Is Qawwali Religious?

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What are the religious origins of Qawwali?

Qawwali is religious Sufi music that celebrates devotion and one’s relationship with God. Dating back to the 13th century, it focuses on teachers and saints. Qawwali lyrics use the Ghazal, Hamd, Kafi, and other hymn forms. Spiritual love, which can be interpreted as worldly love, is a key theme of the music.

Qawwali settings are a big deal for many Sufis in India and Pakistan. The performance is known as a mehfil-e-sama. And a mehfil-e-sama is usually enjoyed in a religious setting such as a dargah (Sufi shrine), or at least in the presence of a Murshid (teacher). For the listener, the energy it generates is an intimate experience that opens someone up to the Divine. For many Sufis, this music is a form of spiritual enlightenment.

Qawwali Music in the 20th Century

In the late 20th century, concerts of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Sabri Brothers in the United States and Europe brought qawwali outside of South Asia. The sacredness of this tradition was missed because people were attracted by its entertainment value.

Following the concerts of the Sabri ensemble and Nusrat, audiences for this tradition grew exponentially. Given the music was being presented at Womad and picked by labels like Real World, this audience was not fully aware of the religious nature of qawwali music.

Today, many South Asian Hindus, Jains, Christians, Buddhists, and Sikhs listen to and thoroughly enjoy these devotional songs and their poetry. These listeners may not adhere to the culture or align with the Islamic teachings, yet they resonate with the themes of traditional qawwali. And separately, for secular listeners who do not have any spiritual inclinations, qawwali is only entertainment that is enjoyed at weddings, galas, and other festive occasions across the Eastern and Western world.

View of Qawwali Within Islam

For Sufis and Shia Muslims, a qawwali performance is an act of worship. The religious significance of this form of Islamic music is often misunderstood. It has been mistaken as being without any spiritual meaning.

Muslim man shadow

One of the reasons why qawwali is seen as an act of worship is that it fills one’s heart with divine love and helps one feel closer to his creator. By listening to songs written for God, the audience gets into a state of meditation which leads them on their way towards better understanding spirituality. A mehfil-e-sama is usually enjoyed in a religious setting such as a shrine. In contrast to qawwali concerts, which are secular by nature and attract large crowds for entertainment purposes.

Muslim men singing

Divided Views on this Sufi Traditional Form

To complicate matters, not all Muslims believe qawwali to be religious. That may give you pause. But when you understand that the music is South Asian but the faith is practiced across the world, it makes more sense. There are two sects of Islam, Sunni, and Shia. The two sects have different views on qawwali music.

For the Shiites, it is a matter of faith to sing and hear this type of religious music. Especially in Shiism, qawwali is deeply religious. Many of the pieces enjoyed in these settings are about Hazrat Ali.

The Sunnis see it as more entertainment than anything else. Hence, they participate less in sufi music performances. They view it as purely secular entertainment due to its popularity on mainstream radio stations and television channels. According to Sunni Muslims, there are strictly five methods that lead one towards God: Fasting, Reading the Qur’an, Ziyarat (visiting religious places), Hajj and Umrah (pilgrimage to Mecca) and Jihad (struggle in the way of God).

The Birth of the Chishti Order in India

Music is mentioned 12 times in the Quran. Music was likely banned because it could be seen as a form of worshipping other than Allah or associating partners with him. A liberal understanding of the faith does not prohibit one from listening to qawwali.

The mystics who created this music were doing it in the spirit of Islam, and they were also practicing a spiritual discipline that was approved by mainstream authorities. Sufi shrines, for example, often have a qawwali performance as part of their ritual. Nizamuddin Auliya was not only a mystic but also the founder and spiritual head of the Chisti order.

Amir Khusrow, the student of Nizamuddin Auliya, was one of the most notable figures in Indian music and also for Qawwali music. His compositions are mainly on religious themes such as love, separation, and intoxication (metaphorical). He was a prolific poet too, who wrote in Persian and Braj bhasha (Purbi). Amir Khusrow’s qawwalis are compiled in the books Sursagar, Kalam-e-Faqiri, and Qalandar.

Qawwali for Non-South Asian Audiences

Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was to qawwali as Pandit Ravi Shankar was to the sitar. While Ravi Shankar put India’s music on the map, Nusrat did that for Pakistan. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is credited with popularizing Sufi music in many countries outside of South Asia. His influence transcended his musical genre.

In 1992 he became the first Asian artist to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Also in the late 20th century, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan began incorporating his work in Bollywood movies. Even beyond Asia, he was loved. His appeal was universal. It could be argued that this helped bring qawwali music to a wider audience.

The Sabri Brothers, also from Pakistan, predated Nusrat’s concerts in the West. In 1971, they became the first to perform at Carnegie Hall as well as on American television with Dick Cavett.

Five years after Nusrat’s death (1997) the original Sabri Brothers also passed. The son of Maqbool continued as the lead qawwal of the troupe. He performed qawwali in a religious context, singing to more conservative Pakistanis and Muslims worldwide. He was killed in Pakistan. Press claims the killing was related to his liberalizing this art.

Impact of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

While the Sabri Brothers catered to the conservatives, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was for everyone. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (and his work on the Real World Label) was instrumental in bridging the gap between Islam and music. He showed that qawwali could be both a religious practice as well as an art form for everyone to enjoy.

After his death in August 1997, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan took over the troupe. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had won over a diverse audience, which lent Rahat to have many fans that were not desi. It has been hard to follow Nusrat’s footsteps, but Rahat Fateh Ali Khan has persevered. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan has attempted to continue down a more liberal path with qawwali music.


It’s undeniable that qawwali, a popular world music genre, originated as Islam entered South Asia. Taking from the South Asian Bhajans, it added Islamic aesthetic and poetry which innovated into a new genre. The purpose was certainly religious then. However, today, everyone that listens to qawwali is not consuming it with this context.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is qawwali Islamic?

Originating from the mystical arm, qawwali certainly has Muslim origins. Its immediate roots can be traced back to the mystics that were a key component in Islamic society during medieval times. They would gather for spiritual events, such as Ramadan or Janaza, and sing this beautiful music together with one another. The word ‘qawwali’ is derived from Arabic.

Is listening to qawwali allowed in Islam?

The answer is yes. Qawwali was born out of the Muslim faith. This type of music draws heavily on explicit Qur’anic verses, with qawwals singing about God (Allah). Recently, qawwali songs have also inserted direct verses from the Quran into pieces. A great example of this is the song ‘Kun Faya Kun,’ which uses the voice of the Nizami Qawwal of India.

What is the relation between qawwali and Sufism?

Sufism is a sect of Islam that bases its teachings on the doctrine of love and spirituality. It does not promote any violence, sectarian attitudes, or discrimination against other religions. Sufis believe in peace, brotherhood, and truthfulness as their central tenets. Qawwali songs are chanted by qawwals at religious events.

Is qawwali a Sufi tradition?

Yes, qawwali (one of the forms under World Music) is a Sufi musical tradition. The origins of this music are unclear and there has been much debate about its roots with some claiming that the songs were first created by Persian Zoroastrians who had converted to Islam or through ancient Hindu traditions from India. However, many scholars believe that music was originally created by a group of Sufis in the 13th century. It consists of a lead singer, vocalists, and characteristic of hand clapping.

Is Qawwali haram?

There are many aspects that go into answering whether qawwali is haram or not. It depends on if the music’s content is inappropriate, promotes violence, or turns you towards a vice. From the article above, it is clear that the answer is not singular. Qawwali is not haram as it does not contain any inappropriate content nor promote violence.

Riyaaz Qawwali