Bahadur Ali Shah

Sufism is very strong in Pakistan and Islam in India and Pakistan is influenced by Sufism. Experts say about 60 percent of Pakistani Muslims regard themselves as Sufi followers. Much of the literature, poetry and music associated with Pakistan is inspired by Sufism (See Qawwali Music below). The music and poetry appeals to Sufis and non-Sufis alike. Non-Sufis often attend Sufi concerts and festivals. Even so Sufis are considered heretical by some in Pakistan. The Muslim Qadiani is considered heretical in Pakistan. Sufis in Pakistan embrace a personal approach to their faith and often have different beliefs on how their government should be run.

Sufism is very strong in South and Central Asia. According to the Los Angeles Times: “Sufism was brought to South Asia by its mystics from the Middle East more than eight centuries ago. Its highly mystical, personal approach to Islam, marked by trance-like chants, dancing to pounding drumbeats, and its belief that Sufi saints and descendants known as pirs are conduits to God make it anathema to Muslim fundamentalists, who consider it idolatry. Sufism found widespread popularity, particularly among large segments of the underclass that embrace its emphasis on equality.”

Reporting from Lahore, Pakistan, Alex Rodriguez wrote in Los Angeles Times, “Amid the throngs of Sufi Muslim followers streaming through the white marble corridors of the Data Darbar shrine, a young man in a cream-colored tunic and oversized sunglasses shuffled gingerly, guided by a brother on one side and his father on the other. Twice a month Qasim Javed Malik comes here, a place he associates with spiritual recharging, not with the deafening clap of a suicide bomb blast, the odor of charred flesh, the blinding flash before everything went black. "There's a strong divine attraction that pulls me here," Malik, 28, said softly, his face and hands pocked with scars from a suicide bomb attack at the shrine last summer that also left him blind. "I cannot stop coming here." Neither can thousands of other Pakistani adherents to Sufism, despite a campaign of suicide bombings targeting a strain of Islam that embraces tolerance, welcomes women to its shrines and eschews the rigidity that characterizes hard-line Islamist doctrine. [Source: Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2011]

Nicholas Schmidle wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: ““I asked Carl Ernst, an author of several books about Sufism and a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whether he thought Pakistan's Sufis could survive the wave of militant Islam sweeping east from the region along the Afghanistan border. "Sufism has been a part of the fabric of life in the Pakistan region for centuries, while the Taliban are a very recent phenomenon without much depth," he replied in an e-mail. "I would bet on the Sufis in the long run." This summer, the Taliban attracted a few hundred people to witness beheadings in Pakistan's tribal areas. [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2008 |+|]

Saints and Mystics in Pakistan

Shrine of Madho Lal Husain

Saints (known as “Pirs”) are held in high regard particularly in the Punjab, where many have had miracles attributed to them. One saint reportedly could make mud walls gallop. Another prolonged his life by his ability to sleep through the night on only one or two breaths. Maulanan Jalal ud din Rumi, the founder of the Sufi dervishes of Qunia, was reportedly flayed alive and then walked around for four days with his skin in his hand. Many saints broke rules and were in trouble with the mullahs.

Madho Lal Husain is one of the most popular Sufi saints in Lahore. After studying long and hard it said he discovered the secret of God. As a test he threw a Qur’an down a well. When people who saw him started calling him a heretic, he called for the Qur’an and it returned to his hands dry and undisturbed. To celebrate he went on a binge of drinking, dancing and singing. He wore red clothes and was involved in scandal involving a young Hindu boy but no one wanted to confront him because they were afraid of his powers.

The descendants of saints are treated with great reverence. They are often worshipped not only by individuals but also by entire families, tribes, and communities. Pir families are often members of the “feudal” elite, often earning substantial income from offerings and contributions made in the name of the original saint in addition to the money they earn form their land holdings.

“Fakirs” are Muslim "holy men.” Some sit in the lotus position and dress in bright green tunics and beads, acting like Hindu holy men. In Iran, Sufis are known as ascetics who wander from place to place, wearing coarse woolen clothes and bark girdles. They have traditionally held almond wood crooks in their hands and sometimess flew off into violent spasms of ecstacy.

