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Devotional Islam Sufism, Shrines, and Qawwali

The Ascetic Tradition

The Sufi tradition within Islam is characterized by attention to the condition of the heart and devotion to Allah. It is expressed through poetry, dance, singing, and special prayers and meditations. What may have started as an ascetic form of Islam that rejected materialism is today a culture and way of life for many Muslims. Sufi traditions and practices are found throughout the world of Islam.

These photos are from a major center for Sufi tradition in Nizamuddin, New Delhi.
The Enlightened Ones

Across South Asian, there is a network of Sufi sites, shrines, and pilgrimage trails founded by “enlightened” devotees of Islam that are today visited by Muslims and Hindus alike. Many of these are dargahs, or shrines built around the grave of an Islamic saint. Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya was one of these saints who lived in India in the 13th and 14th centuries. He emphasized love as the primary means to know Allah and his legacy invites hundreds of thousands to his tomb every month.

In the video below, you get a feel for what it is like inside the shrine complex. People purchase tassles, rose petals and incense as they arrive and make offerings and prayers at the various tombs. One resident of the area said, "These saints were humans like us, but they had a direct connection to Allah. That is why they are special." Men and women from all over India and beyond bring their problems, sickness, and sadness to the shrines in hopes that their burdens will be taken away.

A mosque occupies the same space as the shrine. The regular call to prayer brings a pause to the devoted frenzy. And then the flowers and incense are once again poured out.

The Music of Devotion

Sufi poets wrote expressions of devotion to Allah and singers known as Qawwals put it to music. It is an essential part of Sufi culture. This style of music, which involves both improvisation and repeating melodies and phrases, builds to create a ecstatic form of worship. The tradition is enjoyed by Muslims and Hindus alike and the qawwali form has been used in Indian cinema and found audiences around the world.

In the video below, meet Chand Nizami, the leader of an internationally-known group of qawwali singers called Nizami Bandhu. Sit in his living room, meet his brothers, cousins, nephews and grandchildren as they share their family tradition.

If you would like to hear more qawwali style music, listen to Nizami Bandhu sing here.