Qawwali as Media from its Traditional to its Modern Form

Image Caption: Qawwali musicians gather for a performance in Fatehpur Sikri, India.

Religious injunctions in regards to music in Islam are teleological, or purpose-based serve rather than being rule-based. While some have been led to believe that music in Islam is prohibited altogether, or at least some type of instruments are, this categorical approach towards the permissibility of musical activity in Islam is rebutted by the existence and profound significance of devotional musical practices, such as Qawwali. Qawwali is an Indian-localized subgenre of Sufi music; Sufism within Islamic theology deals with the internal and metaphysical matters of the heart, spirit, and soul. In Sufism, music operates as a stimulus for spiritual advancement within the Islamic faith, because music is an unobjectionably deeply influential medium of communication that can render a Sufi seeker closer or further from his goal.

Music is indeed a highly intricate means of communicating meanings, values, attitudes and emotions. Qawwali music, bound to a complex network of customary performance, is a technology embedded with its own politics. From the lyrics, rhythm, and structure involved in such a performance, Qawwali music emerged as a core practice to propel Sufi seekers further into discovery of Divine knowledge. I argue that, as the context, performance, and reception of Qawwali has evolved over time, the role of Qawwali as a medium has transformed, in terms of the purpose and impact it has on its users.

There are two elements that define Qawwali’s identity, namely the music as part of an Indo-Islamic culture of sound, and the act, event, or occasion of the performance in a specific setting. The former element denotes the combination of sounds from singing, instruments, rhythms and clapping that results in the production of a particular oral culture.[1] The latter element is derived from the Sufi tradition of sama’ (musical concert), which is essentially the context, structure and ritual in which devotional music is practiced.

Traditionally, Qawwali is an exclusively male-dominated activity: the spiritual guide, performers and listeners are all male.[2] Though this specific localized version of Sufi practice was restricted to males, sama’ as a whole is not. The subgenres of sama’ are generally gender-segregated in order to prevent immoral male-female interaction according to Islamic ruling. Qawwali is context-sensitive to the degree that its mode of performance cannot be separated from the music itself.[3] When either is altered, as did the mode when it began to be recorded in the 20th century, the purpose and impact of Qawwali is drastically reshaped.

The term Qawwali stems from the Arabic word Qaul, meaning utterance, usually from sacred Islamic sources such as the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings or mystical poetry. A Qawwal is a trained individual who repeats such utterances, serving as a medium for ordinary listeners to increase their knowledge through oral transmission or advance their spiritual state.[4] Thus, there are two functions to Qawwali. One role is to act as a medium to proliferate Islamic teachings, values and attitudes to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The other is to induce Sufi seekers on a particular spiritual path with a feeling of elation, serving as a medium for spiritual ascension.[5]

Amir Khusraw (1253-1325) of Delhi, a mystic poet and pupil of the Chishti Sufi School, is considered the founder of Qawwali. Khusraw married elements from Persian poetry, Arabic texts and Hindustani musical styles to create a culturally rich medium for communicating universal Islamic values, such as a love of God, the Prophet, and other religious personalities. He invented the two instruments that are at the core of Qawwali music, the sitar and the table.[6] Though highly aesthetically distinguished, Qawwali is only a subgenre of Sufi musical practices developed throughout the rest of the Muslim world. The meanings, values and attitudes conveyed through Qawwali are relatable to Muslims everywhere, but they are shaped and transmitted in a very culturally specific context.[7] Qawwali is associated with the Indian Subcontinent due to its geographic origin there, but the essence of such a medium is common to international sama’ practices. Because the principles and intentions behind sama’ are bound by the common thread of Islamic creed, the conditions for the acceptability and measure of effectiveness of Qawwali as a means of devotional practice fall under a broader umbrella of Islamic guidelines.

Though music is absolutely not essential for spiritual advancement, Sufis in particular took to music as a means of facilitating the transmission of their metaphysical values. The Sufi tradition entails that spiritual ascension contains components of attraction and of wayfaring.[8] The function of music is to activate this attraction towards the Divine in a way that is accessible to human inclination and the physical sense of hearing. Thus, music is a technology that is meant to stimulate a certain inner pull in order to rise from the material world.[9]

The pre-existing inner condition of the listener determines whether Qawwali will be an advantage or disadvantage for his spiritual journey. Keeping in mind the significance of context, purpose and impact of music when analysing the role of Qawwali, one of the major manuals for Sufism outlines the following conditions for sama’: “That [the sama’ participant] should not mislead those present in having a good opinion of him, as misleading is cheating.”[11] This entails that those participating in Qawwali congregation should not act in a way that is hypocritical — for example, artificially moving or dancing that makes them appear to be in a state of elation when in fact they are not. The purpose of Qawwali is to humble the participant to the extent “that he should not make any movement unless his movement is similar to a shivering that cannot be avoided, or a sneezing that cannot be withheld.”[12] Sahrawadi asserts that the intensity of the urge to physically react to Qawwali music should be absolutely natural. These conditions involve a type of propriety that needs to be maintained and manners that should be conducted by users of this medium.

