The annihilated

Many of his concerts usually fell apart and turned into drunken brawls. Aziz Mian would purposely work up the audience towards a state in which many in the crowd ended up losing all sense of order and control.

He would often explain this as being a state of mind from where the brawling men could be hurled into the next state; a state from where they could leap to strike a direct spiritual connection with the Almighty.

A journalist reviewing one such Aziz Mian concert in Karachi in 1975 (for Dawn Magazine) described him as ‘the Nietzschean qawaal!’

By the late 1970s, Aziz Mian had risen to become an iconic qawaal in Pakistan. More so an iconoclast qawaal rather, because of the way he often shattered various long-held traditions of the Qawaali music genre. In the process, he developed and honed a style that was uniquely his own.

Qawaali in South Asia was inspired by devotional music of Sufi orders of Persia and Turkey in which the beauty and power of the Almighty and his creations were sung to the tune of hypnotic and repetitive music and whirling dances.

The genre came to be known as Qawaali when, from the 12th century onwards, it came into contact with the classical music traditions of South Asia and the devotional music of the dominant religions found in the region.

Here, it adopted the many musical instruments developed by Amir Khusro, the brilliant 13th century musician and poet in the courts of India’s Muslim Delhi Sultanate (12th-15th century CE).

A 13th century miniature showing Amir Khusro teaching pupils music that evolved into becoming the Qawaali.
A 13th century miniature showing Amir Khusro teaching pupils music that evolved into becoming the Qawaali.

In Persia and Turkey, it had a tradition of being restricted to expressing the inner workings of Sufi orders, but by the 16th century (in South Asia), Qawaali also began to reflect the emotional and devotional dynamics of the populist culture and milieu that had begun to develop around the cults of living Sufi saints, and more so, around the shrines of the saints who had passed away.

These shrines, that today can be found across both India and Pakistan, were (and still are) visited not only by the region’s Muslims, but also by Hindus and Sikhs.

There was a history of conflict between Sufism and the more orthodox strands of Islam in which Sufis rejected the strict ritual and doctrinal regimentation of orthodoxy, accusing it of divorcing faith from its spiritual core and soul.

The orthodox ulema retaliated by condemning Sufism for introducing ritualistic and philosophical innovations (biddat) in the faith.

They also scorned at the culture that began to develop around Sufi shrines in which common peasants and homeless men and women indulged in music and drugs.

The Sufis responded by suggesting that the shrines were 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 food and shelter.

Devotees performing the ‘dhamaal’ outside a Sufi shrine in Sindh, Pakistan.
Devotees performing the ‘dhamaal’ outside a Sufi shrine in Sindh, Pakistan.

Muslim empires 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 that Sufi saints enjoyed among the masses, the Sultans and Emperors were more inclined towards favouring the saints.

However, not all Sufi orders were always entirely copious, pluralistic and accommodating.

Nevertheless, the popular memory in this context 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.

Thoughts of most ancient Sufis reach us through the poetry that they wrote and then composed with the help of certain ragas. This points to the fact that these Sufis were mostly poet-musicians.

Some of their thoughts are clearly subversive and anti-establishment.

Many of them claimed to have had a special spiritual connection with God. It is often believed (by their devotees) that they struck such a link by roaming among the masses and then after transcending regimented religious rituals, they retreated inwards to touch those parts of their mind and heart that were not so well known or explored.

From here, they claimed, they could actually experience the presence of the Almighty – a presence whose power and beauty may render a mortal man senseless, and annihilate his ego, but also (or thus) make him one with his creator.

The annihilation process in this context (fana) was the price the saints were willing to pay and often (in their poetry) described the procedure as passion-play demonstrated by a lover willing to annihilate his lesser self to be close to his elusive, pristine beloved.

Sufi musical and literary genres (such as the Qawaali) are abundant with such narratives. This narrative, when it became a centerpiece of Qawaali, also suggests that after transcending conventional religious ritualism, the faculty used by Sufi saints to make that ultimate link with the Almighty was about an ‘inner spiritual knowledge’ heightened by beautiful poetry sung to the tune of passionate music.

According to the same narrative, the Sufis who had 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 imposed by those who limit a man’s potential to fully realize the spiritual and intellectual faculties that the Almighty has bestowed upon him.

This is another aspect of the Sufi narrative that the Qawaali enthusiastically embraces. But this aspect of the Qawaali purposely and teasingly remains ambiguous.

For example, a verse of such a Qawaali that directly praises the consumption of wine, is then followed by a verse that treats the act of this consumption (and its effects) as a metaphor of an uninhibited love for the Almighty.

Spirits in the material world

The Qawaali remained to be a popular musical genre with the masses in South Asia, but its first real manifestation as a modern and commercially viable art-form emerged in Pakistan in the 1970s.

