Sufi music is part of a centuries-old tradition. This tradition focuses energy on spiritual development.
“Sufism” (Arabic Tasawwuf) is a word which probably has its origin in the wearing of undyed wool (suf) as a mark of personal penitence. The Sufis are also known as fakirs and dervishes, both words originally denoting that these were people who believed in being poor.
The use of music as a spiritual force was discussed at great length by al-Gazali (1085-1111) and towards the end of the 11th century there arose the tradition of the sama, a spiritual concert which usually included a singer and instrumentalists. Sufism also emphasises personal experience of the Divine rather than focusing solely on the teachings of religious scholars. Sufis may also be members of either the Sunni or Shi’a branches of Islam.
Qawwali is a traditional form of Islamic song found in Pakistan and India that dates back more than 700 years. Qawwali may thus be understood as an elegant vocalisation of this remembrance.
Qawwali is performed in a simple verse-and-chorus format. The qawwal carries each verse, passing his lines to the other singers. As each verse builds to a climax, the singers passionately return to the chorus, over and over again, for up to twenty minutes. Words are repeated until they lose their meaning, leaving only the music and the remembrance behind.
Qawwali is closely linked to the devotional life and is sung in praise of God, the Prophet of Islam the saints, the friends of God and beloved, all set together within the theme of love.
The words of Qawwali are sung repeatedly with variations intended to bring out their deeper meaning. The words are repeated over and over to the point where they cease to have any meaning. The purpose of this is to draw both singer and listener into that trance-like state known as hal. Ideally, those participating are then drawn into a state of spiritual enlightenment known as fana or ecstasy.
The underlying message of Qawwali is one of love, peace and understanding. This is made clear by the fact that Sufi saints are still revered today by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike. For centuries Qawwali has been inspired and propagated by the Chisthi school of Sufism and, although it is of Indo-Pakistani origin, today it is loved and practised all over the world.