Switching gears from great singers of the Christian ‘gospel’ tradition, we move to another form of spiritual music: qawwali.
Much of South Asia’s Muslim culture and worship was born and unfolds around the shrines (dargah) of sufi poets and teachers who are usually revered as saints. The pace and feel of life around these shrines is very different than the often solemn, segregated and increasingly shrill atmosphere that dominates the large ‘mainstream’ mosques (masajid).
At the fairs that mark key dates in the life of the pir (saint), especially the urs (death anniversary) the surrounding countryside comes to life like savannah after rain. Tents large and small pop up and all manner of hucksters, carnival masters, caterers, itinerant shopkeepers and wandering holy men converge to fill them up far into each night. Buses and pickup trucks loaded with villagers roar back and forth between nearby towns, guns are shot occasionally, into the air mostly and of course everywhere there is music. Pop music blasts from the restaurants. In small groups men pluck and bow battered sarangis, iktaars and beat dholak singing songs with deep folk roots. And of course late into the night qawwal parties regale listeners with songs of praise to Mohammad, the Koran, Allah and the local pir.
I quote from a study of a shrine the Washerman’s Dog used to frequent years ago, Golra Sharif, a few short kilometres from Islamabad.
At about 10:15 a.m. attendants roll out carpets on which the murids will sit in the large assembly hall. The pir sits at one end and his male murids (disciples) sit in rows along the three remaining sides. A basket of flowers are placed next to the pir along with other decorations. The qawwals, one playing a sitar, another a box harmonium and a third drums, sit on one side in the front row so that the murids have ease of access to them. Next to them sits a hafiz (one who knows the Quran by heart) who opens and closes hour long performances with a Quranic reading.
During the performance, the pir, usually three or four times, gives a rupee to the hafiz, who in turn gives it to the qawwals. This triggers a stread of murids who leaving their seats, offer money to the qawwals. While the qawwali continues the secretary, sitting near the door, hands the pir his mail and periodically confers with him over replies. Despite this undercurrent of activity a real feeling of reverence is generated and rapt attention characterises the murids. No one breaks the mood by talking or smoking—with their shoes removed and heads covered, occasionally swaying with the rhythm, one is left in no doubt that is an act of devotion and considered as such. (Pirs, Shrines and Pakistani Islam, P.Lewis, Rawalpindi, 1985)
The most important dargah in India, if not South Asia, is that of Moinuddin Chisti, the founder of the Chisti silsila (order) of Sufis in the sub-continent. Located in Ajmer, Rajasthan, where he came as a preacher from Iran via Bukhara, the great center of Islamic learning in the early middle ages. His tomb in Ajmer rose to a position of preeminent prominence during the time of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (16th century) who humbly walked to Ajmer to honor the sufi after hearing qawwals singing the great saint’s praises. Ever since it has been one of the major pilgrimage sites for not only Muslims, but Hindus, Sikhs and even Christians.
In this post the Washerman’s Dog offers a selection of contemporary qawwali by Haji Aslam Sabri a devotee of Moinuddin Chisti and frequent visitor to Ajmer Sharif. Sabri’s style in this collection is more restrained then the fiery vocal pyrotechnics of the performers more familiar to Western audiences. Indeed, in some instances, the feel touches the fringes of mainstream ‘filmi’ qawwali, but Haji sahib’s soft tenor voice and lovely Urdu pronunciation keeps the music true to its devotional roots. Indeed, one can argue that it shares something with the Hindu bhajan (hymn) in its quiet intensity and allows the worshipper to focus on the real object. As mighty as Rizwan and Muazzam are, one can’t help but feeling as one listens to some of their more energetic qawwalis that one is sitting dangerously close to a runaway train. The highpoint of this volume is the 30 minute qawwali in praise of the Mecca. Mohammad ke sheher mein (In Mohammad’s City) is a masterpiece that in addition to relating the healing and holy properties of Mecca includes poetry by Mohammad Iqbal and Sufi Bismil Baba.
1. Bigri Banti Hain Unka Khaya
2. Dar Chood ke Aap ka Sabir
3. Jaan Se Piyara
4. Main Ghulam-e-Mustafa Hun
5. Mere Sabir Nirali Teri Sha
6. Mil Gaya Unka Dar Jisko
7. Muhammad ke Shahar Mein
9. Sabir ke Martabe ko Kya
10. Wa ko Naam Moinuddin Pyaro
As an Easter bonus, the Washerman’s Dog has included a small mix of other qawwals.
1. Makkah Madina (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan)
2. Teri Ishq Nachaya (Wadali Brothers)
3. Allah Ho Ya Rahman (Rizwan and Muazzam)
4. Mohabbat Karne Walo Hum Mohabbat (Sabri Brothers)