In the wake of Amjad Sabri’s death, many fear qawwali’s eventual demise but the centuries-long musical tradition still continues to draw fans and artists alike

Through the Ages

It may have its highs and lows, but the contemporary scene of qawwali is by no means dismal

By Asif Noorani and Nafees Ahmed

Ghulam Farid Sabri & Maqbool Sabri —White Star
Ghulam Farid Sabri & Maqbool Sabri —White Star

The murder of the renowned qawwal, Amjad Sabri came as a rude jolt to the popular genre of vocal music, but to think that this will toll a death knell for qawwali would best be described as jumping to a hasty conclusion. After all, when his father Ghulam Fareed Sabri passed away Amjad filled the void. Likewise, earlier when his grandfather died, his two sons Ghulam Farid Sabri and Maqbool Sabri took up from where their father left. They performed separately with their teams but later joined hands and scaled newer heights.

It is heartening to see that Amjad’s son Mujaddid had shaped well under his father’s guidance when he sat next to him on the stage and played second fiddle to him. Once the family gets over the shock, Mujaddid is most likely to lead his father’s team of qawwals or humnawa, as the party accompanying the lead singer is called.

When the renowned qawwal Munshi Raziuddin expired in 2003, the obituary writers who swung into action announced that curtains would be drawn on the style of qawwali (call it the school of qawwali, if you like), nurtured by the deceased and his ancestors and the gharana, would end with a whimper. Mercifully enough, the prophets of doom were proved wrong. Under Munshi Raziuddin’s sons, Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammed, the gharana has gone from strength to strength. Like Munshi Raziuddin, a winner of the Pride of Performance Award, Fareed and Abu are well-versed in classical music and their recitals are more often than not based on ragas.

While they perform at concerts round the year, they become busier during the month of Ramazan. The National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa) holds sessions between taraveeh and sehri. Over the years the audience has become larger. Then there are fundraising programmes elsewhere in which the duo performs with their gharana’s characteristic gusto.

Ramazan or no Ramazan, quite a good number of affluent people in large cities also hold qawwali sessions in their houses. If in the past the radio featured qawwali programmes in the last half century or so television — particularly PTV — has projected the qawwals and in the process grabbed the attention of viewers. In monetary terms the qawwals may get only a fraction from TV channels of what they are awarded in private or public concerts but the exposure that they get is much larger.

Back to Raziuddin, his cousin Bahauddin Qawwal was also a force to reckon with; they hailed from the Qawwal Bachchon Ka Gharana that dates back to the times of Amir Khusro. When Bahauddin died in 2006, his five sons —Najmuddin, Saifuddin, Zafaruddin, Mugheesuddin and Ihteshamuddin, performed in a group. The brothers are much in demand too.

One man who merits a special mention is Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali, who added Western instruments (and often Western instrumentalists) to his qawwali orchestra whenever he performed for the audience in Europe and North America. Mind you, it was easier for instrumentalists like Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Zakir Hussain to find ardent listeners in their concerts, because they had no linguistic barriers to cross. But full marks to Nusrat Fateh Ali whose lively rendition coupled with rhythmic clapping invariably induced his listeners to join him.

His talented nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan drifted more into film music and almost gave up qawwali. But whenever he chooses to sing qawwali even for a short while, he proves his mettle. A case in point is the excellent rendition of Amir Khusrau’s Chap tilak sab chheen li mo se naina milayke, where he is pitted against a woman of great substance. No prizes for guessing, the other brilliant vocalist is Abida Perveen. The programme was recorded for Coke Studio.

Nusrat’s cousin Mubarak Ali with whom he had teamed up for some time, sang alone and won laurels, but after his demise the baton was picked up by his sons Rizwan Ali and Moazzam Ali, who sing in Persian, Urdu, Punjabi and Seraiki with abandon, and can be watched on YouTube. Their vocal interpretations of Allah Hu Allah Hu, Ankhian Udeek Diyan, Shahbaz Qalandar and Nameedanam Che Manzil Bood are brilliant but what is most scintillating is their recording of Khusrau’s Hare Hare Baans, where they are seen in a highly competitive company of Shazia Manzoor.

