قوٌالیQawwali (قوٌالی) is the devotional music of the muslim Sufis. Originally performed mainly at Sufi shrines throughout what is now India and Pakistan, it has also gained popularity in the mainstream, especially through the work of artists like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Qawwali is a vibrant musical tradition that stretches back more than 700 years.



The roots of Qawwali can be traced back to 8th century Persia. However, Qawwali in the form we know it today was essentially created by Amir Khusrau in the late 13th century in India.

During the first major migration from Persia, in the 11th century, the musical tradition of Sama migrated to the Indian Sub-continent, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Rumi and his Mevlana order of Sufism have been the propagators of Sama in Central Asia. Amir Khusrau of the Chisti order of Sufis is credited with fusing the Persian and South Asian musical traditions, to create Qawwali as well as the Hindustani classical music tradition. The word “Sama” is used (or is the preferred name) in Central Asia and Turkey, for forms very similar to Qawwali. And even in India and Pakistan, the formal name used for a session of Qawwali is “Mehfil-e-Sama“.

Song content

The songs which constitute the qawwali repertoire are mostly in Urdu and Punjabi (almost equally divided between the two), though there are also songs in Persian, Brajbhasha, Siraiki and Sindhi. The poetry is implicitly understood to be spiritual in its meaning, even though the lyrics can sometimes sound wildly secular, or outright hedonistic. The central themes of qawwali are love, devotion and longing (of man for the Divine).

Qawwalis are classified by their content into several categories:

  • A hamd is a song in praise of Allah. Traditionally, a qawwali performance starts with a hamd.
  • A naat is a song in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. The opening hamd is traditionally followed by a naat.
  • A manqabat is a song in praise of either Ali or one of the Sufi saints. Manqabats in praise of Ali are typically sung only at a Shi’a concert; if one is sung, it will follow right after the naat. There is usually at least one manqabat in a traditional programme.
  • A marsiya is a lamentation over the death of much of Ali’s family in the Battle of Karbala. Once again, this would typically be sung only at a Shi’a concert.
  • A ghazal is a song that sounds secular on the face of it. There are two extended metaphors that run through ghazals — the joys of drinking and the agony of separation from the beloved. These songs feature exquisite poetry, and can certainly be taken at face value, and enjoyed at that level. In fact, in India and Pakistan, ghazal is also a separate, distinct musical genre in which many of the same songs are performed in a different musical style, and in a secular context. In the context of that genre, the songs are usually taken at face value, and no deeper meaning is necessarily implied. But in the context of qawwali, these songs of intoxication and yearning use secular metaphors to poignantly express the soul’s longing for union with the Divine, and its joy in loving the Divine. In the songs of intoxication, “Wine” represents “knowledge of the Divine”, the “Cupbearer” (saqi) is God or a spiritual guide, the “Tavern” is the metaphorical place where the soul may (or may not) be fortunate enough to attain spiritual enlightenment. (The “Tavern” is emphatically not a conventional house of worship.) Intoxication is attaining spiritual knowledge, or being filled the joy of loving the Divine. In the songs of yearning, the soul, having been abandoned in this world by that cruel and cavalier lover, God, sings of the agony of separation, and the depth of its yearning for reunion.

Composition of a qawwali party

A group of qawwali musicians, called a party, 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 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 left hand and the dholak with the right. 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 and abet percussion by hand-clapping.

The performers sit 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.

Musical structure

Songs are usually between 15 to 30 minutes long. However, the longest 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. 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 raag 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 raag, 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. Normally neither the lyrics of the main verses nor the melodies that go with them are improvised; in fact, these are often traditional songs sung by many groups, especially within the same lineage. As the song proceeds, the lead singer or one of the side singers may break out into an alap. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan also popularized 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. Also in qawwali, there is no distinction between what is known as the chest voice and the neck 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 would be acceptable in the West.

Well-known qawwals

Qawwali music gained international exposure through the work of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan of Pakistan, who was picked up by the Real World label and collaborated with many non-Sufi musicians in crossover efforts. Other well-known qawwals are Aziz Mian Qawwal, Badar Ali Khan (aka Badr Miandad), Bahauddin Qutbuddin, Fareed Ayaz, Jafar Husain Khan Badauni, Mohd. Saeed Chisti, Mehr Ali Sher Ali, Munshi Raziuddin, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rizwan-Muazzam, Sabri Brothers.

See also

  • Religious ecstasy
  • Music of Pakistan
  • Music of India

Topics in Islamic Sufism

Sufi philosophy : Ihsan • Lataif • Cosmology • Tajalli • Noor • Maqaam • Haal • Manzil • Yaqeen • Fanaa • Baqaa • Index of Sufi Concepts
Practices: Dhikr • Muraqaba • Sama • Qawwali • Sufi whirling
Sufi orders : Chishti • Jerrahi • Mevlevi • Naqshbandi • Qadri • Shadhili • Index of Sufi Orders
Famous medieval Sufis : Hassan Basri • Rabia • Bayazid • Junayd • Ghazali • Jilani • Ibn Arabi • Rumi • Sadi • Data Gunj • Gharib Nawaz • Khusro • Alf Sani • Shah Waliullah
Famous modern Sufis : Hisham Kabbani • Kabir Helminski • Inayat Khan • Shamsuddin Azeemi • Keller
Miscellaneous: Sufi texts • History • Sufi poetry • Sufi art • Glossary
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buddha monk