The issue of assessing the usage of sama’ as a whole, which includes Qawwali, according to Islamic values has been thoroughly and technically dissected by major scholars in the history of Islam. One such scholar is Ahmad Sirhindi (1564–1624), considered one of the greatest Sufi personalities and revivers of the Islamic traditions in the Indian Subcontinent during the Mughal period. He analysed in detail the role of music for Sufi seekers at different levels for spiritual ascension. According to Sirhindi’s writings and Sufi methodology, the heart is considered a pivot whose orientation is either worldly or spiritual. The beginner seeker’s heart is oriented towards their ego, the intermediary seeker’s heart is pivoting, and the accomplished seeker’s heart is oriented towards the spiritual. He designates intermediary people as people of “the Station of the Heart,” where the “heart” is literally translated from the Arabic world “qalb,” meaning “turn.”[13] The hearts of the intermediaries are switching in between the worldly and spiritual, and at this stage, according to Sirhindi, music works as a medium to help practitioners move away from the ego.

The guidelines composed by Sirhindi are for those seeking spiritual ascension, not the layman: “Music and elation are harmful for the beginner, and contrary to his ascension, even if it fulfils the conditions [of propriety].”[14] For such users of Sufi music, including Qawwali, because their heart is projected towards worldly matters, music will only aggravate their egocentrism: “Those of the Station of the Heart are intermediate seekers […] and in conclusion music is beneficial for the intermediary seekers and also for some of the accomplished.”[15] For the user that is intermediary in terms of spiritual advancement, music can be a means by which their heart turns from the ego to the spirit. On the other hand, the accomplished user has surpassed the threshold of the pivoting heart, rendering music no longer beneficial or worthwhile for the most part. This distinction between types of users as they simultaneously shape the same medium demonstrates that the mode of spiritual ascension through music has been built on a precise notion of media as a unique application. Media theory here is analyzed in a spiritual, unexplored domain.

As for the rest of Sufi music users, including Muslims on no particular spiritual path as well as non-Muslims, there have also been general guidelines set for the preservation of the sacredness of such media. Considering that Qawwali was created with purely religious intentions, its merit should be assessed according to religious creed.[16] Aqlaynah summarized the traditional Islamic perspective according to Imam al-Dhahabi on the permissibility of singing and music: “we have found that those who have discouraged certain types of music […] have linked their judgment to its purpose; if the purpose were tainted then the means to it is tainted.”[17] Therefore, Qawwali, being a “means,” is permissible for the layman on the condition that the purpose of it is not immoral and it is not mixed with immoral matters. Qawwali is not an ends but a highly context-sensitive means, and so its permissibility is relative to the environment in which it is performed. For singing, “its permissibility relates to the singer, the listener and the theme of the song,” and this applies to Qawwali, where the singer and listener need to have virtuous intentions and the song must be of noble themes in order for the whole purpose of the medium to preserve its sacredness.[18]

As Qawwali was created with purely sacred intentions, it is important to contrast its original form with its current, so-called filmi, popularized form. The modern “bollywoodization” of Qawwali music is not adverse, per se, but rather highly contrary to the initial objectives of such a medium of technology. Consequently, the analysis of the trajectory of this medium from the traditional congregational Qawwali to modern pop Qawwali has to be done according to the principles and purposes set by the inventors and those deeply involved and knowledgeable of Sufi tradition. New Qawwali music has a new purpose and impact upon its audience that is strikingly different from its ancestor. In her essay entitled “Devotion or Pleasure? Music and Meaning in the Celluloid Performances of Qawwali in South Asia and the Diaspora,” Nathali Sarrazin points out the following in reference to the modern morphing of Qawwali “The subject of the lyrics and the object of the singer’s attention are at odds, as the qawwals direct their metaphysical attention to the physical world embodied by lovers.”[19]

By changing the mode and context of communication, this time through films, albums and in large concert halls, Qawwali music deviates from its original purpose and impact. In particular, the detachment of the performer from the audience due to sound recording renders the medium devoid of the performer-listener interaction that is critical in Sufi music to result in a state of elation.[20] It becomes a closed-loop system that prevents feedback from the audience that would have otherwise allowed performers to improvise according to the mood of the listeners. Time is constricted in the recorded versions of Qawwali due to commercialization, limiting the depth that listeners can achieve.[21]

Originally, Qawwali performance was structured in a way that involved a group of singers in a standard seating arrangement playing traditional instruments and moving in a reserved kinaesthetic fashion.[22] In films and popular concerts, improvisation and natural movement is replaced by over-exaggerated kinaesthetic movement: “Devotion and zeal are repackaged in rock-star like movement.”[23] This occurrence appears to be in stark contrast with the principles of authentic Qawwali. Whereas movement was traditionally restricted to sneeze-like impulses to preserve the modesty of those involved in the practice, popular Qawwali encourages artificial performance of movements. The modern form of Qawwali, stripped from its authenticity, is thus left almost impotent in terms of its capability to deliver spiritual achievement.

