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.
This is another aspect of the Sufi narrative that (many if not all) Quwallis enthusiastically embrace. But they purposefully and teasingly remain ambiguous, by, for example, following up one verse that directly praises the consumption of wine with a verse that treats it as a metaphor for an inhibited love for the Almighty and his creations.
The originating point of such narratives associated to Sufism and the art forms that they inspire is said to be (what all Sufis believed) was perhaps the most beautiful and mystical verse in the Qu’ran (Ayat an-Nur).
The Sufis believed that this verse contains the true essence of Islam and the overwhelming beauty of the power of the Almighty as a compassionate, mystical force:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The parable of His Light is a niche wherein is a lamp —
the lamp is in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star —
lit from a blessed olive tree,
neither eastern nor western,
whose oil almost lights up,
though fire should not touch it. Light upon light.
Allah guides to His Light whomever He wishes.
Allah draws parables for mankind,
and Allah has knowledge of all things.
-Sura An-Nur, Verse 35
The Quwalli remained popular with the masses in India and Pakistan but its first true manifestation of a modern and commercially viable art-form emerged in Pakistan between the 1970s and the early 1980s.
Its popularity in this respect was squarely based on the rise of two Quwalli enthusiasts who went on to become giants of the genre.
Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers not only revived a keen interest in Quwalli that cut across the classes, both also became two of the most commercially successful quwals, whose exploits were later matched by the mighty Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the 1990s.
More so, their greatest achievement was to reignite a passion for Quwalli among the Urdu-speaking, urban audience that had completely abandoned and left behind the Farsi, Urdu and Punjabi Quwalli.
Quwalli was one of the most popular genres in rural Punjab. It was mainly performed at shrines and the people who frequented these shrines were from the rural areas. Sabri and Aziz Mian created an urban audience for Quwalli. The audience they appealed to is not today's elite who listen to Munshi Raziuddin and various other groups, and even Abida Parveen. Sabri and Aziz Mian's audience were mostly Barelvi Muslims (the majority Sunni sub-sect in Pakistan) and some Shias of lower middle class.
Aziz Mian was the first in line. Sometime in 1972, a regular visitor at Lahore’s historic shrine of the Sufi saint, Data Ganj Bakhsh, was seen pacing up and down inside the shrine as if in a trance.
With long, unkempt hair, colourful kameez-shalwar and wild eyes he could’ve been one of the many fakeers or even a homeless vagabond, who for centuries have frequented the famous shrine.
But he was no ordinary fakeer. People knew him as a young quwal – or the singer and performer of Sufi devotional poetry and music.
People who often saw this young quwal at the shrine also knew that he was highly educated. He was Aziz Mian - the man who would rise to become not only one of the most famous quwals in Pakistan, but also perhaps the most unique and controversial.
He was subversive in a populist sense. His Quwallis were a popular version of Iqbal's 'shikwa jawab-e-shikwa' that ignited the lower middle classes’ imaginations.
It would be the Quwalli that he wrote on a crumpled piece of paper on the grounds of the Ganj Bakhsh Shrine that day that would lift his status and popularity to unprecedented heights.
Unlike most quwals, Aziz Mian almost always wrote his own lyrics. And the lyrics that he scribbled at the shrine that day became the words to the epic Quwalli, ‘Mein sharabi’ (I’m an alcoholic).
When the Quwalli came to the music stores, it became an instant hit, and Aziz Mian was no more a struggling young quwal looking for an opening.
Born in 1942 in a lower-middle-class family in Delhi, Aziz Mian migrated to the newly created country of Pakistan in 1947.
Coming from a musical family, Aziz Mian began learning Quwalli from the age of 10 at the Ganj Bakhsh Shrine.
He started to drink, smoke and became addicted to strong, tobacco-laced paans at an early age, and was often arrested for committing petty crimes of vandalism and hooliganism as a teen.
Though restless and quarrelsome, he, however, managed to excel at school and then (in the early 1960s) went on to pick up multiple degrees in Urdu, Persian and Arabic Literature from the Punjab University in Lahore.
Though he had been performing live and had already cut a few albums, it wasn’t until EMI-Pakistan released the first version of ‘Sharabi’ (in 1973) that Aziz Mian shot to fame.
On ‘Sharabi’, Aziz Mian also discovered and stamped a style of writing, composing and vocal delivery that he would retain for the rest of his career.
