This world, the old Sufi mystics used to teach, is a mirage. There is a higher Reality that exists by its own essence. The purpose of existence is to love the higher Reality more than this mundane world of illusions. Like the (oblivious?) selfless moth immolating itself in the candle flame, Sufis direct their passion towards ‘fana’, or the annihilation of self in the higher Reality of the One. In the particular form of Sufi devotional music practised in the Indian subcontinent, Qawwali, the function of the performance is to enable the self-annihilation of the listener.

In recent times western audiences have been alerted to Qawwali through the work of one of its great exponents: Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan. How Nusrat became a chic cult figure in the West is, however, only part of my tale. Appropriately, since our subject is Qawwali, mine is a story of annihilation, involving considerable self immolation. It is the amazing adventure of the one Qawwali most people in the western world are likely to have heard: Nusrat’s ‘Dum mustt qualander’, or ‘Mustt Mustt’ for short. The story of ‘Mustt Mustt’, how it came about, how it evolved, changed and transmogrified, is a revealing narrative of our postmodern times. 

To set the scene, I must begin at the beginning, with the origins of Qawwali, a compendium of the Indian Subcontinent’s musical traditions, itself. Its invention is attributed to Amir Khusrau, an immensely colourful and influential character in Indian music and literature. A court poet of Ala-ad-Din Muhammad Khilji, Sultan of Delhi (1296–1316), Khusrau is credited as the first Urdu poet in history. Sufi tradition also credits him with introducing such musical instruments as the sitar and tabla to the Subcontinent. There is an apocryphal account of how in a spate of invention he cut the pakhavaja (a drum with twin striking surfaces) in half, thus creating the two small drums of the tabla, one to be played by the right hand the other by the left of the drummer. Khusrau also innovated new vocal forms, as well as rags and tals.

Rags are central to Indian music, yet they have no counterpart in western musical theory. Loosely, rag is equivalent to melody, which in Indian classical music exists in free rhythmic form. The concept of rag is that certain characteristic patterns of notes evoke heightened states of emotion. Each rag can be described according to its ascending and descending lines (which may involve turns) as well as its characteristic melodic figures. Indian melody can also be presented in its metric form, its tempo governed by the tal, a particular time measure. Tal is a cycle with both quantitative and qualitative aspects: the quantitative concern the duration of a cycle measured in terms of time units or beats which can be slow, medium or fast; the qualitative concern the distribution of stresses or accents within the cycle at different levels of intensity. In a raga, a composed piece, the character is derived from the specific deployment of the rag and tal. There are over two hundred extent rags, each a melodic basis for composition and improvisation, each performed at a different time of day or season to enhance particular emotions.

Qawwali is a fusion of the emotive power of Indian music with the emotional content of Sufi mystical poetry. The work of poets such as the Arab Sufi ibn Arabi or Turkish mystic Jalaluddin Rumi, is difficult to fathom for rationalist minds. In a society where one has to ‘freak out’ or ‘drop out’ to pursue mystical leanings, the idea of infinite emotion that is both unbridled passion and controlled, purposeful, spiritual endeavour is difficult to grasp. For Sufis, poetry is not just a vehicle, it is a transport of direct mystical experience. It represents and perpetuates the legacy of Sufi saints and teachers. This is why Sufi poetry provides such a vast range of aesthetic expression for mystical love, often utilising stylised imagery of human love as a metaphor for the manifestation of spiritual passion: 

O wondrous amorous teasing, o wondrous beguiling

O wondrous tilted cap, o wondrous tormentor

In the spasm of being killed my eyes beheld your face:

O wondrous benevolence, o wondrous guidance and protection. 

Amir Khusrau wanted to combine the passion of Sufi poetry with the heightened emotions of a rag. However, since Sufi poetry often incorporated a verse from the Qur’an or a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, it was important that the texts remained intact and their meaning was not distorted. A tricky situation to which Khusrau provided an ingenious solution. He was also the originator of the tarana style of vocal music, a type of singing in fast tempo using syllables. To an ordinary listener, the syllables appear meaningless but when they are pieced together they form recognisable Persian words with mystical symbolism. Khusrau introduced a few syllables of tarana to add balance to the rag in which the piece was composed (called shudh kalyan) and Qawwali was born. 

