Qawwalis: The Road to Spiritual Ecstasy

A friend said of Qawwalis: “introduction to this genre of music for the adolescent is ‘shor-‘ (noise), not appreciated by an unwilling listener. With developing interest an ‘ishq –’ (a romantic attachment) is formed where the listener identifies with the lyrics on a passionate level. For whose who search on a spiritual level, Qawwalis become a companion, with each particular Qawwali developing deeper – as deep as the listener is willing to go, until it becomes ‘rizq-‘ (a level of nourishment which provides peace within). With the last stage, ’yaqeen’, true understanding of the essence of the Qawali occurs. For most, this occurs towards the end of life or at the summit of the path of Walaya (epitome of self realisation)”. This echoes a truth which most spiritual searchers, having come across Qawwalis, can relate to at one stage or another.

Sufism pursues a communion or consciousness of an ultimate reality, spiritual truth, or God.

The repertoire of Qawwalis goes hand in hand with Sufi philosophy, the former can’t exist without the latter. A typically undiscovered mystical branch within Islam, Sufism is largely a spiritual quest; a union of the soul with a larger source of knowledge. Taking the knowledge of ‘self’ to be restricted, Sufism pursues a communion or consciousness of an ultimate reality, spiritual truth, or God. The concept of the self in this light, is taken as a mere reflection of absolute knowledge.  Dervishood (Living according to Sufism) is adopted by individuals which aim to achieve the experience of ecstatic states (hal), the extinction of the individual personality (fana), communion with God (haqiqa) and higher knowledge (marifat). With a base in Sufism, Qawalis were fused with traditional Indian music and have since developed into an art form that can be experienced throughout the Indian subcontinent.

A Qawali performance typically consists of nine men: a lead singer, one or two side singers, one or two harmoniums, and percussion. There are also four or five men who repeat key verses as well as aid and abet percussion by hand-clapping. Qawwalis tend to begin gently and build steadily, reaching a very high energy level in order to induce hypnotic states, both among the musicians and throughout the audience. The coordination of these in timing, feeling and spiritual energy inevitably draws the audience into the experience. This practice shares its spirit with Sufi whirling of dervishes, both cases are a form of Sufi practice called Sema, where practitioners are reaching out of this world in order to connect to a higher form of energy through music and dance. They are performing to reach ‘Majdhb’ (religious or spiritual ecstasy). These practices are not a form of entertainment; the audience simply get drawn into the trance-like experience as a result of the mental and physical intensity of the act itself .

The songs which constitute Qawali repertoire are usually 15 to 30 minutes long. The poetry in Qawwalis is implicitly understood to be spiritual in meaning, yet the lyrics can sound wildly secular or even outright hedonistic. To the unaccustomed listener, these songs may seem antithetical to the teachings of orthodox Islam, but Qawwals and their audiences readily recognise the imagery as a metaphorical expression of the euphoria brought about by communion with the divine spirit.

How strange is this naivety, trying to conceal yourself from yourself.

To end, the Qawwali “Hain Kahan Ka Irada tumhara Sanam” is one that I’d like to highlight. My first interaction echoed romantic notions; it captured a youthful perception of love and human relationships, depicting a story of a mysterious lover sharing his thoughts and grief with his beloved. It developed into a deeper understanding of the spiritual longing that human beings experience. These lyrics were transformed completely, becoming an agonising utterance of a soul that yearns to reach out and embrace something missing, something it has only just discovered, but that has not been completely understood, yet. ‘Kitni pukhta hai meri naadani, tujko tuj se chupa raha hun mein’: how strange is this naivety, trying to conceal yourself from yourself. The implication here being that we are connected to a greater source and that it’s our naivety that prevents us from discovering what we are looking for.


Author: Ursala Khan