The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

On Qawwali: Celebrations and Contestations

By Raziuddin Aquil

Qawwali and other song and dance techniques are central to most forms of devotional, religion. In his lifetime, the leading Chishti Sufi, Nizam-ud-Din Auliya, fought a bitter struggle against the ulama of Delhi in the early fourteenth century who contested the legitimacy of his practice of organising musical sessions. For the theologians professing Hanafi interpretation of mainstream Sunni Islam, music is haram, or a forbidden act. For most Sufis, on the other hand, music is one of the most effective and perfectly valid ways to remember Allah and achieve ecstasy.

According to Amir Khwurd, the author of fourteenth-century Sufi text, Siyar-ul-Auliya, Nizam-ud-Din identified four kinds of musical practice: halal (lawful), haram (forbid­den), makruh (abominable), and mubah (permissible). If the connoisseur (sahib-i wajd o hal) is fairly attracted towards the divine, then his practice of sama is mubah; if he is inclined more towards majaz (this-worldly attractions), then it is makruh; if his interest is entirely for majaz, then it is haram; and if he is fully devoted to God, sama is halal for him. The practi­tioner of music (sahib-i sama) should be capable of understanding these distinctions.

Amir Khwurd further writes, quoting from Nizam-ud-Din’s remarks (recorded in his discourses, Fawa’id-ul-Fuad), that the singer (musma) should be an adult male, and not a boy or woman. The heart of the listener (mustame) should be full of love and devotion for God. The content (masmu) should not be vulgar (fahash, hazal). Musical instruments (ala-i sama) such as Chang and Rabab should not be used in majlis-i-sama. Nizam-ud-Din emphasised during his conversations with disci­ples that whatever was being heard was for remembering God (yad-i-haqq) and, thus, a valid (halal) act. Nizam-ud-Din is also reported to have outlined the adab or norms for sama: it should be held at an appropriate time when the heart is free from any anxiety; it should be organised at a place where the environment is soul-refreshing; and the participants should belong to the same group of male adults known for their addiction (zauq) for sama, which in practice was a blend of poetry, music, and dance. At the time of settling down in the majlis (musical assembly), one should wear a neat and perfumed attire.

According to Fakhr-ud-Din Zarradi, a khalifa (one of the spiritual successors) of Nizam-ud-Din Auliya, who actively participated in the discussion on the legitimacy of Sufi music, sama should be listened to with full attention. The participants of the majlis should not look at each other or be conscious of each other’s presence. Clearing one’s throat and yawning should be avoided. The heads should be lowered and completely lost in contemplation. There should not be any movement of the body and one should keep one’s nafs (the sensual aspect of one’s being) in control so that dancing and clapping are avoided. However, if one is so lost or moved while listening to music that one suddenly starts crying, shaking or dancing, and his intention is not marred by any sense of ostentation or hypocrisy, then his actions will be treated as mubah. For, crying and wailing drown one’s sorrows (gham), and dancing is equivalent to surur (cheerfulness, exhilaration) which is a valid movement or activity. Among the recommended norms in adab-i-sama is included the suggestion that if a fellow participant stands up in wajd, moved or transported in an ecstasy of love for God, then others in the majlis should follow him in standing up to be by his side. And, while dancing in ecstasy (raqs), he should maintain a certain degree of grace so that others are not put off by his vulgar movements and intention.

Nizam-ud-Din is also quoted as saying that the body movement that is generated in remembering God in ecstasy is mustahab, a recommended or allowed practice, and if the intention is for some carnal pleasure (fasad), then it is haram. However, if a person gets really ecstatic (raqs and harkat) in sama and even tears his clothes, he may be treated as one overpowered by ecstasy and so he may not be questioned. But those who pretend to be lost in ecstasy just to show off their spiritual bent of mind will be accused of indulging in haram. Sufi circles did identify the pretenders who would be the cause of embarrassment, especially when the ulama were ready to interrogate any­one departing from norms of proper conduct. Qalandars and related groups particularly attracted attention for their behaviour, which could be identified as deviance. Also, Nizam-ud-Din’s followers themselves would be reported to be part of musical jamborees, where not only instruments were used, but also women were present. Nizam-ud-Din maintained some ambiguity in the matter, or at least let the followers decide for themselves what was good for them, recalling here reports of Amir Khusrau inventing not only ragas, khayal and tarana, but also being instrumental in creating the Sitar, Sarod, etc.

