Know Your Muses: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

An ode to the famous Qawwali singer, and the importance of remembering him for who he was: a Muslim.

Fariha Róisín

June 24, 2019

Know Your Muses: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

“One wants to write poetry that is understood by one’s people.” — Alice Walker

Renowned atheist (and Islamophobe) Sam Harris once cited that one of his favorite musicians was Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I was mortified. Western media had successfully de-Islamicized Rumi, stripping him of his Muslim roots and devotion to Allah. I didn’t want the same thing to happen to Khan, whose entire form and musical tradition was built as a form of dhikr — his artform itself was a prayer, one repeated and recited.

Qawwali music is an offshoot of Sufi devotional music specific to South Asia, with roots in Persian and Turkish Sufi beats and anthems. Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, emphasizes the spiritual component of Islam.

The word “qawwali” comes from the Arabic word qua, which means utterance. A Qawwali is someone who repeats, sometimes through song, the qual, giving resonance to the utterance. In this act, they become a vessel, a messenger of remembrance. In essence, Qawwali music is a form of prayer, a calling of and longing for Allah.

Intoxicated by the embrace of God and the universe, Qawwals sing.