Unfortunately, Aziz Mian, who was a legend in his life time, could not leave a worthy successor. His son Imran has yet to polish his skills and, what is more difficult, acquire the same level of knowledge of three languages — Urdu, Persian and Arabic.

What also keeps qawwals going are the congregations of devotees at shrines like Data Darbar, Sehwan Sharif, Bari Imam, Golra Sharif and Pakpattan Sharif, where qawwals perform to audiences of varying sizes and which is a source of their income.

Qawwali has, so far, been largely the domain of males but in movies where there are qawwalis with sufi and secular themes alike, females have made no less a greater impact. One qawwali where the two genders are involved in a friendly competition is Indian film Barsaat Ki Raat’s excellent qawwali Na Tou Kaarwaan Ki Talaash Hai, Na Tou Humsafar Ki Talaash Hai, where Manna Dey, Asha Bhosle, Sudha Malhotra, S.D. Batish and the late entrant Mohammed Rafi, along with other qawwals, cast a spell on the viewers. The pulsating tune of composer Roshan adds to the impact of Sahir Ludhianvi’s meaningful verses.

Mala and Naseem Begum’s qawwali from Pakistani film Mehtab, ‘Kya Ada-i-Dilbari Hai Ya Nigah-i-Naaz Hai’ is yet another qawwali with enthralling feet-tapping quality. Two qawwalis from Pakistani film Tauba, ‘Meri Tauba, Meri Tauba’ and ‘Mera Koi Naheen Hai Tere Siwa’ from Ishq-i-Habib, both set on religious themes, have stood the test of time too. By the way, one movie based on the life of a qawwali singer, with Rani in title role, Suraiya Bhopali, was a highly noteworthy movie. It was released in 1976. A year later the Indian blockbuster Amar Akbar Anthony featured an all time hit qawwali ‘Pardah Hai Pardah’, which showed Rishi Kapoor wooing Neetu Singh (as he did in real life). It was composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal and recorded in the highly expressive voice of Mohammed Rafi.

Back to men-women competition, a pedestrian form of qawwali popular among masses in India is one where gaudily dressed men and women recite couplets in Urdu which are penned in poor taste.

All said the contemporary scene of qawwali is not dismal. It may have its highs and lows, as it has been in the past, but to think that the genre of music is on its way out is simply impervious to reason. Every now and then you get to hear a new or a renewed qawwali which is bound to enthrall you. A case in point is Bhar Do Jholi Meri Ya Mohammed...’ which was sung soufully by Adnan Sami Khan for Bajrangi Bhaijan. It may have been a cover version of the Sabri Brothers’ popular qawwali, but it did build up the climax of a highly popular movie.

East meets West

Meet the Canadians and Americans bringing qawwali to the Western world

By Tahir Yahya Yousuf Zai

The group Fana Fi-Allah
The group Fana Fi-Allah

Pakistan’s music industry has seen its ups and downs but there has always been an audience dedicated, not to pop music or classic Lollywood, but to the less mainstream genre of qawwali.

Qawwali mostly circulates around three subjects: divine love, spiritual intoxication and the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions; private and personal reflections on these topics are sung in public.

While this music genre’s roots and history are based in the subcontinent, a group halfway across the world is bringing qawwali to a whole new audience. The California-based group Fana Fi-Allah (FFA) comprises Tahir Hussain Faridi, Aminah Chishti, Salim Chishti, Ali Shan, Lali Ghulabi, Jahangir Baba, Abrar Hussain, Israr Hussain and Ustad Dildar Hussain. The group is unusual in the sense that not only are its members Americans (who are not of South Asian origins) but it also features a woman — something rarely seen in qawwali groups.

