Sufism is an inward dimension of Islam. There are many suggested origins of the term ‘Sufi’ but there is a general consensus that the term stemmed out from the Arabic word ‘suf’ which refers to the wool which was worn by ascetics and mystics.
The Sufi Khanqahs played a remarkable role in popularising the idea of sufism in the subcontinent. Khanqahs were lodges, community centers or dormitories run by Sufis. Students would pray, read and engage in Dhikr (remembrance of God) together at Khanqahs.
Depiction of Sufi disciples learning at a Sufi Khanqah. (Painting by Eugene Baugnies)
Sufism has a rich history in the subcontinent dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. These mystic traditions became more visible after Khwaja Razi-ud-Din Muhammad Baqi Billah (whose tomb is in Delhi) introduced the Naqshbandi Order of Sufism in India. This Order was founded by Baha-ud-Din Naqshband of Turkestan.
To this date, Sufism remains a component of the Pakistani national identity. Across the country, you can observe the idea of saints and shrines. There is Sufi poetry and expression in all regional languages of Pakistan. Bulleh Shah in Punjabi, Abdul Latif Bhitai in Sindhi, Rahman Baba in Pashto, Mast Twakkali in Balochi are some major regional sufi poets whose works are still read and appreciated all over Pakistan to this day.
Mausoleum of sufi saint Shah Rukne Alam in Multan which was constructed between 1320-24
Shrine of Baba Ghundi in Chapursan Valley, 3000 meters above sea level (left) and Shrine of Bilawal Shah Noorani in the Kirthar Mountain Range, Balochistan. Built in the late 15th century (right)
The Sufi saints and their shrines have a massive impact on popularizing Sufi music in Pakistan. One major reason was that the Sufis expressed their message of peace and harmony in regional languages so they were able to build larger audiences. Their expressions in the form of poetry and music were embraced by young and old alike.
A Qawwal group performing at the Ajmer Sharif Dargah, Rajasthan.
Sufi Music radiates a devotional aura that takes the listener through a journey of introspection. It became very popular because Sufis expressed harmony, peace and love among all people by performing live with a party of musicians.
The most renowned form of Sufi music is Qawwali, which began in the subcontinent during the early 13th century. Musicians and their disciples would sit together where some played eastern instruments including harmonium and tabla, while others clapped to form a constant rhythm. One or more individuals would recite the Sufi kalam in eastern Ragas (eastern melodic framework) to build a whole experience.
Over time, Qawwali began to take new forms. More categories of expression began to emerge like hamd (praise for God), naat (expression in praise of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)), marsiya (poem written to commemorate the martyrdom & valour of Prophet (pbuh)’s grandson Hussain ibn Ali (as)), ghazal (poetic expression in Arabic, Urdu & Farsi), manqabat (sufi devotional poem in the praise of Prophet (pbuh)’s son-in-law, Ali Ibn Abi Talib (as)).
Pakistan has produced a plethora of Sufi Qawwals whose works enabled this form of Sufi music to go global.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is considered as the greatest Qawwal to have ever lived. His works in manqabats and ghazals are known worldwide, especially his collaboration with music director, Peter Gabriel. The main theme of Nusrat’s music revolved around divine love and separation. A little snippet from one of his most known works called Sanu Ik Pall Chayn Na Aaway (I can’t find a moment’s peace):
Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan mesmerizing a live audience
Abida Parveen, dubbed the “Queen of Sufi Music”, is one of the world's greatest mystic singers. Her works have been appreciated across the globe and her career spreads over decades. Parveen is known for her signature Sufi attire and persona. Unlike Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Parveen performs as a solo artist.
There is a rich aura of divine truth in her works. In one of her ghazals, Yaar Ko Humne, she says:
یار کو ھم نے جا بجا دیکھا
(I saw my beloved in all I saw)
کہیں ظاہر کہیں چھپا دیکھا
(At times revealed, hidden at times)
Abida Parveen performing a live Qawwali
The 1970s saw the rise of the Sabri Brothers. They are the only Qawwali ensemble in history to have gone on a world tour. Sabri Brothers added a new flare to Qawwali. It was at this time Sufi music was embraced in commercial terms. Major record labels began signing Qawwals because more people were listening to this genre than ever.
Majority of their work revolved around hamd, naat & manqabat. “Tajdar-e-Haram” is a magnum opus of the Sabri Brothers:
قسمت میں میری چین سے جینا لکھ دے
(Let a life of peace and contentment be my fate)
ڈوبے نہ کہیں میرا سفینہ لکھ دے
(May my ship never sink even in troubled waters)
جنت بھی گوارا ھے مگر میرے لیے
(It's not that heaven would not be acceptable to me, but)
اے کاتب تقدیر مدینہ لکھ دے ۔
(O Writer of Destinies, let Medina be my fate)
Sabri Brothers performing Amir Khusro’s kalam live in a Qawwali
The late 90s saw the novel idea of fusion of Sufi expression with Rock music.
Pakistani rock band, Junoon, was the pioneer of Sufi Rock in South Asia. They blended traditional Pakistani folk music, and eastern poetry with Rock melodies and instruments, which was well received by the youth of the time. Junoon sold millions of copies in both India and Pakistan with their 1998 album, Azadi (Urdu for “freedom”)
Left to right: bassist, Brian O’Connell, vocalist, Ali Azmat, and lead guitarist and songwriter, Salman Ahmed
Rising to fame in 2003, Rahat Fateh Ali is one of the most sought after playback singers in the South Asian entertainment industry today. He is the first Pakistani to have performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. He trained under the maestro Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan himself and has brought forward the latter’s Qawwali traditions for the new generations to hear and experience.
Rahat Fateh Ali performing with his Qawwal group in 2019
Sufi music is on the rise amoungst the new generations, with young bands fusing it with other genres to not only build an audience but also bring a change to the society. Badnaam is an example of such a band. They gained popularity because of their sufi rock genre and the combination of a unique performing style and use of strong vocals. They were the runner’s up in the 2017 Pepsi Battle of the Bands competition.
Left to right: bassist, Raheem Shahbaz Sunny, lead guitarist and vocalist, Ahmed Jillani and drummer, Lala Ahsan
What started from the Khanqahs and shrines as a form of devotional music, has now gone beyond regions and languages to become an element of national identity. With the changing tides of time, Sufi music has been able to keep its course and fascinate listeners all around the world, both old and young alike.
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