How Lyric Moves and Morphs: Qawwali Music in Pakistan

Ilma Qureshi
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Chaap Tilak shot at Baha al-Din Zakariya’s tomb in Multan plays Title Card Tabinda: It is a little surreal or ethereal kind of experience when you are on another plane because it is so much about, you know, your relationship with God in so many ways. It is so much about questioning what you're doing in life. So I do start getting, you know, a little I sometimes pensive, sometimes existential questions start coming in and sometimes you're like oh wow. Well, you know, just at the mere poetry, you are like oh wow, so I think it's a very beautiful experience in terms of how it transports you from this, you know, world to another world where music has no form. Haman hai ishq by Dream Journey plays Sauran: Yar milay Lajpal milay tad yari lawan chass hai/Jay srid te aa yar milay fir sird dewan keri kass ay/ kafir hay jera yari lakay akhay medi buss hai Sauran: It is at least a thought provoking. It encourages you to think at least. That at least you think. Bina It makes you think. It makes the audience think. And that is the wonder of Qawwali. Mareez e Muhabbat unhi ka fasana plays Aimon it brings me a step closer to maybe nature or maybe to the Creator Tahir Qawwal: You know, when the say music is the food of the soul. It is in fact Qawwali that is the food for soul. Because it is the remembrance of Allah, the remembrance of the Prophet Shab e Hijr by Dream Journey plays Mishal: It's a storytelling narrative, so really rich and, you know, rooted in South Asian culture and religion as well. They're kind of informative pieces of art. So it's not merely a song. So when I think of some of my favorite pieces, which is Allah Hu or Bhardo Jholi, they're actually really resonating with you as a listener because there's a story to it and stories that we've often grown up with listening to from our parents or from our grandparents Sauran The people who wrote these Qawwalis, the people whose kalam (speech) it is, the Sufis, the Saints, it is the findings of their whole lives. They compiled and are sharing them with us. Dekh le shakal meri by Dream Journey plays Aneeqa: And I think in ghazal, I think emotion is very controlled. It's punctuated. It rises, it falls. It's still very much how can I say this? Because this is very hard to capture in language, but I think it's still controlled in some way. It's if I if I could say it, I feel ghazal is like writing fiction and Qawwali is like poetry. Tahir Qawwal: I don't need to say anything. The heart in which Allah and His prophet lives, it gravitates towards Qawwali. People like it. One does not have to say something. The spirit runs towards it. Taimoor Khan Mumtaz What I've heard of the history from the Qawwals and Chishtiya people is that it started with Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer. Taimoor Khan Mumtaz within the Chistiya tradition. Otherwise Sama has always been there in the Sufi gatherings, which means that reciting and singing a mystical poetry for self-elevation and so and so forth, to concentrate upon God Bina Jawwad: and that is how it was spread. The saints' messages were spread to the audience through their poetry and how the Qawwals used to sing it Bina Jawwad: And Hazrat Amir Khusrow was then of course the person who wrote so much poetry, which is sung in Qawwali..therefore a lot of Amir Khusrow's Qawwali is in praise of his master, very sort of, the love poem tradition of India, in fact. Taimoor Khan Mumtaz: it seems that in a sense, the real impetus was Hazrat Nizamuddin. In that sense, because he was an extremely sensitive person, so anything would throw him into an ecstasy. So his disciples reacted to that. Sometimes if he'd hear a verse, he'd go into ecstasy so his musical disciples would start to sing that same verse. So it is like it is just like that's how I understand it. Bina Jawwad: Sings har shab manam) it's like it's so sweet, it shows his sorrow, that he has been parted, parted from his beloved, the Divine. And you can see that in it. It's the ending, it's the ending. It's like he has put all his lament into it. Bina Jawwad: And the thing about Amir Khusrow is that he wrote everything in love. It was love for his murshid (guide) Ghar Nari by Ajab Ghar plays Taimoor Khan Mumtaz : So the Qawwali starts with hamd (praise) or singing to God and His qualities. It has a certain tartib, which has a certain, uh, sequence. It's not just a concert for listening to music, not at all, it is connected to meaning and it has a certain etiquette. Bina Jawwad: Sama e mehfil it is called. It holds a very significant place in the dargahs because the sama-e-mehfil if accompanied and presided over by the correct PIr has a totally different ambiance and meaning Taimoor Khan Mumtaz: So it starts with God. Then there are hymns to the Prophet and all Muslims love to hear hymns of the prophet CUT then continue.So those who are not Sufis, this sort of refreshes their faith from whenever they get to listen to it, they can immediately relate to it through the hymns of the prophet, because that's part of the culture. Bina Jawwad: Qawwali, which contains all these lyrics of