This essay analyzes Qawwali music and its roots in Persian poetry, in the context of shamanism studies. I wrote it a few months after the events recreated in Helicopter, to honor the Pakistani music I loved, that my brother had introduced to our mother and Bill Graham shortly before they died.

QAWWALI MUSIC: A Shamanistic Tradition?


By Ari Gold

In the arts section of the New York Times of October 27, 1989, in an article entitled "Pakistani Musicians Who Deal in Ecstasy," a reporter announcing the upcoming performance of a Qawwali party from Pakistan refers to a concert fourteen years earlier by another Qawwali troupe. He writes of the 1975 event, "members of the largely Pakistani audience would run down the aisles, hurling money at the musicians and banging their heads against the stage until they were bloody and unconscious" (Rockwell 1989). This description has the ingredients of hype--blood, ecstasy, a non-Western ritual--and the report is deliberately exaggerated, as we see when we look at the reporter's description of the same event, written fourteen years earlier, and before time could embellish an enthusiastic memory. The actual situation seems less chaotic: the audience members do not hurl money, they "place offerings"; they do not collectively bang their skulls until they lose consciousness, but rather, a single man bloodies his head on the stage (Rockwell 1975).

In its own cultural context, and without the exaggeration of an admiring Western reporter, Qawwali can be classified as an ecstatic ritual. Whether that ritual is shamanistic is the subject of this paper. One of Qawwali's primary functions is to guide its listeners--those who understand the poetry and meaning--into a state of ecstatic trance (wajd). The music of Hindustani Sufi Muslims, it guides its listeners towards a spiritual union with the saints, with the Prophet, and eventually with God (Allah). As a means of bringing about a state of ecstasy, Qawwali indeed has many similarities to notions of shamanism, as defined in Mircea Eliade's Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Even if Qawwali does not fit into this definition, shamanism may be used as a comparative tool to analyze Qawwali. In Qawwali, who is the shaman? What is the nature and background of the ecstasy?

To understand the function and practice of Qawwali, I will be using the detailed and informative study by Regula Burckhardt Qureshi as a focal text. But while the book provides great detail about Qawwali ritual, the ethnomusicological slant lacks a cultural perspective which is necessary to understand it. After giving an overview of some technical aspects of the Qawwali form, I will turn to analyses of Sufism as a whole, and will refer in particular to the poetic tradition which informs Sufism and Qawwali, as a means of understanding this musical form and how its shamanistic elements add up in a tradition which is does not, finally, fit into standard ideas about shamanism.

The Qawwali ensemble is led by the singer, who also plays harmonium, and is backed by other singers (who clap along), a drummer (who plays dholak), and sometimes a sitar, tabla, or other instrument. Parties range from four to over a dozen players. There are two formal names for Qawwali. One is darbar-e-auliya, or "royal court of saints", which I will discuss later; the other is mahfil-e-sama', or "gathering for listening" (Qureshi 106-7). One of the Qawwal (singer)'s primary duties is to fulfill the needs of the listeners; thus, Qawwali is a gathering for listeners. The Qawwals, through their songs must not only recognize the specific shrine where they are performing, and solidify the hierarchy of the saints, but they must gear their performance for the listeners, to provide them with the Word and mystical poetry, repetition of holy names (zikr ), and a musical setting which inspires them to correct ecstasy.

In Qawwali, if a phrase seems to have a powerful effect on any listener (although the more prominent leaders, both spiritually and tempor-ally, are paid more attention to (ex.: Qureshi 165)), then the performers must repeat it until its usefulness has been expended, and the ecstasy or pre-ecstatic state has reached full fruition. The range of expressive responses goes from simple nodding, to tapping, to exclamations, to twitches, to weeping, shouting, dancing (raqs), rolling about, or, as in the case of the saint Qutubuddin, dying (wisal ) (Qureshi 121). [**This story will be described in greater detail later.**] But these are external manifestations of a spiritual process; internally, the listener has a specific experience where "the inner eye should see but the image of the sheikh [**the beloved spiritual leader**], and the inner ear hear but the name of God over and over" (Qureshi 120). Through this, an initial state of concentration may transform into arousal, and finally, into loss of consciousness in mystical ecstasy.

