Qawwali muqabila

Qawwali originated in dargahs and remains closely associated with it but there is a whole world of Qawwali that exists outside the dargahs, no I am not talking about Bollywood Qawwalis. Qawwali muqabilas are popular in small towns and usually a bit lowbrow in its content and style. It is a Qawwali contest between two groups, if one of the lead singer is a woman then you can easily guess the topic and nature of the performance.

Shareef Parvaz vs. Rukhsana Bano

Not sure about the date or place of this muqabila but brilliant performance by both singers. I must warn about the strong language used in these videos, for a PG-13 Qawwali muqabila see the last video on this page (Yusuf Azad vs. Rashida Khatoon).

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Yusuf Azad vs. Rashida Khatoon:

Asrar-ul-Haq Majaz – A Journey of Love, Hope and Nationalism

Postage stamp on Majaz issued by the Govt of India

THE year was 1935. The union hall of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was brimming with students and the atmosphere was electric. A young man in sherwani stands up. He runs his hand through his long locks, and recites his poem ‘Inquilab’ in his own inimitable style –

“KohsaaroN ki taraf se surkh aandhi aayegi
Ja-baja aabaadiyoN meiN aag si lag jaayegi
Aur is rang-e-shafaq meiN ba-hazaraaN aab-o taab
Jagmagaaega watan ki hurriyat ka aaftaab”

[A red storm is approaching from over the mountains
Sparking a fire in the settlements
And on this horizon, amidst a thousand tumults
Shall shine the sun of our land’s freedom] (1)

The hall reverberates with a thunderous applause. Asrar-ul-Haq Majaz was destined for greatness!

The poetic journey

Majaz’s poetry first made its mark in the culturally alive AMU during the early 1930s. His poems ‘Noora’ and ‘Nazr-e-Aligarh’ established him as a popular poet. The girls just loved him.

“NahiN jaanti hai, mera naam tak woh
Magar bhej deti hai paighaam tak woh
Ye paighaam aate hii rahte haiN aksar
Ki kis roz aaoge biimaar hokar”

[She doesn’t even know my name
But still she writes to me
Her letters keep coming to me
“When will you fall sick and visit again?” she asks]

AMU had other great poets, like Ali Sardar Jafri, Jaan Nisar Akhtar and Jazbi, during this period, but Majaz’s popularity overshadowed all his contemporaries.

Majaz finished his graduation at AMU in 1936. The same year Professor Ahmed Shah Bukhari, popularly known as ‘Pitras’ Bukhari, calls Majaz to Delhi. Bukhari made him join the then newly formed All India Radio as the editor of a journal. Majaz named it ‘Awaaz’ and managed it for a while.

Their relationship soured for some reasons and Majaz left the station.

This was also the time when the door of the married woman Majaz loved, closed on him. She was the only woman he ever loved. It left a permanent scar on his psyche. He became a compulsive drinker.

His personal grief merged with his rebel ideas. The result was ‘Awara’ – a masterpiece of the era.

“Shahar ki raat aur maiN naashaad-o-nakaara phiruuN
Jagmagaati jaagti saDkon pe awara phiruuN
Ghair ki basti hai kab tak dar badar maara phiruuN
Aye gham-e-dil kya karoon aye wehshat-e-dil kya karuuN”

[This nightfall in the city, and I wander aimless and sad
On the awake and glittering roads, my aimless wandering, O
How long in the alien city from door to door I go
What do I do, O sad heart, my mad heart] (2)

The poem became an anthem for the revolutionary youth of the time. The word Awara suddenly meant more than just troubled and jobless-

“Le ke ek changez ke haathon se khanjar toD duuN
Taaj par us ke damakta hai jo patthar toD duuN
Koi tode ya na toDe maiN hii baDhkar toD duuN
Ai gham-e-dil kya karoon aye wehshat-e-dil kya karuuN”

[I shall snatch the sword from Changez’s hand and break it apart
The glittering stone in his crown I must hit
Some body else may or may not, but I should break it–
What do I do, O sad heart, my mad heart] (2)

Heartbroken, Majaz came back to Lucknow.

