A Unique South Asian Islamic Art: Qawwali and Devotional Singing

A Unique South Asian Art: Qawwali and Devotional SingingWhile the music is the most recognizable part of a qawwali, the music only exists to emphasize and intensify the words. The text is what Sufis rely on to open their minds and bring them to an ecstatic state. The most common poetic form to appear in qawwali is the ghazal, composed of several couplets in the rhyme scheme aa, ba, ca, da, etc., and dealing with unrequited love. Like all poetry appearing in qawwali, ghazal has a denseness of meaning that allows it to be understood in multiple ways. The love the poem describes is understood simultaneously as an earthly love and a Divine love. For example, a couplet that speaks of a night of passion can refer to either the physical act of love-making or a night spent in sama’. A ghazal is not necessarily sung in its entirety; structurally, the ghazal’s couplets exist independently of one another, described by the great Persian ghazal writer Hafiz (1326-1389) as pearls strung together. A qawwali text may be narrative and/or didactic, but is most often a thematic association of couplets from various poetic sources that remind the listener of a relationship to God. In addition, a qawwali may also praise important religious figures.

Perhaps the most important figure the Chishti Order, as well as for many other Sufis, is Ali ibn Abi Talib (599-661). The cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632), Ali is considered to the be the spiritual heir of Muhammad’s authority, most Sufi Masters trace their spiritual lineage back to him. One of the key moments relating to the transfer of authority from Muhammad to Ali is Muhammad’s declaration at Ghadir-e Khumm of “man kunto mowlahu fa-hadha Aliyyun mowlahu,” meaning “he whose master I am, Ali is his master.” This phrase is a key part of the first qawwali that traditionally opens the sama’. This opening song is called the qaul, meaning “saying” or “utterance,” and shares the same Arabic root as qawwali. The insertion of an Arabic phrase into a South Asian art form attests to the the transnational nature of Muslims who use Arabic as a potent symbolic language. It also hints at the multi-lingual nature of the qawwali. The lyrics draw on Hindustani — the common point of Hindi and Urdu — Persian, Arabic, and numerous South Asian languages, including Panjabi, Siraiki, Sindhi, and Gujarati. Once more, this adaptability of the qawwali is due to Amir Khusraw. He is said to have integrated the Persian ghazal tradition into the South Asian literary landscape. As a result, he mixed languages in his texts and sowed the seeds of the Hindustani language. This flexibility in language and musical instrumentation embedded in qawwali allows it to travel easily and to adapt to new environments.

Click here to read at the source: Hussein Rashid – Muslim Voices Festival

Header image: Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal and Brothers at the Aga Khan Museum, September 2014


Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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