What is Qawwali? —A Beginner’s Guide

The term 'Qawwali' is Arabic for 'utterance', and it refers to the devotional music of the Sufis, the mystics of the Islamic religion. The term includes both the medium and its performance.

Qawwals of the late 20th Century such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and The Sabri Brothers might have attracted Western attention to the genre (as has its appropriation by Bollywood films), but Qawwali has its origins in the 12th century when the great Sufi saint Hazratja Khawaja Moin-Ud-Din Chishtie travelled to India to bring the message of Islam to the Hindu nation.

Realising the latter appreciated the power of music over words, he decided that singing the praises of Allah was the only way to go, and Qawwali has continued to stir the hearts of performers and listeners ever since.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party perform 'Mustt Mustt' at WOMAD Yokohama in 1992

Performers believe they have a religious mission: to evoke the name of Allah via rhythmic handclapping, percussion, harmonium and a vast repertoire of sung poetry. A group of Qawwals is made up of a lead singer, one or two secondary singers and musicians, and wildly clapping junior members. By repeatedly and hypnotically chanting salient phrases, they transport audiences to a spiritual nirvana, a trance-like state that some describe as akin to flying. Qawwali evokes the name of Allah in many languages, from its original Persian to Punjabi, Urdu, Arabic and other languages of India and Pakistan, though the medium’s passion and intensity has the ability to move even Western ears.

Traditional Qawwali performances, or mahfils, are intimate gatherings which see listeners sitting on the ground rather than on seats. This setting, traditionalists believe, brings them closer to God— a state unattainable in the stadium-size affairs commanded by the likes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Nevertheless, large concerts by Nusrat and The Sabri Brothers still had audience members whirling like dervishes.

The Sabri Brothers. Photo credit: Francis Drake.

Similarly, the tradition of giving nazar, small devotional gifts of paper money, is made easier in an informal mahfil than clambering stagewards over hundreds of concert chairs. The act of nazar is all-important in reminding such world-famous musos of their humble duty. A duty passed down from generation to generation —both Nusrat and The Sabris have a Qawwali lineage of master-pupil relationships stretching back hundreds of years— with the lead Qawwal defined both by his (women are forbidden to sing Qawwali) talent and ability to memorise and deliver the repertoire.

Qawwals such as Real World artists Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and The Sabri Brothers have been credited with introducing the beauteous medium to the West, with the former collaborating with Canadian producer Michael Brook to mix devotional song with ambient, dub-fuelled fusion on the seminal albums Mustt Mustt (1990) and Night Song (1996).

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook. Photo credit: Stephen Lovell-Davis


Sufis believe that they are following the same path as the original seekers of truth who have existed from the beginning of mankind. The word ‘sufi’ comes from the Persian word ‘saaff’, meaning ‘pure’.

There are various schools of thought that can be traced back to different gurus who in turn can be traced back to the prophet Mohammed.


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A small oboe-like instrument with a very large reed and a sweet melancholy tone. The haunting wistfulness of the instrument can be mesmerising in the hands of a skilled player. The same instrument is known as a mey in western Turkey.



A double-headed drum tapering at both ends, made from a piece of hollowed tree trunk and played with the fingers and the palms. It comes from North Indian folk tradition and is widely used by bhangra bands, as well as Qawwali groups, although the playing techniques are different.



A set of two small drums played with the palms and fingertips, and capable of producing an incredible range of sounds and textures. The name is an abbreviation of tabla-bayan, bayan meaning left, which is where the drum is positioned. The tabla is made of wood and the bayan of metal, both have heads made of skin, with a paste of flour and iron filings in the middle.



A two-stringed horsehair instrument made from coconut shells and fish skin, where a bow slides, strikes and bounces off the horsehair. It is the favoured axe of the sha’ir —the epic poets— and the muganni sh’abiyyah —the folk singers of the Nile valley.

Recommended Listening

  • Shahen Shah

    Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

    Released 04 June 1989

    The emotional intensity and soaring power of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice transcends all boundaries of language and religion, and has popularised Sufi music beyond Muslim peoples to audiences worldwide. Amongst Real World Records’ most emblematic artists, Nusrat was known as Shahen-Shah-e-Qawwali: The Brightest Shining Star in Qawwali.
  • Day of Colours

    Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali

    Released 02 March 2004

    Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali come into their own with a new-found maturity in their voices and a profundity in their approach that not only maintains and furthers a family tradition but develops their own identity as singers and breathes fresh life into a centuries-old style that has today become one of the glories of modern world music.

By Online Editor

Main image: Nusrat at WOMAD in Morecambe Bay in 1990. Photo credit: Sue Belk.

Published on Wed, 06 March 19

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