It is not an easy task for the Qawwals. They must have an immense knowledge of the poetic tradition in several languages, they must understand the music and be able to perform it, they must keep up with the times and know what new material appeals to listeners (Qureshi 19); they must be able to change and adjust as each situation demands (see Qureshi ch. 5-6). Thursday night, the night for remembering the dead, Qawwali takes place in shrines, and Friday, prayer day, it may also occur. But the most important events are the shrine's saint's death day (through death, not birth, one gets closer to the departed), special life event anniversary days, and the weekly and monthly repetitions of these days (Qureshi 110), and on these days, a Qawwali group may only have the chance to play two songs before the next group comes on. The competition between groups can be tough (Qureshi 192), and so they must be sure to be as effective players as possible, catering to the spiritual needs of the listeners.

The competition has crucial significance for financial reasons. In its competitive aspect, Qawwali has similarities to shamanistic rituals such as Santer̀a initiation, in that the leader must also be paid for his work, and to most shamanistic communities, where the shaman must produce results (rain, divination, restoration of health) in order to be taken seriously. The listeners, if inspired, will give money to the assembly leader, and the assembly leader, if also inspired, will pass money on to the performers (Qureshi 189). It is the high point in a Qawwal's career when an assembly leader goes into ecstasy (Qureshi 137), but the less dramatic approval of the leader is just as important, for the Qawwal has to stay in business. Sometimes performers will gear their music to the tastes of a well-known patron in the audience (Qureshi 205).

As for the initiation process for a Qawwal, it does not have the wrenching quality of shamanistic initiation, which often happens due to a "calling." There are cases of Qawwali callings, [**See the case of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, below.**] but they are the exception rather than the rule. Most Qawwals are hereditary performers, with families that have been Qawwals for centuries. Normally, factors such as earning power, talent, memory capacity, and leadership abilities are the governing factor for who among the men in the family (Qawwali is an all-male tradition) becomes leader (Qureshi 96-9). The ability to comprehend the verses, and thereby to be able to "work" the audience, can be more important than the quality of a singer's voice (Qureshi 102).

Qawwali is a formalized ritual, then, which has shamanistic elements--sacred power of the Qawwal, work for the community, competition among Qawwals--but in many ways cannot be classified as shamanistic. Qawwali, first of all, while having obvious leaders and an obvious hierarchy, does not put its leaders in a position of performing rites for the sake of the larger community. A shaman acts as a doctor and healer (Eliade 182), and the Qawwali ritual is performed for the spiritual health of the community, but in Qawwali, each Sufi adept must work through the ritual on his own to reach ecstasy. The Qawwali performers, through the repetitive rhythms on the dholak , the exuberantly mournful singing, the repetition of certain phrases of poetry which serve the function of mantras, do assist in the ecstasy, obviously. While this is also true in shamanistic practices, most shamans also perform acts other than guiding the believers, such as calling a god to allow rain or fighting a community plague. The shaman guides and protects, doing spiritual and worldly work on behalf of the community. In Qawwali, however, no such work is done by the performers. The performer serves a function, as an aid to the adept's spiritual journey, a "medium" for concentration on the mystical quest (Qureshi 114), a "mouthpiece" for the saints and for God (Qureshi 137)--even possessed by the Qawwali spirit--but does not specifically do works on the spiritual or supernatural plane.

The Qawwal may, however, be invested with certain otherworldly powers, although this is not his official function. In the liner notes to the most famous contemporary Qawwali singer's debut on a major Western record label, the singer's life and vocation are described. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the notes proclaim, though born into a prominent Qawwal family, did not intend to become a Qawwal, until recurring dreams that he was performing in the shrine of Muinuddin Chishti, where no Qawwal had ever performed, led him to take the reigns of his father's Qawwal party--and eight years later, when making a pilgrimage to Chishti's shrine at Ajmer, he was invited to perform there (Khan 1989). His dreams, then, were shamanistic in nature. They predicted the future, reminiscent of the recurring, powerful dreams which mark a shaman's youth and calling (see Eliade, ch. 2).