marifah, meaning the truth, if one listens to it, then it is really something they can really think about and they can observe and they can maybe along with the enlightened says they can look within and try to self- realize. It's a long process, it's not an easy thing. It's a long process, but it will happen if one is sincere. Bohat Kathin Hai by Munshi Raziuddin plays Bina Jawwad: the real Qawwali, which is the kalam or the poetry of the mystic saint. If sung by properly initiated Qawwals, holds a totally different meaning and then sung in the presence of an enlightened sage, it holds a totally, it can really do wonders for different audience. Ghulam Shabbir No, Qawwali is not the same anymore. It’s not the same. If a new legend is born, that's another thing. Pakistan has produced many great names. Currently, I do not see Qawwali being revived. Tahir Qawwal: I do not agree with it. Because there were less people and less people used to hear it. Now it has revived. Aneeqa: I mean, more recently, I think that the rise of a particular kind of right wing nationalism in Pakistan is something that scholars are writing about that's being spoken about a bit more in academic circles. There is the recent book by Ammara Maqsood The Pakistani Middle Class. I think she makes a very good point when she says that something that changed in the post Zia era is that there is a new visible religiosity. She calls it that is very evident in this middle class. And we know that there is an inspiration of Wahhabism. That element is there. It's a particular strand of Islam that's now being promoted in dramas, etc. But I believe despite this whole background in this whole cultural and religious, these trends that are emerging, I know in general people don't feel that bad about music. People love music despite themselves down to and I mean, this is like in every class. And if I think of spaces, if I think of my life, I think of a street, if I think of Lahore like small, small areas in Lahore and passing by them, I, I always recall music. I always recall people like enjoying festivity. Tabinda: How I have seen it evolve. I can start from my own family or my circle of friends, of course, so we did not use to have Qawwali nights when we were growing up, And then there came a time, I remember, when you were growing up and became very popular…And then I think there was a decline, because if I think of the younger generation, like my nephews and nieces, they are not accustomed or they are not like into Qawwalis the same way. And then came the time when Coke studio brought this these things back. So I think that is the phase when a lot of younger people became familiar with the kind of music with our original kind of music, but they weren't used to. Mishal Another aspect of Qawwali specifically really common in Lahore is the really common in weddings now specifically. Mishal And I think that really makes the class divide really evident because the upper middle class or the elite class of Lahore and a lot of the metropolitan cities in Pakistan, they started hosting Qawwalis to kind of showcase even their wealth or sometimes the pseudo culture that they'd like to flaunt. Ghar Nari by Ho Mann Jahan and Chaap tilak by Hadiqa Kiani plays Aimon: So a lot of brands, they've started capitalizing on this culture or on this music to get this, what do you call it, leveraging this fashion point through branding, or through brand management to capture audiences. Haidry Am by Coke studio plays Aimon: Brands like Coke Studio and Nescafe Basement , they have revived Qawwali a lot. It has become something much more relatable to the youth as well so they can listen to it all the time wherever whenever. So the music has been upgraded for them, its more modern, its more fusion, so it makes sense to them as well. Bina Jawwad: when you listen to a Qawwali with along with an enlightened sage it holds greater meaning. Otherwise, it is a pop culture. Many people hear it, they listen to it because it's got a very moving percussion and beat and the lyrics and everything, you know, and nowadays the Qawwali has really changed into a more of a you know very moving or hip hop type of it, you know, number. Tu Kuja Man Kuja by Coke Studio plays Tabinda: Now I feel to be very honest, I think it's become a fad also, you know, to enjoy Qawwali so people, you know, it's like, okay, there's a Qawwali night that everybody wants to go kind of thing which is fine. I mean I won't even judge that, I mean as long as they're enjoying. Tabinda: But I still feel that there is a shrunken or like a limited number of people or circles where Qawwali is enjoyed in its true essence. Bina Jawwad: if you are so sincere to find the truth, as if someone was holding your head under water and you're dying to breathe, but you couldn't breathe because your head was under water and you were screaming and you are screaming to try and breathe, that is the sincerity which needed to find truth. And another thing they say is that every day you ask yourself, who am I? Who am I? Question. Question and question again, if you have doubts, it's all right, doubt and question, doubt and you will be given the answers. That is a sure shot thing. Gorakh Dhanda plays

