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Can qawwali be truly understood through a secular lens?

A secular understanding of qawwali is anachronistic to the pre-modern progenitors of the art form.
Updated May 25, 2018 05:37pm

One of the characteristics of the modern weltanschauung (worldview) is to identify religion as distinct from culture.

Islam, and Islam in Pakistan, doesn't escape this bifurcation either. One popular example is qawwali.

The recent secularisation of qawwali — the shift away from Sufi dargahs to concert halls and recording labels — has led to a re-imagining of qawwali as expressive of the cultural traditions of Pakistan and (north) India, related only marginally and incidentally to the religion in whose cradle it developed.

Such a secular understanding of qawwali is anachronistic to the pre-modern progenitors of the art form.

Read next: When the man who wrote Pakistan's national anthem saw the divine in Hindu god Krishna

The Chishti order, the most prominent Sufi brotherhood in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, has long celebrated the normativity of qawwali as an expression of divine love.

Annemarie Schimmel has noted the phenomenon in the Mystical Dimensions of Islam as "the most widely known expression of mystical life in Islam."

American author Leonard Lewisohn, in his article The Sacred Music of Islam: Sama in the Persian Sufi Tradition, points out that qawwali is stressed upon by some South Asian Sufis not only as legally permissible (halal), but as a required religious practice (wajib).

Inherent religious pluralism

Qawwali also has a long history of engaging with multiple religious traditions. The religious landscape of north India and Pakistan provides a literary context of diverse religious motifs, metaphors and symbols.


Sufi repertoire traditionally includes non-Islamic, particularly Hindu, religious leitmotifs.

Such a pluralistic approach is evident in a representative qawwali, Kanhayya (Krishna), composed by Nawab Sadiq Jung Bahadur Hilm and performed by Abu Muhammad and Fareed Ayaz.

The qawwal sings of his love for Krishna and relates a heart-wrenching account of the afflictions he endures through separation with his beloved.

Kahuun kyaa tere bhuulne ke main vaarii
Kanhayya yaad hai kuch bhii hamaarii

What can I say, even for your neglect
I could give my life.
Do you remember me a little,
O' my tormenting Kanhayya!

Radha-Krishna as the archetype of spiritual love is based on the 12th century lyrical epic, Gita Govinda (Love Song of the Dark Lord), composed by the saint-poet Shri Jayadeva of Bengal, and is considered a religious work in the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism.

It describes the seeker's longing for the divine through the idiom of human love and courtship. Metaphorically, the epic narrates the yearning of the devotee to achieve union with the beloved.

It corresponds roughly, in terms of spiritual symbolism, poetic beauty, and literary influence, with the Layla-Majnun trope in Persian poetic tradition.

Payyaan parii mahaadev ke jaakar
Tonaa bhii kar kar haarii
Kanhayya yaad hai kuch bhii hamaarii

I threw myself at the feet of Mahadev;
I even tried wizardry but lost.
Do you remember me a little,
O' my tormenting Kanhayya!

Expanding mental horizons

In the popular Muslim imagination, Hindu beliefs and symbols have sometimes served to illustrate 'inferior' forms of belief.

In the Sufi tradition, however, such symbols were often inverted to evoke the highest form of love, ishq-i-haqiqi.

Sufis favoured paradoxical and perplexing statements and symbols in poetry and music to encourage listeners to transcend the norms and conventions.

Also read: Why is great philosopher Kautilya not part of Pakistan’s historical consciousness?

Such hermeneutical exercises share some parallels with the tradition of Koan in Zen Buddhism — Koan is a paradoxical statement or question intended as a rhetorical tool to guide the seeker towards a higher level of Selfhood.

Perplexity (hayra) in the Sufi context seeks to de-stabilise pre-supposed categories — the understanding of Islam learnt by rote.

Sufis have long criticised this type of adherence to Islam limited to exteriorised and formal aspects of the religion.

The abandon with which Sufis treat Islamic rituals and forms has been misinterpreted to support a view of spirituality, or Sufism itself, disassociated with religion.


The modern category of religion which allows for an understanding of spirituality independent from religion would have been anachronistic to any pre-modern Sufi.

Through such daring and critical statements, Sufis entreated the Muslims to transcend these forms through spiritual realisation — the ascending stages of human perfection resulting in proximity to God.

One can only transcend what one has mastered, and these Sufis sought to master the external religious forms to access their inner reality, which as veil, al-hijab in Islam and maya in Hinduism, at once hides and manifests.

Related: How shrines helped indigenise Islam and Christianity in South Asia

Krishna in qawwali rests on the paradox of religious forms, where an Islamic tradition valourises Hindu forms and symbols.

Such performances of perplexity signaled the move to de-exceptionalise Islam in the treatment of other religious traditions, to the ire of stricter theologians.

Sufis exhorted the listeners to see beyond forms (surat) to the underlying spiritual meanings (ma'na) — towards the realisation of an inner kinship of religions.

Hindu symbolism in qawwali signifies, above all, the possibility of many religious paths leading to the summit of salvation and enlightenment.

Qawwali seeks to guide the listener beyond the multiplicity of religious forms to the underlying unity at the heart of religions.

Illustration by Zoha Bundally


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