The word Qawwali itself is derived from the Arabic word Qaulah, meaning to speak or give an opinion. As an artistic form, it is strong on opinion: the Urdu or Persian couplets, that form the invocation and mystical text of the Qawwali, are all important. This distinguishes Qawwali from a classical raga where music has primacy over text. The tals used in Qawwali are also distinct, being of a type seldom used in classical music. But the real difference between Qawwali and all other musical idioms of the Indian Subcontinent is its specific mystical function and context of use. Qawwali is designed to perform three specific functions: generate spiritual arousal, convey the mystical message of the poetry and react to the listeners’ diverse and changing spiritual requirements. 

Sufis consider a rhythmic framework and an emphatic stress pattern or pulse, reflecting the heartbeat, to be essential for stirring the soul. The reoccurring beat suggests the continuous repetition of God’s name and guides the Sufi towards ecstasy. The rhythmic framework itself is characterised by two techniques. The first is handclapping; the second is a particular drumming technique that uses mainly open-hand or flat-hand strokes. With the downbeat of the drum, the listener’s head moves in silent repetition of God’s name; indeed, the drum beat alone may cause ecstasy. By the time the Sufi utters the word ‘Allahu’, that is, ‘God Is’, he is already on the way to another realm. It is said that the thirteenth century mystic Sheikh Qutbudding Bakhtiar Kaki was so overwhelmed by ecstasy that he died while listening to Qawwali. Many Sufi saints, like the Indian mystic Sheikh Nizamuddin Chishti, have been known to go into a deep trance during Qawwali and remain oblivious to the world for days on end. 

So, Qawwali is basically a form of mystical worship. Subcontinental Sufis often describe it as zikr, remembrance of Allah, which is the basic pillar of Sufism. Therefore, the music must serve to clarify the text, both acoustically, by making it clearly audible, and structurally, by placing emphasis on the salient formal features of the poem. Acoustic clarification of the text is sought by volume, singing at a high dynamic level, often with strong and exaggerated enunciation of consonants. Group singing reinforces the solo voice; the solo performer picks out the pertinent units of text that are repeated by the group. 

As a form of spiritual communication, Qawwali is not a one-way exercise; singer and musicians must themselves react to the listeners, respond to their changing requirements, adjust their performance to their audience’s state of being and ecstasy. The interaction requires the Qawwali to isolate both musical and textual units and repeat them as necessary, amplifying or cutting short any unit of the text, rearranging or even omitting an element, going forward, backwards or proceeding in an infinite loop. Or, it may require the creation of additional musical units as setting for portions of text that may need to be inserted out of the blue! I have heard the same poem presented in two minutes and performed for over two hours. The audience and musicians are mutual participants locked in a mystical encounter. The listeners’ ecstasy can impose a particular structure upon the music and take the musicians for an unplanned ride. 

 This incredibly versatile and rich musical tradition has been sustained since the time of Amir Khusrau by the Sufi communities of the Indian subcontinent in the mahfil-e-sama, or the ‘Assembly for Listening’. Through the act of listening – sama – the Sufi seeks to activate his personal link with his living spiritual guide, with saints departed, with Ali, fourth Caliph of Islam who was the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, with Prophet Muhammad himself and ultimately with God. By opening himself to the Qawwali, the listener means to transcend his mundane, materialist and conscious existence by kindling the spiritual flame of mystical love. Once ecstasy has been reached, the goal of both Qawwali and the listener is to sustain the intensity of the experience and, well, go Mustt, Mustt, or totally lose oneself in the love of God. 

One cannot have a more profound or vivid Qawwali experience than at an urs  – the commemoration of a noted saint’s own final union with God, held at the saint’s shrine on the anniversary of his death. Throughout the Indian Subcontinent, shrines continue to be the centres for mystical teaching and tradition, and therefore prime focii for Qawwalis. At any time of the year one can find an urs in progress somewhere on the Subcontinent. I have attended Qawwali mahfils in Lahore and Pakpattan, two important centres of urs in Pakistan. But the urs to beat all urs, where the Qawwali reaches unparalleled heights, is the urs of the great saint Nizamuddin Auliya and of his favourite disciple, Amir Khusrau himself, that takes place in Delhi. 

The Qawwals, the performers of Qawwalis, not surprisingly, tend to be both the followers of the Sufi path as well as highly versatile musicians. The ideal voice for a Qawwal is considered to be loud and full, a voice with life and strength, rather than one that is melodious or modulated. As Qawwals have to project their voice in huge assemblies that gather at shrines, they tend, like operatic tenors, to be rather large. Enter the subject of our story: the late Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan.