Shrines in Pakistan

Almost every village has a shrine to a local saint where annual festivals are held. They have traditionally been built around the tombs of great saints and have traditionally been the focal point of religious life and festivals. Many are connected to mosques, where worshipers do their traditional prayers. A typical shrine consists of a series of courtyards with the tomb of the saint at its center.

Shrine of Mian Mi Mazar

Making offerings at the tombs of Muslim saints in Pakistan is similar to Hindu and Buddhist ritual offerings. Many of those who make offerings are seeking help in some way as Catholics and Chinese do when they pray at church or a temple. Strict Muslims are appalled by this kind of worship.

The tomb itself is often the site of religious activity. It is often covered by flowers and surrounded by worshipping making offerings and seeking favors or miracles. Many touch the grills around the tomb while saying Muslim prayers. Some leave money.

Thursday night is when Pakistanis visit shrines dedicated to saints. Describing the scene at the Bullhe Shah shrine outside Lahore, Isabel Hilton wrote in New Yorker, “Outside a group of musicians struck up a sing in praise of the saint. A man stood up from the crowd, which was seated in a semicircle; he wore a white shalwar kameez and green sack knotted around his head as a makeshift turban. He began to dance, lightly and gracefully, and as his pace picked up he tore off the turban and tied it around his waist. His long hair fell down his back; his head began to jerk violently from right to left, and then in circles, as his feet kept time with the runs. In the glow of the shrine’s colored lights I could see the face of the watching crowd, transfixed in sympathy.”

Some shrines are very old and contain beautiful and unique architectural elements. Some are tourist sites. Those of saints who have died in recent times often look like regular buildings.

In the early 2000s, 40 people died and 100 were injured in a stampede that occurred as a crowd tried to rush through a gate that they believed would deliver them to paradise after they died. The Paradise Gate leads to the tomb of the saint Sant Baba Ranjit Singh Ji [Baba Farid Ji] located at a shrine in the town of Pak Pattan in central Punjab. The disaster occurred just before midnight at the start of a religious festival dedicated to the saint which attracts around 500,000 followers every year. The festival is usually a calm spiritual affair in which pilgrims make offers of sweetmeats and rice and pick leaves from tees that grow near the saint’s tomb.

Sufi Festivals in Pakistan

Sufi festivals known as “urs” are held annually to mark the anniversaries of a saints’ deaths and their “marriage” to God. They attract thousands of pilgrims from both sexes and have accompanying meals. Pilgrims arrive in specials buses, trains and trucks. There is a singing and dancing. Food and entertainment is offered at the accompanying fairs (“mela”). The fairs are open to anyone, regardless of their beliefs, and many of those in attendance normally don’t set foot in a mosque. Description in the Insight Guide to Pakistan of a Sufi festival in the Sind: “There is constant music, singing and dancing, keeping pace with the booming of the big copper drums. One party follows another and the ritual continues from morning to the evening. The drums thunder, men and women celebrate the occasion by ritual dancing and achieve grace with quick steps, forward and backward, hands flailing above the shoulders. The singing girls of whom Qalander is patron saint gyrate furiously, tossing their heads and swinging their long hair, drenched in sweat, wanting frenzy to reach the state of “la hoot la makan”, no self space, perfection union and peace with the divine.”

Qalandar: Famous Sufi Mystic

Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander

Nicholas Schmidle wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Qalandar was an ascetic; he dressed in rags and tied a rock around his neck so that he was constantly bowing before Allah. His given name was Usman Marwandi; "Qalandar" was used by his followers as an honorific indicating his superior standing in the hierarchy of saints. He moved from a suburb of Tabriz, in modern-day Iran, to Sindh in the early 13th century. The remainder of his biography remains murky. The meaning of lal, or "red," in his name? Some say he had auburn hair, others believe he wore a red robe and still others say he once was scalded while meditating over a pot of boiling water. [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2008 |+|]