Along with the new context in which the medium is being used, Qawwali has acquired new qualities and characteristics as a result of its different purpose and impact on its users. Today, Qawwali reveals a sound culture that revives musical recollection of pre-partition Punjab and has a capacity to subvert the religious, nationalistic and territorial competition. By partly disconnecting from its religious element, it incorporates a broader scope of ethnic identification.[24] With its new regionally focused identity, Qawwali resonates more with Hindu, Sikh and Muslim populations, especially those living away from the Indian Subcontinent, through recorded albums and videos. Qawwali has been absorbed by a marketable practice to appeal to an audience in diaspora. With the advent of sound recording, Qawwali initially catered to Indian and Pakistani immigrants but soon spread further to appeal to secular audiences with an eclectic taste.[25] The newly popularized version of Qawwali has undergone identity transformations by fusing with other musical genres, new technological instruments as well as involving females into the originally male-exclusive medium.[26]

In films, Qawwali is largely used to emulate and substitute Indian folk music. Consequently, Qawwali is no longer necessarily performed under the banner of an Islamic narrative. Instead of being the centrepiece of the film or other mediujm, Qawwali is mixed with other eye- and ear-catching mechanisms, such as choreographies and elaborate costumes.[27] Moreover, Qawwali is used as a medium to enforce the narrative of a given story. Such stories often involve love and lust in the framework of Bollywood: “Songs typically mediate or speak on behalf of a couple, helping them to express their own emotions.”[28]

Nusret Fateh Ali Khan and A.R. Rahman are pioneers of popularized Qawwali. Their music, though it consists of the same themes of love, seems to precisely turn the hearts away from the spiritual to worldly love. Original Sufi tropes manifest just as powerfully, but they are now overcome by an increasing market demand for novelty and sensuality, resulting in Qawwali being further removed from its initial sacred purpose.[29] What was once used as a medium to propel union with the Divine is used today to drive union between couples in films. Modern Qawwali exploits its ancestor’s sacred poems and ability to induce spiritual elation to shape it into a reworking of pleasures and desires. Undoubtedly, modern “filmi” Qawwali suggests hedonistic fantasies that are astonishingly at odds with the original form of Qawwali.[30]

By dissecting the interrelated nature of sounds, themes, structure, context, purpose and impact of Qawwali as a medium of technology, one can begin to draw a more comprehensive understanding of the historical, evolving and modern roles of Qawwali music and performance. Ever-changing and dynamic, Qawwali is particularly volatile. Qawwali cannot be reduced to the component of music that exists within it. Depending on the intentions of the performers, listeners and on the setting in which it is practiced, Qawwali’s influence falls anywhere in between the range of polar opposites: from total detachment of the material world through spiritual elation to utter worldly indulgence through hedonism.  Cultural, religious and political implications are part of the inherent warp and weft of Qawwali as a system of communicating values, attitudes, meanings and emotions. Perhaps the nominal meanings of Qawwali, along with its general musical style, are the only common elements remaining with authentic Qawwali. If Qawwali’s role as a medium for spiritual ascension and religious dissemination has shifted so drastically, to what extent is this medium still considered holistically “Qawwali?” Is authentic Qawwali dead?

About the Author

Tala Hammour is currently pursuing a degree in Media & Communications at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. She is interested in methodologies of media transmission and the application of media studies in Islamic fields.


Abbas, Shemeem Burney. “The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual: Devotional Practices   of Pakistan and India.” University of Texas Press, 2002.

Aqlaynah, al-Makki. “Al-Ghina’ wa al-Musiqa bayn al-Ibaha wa al-Tahrim.” Dar    Al-Hikma, Casablanca, 1997.

Bhattacharjee, Anuradha and Shadab Alam. “The Origin and Journey of Qawwali: From Sacred Ritual to Entertainment.” Journal of Creative Communications, 2012. Web. Apr. 6 2017.

Burckhardt Qureshi, Regula. “His Master’s Voice? Exploring Qawwali and ‘Gramophone Culture’ in South Asia.” Popular Culture. Cambridge University Press, Jan. 1999.

