The Evolution of Qawwali Music from its Traditional to its Modern Form

Filed in Articles by on February 12, 2024


Qawwali music is a Sufi Islamic devotional singing, originating from the subcontinent of India, and very popular in the Punjab and Sindh regions of Pakistan; In Hyderabad, Delhi, and other parts of India, especially North India; as well as the Dhaka and Chittagong Divisions of Bangladesh. More details below.

Qawwali Music

Qawwali is also spelled as qawwali in India and Pakistan. An energetic musical performance of Sufi Muslim poetry that aims to lead listeners to a state of religious and spiritual to spiritual union with Allah (God).

The music was popularized outside of South Asia in the late 20th century, owing largely to its promotion by the world music industry.


Originally the music was performed in Sufi shrines or dargahs throughout South Asia, it gained mainstream popularity and an international audience in the late 20th century.

Internationally Qawwali music gained exposure through the work of Aziz Mian, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Sabri Brothers largely due to several releases on the Real World label, followed by live appearances at WOMAD festivals.

There are other famous qawwali singers who contributed to the growth of the music.

The name is derived from the Arabic word qaul, meaning “to speak.” qawwali is a musical vehicle by which a group of male musicians called qawwals deliver inspirational Sufi messages to a traditionally male assembly of devotees.

A typical qawwali ensemble consists of one or two lead vocalists; a chorus of hand-clapping qawwals who sing the refrains; a harmonium (a small, hand-pumped, portable organ) player,

Who supports the fixed melody as well as the melodic improvisations of the soloist; and a percussionist, who articulates the metric framework using a dholak (double-headed drum) or a tabla (a pair of single-headed drums).

Qawwali performances may also be arranged to offer spiritual nourishment on other special occasions.

Traditionally, Qawwali is an exclusively male-dominated activity: the spiritual guide, performers and listeners are all male.

Qawwali’s Religious Roots

Qawwali has a long religious heritage that dates back to the thirteenth century. Sufi-sm, often known as ‘Islamic mysticism,’ is a kind of Islam whose adherents believe in learning from teachers rather than depending on texts. Sufism has a major influence on Islamic literature, music, and the arts in general.

Qawwali music originated at Sufi shrines and was typically sung as part of a’mehfil-e sama,’ a gathering for spiritual listening held on the anniversary of the shrine’s saint’s death. The song is still very religious now.

Qawwali (Punjabi: (Shahmukhi), (Gurmukhi); Urdu: (Nasta’liq); Hindi: (Devanagari); Bengali: (Bengali)) is a type of Sufi Islamic devotional singing that originated in the Indian subcontinent

It is particularly popular in Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh provinces, as well as India’s Hyderabad, Delhi, and other parts of the country, particularly North India, and Bangladesh.

Originally performed at Sufi shrines or dargahs across South Asia, it achieved mainstream prominence and a global audience in the late twentieth century.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Aziz Mian, and the Sabri Brothers’ work gained international acclaim thanks to many releases on the Real World label, followed by live appearances at WOMAD festivals.

Fareed Ayyaz & Abu Muhammad, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Badar Miandad, Rizwan & Moazzam Duo, the late Amjad Sabri, Wadali Brothers, Nizami Bandhu, and Bahauddin Qutbuddin are just a few of the well-known Qawwali singers.

Most modern Qawwali singers, such as Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Fareed Ayyaz & Abu Muhammad, are from the ‘Qawwal Bachon ka Gharana’ style of Qawwali, which originated in Delhi before 1947 and then migrated to Pakistan.

The Evolution of Qawwali Music                                                       

Though this specific localized version of Sufi practice was restricted to males, it has currently evolved to include females. The subgenres of sama’ are generally gender-segregated in order to prevent immoral male-female interaction according to Islamic ruling.

Qawwali is context-sensitive to the degree that its performance mode cannot be separated from the music itself.

When either is altered, as did the mode when it began to be recorded in the 20th century, the purpose and impact of Qawwali are drastically reshaped.

A Qawwal is a trained individual who repeats such utterances, serving as a medium for ordinary listeners to increase their knowledge through oral transmission or advance their spiritual state.

Thus, there are two functions to Qawwali. One role is to act as a medium to proliferate Islamic teachings, values, and attitudes to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The other is to induce Sufi seekers on a particular spiritual path with a feeling of elation, serving as a medium for spiritual ascension.

The Key Names in Qawwali

So, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is a major Qawwali artist, but who else should we be listening to?

The Sabri Brothers are also a major power in the Qawwali music industry. They performed for 60 years, from 1956 to 2016, and recorded 53 albums throughout that time. Their music is well worth listening to.

And it isn’t just India that has generated major names in Qawwali; Pakistan has a long tradition of producing stars as well. Amjad Farid Sabri was one of Pakistan’s most famous Qawwali musicians and a well-known figure in the genre. Sadly, he was killed by extremists in Karachi.

His nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, today one of the biggest stars in Qawwali music, has carried on Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s tradition.

Since the age of seven, he has been trained by his uncle and has provided music to a number of Bollywood and Hollywood films. He even served as a judge on the Indian talent show Chhote Ustaad.

Jyoti and Sultana Nooran are two of the most well-known female stars in the genre. They rose to prominence after appearing on MTV India’s talent show Sound Trippin and singing in a number of Bollywood films.

Qawwali Music Performance

If you attend a Qawwali performance, be prepared for an unforgettable experience.

Both performers and audiences have been known to be hypnotized by Qawwali music, which is played with the purpose of transporting listeners to a state of religious ecstasy.

The response to Qawwali aims to bring everyone involved into spiritual oneness with God. Seeing a performance, regardless of your religious beliefs, can be an intense and profoundly touching experience.

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