A nationalist to the core, Majaz along with his friends Ali Sardar Jafri and Sibtey Hasan, took out the progressive journal ‘Naya Adab’ from Lucknow . It was established with funds from the CPI in 1939 under the auspices of UPWA (Urdu Progressive Writers’ Association). The journal was the most influential progressive literary monthly of the period, so much that its first three issues actually laid the theoretical foundations of the UPWA movement. (2)

Naya Adab ran for a decade. After its closure, Majaz joined the Harding Library at Delhi as Assistant Librarian. There he collaborated with Fasihuddin Ahmed in editing the literary journal ‘Adeeb’. (3)

Knowing the man

Majaz was a fragile soul, one who could be easily hurt. Being the nice guy he was, Majaz kept quiet even when friends misbehaved with him.

“Awara-va-majnu.N hii pe maukuuf nahiN kuuchh
Milne haiN abhi muujh ko Khitaab aur zyaadaa”

[They have not stopped at vagabond and rogue
More praises are on their way for me]

Majaz had a great sense of humour. Once somebody’s poetry didn’t go down well with him. He had this to say – “Don’t worry, when your poems are translated in Urdu then people would recognise your talent.” (4)

Majaz was a rebel poet. His anger against the capitalist system provided the basis for Awara and his hope for a better tomorrow, born out of the socialist ideology of the Soviet Russia, is expressed in the poem ‘Khwab-e-Sehar’-

“Yeh musalsal aafaten, yeh yorishen, yeh qatal-e-aam
Aadmi kab tak rahe ohaam-e-baatil ka ghulaam
Zehn-e-insaani ne ab ohaam ke zulmaat meiN
Zindagi ki sakht toofani andheri raat meiN
Kuch nahin tau kam se kam khawab-e-sehar dekha tau hai
Jis taraf dekha na tha ab tak udhar dekha tau hai”

[Such struggle, such suffering, such heinour carnage
How long has man been to superstition a slave
Human mind has at last awakened from its heavy sleep
In the stormy night of life, in the superstitious deep
Has at last dreamt a dream of the golden dawn
Looked at last towards the East, where none before had glanced] (5)

The woman in Majaz’s poetry was more than an object of beauty. He wished to see them as crusaders who could revolt against exploitation and injustice.

“Teri neechi nazar khud teri ismat ki muhafiz hai
Tu is nashtar ki tezi aazma leti to achha thaa
Teri maathe pe ye aanchal bahut hi khoob hai lekin
Tu is aaNchal se ik parcham bana leti to achha thaa”

[Your lowered gaze is itself a protector of your purity,
If you now raise your eyes and test the sharpness of it, it would be good.
The cloth covering your head is no doubt a good thing,
But if you make a flag out of it, it would be good] (6)

Majaz was also faint of heart. In the 1946 sectarian riots, Majaz saw a man being killed in Bombay and couldn’t eat for three days. He ran out of the science class the first time he saw a frog on the table. The poet left science altogether after the episode.

His drinking and poetry provided him the vent to his heartbreak. Once Jigar Moradabadi asked him to quit drinking, to which Majaz replied – “You left it just once, I left it several times.” (4)

Josh Malihabadi once said about Majaz, “He wants to capture the entire beauty of the world in one single glance and to drink all wine of the world in one gulp.” (4)

“Is mahfil-e-kaif-o-masti me, is anjuman-e-irfaani me
Sab jaam-bakaf baithe hi rahe, hum pee bhi gaye chahlka bhi gaye”

[This gathering of fun and frolic, the erudites all around
All merely sat with the goblets, but I drank to the full]

But who could know the man more than he himself. Majaz the poet summarises the man in his poem ‘Ta’arruf ‘ –

“Khoob pehchaan lo, asraar huuN maiN
Jins-e-ulfat kaa talabgaar huuN maiN
Ishq hee ishq hai, duniya meri
Fitna-e-aql se bezaar huuN maiN”

[Look at me, recognise me well, for I am Asrar
I seek love and longing
My world comprises love and just love
I know not the devil of the intellect] (7)

Path to self-destruction

By the early 1950s Majaz’s mental faculties started deteriorating. His drinking further compounded his misery. It was sheer genius that he still managed to pen poems like, Khawab-e-Sehar, ‘Shaher Nigaar’, and ‘Andheri Raat ka Musafir,’ which reflects on his last ditch attempt to turnaround his messed up life.

