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What is Sufi Music?

By Melanie Smeltzer
Updated May 23, 2024
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Sufi music is a genre based on Sufism and sometimes inspired by Sufi poets. This genre is generally meant as an expression of devotion to God, but it also can be a way to enhance the connection between the physical and spiritual aspects of the listener or performer. Many Sufi orders perform this style of music in a variety of sub-genres during special ceremonies. Other orders feel that this music should be prohibited, however, as it is thought to be a distraction from prayer.

One of the better known sub-genres of Sufi music is called qawwali, which has its roots in India and Pakistan. Traditionally, this style consists of four distinct sections: hamd, naat, and manqabat, which are all devotional songs, and ghazals, which are usually expressions of the longing to be close to the divine. The popularity of qawwali is due in part to its aesthetic appeal. Many musicians that perform this type of Sufi music focus on vocal strength and purity, and may occasionally skip over the devotional material, going straight into the ghazal songs.

Another popular sub-genre is known as kafi. This style is considered classical, and is generally culled from the poetic verses of well-known writers. Though kafi is similar to qawwali in the fervor of its delivery, the two forms differ in execution. While qawwali may be made up of a larger ensemble, kafi music usually consists of a few percussion instruments, a keyboard, and a single vocalist.

Although Sufi music is sometimes performed in public for the enjoyment of those who pass by, it is often reserved for important ceremonies. One of the better known of these ceremonies is called Sama, which is frequently associated with the whirling dervish, or Mevlevi, order. Singing and music are an important component of the Sama ceremony, but it may also include music made with flutes, tambourines, and bells.

Despite the fact that most Sufi devotional music is set in a classical style, some artists have developed a more modern approach. During the early 1990s, the term "Sufi rock" was invented by a controversial Pakistani journalist, Nadeem F. Paracha. This particular style generally blends rock music with traditional rhythms, as well as the poetry of well-known Sufi writers. Though many of the artists who create Sufi rock sing in languages such as Punjabi, Turkish, or Urdu, others may also translate their lyrics into English.

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Discussion Comments
By burcinc — On Mar 30, 2011

Listening to Sufi music is like meditation. You don't have to be from that tradition to enjoy it and you don't have to understand the words.

Just tuning into the beats, the instruments is enough for you to look inward and find the spirit you didn't know existed. I believe this is why music was made in the first place. And I think it's this spiritual experience or ecstasy that followers of Sufism try to reach. It works! My eyes well up every time!

By serenesurface — On Mar 28, 2011

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Atif Aslam are my favorite singers. Atif Aslam makes Sufi rock and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan makes more traditional qawwalis and kafi also. Many of the musicians who make religious, Islamic and Sufi songs are from Pakistan but many in Asia and the Middle East listen to their music as well.

Most recently, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan made sang for a film called "My Name is Khan" and the film was viewed in the East and also the West. I think it broke records in Dubai, actually.

By burcidi — On Mar 26, 2011

I think that qawwalis have taken on a completely new edge in India. One of my parents is from India and my dad would play qawwalis sometimes at home, especially on Fridays, after he came back from Friday prayer. So I grew up listening to qawwalis that way.

When I went to India though, I saw that qawwalis make up a significant sector in Hindi music. Music in India is generally made through films. Many musicians and singers make songs for new Hindi films and the music is sort of advertised through the movie. The movie is advertised through the music too. Maybe that's why traditional qawwalis are being remade with more popular tunes and include colorful costumes and many dancers in the background in films.

My dad is really upset about this, he thinks that it's ruining the whole purpose of a qawwali which is to praise God. Personally, I'm not sure what to think. Modern qawwalis sound and look more fun. Even though the lyrics are still about devotion, it doesn't remind me much of religion or spirituality.

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