Nusrat was not just a big man with a big voice; he was big in every way. And as befits big men, he is shrouded in myths and legends, much like Amir Khusrau and Sufi Saints of yesteryear. The popular story of Nusrat’s life that circulates in towns and villages of Pakistan is an enchanting narrative of dreams, remote viewing, and mystical encounters. These begin at the beginning: with his name itself. Apparently, his original name was Parvez, meaning ‘conqueror’, ‘lucky’, ‘happy’, a common enough and perfectly acceptable designation amongst Muslims of the Subcontinent. Yet, one day a mystic by the name of Pir Ghulam Ghaus Samadani came to see Nusrat’s father, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, himself a noted Qawwal. Our hero entered the room and when his father introduced him as ‘Parvez’. Samadani was startled and enraged. ‘Change his name at once’, he thundered. ‘Do you know who was Parvez? He was the king of Persia who tore up the letter sent to him by Prophet Muhammad. This name does not augur well for a boy destined to be a global Qawwal. It should not be the name of someone who will sing the rosary of Allah’. There and then, the fat boy’s name was changed to Nusrat.

The word ‘Nusrat’ means ‘God’s grace’ and ‘success with His help’. So the young Qawwal was only too conscious of his prospects. On the way to his global triumph he is said to have performed several musical miracles. Take, for instance, the occasion when he was called upon to accompany the Indian classical singer Pandit Dina Nath on the tabla. The good Pandit had declared himself disappointed by all the tabla players in Pakistan –  none of them could keep sufficient tempo to enable him to express himself fully. But the youthful Nusrat and his nimble fingers did such a brilliant job that the Pundit had to declare ‘I am defeated. Nusrat is highly talented’. 

It was at the Amir Khusrau Festival in Islamabad in 1975, marking the poet’s 700th  anniversary, that Nusrat performed his breakthrough musical miracle. All the great Qawwali singers of Pakistan were invited to the Festival, which was broadcast live on radio. However, Nusrat, as yet an unrecognised Qawwal, was the last to be invited. So, by the time he and his party arrived the other Qawwals had already picked all the more popular poems and songs of Amir Khusrau for their own performances. It seemed there was nothing left from the Khusrau heritage for Nusrat. But the up-and-coming artist astonished them all by singing a rare and hardly ever performed poem: 

Mein to pia sey nainan mila aayi rey

Par nari ganwari kahey so kahey

Mien to pia sey nainan mila aayi rey

I am not thirsty, I have met my beloved

Whatever the ignorant girls of my village might say

I am not thirsty, I have met my beloved.  

After that, Nusrat went on to perform one of Amir Khusrau’s most difficult compositions in a particular style of Qawwali known as the Qaul Qalbana. Divided into five tals, Qaul Qalbana is only attempted by the most accomplished artists, those confident in their total mastery of their art. This was Nusrat’s way of telling the other Qawwals and everyone listening not only that he had arrived but also that he was on his way to higher places. 

So far our tale has been of the world of tradition, Sufi tradition that continues to circulate and whirl around its own concerns. Clearly, Nusrat was established, so much within his proper ambit that his own life took on the form and character of popular Sufi narratives, replete as they are with the little miracles of daily life. But we live in one world, and eventually even the unworldly are tracked to their assemblies and whirled by centripetal forces onto the global stage. And so it was that Nusrat was propelled on a trajectory no other Qawwal had ever taken, or even dreamed might exist: to the recording studio of Peter Gabriel. 

Gabriel is the unquestioned doyen of world music, the eclectic genre of chic that merchandises the illusion we are real aesthetes, full members of a pluralist global culture. The great achievement of World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) and ‘RealWorld’, the organisation and record label founded by Gabriel, has been to purloin, appropriate and commodify traditional genres of music from distant corners of the world and thereby make fortunes for recording companies, but few if any of the traditional musicians involved. The world, as the Sufis say, is a mirage, a distorted flickering image of reality. Or as a western poet once noted: the world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending. I merely note that what world music commodifies is the lure of other worldliness, in easy, though contextually incomprehensible form. For the West, spirituality, mystical power is the continuing domain of non-Western, natural man. The three fifths of the world who remain bereft of the worldly goods of modernity have only ethereal consolation in other worldliness to warm their hands and stir their mess of porridge by, it has become a natural order in quite a different sense of the word. 

World music summons an assembly of listening for the global mirage based on the assumption that by being fascinated by what we do not understand we actually belong to one world.  It is a delusion, because it lacks exactly those defining criteria that make Qawwali: mutual endeavour for a common higher purpose. Yet, if world music fails to transport us beyond the dynamics of the mundane natural order, at least it sounds nice.