Certain jurists and ulama who were op­posed to sama would also come to observe the majlis organised by Nizam-ud-Din Auliya. Looking at the manner in which the shaikh would be stand­ing at one place, crying silently and wiping his tears, even as the singers – two of whom are named as Hasan Paihadi and Samat Qawwal – were reciting heartrending Persian poetry in their distinctive intonations, the ulama would fall at his feet and accept as legitimate what they would otherwise con­demn as un-Islamic. Despite being deeply touch­ed by the poetry of love being recited by the singers and all but lost in the thought of the divine, Nizam-ud-Din would not only come out of the hall, taking a break at the time of prayers, but also keep a watch on the activities of the other participants. He once noticed Amir Khusrau raising his hands dur­ing raqs as a Sufi would do, and asked him not to do so as he was attached to this-worldly concerns. Thereafter, Khusrau would dance with his hands down and palms closed, appearing as if his hands were tied and, unlike the Sufi, unable to break free and attempt to reach out for Allah.

Nizam-ud-Din’s interest in music and particular verses which touched his soul and created ecstasy in him would become very popular in the large circle of his followers. Some very good singers attached themselves to the shaikh; they would spend a lot of time to train themselves, compose new ghazals, create new ragas, and took the art to newer heights. The encouragement provided to music by Nizam-ud-Din created a flutter in Delhi. The ulama had not succeeded in preventing him from listening to music at the time of the Khalji Sultans, Ala-ud-Din and Qutb-ud-Din Mubarak Shah, despite some misunderstanding and difficulties in the relationship between the shaikh and the Sultans. However, they were able to drag Nizam-ud-Din to the court of Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq, forcing him to participate in an inquest and defend his practice of organising music assemblies.

The Naib Hakim of the Sultanate under Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq, Qazi Jalal-ud-Din Lawanji, who was opposed to the lovers of God (ahl-i-ishq), encouraged Shaikhzada Husam-ud-Din, a disgruntled disciple of Nizam-ud-Din Auliya, who had access to the Sultan’s court, to build a case against the shaikh. It was reported to the Sultan that Nizam-ud-Din, who was a leading religious personality of the time, indulged in music that was considered haram in the mazhab of Imam Abu Hanifa, founder of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence which the Sultanate ulama followed in their practice of Islam. The Sultan was told that following Nizam-ud-Din, thousands of others were fascinated by the unlawful practice of music. According to Amir Khwurd, Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din had no idea of the unlawfulness (halal/haram) of music and, therefore, wondered how it was that a leading religious authority could indulge in an un-Islamic (ghayr mashru) act.

In order to convince Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din, Nizam-ud-Din’s opponents collected the works relating to music in the shari‘at, or traditional Muslim law, and presented them to the ruler. The latter was uncomfortable with Nizam-ud-Din’s attitude, especially over the dispute regarding the recovery of cash-grants doled out by the usurper Khusrau Khan, who had killed the last Khalji Sultan Mubarak Shah. He announced that if religious scholars have issued fatwas against the legality of sama, then the shaikh should be brought to his presence and the leading ulama of the city should also be summoned so that the problem could be discussed or debated in an assembly of the learned and the truth of the matter established.

When Nizam-ud-Din appeared in the court on the appointed date, Fakhr-ud-Din, who was superior in reputation to the Naib Hakim Qazi Jalal-ud-Din, and Maulana Muhi-ud-din Kashani, another leading scholar of the age, accompanied the shaikh. As the discussion began, Qazi Jalal-ud-Din lectured the shaikh on the need to mend his ways and warned him of being punished if he continued to organise music assemblies. As the debate proceeded in front of the leading ulama of the city and a full house of nobles, Shaikhzada Husam-ud-Din took over from Qazi Jalal-ud-Din and asked the shaikh whether he would organise sama in his assemblies in which the participants danced, cried or raised slogans. Nizam-ud-Din advised Husam-ud-Din to refrain from showing his over-enthusiasm, and instead of making unnecessary state­ments, explain what he meant by sama. Nizam-ud-Din’s question on the need to first define the meaning of the term sama itself would test any theoretical grounding of the opponents in the terms and categories being deployed by them. Instead of offering any insight on his understanding of the validity or otherwise of music, Husam-ud-Din continued in a rhetorical mode and said that he did not know the meaning of sama, but so many great ulama have said that it was haram. Nizam-ud-Din replied that if Husam-ud-Din did not know the meaning of sama, he was not fit to discuss the matter. Thus the main opponent in the case was silenced.