The Qawwal may, in this case, have great spiritual power--but he is not traditionally the focus of the Qawwal ritual in Pakistan. He provides the inspirational food for ecstasy, but he is not the shaman. It is the shrine, and the spiritual leader at the shrine, who draws the Sufi adepts, and the leader's role is closer to that of shaman that the Qawwal's. Performers, for the most part, are considered replaceable, which adds to the element of competition. The spiritual leader, the sheikh, on the other hand, governs everything that transpires--seating arrangement, musical flow, and so on--although the performers do have a role in trying to meet the spiritual and musical needs of the listeners (Qureshi 137). Most of the listeners, other than the assembly leader, do not even face the performers; they face each other (Qureshi 114). Even the assembly leader, who monitors the devotees' responses in order to let the performers know where to take the music (slower, faster, a new song, a phrase to repeat), is calm, serving "as a spiritual anchor for the feelings of everyone else" (Qureshi 126). In shamanism, the shaman himself is usually possessed by a spirit and rises into a trance, but here, the leaders of the ceremony are necessarily excluded from this activity. [**There are exceptions; as I said, the greatest honor for a Qawwal is for the assembly leader or sheikh to go into trance; also see the case of Qutubuddin later.**]

This is not to say that the assembly leader is not also important as spiritual leader (sheikh or pir). The assembly leader is often the successor to the saint's shrine (sajjadanashin ) (Qureshi 77, 92). These sheikhs or pirs inhabit the shrines at the tombs of their ancestor saints, and may be thought of as living saints, having inherited sainthood from their forefathers (Geijbels 177). In Qawwali, submission to these spiritual superiors is one of the primary representations of the Sufi's striving towards God (Qureshi 122-3). The Sufi tries to be like the saints as a way of attaining the closeness to God which the saints themselves had (Arberry 13-4). Specifically, in Qawwali, the Sufi traces the lineage of the descendants or shrines of saints, to those saints' pirs, all the way back to Chishti, the founder saint, a pilgrim/missionary from Persia (at whose shrine Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan dreamt of performing) and to the Prophet Mohammed, and then to God (Qureshi 80-1). This is a well-charted ladder, a sort of cosmology which, though not charted in specific spatial terms as is shamanistic cosmology, still has a specific hierarchy.

But the saints are more than models of conduct and stations on a ladder; they also show elements of power which are reminiscent of shamanism. Saints of the past are said to have performed karamats (favors from God) such as instantaneous travel over long distances, walking on water, flying, conversing with inanimate objects, and divination (Subhan 111-2), [**Divination of five things--Judgment Day, rainfall, one's own actions, one's place of death, and the sex of a child--are unpredictable, according to Sufi teaching (Subhan 112). Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's dreams forecasting his own life seem to contradict this teaching**] all of which, save worldly as opposed to cosmological travel, are performed by shamans. However, these abilities are sporadic. They are comparable to the miracles of Christian saints--in that while not being flaunted by the saint himself (Subhan 109), they are celebrated as exceptional (see Begg)--rather than being comparable to a shaman's work, which is expected, the test of his abilities. Sufi miracles are by no means expected. Popular belief allows for other shamanistic abilities in the saints, such as raising the dead, changing the course of natural events like rainfall, changing physical shape, and calling for the wrath of God, and yet popular expectations for today's saints are more modest: guidance, spiritual help, and the assurance of God's favor (Geijbels 179). The presence of saints or pirs at Qawwali performances is a way of assuring that as the devotee tries to have his own ecstatic experience, one with authority with God is present to monitor it.

The idea of saints (auliya), in some ways, is contradictory to Sufism. Sufism negates all that is other than God (Nurbakhsh 23), and so the veneration of saints may seem a distraction from Sufi reality. How do saints, and their importance to Qawwali, relate to Sufism? If the saints are seen as necessary human emissaries of God, as points of contact for believers, then their existence makes more sense. Sheikh Ali Hujwari, a tenth century (C.E.) Sufi who came to India, defined a Sufi as one who has disciplined his "character in harmony with the Divine Love and Commandments of God on the one hand, and selfless service of humanity, without any discrimination whatever, on the other" (Begg 20). Saints, then, fit into this definition perfectly: their admirable conduct is not that of a hermit--for a hermit does no good to the rest of humanity, and Islam does not preach monasticism (Valiuddin 51)--but is that of a teacher. They carry their teachings, and their example, to needy communities, and when they are celebrated, it is their example, and not the cult of their personality, which shines. If a devotee kisses their feet, it is in order to absorb some of their spiritual power, and not to venerate them (Geijbels 185). The pirs are seen as friends of the believer because they have struggled just as the believer does.