“In migrating to Sindh, Qalandar joined other mystics fleeing Central Asia as the Mongols advanced. Many of them settled temporarily in Multan, a city in central Punjab that came to be known as the "city of saints." Arab armies had conquered Sindh in 711, a hundred years after the founding of Islam, but they had paid more attention to empire-building than to religious conversions. Qalandar teamed with three other itinerant preachers to promote Islam amid a population of Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. |+|

“The "four friends," as they became known, taught Sufism. They eschewed fire-and-brimstone sermons, and rather than forcibly convert those belonging to other religions, they often incorporated local traditions into their own practices. "The Sufis did not preach Islam like the mullah preaches it today," says Hamid Akhund, a former secretary of tourism and culture in the Sindh government. Qalandar "played the role of integrator," says Ghulam Rabbani Agro, a Sindhi historian who has written a book about Qalandar. "He wanted to take the sting out of religion."

Gradually, as the "friends" and other saints died, their enshrined tombs attracted legions of followers. Sufis believed that their descendants, referred to as pirs, or "spiritual guides," inherited some of the saints' charisma and special access to Allah. Orthodox clerics, or mullahs, considered such beliefs heretical, a denial of Islam's basic creed: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet." While pirs encouraged their followers to engage Allah in a mystical sense and relish the beauty of the Qur’an's poetic aspects, the mullahs typically instructed their followers to memorize the Qur’an and study accounts of the Prophet's life, known collectively as the Hadith.

Sufi Festival Celebrating Qalandar

Nicholas Schmidle wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “In the desert swelter of southern Pakistan, the scent of rose―water mixed with a waft of hashish smoke. Drummers pounded away as celebrants swathed in red pushed a camel bedecked with garlands, tinsel and multihued scarfs through the heaving crowd. A man skirted past, grinning and dancing, his face glistening like the golden dome of a shrine nearby. "Mast Qalandar!" he cried. "The ecstasy of Qalandar!" [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2008 |+|]

Naqeebi follower wearing a Naqeebi cap

“The camel reached a courtyard packed with hundreds of men jumping in place with their hands in the air, chanting "Qalandar!" for the saint buried inside the shrine. The men threw rose petals at a dozen women who danced in what seemed like a mosh pit near the shrine's entrance. Enraptured, one woman placed her hands on her knees and threw her head back and forth; another bounced and jiggled as if she were astride a trotting horse. The drumming and dancing never stopped, not even for the call to prayer.

Every year, a few hundred thousand Sufis converge in Seh- wan, a town in Pakistan's southeastern Sindh province, for a three-day festival marking the death of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in 1274. Qalandar, as he is almost universally called, belonged to a cast of mystics who consolidated Islam's hold on this region; today, Pakistan's two most populous provinces, Sindh and Punjab, comprise a dense archipelago of shrines devoted to these men. Sufis travel from one shrine to another for festivals known as urs, an Arabic word for "marriage," symbolizing the union between Sufis and the divine. |+|

“In August, more than 300,000 Sufis showed up to honor Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. That evening, as the setting sun burned the color of a Creamsicle as it lit the sugar-cane fields on the horizon, I turned to the translator, hoping to lighten the mood. "It's really beautiful here," I said. He nodded, but his eyes stayed glued to the road. "Unfortunately, the fear factor spoils the whole fun of it," he said. |+|

“By then we could see buses clogging the highway, red flags flapping in the wind as the drivers raced for Qalandar's shrine. The railway ministry had announced that 13 trains would be diverted from their normal routes to transport worshipers. Some devotees even pedaled bicycles, red flags sticking up from the handlebars. We roared down the road in the company of Kalashnikov-toting police, a caravan of armed pilgrims. |+|

“The campsites began appearing about five miles from the shrine. Our car eventually mired in a human bog, so we parked and continued on foot. The alleys leading to the shrine reminded me of a carnival fun house—an overwhelming frenzy of lights, music and aromas. I walked beside a man blowing a snake charmer's flute. Stores lined the alley, with merchants squatting behind piles of pistachios, almonds and rosewater-doused candies. Fluorescent lights glowed like light sabers, directing lost souls to Allah. |+|

