What is Sufi Music, Sufism Song, and Sufiana Song

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What is Sufi Music

Sufi music is the devotional and ceremonial music of mystical Sufi Islam. There are many forms of Sufi music, from the Middle East, to the Indian Subcontinent, and even to Europe, each having its own unique rhythms, instrumentation, melodies and meanings depending on the culture it comes from.

Sufism

To better understand Sufi music, we should first explore Sufism as a whole. Different from traditional forms of Islam, it emphasizes being spiritual and earnestly searching for God in the day-to-day. It offers a personal experience with the divine through rituals, art, music and meditation. It has spread throughout the world, and has influenced a lot of other belief systems, such as Gnawa from West Africa.

Appearing in Islam towards the end of the 800s, Ascetics were against the materialism and lack of spirituality developing in Islam at that time. A Muslim saint called Rābi’ah Al-‘Adawīyah is credited with introducing a world view of pure love for Allah into the developing Ascetic movement, and the Sufi practice was born. Sufis still follow this idea of an emotional, loving connection with God to this day.

Sufi music is at the core of this faith, with the musical performances serving as not only art but also accompanying religious traditions and sacred rituals. Some forms of Sufi music aim to put Sufis into a trance to help them find God. The words of the songs can often be divine names, or recitations of passages of the Qur’an, such as in classical styles like Qawwali and Dhikr.

rtists performing in a sufi music concert in Istanbul
Street person playing sufi instrument

Sufi Music Around the World

Sufism isn’t constrained to the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. In fact, it’s found a home all over the world, in a lot of different countries from China to West Africa. Sufi artists come from all over the globe – and in each of these places, you’ll find a unique culture. Different instruments create music soundscapes, each with their signature rhythm and sound.

Sufism Song and Dhikr

The songs of Africa and the Middle East sound different than those found in South Asia. However, their themes, meaning and purpose is the same: to connect with humanity and God.

Man with musical instrument sitting against blue background

Sufi Music Instruments beyond the subcontinent (Turkey, Morocco)

In Turkey, the music is played with a traditional flute called a Ney. The Turkish Ney is based on another traditional flute-like instrument, but with modifications to how it’s played and the alignment of holes (for sound). The ney produces a reedy, whispery tone that can be identified in many performances of classical Turkish music, as well as the music of the Sufis in that region. Gnawa music is a mix of Sufi music and African traditions. Instruments like the Gimbri are played by a group (each member called a Gnawa). The stringed instrument outputs a low droning sound intended to put people who are listening into a trance, as a way to be closer to God.

No matter where in the world Sufism is, Pakistan or India, Turkey or West Africa – music is always at the heart and soul of the rituals and traditions. And the songs are used to express the belief as a whole.

Sufi Music In South Asia

Qawwali

Dating back to the 13th Century in India, Qawwali is one of the most internationally-known forms of Sufi music. Amir Kushrow is widely accepted to have created the style, from a mix of different influences and cultures. Qawwali is performed by an ensemble of performers called qawwals, consisting of the main singer , chorus, harmonium player and Indian percussion.

Riyaaz sufi singers in USA singing qawwali
Qawwali performance in India

Qawwali artists come from all across the Indian subcontinent, from west Pakistan to East India and Bangladesh. The famous Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, sufi singer Abida Parveen and many others have performed and put their own signature on the art form, while using the same lyrics.

Some of the most popular songs are “Mustt Mustt” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (remixed by electronic artists Massive Attack), Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s rendition of “Ajj Din Chadheya”, and the song “Allah Hu” (originally sang by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) from the Qawwali Flamenco album performed by the Ensemble De Qawwali Faiz Ali Faiz, which is a unique and beautiful album blending together Flamenco music and this music.

Punjabi Sufi Songs and Punjabi Sufi Singers

Many famous Sufi singers and songs come from Punjab (both India and Pakistan). Perhaps the most famous of these Punjabi Sufi artists of this generation is Kanwar Grewal, who performs in the Punjabi Sufi scene and in Bollywood. Alam Lohar and his son Arif are both Punjabi (Pakistani) folk musicians, with Alam being a well-known performer from the seventies. Arif often performs accompanied by a traditional instrument called the Chimta.