His poem ‘Aitraaf’ was his swan song. Majaz lost hope and accepted defeat-

“Wo gudaaz-e-dil-e-marhoom kahaaN se laauN
Ab maiN wo jazba-e-maasoom kahaaN se laauN”

[That tender heart, long dead, beats no more
That innocent passion, long gone, excites no more]

In 1952 Majaz went to Calcutta with Doctor Saifuddin Kichlu to attend the All India Cultural Conference. He was just a shadow of his old self. Sardar Jafri gave him five Rupees every evening for a drink. The rest of his drinking sessions were sponsored by visitors at the bar. One day he asked for ten Rupees. When Jafri tried to reason with him he said, “Sardar you’ve a family, a house, and you do poetry. What do I’ve? Now you don’t even allow me to drink!” (4)

Majaz landed in Ranchi’s mental asylum the same year. The poet who never wrote a weak couplet now struggled with verses. This verse recovered from his belongings tells a lot about his mental state – “Woh regzaar-e-khayal me hai kabhi kabhi humkharaam meri.” [That wasteland of thoughts is walking alongside me] (7)

The end

Jafri recalls seeing him last in the December of 1955 when he arrived in Lucknow from Bombay to attend a Student Cultural Conference. Majaz met him at Hazratganj and showered the same love and affection on his old buddy-

“Humdum yahi hai, rahguzar-e-yaar-e-khushkhiraam
Guzre haiN laakh baar isi kahkashaN se hum” *

[This slow pace, this path of bliss has been my companion
I have passed this galaxy a million times]

They then went to the conference at Baradari in Qaisarbagh together. Majaz the poet, and person, seems to come alive that night during the mushaira. He recited the following couplet several times to an eager and appreciative audience-

“Bahut mushkil hai duniya ka savarna, teri zulfoN ka pech-o-kham nahi hai
Ba-ise-sayle-ghamo-sayle-hawadis, mera sir hai ki ab bhi kham nahi hai”

[I wonder if my life gets sorted out, the way your entangled locks do
A sea of sadness surrounds me, somehow I’m standing tall]

The next day it was 4th of December. Majaz stayed with Jafri and Sahir Ludhyanvi at the hotel. Sahir bought a bottle of fine quality whisky for Majaz. He was made to promise that he won’t drink in the day and won’t go out with his friends. They even locked the bottle inside the almirah on Majaz’s own suggestion. As if he had a premonition of things to come, Majaz told Jafri twice to spend more time with him as he seems not so sure of the future.

Jafri and Sahir reached the hotel late as they had to attend a tea party after the conference. Majaz left during their absence. They searched for him in vain.

Majaz didn’t turn up for the conference on the 5th of December. At five in the evening the fears proved real. Somebody broke the news of Majaz lying faint in the Balrampur Hospital. The conference was postponed. Everybody rushed to the hospital. Majaz had an oxygen mask on him. Doctors showed little hope.

It was the result of a wild night. Majaz’s friends took him to a tavern in Lalbagh where they all drank on the rooftop. One by one they all left. Majaz stayed back into the cold winter night. The next morning the owner informed the police about Majaz. He was taken to the hospital where the doctors diagnosed a brain hemorrhage and pneumonia. He was just 44.

A female fan sharing the name of his beloved sat next to him when Majaz passed away that night. The poet was at peace finally.

Majaz often reached home late or not at all. Aware of this habit his old mother used to leave his food, a packet of cigarettes, and fifty paisa, next to his bed. The rickshaw-pullers of the city, who knew Majaz well, dropped him home and took the fifty paisa coin.

That night everything changed. Majaz’s mother was waiting on the floor next to his bed. Her son was coming back never to leave again.

“Ab iske baad subah hai aur subah-e-nau majaz
Hum par khatm shaam-e-ghareeban-e-Lucknow”

[Tomorrow awaits a new dawn
With me ends the darkness of Lucknow]

Like a shooting star, Majaz, in his self-destruction left behind a trail of brilliant compositions that forever illuminates the firmament of urdu poetry. Every time the students and alumni of AMU, like me, sing the university song, at their campus and elsewhere in the world, Majaz comes to life.

