Mystical Sufi Muslim Music v. Rock, Pop And Bollywood

Qawwali is Sufi devotional and mystic poetry that promotes a tolerant form of Islam. It dates back centuries, but is losing ground to popular rock and Bollywood music.

Spinning to the music.
Spinning to the music.
Naeem Sahoutara

DELHI â€" On a humid Thursday evening in historic Old Delhi, dozens of devotees gather at the shrine of the 12th century Muslim saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.

A group of traditional mystic singers prepare for tonight's performance. Around them the narrow streets buzz with vendors selling fresh rose petals and incense. The performers start with the Persian Islamic poem Kun Faya Kun, written by the subcontinent's famous poet, Amir Khushrau.

Qawwali is a Sufi form of devotional music that depicts a mystical and tolerant form of Islam. The Sufis preach about humanity and emphasize equal treatment for everyone. Their shrines, for that reasons, are visited by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Their poetry, explains the lead singer, Tahir Ali, is something like meditation. "Qawwali has a connection with the soul. It touches the heart of the listeners," he says. "Once it touches their hearts the whole body feels it too. That's why many people ask us to sing Qawwali in the Persian language. Not many people understand Persian, but they still enjoy the music."

The birthplace of Qawwali

Followers of different religions flock to this place every week, seeking fulfillment of their wishes. Some travel from as far as away as Europe and the Americas. Ali and his two brothers are visiting from Pakistan.

For Qawwali singers, performing at this shrine is like a dream come true. "Qawwali dates way back, even to the times of the Prophet Muhammad. But the style was different. It was sung only with a daf, a Persian frame drum," Ali explains. “After that the saint Nizamuddin Auliya and his disciple, Amir Khusrau, took Qawwali to its peak. That's why this is seen as the birthplace of Qawwali.”

Khusrau is known as the "parrot of the subcontinent" because of his great and melodious poetry. And his addition of music to the mystic poetry immortalized the form, says the shrine's caretaker, Syed Nizam Ali Nizami.

"Hazrat Amir Khusrau invented different musical instruments like the sitar and tabla drum," he explains. "His master, Nizamuddin Auliya, once asked Khusrau to develop a common language that people from different religions could speak and understand. So, he invented the Urdu language by including words of various languages including Arabic and Persian. Today, this language is widely spoken."

Over the centuries, the mystic music has also made its way into the film industries of India, Pakistan and other countries in the region. But Ali Nizami, who is a descendent of the saint, says that classical Qawwali is not often heard today. "To be fair, whatever you are listening to these days is not original qawwali," the caretaker says. "Before the singers used to sing the poetry of mystic poets. Today, some of it could turn listeners into infidels."

Preserving a vanishing tradition

As modern generations lose touch with the origins of the form, and rock, pop, and Bollywood music take over, one group in India is pushing to revive classical Qawwali.

"It was starting to fade. It didn't vanish altogether, because otherwise we wouldn't have been able to retrieve it. But it was fading. That's why we're making a real effort to promote it," says Ditti Ray, the program officer for the Agha Khan Trust for Culture, or the AKTC.

As part of a Qawwali revival project, Ray and her team have been documenting different forms of Qawwali. "There are only two groups still staying at the Nizamuddin Basti. And three or four groups have shifted to the old Delhi area. They're still considered to be the custodians of the traditional music of the Dargah shrine. And they sing a lot of Hazrat Amir Khusrau poetry," the AKTC program officer explains.

The team is also exploring outside Delhi, in places like Jaipur, Agra, Punjab and Kashmir. As part of the initiative, they launched a website featuring the entire works of poet Amir Khusrau, as sung by well known performers.

Singer Chand Nizam, a leading Bollywood star, is doing his part too by helping train young singers in classical Qawwali. From a small family house adjacent to the shrine, his Sikandriya family, he says, has been performing for the last 700 years.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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