Between 1947 and the early 1950s, much of the music played on the state-owned Radio Pakistan comprised Urdu film songs, some Western popular and Eastern classical music, ghazals and patriotic ditties. Regional folk music (Punjabi, Sindhi, Baloch, Pashtun and Bengali) was largely avoided because the state and government of Pakistan believed these might promote “provincialism”, which was greatly discouraged during that period.

In fact, provincialism based on ethnic considerations was seen as an existential threat by the state and a serious challenge to Pakistani federalism. There was also the view among Pakistan’s early nationalist ideologues that classical South Asian music genres were either entirely “Hindu” in nature or largely informed by Hindu rituals. In an attempt to address the issues of provincialism in the region’s folk music, and the Hindu origins of South Asian classical music genres, the state began a process of localising them in the context of Pakistani nationhood and the Muslim separatism that had led to the creation of Pakistan.

The traditional Sufi devotional music genre, the qawwali, did not have any provincial or non-Muslim bent, but it too did not sit well with the state and government. Qawwalis were only rarely played on state-owned radio. Traditionally, they were mostly sung in Punjabi or Persian. Secondly, the genre wasn’t quite able to migrate to the mainstream from its core areas of origin, ie the Sufi shrines.

Qawwalis delivered in Urdu were rare, even though some attempts had been made in this context in India before Partition. But during the period when the state was attempting to divorce the provincial and the so-called Hindu influences from folk music and South Asian classical music genres, and consequently bring them in line with the still-nascent ideas of Pakistani nationalism and Muslim identity, the qawwali began to be featured on Radio Pakistan.

The setting of its entry was rather dramatic. In 1953, the state had crushed a violent anti-Ahmadiyya movement led by radical Deobandi and Islamist groups. During the commotion, the state and government had distributed pamphlets authored by the modernist Islamic scholar Khalifa Abdul Hakim, in which he tried to demonstrate that the famous Muslim poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (adopted as Pakistan’s “national poet”) was squarely opposed to the manner in which the Muslim clergy and ulema had practised and advocated Islam.

More than the liberalism often exhibited by the country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (d 1948), the state decided to utilise the writings and ideas of Iqbal to neutralise the versions of Islam being championed by radical Islamic outfits.

Unlike Eastern classical music, whose roots were largely pre-Islamic, qawwali was one music genre in the region whose origins and identity were almost entirely Muslim. Yet, this genre’s emphasis on reflecting a more esoteric strand of the faith and its relationship with the region’s shrine culture made it difficult for it to be accepted as a viable urban indulgence.

South Asian Sufism, especially when expressed as Barelvism, was largely seen as “irrational” and “superstitious” by the modernist founders of Pakistan, and as “distorted Islam” and even “heretical” by the Islamists and the orthodox ulema. But after the shock of the violence that occurred during the 1953 anti-Ahmadiyya riots in the Punjab, Radio Pakistan decided to start airing qawwalis.

Even though this was a part of the state’s attempt to use Iqbal’s ideas on Islam and Muslim nationalism (“Iqbaliat”) to counter the theological and political narratives shaped by Islamic groups, the fact was that Iqbal was not a great admirer of the way Sufism had evolved in India. So, in 1955, the state instructed Radio Pakistan to formulate qawwalis that were to be penned and sung in Urdu and to try and integrate Iqbal’s poetry – at least the essence of it.

This was the first time the Urdu qawwali was introduced to such a large number of urban listeners. But it did not enjoy much traction once stripped of its traditional esoteric dimensions, which were replaced by the manufactured body of nationalistic idioms and imagery. However, by the late 1950s, Urdu qawwalis containing more esoteric and religious themes were finally allowed to be recorded and played by Radio Pakistan.

This is when the genre really took off, especially after the Ayub regime came to power through a military coup d’état and began to mould Sufism according to his “modernist” ideas.

The early growth of Urdu qawwali was further compounded by the interest shown in it by the country’s largest record label, EMI-Pakistan. Qawwali groups such as the Sabri Brothers adopted the spiritual imageries and concepts of Punjabi and Persian qawwalis that were being performed at shrines for hundreds of years (mostly as odes to the Prophet and various Sufi saints). The brothers fused these with the sonic dynamics and the rich sentimentality of popular Urdu poetry used in post-Partition Urdu film songs, to gradually construct the modern Urdu qawwali genre.

There was a tradition in the region in which qawwalis were performed at shrines, every Thursday. This was alive during the time of Partition as well. In 1960, encouraged by the Ayub regime, Radio Pakistan embraced this tradition when it started to broadcast live qawwali performances (mainly by the Sabri Brothers) every Thursday evening.

But again, the qawwalis needed to be delivered in Urdu and their lyrics required to steer clear of phraseologies that might negate the manner in which the regime was constructing its “modernist” version of Sufism, ie as an ancient (and proto-modernist) expression of religious moderation and tolerance. The Urdu qawwali’s early popularity was almost entirely centred in Karachi, even though the genre’s Punjabi strand continued to be popular in and around Sufi shrines in the Punjab.

Interestingly, despite Sufism/Barelvism being ripe among the Sindhis of Sindh, there was never anything known (or even later invented) as Sindhi qawwali. The musical aspect of Sindhi Sufism continued to be rooted in Sindhi folk music.

By the mid-1960s, the radio was regularly playing Urdu qawwalis. This genre’s new fan base within the country’s growing urban middle and elite classes – who still refused to visit shrines but had begun to buy into the Ayub regime’s idea of Sufism – began hosting ‘qawwali evenings’ at their homes and clubs.

Young, aspiring qawwals such as Aziz Mian often bounced between performing Punjabi qawwalis at the popular shrine of Sufi saint Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore, and at private gatherings hosted by military officers, businessmen, bureaucrats and industrialists, where he performed Urdu qawwalis. In an intriguing piece in a 1966 edition of the now-defunct daily Morning News, the writer describing one such gathering at the home of a senior bureaucrat wrote:

“… jet-set young and old, gentlemen and ladies, sat on a carpet as the qawwali party mesmerised them with hypnotic sonnets praising the Almighty. The entrancing music made them gently swing their heads as they raised their drinks in appreciation.” The writer then added: “Gentries at such gatherings do not allow any kind of behaviour one often sees at qawwali performances at shrines where the common audience frequently consumes charas (cannabis) and dance wildly...”

By this, the writer probably meant the dhamal, an anarchic South Asian folk dance believed to have been inspired by the Sufi concept of a person being possessed by an intense love of and for the almighty. The dance is often performed by devotees at shrines in India and Pakistan, mainly to the beat of a dhol. Certainly, this dance form came across as being crude and disorderly to the aesthetic and social sensibilities of the “sophisticated” urban segments and the Ayub regime.

It was also offensive to the self-claimed keepers of faith in religious outfits, even though they had found the Ayub government’s “modernist Islam” to be an equally pugnacious and devious expression of secularism. But when the government began to crumble in 1968, in the face of a violent uprising against it – triggered by left-wing student groups and then joined by a plethora of opposition parties – various distinct expressions of populism began to seep into the body politic.

Excerpted with permission from Soul Rivals: State, Militant and Pop Sufism in Pakistan, Nadeem Farooq Paracha, Westland.