Qawwali is the traditional and mystical form of Islamic songs that are primarily found in India and Pakistan. The word Qawwali has possibly originated from the Arabic word Qaol that which means “axiom” or “dictum”. A Qauwwal is one who sings Qauwwali, or the dictums of the prophets and praises of God. The Qawwali is closely linked to the spiritual and artistic life of northern India and Pakistan. Nevertheless Qawwali is not confined to these countries only. They are very popular in counties like Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh and Lebanon.
The Qauwwali is inextricably linked to the Sufi tradition and thus loathed by hardcore extremist sects in Islam such as Salafi and Wahhabi. They maintain that Quran prohibits any kind of music. In defense, the Sufi saints said that The Quran instructs man to remember God. This remembrance, known as dhikr, may be either silent of vocal. The Qawwali is an extension of the vocal form of this remembrance. The use of music as a spiritual force was discussed in great length by Al-Gazali (1085-1111) who is said to be one of the greatest intellectuals in Islam.
The Qawwali follows a very delicate mystical process. It starts with the singing of the song where the song is received in a manner that is not unlike standard forms of musical expression. Later due to persistent repetition of these lines, the words cease to have a meaning. The motive behind this is to lead the listener and performer alike into a trance that might prove ideal for attaining spiritual enlightenment.
The performance of a Qauwwali is strictly a group act. Within this group, there is one main vocalist or Qauwwal, and a group of supporting vocalist. The audience too is considered a participant in this event. The musical accompaniment varies according to situation and singers but Harmonium, Tabla, Dholak, Sarangi and Rabab are common instruments. Furthermore, a simple clapping of the hands is a ubiquitous rhythmic support.
The greatest exponent of this art was Sufi singer and an academician par excellence named Amir Khusrau. He was also a legendary musician, statesman and philosopher. It is said that Amir Khusrau, the disciple of Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din Auliya, was the advisor to 11 rulers of Delhi particularly the rulers of the Khilji Dynasty. Recent years have seen the Qawwali thrust into the international arena by such musicians as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan and Nizami brothers of Uttar Pradesh.