The saints are visualized in the Qawwali occasion through the hierarchical seating arrangement (Qureshi 113). The second of Qawwali's formal names (after "gathering for listening") is darbar-e-auliya, or "royal court of saints" (Qureshi 108). The Qawwali performance, then, becomes a means not only of individual ecstasy, but also of formalized, hierarchical succession and ascendancy through the local superiors, to the saints, and eventually to God. This path is a manifestation of stages (maqamat) on the Sufi path--which must be guided by a spiritual superior--or Way (tariqa) to God. [**These stages--arrived at by effort--are distinct from the states (hal), which are moods, including ecstasy, which only God gave give (Arberry 75)**] The basic ritual song of Sufism in India, and the opening or closing hymn of Qawwalis, repeats the Prophet's assertion that "Whoever accepts me as master/ Ali is his master too"--and these words emphasize the principle of spiritual succession, giving the Sufis hadith (words of Prophet) backing for their hierarchy of sainthood (Qureshi 21).

An example of this hierarchy can be traced in "Allah, Mohammed, Char, Yaar," a song in which Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan repeats the names of four major saints, Haji, Khawaja, Qutab, and Farid (Khan 1989). Khawaja is a title for Chishti, the founder saint of Chishtiyya Sufism in India (13th century), supposedly a direct descendent of the Prophet; Qutab was Chishti's disciple; Farid was Qutab's (see Begg). Farid, in turn, taught Nizamuddin Auliya, whose disciple Amir Khusrau is credited with many Qawwali compositions and innovations, including the use of Persian and Rekhta (proto-Urdu) languages (Thakur 275), and who gave sama'--the song--its legitimacy in the face of Orthodox Muslim opposition to music, with the words, "May GOD bless this tribe of music-makers who make even the day of retribution stand by when they perform" (Sarmadee 264). This song which Nusrat performs, then, connects the man who asked God to bless the sama' with a line of sainthood leading directly to the Prophet and to God. The Qawwali song affirms the spiritual legitimacy of Qawwali.

The spiritual legitimacy of Qawwali can be understood in terms of saints. But what about the poetry's legitimacy? Qawwali music has been bastardized and secularized in India and Pakistan (Begg 35) not just because the music is so infectious, but because the lyrics, if listened to "straight," sound like a call to drink and make love. Nusrat sings, "The eyes of my sweetheart are so bewitching, that even the best wine of the tavern pales in comparison" (Khan, "Yeh Jo Halka Halka," The Day..., 1991). These words are typical of Qawwali, and they must be understood in a Sufi context--the "sweetheart" is the saint or Prophet who one wishes to be spiritually close to, and drunkenness is mystical fervor, self-annihilation. How does such explicit, sensual poetry become spiritual? Looking back to the poet, philosopher and mystic Rumi, we see that "Muhammad was not the cupbearer, he was a goblet,/ Full of wine, and God was the cupbearer of the pious" (in Schimmel 195). Wine is not wine, it is mystical love of God. Rumi's mystical tradition informs Qawwali.

The legitimacy of the Qawwali poetry comes from the long history of ghazal songs which trace back to Persia, through the pilgrims from Persia such as Chishti. The opinion that "Muslim mystical experience has found its best expression, with perhaps a few exceptions, in Persian poetry" (Zarrinkoob 167) is a common one. The Urdu poets, while influencing Qawwali, are by no means most important, even if they carry the legacy of Amir Khusrau. Qawwali lyrics may be in Urdu, Hindi, Persian, or other languages (see Qureshi), and yet Persian imagery influences them all. The imagery of the tavern, intoxication, and melancholic love which provides a framework for ghazals (Ali 8-9) is traceable to Persian poetry. Annemarie Schimmel writes, "Poetry in Urdu--in which only Mir Dard in eighteenth century Delhi composed truly mystical verse--is unthinkable without the Persian literary tradition" (Schimmel 55). And even Mir Dard, though born in Delhi, wrote most of his poetry in Persian (Ali 126-7).