After a successful tour in India, FFA is currently on tour in North America. Images on Sunday caught up with the traditional but innovative qawwali group in California to chat to FFA’s lead singer about when they first became interested in qawwali and the challenges they faced in learning the art of qawwali.

The qawwal must have in depth understanding of poetry and music so that it is delivered in its true sense — the reason we have a number of singers but very few qawwals. With the loss of many of qawwali icons such as the Sabri brothers, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Aziz Mian, and now, the recently assassinated Amjad Sabri, it took FFA more than just a leap of faith to bring the culture and tradition of Pakistan to the Western world in a live setting. All members in the group were indeed introduced to qawwali by these names only, through their records and cassettes.

While none of its members have been born into a qawwal family, they are keeping the tradition alive and have kept on singing qawwali despite the challenges they faced initially. Almost two decades ago, when they started out, the members faced a lot of hurdles, foremost of which was language and dialect. As Tahir recalls, “It was difficult to learn Punjabi, Persian and Saraiki and it took time to learn the proper pronunciation and the music itself is very different”.

Canadian-born Tahir donned his name under the spiritual Baba Farid Shakar of Pakpattan and has received strange reactions performing in the subcontinent; the reaction is more about astonishment than being rude as people are more accustomed to watching a South Asian qawwali party rather than a bunch of Canadians and Americans.

“We are very well received in India and Pakistan but there is that threat from a very small portion mostly since we have a female tabla nawaz [Aminah Chisti] and the conception about music being haram in Islam,” points out Tahir. Speaking of Aminah, Tahir qawwal is all praises. “She has made her mark trained with Ustad Dildar Hussain of the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan group.”

Having witnessed the culture first-hand, Tahir believes that news about Pakistan is mostly negative and biased, and hence his group wants to pay their respect by showing the real tradition of Pakistan which in his own words is “beautifully rich, profound and meaningful”. He and his group also stay away from the news and are extremely confident of visiting Pakistan in the future despite the assassination of their close colleague and friend Sabri.

Speaking of the gentle qawwal, Tahir gets emotional. “Amjad sahib was a great human and much more than just a qawwal. He would take me around town while we listened to music and we learnt so much from him”.

The group decided to dedicate their on-going North American tour to Sabri and was shocked to hear the news. The young qawwal was also filmed several times for FFA’s film Qawwali-Music of the Mystics, a documentary on qawwali which also features greats like Abida Parveen and Ustad Javed Bakshi Salamat.

FFA has all the ingredients and should be valued for stepping into a multidimensional field that not only requires one to be familiar with music but also sink into the subject. They have made a substantial mark in qawwali even though they have yet to produce an original piece of their own that would make them stand out even more.

The group has gained ground in an otherwise family-dominated field and shall likely break new ground in the future. They’re planning their schedule for yet another Pakistani tour. So stay tuned.

Fanna Fi-Allah can be contacted via their website Check out their current film project at

Rhythm of the Saints

Qawwali has strong roots in the subcontinent’s Sufi traditions and while the extremist tide may be rising, the Sufis have weathered much stronger storms over the centuries

By Qasim A. Moini

Qawwali, the mystical music of the Sufis, is an art form with deep roots where the Muslim historical experience in the subcontinent is concerned. It would not be wrong to say that this form of devotional music has — for centuries — been a part of life for the subcontinent’s Muslims.

There are clear reasons for this, primarily because Islam in this part of the world was introduced and popularised mainly by the Sufi silsilas (or brotherhoods), particularly the Chishty/Chishti silsila, which has an unabashed attachment to qawwali, as opposed to, for example, the Qadris, who generally oppose it.

Qawwali itself is the subcontinental manifestation of sama, which means ‘to listen’ in Arabic, an umbrella term covering various Sufi practices of chanting, singing and repeating various sacred formulae, or dhikr/zikr. Sama perhaps has been personified most famously by the Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi silsila, which traces its lineage to Hazrat-i-Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi. However, it should be clarified that sama is not just limited to the whirling Mevlevis, but covers a range of practices across the Muslim world, including qawwali.