Taking the approach of the ‘quarrelsome Sufis/Fakeers’ of yore who in their state of reverse trance undertook loud emotional dialogues with God, dotted with a series of paradoxical questions, Aziz Mian would start slowly, break into a catchy chorus with his ‘Quwalli party’ (Quwalli group), and then suddenly stop and shout out his argument in a blistering display of speed-talking in which he would address God, complaining how he loved him but felt that he wasn’t being loved back; or why such a perfect entity like God would create such an imperfect creature like man!
Aziz Mian was a heavy drinker, and like various famous Sufi poets he often used the state of drunkenness as a metaphor for the state and kind of effect the love for God had on him.
But he would also praise alcohol on its own terms.
Aziz Mian performing ‘Mein sharabi’ in Lahore.
By the mid-1970s, Aziz Mian had risen to become the region’s leading quwal and was selling out concerts across Pakistan and India.
However, many of his concerts used to also disintegrate into drunken brawls when Aziz Mian would purposely work up the audience into a state in which many among the crowd would lose all sense of order and control.
He would explain this as being a stage from where the brawling men could take the leap into the next stage of making a direct spiritual connection with the Almighty.
A cultural writer reviewing one such Aziz Mian concert in Karachi (in DAWN) in 1975, described him as being ‘the Nietzschean Sufi!’
Aziz Mian also benefited from the cultural policies of the first PPP regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1972-77).
The policies instructed state media to regularly telecast folk music and Quwalli on TV and radio, especially during a weekly show called ‘Lok Virsa’ that became a huge hit with the audiences.
This also helped another group of quwals become equally popular. These were the ‘Sabri Brothers.’
The Sabri Brothers were a lot more melodic and hypnotic in their style and began drawing huge crowds.
Soon, a rivalry began to develop between Aziz Mian and the Brothers.
The Brothers often mocked Aziz Mian of being violent and lacking melody. But Aziz Mian went on honing his unique style.
Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers both stood for the same Sufi traditions and narratives that had developed in the region, but the Brothers disapproved of Aziz Mian’s open praise of wine in his Quwallis – even though alcohol was often consumed at the Brothers’ concerts as well.
The rivalry between Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers took a more aggressive turn when in 1975, both released their biggest hits to date.
Aziz Mian extended ‘Saharabi’ by adding another 30 minutes to the Quwalli until it became an almost 50-munute epic called ‘Mein sharabi/Teri soorat’ (I’m an Alcoholic/Your Face).
The record, released by EMI-Pakistan, sold millions within months.
The same year (1975) the Sabri Brothers released ‘Bhar doh jholi’ (Fill my bag) that also became a massive seller, especially when it was chosen as a song for popular Pakistani actor, Muhammad Ali’s 1975 hit film, ‘Bin badal barsaat.’
The Brothers also appeared in the film singing the Quwalli at a shrine where Ali’s character is shown with his wife (Zeba), pleading the Sufi saint buried there to ask God to grant them a child.
The original recording of Sabri Brothers’ ‘Bhar Doh Jholi’ (1975).
Aziz Mian thought the Brothers were too conventional and that their spiritual connection with the Almighty was not as stark as his.
In 1976, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto invited Aziz Mian to perform for him in Islamabad and share a drink. Aziz Mian gladly obliged.
As Aziz Mian was enjoying another burst of popularity and commercial success with ‘Mein sharabi/Teri soorat,’ the Sabri Brothers – slighted by Aziz Mian’s comments about them – followed up their hit ‘Bhar doh jholi’ with a thinly veiled taunt at Aziz Mian.
They released ‘O sharabi, chor dey peena’ (O Alcoholic, stop drinking).
The Quwalli became an immediate hit, sung in the typically steady, controlled and hypnotic style of the Brothers, but this time also varnished with a bit of humour towards ‘drunkards.’
Listen to a bootleg recording of the Sabri Brothers performing ‘Sharabi chor dey peena’ in 1977 here.
If you listen to the recording provided above of a live version of the Quwalli, you’ll notice that when one of brothers mocks ‘drunkards’ (Aziz Mian), he is doing it in the most tongue-in-cheek manner. Because conscious of the fact that the audience was also enjoying their drink, the other brother laughingly suggests, ‘but of course, no one drinks here (in this hall).’
Aziz Mian was quick to retaliate. He wrote and recorded ‘Hai kambakht, tu nein pe hi nahi’ (Unfortunate soul, you never even drank!) in which he derided the Brothers for not understanding and experiencing the ‘spiritual sides of wine.’