And so it was that Nusrat was drawn to participate in that most bizarrely eclectic and truly postmodern exercise of adding a Qawwali to the sound track of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. What better accompaniment to the deconstruction of Christology could there be than decontexualising another spiritual tradition? Postmodernism is nothing, if not the vehicle to transport us all beyond the meaningful content of grand narratives of belief. In the studio, goes the story, Nusrat performed a number of ragas and Gabriel kept on recording the recital. Then Nusrat did something unusual. He sang the tunes of Darbari ragas in higher tones, rather than his characteristic falsetto. Gabriel liked it and it ended up on the track of the film. 

When the recording was complete Gabriel said: ‘I wish you could do something with western musical instruments.’ Again the postmodern refrain, the quest for fulfilment by losing all meaning in hybrid fusion form. Decontextualised, uprooted and free floating postmodernism would have us absorbed in genuine meaningless pastiche. Nusrat started to hum and play on his harmonium in an absent minded way. After a little while, he rendered the scale: 

sa re sa: ni sa pa ni ma pama ni ga re ga. 

Nusrat immediately realised the significance of what he had done. Peter Gabriel so liked what he heard he proceeded immediately to record it. Thus was born Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan’s masterpiece, ‘Mustt Mustt.’  When cinema audiences heard the intriguing sounds of Qawwali they asked for more. They too wanted to go ‘Mustt Mustt’, and lose themselves in dreams of postmodern inclusiveness. Nusrat became a must on radio and in record shops far and wide. 

Irony is a special delight of postmodernism. The first incarnation of ‘Mustt Mustt’, was released on the Real World label. Although guitar and other western instruments are there, the Qawwali is sung in the traditional way largely to the accompaniment of tabla. The text is a mixture of Urdu and Punjabi and its subject is Caliph Ali:

Dum Mustt Qualander, Mustt Mustt

My remembrance moment by moment

Ali in my every breath

The text is not all together original. Rather, it’s a variation on the old Punjabi Qawwali ‘Dama dum mustt Qualadar’ which I have heard many a fakir sing in the streets of the Pakistani province of Sindh. As Qawwali, ‘Mustt Mustt exists within the traditional orbit of improvisation, with a new element added out of the blue. It includes some enchanting tarana, Nusrat presents the whole performance as a showcase of virtuosity and talent. A passive assembly for listening among the uninitiated can be transported by fascination without commitment, yet it works within the terms of a committed assembly for listening.

The opening words of the Qawwali are very significant. The word ‘Dum’ has the double meaning of ‘life’ and ‘breath’. ‘Mustt’ is the state of being lost to this world, or being located in another realm, or intoxicated in the love of God. Qualander is a mystic. So, collectively ‘Dum Mustt Qualander, Mustt Mustt’ signifies a mystic lost to this life and breathing the very love of God. The Qawwali is both an expression of mystical experience as well as an invitation to abandon worldly life and adopt the mystical way, the way of the Qualander. The nod towards western music and tastes is quite marginal, as a global recording phenomenon this Qawwali speaks its own language as it ever has.

 And now our story takes another turn, ascending cadence becomes descending. The infinite loop of improvisation cuts short, backtracks, goes forward, amplifies and lays its stress on something quite unexpected. It is the responsibility of the Qawwal to react to the listeners. Nusrat himself now proceeds to produced two further versions of ‘Mustt Mustt’. In its second incarnation, the Massive Attack Remix, Nusrat seeks to engage with that assembly for listening that is his new western audience. As all Qawwals must he searches for a means to keep in step with the spiritual capacity of his audience. So at the second turning of this story he brings instrumental music to the fore and renders the text, the words that are anyway incomprehensible to his listeners, secondary. Some of the conventional Qawwali vocal features disappear altogether. But, for all that, the subject of the Qawwali is still Ali, a refrain simple enough to be repeated emphatically and picked out by the most untrained ear. 

The third turning of our tale describes a loop back to the ground on which Qawwali was first born. ‘Mustt Mustt’ returns home, this time to know its birthplace as it has become. In its third incarnation it is released largely for audiences in the Indian subcontinent. It is the function of the Qawwal to attend to the changed spiritual requirements of the assembly for listening, a Subcontinental audience that can both understand and know the tradition and engage with path presented. So what is one to make of ‘Mustt Mustt’ mark three, released in the Subcontinent under the title ‘Mastt Qalander’? To what realm does it transport? It is a fast paced affair with Nusrat joined by female vocalists. The synthesised music drowns everything and all is lost in funky tal. Although Ali is still there, he is no longer the subject of the song. What was meant to be listened to in devotion and ecstatic contemplation now becomes disco dancing music – ecstasy of quite another kind. 