Burckhardt Qureshi, Regula. “Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context, and Meaning in Qawwali.” University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Dhahabi, Shams al-Din. “Al-Rukhsah fi al-Ghina’ wa al-Tarab.” Dar al-Kalimah, Al-Mansurah, 1999.

Espositi, John L. “The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World.” Oxford University Press, Mevlevi-Russia, 2009 v. 4, 456-457. Print.

Metcalf, Barbara D. “Islam in South Asia in Practice.” Princeton University Press, 2009.

Oudshoorn, Nelly and Trevor Pinch. “How Users and Non-Users Matter.” How Users Matter. The MIT Press, 2003, pp. 1-25.

Sahrawardi, Shihab al-Din. “ ’Awarif al-Ma’arif”. Dar Sadir, Beirut, 2010.

Sarrazin, Nathali. “Devotion or Pleasure? Music and Meaning in the Celluloid Performances of Qawwali in South Asia and the Diaspora.” Music, Culture and Identity in the Muslim World: Performance, Politics and Piety, edited by Kamal Salhi, Routledge, 2014, 178-199.

Sharma, Sunil. “Amir Khusraw: The Poet of Sultans and Sufis.” Oneworld        Publications , Oxford, 2005.

Sirhindi, Ahmad al-Faruqi. “Maktubat al-Imam al-Rabbani.” Maktabat al-Haqiqa,  v.1, Istanbul, 2002.

Vajpeyi, Ananya. “The Indo-Persian Sublime: From Amir Khusro to Shahzia      Sikander.” Wasafiri, 24:2, 2009. Web. 6 Apr. 2017.


[1] Bhattacharjee, Anuradha and Shadab Alam, The Origin and Journey of Qawwali: From Sacred Ritual to Entertainment (Journal of Creative Communications, 2012), 34.

[2] Abbas, Shemeem Burney, The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual: Devotional Practices of Pakistan and India (University of Texas Press, 2002), 147.

[3] Burckhardt Qureshi, Regula, Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context, and Meaning in Qawwali (University of Chicago Press, 1995), 39.

[4] Esposito, John L. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. v. 4.  (Oxford University Press, Mevlevi-Russia, 2009) 456-457.

[5] Burckhardt Qureshi, 41.

[6] Sharma, Sunil. Amir Khusraw: The Poet of Sultans and Sufis (Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2005), 274.

[7] Vajpeyi, Ananya, The Indo-Persian Sublime: From Amir Khusro to Shahzia Sikander (Wasafiri, 24:2, 2009), 37.

[8] Sirhindi, Ahmad al-Faruqi, Maktubat al-Imam al-Rabban (Maktabat al-Haqiqa, v.1, Istanbul, 2002), 525.

[9] Burckhardt Qureshi, 12.

[10] Oudshoorn, Nelly and Trevor Pinch. How Users Matter (MIT Press, 2003), 1-25.

[11] Sahrawardi, Shihab al-Din.’Awarif al-Ma’arif (Dar Sadir, Beirut, 2010), 150.

[12] Sahrawardi, 150.

[13] Sirhindi, 525.

[14] Sirhindi, 423.

[15] Sirhindi, 523.

[16] Aqlaynah, al-Makki, Al-Ghina’ wa al-Musiqa bayn al-Ibaha wa al-Tahrim (Dar Al-Hikma, Casablanca, 1997), 69.

[17] Dhahabi, Shams al-Din. Al-Rukhsah fi al-Ghina’ wa al-Tarab, (Dar al-Kalimah, Al-Mansurah, 1999), 90.   

[18] Dhahabi, 91.

[19] Sarrazin, Nathali. Devotion or Pleasure? Music and Meaning in the Celluloid Performances of Qawwali in South Asia and the Diaspora, (Music, Culture and Identity in the Muslim World: Performance, Politics and Piety Routledge, 2014), 193.

[20] Abbas, Shemeem Burney, The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual: Devotional Practices of Pakistan and India (University of Texas Press, 2002), 136.

[21] Sarrazin, 187.

[22] Burkhardt Qureshi, Regula, His Master’s Voice? Exploring Qawwali and ‘Gramophone Culture’ in South Asia. (Popular Culture, Cambridge University Press, 1999), 19.

[23] Sarrazin, 190.

[24] Sarrazin, 189.

[25] Sarrazin, 199.

[26] Abbas, 212.

[27] Bhattacharjee Qureshi, His Master’s Voice? Exploring Qawwali and ‘Gramophone Culture’ in South Asia, 13.

[28] Qureshi, 187.

[29] Bhattacharjee Qureshi, His Master’s Voice? Exploring Qawwali and ‘Gramophone Culture’ in South Asia, 3.

[30] Sarrazin, 195.

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