Did anyone get the memo about Sufism?

. . .

A soft, cuddly, palatable-for-the-West
version of Islam? When did that happen?


SOME TIME around the early 1990s — no, don’t put it down to neo-liberal economic reforms or the demolition of the Babri masjid — qawwali became Sufi music. Just like that. Nobody got a clearance from the National Regulatory Authority for Naming Music Genres. (If there isn’t such a body yet then what, in the name of all that is melodious, is the Ministry of Culture doing? Take a trip to the nearest music store, if you can find one in our post-Napster world. You will find ‘Songs of Rivers’, ‘Music of the Earth’, ‘Hymns of the Souls’ and others bearing the promise of something walking out of an opium-induced dream had by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. This sort of thing used to be ‘experimental’ once upon a time. It makes you curse 1970, the year Brian Eno released New Depression Music.)

Qawwali was wholesome culture. Among those who made it a household name were Jani Babu Qawwal of Nagpur. Mofussil India had several wannabe Jani Babus who would wake up in the morning and exercise their vocal chords in check lungis, crooked caps and Sando baniyaans, the harmonium tilted across. Their rhymes spanned clogged gutters and the reification of Laila. In the filmi avatar, a costumed Rishi Kapoor embodied social acceptability of an earthy raunchiness and innuendo. The qawwali was a set-piece in the annual cultural programmes of schools, with children learning social commentary.


For the purists, there were the older Sabri Brothers from Karachi and the Warsi Brothers of Hyderabad. There were several Sabris, Nizamis and Warsis. And there was Jafar Husain Khan Badauni of the Rampur-Sahaswan gharana, the most mellifluous qawwal of his generation, whose only well known recording is a Music Today release of 1992. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan burst on the scene in the 1980s with the more aggressive and quick-to-please Punjabi style of qawwali.

Around the time qawwali became Sufi music, its popularity disappeared. The qawwali has since got reduced to background score in the filmi sequence featuring a desperate protagonist seeking divine intervention. Attempting a cause-effect relationship is fraught with hazards. Qawwali — and, I fear, Sufism — made a class shift around this time. Try to get a ticket for the annual Jahan-e- Khusrau festival in Delhi, and you’ll realise.

Sufism has fangled a touchy-feely sensibility. One element of this is positing Sufism as the liberal face of Islam — against Wahabism of the Afghan Taliban. William Dalrymple has recently written an article for The New York Times titled ‘The Muslims in the Middle’. There are several problems with this attempt to show the nuances of the Islamic world to an American readership. For one, such exercises tend to be reductive. In this line of thought, Sufis acquire the blue hue of the Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar. (Just like Jake Sully was needed to save the Na’vi, we have already seen India’s Avatar tribe, the Dongria Kondh, getting its Rainbow Warrior in Rahul Gandhi. Exotica needs curator.)

Time was when the Wahabis were useful in the fight against the Godless communists in Afghanistan; it is long gone. It is time to repackage cultural fodder. So bring on the Sufis. American and European foreign policy needs new beasts of burden. Come all ye Sufi, Uncle Sam needs you, and he is willing to pay. Writes Dalrymple: “For such moderate, pluralistic Sufi imams are the front line against the most violent forms of Islam.” If John Rambo were to return to Afghanistan in a liberal fantasy, imagine Sylvester Stallone dressed like a whirling dervish.

Okay, this is a bit harsh. Because such liberal attempts are meant to build bridges. Facilitate understanding for a better world. But won’t it help if they were better informed and did not draw from engineered polarities? It is not a good idea to paint Sufis with a broad brush as “mild” and “resilient”, for Sufism’s character and history is diverse.

TRY THIS for an example. Before the Wahabis adopted them (or they adopted the Wahabis), the Taliban derived their ideology from the Deobandi school, which combined the ulema and the Sufis. This creates uncomfortable questions. How did the Deobandis reconcile the two? Are the two really irreconcilable? If the Taliban were to recognise their Sufi lineage, would America embrace them again? No easy answers here.

Then, there is Sufism’s diverse histories. The whirling dervishes of Turkey mean nothing in India, just as qawwali would mean little there. The Sufi did not, by and large, face in India the persecution they suffered in Turkey. Each Sufi silsila has a different history in different locations. It is not just the conservatives of Europe and the US who see the Islamic world as a monolith; the liberals don’t do much better.

Let us consider the genesis of the music form formerly known as qawwali. The immensely gifted Amir Khusro was a presence in the Delhi court as well at the khankah of Nizamuddin Aulia, though the Sufi saint shunned courtly power. Qawwalis attributed to Khusro have Persian as well and Hindi verses. He straddled varied worlds because of his eclectic character. As impressive as Khusro’s legacy of composite culture is, it is anything but cuddly and cute.

Its idealisation belittles what Khusro accomplished. In the lanes of Uttar Pradesh, where Muslim and Hindu boys ran together after drifting kites, there were a lot of conflicts over temples, mosques, cow slaughter and festival processions, to name some. The composite culture was a result of people learning to live together and tolerate what they did not like about each other. It did not come from mystical experiences.

People flock to the dargahs of Sufi saints not because they are centres of protest. They mostly seek recourse — emotional, financial, familial, psychological. They don’t go to light candles to a liberal cause. Which is why dreamy-eyed bridgebuilding sounds forced. Says Dalrymple, “Sufism is an entirely indigenous, deeply rooted resistance movement against violent Islamic radicalism.”

Qawwalis were popular because people found them relating to their lives; the form will die if it does not connect with today’s realities. So here is the take home: If you like qawwalis, enjoy them. If your interest takes you further, make friends with other fans and qawwals. But hesitation is recommended before you rush to announce the Sufi Bachao Andolan.




Categories: Featured, Music, Religion

Tags: , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Qawwalis was very popular in films in early 1960s and 1970s. Qawwali Queen was Begum Akthar, but when she died there was no respect for the queen. However, it is a form of music which is dialogue based where two parties compete. It would be interesting to know from Amir Kushru onwards, the progress or decline of this form of music.

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