At its core, qawwali tries to link the listener with a higher state of consciousness through the hypnotic, repeated chanting of sacred formulae. As the highly regarded Iranian scholar Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr has stated in his book Living Sufism, when referring to the Sufis’ attachment to mystical music and other arts: “The Sufis have been the cultivators of the arts, not because this is a goal of the Sufi path but because to follow Sufism is to become ever more aware of the Divine Beauty which manifests itself everywhere. …”

The Sufi mystics, particularly of the Chishty School, seemed to have this definition very much in mind when they used qawwali as a tool to propagate the faith in this region eight or so centuries ago.

Regarding the origins of sama and qawwali, as scholar Dr Tanvir Anjum notes in Chishti Sufis in the Sultanate of Delhi 1190-1400, quoting Fritz Meier: “…[T]he practices of sama and dhikr were developed” in the eight century. However, in the subcontinent, qawwali can be traced back to at least the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526AD), when, in the early days of the Sultanate, the Chishty Sufis started establishing themselves in northern India.

Dr Anjum adds that “The use of music in spiritual practices of the Chishtis, known as sama, was their characteristic feature from the earliest days” and that “Chishti Sufis earned immense popularity among the people owing to their practice of sama.”

Of course the originator of the Chishty order in the subcontinent is Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Hasan Chishty, whose tomb lies in Ajmer, Rajasthan. Khawaja Sahib, as he is also known, helped establish the Chishty silsila at the end of the 12th century in the subcontinent.

It is believed that Khawaja Moinuddin Chishty approved of sama at his khanqah — today’s dargah where the saint’s tomb is now located. In fact the performance of qawwali continues at the dargah to this day, adhering to many of the traditions Khawaja Sahib is believed to have established in his lifetime.

However, the devotional art form would further develop in Delhi, centre of the Sultanate, under one of Khawaja Sahib’s spiritual successors, Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya, popularly known as ‘Mehboob-i-Illahi’, particularly under one of Shaikh Nizam’s gifted mureeds, Hazrat Amir Khusrau.

As noted by scholar Khaliq Ahmad Nizami in his masterful work The Life and Times of Shaikh Nizam-u’d-Din Auliya: “The Shaikh was extremely fond of music (sama) as a form of spiritual nourishment. The khanqah often resounded to the mystic songs recited by the disciples as well as the professional musicians.”

But as Prof Nizami observes, attending the sama gathering was no freewheeling affair, as there were certain rules that had to be observed: “The Shaikh had strict rules regarding the participation of like-minded people, a ban on musical instruments, and the timings of audition parties. He did not agree with the view of the ‘Ulema that music as such was forbidden and tried to argue his position in light of the Traditions of the Prophet [PBUH].”

In fact, even today, especially at sama gatherings associated with traditionalist silsilas and khanqahs, those present are expected to adhere to certain etiquette, such as separation of the sexes etc.

Interestingly, the fact that many orthodox elements today do not approve of qawwali has an ancient precedent: even in the early days of the Sultanate, members of the orthodoxy tried to disrupt sama gatherings.

Prof Nizami points out that Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughluq, with whom Shaikh Nizam did not enjoy good relations, tried to place curbs on sama, which the Shaikh resisted, while Dr Anjum observes that Shaikh Nizam’s sama gathering was once attacked by troops loyal to the Sultan.

But Nizamuddin Auliya’s attachment to sama was not something even the power of the state could break. Prof Nizami says: “When the Shaikh heard mystic songs he went into ecstasy and tears flowed from his eyes” and that he was particularly fond of the verses of Shaikh Sa’adi.

According to Dr Anjum “Maulana Fakhr al-Din Zarradi, a disciple of Shaikh Nizamuddin, had written a treatise on sama titled Usul al-Sama” as a reply to the objections raised by the darbari (court) ulema of the time, while she cites Al Kindi, Al Razi, Al Farabi, Ibn Sina, Al Hujwiri [Data Ganj Bakhsh] and Al Ghazali, amongst other Muslim thinkers and divines of the classical age, who approved of sama.

