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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I am Pakistani-American. I hold a B.A. degree from George Washington University, where I majored in Dramatic Literature and minored in Western Classical Music. During my undergraduate education, I spent two years at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) where I studied Social Sciences, including Anthropology, Sociology and Political Philosophy. I have studied Hindustani Classical Vocal from a young age. Currently I am teaching an undergraduate course on the history of music in South Asia at LUMS. At BP, I intend to write on art, music and literature.

8 thoughts on “Pakistan’s attempts to secularise qawwali are unnecessary – it has always been pluralistic”

    1. I know Haroon Khalid. We were in the same university at the same time. We were even in a few Anthropology classes together.

      What I have read and what I taught my musicology students is that the Chisti order and Hazrat Nizamuddin realized that music was a major part of worship in Hindu culture and if Islam was to draw converts, music could be a powerful tool. This led to the development of Qawwali, which is supposed to have been developed by Hazrat Amir Khusrao. Qawwali is a distinctly South Asian thing and doesn’t really have any equivalents in Arab culture (at least as far as I am aware). So yes, in that sense, it is analogous to bhajan.

  1. He is a bit too obsessed with Pakistan’s non-Muslim past. It’s a theme he keeps coming back to again and again. I’ve heard him accused of “populist history”.

    I am quite liberal on the Pakistani spectrum, but even I think we need to accept that we are a Muslim country and that most of our countrymen are quite happy with it that way. Going on and on about Hindu temples in the Islamic Republic only gets you a very limited audience. Most people will not be interested or they will actively dislike you. Mainstream Pakistani history is the history of the Muslim presence in the land. We are not much interested in anything else.

    I don’t necessarily agree with this. I got the chance to visit Nankana Sahab and I loved the gurudwaras. But most “mainstream” Pakistanis are not interested. We are interested in the Lahore Fort, the Badshahi Mosque, and things like that, but not the remnants of the non-Muslim past.

    1. Well i would not call his reading as populist history since it isn’t popular in Pakistan. We also have writers like that India who go around and try to look for tribal/non vedic orgins of rituals and deities, so its not uncommon. I do agree that sometimes he draws a straight line to Indus Valley–>Hindu–> Muslim. But wouldn’t you too like to know more about culture and history outside of mainstream views, i would.

      1. Populist history in the sense that he is not trained as an academic historian.

        Personally, I am neutral on the non-Muslim past. I have sung bhajans. It doesn’t bother me. I used to have an idol of Saraswati Devi as an objet d’art in my house in DC. But I am not the typical Pakistani. The country is called “The Islamic Republic of Pakistan”. Most people here don’t want to hear one word about Hinduism, it’s a huge turnoff for them.

        Just like a lot of Hindu nationalists don’t want to hear one word about Islam if it not followed by the word “invasion”. We are mirror images in that.

    1. There is a whole debate in Islam about whether music is “haram”. I covered all this with my students. However, Qawaali is an integral part of many Islamic practices. It is all religious music in praise of the Prophet (peace be upon him), Allah, or various Saints. Marsiya and Soz are a big part of Shia traditions.

      Hindustani Classical is still struggling along in Pakistan, though since it has Hindu associations, the audience is kind of limited. It also is very intricate and requires an educated audience. Since music appreciation is not taught in schools, people usually have no idea what an alaap is or what vistaars are. Ghazal is very very popular.

      Please don’t leave stupid comments about Islam, a religion you clearly know very little about.

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