Padma Bhushan Prof. Gopi chand Narang

The Indo-Islamic Cultural Fusion and the Institution of the Qawwali

by Padma Bhushan Prof. Gopi chand Narang on March 25, 2014

The term qawwali is derived from qul, the imperative of the Arabic verb qaula 'to say', 'to speak', In the Holy Quran suras 109, 112 and 114 begin with the word qul 'say!', and this is evidence of the sanctity with which it is regarded. Reading anyone or all of these verses is also part of the fatiha; therefore pronouncing the word qul is the equivalent of a blessing or the conclusion of a prayer. In Arabic qawwal does not mean 'a singer', but rather 'one who speaks volubly' or 'a story teller'. When it was adopted by Urdu its semantic boundaries shifted and the term qawwal was exclusively applied to a person who sang qawwalis. The word qawwal was possibly first used in Turkish in connection with the 'whirling and chanting dervishes' of Jalaluddin Rumi, but when it reached India it gradually became a standard element in the sufistic ritual of the seminaries (khanqahs). In its present form the qawwali is first and foremost an exquisite manifestation of the music and culture born from the interaction of Hinduism and Islam. As a musical form it belongs exclusively to the Indian subcontinent, which began to develop after the advent of Islam during the middle ages. It was patronized and cherished by most Muslim sufis, especially those belonging to the Chishti order.

It is also true that in the popularization of the qawwali the ghazal played a central role. In qawaali usually it is the ghazal that is sung. (The genre of ghazal borrowed from Persian, is the most popular form of Urdu poetry where like doha each couplet is an independent unit of meaning; but unlike doha the ghazal is a string of couplets ranging from 5 to 9 or more, which are held together by the metre and the rhyme scheme, i.e., aa, ba, ca, et al.) The Urdu ghazal occasionally embedded with the Persian couplets or the dohas of Braj Bhasha, gradually made the qawwali a part of the sufi music of the subcontinent. No doubt melodies subconsciously present in the collective memory of the people of the subcontinent were amalgamated with the singing of qawwali. For this reason and because of its spiritual appeal, it became acceptable to and appreciated by the common people. In the twentieth century, with the rising graph of the Urdu ghazal, and with the help of the theatre, the film and other forms of electronic mass media, (as we will discuss later) the qawwali has to some extent been divorced from its religious roots and has established itself as a part of the subcontinental secular music. It is extremely important to bear in mind that in its present form it has no connections whatsoever with the Arab world or any other Islamic country (other than Pakistan or its neighbouring countries). In its origin and development the qawwali is first and foremost a creation of the subcontinent. In order to appreciate its profound relationship with the subcontinental collective subconscious mind and psyche, it is necessary to take into account aspects of the composite nature of Indo-Islamic society, of the shared culture of the subcontinent and of all that the Indian Muslims and non-Muslims have in common. It is also important to note the obvious similarity between the qawwali and the Indian ritualistic temple singing, known as bhajan-kirtan.

With the coming of the Muslims to India gradually a composite culture came into existence, manifestations of which can be found in both the sufi and the bhakti movements. Along with this, the fusion of the Muslim and Indian concepts, which could not be completely achieved at the religious level, manifested itself fully in music and the fine arts. We should always remember that the aesthetic compared to the religious consciousness is more liable to be influenced by time and space. Therefore a kind of harmony came about in the shared aesthetic taste. In Indian music the khayal is considered to be an invention of the Muslims. Not only did it become popular among the Hindus, but without its existence it is impossible even to conceive of Indian music. In the same way the Muslims eagerly adopted the dhrupad, which is an ancient form of indigenous singing. The invention of the sitar and the tabla is attributed to Amir Khusrao (d.1325); the Muslim sarangi and the sarod also became notable instruments in Indian orchestration.

The Indian sufi saints always had a great affection for indigenous music. During the time of Akbar, in music, as in other cultural spheres, shared tastes were deeply felt, and foreign and native forms merged with each other and forever became one. The famous performer Tansen was one of Akbar's select group, known as the Nauratna 'Nine Jewels'. In imitation of the Mughal rulers, notably the Sultans of Bijapur and Jaunpur and the Nawabs of Avadh also lent their patronage to Indian music and in this way attempted to forge a harmony between the emotions and feelings of different sections of Indian people.