All of the above clearly indicates that qawwali has a rich history in the subcontinent, intertwined with the religious and cultural history of the Muslims of this part of the world. Its contributions to Muslim culture are considerable; for example, even modern qawwalis — at least the ones performed under the aegis of silsilas — preserve centuries-old poetic traditions, such as the earthy Hindvi verses found in Amir Khusrau’s compositions, or the impeccable Farsi kalaam of Maulana Jaami or Maulana Rumi.

In fact, qawwali is an apt art form that encapsulates the Muslim cultural experience in the subcontinent: the cultural expressions of ‘outsiders’, such as the Arabs, Turks, Iranians and Central Asians, who arrived in India centuries ago, mingle with that of the ‘native’ inhabitants of this region to produce a beautiful synthesis.

And what of qawwali today? Though the more commercial performers have vulgarised it to an extent, some of the silsilas are endeavouring to retain the more traditional rendition of sama. Though what we hear on TV or the radio may be less than palatable to the traditionalist ear, what one hears at the dargah in Ajmer, at Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, and at Pakpattan, at the dargah of Baba Fariduddin Masood ‘Ganj Shakar’, still carries somewhat the scent of the unadulterated sama.

Speaking to this writer during an interview some years ago, the late Bahauddin Qawwal, one of the finest exponents of qawwali in Pakistan, denounced efforts to commercialise qawwali as ‘nach kood’ (song and dance) and ‘disco qawwali’. While it is impossible to retain the essence of what was performed at the khanqahs centuries ago, it is indeed true that the use of garish music and pedestrian lyrics has brought commercial qawwali far from its lofty origins.

What of qawwali’s future? Perhaps it is safe to say that as long as the silsilas and khanqahs continue to patronise the art form, much of its original essence can be maintained. Extremists have tried many times over the centuries — and are still trying — to silence sama. But something with roots so deep within the subcontinental Muslim psyche will be difficult to extinguish completely.

From the stirring Qaul (Man Kunto Maula) to the moving Rang (Aaj Rang Hai), these soulful renditions have been part of this region’s culture for centuries. They have introduced laymen to the Sufi path, one of esotericism and introspection, of compassion and brotherhood. The externalist and extremist tide may well be rising, but the Sufis — and their beloved sama — have weathered much stronger storms over the centuries.

The Harmonium vs. The Guitar

Why do I, being a millennial, choose to sway to Sabri’s masterstroke compared to the majority who plays Atif’s rendition on repeat?

By Rabia Mazhar

Atif Aslam
Atif Aslam

“He was very innocent, bechara. I don’t know why they killed him?”

“All he ever did was sing in the name of God. What was wrong about that?”

“Why are you being so affected? You weren’t related to him, so why such depression?”

Thousands of strange and familiar voices sounded in my head along with Sabri’s roaring “Ya Rasool Allah!” as I dropped my eyelids yet again, after accidentally opening them to the miserable, outer world. “19, 20, 21… Oh my God,” I thought to myself as my eyes popped up, along with my reclining back, my thumbnail embossed into the third section of my ring finger. It had just hit me: three weeks had passed since the assassination of Amjad Sabri without a single mention in the last couple of days.

“They took my childhood away from me. He was the last, famed member of the Sabri legacy who always gave me hope in the fact that qawwali breathes even today,” I had typed on my phone, captioning one of the many Sabri dedications I had shared on social media that day.

I had just made myself comfortable on my bed after a long day in the biology lab. Surprisingly, I had just squeezed in my earphones and hit the play button on Sabri’s version of ‘Taajdaar-i-haram’, preparing myself for a good siesta before Iftar.

Amjad Sabri
Amjad Sabri

A pre-slumber visit to the world of social media has become a bad habit, having lived alone in the hostels since three years, and so, succumbing to it, I was busy scrolling through Facebook. It was at that very moment when Sabri’s ‘Ya Rasool Allah ba ahwal-i-kharab-i-maa bibiinn’ echoed right through my ears, when I spotted a post informing me about his death. Staring at my screen in disbelief, I didn’t know how to decipher what had just struck me.