“Ye meraa chaman hai meraa chaman, maiN apne chaman kaa bulbul huuN
Sarshaar-e-nigaah-e-nargis huuN, paa-bastaa-e-gesuu-sumbul huuN”

(chaman: garden; bulbul: nightingale; sarshaar: overflowing, soaked; nigaah: sight; nargis: flower, Narcissus; paa-bastaa: embedded; gesuu: tresses; sumbul: a plant of sweet odour)

And so the great poet lives on, the way he always did – as the cynosure of all eyes!

* Ali Sardar Jafri used this couplet as the title song of his famous television series, Kahkashan, broadcasted on Doordarshan during the early 90s.

(Based on Ali Sardar Jafri’s account in ‘Lucknow ki Paanch Raatein’.)


1 Kuldip Sahil, A Treasury of Urdu Poetry From Mir to Faiz: Ghazals with English Renderings (Delhi: Rajpal & Sons, 2009), 114-119.
2 Geeta Patel, Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings: On Gender, Colonialism, and Desire in Miraji’s Urdu Poetry (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 111
3 Abida Samiuddin, Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Urdu Literature (New Delhi: Global Vision Publishing House, 2007), 387
4 Ali Sardar Jafri, Lucknow ki Paanch Raatein (New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 2010), 25-58
5 K. C. Kanda, Masterpieces of Patriotic Urdu poetry (Delhi: Sterlings Publishers Private Limited, 2009), 323-339
6 “Ghazal as a form of Urdu poetry in the Asian subcontinent”, accessed December 5, 2011,
7 Rakhshanda Jalil, email message to the author, December 8, 2011.

Reading Iqbal

Growing up as a Muslim in India I had ambivalent feelings about Iqbal. One wants to sing ‘saare jahaan se accha…” from the top of his lung but then how do I reconcile the fact he was the first person to make public demand for Pakistan.

But it is impossible to avoid Iqbal growing up in Urdu-speaking households. One can grow up without singing nazm “bache ki dua” popularly known as “lab pe aati hai dua.” Then there are numerous ashaars of Iqbal quoted during discussions, speeches, and even in everyday conversations.

To truly appreciate Iqbal you need to have good understanding of religion, history, and philosophy not to mention a good dictionary to look up meanings of difficult words (many in Persian and Arabic), reasons that made me avoid Iqbal for so long.

Recently, on a request from a friend, I made an effort to start reading Iqbal and I finally I opened my copy of bang-e-dara, bought 15 years ago. With “Firoz-ul-lughat” by my side, I started with his first nazm titled “Himala” (Himalaya). What a treat it was to read and understand this nazm, Iqbal at his finest was on display in this nazm, even though it is reported to be his first nazm ever recited or published.

Indian Sufism

Kaagaa sab tan khaiyo, chun chun khaiyo maans,
Do nenan mat khaiyo, mohe piyaa milan ki aas

(O crow eat my body and every morsel of my flesh
But pray eat not my eyes for they wait for the sight of the Beloved)
– Hazrat Baba Farid

The above composition by Hazrat Fariduddin Ganj-i Shakar fondly called Baba Farid, a sufi from Punjab and a disciple of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, captures in one couplet the soul of Sufism. It is said that once Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, asked Baba Farid, to go into 40-day seclusion while hanging upside down in a well. Baba Farid hung motionless in meditation, mistaking him for a corpse the crows began to gather around him, that was when he composed the above lines.

Sufism or tassawuf can be simply defined as the mystical dimension of Islam. It is one of the greatest schools of mysticism which has not only survived the test and tribulation of time but continues to flourish today in all its infinite shades. Sufism, like a flowing river, defies description. To know it, one must experience it: drink its waters, swim in it and drown in it to eventually merge with the Ocean.

