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Qawwali is a traditional form of Islamic song found in India and Pakistan. The word Qawwali is derived from the Arabic word Qaol which means ‘axiom’ or ‘dictum’. A Qawwal is one who sings qawwali, or the dictums of the prophets and praises of God. The qawwali is closely linked to the spiritual and artistic life of northern India and Pakistan.

The Koran instructs man to remember God. This remembrance, known as dhikr, may be either silent or vocal. The qawwali may be viewed as an extension of the vocal form of this remembrance. The use of music as a spiritual force was discussed in great length by al-Gazali(1085-1111). By the end of the 11th century there arose the tradition of the sama. The sama was often a spiritual concert, which included a vocalist and instrumentalists. This samas took place under the direction of a spiritually respected man (sheikh).

There is a very specific psychological process that a qawwali follows. One starts with the singing of the song. In this psychological state, the song is received in a manner that is not unlike standard forms of musical expression. The words are sung, quite repeatedly with variations intended to bring out the different aspects and deeper means of the lyrics. After a while there is a repetition to the extent that the words cease to have a meaning; in the ideal situation the participant is moved to a state of spiritual enlightenment (fana)

History of the Qawwali

The origins of qawwali probably predate the birth of Muhammad. The earliest Islamic scholars discussed the spiritual effects of music, but it was only in the time of al-Gazali(1085-1111) that these principles were refined and codified. These principles were then expanded by the chisti school of Sufism. It is this order that has been responsible for the propagation of the qawwali in India and Pakistan for the last few centuries. The Chisti school was established by Khwaja Moinuddin Hasan Chisti (1143-1234). It is said that he was born in Sijistan. At a young age, he was influenced by several saintly men, including Ibrahim Qahandazi, and Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilli. He emigrated to Delhi and became a very respected saint. He later grew tired of life in Delhi and withdrew to the peace and quiet of Ajmer (Rajasthan) where he lived the remainder of his days.

One of the followers of the Chisti school was a man by the name of Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1236-1325). He was born in Budaun, but at the age of 20, he moved to Ajodhan and became a disciple of Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakkar. It is said that it was here that he received the key to inner illumination. He was then sent to Delhi to instruct the populous. Here he acquired a reputation for using music in his orthodox Islamicelements in Delhi.

Nizamuddin Auliya was and still is, a source of inspiration for countless people. Even today there is an annual gathering at his tomb. One man who was inspired by the Hazrat Nizamuddin was Amir Khusru (1254-1324). He was born in Mominpur (Patiala). His father was originally from Turkey and this gave the young boy a broader exposure to the rest of the Islamic world. His father died when he was eight years old, whereupon the job of raising him fell to his maternal grandfather. Amir Khusru was the advisor to the 11th ruler of Delhi, particularly the rulers of the Khilji dynasty (deva 1973:76). Amir khusru is so important to the development of Qawwali that he is often (erroneously) said to be the inventor of it. It is said that he mixed the various musical elements from Turkey, greater Persia, and India together. Even today, we find the curious mixture of Persian moqquams with Indian raags.

The development of the Qawwali up to the latter part of the Moghul Empire closely parallels the development of the Hindu religious song known as Bhajan. We find parallels in musician form and social settings. The degree of cross-influence is so great that some musicians/saints such as Kabir (circa 1440-1518) are to this day revered by Hindus and Muslims alike. The tradition of Qawwali has had numerous ups and downs. One particularly hard time was during the reign of Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb is known for his Islamic fundamentalism. The liberal traditions of the Sufis were not well received by this Emperor. He took the fundamentalist injunction against music very seriously.

Aurangzeb’s dislike of music is well illustrated in a common story. It appears that during his administration a group of musicians disheartened with their lack of patronage, took some musical instruments and wrapped them in the manner of a corpse, and held a funeral procession in protest. Aurangzeb enquires about the procession and is told it is a burial to signify the death of music. Whereupon it is said that the Emperor declares, “Good! Bury it so deep that never a sound should be heard again”. The collapse of the Moghul Empire and political fragmentation under the British were both good and bad for the Qawwals.

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