Its popularity in this respect was squarely based on the rise of two qawaals: Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers.

These two not only aroused a keen interest in Qawaali across the classes, but also became two of the most commercially successful qawaals, whose exploits were later matched by the mighty Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the 1990s.

Their greatest achievement was to ignite a passion for Qawaali among urban audiences who had largely abandoned the traditional Farsi (Persian) Qawaali of the Muslim imperial courts, and the Punjabi Qawaali of Sufi shrines in rural and semi-rural areas of the Punjab province.

In this regard, what Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers also did was to fully form Qawaali sung in Urdu – Pakistan’s national language.

Qawaali was already a popular music genre in rural Punjab. It was mainly performed at Sufi shrines. Moving ahead, the Sabri Brothers and Aziz Mian created an urban audience for Qawaali. The audience they appealed to belonged to the metropolitan middle and lower-middle-classes.

The first to experiment with the idea were the Sabri Brothers, led by Ghulam Farid Sabri and Maqbool Ahmed Sabri. They recorded Mera Koi Nahi Hai Terey Siwa (‘I have no one but you’) for EMI-Pakistan in 1958.

Sung in Urdu, the qawaali is an intense ode to the Almighty. The qawaali was an instant hit and was received well by urbanites who were reintroduced to a genre of South Asian music that (over the decades) they had been largely divorced from.

At the time of the release of the Sabri Brothers’ first famous Urdu qawaali, Aziz Mian was a 16-year-old school boy with the knack for always getting into trouble and indulging in acts of petty vandalism and brawling. His family had moved to Pakistan from the Indian city of Meerut after the creation of the country in August 1947.

He came from a musical family and was already learning eastern classical music when he arrived in Pakistan with his family. Whereas the Sabri Brothers had settled in Karachi, Aziz Mian’s family lay its new roots in Lahore.

Aziz Mian’s parents became regular visitors to the city’s famous shrine of Sufi saint, Data Ganj Baksh, and Aziz Mian would often accompany them.

But Aziz Mian had a troubled youth. At an early age, he had begun to drink and smoke and became hooked on chewing tobacco-laced paans (beetle leaf). He would also often get into trouble for committing acts of vandalism and hooliganism as a teen.

Worried by his behaviour, his father encouraged him to learn Qawaali from a group of established qawaals who regularly performed Punjabi qawaalis at the Data shrine. Aziz Mian agreed, but also decided to join a college in Lahore where he continued to get into trouble. Though a rabble-rouser and an extremely restless personality, he was considered a bright student by his teachers.

In 1963, he joined the Punjab University from where he bagged a master’s degree in Urdu literature and also studied Arabic and Persian. It was here that he decided to become a dedicated qawaal. He later told an interviewer, he saw singing qawaalis as the only way he could have fulfilled his restless quest to find some spiritual meaning in his riotous existence.

He began to perform in front of small crowds at private functions. Visitors at the Data shrine would often see a young man with long, unkempt hair, colourful kameez-shalwar and wild eyes, pacing up and down. It was Aziz Mian.

To them, he could as well have been one of the many faqeers (spiritual vagabonds) that are often found at Sufi shrines in South Asia. But of course, he was different. He was articulate in his speech, and could speak fluent Punjabi, Urdu, Persian and English.

In those days (mid/late 1960s), Aziz Mian was mostly singing traditional folk qawaalis in Punjabi and in Persian, but after listening to the Sabri Brothers sing in Urdu (on radio) and then seeing them slowly gathering a whole new audience, Aziz Mian became restless again.

He didn’t want to sing traditional qawaalis anymore. He received qawaali lyrics from some lesser-known Urdu poets, but he rejected them, suggesting that the lyrics did not reflect the nature of his quest.

He tried to get in touch with the poets who were authoring Urdu lyrics for the Sabri Brothers, but he wasn’t taken seriously. Then in 1970, while sitting at the Data shrine, Aziz Mian began writing lyrics himself.

A decade later, while performing the qawaali that he had written at the shrine, Aziz Mian told the audience: ‘It was an evening just like this one. I was sitting at the Data shrine and conversing with God. I was praying for my well-being, when suddenly I began to be showered by a burst of words. I forgot what I was praying about and started to write down the emerging words right there …’

Thanks to the growing popularity of the Sabri Brothers, EMI-Pakistan had already given Aziz Mian some studio time to cut an album. But it would be the qawaali that he wrote at the shrine and then set to music that would go on to become his breakthrough moment.

The qawaali was titled Mein Sharaabi (I am a drunkard). On Sharaabi (first released in 1973), Aziz Mian also discovered and stamped a style of writing, composing and singing that he would retain for the rest of his career.