“Groups of up to 40 people heading for the shrine's golden dome carried long banners imprinted with Qur’anic verses. We followed one group into a tent packed with dancers and drummers next to the shrine. A tall man with curly, greasy shoulder-length hair was beating on a keg-size drum hanging from a leather strap around his neck. The intensity in his eyes, illuminated by a single bulb that dangled above our heads, reminded me of the jungle cats that stalked their nighttime prey on the nature shows I used to watch on TV. [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2008 |+|]

Ecstatic Dance at Sufi Festival in Pakistan


Nicholas Schmidle wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “A man in white linen lunged flamboyantly into a clearing at the center of the crowd, tied an orange sash around his waist and began to dance. Soon he was gyrating and his limbs were trembling, but with such control that at one point it seemed that he was moving only his earlobes. Clouds of hashish smoke rolled through the tent, and the drumming injected the space with a thick, engrossing energy. [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2008 |+|]

“I stopped taking notes, closed my eyes and began nodding my head. As the drummer built toward a feverish peak, I drifted unconsciously closer to him. Before long, I found myself standing in the middle of the circle, dancing beside the man with the exuberant earlobes. |+|

“"Mast Qalandar!" someone called out. The voice came from right behind me, but it sounded distant. Anything but the drumbeat and the effervescence surging through my body seemed remote. From the corner of my eye, I noticed photographer Aaron Huey high-stepping his way into the circle. He passed his camera to Kristin. In moments, his head was swirling as he whipped his long hair around in circles. "Mast Qalandar!" another voice screamed. |+|

“If only for a few minutes, it didn't matter whether I was a Christian, Muslim, Hindu or atheist. I had entered another realm. I couldn't deny the ecstasy of Qalandar. And in that moment, I understood why pilgrims braved great distances and the heat and the crowds just to come to the shrine. While spun into a trance, I even forgot about the danger, the phone calls, the reports of my disappearance and the police escort. |+|

“Later, one of the men who had been dancing in the circle approached me. He gave his name as Hamid and said he had traveled more than 500 miles by train from northern Punjab. He and a friend were traversing the country, hopping from one shrine to another, in search of the wildest festival. "Qalandar is the best," he said. I asked why. "He could communicate directly with Allah," Hamid said. "And he performs miracles." "Miracles?" I asked, with a wry smile, having reverted to my normal cynicism. "What kind of miracles?" He laughed. "What kind of miracles?" he said. "Take a look around!" Sweat sprayed from his mustache. "Can't you see how many people have come to be with Lal Shahbaz Qalandar?" looked over both of my shoulders at the drumming, the dhamaal and the sea of red. I stared back at Hamid and tilted my head slightly to acknowledge his point. "Mast Qalandar!" we said. |+|

Qawwali Music

“Qawwali” is a kind of Sufi devotional music with a high-pitched and fast-paced stye of singing. It developed in the 13th century when Sufism was becoming popular on the Indian subcontinent. “Qawwali” literally means "philosophical utterance" in Arabic and has come to mean performing Sufi poetry to music. “Qawwali” songs are based on devotional Sufi poems and often have romantic themes that can be interpreted as love between a devotee and his God or between a man and a woman.

“Qawwali” has a very distinct sound. The "sweeping melodies" and rhythmic hand clapping and the drone of the harmonium is instantly recognizable. It is often featured in Indian films and clubs and gatherings. Describing the appeal of qawwali music, Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times, it is music "a rocker could love; it favors rock-hewn, hearty voices and an unstoppable beat."

Qawwali singer Javid Bashir

Qawwali music evolved out of Sufi poems and chants of God's name (“zikr”) to achieve a trancelike state. The poems are regarded as links to Sufi saints and ultimately to God. The origin of qawwali is attributed to Amir Khursrau (1253-1325), a talented Sufi poet and composer who has also been credited with inventing the sitar and the tabla. He was a disciple of the Delhi-based Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. Poems by Khursrau are the core of the qawwali repertoire. Qawwali music has endured through the tradition of “Mahfil-e-Sama” ("Assembly for Listening"), which remains the central ritual today. The act of listening to music (“sama”) is an expression of mystical love and the desire to be unified with the Sufi saints and God.

