On the 15th anniversary of the death of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the world can look back on an extraordinary musician. The “King of Qawwali” was a source of light in the often dark history of Pakistan. By Marian Brehmer
To immerse yourself in the huge body of work by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is to engage yourself with the metaphysical. His song seems to depart this world and to carry us beyond our usual perceptions. A French film-maker gave a film about this most important Sufi musician of the twentieth century the admittedly rather bold title, “The Last Prophet”.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was born in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) in 1948, just a year after Pakistan was born in the aftermath of the Indian independence struggle. It would have been hard to imagine back then that Nusrat would turn into one of the most positive figures in Pakistan’s history.
The merging of Indian, Persian and Arab cultures
Nusrat’s musical style is called Qawwali (from the Arabic word “qaul” – to speak). It’s a typical product of the way that Islam developed in South Asia. Qawwali emerged in the 13th century when Indian, Persian and Arab elements joined to create a new musical tradition.
The father of Qawwali: Amir Khusrow (1253–1325) teaching his disciples – miniature from a manuscript of Majlis Al-Usshak by Husayn BayqarahAmir Khusrow (1253–1325), a lyricist and composer at the court of the Sultan of Delhi, is seen as the father of the genre, and his grave in New Delhi is still an important centre of Indian Sufi pilgrimage.
Qawwali quickly increased in importance in an India which, during the Middle Ages, had become a cradle of Persian arts. Many Hindus are said to have been so moved by Khusrow’s songs that they converted to Islam. Nowadays, Qawwali is an important part of the daily life of the faithful for over 350 million Muslims in South Asia. There is scarcely a Sufi shrine in India or Pakistan at which songs from the repertoire of Qawwali have not been played, and scarcely a music shop which does not carry Nusrat’s albums.
Qawwali hyms are poems set to music, using texts by the classic Sufi mystics such as Rumi and Hafiz, as well as local poets. The texts praise God, the Prophet and the saints, and they express the yearning and the burning love of the one who searches; they carry within them the pain of parting and the joy of unification with the divine.
The aim of experiencing transcendence