Next, the Wadali Brothers were a duo of singers from Punjab that performed Sufi music. Lakhwinder Wadali, the son of the older of the two brothers, is a successful Punjabi Sufi musician in his own right.

There are female Sufi singers from Punjab as well – the most famous group being the Nooran Sisters, who’ve performed a version of the famous song “Allah Hoo” – a song that found huge success, being performed by many different artists, including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Kanwar Grewal in orange outfit
Jagjit Singh singing

Ghazal

Ghazal is a type of poetry, which can be about love, longing or separation. The Ghazal form was popularised in India by the same man who created Qawwali – Amir Kushrow – but is actually thought to predate Sufism. There are examples of the form being discovered from as far back as the 6th Century in Arabia – with ʿUmar ibn Abī Rabīʿah being an early adopter.

Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh, Anup Jalota, and Pankaj Udhas are examples of prominent and well-known singers and masters of Ghazal music.

A contemporary ghazal performance usually comes in two parts; one is a sung recitation of the poem with only vocals and the other involves musical accompaniment. In the second one, a raag and taal are selected by the performing artists to underscore the ghazal poem’s lyrics.

Sufi Poetry of the Islamic Mystic(s)

In 12th Century India, a man called Fariddudin Ganjeshakar was making huge waves as far as Punjabi poetry goes. He’s held in high regard by Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs – with his work appearing in the Guru Granth Sahib. Another important figure who influenced mystical beliefs in Islam (Sufism), Hinduism, and Sikhism is Kabir. His works and poems have made it into the Guru Granth Sahib as well as bhajan kirtan.

Amir Kushrow was an Indian poet from the 1200 and 1300’s, writing in Persian and Braj Bhasha. He’s referred to as the “parrot of India” and has been credited with inventing and popularizing instruments used in devotional music. Also, he expanded poetic forms such as the Ghazal and invented the musical form of Qawwali. Over the time he was alive, he created some of the best and most famous Qawwalis, which are still cherished today.

Sikh Chauri and Guru Granth Sahib

 

Bulleh Shah was a Punjabi poet also known as the “Father of Punjabi Enlightenment.” Railing against ego and preaching true devotion and love, he was born into a period of extreme violence between Sikhs and Muslims. He mostly wrote kafi – a type of poetry – and his kafis are still performed to this day.

Bulleh shah grave covered with flowers

Sufi music performance styles and rituals

The Mevlevi Sufi order (known as the Whirling Dervishes) believe that dancing and spinning along with the music can give you a spiritual experience, allowing you to search inside your soul and connect better to God.

Omdurman whirling dervish in street of Sudan
Dervishes Whirling in Sufi Dance

Around the globe, Sufis perform the sacred practice of Dhikr. Sometimes set to rhythm, this ritual involves meditation and recitation of a holy name or phrase. It is focused around awareness of God and devotion to him. Then there is Sufi music or qawwali. Many songs are performed and artists aim to lull listeners into a trance in order to help them find a closer connection to the Almighty.

The Future of Sufi Music and Sufiana Song

Across the globe, there are many unique ensembles/bands aiming to modernize Sufi music. One of these groups, based in the United States, is Riyaaz Qawwali. Inspired by the global success that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan found by collaborating with many Western musicians, this ensemble intends to bring Sufi music to a whole new audience.

FAQ

What is the meaning of music in Sufism?

Sufi music is a vehicle for the performer and audience to connect with the divine. It focuses on love and devotion to Allah, as well as looking inwards to attain deeper knowledge about the human condition.

Is Sufi Music allowed in Islam?

There is some controversy in Islam about Sufi music, and even music in general. Some Muslim scholars believe that music taking you away from religious life is haram, as set out by a hadith. Others believe that music is a valid and important part of Islamic culture.

What language is Sufi Music?

Sufi music can be in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Punjabi, or Turkish. There’s also Sufi music in Western languages, including German and English.

Who is the best Sufi Singer?

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is regarded as one of the best singers in the entire world, regardless of genre – performing intense, multiple hour-long concerts and each song lasting over 10 minutes. Other notable singers include Kailash Kher, Abida Parveen, Harshdeep Kaur, Mame Khan and Javed Ali.

Riyaaz Qawwali