The poets of classical Persia traditionally had a crucial position in courtly life there. Their panegyrics could make the reputation of a ruler (see Clinton). Perhaps this power was a carry-over from pre-Islamic times in Iran. The god Fire, in Zoroastrian thought, is also the muse of poetry, and as Fire is a test of truth, so a talented poet was thought to be better endowed with the Truth than an untalented one (Bishop 53). But if court life and the pre-Islamic legacy gave Persian poetry its legitimacy, mystical love poetry gave it fame and stature. [**In the West, Omar Khayyam is famous--but in his poetry, the imagery crosses the line from mystical into secular.**] Mystical poetry draws on the lyric poetry of Iran's past. In early lyric love poetry, the vow of undying faith to the beloved (often, the Turkish slave boys of the court), and praise of his unmatched and idealized beauty, govern the subject matter (Moayyad 121). With the introduction of Sufism, though, the lover becomes divine, and praise of beauty becomes a metaphor for praise of spiritual perfection--although it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference.

Farid ud-Din Attar's mystical epic The Conference of the Birds, though not the first Persian mystical poetry (13th century), provides a good starting point to understand the poetic and spiritual tradition (mysticism) which influenced love poetry and whose hybrid, in turn, influences Qawwali.

Sufism provides a cure for the illusion of selfhood and its flip side, isolation, in the soul's annihilation. The Sufi strives to cleanse the heart, not through self-discipline, but through making one's desires coincide with those of the creator. If it is a continuing struggle for discipline, then the transformation is unsuccessful and superficial (Valiuddin 29, 54). The self should willingly dissolve in contemplation of God. The annihilation of the self and will is not total (as it is in Buddhism, for example) because it is a submerging of the recognizable self into a collective mass, in God. A chunk of wax dropped into a hot vat no longer survives in an identifiable form, but its atoms and substance still exist; they are simply part of a greater whole. The Qawwali ritual is a tangible manifestation of the individual submerged in the collective, with its prescribed, hierarchical seating--focusing on the spiritual guides--but communal atmosphere and spirit. Attar's epic poem also demonstrates this paradox of hierarchical equality.

In Conference of the Birds, thirty birds take on a journey, under the guidance of a master bird (the hoopoe). Each bird has his own strengths and weaknesses, his own excuses and desires, his own prides and insecurities. In order to lose, gradually, all their attachments to the world and to their notions of self, the birds are constantly put to the test, intellectually and emotionally. In the end, though, the intellect cannot suffice. One who understands Sufism but does not "see with the eye of the heart" is blind, according to Sufi belief (Nurbakhsh 14-5). [**It follows that one who understands the text, music, and performance of Qawwali but does not feel its true holy meaning in God, cannot truly understand what Qawwali is. Here is a problem in Qureshi's book--and in this paper. Rationality is the opposite of Sufism. It is based on logic and the feeling that we (our selves) have the control to make an argument. I feel that we (outsiders) see Qawwali the way a fish sees the moon: we can trace its approximate shape, find its approximate location, sense its color, but we cannot really behold it. Maybe in a moment where we forget ourselves in the music, where we lose ourselves contemplating the repetitive a chant of "Allah-hoo," (the name of God, the Sufi mantra (listen to Sabri, "Allah-hoo")) we are a flying fish: momentarily out of the water, seeing and hearing clearly, before plunging back into the sea of our rational--and therefore un-Sufi--way of thinking.**] The merging of the soul in God cures the self of isolation, because the self is merely part of a whole. For those who have the strength and will to see it, God is the reflection of collective being. The hoopoe guides the birds towards real love and abandonment of Self. He says that "Those who renounce the Self deserve that name [of lover**];/ Righteous or sinful, they are all the same!" (Attar l. 1165). Later, a story illustrates this love, as a man risks his life to save his beloved because "When you are me and I am wholly you,/ What use is it to talk of us as two?" (3760). This unity culminates in perfect love, when the thirty birds see God as thirty birds--they, then, collectively, are merely God's reflection. "The two are one" (4237).

