South Asia. Originally performed at Sufi shrines or dargahs throughout South Asia,[1] it is famous throughout Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and has also gained mainstream popularity and an international audience as of the late 20th century.

While hereditary performers continue to perform Qawwali music in traditional and devotional contexts,[2] Qawwali has received international exposure through the work of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Aziz Mian and Sabri Brothers largely due to several releases on the Real World label, followed by live appearances at WOMAD festivals. Other famous Qawwali singers include Fareed Ayyaz & Abu Muhammad, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Badar Miandad, Rizwan & Moazzam Duo, Qutbi Brothers, the late Amjad Sabri, Wadali Brothers, Nizami Bandhu, Bahauddin Qutbuddin, Aziz Naza, among others. Most modern Qawwali singers belong to the famed 'Qawwal Bachon ka Gharana' school of Qawwali, which was based in Delhi before 1947 and migrated to Pakistan after the Partition of British India.


Qawl (Arabic: قَوْل) is an "utterance (of the prophet)", Qawwāl is someone who often repeats (sings) a Qaul, Qawwāli is what a Qawwāl sings.


Delhi's Sufi saint Amir Khusrow of the Chisti order of Sufis is credited with fusing the Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Indian traditions in the late 13th century in India to create Qawwali as we know it today.[3] The word sama is often still used in Central Asia and Turkey to refer to forms very similar to Qawwali, and in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the formal name used for a session of Qawwali is Mehfil-e-Sama.

Originally, musical instrument use in Qawwali was prohibited. The following conditions were initially placed on Qawwali:[4]

Sima’ (to listen to Qawwali) is permissible if a few conditions are met. The singer must be an adult and not a child or a female. The listener must only listen to everything in the remembrance of Allah. The words that are sung must be free from obscenity and indecency and they must not be void. Musical instruments must not be present in the gathering. If all these conditions are met, Sima’ is permissible.

Someone complained to the Sultan of the Mashaa’ikh that some of the dervishes danced in a gathering where there were musical instruments. He said, they did not do good as something impermissible cannot be condoned.

— Siyar al-Awliya[4][5]

Sufi Saints such as Nizamuddin Auliya, the teacher of the famous Sufi singer Amir Khusrow, were quite blunt about the prohibition:

Musical instruments are Haram.

— Fawa'id al-Fu'aad[4][6]

Eventually, however, musical instrument use found its way into Qawwali. Instruments such as the harmonium, tabla and dholak are now common in many Qawwali parties.

Historical practice and training

Traditional qawwali practice is built upon a system of hereditary training in which qawwals are part of the service community connected to a particular shrine. Their primary function to the shrine is to service formal activities, primarily the death anniversaries of Sufi saints (Urs).[7]

Since the intention of qawwali is to act as a bridge toward the experience of Sufi mystical love and builds upon religious chants and chanted poetry, the practice is viewed as permissible in what Islamic scholar Lois Lamya al-Faruqi refers to as non-musiqa.[8][9] Qawwals themselves are central figures within qawwali ritual but are not regarded as the focus and are still regarded as part of the servant class.[10]

Qawwals are trained in two primary ways: (1) as part of a bradri or brotherhood of performers in which they learn the fundamentals of the music, and (2) within Sufic teaching circles typically reserved for the higher classes in which they learn about Sufism. The understanding of the spiritual aspects but also the form's reliance on poetry requires a level of literacy in order to fulfill the role.[11]

Qawwali repertory

Ethnomusicologist Regula Qureshi distinguishes between "old" tunes (purānī dhuneṅ, purānī bandisheṅ) and "tunes of nowadays" (ājkal kī dhuneṅ). The "old" tune repertory includes movable tunes that can be adapted to multiple poems as well as "special" (makhsūs, khās) settings of poems, which are identified by their text. Qureshi also includes "typical Qawwal tunes" (Qawwālī kī thet dhunen) in this category, referring to tunes that can be used for a variety of poems based on the music's structural features.[12]

The songs which constitute the qawwali repertoire are primarily in Persian, Urdu, and Hindi,[13][14] although Sufi poetry appears in local languages as well (including Punjabi, Saraiki, and dialects of northern India like Braj Bhasha and Awadhi.)[15][16] The sound of regional language qawwali can be totally different from that of mainstream qawwali, as in the case of Chhote Babu Qawwal, whose style of singing is much closer to the Bengali Baul music than to the qawwali of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, for example.