The concept of love ( ' ishq ) and sama’

From ancient times India has been the cradle of ascetics, yogis and religious devotees. Through the influence of the Puranas religious devotion (bhakti) and the emotions of love (prem) have in one form or another always been present. In Islamic sufism the concept of 'ishq (deep, frenzied love) acquired a central position. Love is regarded as a universal force, which is embedded in every atom of creation, and in its fire the dross of worldly existence burns and remains captive. In the words of the poet Mir (1722-1810):

Mauj zani hai Mir faluk tuk her lamha hai toofaan zaa
Ser taa ser hai talaatum jiskaa who aazam dariya hai ishq

Waves crash around and storms rage, Mir,
From the whirlpool to the sky above.
The buffeting winds tear all apart;
And this is the fearsome River of Love.

This concept of love was reinforced when it fused with the similar bhakti concept of prem. In Indian devotional practice music bhajan-kirtan had been customary since ancient times; the use of musical instruments such as the mridang, the jhanjh, the majera, the iktara and the dholak was also widespread in the temples and the shivalas. The Muslims thus began to acquire a fondness for Indian music and this interest grew to such an extent that among them many great masters and performers arose. In spite of the fact that music is forbidden in Islamic worship, in general Muslim rulers granted it their patronage and, as we have already pointed out, the courts of the sultans, nawabs and Muslim nobles became centers for the fostering of Indian music. In the medieval period music played no less a role in the cultural and social life of the Muslims than it did in that of the Hindus. One effect that this sensitive and emotional aspect of the Indian temperament had on sufism can be witnessed in the amazing popularity of sama' and the qawwali. Sama’ (lit. listening) technically stands for an assembly where qawwali is sung to induce haal ‘spiritual trance’. On the question of sama' as a sufi practice there was always profound disagreement between the orthodox 'ulema and the sufis, and many treatises were written in favour of and against the practice. Some were of the opinion that it was legitimate, while others disagreed. There was much discussion of the subject, but the more vehemently the orthodox expressed their disapproval the more popular the qawwali became. In fact most of the sufis of India, and those of the Chishti order in particular, in the words of - Khaliq Ahmad Nizami, “came to regard sama' and qawwali as their spiritual sustenance” (Tarikh-i Mashaikh-i Chisht ' The History of the Chishti Order', p. 22)

Urdu poets and music

Some historians ascribe the invention of the qawwali to Amir Khusrao, who was the favourite follower (murid) of Nizamuddin Auliya. Some scholars give Hasan Savant, who was connected with Khwaja Mo'inuddin Chishti Ajmeri, the status of (awwaliyat) the first practitioner. Some of the oldest elements or sections of the qawwali, the qaul, tarana, qalbana and sahela, recall compositions attributed to him. For example, 'Man kunto Maula, Fa haza Ali ul Maula' 'The one whose Lord I am, 'Ali is also his Lord' is frequently sung as a qaul, and ‘Chaap tilak sab cheeni re mo se nainaan milaai ke’ ‘after falling in love I have lost my all’ is sung as sahela. In qawwalis it is customary to include verses from other languages. Qawwalis in praise of the Holy Prophet (na'at), which were current in earlier times, can still be heard. The following Persian ghazal attributed to Amir Khusrao in this respect is extremely popular till this day :

Nami daanum chay manzil bood shab jaey kay mun boodum
Ba her soo raqs-e-bismil bood shah jaey kay mun boodum
Pari paikar nigaray sarv qadday lala rukhsaray
Saraapa aafat-e-dil bood shab jaey kay mun boodum
Raqeebaan gosh bar awaaz, oo der naaz-o-mun tarsaan
Sukhan guftan chay mushkil bood shah jaey kay mun boodum
Khuda khud Mir-e-majlis bood undur laa makaan Khusrao
Muhammad shamm-e-mehfil bood shah jaey kay mun boodum

I cannot tell which abode it was, the place where I spent the night; All around writhing of stricken lovers, the place where I spent the night. That beauty, her form like a cypress tall, her face the tulip red; Ah! What pain it gave to the heart, the place where I spent the night. My rivals attentive and she so proud, and I stood trembling there; It was hard to utter a word in the place where I spent the night. God at the head of the gathered crowd; and Khusrao lost in the Infinite; Muhammad the candle that lit the throng in the place where I spent the night.

Most of the early Urdu poets were connected either with sufi seminaries or with the courts. In both places Indian music was highly prized. Those who took part in poetic gatherings, where emotions frequently reached a state of ecstasy, were well acquainted with Indian musical instruments and ragas. Some of the Urdu poets were themselves adept musicians and acquired special skills in the art.