He embraced the approach of the ‘quarrelsome Sufis’ of yore, who, in their peculiar states of mind, would hold brassy passionate dialogues with God, punctuated with a series of paradoxical questions.

Aziz Mian would start slowly, break into a catchy chorus with his ‘qawaali party’ (qawaali group), and then suddenly break out with a series of argumentative verses in a blistering display of speed-talking. He would address God, complaining how he loved Him but felt that he wasn’t being loved back; or why such a perfect entity such as 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 (and concept) of drunkenness as a metaphor to exhibit the inexplicable effect the love for the Almighty had on him. But he would also praise alcohol on its own terms.

With the success of the Mein Sharaabi album, Aziz Mian rose to become one of the region’s leading qawaals.

Cover of Aziz Mian’s breakthrough album, 'Mein Sharaabi' (1973)
Cover of Aziz Mian’s breakthrough album, 'Mein Sharaabi' (1973)

As mentioned earlier, many of his concerts used to disintegrate into becoming drunken brawls when Aziz Mian would work up the audience to such a frenzy that many among the crowd would lose all sense of order. Aziz Mian saw the commotion as a reflection of his inner self and/or of a state of turmoil that eventually leads a man to annihilate internal and external inhibitions and pave the way for him to construct a special bridge that connected him with the raw beauty and power of the Almighty.

Both Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers also benefited from the cultural policies of the populist regime of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1971-77).

The policies instructed state media to regularly telecast folk music and Qawaali on TV and radio, especially during a weekly show (on TV) called Lok Virsa, which became a huge hit.

Lok Virsa was also responsible for introducing (to mainstream audiences), folk musicians such as Mai Bhagi (Sindhi), Faiz Mohammad Baloch (Balochi), Tufail Niazi (Punjabi), Allan Fakir (Sindhi), Reshma (Saraiki), Pathanay Khan (Saraiki), Zarsanga (Pashto), etc.

Brawling giants

Compared to Aziz Mian, the Sabri Brothers were a lot more melodic and hypnotic in their style. Soon, a rivalry began to develop between them because both were catering to the same market. It was a brand new market made up of new Qawaali fans in the country’s urban areas.

The Brothers would often mock Aziz Mian for being vehement 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 intoxicants in his qawaalis (even though alcohol was often consumed at the Sabri Brothers’ concerts as well).

The Brothers thought Aziz Mian was uncouth and exploiting the Qawaali genre for quick fame.

The Sabri Brothers
The Sabri Brothers

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 Mein Sharaabi by adding another 30 minutes to the qawaali until it became an almost 50-munute epic called Teri Soorat / Mein Sharaabi.

Teri Soorat/Mein Sharaabi – Aziz Mian (1975):

The album, released by EMI-Pakistan, sold over a million copies (LPs and cassettes) within a matter of months.

The same year, the Sabri Brothers released Bhar deh jholi ('Fill my bag') that also became a massive seller, especially when it was chosen as a song for a 1975 Urdu film Bin Baadal Barsaat, starring famous Pakistani film actor Muhammad Ali and actress Zeba.

The Brothers also appeared in the mentioned film, singing the qawaali 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.

Bhar Deh Jholi – Sabri Brothers (1975):

The Pakistan film industry was hitting a peak in the mid-1970s. So Aziz Mian too appeared in a film called, License. In it, he could be seen performing an abridged version of Mein Sharaabi.

In early 1976, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, invited Aziz Mian to perform for him in Islamabad and share a drink. Aziz Mian gladly obliged.

The same year, while commenting on the Brothers during a concert, Aziz Mian lamented that the Brothers were too conventional and that their spiritual connection with the Almighty was not as stark as his.

Slighted by Aziz Mian’s comments, the Brothers released a thinly veiled taunt at him in shape of a qawaali. They titled it, O sharabi, chor dey peena (‘‘O’ drunkard, stop drinking’’).

The qawaali became an immediate hit, sung in the typically steady, controlled and hypnotic style of the Brothers, and then varnished with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour aimed at Aziz Mian.

In a live bootleg recording of the qawaali, one can hear one of brothers poking fun at ‘drunkards’ (Aziz Mian). He is doing this in a tongue-in-cheek manner because he’s clearly 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).’

O Sharaabi, Peena Veena Chor – Sabri Brothers (1976):

Aziz Mian was quick to retaliate. He wrote and recorded Hai kambakht, tu nein pe hi nahi (‘‘Unfortunate soul, you never even drank!’’). In it, he derided the Brothers for being deprived of understanding and experiencing the ‘spiritual dimensions of being drunk.’