It was at this point, with just three versions in hand that I determined to make ‘Mustt Mustt’ a subject of a diatribe on the awful assaults of global postmodern popular culture on my heritage. My assembly for listening was to be, appropriately enough, in Delhi. Listen to this anti-progression, this heedless descent into meaninglessness, I began. I played the three incarnations only to become aware of a certain lack of reaction in my audience. Were they not concerned at how our tradition was being debased by the pernicious influences from the West? They had news for me. Never mind three versions, now there are four: “but you chaps living in the West would have no idea about that,” they noted. Feeling like some innocent abroad I listened as they brought me up to date.

The fourth incarnation of ‘Mustt Mustt’ appears in the 1994 Bollywood film, ‘Mohra’. Here the original subject disappears totally and becomes an object: an object of material and sexual desire. The lyrics are changed slightly so the original idea of loosing oneself in the love of God evaporates and objectified sex comes into play: 

Tu Cheese Bari Hay, Mustt Mustt

The word ‘cheese’ translates as ‘things’, ‘commodities’ and ‘material’. In the original version the word ‘bari’ refers to higher Saints. Here, wordplay is used to connote the idea that a purely sexual object of love can also be divine and you can get ‘high’ on material things too! The changed spiritual requirements could not be more explicit. This is a world turned upside down, but, as my audience in Delhi clearly pointed out the turning was a home grown revolution. There was more to come. You should get yourself a copy of the new compendium edition, I was told with a certain impish glee by my audience that had now become my teachers. They sent me in search of the appropriately named, ‘The New Massacre’ version of ‘Mustt Mustt’ by Boota and Master G. Here, a number of different versions of the Qawwali – including the original and the Indian film version – are brought together in a postmodern blend. But instead of tarana, we have Rap. The entire amalgam is defined by absolute meaninglessness. The object now becomes a pure extravaganza, a fusion of sounds that is ‘with it’, a commodity that is only a commodity. 

Like a moth, irresistibly drawn to the flame, I followed the path of ‘Mustt Mustt’ to the final immolation, the coup d’grace.  It was delivered during the 1996 Cricket World Cup. Where once the Subcontinent had spiritual passion it now has unbridled devotion for cricket, and, incidentally, leads the world in betting syndicates that corrupt that erstwhile gentlemanly path as well. The sponsors of the game broadcast a special advertisement on numerous satellite channels throughout Asia and selected countries in Europe. The advertisement features a group of young children playing cricket in a Pakistani village. On the soundtrack ‘Mustt Mustt’ is just about audible. It’s a joyous occasion with much colour and excitement around the game. Then a child hits the ball, which flies towards the sky, spins as if catching fire and revolves into the symbol for ‘Coke’. The soundtrack swells with the unmistakable sound of ‘Mustt Mustt’ at full volume. What became a commodity now promotes another commodity, one with rather imperial tendencies. Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan’s crowning achievement, the Qawwali that brought him the accolade of ‘Shahen-Shah-e-Qawwali’, the King of Kings of Qawwali, is finally drained of all its original meaning. Its real essence, intoxication in the love of God, is reduced to the desire for Coke: ‘the real thing’. 

I remember asking Nusrat, shortly after ‘Mustt Mustt’ took, whether it was a good idea to westernise the Qawwali. ‘I cherish the tradition of classical music more than my life’, he said. ‘I consider its protection and preservation as my spiritual duty. As an experiment I do not mind the use of western musical instruments. But it will be great injustice to introduce any change in classical music. I use western musical instruments because I believe that you can dress up a pretty child in any clothes and it will stay pretty. But the more important thing is that the child should not get injured while putting on those clothes’.

In the case of ‘Mustt Mustt’, the clothes did much more than injure the child. Innocence, as the Sufis are quick to point out, is not barrier to annihilation. But the story of ‘Mustt Mustt’ has a strong moral. We live on one planet, in multiple worlds, we are different assemblies of listeners for we have not yet the wit to learn how to communicate across and through our differences. I am that traveller that returns to tell we have more problems than we know. There is not only one postmodernism out there. There is not merely one global popular culture that proliferates the meaningless mundane cause of pure commodity – the world is busy building many and different postmodernisms, we are all rushing headlong to meet each other on the common ground of nothingness. The flames are dying out all over the world.

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: