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Music, that’s more Spiritual and Secular Sufi(Cent) Sama

Updated: June 9, 2012 10:57 am

Some fanatic outfits and fundamentalist hardliners stand deadly against those going to the shrines for a belief that there is nothing like saint or sufi dervish. Sufism is not about Muslim, this aims at bringing people of different faiths together beyond a religious line segment. Now the most rigid and rotten thought is that one sect of the community is favouring Sufism where there are many who do not at all follow the doctrine of Sufism, and many are aghast at the word sufi. Films and documentaries are being made on this subject to foster awareness in this context. There are plenty of books fetching understanding about Sufism that never creates a chasm between two of the religions.

The other side of the coin is, are those who practise Sufism really honest to God and pure at heart? A big question indeed. The fact is that they pretend to be sufi claimant, make tapes, write books but within they are ego inflated and discriminate between two human beings, the rich and the poor. They seem to have been commodifying the term to mint money selling everything in the name of Sufism.

South Asia’s Islamic community is largely composed of the Barelvis and Deobandis, both named after towns in Uttar Pradesh. The former, who have their theological school in Bareilly, are the followers of Sufism, while the orthodox jurists in Deoband are against the concept of intercession to God through saints, considering that these orthodox seminaries are opposed to the dargahs. Deoband’s stand on Sufism is too harsh, they say that there is only Islam, no Sufism. They are against the dargah traditions, fatiha, prayer. They are against attending urs festivals and qawwalis. Deobandis, a massive chunk of the Islamic sect, are more into politics and they go about conducting rallies for a political and religious cause and even put a fatwa (ban). But now Deobandis overtly or covertly come to the dargahs like that of Chishti, Qutubuddin Kaki and Nizamuddin Aulia.

Mystic music makes many go into a trance where you feel spiritually connected with godly network. Qawwali is the devotional, sacred music of the sufi dervish. When a qawwal performs a song he praises God. Qawwali comes from the regions of India and Pakistan and is characterised by vocal chanting accompanied by a harmonium and a tabla or dholak.

Qawwali is the devotional music of the Sufis. Qawwali is a vibrant musical tradition that stretches back more than 700 years. The roots of qawwali can be traced back to the 8th century. However, qawwali in the form we know it today was essentially created by Amir Khusrau in the late 13th century in India.

“It is a divine feel that connects you with the supreme power, which cannot be seen but felt with Godly aura blanketing you, but for that very feel of celestial power you must be pure and pious within to allow that in. The feel comes only when you actually feel with a feel of love for your peer. Sufi music is a kind of food that assuages many hungry hearts and souls. It is no way connected with a religion in particular, it’s a healing touch. But the qawwali recitation is absolutely different, it is for your God whom you love, through this medium you relate your soul to Him and go sinking in a trance and leave behind the materialistic world. This is bhakti (devotion), this is something when you resign from your being and stand in His submission, it’s rather a state of bekhudi. We are just the listeners and happen to be passing by such a way with its mystic aura that purifies the inner self. This is fakir’s ornament, it’s a spiritual healing. It’s niyat, it’s peeri-fakiri and peer- murshid, it’s a high like Jo dooba so paar. Gar Jamaal-e-yaar nabaud baa khayalash hum khusham, khana-e-darvesh ra sham’ee ba az mehtaab neest.”

—Muzaffar Ali

Director of Jahan-e-Khusrau (Annual festival on sufi music)


During the first major migration from Persia, in the 11th century, the musical tradition of sama migrated to the Indian Sub-continent, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Rumi and his Mevlana order of Sufism have been the propagators of sama in Central Asia. Amir Khusrau of the Chishti order of Sufis is credited with fusing the Persian and South Asian musical traditions, to create qawwali as well as the Hindustani classical music tradition. The word “sama” is used (or is the preferred name) in Central Asia and Turkey, for forms very similar to qawwali. And even in India and Pakistan, the formal name used for a session of qawwali is “Mehfil-e-Sama”.

