Sufi Music: The Call of Qawwali for Prayer and Ecstasy


“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened,” wrote the great Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi, “Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Instead, take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do.”

The Sufis believe in celebrating by singing and dancing. Thus music takes the centre stage as it comes very close to meditation, as underlined by Osho. In North India, Sufi Masters like Bulle Shah, Baba Farid and Shahbaz Kalandar wrote ecstatic poetry that has become popular as Sufi and folk music today especially in the form of Qawwali.

Qawwali is a vibrant musical tradition that stretches back more than 700 years. Originally performed mainly at Sufi shrines throughout the subcontinent, it has also gained mainstream popularity. A lead singer has a group of supporters who sing along and clap with the accompaniment of other musicians. The artists and the listeners are often transported into a state of ‘wajad’ where they feel intoxicated with the presence of God. The late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is considered the uncrowned emperor of Qawwali.

‘Mast Kalandar’ the qawwali of Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Kalandar is perhaps the most famous and most popular of these. Considered as ‘the national anthem’ for qawwalis, it is sung at every concert of Sufi music. Pakistan’s the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan popularized qawwali to the West after the Sabri Brothers became renowned qawwali singers. In the 1970s, Shakila Bano Bhopali from India was perhaps the most popular female qawwali singer who toured many countries to entertain NRIs. Now Abida Parveen has joined this famous group. Now Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a nephew of Nusrat, is becoming popular especially with ‘Lagi man ki lagan’.

In India, the Wadali Brothers and Hans Raj Hans are top Sufi and qawwali singers. Another star is Zila Khan, daughter of legendary Sitar maestro, Ustad Vilayat Khan is named after Amir Khusrao’s raag Zila Kaafi.

Since 1960, Bollywood films popularized qawwali since the classic ‘Barsat ki Raat’ ‘Mughle-e-Azam’ had memorable qawwalis are remembered till today. Other hits come from ‘Amar, Akbar, Anthony’. More recently, ‘Maqbool’ had a powerful number by Daler Mehndi and this year ‘Jodha Akbar’ had one Khwaja mere Khwaja” by A. R. Rehman. Among the Punjabi folk singers, Hans Raj Hans, has a number of traditional Sufi numbers to his credit, Rabbi Shergill got overnight fame for ‘Bulla Ki Jaana’ and Kailash Kher for ‘Allah ke Bande’. Although a Punjabi Pop Singer, Hans Raj Hans, has made a name for himself as a Sufi singer as well and he is a great admirer of Osho, reading and listening to his words for inspiration, he says. All these singers are reviving qawwali with a modern touch.

Traditional qawwalis go one for one hour or more as in the case of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan that transports listeners into a trance like stage with his artistry and surrender. They succeed in touching the ones who are open to the call of the Ultimate. Sufis use music as a medium, for example in qawwali, to share the eternal message; and when it is sung with fervour, it brings one closer to the Ultimate.

Pakistani Sufi singer Shafqat Ali, says, “Sufi music is more about ibadad (prayer) of God. The whole idea of Sufi music is connecting to God through music. The lyrics of those songs are mostly poems and shayari (poetry) written to praise God and talk about his love towards mankind.”

Adds Sufi singer Abeeda Parveen, “Sufiism is a practice in praise about the almighty. The music is a broader term expressing love for the beloved. The intensity of the love is indefinable.”

Osho says, “Music comes closest to meditation. Music is a way towards meditation and the most beautiful way. Listening to great music you suddenly become silent — with no effort. Falling in tune with the music you lose your ego with no effort. You become relaxed, you fall into a deep rest. You are alert, awake, and yet in a subtle way drunk.” Seems Osho is talking about Sufi qawwali music.

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