The story is told that one day, Akbar the Great heard some wandering minstrels singing about the glorious wali who lay slumbering in the desert town of Ajmer. He enquired of the malangs about this great soul who moved them to sing so beautifully. They replied in verse:
Hazaron badshah aaye
Hazaron sultanat badli
Na badli na badlegi huqumat mere khwaja ki
Mere khwaja badshah hai
[Thousands of emperors have come
Thousands of kingdoms have fallen
The kingdom of my lord has never and will never change
My lord is the emperor]
The devotion of the minstrels so impressed the Emperor he let their frankness pass without comment. Some years later he made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Khwaja Hazrat Moinuddin Chisti, founder of the most influential Islamic mystical order in South Asia, and in effect, gave the House of Timur’s blessing to the Sufis of Ajmer.
Khwaja was well loved by his followers not just for his teachings but also for his methods of teaching. These included the practice of sama, which involved the playing of instruments and singing (solo as well as chorus) to aid spiritual contemplation and produce trance states in the faithful. From this practice, and through the creative brilliance of a disciple of one of Khwaja’s successors, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, this practice became gradually known among devotees as qual and ultimately, qawwali. The disciple who is credited with creating this new and distinctly subcontinental religious music is Amir Khusro, one of India’s great artistic geniuses.
When Khwaja Moinuddin passed away in 1265, the Chistia silsila (Chisti order) produced two branches. One, centered in Delhi, was led by Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The second, founded by Ali Ahmed Alauddin ‘Sabir’, is known as the silsila Chistia Sabriya. Both branches gained disciples all across northern India and both nurtured and promoted the practice of sama through qawwali.
These days, qawwali is loved across the world. It is performed not just by Pakistani and Indian qawwali parties, but also embraced by jazz musicians, Spanish flamenco guitarists, American mystics and the ultra-chilled lounge music set. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is usually regarded as bringing qawwali to the West but in fact, it was two adherents of the Chistia Sabriya silsila who blazed that trail more than a decade earlier.
The Punjabi qawwali tradition draws inspiration for its lyrics from the saints and shrines of Punjab and other parts of what is now Pakistan. This style of qawwali is regarded as a more vigourous and emotional form than the traditional, sophisticated style from further east in India.
It was part of the Sabri brothers’ brilliance that they were able to sing and perform in both styles. They quickly realised there was a new Urdu-speaking audience in the cities that also had expendable incomes. Their first record, Mera Koi Nahi Hai Terey Siwa (“I have no one but you”) was released in 1958, when Maqbool was still a teenager, to great acclaim, partly because it was accessible to this new audience.
That qawwali was available on vinyl was in itself an innovation that caught the eye of a more affluent urban population. Subsequent records continued to build their reputation as well as raise the profile of the music itself. It’s hard to imagine today that qawwali was for most urbanites an unknown quantity at that time. Purists and traditional qawwals themselves were happy to keep the form close to the shrine and strictly spiritual. The Sabri brothers’ pioneering work in introducing qawwali to a secular or at least less overtly religious audience deserves immense credit.
While they were not the first and certainly not alone, the Sabri brothers were the most famous of the qawwali popularisers. Not only did they move fluidly between Punjabi, Urdu and Persian in their repertoire but even within a single qawwali, “Tajdar-e-haram”, would combine lyrics from several languages.
Their music was issued as LPs by EMI, allowing new audiences to enjoy both qawwali and a fuzzy spiritual feeling from the comfort of their air-conditioned drawing rooms. From there, it was only a matter of time before it spread further afield.
The Sabris were not just modernisers. They made no bones about wanting to attract new fans to qawwali, but they were equally serious about presenting the music in what they felt was a proper and respectful light.
They dressed immaculately and lived private lives that were above reproach. Ghulam Farid’s resonating calls of “Allah!” dropped like depth charges throughout performances, reminded listeners that though the music was on vinyl or televised from a television studio, its bottomline was spiritual. Members of the brothers’ troupe spoke of how Ghulam Farid’s chants would send shivers down their backs, making them feel as if God himself was in the room. They had little patience for purely secular qawwali or lyrics that seemed to laud a debauched alcohol-fuelled lifestyle, such as Aziz Mian’s “Mein Sharabi” (I am a drinker).
By the 1970s, the Sabris were superstars. Their concert at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 1975 brought qawwali to the attention of American audiences. A decade and a half later, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was able to use that familiarity to launch his own meteoric rise.
Khan eclipsed every other Pakistani musician during his lifetime, and the Sabri brothers no doubt lost some of their cache with Western fans in the 1990s. But back home, in India, and wherever lovers of traditional qawwali congregated, the brothers were welcomed as the ultimate. Many of their qawwalis – “Tajdar-e-Haram”, “Bhar Do Jholi Meri”, “Mera Koi Nahi Tere Siwa” – have become standards.
Fans loved the interplay of Ghulam Farid’s heavier baritone voice with Maqbool’s tenor as well as Ghulam’s shoulder-length locks, which often flew about in wild and prolonged bouts of ecstasy, hinting at the whirling dervishes of an imagined past.
The death of qawwali has been predicted many times but like so many other prognostications, this has proved premature. The mighty giants of qawwali have passed: Ghulam Farid (1994), Nusrat (1997), Aziz Mian (2000) and Maqbool Ahmed (2011). But the music continues to flourish.
A new generation of qawwals is emerging. Amjad Farid Sabri, son of Ghulam Farid, was at the forefront of this revival of sorts. A large man like his father, Amjad was a serious musician and upholder of tradition. But he was willing to experiment. He was praised (and decried) for introducing more raga-based compositions into qawwali. Like his father and uncle, he was no stranger to TV, often performing in traditional settings but unafraid to jazz up his performances with contemporary arrangements and visuals.
Amjad Sabri’s assassination on June 22 on the streets of his hometown Karachi has sent shock waves throughout Pakistan and across the world. Questions are being asked again about the viability of qawwali and Sufism and moderation and music in a country seemingly unable to reign in its extremists. The situation does seem dire indeed.
But have a listen to something the founder of the Sabriya silsila said to reassure his downcast followers as he neared death. “The body has to be a layer with soil again and it shall perish. But what you see now is ba’qa, the never perishing Spirit, the Spirit that Allah gave me.”
The Taliban may have killed the body but it is assured they will never be able to murder the spirit or the message of qawwali.