The qawwal usually sits in the centre and the musicians on either side of him. As he sings, his face contorts with emotions and he raises his hands in a prayer-like motion. In contemporary performances there can be a group of vocalists supporting the lead singer and hand clapping is also a common accompaniment.

Those who perform qawwali usually come from a family background of qawwals, which may span hundreds of years and many generations. The songs are usually in urdu, Arabic, Persian, Punjabi and different Hindustani languages. Qawwali has become increasingly popular around the world even amongst non-Muslims and secular audiences.

“It’s mysticism. Those who know Sufism and saints’ preaching are no way fanatic. The dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya is a symbol of secular dimension where everyone irrespective of who is who come here and pay obeisance at the shrine. But some people have made sufi music a commodity, they sell everything in the name of Sufism and people fashion maniac buy in the same fold. Do they understand all that? You can know when you read literature books on sufism and sufi dervish and the sama. All I can say is that one can understand the vibes of spiritually magnetic and mystique force only when one discards worldly temptation and deviates from the materialistic world. People take it as a fashion statement now.”

—Syed Farid Nizami

From the lineage of the Nizami order

The languages of South Asia were freely used by Amir Khusrau in his compositions. In Pakistan today, traditional qawwals still start their performance with a Farsi invocation, moving on to the South Asian language, Punjabi and moving further eastwards with Hindi, Urdu and Bruj.

Qawwali is a form of music practiced by Sufis to inspire religious devotion and instruction. Sufis are synonymous with the ‘Whirling Dervishes’ found in many parts of North Africa and Middle East. Like other spiritual orders, Sufis believe that one can reach God during your own lifetime and Qawwali creates a trance suitable for reaching a higher state of being.

Qawwalis are classified by their content into several categories: A hamd is a song in praise of Allah. Traditionally, a qawwali performance starts with a hamd.

A naat is a song in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. The opening hamd is traditionally followed by a naat.

A manqabat is a song in praise of either Ali or one of the Sufi saints. Manqabats in praise of Ali are typically sung only at a Shi’a concert; if one is sung, it will follow right after the naat. There is usually at least one manqabat in a traditional programme.

A marsiya is a lamentation over the death of much of Ali’s family in the Battle of Karbala. Once again, this would typically be sung only at a Shi’a concert. Besides qaul, basant, kaafi and rang are quite popular in the same line.


One of the objectives of a qawwali is to induce a trance in a listener, the trance is the effect of this music. Trance can also be experienced as a result of one’s own action, such as singing, dancing, chanting etc. For the qawwali, however, the dialogue between the musicians and the listeners is initiated by the musicians, whose goal is to evoke hal (trance).

The last stage of Sufism is fana, the closest analogue in the Buddhist faith being Nirvana. In this stage, the plane of worldly consciousness is dissolved and the ultimate union with the eternal is achieved.

Qawwali Recitation

Gathering the momentum of the first stage, the qawwals launch themselves into the main body of the qawwali, in which rhythm is introduced with a moderate tempo. The tempo is slowly increased and the audience is carefully watched. Any line or musical mode that touches the audience or the master of the ceremony is repeated with renewed fervour to induce a trance.

Nazar is the term applied to the showering of money during a qawwal performance. Wads of banknotes in crisp currency of low to middle denomination are kept at the ready with the people who commission the performance, well before the rendition. Once the performance is in full swing, approbation and appreciation is expressed by flinging and hurling such bills in front of the stage or even on the performers, who continue singing without a break. Other members of the audience also participate and people in a trance often throw away all the money they have with them in a state of ecstasy. The vel (money offered) is always above the performance fee of the qawwal. In voluntary free performances, vel is given freely and spontaneously by the audience.

Hazrat Amir Khusrau (1253-1325, a famous Sufi saint and expert both in Indian and Persian music at the court of Ala’al-Din Khilji, Sultan of Delhi (1296-1316) is credited with the introduction of Persian and Arabic elements into south Asian music.