In the summer of 2016, I was invited by a television network in Pakistan to speak about Islamic mysticism. As I waited at the set for the program to begin, I noticed last minute preparations being underway—mics getting tested, last dabs of make-up being applied, and final instructions heralded out. As we were about to go live, a wiry young man, garbed in a wrinkled blue shirt and khaki trousers, rushed to the set and signaled us to stop. He said something to the anchors in a muffled, low tone and suddenly a silence overtook the set. I could see color completely drain from the anchors’ faces. They looked at each other in shock for a brief moment and then in a shaken, faint voice, one of them managed to utter ‘Amjad Sabri has been assassinated’ with a bland expression shrouding her face.

In the summer of 2016, Amjad Sabri was brutally murdered in the middle of the night as he returned from a Qawwali performance. Amjad Sabri was one of the most renowned Qawwals from Pakistan. While the exact reasons for his assassination are still debated—with some groups claiming personal rivalry as a cause—the majority understood his assassination as a reaction stemming from an extremist party’s long-standing attack on Qawwali, which they deem as ‘un-Islamic’ and heretical due to Qawwali exhibiting a deep reverence towards Prophet Muhammad’s companion Ali and various Islamic mystics. Despite this, and numerous other incidences involving attacks on Sufi sites in Pakistan, Qawwali has not only survived but witnessed a continuous rise in Pakistan. The project explores why this 700-year-old tradition perseveres, and remains meaningful to people, despite the challenges and critiques presented to it by the rising Wahhabi and Salafi groups in Pakistan.

Qawwali is a South Asian form of music, which is closely linked with Islamic mysticism (tasawwuf), the esoteric dimension of Islam, and thereby draws from Sufi poetry. It is an ecstatic expression of devotion to God, with lyrics imbued with themes of love, longing, and union with God. It can be heard at tombs, mausoleums, cars, and shops, forking its way through the humdrum of life. Thus, the project focused on the everyday, lived experiences of people to probe the significance of Qawwali in the everyday life of a Pakistani. More specifically, the project explores how lyric poetry sung in the form of Qawwali flows through time, moving and morphing the lives of people and spaces. In Pakistan, I interviewed a broad range of people—practitioners and connoisseurs of Qawwali—those who have a zawq* for it. This included Qawwals, businessmen, multi-national brand managers, as well as educators and actors in Pakistan.

The documentary raises questions such as: What about Qawwali moves people? What allows it to move through various social classes and spaces and remain meaningful to diverse groups of people? Qawwali has its origins in the Sufi practice of sama’ or listening to spiritual music in which the seeker might enter a trance-like ecstatic state (hal) and it was usually performed at khaneqahs (Sufi lodges). However, Qawwali in current-day Pakistan has filtered to disparate spaces. Sometimes the enchanting lyrics fill the air at tombs and mausoleums and at other times can be heard at a gym during a yoga class. More recently, Qawwali has made its way to weddings and high-end music platforms as well. Thus, the documentary investigates the socio-cultural and religious factors that may have led to Qawwali’s evolvement into the current day form that we see today.

*Zawq is a Persian term that means taste, temperament, or relishing.

Additional Resources

Alaghband-Zadeh, Chloë. “Listening to North Indian Classical Music: How Embodied Ways of Listening Perform Imagined Histories and Social Class.” Ethnomusicology 61, no. 2 (2017): 207–33.

Aquil, Raziuddin. “Music and Related Practices in Chishti Sufìsm: Celebrations and Contestations.” Social Scientist 40, no. 3/4 (2012): 17–32.

Celestini, Federico, and Philip V. Bohlman. “Editorial: Musicology and the Discourses of Global Exchange.” Acta Musicologica 86, no. 1 (2014): 1–3.

Huda, Qamar-ul. “Khwaja mu’in ud-din Chisti’s death festival: Competing authorities over sacred space.” Journal of Ritual Studies 17, no. 1 (2003): 61–78.

Jones, L. JaFran. Review of Review of Sufi Music of India and Pakistan.: Sound, Context and Meaning in Qawwali, by Regula Qureshi. Asian Music 21, no. 2 (1990): 151–55.

Küçük, Hülya. “A Brief History of Western Sufism.” Asian Journal of Social Science 36, no. 2 (2008): 292–320.

Kugle, Scott. “Qawwālī Between Written Poem and Sung Lyric, Or . . . How a Ghazal Lives.” The Muslim World 97, no. 4 (n.d.): 571–610.

Manuel, Peter. “The Intermediate Sphere in North Indian Music Culture: Between and Beyond ‘Folk’ and ‘Classical.’” Ethnomusicology 59, no. 1 (2015): 82–115.

Parveen, Babli. “The Eclectic Spirit of Sufism in India: An Appraisal.” Social Scientist 42, no. 11/12 (2014): 39–46.

