Pakistan’s attempts to secularise qawwali are unnecessary – it has always been pluralistic

By Hammad Khan in Scroll. in

[Kabir’s note: A nice change from geopolitics and caste]

One of the characteristics of the modern weltanschauung (worldview) is to identify religion as distinct from culture.

Islam, and Islam in Pakistan, doesn’t escape this bifurcation either. One popular example is qawwali.

The recent secularisation of qawwali – the shift away from Sufi dargahs to concert halls and recording labels – has led to a re-imagining of qawwali as expressive of the cultural traditions of Pakistan and (North) India, related only marginally and incidentally to the religion in whose cradle it developed.

Such a secular understanding of qawwali is anachronistic to the pre-modern progenitors of the art form.

The Chishti order, the most prominent Sufi brotherhood in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, has long celebrated the normativity of qawwali as an expression of divine love. Annemarie Schimmel has noted the phenomenon in the Mystical Dimensions of Islam as “the most widely known expression of mystical life in Islam.” American author Leonard Lewisohn, in his article “The Sacred Music of Islam: Sama in the Persian Sufi Tradition”, points out that qawwali is stressed upon by some South Asian Sufis not only as legally permissible (halal), but as a required religious practice (wajib).

Inherent religious pluralism

Qawwali also has a long history of engaging with multiple religious traditions. The religious landscape of North India and Pakistan provides a literary context of diverse religious motifs, metaphors and symbols.

Such a pluralistic approach is evident in a representative qawwali, Kanhayya (Krishna), composed by Nawab Sadiq Jung Bahadur Hilm and performed by Abu Muhammad and Fareed Ayaz. The qawwal sings of his love for Krishna and relates a heart-wrenching account of the afflictions he endures through separation with his beloved.

Kahuun kyaa tere bhuulne ke main vaarii
Kanhayya yaad hai kuch bhii hamaarii

What can I say, even for your neglect
I could give my life.
Do you remember me a little,
O’ my tormenting Kanhayya!

Radha-Krishna as the archetype of spiritual love is based on the 12th century lyrical epic, Gita Govinda (Love Song of the Dark Lord), composed by the saint-poet Shri Jayadeva of Bengal, and is considered a religious work in the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism.

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