Qawwali musicians view themselves as religious people entrusted with the responsibility of evoking the name of God. They are trained and led by a religious leader called a “sheik” and traditionally have performed during ceremonies to mark the death of a saint at the saint's shrine. Qawwali musicians also have traditionally performed at shrines on Thursdays, the day Muslim remember the dead; Friday, the day of congregational prayer; and times when many pilgrims arrive. Musicians who perform at Sufi shrines are often descendants of the saints for which the shrine is dedicated.

See Separate Article on Sufism

Qawwali Songs

Qawwali songs tend to be long and have a structure and organization similar to that of northern Indian music. They feature a singing melodic line supported by drones and rhythms. A typical qawwali song features "solo verses punctuated by a choral refrain and instrumental interludes." Qawwali songs also feature "a steady, accelerating beat, a refrain that is repeated with increased passion” and “ a voice that roses to joyful, inspired testimonials of faith."

Qawwali songs often have a structure defined by strict rules. They usually begin with a slow prelude, featuring the harmonium and drumming. After the prelude ends the singer begin intoning texts quietly as if in payer. As the song the progresses the tempo speeds up with calls of praises of Allah, the Prophet and Sufi saints. This is followed by call-and-response style exchanges between the soloist and the junior singers. The rhythms become more lively and up tempo, building to crescendo-like climax.

Faiz Ali Faiz

Most tradition qawwali songs are written in Persian or an old form of Hindi called “Braj Bhasha”—the languages used by Khursrau. Many new songs are in Punjabi or Urdu. On the surface many qawwali lyrics seem to be about unrequited love. A closer look reveals that are about longing for god. Both musicians and listeners talk about how the music intoxicates them with divine love. The words to one famous Qawwali song goes: "I have forsaken all and I stand forlorn at your doorstep/ Just one glance from you would fulfil my life's dream/ Take one look at me, and I'll never look back on the world I have spurned in order to cling to you.”

Songs are often extended with “girahs”, additional verses added spontaneously in the middle of a song. There is a repertoire of girahs that singer chose from and skilled singers now to thrown in girahs in unexpected way to keep a song fresh. “Tarana” is a vocalization technique "using syllables derived from esoteric Sufi tradition."

Qawwali Singers and Instruments

Qawwali singers are always men. Part of the reason for this is tradition. Another reason is the belief that women don't posses the stamina to properly sing qawwali. Most qawwali singers some from families of qawwali singers. If a singer has no sons he passes the music on to his nephews.

Qawwali singers learn their crafts beginning at an early age. They memorize poems from the classic repertoire and do certain exercises to train their voice. When they are good enough they join the party (musical group), first as response singer and later, if talented enough, as a soloist. Talented singers form their own parties.

The harmonium (a hand-pump accordion-like instrument) produces a droning sound that supports the melody. The harmonium replaced the “sarangi”, a fretless sitar-like instrument that required constant retuning and was deemed unsuitable for live performances. The rhythm is provided by “dholaks” (heavy, double-headed drums hung from the shoulders and played with the fingers) and tablas, played with a flat palm as opposed to the finger technique favored in Indian music.

Qawwali Music Parties and Performances

A group that plays qawwali music is called a party. It usually includes a lead singer called a “mohri”, secondary singers who usually play the harmonium, and at least one percussionist. Every member of the group joins in the singing and the youngest members provide the rhythmic hand claps.

Qawwali at Ajmer Sharif

Describing a qawwali performance, Mark Jenkins wrote in the Washington Post, "The party's lead vocal sang the principal lyrics...His verses were answered by the higher-pitched solo singing of his brother Mehr and the call-and-response and unison of the other eight musicians. While two harmoniums provided the drone." The tabla player "did an exemplary job of keeping and embroidering the beat. Still, much of the evening's music was made simply with trilling voices and clapping hands."

Qawwali refers to a performance and singer as well as a kind of music. At a traditional show, the audiences is made up of exclusively men in accordance with Sufi traditions. In the old days, qawwali was performed at a Sufi shrines on important religious days. These days it is performed in the West at concerts and in Pakistan and India at gatherings call mahfils.