On the subject of Khwaja Mir Dard, whose khanqah flourished in Delhi during the eighteenth century, Muhammad Husain Azad wrote: 'He had a great mastery of music, and many talented musicians brought their pieces to him for advice and correction. He considered khayal as an impressive composition, which gladdens the heart and elevates the soul. For this reason most of the sufi orders have included it in their worship. Hence it became customary on the second and twenty-fourth of each month for great artists, singers, experts and people of good taste to meet together [in his seminary] and sing their mystic compositions.' (Ab-i Hayyat. p. 182) In the histories of Urdu poetry it is noted that the poets Qalandar Bakhsh Jur'at, Nawab Mahabbat Khan, Inshallah Khan Insha, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Ghalib were all fond of music and would welcome the best practitioners of the art with much enthusiasm.

The finest exponents of the ghazal all had a deep affection for indigenous music. Since the time of Amir Khusrao Persian ghazals have been sung. But in the age of the Later Mughals, and especially during the reign of Mohammad Shah ‘Rangila’ the Urdu ghazal became part and parcel of Indian music. The sounds of this music can ­from time to time be heard clearly in the works of the Urdu poets:

Mir Dard :
Khalq mein hain par juda sab khalq say rahtay hain hum
Taal ki gintee say baahar jis tarah roopak mein sum

We belong to the world we live in, but we always stand apart,
Like the climax of the roopak taal aloof from the beat of the drum.

Momin :
Us ghairat-e-Naaheed ki hur taan hai Deepak
Shola saa lapuk jaey hai aawaaz to dekho

Her beauty puts Venus to shame; every tone is the fiery deepak;
Behold her wondrous voice, shimmering like a flame.

Firaq :
Yeh teraa jism hai ya raagni hai aa kay kharri
Kay aaj tak to na dekha tha yeh badun ka rachaao

Is this your body or a ragini that stands before me? Before today I've never seen such splendour in any form.

(note: roopak is a time cycle in Indian music, and deepak (lit. ‘lamp’) is the name of a raaga which is said to have the power to ignite fire.)

Social aspects

It is worth noting that in the medieval times the vogue of the qawwali also presented a challenge to the orthodox constraints of formal religion and social practice. In the Indo-Islamic society of the medieval period the open expression of amorous emotions were not acceptable in the scale of social values. Indeed, this was regarded as forbidden. This kind of activity among members of the nobility was frowned upon and greeted with the harshest opprobrium. For men and women unfortunately there were always double standards. The problem of family honour ‘izzat’ and reputation was another matter. Hence, the emotional reaction to such psychological pressure along with other factors might have found its expression in the appeal to love (frenzied 'ishq), ill-repute, rakishness and profligacy, which on the path of the mystic acquired social acceptance in the guise of spirituality. In the amorous poetry of the ghazal, madness, disgrace and ill-repute became a matter of pride. Laying stress upon 'wordly love' ('ishq-i majazi) for 'spiritual love ('ishq-i haqiqi) and its various states was common in society, and to boast about one's profligacy, to talk openly about one's disgrace was to some extent a reaction against the moral restraints which society imposed. For centuries the ghazal and the sufi love poetry has acted as a kind of safety valve. The voice that was first raised against the superficiality of the orthodoxy and the harshness of its moral straightjacket, soon turned into a tension between the religious law and the Tariqat (the path of the mystic). In the prevailing climate this tension became even more intense. It is clear that qawwali and sama' were associated with the Tariqat.

The subcontinental mind and temperament, because of its peculiar sensibility and profound emotion, hardly paid any attention to the fetters of imposed moral behaviour, however harsh they might be. Therefore in sufism, under the influence of the subcontinental psyche, the desire to rebel against formal morality became more apparent. Emotion, rapture, sama' and qawwali, notwithstanding ­the opposition of the 'ulema, at the popular level became a part of worship. The more the religious hierarchy emphasized that such practices were in contradiction to the religious law, the more the sufis adopted it at the popular level. The sufi khanqahs of India were frequently populated by singers and musicians. While the practice of singing qawwalis had no place in the Arab world or in Iran, its roots were firmly planted in the soil of India.

The ecstatic aspect

In sufism the constrained individual spirit (nafs-i infiradi) is frequently compared to a droplet of water or a bubble, while the unrestrained universal spirit (nafs-i kulli) is likened to an expanse of water or the ocean. The ultimate goal of the droplet is to be united with the sea. In the same way the journey of the human ego is to seek annihilation and to become one with the Infinite Being (zaat-i mutlaq).

Ishrat-e-qatra hai darya mein fana ho jaana
'The pleasure of the droplet is to become as nought in the ocean'.

When the Self vanishes, then no feeling of existence remains and absolute unity prevails everywhere. In other words, present fancies, the imaginary world, the known and the unknown, in fact all but God (haqq), are annihilated.