The retaliatory qawaali starts with Aziz proudly owning up to liking his drink, then suggests that those who didn’t drink and gave lectures while indulging in other misdeeds at the same time, are hypocrites. All the while, he continues to taunt the Brothers for never having experienced intoxication.

In the long climax of the qawaali, Aziz Mian’s taunting turns into angry sarcastic jibes at the Brothers, as he dismisses them for not understanding his intoxicated love for the Almighty because they have no clue what it meant or felt like.

According to EMI-Pakistan, which released both the records, together Aziz Mian and Sabri Brothers, sold over two million LPs and cassettes in 1977 alone!

Fans of both the camps would often throw words and verses from the two qawaalis at each other.

Hai Kambakht Tu Ne Pi Hi Nahi – Aziz Mian:

Pakistani Qawaali had reached a commercial peak and then went global when Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers began touring outside Pakistan, enthralling audiences in various countries, including the US, UK, France, Germany, the Soviet Union and Iran.

Aziz Mian performing in the USA (1977).
Aziz Mian performing in the USA (1977).

Then, Aziz Mian suddenly fell on the wrong side of the law when, in April 1977, sale of alcoholic beverages (to Muslims) in Pakistan was banned. In July 1977, the Bhutto regime fell in a reactionary military coup orchestrated by General Ziaul Haq.

During the Zia dictatorship (1977-88), Aziz Mian’s concerts were often raided by the police and people there arrested for ‘drunken behaviour.’

In 1980, Aziz Mian began adding more conventional qawaalis to his set, but he always wrapped up his concerts with Mein Sharaabi.

However, he would usually launch into the said qawaali by first jokingly addressing the crowd (in Punjabi): ‘I’m about to sing Mein Sharaabi (the crowd would roar). But you guys don’t have to worry. They’ll arrest me, not you!’ (Crowds would burst into laughter).

Amateur video of Aziz Mian performing Mein Sharaabi in Lahore in 1982:

On a number of occasions, Aziz Mian was approached by anti-Zia student and political outfits to release a qawaali against Zia.

He shied away. Instead, he decided to add extempore lyrics to his famous qawaalis 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 that they would begin harassing the gathering the moment he launched into his 'Sharaabi' qawaali, he decided to test the patience of the cops by singing what became to be the longest qawaali recorded in the history of the genre!

Beginning the concert with his 1979 hit, the passionate Allah Hi 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 qawaali that went on for 115 minutes.

Recorded at the venue and then released, the epic qawaali talks about God inquiring man about his (man’s) hypocrisies. Aziz Mian taunts the puritans who call him a drunk. He suggests that in reality, they were the ones who were drunk on things that were far more sinister than alcohol. Things like power, hypocrisy and prejudice.

Allah Janay Kon Bashar Hai – Aziz Mian (1979):

Eclipse and end

By the time the Zia dictatorship ended (August, 1988), Pakistan’s ‘Golden Age of Qawaali’ was at an end. 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 worsened.

In the late 1980s, the supremacy of both Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers was successfully challenged by a little known qawaal who would (for a while) go on to regenerate the Qawaali genre in Pakistan, and once again turn it into a popular global phenomenon.

Nusrat Fateh Ali had arrived in urban Pakistan.

Nusrat Fateh Ali
Nusrat Fateh Ali

Immensely talented, Nusrat took the melodious dynamics of the Sabri Brothers and the lyrical spiritual paradoxes aired in Aziz Mian’s qawaalis and fused them into a style that was flexible enough to be adopted and related to on a more universal level.

Nusrat Fateh Ali’s 1993 epic, Tum Aik Ghorak Danda Ho adopts Aziz Mian’s style of arguing with God and fuses it with the Sabri Brothers’ hypnotic melodicism.

But unlike Aziz Mian, Nusrat did not write his own lyrics.

Nusrat Fateh Ali dominated the qawaali scene across the late 1980s and 1990s, selling albums and playing to packed audiences around the world. But like Aziz Mian, Nusrat too had a deep ‘love affair with drink.’ He died of liver failure in 1997.

Gorak Dhanda – Nusrat Fateh Ali:

In 1994, Ghulam Farid, leader of the Sabri Brothers, passed away. Aziz Mian continued to perform throughout the 1990s, but the rise of a new batch of qawaals led by Nusrat Fateh Ali never allowed Aziz the space to make his comeback and regain the popularity and commercial success that he had enjoyed between 1973 and 1982.

Exhausted and ailing with a failing liver, in 2000, he agreed to honour a contract to perform concerts in Iran. However, halfway through the tour, he passed away. He was 56.


Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context and Meaning in Qawwali: Regula Burckhardt Qureshi
Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India: Peter Manuel
Qawwali Jam. Islamic Gospel: Mehar Ali and Sher Ali



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