Qawwali has traditionally been performed at a mahfil. Mahfils are social events in which the audiences and performers relax in comfortable positions on the floor. There is great deal of communication between the audience and performers, with performers adapting their music and performances to the likes and spiritual needs of the audience. Many Qawwali performs don't like performing in auditoriums because the feel intimacy is compromised there.

At marfils, musicians often direct their music towards an experienced group of senior listeners, who often show their appreciation by throwing money on the stage or handing musicians gifts (“nazir”) in appreciation for a particular phrase or riff. These gifts date back to a time when they were the performers principal source of income.


A mahfil (derived from the Persian word for "gathering" or "assembly") is modern version of a traditional private instrumental and vocal performance. Musicians at a marphil have traditionally been forbidden from performing pieces they have played in public. [Source: Rough Guide of World Music]

Marfils are the dominion of the elite. It is considered a great honor for someone to play at, host or even attend one. It is almost impossible for ordinary people to attend one unless they know the right people. Those who attend seem be divided between the socially ambitious and true music lovers who prefer the atmosphere of a small intimate performance to a concert in a large hall.

large marfil in Bangladesh

"The evening's cost are sometimes shared among the guests, who contribute to the collection, which is taken up at the beginning of the evening; if the mahfil features qawwali then the listener gives the money directly to the singers. It is not unusual for musicians to earn over £2,000 in a mahfil of about fifty listeners...Where qawwali is concerned the amount itself, ideally, is insignificant—the gesture of getting up often and placing a small coin or note into the hands of the singer is a devotional act in itself.

"Nautch girl" mahfil feature a dancing girl performing before an all-male audience, who throw money at the dancer and fight among themselves for her attention. "A large number of helpers, usually female, crowds into the kitchen to prepare halftime-snacks" and "dinner, to be served after the performance at around two in the morning.” Most of the dishes for this meal have been prepared and bought by the guests themselves.

Describing a marfil, Jameela Siddiqi wrote in the Rough Guide to World Music, "The build-up for a marfil is in itself a major performance...guest-listeners...rush back and forth with final preparations—washing the hot-sweet betel leaves and wrapping them around sweet spices to make paan to be chewed, sucked at spat out." [Source: Rough Guide of World Music]

"The large drawing room still retains its grandeur—the furniture has either been moved back against the wall or removed from the room altogether...The fragrance of joss sticks fills the air...The "stage" is clearly marked with rich weavings and bolster cushions. Both musicians and audience sit on the floor...There is no amplification."

At true mahfil gatherings, "the audience don't merely recognize the forthcoming raaga as the instrument is being tuned , but actually call out the taal they would like the musicians to use...The intensity of the music is sharpened by the interaction between audience and performer. Those listeners who are most apt to respond are soon noted by the musicians, who are close enough to see the expressions on their faces and play to their emotions....There is no applause at any time, for clapping is considered undignified and only fit for large concert halls where there is no other practical way of showing appreciation."

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997) was considered the greatest “qawwali” singer of his generation. He was praised by Western artists such as R.E.M. and Peter Gabriel, and worked with Ry Cooder, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Peter Gabriel. According to Newsweek Ali Khan "sang of god and love in a voice with seemingly infinite range and startling flexibility." He won a Grammy in 1996 for music for the film “Dead Man Walking”.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Ali Khan was a native of the Punjab. He was born in Faisalabad Pakistan on October 13, 1948. His family had been singing mystical Sufi poetry set to music for 600 years. His father was a famous classical Qawwali singer who sang with his brothers in a famous party. Nusrat's father wanted Nusrat to be a doctor or other kind of professional—anything but a musician. Against his father's wishes, Nusrat listened to his father's classes and practiced on his own. At the age of nine he already displayed extraordinary talent.

In 1965, a year after his father’s death, Nusrat began singing professionally. He studied classical music and then joined a party led by his uncle. Another uncle taught him the art of qawwali. In 1971, after his uncle died, Nusrat began developing his own style. He listened at length to recordings of his father and uncles and speed up the tempo of his singing to make it more audience-friendly.