Qawwalis tend to begin gently and build steadily to a very high energy level in order to induce a hypnotic state both among the musicians and within the audience. Songs are usually arranged as follows: They start with an instrumental prelude where the main melody is played on the harmonium, accompanied by the tabla, which may include improvised variations of the melody.

Then comes the alaap, a long tonal improvised melody during which the singers intone different long notes, in the raag of the song to be played.

The lead singer begins to sing some preamble verses which are typically not part of the main song, although thematically related to it. These are sung unrhythmically, improvised following the raag, and accompanied only by the harmonium. After the lead singer sings a verse, one of the side singers will repeat the verse, perhaps with his own improvisation. A few or many verses will be sung in this way, leading into the main song.

As the main song begins, the tabla, dholak and clapping begin in sync. All members join in the singing of the verses that constitute the refrain. Qawwals are trained in classical music and raaga based renditions, technically sound with all implications and complexities as this format of music demands. They are believed to be part of historic families who pass down this trade to their generation next.


Khankaye festivals (Urs) have the musical and qawwali performances starting with qual, hamd, naat and finally rang.

Ajmer: Khwaja Chishti’s 800th Urs

It’s like all the roads leading to the great sufi shrine Ajmer Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti South Asia’s most important Sufi shrine. Khwaja means master in Persian. Moinuddin Chishti’s dwelling place became a centre of the central and southern parts of India. South Asia’s most revered Muslim, Moinuddin Chishti occupies a principal position in Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam. He established the Chishti silsila (order) in the subcontinent; its spiritual successors were Sufis like Khwaja Qutubuddin al Bakhtiar Kaki of Mehrauli, Delhi, Baba Farid Ganj-e Shakr of Pakpattan in Pakistan, and Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia of Delhi. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti is also known as Sultan-e-Hind, Hind-ul-wali and Gharib Nawaz. Khwaja Chishti departed from the world in 1236, the death anniversary of a Sufi saint’s is not mourned, it is rather celebrated. Urs means “wedding” in Arabic and it means the union of the lover with the beloved, God.

The nine-day urs is an august and momentous event as the city remains crowded with devotees from all over the country and abroad and the surroundings of the shrine remain brimmed all these nine days. The alleys leading to the inside of the dargah report oceans of human heads and unending serpentine queues which move at rather a snail’s pace. The queues of zayereen start thickening at the crack of dawn. All small or big hotels and guesthouses even near the city run full house and remain chock-a-block.

“Love all and hate none is what Khwaja preached. Awesome! It is a wonderful and magnificent aura that envelopes you away from the world. The love is so intense and so profound that you feel sunk into a trance. It’s like a flight that takes you beyond all those physical boundaries of the world. It’s a feel that cannot be felt by everyone; for you have to purify your soul within.

Speaking on the occasion of the urs he said, ‘this time it is going to be a really too big event and the number may climb up to cross the figure of one million and a half. All khadims have been working round the clock to make the urs a great success. We of course will make the ziyareen feel comfortable and they can go to the aastane sharif without much of hassle. We have thousands of volunteers handling the whole event, Insha’Allah, it will be a remarkable day. Police administration is supportive; they all are working in tandem with us.”

—Salman Chishty

Director Syed Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty Dargah

Days before the urs, a green and red flag remains hoisted on the Buland Darwaza, gateway that indicates the advent of the festival. By then malangs and qalandars (non-conformist sufis) and fakirs (ascetics) from all over India head for Ajmer, many reach Ajmer walking all the way from Delhi. They assemble at the dargah of Khwaja Qutubuddin Kaki in Mehrauli, Delhi and from there they start the walk to the city of Khwaja, this walk takes a little more than two weeks.