Indian thought and philosophy regard the ultimate state of the Self as a condition in which the difference between the objective and the subjective is completely erased. In Indian poetry and literature, in its art, dance and sculpture, the ultimate goal is total spiritual absorption, aesthetic feeling and rapture, where the ego breaks its shell of individuality and becomes lost in the expanse of the Supreme Ego. This need is fulfilled to its fullest extent by music, and the Shastras have pronounced music (sangeet) as one of the yogas, whose purpose is to eliminate the duality of the self and non-self in order to produce a sense of supreme beauty (cf. Ananda Coomara Swami, Dance of Shiva, p. 111-14). According to the Hindu view of creation, it was sound that manifested first. In Vedas it is referred to as Nada Brahma or the ‘Sound Celestial’.

In India the proof of the success of any artistic experience is that it should raise our emotions to their highest peak so that we become completely oblivious of ourselves. The self-sufficient ego should escape from its prison and become so immersed in selflessness that a feeling of boundlessness (afaqiyyat or vahdat) is produced. The Indian yogis have stated that aesthetic consciousness is the name of that most agreeable ecstatic state in which all one's faculties are encompassed by the subconscious, and in which the soul (atman) experiences the ultimate joy and exhilaration (paramananda). In the same way Urdu poets see the ghazal (mystic, philosophical or amorous) as a journey for the emotions at the end of which the superficial distinctions of our feelings are erased, and our sight passes beyond the limits of worldly constraints. This is the place where the distinction between multiplicity and oneness no longer exists, in other words where the droplet becomes one with the ocean, and can proclaim 'I am the sea!' It is a place where the particle of sand falls into the embrace of the wide expanse of the desert. But the basic experience of this spiritual event is beyond understanding and analysis. Just as a congenitally blind person can never appreciate the beauty of a rainbow or the majesty of a sunset, no one can exp1ain or analyse a truly ecstatic phenomenon. No matter in how many ways the intellectuals have tried to describe the Supreme Being, the Upanishads have contradicted all other theories with the words neti, neti 'not so! 'not so!' Concerning this stage of supreme knowledge the sufi would say:

Aan raa kay khabar shud khabarash baaz nayayad
‘He who has attained this secret, his secret will never be revealed.’

The yogis describe this state as ananda 'ecstatic joy', In the rapture expressed in the qawwali only unity (vahdat) reigns as described in this masterpiece ghazal of 18 th century Deccani poet Siraj Aurangabadi :

Khabar-e-tahaiyurr-e-ishq sun na junoon raha na paree rahi
Na to tu raha na to main raha jo rahi so bekhabari rahi
Chali simt-e-ghaib sey ek hava kay chaman zuhoor ka jal giya
Magar ek shakh-i-nihal-e-gham jisay dil kahen so haree rahi
Who ajab ghari thee kay jis ghari liya dars nuskha-e-ishq ka
Ke kitab aql ki taaq men jo dhari thee tyon hi dhari rahee

When I heard the news of the wonder of love,
Neither frenzy was left nor the sweetheart remained.
I was no more, and you were no more;
Oblivion only oblivion remained.
What came from beyond the Invisible World?
It consumed the Visible Garden with fire,
And only one branch of the Tree of Grief,
Which they call the heart, in flower remained.
How strange was the hour when I entered that room
And studied the manuscript of Love!
The book of Wisdom was left on the shelf
And there unopened it has long remained.

Mir Taqi Mir :
Gali mein uski gaya so gaya na bolaa phir
Mein Mir Mir kar usko bahot pukaar raha

I went to see her in her street; I went and spoke no more. .
Again and again I cried: 'Oh Mir! Oh Mir!', but were there a Mir!

Aakhir ko uski raah mein hum aap gum huay
Muddat mein paai yaar ki yeh justujoo ki tarha

I lost myself upon the road towards her.
Ah! How I searched and sought to find my way to love!

