How Qawwali Became a Popular Form of Sufi Devotional Music in the Last 650 Years

Qawwali music has been around for more than 650 years and is exceptional. At its core, Qawwali is a musical expression of love, spirituality, and devotion to the divine. It involves a group of skilled vocalists called Qawwals who sing mystical poetry, often in Urdu, Persian, Punjabi, or Arabic, accompanied by harmonium, tabla, and sometimes other percussion instruments. The words they sing, like “O laal meri pat rakhio bala jhule laalan” or “Ali Ali Ali Maula Ali Ali,” feel like they touch your soul.

It’s not just a regular song—it’s like a journey. It starts with music from instruments, and then the main singer takes over. Everyone listening gets caught up in the energy and rhythm.

The music has a strong beat, powerful singing, clapping, and a magical sound. It comes from a mix of Hindu and Islamic cultures and is a precious part of Indian music, even if it’s not as famous as other types.

What is Qawwali?

Qawwali is a vibrant and passionate form of devotional music originating from the mystical Sufi tradition in South Asia, particularly in India and Pakistan. The lyrics of Qawwali typically explore themes of divine love, longing for spiritual union, and the quest for enlightenment. The music’s repetitive rhythm and captivating melodies create an immersive and trance-like experience for performers and listeners. Qawwali performances are characterized by a call-and-response pattern where the lead vocalist initiates verses that are echoed and elaborated upon by the chorus, resulting in an emotionally charged and spiritually uplifting atmosphere.

Qawwali isn’t just a musical performance; it’s a spiritual journey to evoke a deep connection between the performer, the audience, and the divine. It often occurs in Sufi shrines, dargahs, or religious gatherings, where people from diverse backgrounds come together to experience this art form’s transcendental and communal aspects.

Throughout its long history, Qawwali has evolved while retaining its spiritual essence. It has gained global recognition and influenced various music genres, attracting audiences worldwide with its mesmerizing rhythms and heartfelt expressions of devotion.

 History of Qawwali

The history of Qawwali stretches back over 700 years and is rooted in the mystical traditions of Sufism in South Asia. A fusion of diverse cultural and musical influences marks its evolution.

Origins (13th Century)

Qawwali traces its origins to the 13th century in the Indian subcontinent, notably during the Delhi Sultanate era. It’s believed that the esteemed Sufi poet and musician Hazrat Amir Khusro (1253-1325) played a pivotal role in shaping and popularizing this musical form. Khusro is often credited with amalgamating Persian, Arabic, Indian, and Turkish musical elements to create what we now recognize as Qawwali.

Sufi Influence

Sufism, a mystical and reflective dimension of Islam, emphasizes the quest for spiritual truth and union with the divine. Qawwali emerged as a means for Sufi saints and poets to convey their devotion, love, and mystical experiences through poetry set to music. These gatherings were held in Sufi shrines and dargahs, fostering a communal atmosphere where individuals from various backgrounds congregated to seek spiritual solace and unity.

Development and Tradition

Over the centuries, Qawwali developed its distinct characteristics. Based on classical ragas and rhythmic patterns, the musical structure became a hallmark of this art form. Qawwali’s performance involves a group of highly skilled vocalists (Qawwals) accompanied by instruments such as the harmonium, tabla, dholak, and sometimes the sarangi and sitar, creating an immersive and dynamic musical experience.

Notable Figures and Lineages

Apart from Amir Khusro, several notable lineages and families have significantly contributed to the development and propagation of Qawwali. These include the descendants of renowned Sufi saints and Qawwali maestros like the Qawwal Bachchon ka Gharana in Delhi, the Sabri Brothers in Pakistan, the Nizami Bandhu in India, and other influential families who have preserved and enriched this musical heritage.

Global Recognition and Evolution

In the 20th century, Qawwali gained international recognition, mainly due to the legendary maestro, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997). Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s mesmerizing performances and collaborations with Western artists catapulted Qawwali onto the global stage. His innovative approach and fusion with contemporary music expanded Qawwali’s appeal beyond traditional boundaries.

Essence of Qawwali

Qawwali is like a musical story that’s been around for a long time. It’s all about feelings—like love, wanting to be close to something bigger, and feeling connected to something special. The words they sing in Qawwali are about love for the divine, feeling sad when you’re far from it, and wanting to get closer to something bigger than ourselves.