Qureshi, Regula. “‘Muslim Devotional’: Popular Religious Music and Muslim Identity under British, Indian and Pakistani Hegemony.” Asian Music 24, no. 1 (1992): 111–21.

Qureshi, Regula, and Regula Burckhardt Qureshi. Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context and Meaning in Qawwali. CUP Archive, 1986.

Ruskin, Jesse D., and Timothy Rice. “The Individual in Musical Ethnography.” Ethnomusicology 56, no. 2 (2012): 299–327.

Saeed, Yousuf. “Fled Is That Music.” India International Centre Quarterly 35, no. 3/4 (2008): 238–49.

Wolf, Richard K. “The Musical Lives of Texts: Rhythms and Communal Relationships among the Nizamis and Some of Their Neighbours in South and West Asia.” In Tellings and Texts, edited by Francesca Orsini and Katherine Butler Schofield, 1st ed., 445–84. Music, Literature and Performance in North India. Open Book Publishers, 2015.

———. “The Poetics of ‘Sufi’ Practice: Drumming, Dancing, and Complex Agency at Madho Lāl Husain (And Beyond).” American Ethnologist 33, no. 2 (2006): 246–68.

Project Contributors

Ilma Qureshi

Ilma Qureshi

PhD Candidate, Religious Studies

As a Fulbright scholar, Ilma Qureshi received her Masters from the University of Virginia and is currently a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at UVA. Ilma is a poet, fiction writer, and translator as well. She writes in Persian, English, and Urdu, and her work has appeared in various literary journals. She recently founded a digital learning platform called ‘The Creative Room’ that offers interdisciplinary humanities courses and creative writing workshops.

Kelly Hardcastle Jones

Kelly Hardcastle Jones


I’m a freelance producer and editor, currently working on Seizing Freedom (from Virginia Public Media and Stitcher). I also help UVA students produce documentaries for the Religion, Race & Democracy Lab. I used to be a producer for BackStory, which I joined after a brief and sordid affair with graduate-level philosophy in Guelph, Canada. I started a nationally syndicated radio show and podcast called Pioneer Radio, got some training at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, won a Third Coast Short Doc award for a three-minute piece about poutine, produced a documentary for the BBC about firearm suicide, and started a family. Before becoming a freelancer, I developed, produced, edited, and hosted a podcast through NPR’s Storytelling Lab called Do Over about regret and the strange terror of the choices we make. I also produced Brand Soundscapes for NPM/Creative. In my non-audio time, I do kung fu.

Emily Gadek

Emily Gadek

Senior Producer

These days, Gadek spends her time producing Sacred & Profane, the Lab’s podcast exploring the many ways religion shapes our daily lives. Previously, she was a producer for Virginia Humanities’ popular American history show, BackStory, and worked on WBEZ Chicago’s morning news show Eight Forty-Eight. In other lives, she’s been an ESL teacher, a freelance audio producer and videographer, and ran a website for a midcentury modern house museum in the deep desert of Southern California.

Additional Credits

I’d like to acknowledge the following guest contributors:

Aneeqa Wattoo is a Teaching Fellow at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. She did her MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies from the University of Oxford and her research focuses on twentieth-century women’s writing in Urdu in the late colonial period, particularly the writing of Ismat Chughtai.

Aimon Bashir is the current Brand Manager of Nescafe, Nestle Pakistan. She previously led Nescafe Basement, a music platform by Nestle that aims at promoting Qawwali in Pakistan.

Bina Jawwad is a renowned actor and educator in Pakistan. She practices and teaches Kathak dance and founded Harsukh school in the suburbs of Lahore. The school aims at promoting traditional arts and crafts to underprivileged groups and minorities in Pakistan. They hold weekly Qawwali gatherings at Harsukh.

Ghulam Shabbir is the official Qawwal at Baha al-din Zakariyya’s tomb in Multan, appointed by Auqaf and Religious Affairs. Shabbir’s forefathers moved from India to Pakistan at the time of Partition, and since then his family has been serving and performing at tombs (mazars).

Mishal Shah is the Program Co-Ordinator at Akhuwat, a non-profit organization that aims at fostering the equitable distribution of wealth in Pakistan. Previously, she focused on South Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Tabinda Mazhar is the Manager of Professional Development at Cambridge International Pakistan. She received her Master’s in Public Policy from Cambridge University.

Taimoor Khan Mumtaz is a renowned Architect and Educator. He founded Hast o Neest Institute which seeks to provide education in traditional arts and crafts, including music, Islamic calligraphy, miniature painting, and Arabic and Persian language.

Sauran is a businessman and director of Impex International in Pakistan.

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