Spiritual performance

The sufis laid great emphasis on the spiritual performance of the qawwali, and this bears imprint of the Indian concept of deep relationship between music and spirituality. The literal meaning of raaga is 'colour', 'emotion' or 'wakening the emotions'. The vina played by the legendary Sarasvati or the flute of Krishna are in fact allusions to the eternal melody of the Divine Spirit, which summons the contaminated human soul back to its source. In India for thousands of years music has been treated as a holy ritual, which through the harmony of emotion and contemplation opens up the closed path leading towards spiritual reality. For this reason the bhajan kirtan has for centuries played a prominent role in temple ritual. Indeed it is impossible to conceive of worship in India without sangeet. In Islam help came from vocal melody (khush-ilhani), but musical instruments have no place in Islamic worship. Among the sufis for the purpose of awakening spirituality, the custom of employing vocal sama' or instrumental sama' - i.e. the use of the rabab (rebeck), the daf (a kind of small drum), the nai ( a kind of flute) and the qawwali - can be seen in this perspective. Since the employment of music as pointed our earlier, to excite the emotions runs contrary to the spirit of Islam, some sufis were inclined to accept only vocal sama'; others saw no harm in instrumental sama', simply because it was an aid for sharpening the emotions. Since the Indian mind was always affected by music, among the sufis of India music established itself as part of a great tradition. Most of the Chishti shaikhs regarded sama' as legitimate, and the main causes of the excitement that could be witnessed in many seminaries and sufi convents were the qawwali gatherings, which were always accompanied by rapture and displays of ecstasy (wajd or haal). Many Indian sufis were themselves great experts in the musical art; several Urdu poets also had a great fondness for music and regarded sama' as legitimate — Thus grew the qawwali tradition which for obvious reasons is indigenous and peculiar to the subcontinent.

Shaikh Bahauddin Baajan (d.1506) was one of the most renowned sufis of the Deccan. He was a great musician and took as his nom-de-plume (takhallus) 'Baajan', which probably reflects his passion (cf. baaja 'musical instrument, bajaana 'to play an instrument'). One of his dohas (quoted in Urdu-i Qadeem p. 42) sheds light on the way that sufis practised sama' in his day:

Yuuun baajun baajay ray asraar chhajay
Mandul mun mein dhamkay rubaab rung mein jhamkay
Sufi un per thumkay
Yuuun baajun baajay ray asraar chhajay

See! Baajan plays and magic spreads around.
The rebeck starts to flash in ecstasy.
And in the soul the beating drums resound,
While sufis sway, led by the melody.
Then Baajan plays and magic spreads around.

The poet 'Abdul Vali 'Uzlat (c. 1700), a contemporary of VaIi, composed a work entitled Raagmala 'The Garland of Ragas', on the subject of Indian raagas and raaginis, the manuscript of which is in the British Library. The composition of Sultan Ibrahim 'Adil Shah (d. 1618), entitled Kitab-i Nauras, is considered to be an extremely important work on Indian music. The Persian poet, Zuhuri, who was present at his court in Bijapur, wrote a masterly preface to this work, which in the annals of Persian Literature is known as Sih Nasr-i Zuhuri 'The three prose pieces of Zuhuri'. The tenth chapter of the masnavi of the famous Deccani poet Qazi Mahmud Bahri is written in praise of melody (naghma), and the masnavi Man Lagan also includes a separate chapter on 'melody and its effects'. A few verses of Bahri are worth quoting:

Jin raag ko dost kar liya hai
Tu Boojhh o beishauk auliya hai
Yo raag aa aag hi jalaay
Yo raag nay baag phhar khhay
Is raag son josh dard ko hai Hor oonch kharosh mard ko hai

The one who loves the raga's tune,
Know him to be a saint indeed.
The raga puts to flame the fire;
It frees the bridle from the steed.
The raga turns all pain to joy,
And by its rapture man is freed.

From numerous verses composed by some of the most distinguished Urdu poets, who flourished from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the present day, we can see how the practice of employing music and song in sama' has advanced without interruption. On the subject of sama' the respected scholar and poet Hasrat Mohani (1875-1951) writes:

'In my opinion sama' is legitimate; indeed for the sufi it is a necessity, because if we disregard all the evidence which has been handed down by tradition, we must admit that any activity, which produces rapture in the soul and delight in the heart, cannot justly be called unlawful.'

After the independence the popularity of singing the ghazal and the qawwali has become even more widespread. Because of the partition of the subcontinent the number of Urdu speakers in India has declined, but in spite of the difficulties Urdu faces, the popularity of the qawwali has not only not waned, but indeed it has grown apace. The main reason for this is to be found in the depths of the collective subconscious of the people and in the ability of the qawwali to fulfil the emotional and spiritual demands of the common psyche. Moreover the recent world wide boom in the film industry has had a hand in the popularization of both the ghazal singing and the qawwali. The growth of the electronic media, the general use of the video and C.D., and, in addition to these, the film, the theatre and satellite television have all added much to the popularity of the qawwali. Taking into account present changes and demands, it would be quite appropriate to say that the qawwali, which had its beginnings in the middle ages as the religious music of the sufi seminaries, has today become a part of general music and popular culture.

- Translated by David Matthews, (University of London)

(Copyright material; not to be published without author’s permission)