Amir Khwurd records that Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq was all along carefully following the debate, and was asking the noisy opponents to keep quiet and listen to what the shaikh was saying. As the arguments and counter-arguments continued, Maulana Ilm-ud-Din, a grandson of Baha-ud-Din Zakariya (the thirteenth-century Suhrawardi Sufi master of Multan) arrived at the court. The Sultan turned to­wards Ilm-ud-Din and, referring to him as a scholar and traveller, inquired whether sama was halal or haram. Ilm-ud-Din replied that he had written a tract on the issue wherein he has collected all the arguments for or against music. His conclusion was: sama is permissible (mubah) for those who take it as a matter of heart, and it is unlawful (haram) for those who indulge in it to satisfy their nafs. The Sultan further asked Ilm-ud-Din whether during his travels to Baghdad, Damascus and Rum, he had seen the Sufis of those cities listening to music, and whether anyone had stopped them from doing so. Ilm-ud-Din said that the Sufis of those cities did listen to music, which was sometimes also accompanied by instruments like Daf and Shababa (Shahnai?), but no one prevented them from following this practice which was inherited from the time of the earliest masters, Shaikh Junaid and Shibli. The Sultan was silenced on hearing this response from Ilm-ud-Din, but the Naib Hakim spoke again, insisting that the Sultan must announce a ban on music, keeping in mind Imam Abu Hanifa’s opinion in the matter. How­ever, the Sultan eventually followed Shaikh Nizam-ud-Din’s request not to issue any order in this regard, and thus concluded, for Nizam-ud-Din on a happy note, the acrimonious debate in the darbar, which lasted for roughly the whole of the first half of the day.

Returning from the Sultan’s court at the time of the afternoon
(zuhar) prayer, Nizam-ud-Din called Maulana Muhi-ud-Din Kashani and Amir Khusrau and told them of the disgusting behaviour of the ulama – not only of their personal opposition to him, but also of their disrespecting prophetic traditions (hadis) by privileging a report by a jurist, Imam Abu Hanifa. All the hadis referred to by Nizam-ud-Din to justify the validity of his musical practice were dismissed as important only for Imam Shafi‘i and the Shafi‘i school of jurisprudence was characterised as opposed to the Hanafi mazhab followed by the official ulama in Delhi. Expressing his concern that the ulama’s approach could mislead the people into not having enough respect for the prophetic reports, Nizam-ud-Din prophesied that there would be a divine retribution for the wrong faith of the ulama of the city.

Amir Khwurd concludes that within a period of four years, all the ulama of the opposing group were forced to migrate to Deogiri, most of them dying there. This is with reference to an order of the next Sultan, Muhammad bin Tughluq, who had considerable respect for Nizam-ud-Din’s presence. The city itself was faced with famine and epidemic. The shaikh’s prophecy proved true and the legitimacy of his practice was not only approved by the Sultan, but also believed to have been confirmed through divine intervention. Indeed, Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din himself died under mysterious circumstan­ces in a camp outside Delhi; this, once again, happened at a time when he was ordering the shaikh to leave the city, provoking the latter to utter that proverbial phrase, ‘dilli dur ast’.

Irrespective of the exact historicity of the incident and whether those developments were related to Nizam-ud-Din’s curse or political connec­tions, what cannot be denied is that the shaikh was considerably irritated by the opposition to his mystical practices. In Fawa‘id-ul-Fu’ad, which was being compiled by Amir Hasan Sijzi during the period that coincided with the debate in Ghiyas-ud-Din’s court, the shaikh is found explaining his posi­tion in self-restrained agitation (neither cursing nor abusing the antago­nists, but deploying the language of the jurists). It is recorded that one of the members of the audience mentioned that the ruler had given orders to the effect that the shaikh could listen to music whenever he liked, and that it was lawful (halal) for him. Nizam-ud-Din replied that what was halal could not become haram and vice versa just because someone has issued orders to this effect. However, the shaikh added, in a case like the current controversy over sama and the ruler’s order, since Imam Shafi‘i has termed sama as mubah (permissible) even when accompanied by instruments like Daf and Chaghana which is not in conformity with the majority Hanafi position, it was the ruler’s discretion to follow whichever position he found appropriate in his opinion. Ghiyas-ud-Din clearly followed the Shafi‘i position in the matter, allowing the shaikh to continue with his practice. On his part, Nizam-ud-Din believed that the pleasure of music is appre­ciated better by someone who is filled with pain (dard) for the divine beloved and endures it gracefully.

(Based on the author’s recent book. Lovers of God: Sufism and the Politics of Islam in Medieval India, New Delhi: Manohar, 2017).

Raziuddin Aquil 
is Associate Professor at the Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi, India. Email:


Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.

Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Remembering Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in Bicentenary Year (1817-2017)’, edited by Irfanullah Farooqi, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: