Sufi Music Uplifting the soul to realms above
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened," noted the great Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi in the 13th century. "Don't open the door to the study and begin reading," he writes. Instead, "Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do.
Music and poetry lies at the heart Sufism. It stands in stark contrast to "orthodox" Islam, which often disapproves or in extreme cases bans music. Sufi traditions see music as central to religious devotion and seek to use its emotive and communal power towards praising the almighty.
Sufi music and poetry pervades across the Muslim world, from South and Central Asia through Turkey, the Middle East, as well as parts of Africa. In each area it has fused with local traditions to create a diverse range of colours and sounds. A newcomer may be surprised to discover that Qawalli from Pakistan is linked spiritually and historically to the ‘whirling dervishes’ of Turkey.
However, all these different facets of ritual, performance and music have the same goal in mind: to lose oneself in remembering God and in drawing closer to the divine.
In south Asia and, in particular the Punjab province of Pakistan, Sufi music is synonymous with Qawalli, made famous by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Almost single-handedly, Nusrat took Qawalli from the dusty plains of Pakistan to auditoriums around the globe.
Many criticised him for taking sacred music to the secular stage. But Nusrat always said he never did it for fame: "Many have said I have compromised my faith by coming to the West. But this is not so. To travel the world and open the hearts of those whose were previously closed is a joy worth the other sacrifices."
Oh, music is the meat of all who love,
Music uplifts the soul to realms above.
The ashes glow, the latent fires increase:
We listen and are fed with joy and peace
Sufi poem (translated by R.A. Nicholson)
The roots of Qawalli, a fusion of devotional poetry and Hindustani music, can be traced back to 8th century Persia (today's Iran and Afghanistan). Migrations from the 11th century brought many of the musical traditions to the Indian subcontinent.
But it was not until the 13th Century that Qawalli began to take shape after Hazarat Amir Khusrao (1253-1325), who was of Turkish and Persian descent and an iconic figure in the cultural history of the Indian subcontinent, ‘invented’ Qawalli.
Khusrao, a Sufi mystic and a spiritual disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi, was a notable poet but also a prolific musician, a mathematician and a linguist. Called the "father of Qawalli,” he is also credited with enriching Hindustani classical music by introducing Persian and Arabic elements in it, and was the originator of the Khayal and Tarana styles of music. And if that wasn’t enough of a life’s work, he is also thought to have invented the tabla. In short, he reshaped Indian classical music.
Qawalli can be broken down into the Arabic word ‘Qaul’ meaning an "utterance (of the prophet)". A Qawall is someone who often sings a Qaul, and Qawalli is the style of singing of Qauls.
"To be a qawall is more than being a performer, more than being an artist. One must be willing to release one's mind and soul from one's body to achieve ecstasy through music. Qawalli is enlightenment itself."
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Traditionally, Qawalli which is sung regularly around the tombs of Sufi saints is raw, rustic, unrefined and pounds to the strident beat of the Dhol drum. Devotees, who gather at these shrines at traditional Qawalli performances, known as Mehfil-e-Saama, are often driven to an ecstatic frenzy by the high octane, hypnotic rhythms and mesmerising singing.
Qawallis 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. This trance-like state or wajad is a generally considered to be the height of spiritual ecstasy in Sufism, and a state where they feel at one with God.
Qawalli freely uses poetry and verses from Sufi masters across the world. Often the same line is repeated incessantly, sometimes broken up into parts of sentences, or fragments of words, or just sounds known as Tarana, against the pulsating beat and accompanied by stylised clapping.
Today, many see Sufism through its words, deeds and music as playing a crucial role in presenting a tolerant, open and peaceful, against some of the negative stereotypes of Islam. Faouzi Skali, the organiser of the Fez Sacred Music Festival, says the annual gathering gives Sufis to an opportunity to reach out people across the world: “I believe that within Islam, Sufism has a role to play today. The world is not uniform. There’s a wealth of spiritual traditions that it’s important to know and preserve. That’s what we, and the next generation, need now or we will have a world without soul and that would be terrible.”