From Wikipedia: “Qawwali is a form of Sufi devotional music popular throughout North India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It is a musical tradition that stretches back for more than 700 years. Delhi’s Sufi saint Amir Khusro Dehlavi of the Chisti order of Sufis is credited with fusing the Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Indian musical traditions to create Qawwali as we know it today in the late 13th century in India.
The word Sama is often still used in Central Asia and Turkey to refer to forms very similar to Qawwali, and in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the formal name used for a session of Qawwali is Mehfil-e-Sama. The poetry is implicitly understood to be spiritual in its meaning, even though the lyrics can sometimes sound wildly secular, or outright hedonistic. The central themes of qawwali are love, devotion and longing (of man for the Divine).”
Although qawwali is seen as a fundamentally Muslim musical tradition, the history of Sufism in South Asia is defined by its syncretism and interaction with Indian traditions. Even today, qawwali is just as popular with Hindus as it is with Muslims.
The song I want to highlight in this post is sung by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad’s amazing qawwali group from Karachi, Pakistan. I had the opportunity to see them perform in Seattle last September the day before I left for Chicago, and it was an unforgettable experience.
Interestingly, this Hindi bhajan is addressed to the Hindu god Krishna, who is also called Kanhaiya. “The last verse evokes the Sufi idea of the stages of descent of God into form, the movement from One to many. The poetic image has the woman saying ruefully that she was better off single, instead of suffering the pain of separation from Krishna, now that they are ‘two.'” It may have been composed by Nawab Sadiq Jung Hilm of Hyderabad.
Here’s an excerpt from Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus, talking about the relationship between Hinduism and Sufism:
“Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, heavily influenced and was influenced by Hinduism. By the middle of the eleventh century Sufis had reached the part of Northwest India that was under Ghaznavid control. Khwaja Muin-ud-din (or Moin-al-din) Chishti is said to have brought to India the Chishti Sufi order; he came to Delhi late in the twelfth century and settled in Pushkar in Ajmer, a place of Hindu pilgrimage. He had many disciples, both Muslim and Hindu. The Chishti Sufi masters were powerful figures in the cultural and devotional life of the Delhi Sultanate (where their followers were often influential members of the court), despite the fact that they regarded “going to the sultan” as the equivalent of “going to the devil.”
For many Hindus (though, of course, not for the Sufis themselves), Sufism was Islam lite, or a walking incarnation of interreligious dialogue. Early Indian Sufism proclaimed that Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Hindus all were striving toward the same goal and that the outward observances that kept them apart were false. This idea was then incorporated into Hinduism as a major strand of the bhakti movement, which was growing in both power and complexity in this period. In court literature, the Sanskrit theory of the aesthetic emotions (rasa), particularly the erotic emotion, fused with the Islamic metaphysics of the love of God to produce a Sufi narrative simultaneously religious and erotic; the Sufi romances made their hero a yogi and their heroine a beautiful Indian woman.
(…) In the realm of religious texts, both bhakti and Sufism transfused popular literature so thoroughly that it is often hard to tell which tradition is the source of a particular mystical folk song. Much of the poetry written by Muslims, with Muslim names, in Hindi, Bengali (Bangla), Gujarati, Punjabi, and Marathi begins with the Islamic invocation of Allah but goes on to express Hindu content or makes use of Hindu forms, Hindu imagery, Hindu terminology.
Syncretism remained at the heart of Sufism, which in the course of time produced Muslim disciples who had Hindu disciples who had Muslim disciples, and so on, some of whom called God Allah, some Rama or Hari (Vishnu). In Sufi centers, low-caste Hindus, including [Dalits], shared meals with other Hindus as well as with Muslims. A similar synthesis took place in the seventeenth century in “Dakani” poetry composed in Urdu, which blended Islamic and Hindu genres as well as male and female voices, introducing, from the Hindu lyric tradition and the Arabic storytelling tradition, a female narrator. Popular religion often mixed Hindu and Sufi practices together inextricably, to the annoyance of reformers. Many people were Hindu by culture, Muslim by religion, or the reverse. Mughal emperors patronized yoga establishments. Hindus worshiped Sufi Pirs.”