A 30-plus-minutes opus, Aziz starts by proudly owning up to liking his drink, then suggests that those who don’t drink and give lectures on morals but indulge in other misdeeds are hypocrites. All the while, he continues to taunt the Brothers for never having experienced wine.
In the long climax of the Quwalli, Aziz Mian’s taunting turns into anger and he dismisses his detractors (and the Brothers) for not understanding his intoxicated love for the Almighty because they have no clue what it meant or felt like.
According to EMI-Pakistan that released both the records, together Aziz Mian and Sabri sold over a million LPs and cassettes in 1977 alone!
Listen to the original 1977 recording of ‘Hai kambakht tu nien pi hi nahi.’ here.
Pakistani quwalli had reached a commercial peak, and then went global when both Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers began touring outside Pakistan, enthralling audiences in various countries.
Aziz Mian fell on the wrong side of the law when in April 1977 sale of alcoholic beverages (to Muslims) in Pakistan was banned.
During the reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship (1977-88), Aziz Mian’s concerts were often raided by the police and people arrested for ‘drunken behavior.’
From 1980 onward, Aziz Mian would add more conventional and religious quwalis to his set list but always wrapped up his concerts with ‘Mein sharabi.’
However, now he would launch into the Quwalli by laughingly and jokingly addressing the crowd (in Punjabi), saying, ‘I’m about to sing ‘Mein saharbi’ (crowd would roar). But you guys don’t have to worry. They’ll arrest me, not you!’ (Crowds would burst into laughter).
On a number of occasions Aziz Mian was approached by anti-Zia students and political outfits to release a Quwalli against Zia.
Instead, he decided to add extempore lyrics to his famous quwallis that spoke about how men intoxicated by their love of God and justice stood up to tyrants who had no understanding and appreciation of this unique kind of love.
In 1982, during a small concert in Karachi where Aziz Mian had been invited to perform, he noticed some policemen inside the venue.
Believing they would begin harassing the gathering the moment he launched into his ‘pro-wine’ quwallis, he decided to test the patience of the cops by singing what became to be the longest quwalli recorded in the history of the genre.
Beginning the concert with the passionate ‘Allah hee jannay kon bashar hai’ (Only God knows who is human), he then launched into ‘Hasshar kay roz yeh poochon ga’ (On the Day of Judgment, God shall ask) – a quwalli that went on for 115 minutes!
Recorded at the venue and then released, the epic quwalli talks about God inquiring man about his (man’s) hypocrisies. Aziz Mian taunts the puritans who call him a drunk by suggesting that in reality they were the ones who were drunk on things that were far more sinister than alcohol: Power, hypocrisy, prejudice and myopia.
But by the time the Zia dictatorship ended (1988), Pakistan’s ‘Gold Age of Quwalli’ was already over.
Frustrated by not being able to play enough concerts and record a lot more albums in Pakistan in the 1980s, Aziz Mian’s drinking problem got worse.
In the late 1980s both Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers were directly challenged by a little known quwal who would (for a while) go on to regenerate the Quwalli genre in Pakistan and once again turn it into a popular global phenomenon.
Nusrat Fateh Ali had arrived in the urban, Urdu-speaking areas of Pakistan.
Immensely talented, Fateh Ali took the melodious dynamics of the Sabri Brothers and the lyrical spiritual paradoxes aired in Aziz Mian’s quwallis and fused them into a style that was flexible enough to be adopted and related to on an international level.
Nusrat Fateh Ali’s 1993 epic, ‘Tou aik ghorak danda ho.’ In it he adopts Aziz Mian’s style of arguing with God fused with the Sabri Brothers’ melodicism.
Nusrat Fateh Ali dominated the quwalli scene across the late 1980s-1990s, selling albums and playing to packed audiences around the world. But like Aziz Mian, he too had a passionate ‘love affair with wine.’ He died of liver failure in 1997.
In 1994, Ghulam Farid of the Sabri Brothers had already passed away. Aziz Mian continued to perform throughout the 1990s but the rise of a new batch of quwals lead by Nusrat Fateh Ali never allowed him the space to make his comeback and regain the popularity and commercial success that he had enjoyed between 1973 and 1982.
With his liver failing, Aziz Mian continued to drink. Exhausted and ailing, he died during a tour of Iran in 2000 at the age of 56.