The central themes of qawwali are love, devotion and longing for the Divine. The Sufi poets whose texts have made up the qawwali repertory often used worldly images to convey mystic spiritual love. As such, it is not uncommon to see mentions of worldly or forbidden concepts such as romantic longing, wine, and drunkenness, which are used as metaphors for the mystic state.[17] Qawwals bear the responsibility of maintaining a spiritually appropriate context for such songs, so as not to distract from the religious focus of the Qawwali occasion.[18]

Qawwali songs are classified by their content into several categories:

The diwan of the Nawab Wazir of Oudh, Asaf-ud-dowlah, who sits smoking a hookah listening to musicians in Lucknow, ca. 1812.

Composition of a qawwali party

A group of qawwali musicians, called a party (or Humnawa in Urdu), typically consists of eight or nine men including a lead singer, one or two side singers, one or two harmoniums (which may be played by the lead singer, side singer or someone else), and percussion. If there is only one percussionist, he plays the tabla and dholak, usually the tabla with the dominant hand and the dholak with the other one (i.e. a left-handed percussionist would play the tabla with his left hand). Often there will be two percussionists, in which case one might play the tabla and the other the dholak. There is also a chorus of four or five men who repeat key verses, and who aid percussion by hand-clapping.

The performers sit cross-legged on the ground in two rows — the lead singer, side singers and harmonium players in the front row, and the chorus and percussionists in the back row.

Before the fairly recent introduction of the harmonium, qawwalis were usually accompanied by the sarangi. The sarangi had to be retuned between songs; the harmonium didn't, and was soon preferred.

Women used to be excluded from traditional Muslim music, since they are traditionally prohibited from singing in the presence of men. These traditions have changed, however, as is evident by the popularity (and acceptance) of female singers such as Abida Parveen. However, qawwali has remained a predominantly male business and there are still not many mainstream female qawwals.

Musical structure of Qawwali

The longest recorded commercially released qawwali runs slightly over 115 minutes (Hashr Ke Roz Yeh Poochhunga by Aziz Mian Qawwal). The qawwali maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has at least two songs that are more than 60 minutes long.

Qawwalis tend to begin gently and build steadily to a very high energy level in order to induce hypnotic states both among the musicians and within the audience. Almost all Qawwalis are based on a Raga from the Hindustani classical music tradition. Songs are usually arranged as follows:

  1. They start with an instrumental prelude where the main melody is played on the harmonium, accompanied by the tabla, and which may include improvised variations of the melody.
  2. Then comes the alap, a long tonal improvised melody during which the singers intone different long notes, in the raga of the song to be played.
  3. The lead singer begins to sing some preamble verses which are typically not part of the main song, although thematically related to it. These are sung unrhythmically, improvised following the raga, and accompanied only by the harmonium. After the lead singer sings a verse, one of the side singers will repeat the verse, perhaps with his own improvisation. A few or many verses will be sung in this way, leading into the main song.
  4. As the main song begins, the tabla, dholak and clapping begin. All members join in the singing of the verses that constitute the refrain. The lyrics of the main verses are never improvised; in fact, these are often traditional songs sung by many groups, especially within the same lineage. However, the tunes are subtly improvised within the framework of the main melody. As the song proceeds, the lead singer or one of the side singers may break out into an alap. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan also popularised the interjection of sargam singing at this point. The song usually builds in tempo and passion, with each singer trying to outdo the other in terms of vocal acrobatics. Some singers may do long periods of sargam improvisation, especially alternating improvisations with a student singer. The songs usually end suddenly.

The singing style of qawwali is different from Western singing styles in many ways. For example, in words beginning with an "m", Western singers are apt to stress the vowel following the "m" rather than the "m" itself, whereas in qawwali, the "m" will usually be held, producing a muted tone.[citation needed] Also in qawwali, there is no distinction between what is known as the chest voice and the head voice (the different areas that sound will resonate in depending on the frequency sung). Rather, qawwals sing very loudly and forcefully, which allows them to extend their chest voice to much higher frequencies than those used in Western singing, even though this usually causes a more noisy or strained sound than what would be acceptable in the West.