Strangely, Attar allows for a rediscovery of selfhood after Nothingness has been attained (see lines 4269-71). It is this contradiction, perhaps, that makes his Sufism reassuring to those who cannot comprehend a total loss of self, and who still need to comprehend, instead of seeing with the heart. Rumi, the great mystic poet and philosopher (and student of Attar (Schimmel 53)), asserted that "There are hundreds of thousands of bodies, but only one soul" (Halman 207). In Rumi, the self is not quite so submerged--for it has power--and therefore it does not have to "reappear" after annihilation. Just as the unified soul (God) includes all beings, so each being includes the unified soul. Rumi offered a spiritual connection to all things, making him "a drop that is both a drop and the vast sea" (Halman 201). He is submerged in the collective consciousness, but he also contains it.

With this philosophy, Rumi treads dangerously close to the words of Mansur al-Hallaj, who, a few centuries earlier, declared "I am the truth" (anal haqq) and was executed for it. Hallaj saw himself as a Muslim Jesus, possessed by "divine intimacy" that allowed him to blur the distinction between himself and God (Massignon 27)--like a shaman possessed by a spirit god. Sufism, trying to establish its legitimacy, learned a lesson from al-Hallaj. If it was to survive in the face of Orthodoxy, it would have to avoid attitudes that were so revolutionary that they would shake up the clerics of Islam (Zarrinkoob 159)--it would need to emphasize the distinction between God and man, even if man has extinguished his self. Rumi, therefore, never goes as far as al-Hallaj. He writes poetry which praises Mohammed (see Schimmel 195), and Qawwali also takes up this poetry. Which is not to say that Qawwali rejects the anal haqq of al-Hallaj. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's song "Beh Haadh Ramza Dhasdha" (Shahbazz ) tells al-Hallaj's story and glorifies him. But while Qawwals praise the saints and martyrs, they always include na't songs, which address the Prophet, in their repertoire (see Qureshi 37; also Khan 1989, "Shamas-Ud-Doha, Badar-Ud-Doja"). For if Sufism circumvents the Prophet in its quest for personal, mystical realization, it cannot be included in the Muslim belief system.

The major textual element of the Qawwali songs may be recognition of great saints of the past, but more than anything, these saints are seen as "lovers" of God. The songs, then, are structured as love songs: the merging of Persian love lyrics and mystical love of God. "Love of God is the soul of sufism. . . . [God's] desire to love compelled him to create the universe" (Baig 18). The cosmology of the saints, the direct line, to the prophet, is not governed by strict rules or be reason, but by love. The ghazals which often form Qawwali songs are love lyrics supporting the hierarchy of saints. How does the sensual imagery work into a mystical meaning?

Some of the best examples of Persian mystical love poetry may be found in the ghazals of the Divan of Hafiz (14th century). "In our belief the winecup is lawful," he writes, and as ghazals end with a stanza addressed to the poet, he ends the poem, "Hafiz, never sit a moment without wine and Beloved" (Hafiz 34). [**I will try to avoid quoting entire stanzas of Hafiz; the translator's attempts to rhyme the words are atrocious; I'll use the text for its individual images only.**] He calls for mystical fervor (drunkenness) and closeness with the Beloved, but his words are not those of a worldly lover. "Religious academics, don't blame infamous drunken lovers," Hafiz writes (Hafiz 374), and here he probably refers to men like al-Hallaj, for "All are One, the Friend and the Minstrel and Winebringer: All else is illusion"--all rationality, all "sober" visions of God and the world, are--"only water and dust, a hallucination" (487). The only truth is the truth of drunkenness, of mystical fervor, free from the constraints of logic--and all are One.

Hafiz uses stock imagery of the beloved, as established by love lyrics, and applies them as an ideal of physical beauty to describe the ideal spiritual beauty. "A thousand hearts are captured by a single thread of hair. . . . The Winebringer poured into a cup a wine of many colors. . . . Anyone who has never tried to love yet wants union, Hafiz,/ Would, without cleansing heart, the clothes of a pilgrim wear" (45). The lover, then, still uses the physical images of secular poetry, such as the beautiful black hair, but now has become a "pilgrim" to the Beloved. Hair represents the outward aspect of God (Nurbakhsh 141). In fact, in Sufi poetry, every attribute of the Beloved becomes a specific metaphor for the Divine. The black mole is the hidden word. The forearm is Divine Power. The lips are the Divine Word (Nurbakhsh 88, 124, 135-9).