Nusrat quickly established himself as the greatest qawwali singer of his generation. He performed widely in Pakistan and India and toured Europe and the United States. As a young man Nusrat dreamed that he would become a Qawwali and perform at a shrine in which no Qawwali had ever performed before. In 1979 that dream came true when he became the first Qawwali to perform at Hzratja Khwaja Mohin-du-din Chishto in Ajmer, India.

Nusrat weighed 105 kilos and always carried a small handkerchief to wipe the sweat that accumulated on his brow during performances. He died of cardiac arrest at the age of 49 on August 16 1997. Newspapers in Pakistan and India took time out from commemorating their 50 years of independence to praise him.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Performance

Nusrat usually performed while sitting down on rug surrounded by piles of books filled with religious and romantic poetry. A poem dating back to the 14th century was the oldest song in his repertoire. New ones were added all the time. Nusrat's party often composed songs while they performed. They usually select a poem and then choose a raag and taal to go with it. By improvising the party finds out what works and what doesn’t. The song is continually improved over a series of concerts.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Ghulam Farid Sabri

Nusrat's group often performed requests that the audience demanded, and sometimes repeated a particular phrase an audience liked over and over to establish the Sufi state of ecstacy. Concerts in Pakistan usually begin with classical songs and then move onto songs that emphasize the words. The audience often chants the lyrics and go into a trance.

Nusrat moved his hands and body as he sang, sweating a lot and frequently mopping his brow. He did this both to convey emotion and to provide conductor-like cues that the members of his party picked up on. Nusrat sang with "acrobatic agility" and a "raw, impassioned tone" according to the New York Times: "Whether he was repeating a refrain with ever-increasing intensity, streaking through elaborate zigzagging lines, letting loose a percussive fusliade or sustaining a climatic note, he made music that united virtuosity and fervor.”

Nusrat recorded music for Indian films and had his music remixed with techno beats. His fans shouted, threw money and leaped in the air in ecstatic burst when he sang. In a typical performance, drums, hand claps and harmonium push his voice ever upwards

Modern Sufism and Politics in Pakistan

Nicholas Schmidle wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: Rohail Hyatt, founder of the famous Pakistani rock group Vital Signs, “is now the music director for Coca-Cola in Pakistan, and he hopes he can leverage some of his cultural influence—and access to corporate cash—to convey Sufism's message of moderation and inclusiveness to urban audiences. (He used to work for Pepsi, he said, but Coke is "way more Sufic.") He recently produced a series of live studio performances that paired rock acts with traditional singers of qawwali, devotional Sufi music from South Asia. One of the best-known qawwali songs is titled "Dama Dum Mast Qalandar," or "Every Breath for the Ecstasy of Qalandar." [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2008 |+|]

Several politicians have also tried to popularize Sufism, with varying degrees of success. In 2006, as Musharraf faced political and military challenges from the resurgent Taliban, he established a National Sufi Council to promote Sufi poetry and music. "The Sufis always worked for the promotion of love and oneness of humanity, not for disunity or hatred," he said at the time. But Musharraf's venture was perceived as less than sincere. |+|

“"The generals hoped that since Sufism and devotion to shrines is a common factor of rural life, they would exploit it," Hamid Akhund told me. "They couldn't." Akhund chuckled at the thought of a centralized, military government trying to harness a decentralized phenomenon like Sufism. The Sufi Council is no longer active.

“The Bhuttos—most prominently, Benazir and her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—were much better at marshaling Sufi support, not least because their hometown lies in Sindh province and they have considered Lal Shahbaz Qalandar their patron saint. Qalandar's resting place became, in the judgment of University of Amsterdam scholar Oskar Verkaaik, "the geographical center of [the elder] Bhutto's political spirituality." After founding the Pakistan Peoples Party, Bhutto was elected president in 1971 and prime minister in 1973. (He was ousted in a coup in 1977 and hanged two years later.) As Benazir Bhutto began her first campaign for prime minister, in the mid-1980s, her followers would greet her with the chant, "Benazir Bhutto Mast Qalandar" ("Benazir Bhutto, the ecstasy of Qalandar"). In late 2007, when she returned to Pakistan from an exile imposed by Musharraf, she received a heroine's welcome, especially in Sindh. |+|

Attacks on Pakistan's Sufi Muslims

In 2012, Alex Rodriguez wrote in Los Angeles Times, Sufism’s open-mindedness “doesn't track with the attitude of the country's militant groups. Since last summer, militants have attacked Sufi shrines in four cities, killing at least 102 people and injuring 348. The blast that robbed Malik of his eyesight killed 47 people and injured 170. The latest suicide bomb attack, at a shrine in the city of Dera Ghazi Khan on April 3, killed 41 people. "They consider it a service to Islam to cleanse the religion of all impurities," said Abdul Basit, an analyst at the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. "And for the militants, these practices at the shrines are impurities." [Source: Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2011 ~]

“The campaign of terrorism against Sufi shrines reflects the rising tide of extremism in Pakistan that shows no signs of ebbing. Two leading moderate politicians, Punjabi provincial Gov. Salman Taseer and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were assassinated this year for their opposition to the country's draconian blasphemy law, which can bring the death penalty for anyone convicted of insulting Islam. "The militants think that if you have an Islam that's soft and tolerant, then obviously they would never be able to impose their will," said security analyst Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general. "They need the structure of religion for their power game, and that structure can only be provided by their interpretation of Islam." ~

“The Taliban's animosity toward Sufism was apparent in the rhetoric used by its militants to groom a 14-year-old boy for the attack on the shrine in Dera Ghazi Khan. Two bombers carried out the attack. One was able to detonate his explosives-filled vest and died in the blast. The other, however, had a vest that only partially detonated. The explosion tore apart his large intestine and severed his left arm at the shoulder, but he survived and was able to recount to police what he was told by his Pakistani Taliban handlers. "He was brought here and told: 'These are the infidels. They are not doing what Muslims should do. Anyone who kills them will go to heaven,' “said Mubarak Ahmed, a senior Dera Ghazi Khan police official. ~

“Despite the threat, security at shrines is lax. There are 534 shrines in Punjab, Pakistan's wealthiest and most populous province, and more than half of them lack proper security, according to a Punjabi provincial official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to journalists. In the Punjabi city of Shekhupura, a drowsy security guard slouched motionless in a chair by the main gate of the Noori Poori Sarkar shrine while another man made a single, cursory wave with a hand-held metal detector to screen visitors before motioning them through.~

“Security isn't much better during the annual Urs festival, when thousands of Sufi followers flock to the shrine, said Nasir Mehmood, 30, a Lahore cafe owner who brought his family there on a recent weekend. "It's usually just two or three police going through the motions," Mehmood said. "This is government incompetence, not providing security for these shrines." Since last summer's attack at Data Darbar, one of Pakistan's most beloved landmarks, authorities have ramped up security there. Visitors wend their way through a maze of razor wire and concrete barriers before passing through a metal detector; at least two teams of guards frisk everyone from head to toe. ~

“Malik said police were nowhere to be seen on the warm July night when two explosions rocked the shrine. "Somehow, I was still standing," Malik said. "When I checked my body, I found I had no clothes on, just underwear, a belt and the left pocket of my trousers. It felt like a dream. I couldn't see, but I sensed everyone around me was dead." A software engineer, Malik still works at his father's office. He gets paid for advising junior colleagues, but his father, Akhtar Javed Malik, said it's "just a formality to keep him engaged." The elder Malik said the family never considered forgoing shrine visits. "The people who commit these terrorist acts, they want to intimidate us so that we no longer come to shrines," he said. "But we won't be deterred. Nothing will force us to abandon what we do." ~

“Malik said police were nowhere to be seen on the warm July night when two explosions rocked the shrine. "Somehow, I was still standing," Malik said. "When I checked my body, I found I had no clothes on, just underwear, a belt and the left pocket of my trousers. It felt like a dream. I couldn't see, but I sensed everyone around me was dead." A software engineer, Malik still works at his father's office. He gets paid for advising junior colleagues, but his father, Akhtar Javed Malik, said it's "just a formality to keep him engaged." The elder Malik said the family never considered forgoing shrine visits. "The people who commit these terrorist acts, they want to intimidate us so that we no longer come to shrines," he said. "But we won't be deterred. Nothing will force us to abandon what we do."~”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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