Notable Qawwals of the past 70 years

Current and recent Qawwals

See also


  1. ^ Neubauer, Eckhard; Doubleday, Veronica (2001). Islamic religious music. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.52787.
  2. ^ Qureshi, Regula (2001). Pakistan, Islamic Republic of. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.20726.
  3. ^ "'Aaj rang hai' - Qawwali revisited". Archived from the original on 18 August 2018. Retrieved 8 March 2013., Retrieved 16 September 2015
  4. ^ a b c Hussain, Zahid (22 April 2012). "Is it permissible to listen to Qawwali?". TheSunniWay. Archived from the original on 12 June 2020. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  5. ^ Muhammad bin Mubarak Kirmani. Siyar-ul-Auliya: History of Chishti Silsila (in Urdu). Translated by Ghulam Ahmed Biryan. Lahore: Mushtaq Book Corner.
  6. ^ Nizamuddin Auliya (31 December 1996). Fawa'id al-Fu'aad: Spiritual and Literal Discourses. Translated by Z. H. Faruqi. D.K. Print World Ltd. ISBN 9788124600429.
  7. ^ Qureshi, Regula Burckhardt (1995). Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context and Meaning in Qawwali. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 79–102.
  8. ^ al Faruqi, Lois Ibsen (1985). "Music, Musicians and Muslim Law". Asian Music. 17 (1): 3–36. doi:10.2307/833739. ISSN 0044-9202. JSTOR 833739.
  9. ^ Qureshi 1995, p. 79-83.
  10. ^ Qureshi 1995, p. 92-93.
  11. ^ Qureshi 1995, p. 96-98.
  12. ^ Qureshi 1995, p. 19-20.
  13. ^ Monograph Series, Issues 20-23. Center for South and Southeast Asia Studies, University of California. 1979. p. 124. Qawwali texts exist in Persian, Urdu and Hindi.
  14. ^ Qureshi 1995, p. 84.
  15. ^ "Bollywood Reinvents the Qawwali – With a Vengeance". The Day After: An International Illustrated Newsmagazine of India. Archived from the original on 26 January 2009. Retrieved 23 February 2007.
  16. ^ "Delhi's Qawwal Bachchon ka Gharana lights up Ramadan night at T2F". Daily Times. Archived from the original on 16 April 2013. Retrieved 23 February 2007.
  17. ^ Sakata, Hiromi Lorraine (1999). "Devotional Music". In Arnold, Alison (ed.). The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Online. Vol. 5, South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent.
  18. ^ Qureshi 1995, p. 117-118.
  19. ^ Qureshi 1995, p. 21.
  20. ^ Qureshi 1995, p. 116.
  21. ^ Qureshi 1995, p. 117.
  22. ^ Qureshi 1995, p. 238.
  23. ^ Qureshi 1995, p. 86.
  24. ^ Qureshi, Regula; Powers, Harold S.; Katz, Jonathan; Widdess, Richard; Geekie, Gordon; Dick, Alastair; Sen, Devdan; Jairazbhoy, Nazir A.; Manuel, Peter; Simon, Robert; Palackal, Joseph J.; Brar, Soniya K.; Kelting, M. Whitney; Henry, Edward O.; Lord, Maria; Arnold, Alison; Pinckney, Warren; Vatsyayan, Kapila; Wade, Bonnie C.; Kaur, Inderjit N. (2001). "India, subcontinent of". Grove Music Online. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.43272. ISBN 9781561592630.
  25. ^ Meddegoda, Chinthaka Prageeth (2019). "Ghazal". In Sturman, Janet (ed.). The SAGE International Encyclopedia of Music and Culture. Vol. 3. pp. 1016–1018.
  26. ^ Manuel, Peter Lamarche (1993). Cassette culture: popular music and technology in north India. University of Chicago. pp. 124. ISBN 978-0-226-50401-8. Retrieved 3 April 2010., Google Books Article, Retrieved 17 September 2015
  27. ^ "First woman tabla player breaks social barriers". The Express Tribune. 4 December 2013. Archived from the original on 24 July 2021. Retrieved 23 March 2021.