But from the 11th century CE it found a more receptive home and audience in South Asia that had begun to attract the attention and interest of a number of Sufi saints, who began to arrive here from Central Asia, Persia and Baghdad.
However, when Quwalli arrived in South Asia, it was in the shape of Sufi devotional music practiced by Sufi orders in Persia and Turkey in which the poetic deeds and beauty of the Almighty and his creations were sung to the tune of hypnotic and repetitive music and whirling dances.
The genre became to be known as Quwalli when it came into contact with the classical musical traditions of South Asia and devotional music of the dominant religions found in the subcontinent.
It adopted the many instruments developed by Amir Khusro, a brilliant 13th century musician and poet in the court of India’s Muslim Delhi Sultanate (12th-15th century CE).
Though the music genre that, when it arrived in South Asia, had a tradition of being restricted to the inner workings and members of Sufi orders, by the 16th century (in the subcontinent) it became to also reflect the emotional and devotional dynamics of the populist culture and milieu that began to develop around the cult of living Sufi saints, and more so, around the shrines of such saints.
These shrines that today can be found across both India and Pakistan were visited not only by the region’s Muslims, but also by Hindus and (later) Sikhs.
There is a history of conflict between Sufism and the more orthodox strands of Islam in which Sufi saints and orders rejected the strict ritual and doctrinal regimentation of orthodoxy, accusing it of divorcing Islam from its spiritual content and soul.
The orthodox ulema retaliated by condemning Sufism for introducing ritualistic and philosophical innovations (biddat) and at times, out rightly rejecting Islamic rituals prescribed by the Sharia – the Islamic body of law formed by various Islamic jurists some two to three hundred years after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad.
They also scorned at the culture that began to develop around Sufi shrines in which common peasants, traders and homeless men and women indulged in music, drugs, drink and sometimes crime.
The Sufis responded by suggesting that the shrines were perhaps the only places in the realm where men and women of all creeds, castes and classes were welcome, and where the poor could find some shelter and food.
To the Sufis, Islam meant serving and respecting all humanity because all men where God’s creation.
But the most interesting aspect of this conflict was how Sufi saints and the orthodox ulema in the subcontinent (during Muslim rule) vied for influence in the royal courts.
Muslim regimes of the region, from the Delhi Sultanate to the Mughal Empire, employed a number of Islamic scholars and ulema. But knowing well the influence and the popularity the Sufi saints enjoyed among the Muslim, as well as the Hindu subjects of the region, the Sultans and emperors were more inclined towards favoring the saints.
It is, however, also correct that not all Sufi orders were always entirely copious, pluralistic and accommodating. Some also scorned at the popular culture that had developed around them and were critical of some of their contemporaries of rejecting the Sharia, Islamic ritualism and indulging in doctrinal innovation.
Nevertheless, the popular memory of the conflict is still more about Sufi saints who had abandoned the world of material well being and power politics, and isolated themselves to acquire a unique spiritual link with the Almighty.
Most of the popular Sufis we know today reach us through their poetry composed in certain ragas which points out to the fact that these Sufi were indeed poet musicians. Some of their thoughts are clearly subversive and anti-establishment. However, most historical records about them paint pictures of pious men of God, wholly devoted to rituals in the way of the ulema.
This link, it is said, they achieved by roaming and being with the masses and then after transcending regimented religious rituals, retreated inwards through intense reflection to experience the compassionate presence of the Almighty – a presence whose power and beauty may render a mortal man senseless and annihilate his self and ego (fana), but make him one with his creator.
The annihilation in this respect is the price the saints were willing to pay and often (in their poetry) described the process as passion play demonstrated by a lover willing to burn himself and his being to be close to his beloved.
Sufi musical and literary genres are abounding with this narrative of Sufism. This narrative, when it became a centerpiece of Quwalli, also suggests that after transcending conventional Islamic ritualism, the faculty used by Sufi saints to make that ultimate link with the Almighty was an inner spiritual knowledge heightened and triggered by beautiful poetry sung to the tune of equally passionate music.
According to the same narrative, the Sufis who’d made that link seemed intoxicated by their distinct, all-encompassing love of the Almighty; like a man drunk on wine and (thus) unhindered by the inhibitions of those who limit a man’s potential to fully realise the spiritual and intellectual faculties that the Almighty has bestowed upon him.