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Experiencing Qawwali:
Sound as Spiritual Power in Sufi India

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James R. Newell
Vanderbilt University

This dissertation is an historical and critical study of sound as spiritual power in Qawwali, the Islamic devotional music of the Chishtiyya Sufi order of South Asia. My intention is to show that music and religion are, by both implication and design, coextensive in traditional Qawwali performance. Although much effort is expended by Sufis to ensure that the sung text is primary in the performance of traditional, religious Qawwali, it is the transmission of baraka [spiritual power, or blessing] through musical sound that distinguishes Qawwali as the particular performance of expressive culture that it is. The explicit religious function of Qawwali is to act as a catalyst for ecstatic states of religious experience. In this context, the music itself is not simply a vehicle for the sung text, it is also a vehicle for the transmission of spiritual power [baraka]. According to many Chishtiyya Sufi saints [Awliya], spiritual music is identical with spiritual power, that is, it is coextensive with religious experience and communion with the divine. Using a combination of case studies from ethnographic fieldwork in Maharashtra, India, and a variety of textual sources on Sufism, in this study I contextualize the sounds of Qawwali as a cultural system of symbols in its historical setting, the South Asian dargah [Muslim tomb-shrine].



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