It’s like a big emotional ride for everyone involved when they perform Qawwali. The music has these rhythms and tunes that make you feel a whole bunch of stuff, from super happy to thoughtful. And the singers talk to each other through the music, almost like conversing. It’s cool because they make up parts of the song as they go along, making it even more special.

One cool thing about Qawwali is how it brings people together. Everyone joins in; it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what language you speak. They have these events in unique places where everyone comes to feel connected and share this experience. Everyone becomes part of a big family, enjoying the music and feelings together.

Indian Karaoke Hits with Qawwali Essence

Indian karaoke songs often cover various genres, including Qawwali, a Sufi devotional music popular in South Asia. Qawwali music is known for its soulful melodies and powerful lyrics that often explore love, spirituality, and devotion themes.

When searching for karaoke songs with Qawwali-style lyrics, one might look for tracks that feature:

  1. Energetic Rhythms: Qawwali songs typically have vibrant beats and rhythmic patterns that make them catchy and engaging.
  2. Devotional Lyrics: Qawwali lyrics often express devotion, love, and spiritual themes. They can be intensely emotional and resonate with listeners on a personal level.
  3. Soulful Melodies: Qawwali melodies are known for their soul-stirring tunes that captivate the audience and create a mesmerizing atmosphere.

Some popular Bollywood songs incorporate elements of Qawwali in their lyrics or music composition, providing an experience that resonates with the essence of this genre. While not purely Qawwali, they may feature Qawwali-inspired segments or themes within the song.

For instance, songs like “Khwaja Mere Khwaja” from the movie “Jodhaa Akbar” or “Bhar Do Jholi Meri” from “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” have Qawwali influences in their melodies and lyrics, making them excellent choices for karaoke enthusiasts seeking a taste of this devotional and musical genre.

Significant Elements of a Qawwali Song

In a Qawwali song, several significant elements come together to create its unique and mesmerizing essence:

Lyrics and Poetry:

Qawwali lyrics often draw from the works of Sufi poets and saints, expressing themes of divine love, spiritual longing, and the quest for union with the divine. These poetic verses, sung in languages like Urdu, Persian, Punjabi, or Arabic, form the emotional and spiritual core of the song.

Melodic Raga:

The music in Qawwali is often based on classical ragas, which are musical frameworks in Indian classical music. Ragas set the melodic structure, guiding the emotional tone and mood of the song. Each raga has its distinct character and evokes specific emotions.


A defining characteristic of Qawwali is its call-and-response pattern. The lead vocalist (Shah) initiates verses, and the chorus of singers (Qawwals) responds, echoing and embellishing the lead’s phrases. This musical conversation creates a dynamic and interactive experience, engaging both performers and the audience.

Rhythmic Percussion:

Qawwali is accompanied by rhythmic percussion instruments like the tabla, dholak, and sometimes others like the daf or tambourine. These instruments provide the heartbeat of the music, creating intricate rhythmic patterns that drive the song’s energy and intensity.

Harmonium and Instruments:

The harmonium, a small keyboard instrument, plays a significant role in Qawwali, providing harmonic support and melodic accompaniment to the vocals. Sometimes, other instruments like the sarangi, sitar, or flute may also be included, adding layers of musical depth to the performance.

Improvisation and Repetition:

Qawwali allows for spontaneous improvisation within the structure of the song. Singers often add variations, melodic ornamentations, and rhythmic embellishments, showcasing their artistic creativity. Repetition of phrases and melodies is another characteristic, intensifying the emotional impact and inviting listeners to immerse themselves in the song’s sentiments.

Spiritual Invocation:

Many Qawwali songs begin with a spiritual invocation or prelude known as the “naat” or “hand,” praising Prophet Muhammad or God, respectively. This opening sets the spiritual tone and shows reverence for the performance.

Spiritual Climax and Ecstasy:

As the Qawwali progresses, it often builds towards a spiritual climax. This culmination, known as the “maqamat” or “Bukhara,” reaches a crescendo of emotion and intensity. During this phase, performers and listeners may experience a state of spiritual ecstasy or transcendence.

