New Wine from Medina: Aesthetics of popular qawwali lyrics

  • Mikko Viitamäki


Wine and intoxication are among the motifs that suffuse the poetry traditionally performed in qawwali music. Qawwali is a musical genre that has developed in the context of samā ʿ, listening as meditation. This practice, much favoured by South Asian Sufis belonging to various orders, utilizes music and poetry as a potent means of directing the attention of devotees towards the divine reality. In this process, the metaphorical language of poetry plays a significant role as it is conceived as a bridge connecting the visible, human reality with the hidden and divine.
Although qawwali performances outside the samā ʿ context were not unheard of prior to the twentieth century, it was only then that a large scale venture of qawwals to new stages of performance begun in earnest. They started to perform in  concerts –  both  live  and  radio –  and  films  and  their  music  became  widely disseminated  through  recordings.  The  shift  from  the  privacy  of  Sufi  hospices and shrines to the public sphere led to the emergence of popular qawwali style characterized  by  distinct  conventions  relating  to  music  and  lyrical  content. Popular qawwali has lost its function as a transformative meditative technique and  acquired  characteristics  of  entertainment  even  while  retaining  religious orientation.
The  paper  explores  the  impact  of  these  developments  on  qawwali  lyrics by  analysing  the  transformation  wine  imagery  has  undergone.  In  the  poetry performed  in  samā ʿ assemblies,  the  metaphorical  dimensions  of  wine  are  not explicated  and  the  task  of  understanding  inebriation  as  a  result  of  divine  love rather than of wine the drink, for example, is left to individual listeners. Popular qawwali  lyrics,  by  contrast,  avoid  religiously  dubious  motifs  like  wine.  When wine  in  rare  occasions  is  mentioned,  the  lyricists  or  performers  take  care  to explain  its  metaphorical meaning in explicitly religious  context.  I suggest that this tendency arises from the rhetoric that emphasizes doctrinal orthodoxy and meticulous fulfilment of religious obligations as the sole building blocks of Islam. Anything appearing even remotely irreligious is deemed avoidable. This rhetoric has dominated the discourses concerning South Asian Islam since the late nineteenth century. Furthermore, the denigration of Persian poetics and, by extension, culture by modern thinkers like Iqbal has contributed to the avoidance of conventional poetic motifs.
Dec 13, 2013
How to Cite
Viitamäki, M. (2013). New Wine from Medina: Aesthetics of popular qawwali lyrics. Studia Orientalia Electronica, 111, 393-406. Retrieved from