The poetry of these lines is not purely joyful, however. There is an underlying fear of separation which lends the poems a melancholic air. One wishes, in fact, to be killed in the presence of the Beloved, so that one will not lose him. [**Sufism's idea that there are millions of bodies, but one soul, is reminiscent of totalitarian states, in which each person is like a bee in a hive--"free," yet in the end working only for the good of the whole organism. The hope of being "killed" in the presence of the Beloved is (usually) a metaphor, but to take the totalitarian image further, this killing is reminiscent of Orwell's 1984, in which the hero imagines a bullet entering his brain at the moment when he finally loses all sense of will and self in favor of pure love for Big Brother. Sufism is not totalitarianism--the unity which cures a soul's isolation is a spiritual, not functional, concept. I do not mean to say that Sufism turns Allah into Big Brother--but perhaps Big Brother perverted some ideas from Sufism.**] A Qawwali song attributed to Amir Khusrau (in Persian) shows all the major traits of these poems--love, drunkenness, a distant lover--for they come from the same tradition. I will quote its translation in full, with annotation in footnotes, based on the metaphoric meaning of each of the Beloved's physical attributes:

O wondrous ecstatic eyes, o wondrous long locks, [**Drunken eyes are absolution through God's concealment of the seeker's faults (Nurbakhsh 72); long locks are the boundlessness of creation (116)**]
O wondrous wine worshipper, o wondrous mischievous sweetheart. [**The Beloved is elusive, which makes him more desirable.**]
As he draws the sword, I bow my head in prostration so as to be killed, [**Self is annihilated.**]
O wondrous is his beneficence, o wondrous my submission.
In the spasm of being killed my eyes beheld your face: [**To see the face is to experience revelation, ecstasy, permanence (Nurbakhsh 105).**]
O wondrous benevolence, o wondrous guidance and protection
O wondrous amorous teasing, o wondrous beguiling,
O wondrous tilted cap (symbol of beauty), o wondrous tormentor.
Do not reveal the Truth; in this world blasphemy prevails, Khusrau:
O wondrous Source of mystery, o wondrous Knower of secrets.
(in Qureshi, 23-4)

The lover is distant, but when he is beheld, then ecstasy is reached. If this death is attained during Qawwali, several shamanistic elements are present: dismemberment or ritual dream-death (see Eliade 34), as well as music, drumming, and chanting (phrases repeated by Qawwals). It is interesting to note that after his pir, the saint Nizamuddin, died, Khusrau killed himself by bashing his head against his Beloved's tomb (Begg 161). Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, in an interview, said that "the violence of the ecstasy [of the Qawwali listener] depends on each person's pain of separation from his homeland" (Rockwell 1989). In Khan's case, he was talking about Qawwali performances in America, but the pain of separation is not merely spatial, as we have seen, for it can be felt while at the shrine of the Beloved--it is the pain of a lover who wants to be spiritually closer to that Beloved.

The songs are sometimes performed for specific saints, and these saints become the Beloved of the song. For example, both the Sabri Brothers and Nusrat, on major recordings, have sung a version of the same song about the 14th century mystic Lal Shahbazz Qalandar, who seems as close to a shaman as the Sufis got. It is said that "the call of the Spirit" came early to Shahbazz (Gulraj 88). According to the Sabri Brothers' program notes, the Qalandars are narcotic-smoking dervishes, "joyous in God," with "only a remote relationship to classical Sufism or even Islam"--yet both of these leading Qawwali groups celebrate them in this song. In the Sabri Brothers' version, the line "dama dum mustt Qalandar " (Carry on, O merry Qalandar) serves as the ecstatic refrain throughout the song, but in Nusrat's, though the refrain exists, it does not have as much importance as the repetition of names ("Jewleh Lal" and "Ali"). The saint's honorary name is repeated (lal, ruby; shahbazz, falcon (Gulraj 91)) for effect, and by repetition, the name transcends meaning. The melody is essentially the same for each version of the song, however, and each Qawwal must have had different associations and preferences for certain lines. Since neither of the songs were recorded at shrines (they were recorded in the West), it is hard to tell why a group would choose to emphasize a certain line over another--normally, in Qawwali, the pir, watching the listeners, lets the Qawwals know which lines are having the greatest effect on the audience (or on himself). In this case, then--performing in a spiritual vacuum--the performers probably allowed their own personal preferences to dictate the word refrain choices.