Communal Participation:

Qawwali isn’t just a performance; it’s a communal experience. Audience participation is encouraged, and listeners often join in by clapping, singing along, or expressing their emotions, creating a sense of unity and collective joy. These elements converge to create the enchanting fusion of a Qawwali song, weaving together spiritual devotion, musical brilliance, and emotional resonance, inviting audiences into a world of profound spiritual and musical experience. Qawwali, a mesmerizing musical form, involves a lead vocalist supported by a team of echoing couplets. Instruments like the harmonium, tabla, dholak, and sarangi accompany this rich tradition. Its compositional structure is deeply inspiring. Often simple yet profound, the lyrics focus on chanting couplets with a specific tone and rhythm.

The Halqa, formed by rhythmic repetitions, builds an energetic pattern, leading both singer and listener into a spiritually transcendent space. This balance of music, rhythm, chanting, and silence guides the mind toward divine consciousness.

The Taqrar, involving the lead singer’s verses countered by supporting vocalists, creates quick, challenging dialogues, intensifying the rhythm.

Qawwali lyrics are composed in Qual (praises or divine sayings) or Qalbana (mixing Arabic and Hindi verses). Melody (Tarannum) further enhances these compositions, often employing distinguished ragas and later incorporating Persian verses.

Physical gestures are pivotal, with the lead singer’s open-armed invitation symbolizing a divine journey and encouraging onlookers to join in the ecstatic experience. These elements, including Alaap, Anga, Band, and many others, contribute to the multifaceted richness of Qawwali music.

Cultural and Social Significance

Qawwali isn’t merely a musical genre; it’s deeply intertwined with South Asia’s cultural and social fabric. Originating in the Sufi tradition, it has been a vehicle for spiritual expression, fostering a sense of communal harmony and inclusivity. Its gatherings, often held in Sufi shrines or dargahs, attract people from diverse backgrounds, transcending caste, creed, and religious barriers. Here, individuals unite, seeking spiritual solace and unity through music and poetry.

Musical Complexity and Performance

The performance of Qawwali is a meticulously crafted art form that requires both technical skill and emotional depth. The lead Qawwal introduces verses, often drawn from classical poetry or the works of Sufi saints, while the chorus responds harmoniously, building upon and embellishing the themes. The rhythmic patterns of the tabla and dholak, along with the musical strains of the harmonium, create a mesmerizing aura that captivates the audience.

Sufism and Qawwali

Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, emphasizes the pursuit of spiritual truth and union with the divine. Qawwali serves as a vehicle for expressing the central tenets of Sufism: love, devotion, and the quest for spiritual enlightenment. The lyrics often speak of divine love, the pain of separation, and the ultimate yearning for union with the divine beloved, reflecting the Sufi concept of ‘ishq-e-haqiqi’ (true love for the divine).

Evolution and Modern Influence

While deeply rooted in tradition, Qawwali has undergone evolution, adapting to changing times without compromising its essence. Modern Qawwals experiment with fusion, blending traditional elements with contemporary music genres, attracting younger audiences while retaining the core spiritual essence. This evolution has led to collaborations with diverse musicians, from Bollywood composers to Western artists, further enriching its global appeal.

Challenges and Preservation Efforts

In the face of modernization and changing musical tastes, preserving Qawwali’s authenticity remains challenging. Economic hardships for traditional Qawwals, dwindling patronage, and a lack of institutional support threaten its continuity. However, various cultural organizations, educational institutions, and passionate musicians are dedicated to safeguarding this heritage. Efforts include archiving recordings, organizing workshops, and establishing platforms to educate and promote Qawwali.

Continued Legacy

Despite the challenges, Qawwali is a timeless tradition that fosters spirituality, cultural understanding, and communal harmony. Its legacy endures through the unwavering dedication of Qawwals, the passion of enthusiasts, and the transformative power it holds over audiences, transcending language and cultural barriers.

Qawwali isn’t just a musical genre; it’s a spiritual journey that resonates through centuries, offering a glimpse into the human quest for divine connection and inner peace. Its melodies continue to echo across time, bridging hearts and souls in a harmonious symphony of devotion and love.

Localization Qawwali and its Impacts on Regional Music

Localizing qawwali music, which integrates with regional music styles and traditions, can significantly impact the local music scene.

  1. Fusion of Musical Styles: When Qawwali merges with regional music, it creates a unique fusion. Elements of Qawwali, such as its rhythmic patterns or vocal styles, blend with the local music, leading to a distinct sound that appeals to a broader audience.
  2. Cultural Exchange: This fusion encourages cultural exchange. Qawwali, originating from Sufi traditions, carries spiritual themes. When interacting with regional music, it introduces these spiritual aspects to new audiences while incorporating local cultural themes into qawwali renditions.
  3. Audience Expansion: By localizing Qawwali, it attracts a broader audience. People who might not have been familiar with traditional Qawwali may find it more accessible when combined with familiar regional music elements. This broadens the reach of both Qawwali and regional music.
  4. Revival of Traditional Music: Incorporating Qawwali into regional music can also revive interest in traditional forms. It highlights traditional instruments, vocal techniques, and storytelling methods that have faded from mainstream music.
  5. Artistic Innovation: Localizing Qawwali encourages artistic innovation. Musicians experiment with new sounds, instruments, and compositions, fostering creativity and pushing boundaries within Qawwali and regional music.
  6. Global Recognition: Fusion music often gains attention beyond regional borders. When Qawwali blends with various regional styles, it attracts international audiences, contributing to its global recognition and appreciation.

Overall, the impact of localizing Qawwali on regional music is profound. It preserves cultural heritage and stimulates creativity and diversity within the musical landscape.

Qawwali in Films and International Acclaims

Qawwali has made significant inroads into films, both in Bollywood and international cinema, contributing to its widespread recognition and international acclaim.

  1. Bollywood Incorporation: Bollywood films have prominently featured qawwali music for decades. These songs, often set in dramatic situations, add depth and emotion to storytelling. Iconic qawwali sequences in movies like “Mughal-e-Azam,” “Barsaat ki Raat,” and “Nikaah” have become timeless classics.
  2. Global Exposure: Through Bollywood, Qawwali has gained international exposure. Films with qawwali sequences have been screened globally, introducing this musical form to diverse audiences and fostering appreciation and curiosity about Sufi music and its cultural roots.
  3. International Collaborations: Qawwali has transcended borders through collaborations with international artists. Renowned qawwals have collaborated with Western musicians, leading to cross-genre projects that blend Qawwali with various musical styles, creating a fusion that resonates with global audiences.
  4. Recognition in World Music Circles: Qawwali’s mesmerizing melodies and spiritual essence have garnered recognition in world music circles. Performances by legendary qawwals at international festivals and events have introduced this genre to a broader spectrum of music enthusiasts.
  5. Impact on World Music Fusion: Qawwali’s influence extends to world music fusion projects. Its rhythmic patterns, soulful vocals, and captivating melodies have inspired artists across genres to incorporate elements of Qawwali into their music, leading to innovative musical blends.
  6. Sufi Music Appreciation: Qawwali, as a form of Sufi music, has contributed to the global appreciation of spiritual and devotional music. Its ability to transcend linguistic and cultural barriers has made it a beloved genre among listeners seeking profound and uplifting musical experiences.

The presence of Qawwali in films, its collaborations with international artists, and its recognition in world music circuits have collectively contributed to its international acclaim, cementing its status as a deeply revered and appreciated musical form worldwide.

Qawwali: A Musical Genre in the Karaoke World

When we think about Qawwali, these complicated tunes, rhythms, and deep feelings need a lot of focus. Just like creating karaoke tracks helps you get music, learning and practicing Qawwali not only makes you better at music but also helps you connect with its spiritual side. That way, you can feel the beautiful melodies and meaningful words it has.

With its beautiful tunes and spiritual depth, Qawwali music is now part of many karaoke websites. You can always check out websites, as they’ve made singing along easier by providing karaoke versions of Qawwali songs. These versions have all the instruments you’d hear in a qawwali performance, like the harmonium, tabla, and dholak.

Some people love Qawwali songs so much that they try making their own karaoke versions rather than singing to them, but Qawwali songs can be a bit tricky. If you’re just starting, a great way to get the hang of it is by beginning with Hindi songs karaoke. It’s like a stepping stone that helps you understand the basics of Hindi music before diving into the complexities of Qawwali. Once you’ve got a good grip on Hindi songs, you can explore the intricate world of Qawwali more confidently and with better understanding.


Qawwali has become a beloved playlist choice for people of all ages worldwide. Over time, the singers, performance spaces, and audiences have evolved. Significantly, while it originated as a profoundly religious performance, modern Qawwali compositions have taken a more inclusive and universally appealing approach. They’ve become more accessible for the general audience to hum along to and understand.

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Deny Smith

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