Post upon post and tear after tear was how I and millions across the globe spent their evening of June 22, 2016. Revisiting Sabri’s history of beautiful qawwalis, I kept returning to his version of ‘Taajdaar-i-Haram’ which was the closest rendition of the original masterpiece by the great Sabri Brothers.

People, however, disown me when I turn down Atif Aslam’s version of the aforementioned kalaam, which brought him into a different sort of limelight. His work in Coke Studio on that poetry was thought to be a proof of his versatility and was applauded by millions worldwide. Fans shared the song on social media, played it on repeat in their cars; restaurants across the nation kept switching between Atif’s ‘Taajdaar-i-Haram’ and Umair Jaswal’s ‘Sammi Meri Waar’ — people went bananas listening to the nine minute cover of the original 26 minute magnum opus.

I, on the other hand, don’t even carry the song as a part of my iTunes library.

Atif and String’s may have done a splendid job in giving a taste of qawwali to the Pakistani masses but it is absolutely, nowhere even near the original jewel in the Sabri crown. I can even go to the extent of declaring it to be incomparable to the premier.

The magic stirred by Ghulam Farid Sabri and his brother Maqbool Sabri, during those phenomenal 26 minutes, is on a level of its own. It’s a journey through spirituality — the music, the kalaam, those magnificent voices — everything just grows on the listener from start to finish. Play the song; close those eyes and ponder how those 26 minutes just flow by, touching every single string of the heart. As I wipe those tears off my eyes, each time the duration ends, I don’t regret that small part of my life, my soul chose to spend dancing to the tunes of the Sabri legend.

Being a member of the same age group of people or even younger than the majority who plays Atif’s rendition on repeat, why do I choose to sway to Sabri’s masterstroke? Why do I refuse to download the former, despite having the rest of the Coke Studio collection in my music archives?

The answer is very simple: it’s because similar to the majority of generations above me, I know the difference.

And why do I know the difference? Why do I behave exactly like my mother when it comes to going through 2015’s rendition of the timeless classic? It’s precisely because we both have been exposed to the original, genuine tour de force that the choice clearly dawns upon us. Similarly, the choice clearly springs upon all those people whose hearts cringe upon Atif’s short Aao Madinay chalain, as they’re unconsciously reminded of the heavy, elongated bellows of Sabri’s Issi maheenay chalain, aao Madinay chalain!

Relentlessly, as much as it hurts to admit, the fact cannot be denied that our generation, along with the generations to come, has not been subjected to the true essence of qawwali. The qawwali is an extremely prized, highly esteemed form of music and art, boasted by Pakistan since decades, even before existence. From Bahauddin Khan Qawwal to Aziz Mian, from Abdullah Niazi Qawwal to Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal and from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Abida Parveen, our heritage has always rejoiced in the art of qawwali. Sabri Brothers have been known to convert crowds of non-Muslim listeners to Islam as they conducted their power-packed, spiritually moving shows worldwide.

If our generation was educated on the history and art of one of the most beautiful ways of Tariqat; had Bhar Do Jholi and Khwaja Ki Deewani been on our tongues and had we known the importance and elegance of proper, genuine qawwali — then I can safely say that Coke Studio wouldn’t even have attempted giving Taajdaar-i-Haram to a pop star like Atif Aslam. What’s more, Atif Aslam, himself, wouldn’t have accepted an offer to attempt covering the magic, previously stirred by the experts.

Google the premier chef d’oeuvre performed by the Sabri legend and see the difference yourself. And even if one inch of your heart is successfully touched by that brilliant work, consider it your duty to at least educate your children about qawwali. Give them both the options and let them choose for themselves — but at least expose them to the initial track.

Money back guarantee promised on the multiple sways to Ya Mustafa! Ya Mujtaba!

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 24th, 2016



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