Other songs also provide clues into the spiritual background of the Qawwals. As I mentioned, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sings a song about Mansur al-Hallaj. But later Sufis are also included in the Qawwali repertoire. The Qawwali form is not, then, frozen in the past. The song "Dhyahar-Eh-Ishq Meh" draws on the poetry of the twentieth-century philosopher Mohammed Iqbal (Khan, Shahbazz, 1991), and affirms his attempt to revitalize Sufism after centuries of decline, with a new age and a rejection of "art for art's sake" (Matthews and Shackle 206-7). In "Mera Piyya Ghar Aaya," Nusrat sings of a "lover" and "sweetheart" who "has come back home." The love is all-consuming. "O' my beloved I love you so much that if somehow my whole body gets converted into eyes even then my desire to have you in front of my eyes will not be gratified" (Khan, The Day..., 1991). Who is this lover? Nusrat sings, "O Bulleh Shah," which indicates that the poem is a love song by the eighteenth century Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah, who longs for his Master (see Puri & Shangari). Bulleh Shah also bordered on the kind of pantheism (or shamanism) that caused al-Hallaj to be crucified. In one of his poems, Bulleh writes, "Repeating the name of the Beloved,/ I have become the Beloved myself;/ Whom shall I call the Beloved now?" (in Puri & Shangari 274).

This ritual repetition of names of God (zikr) of saints, or of a sheikh, this spirit "possession," make Qawwali look shamanistic. We have seen that in many ways it already is shamanistic. The Qawwal "shamans" must earn their living. The Qawwals and Sufis have divined the future, they have had dreams, they have received callings, they have acted as mouthpieces for saints and Prophets. Some saints have retreated into the wilderness (Begg 4), as a shaman does around the age of twenty. They have created a cosmological hierarchy of saints. They even have become immortal, through love ("It is love that has made us lovers immortal"--Hafiz (Baig 19)). They have asked for ritual death in their songs--in their ecstasy. Some have even died in body--the saint Khawaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, according to legend, died during a sama'. When a couplet by the Persian Ahmad Jam was repeated, he reached an ecstatic state, falling dead with the first line, "For the martyrs of the dagger of submission," and rising to life again with the second, "The Unseen brings a new life every moment" (Qureshi 128). The performers knew that to discontinue singing would be ruinous for the saint, who rose and fell with each alternating line. They went on for hours or days (if for days, it would have been necessary, in ecstatic etiquette, to allow prayer breaks (Begg 47)), until the Sufis instructed the performers to stop singing on the first line, allowing the saint to fall "to rest in final union with his Beloved" (Qureshi 128).

All these elements add up to create a picture of an ecstatic ritual which could be labeled shamanistic, with a few minor alterations: in Qawwali, the cosmology and spirit travel are metaphors of annihilation, as opposed to specific spatial images. But this difference, in the long run, is trivial. The central way that Qawwali's shamanistic quality is unique, however, is this: the elements are divided among living and dead, among men of high and low status. The power to perform feats is given to the saints of the past. The present power, as spiritual healer and guide, as representative in heaven, is given to the living pirs. The power of words and music is given to the Qawwal singer, a man of low status, who serves only as a medium. The power of the beat, controlling the pace of zikr, is given to the drummer, who is lower in hierarchy than the singer. And the power to attain God is given to the adept, who, spiritually alone in the audience, must forge his own connection to the saints and to God. Who, in all this, is the shaman? It is only in the collective of the dead and the living, the saints and the different performers and the listeners, that a complete shaman exists. The Qawwali shaman is the entire hive, and not the single inspired bee.


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