“The state police is fully equipped to manage the urs peacefully”—Harish Chandra Meena, DGP, Rajasthan

Born in Rajasthan’s Baman Waas district Sawai Madhopur on September 5, 1954, Harish Chandra Meena, DGP Rajasthan, comes from such a small hamlet like place where more emphasis is on rural affairs but he had a different design for himself right from day one. Having completed his graduation in political science, he came to Delhi and joined Jawaharlal Nehru University, known for philosophical jhola-slinging scholars. Meena, the most senior IPS officer of 1976 batch from Rajasthan cadre believes in a fair system of machinery. Meena, a well-decorated police officer with Indian Police Medal and President’s Police medal, well understands the topography of one of the largest states and modus operandi of the crime syndicates operating in different other districts in Rajasthan. The humble Harish answered with a quick wit wearing an infectious smile to the questions fielded with regard to the urs in Ajmer, a watershed in the historic 2012. Excerpts:

The city remains submerged into a spiritual and holy hue of the dargah. Qawwals from everywhere have started pouring into the city of Ajmer and can be heard singing paeans to the saint and paying obeisance with the best of their performances, sama, a musical recitation, in the lamp lit premises, filled with austere aura of mysticism. The sprawling courtyard of the shrine remains resonated with their own qawwali gatherings that go on overnight till the azaan, fajr, the early morning prayer is by the muezzin.

By Syed Wazid Ali

The shrine of sufi saint Khwaja Chishti is celebrating octocentenary (800 years) on the occasion of Ajmer urs that has almost begun. what is this event going to be like?

It is going to be a mega event where Khwaja’s devotees from all over the country and abroad are going to congregate to be part of this 10-day-long religious fest. The figure this time may go as high as 10 to 12 lakh. They all will have to go walking for a couple of kilometres as there will be strict restriction on traffic flow near the dargah area.

Devotees are heading for the shrine from different remote corners of India and a big chunk from South Asian countries and even from the Middle East. How does the police administration take this historic event as?

The usual motley crowd of pilgrims and tourists is no major issue to deal with. The surge is expected to be enormous; the streets leading to the dargah will remain packed to the rafters. We will regulate the crowd till the gate that is possible in groups. We have charted in a way that the whole and huge throng will be split into manageable sizes to be sent in turn.

Is there any extra deployment of paramilitary forces to regulate the oceans of crowd?

As of now there is none. The state police is absolutely ready and fully equipped to manage the urs peacefully.

The number of pilgrims is swelling up year on year and this time it’s expected to touch unprecedented figure. How will you contain this surging and record-breaking crowd?

We are a law-and-order-maintaining agency. We will work within those frames so as to keep peace and harmony intact. Inside the dargah they have volunteers from Anjuman committee, Dagah committee and Diwan Sahib, the khadims (those at the service of the saint) numbering in thousands will manage the inside affairs. I don’t think there will be any problem. Besides, our police personnel will stay on guard till the last point, the astana sharif. (sufi saint’s tomb).

Where are they going to be put up at?

Well, there is vishram sthali where all these zayreens are put up at. Hotels and other khadims have their own houses wherein their own guests stay. Hotels and guest houses on the outskirts accommodate the crowd to an extent, though they go exorbitantly with high tariffs during this time of the year.

The mercury is soaring, water problem is yet another issue, is it not too tough a situation to handle?

The state government has arranged and planned things well. The sun is hot and harsh but then we have made arrangements. There is no contaminated water. To facilitate water, water tanks will remain stationed all through the urs. We have medical facilities available to wrestle with likely maladies.

In a situation like this, the crowd turns recalcitrant and at times it turns into a mob. are you well equipped to get to grips with such unforeseen eventualities?

The police will remain deputed on their toes; visibility is all the more high. As I have said that we will cut the large chunk in a small size so as to regulate the volume of pilgrims with ease and make the darshan hassle-free.

Streets packed with people may lead to molestation or communal spark. How will you battle with such a mishap?

We are keeping a hawk’s eye on every single move, the offender will be prosecuted. Whosoever is found guilty will not be let off.

Stampede is very likely at such event, how do you apply to it?

That’s quite possible as happened in the past. We must maintain the flow of the devotees advancing towards the dargah, they will be checked streets before the main road leading to the dargah sharif and then sent forth the next bunch making sure that the precinct of the dargah can accommodate the next one. (SWA)

“There is one single power that controls the entire world. It’s immaterial as to how you reach your God but then there must be someone to guide you through the way to reach Him. Well, talking of Sufism, it is a part of Islam but above fundamentalism and fanaticism, how you connect yourself to Him, is well through this way. Sufism is a force that makes people come together. Sufism propels the lesson of humanity, brotherhood. It takes you beyond materialism. Going to dargahs, you can feel some aura, positive vibes that engulf you and even protect you from going wrong. Sufism is all about spreading the light of humanity. It’s the faith that counts.”

—Hasani Mian Niyazi

Sufi saint from the Niyazi order Bareilly


“I do not know what Sufism is. I do not understand why people go to tombs and graves and even offer petals and chaudars. Allah is the supreme power above all manmade world. There’s no point in going to a tomb to ask for your good. Albeit, this tomb teaches nothing more than that every one of us meets this inevitable end one day. The earth will perish and so will everything. Visiting graves will do no good. Sama is what you sing and how and where, and there should not be music rendition or accompaniment. I fail to comprehend all this.”

                —Maulana Ashraf Madani

Chief cleric of Darul Uloom Deoband, India

“Sufism is pure bhakti”—Zila Khan

So to speak, there are too many who are marking a milestone in their respective fields. When it’s sufi gayaki, few names like Nusrat, Rahat and Abida Parveen strike one’s mind. Back in India, Zila Khan is one classical singer, first female singer who takes this dimension to the heights. She received her classical training in singing at the age of 12 from her father, the renowned satirist and Pundit Ravi Shankar his arch rival, Ustad Vilayat Khan, first Indian, after independence in 1951, who performed in UK with shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan. Coming from a legendary imdadkhani or Etawah gharana, Zila is known for musical renditions in raag, bandish, thumri and khayal. She is a prolific singer of ghazal gayan. Though she sang in Jahan-e-Khurau, a sufi fest directed and produced by Muzaffar Ali, a film director but now there is some animosity between the two of them.

“I believe, sama has become more of entertainment than devotion to God. It’s a rage. Everyone who cannot do a singing career or writing takes a head plunge into it to make money. This music is utterly soulful and needs to be redefined in this unhygienic atmosphere,” says Zila Khan.

Zila, named after the famous raag zila kaafi by Amir Khusrau, has been honoured with Prime Minister and President awards. She, a cultural advisor and member during CWG 2010, runs a school Ustadgah (gurukul) that trains underprivileged kids. Those who cannot afford music taalim but have a passion for can come here and learn. She bears the expenses on her own. She feels somewhat cheesed off about high-tech commercialization of Sufism. She feels strongly about dilution of art, guru-shishya, ustaad-shagird and gandha parampara (thread). She reminisces her rendering on those Banaras ghats (wharfs). ‘Sufism does not relate to any religion, it’s a godly connect measuring on no materialistic note. For me it’s pure meditation. It’s more like peeri-murshid practice. Music is food of the soul and Sufi music, it’s awesome and tranquilizing, wow! At dargahs (sufi saints’ shrines) the kind of qawwali recitation, it is there only. They have a different meaning there but when the same thing is brought out and commercialized its essence evaporates. Sufi music is a rage, widely accepted but some have plattered this as a business curry which is obnoxious. It’s not the singers only who are responsible even the listeners to such music, barring just a handful of them, have no sense of music at all,” she affirms.


Fact File

►           Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Ajmer established Chishti school (1143-1234).

►           Mehfil-e-Sama (music) introduced by Qutubuddin Al Bhakhtyar Kaki, a disciple of Moinduddin Chishti. Kaki was a saint and great scholar (1173-1235).

►           Kaki’s disciple Fariduddin Ganj-e-shakr carried the lineage on.

►           Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia (1238-1325) was the disciple of Ganj-e-shakr (Pakpatan).


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