Sufism has emerged out of the esoteric significance attached by an important section of Muslims to the words of the Quran. The elevated feeling of Divine apprehension of which the Prophet often spoke, the depth and passion of his ecstatic rapture which characterised his devotions constitute the foundations of Sufism. The Islamic doctrine of ’inward light’ inspired the early Muslim ascetics to lead a contemplative life, devoted to a higher yearning after the Infinite. Sufism is based on the idea among nobler Muslim minds that there is a deeper and more inward sense in the verses of the Quran. This belief did not arise from the wish to escape from the rigour of ‘texts and dogmas’ but from a deep conviction that the words of the Quran mean more, not less, than the popular expounders supposed them to convey. The word Sufism originally called Tasawuff in Arabic and Urdu, is derived from the word ‘suf’ which means ‘wool’ in Arabic, alluding to the coarse woollen garment worn by the first generation of Muslim ascetics .

Artist’s impression of Baba Farid [Photo: ]

Sufis believe that they live in this world but are not of it: they posses nothing and are possessed by nothing. However following the basic tenets of the Quran and the service of fellow humans are an integral part of Sufism .The Path to God, according to the Prophet, is threefold: the sharia (the words of the Prophet), the tariqa (his actions), and haqiqa (his interior states. According to the Sufis, the seeker of Truth by intensive inwardness and communion with God can rise by successive stages of adoration to a state of consciousness when she can actually have a vision of the divine essence. The various steps or stages along the path are known as maqam (pl. maqamat). The first step along the Path is for the adept to form the niyat (the resolve or intention); followed by tauba (repentance and renunciation). She is now on the firmly on the Path, this stage is called mujahadah (striving and struggle with the carnal self). After a prolonged mujahadah the ecstatic soul appears in the Presence still veiled, this stage is called muhazara. The next maqam is the lifting of the veil of ignorance (mukashafa) and finally when God becomes revealed to the devotee’s heart and she begets divine Vision this stage is called mushahada .


In the later years, brotherly love began to be emphasised in the social discourse of the Sufis reflecting the Prophetic tradition of ‘Al-mu’min mir’at al-mu’min’ (the faithful is the mirror of the faithful). When a Sufi notices a weakness in his neighbour he is supposed to correct this very weakness in himself. Brotherly love was to be extended not just to other Sufis but to whole of humanity. Since service of humanity also included aiding in their spiritual upliftment Sufis started expanding their groups and spreading their spiritual message to all levels of population and by early 12th century Sufi fraternities or orders (silsilas) began to emerge each with a distinct tariqa (set of practices and beliefs) that each founder had evolved to attain the Infinite. By the 14th century fourteen Sufi orders had crystallised. The Suhrawardiyya, the Qadariyya, the Kubrawiyya, the Shadhiliyya and the Badawiyya were some of them. Sufi masters (called sheikh, pir, or murshid) began to send their disciples (murids) to distant lands to spread their teachings. Many prominent Sufis travelled to India.


Several hundred years before any Muslim invader set foot on the Indian subcontinent, Muslim traders had been coming to the western ports of India extending from Gujarat to Kerala. The first Muslim army to reach India was led by an Arab conqueror – Muhammad bin Qasim in 711 who occupied the regions from Sind to Multan. The first Sufi to come to India was Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj (d.222). He travelled in the lands conquered by the Arabs and discussed theology with the saints of this region. The second wave of Muslim conquest was in the year 1000 and was led by the Gaznawids, and it was Mahmud Ghazni’s conquest of Punjab that is believed to have led a number of prominent Sufis to settle in this region. Lahore became the first centre of Persian-inspired Muslim culture and it was in this city that Abu’l-Hasan’Ali bin ‘Usman al-Hujwiri(, known as Data Ganj Bakhsh (~Distributor of Unlimited Treasure) composed his famous Kashfu’l-mahjub, in Persian. This treatise gives the biographies, thought and practices of Sufis from the time of the Prophet to his own time. However Sufism’s full impact began to be felt in the late 12th and early 13th century after the formation of main Sufi orders in the Muslim countries and the most outstanding contributor to this movement was Hazrat Mu’inuddin Chishti (d.1236). Islam in most parts of India spread not at the point of sword of the Muslim invaders but by the power of the Sufi saints like Mu’inuddin Chishti and his disciples whose simple preaching and practise of love of God and one’s neighbour impressed many Hindus, especially those belonging to the so called ‘lower castes’.

While the Sufis of Middle East and North African countries flourished in lands that had already been Islamised, the Sufis in the Indian subcontinent were faced with the challenge of spreading their message among people belonging to an ‘alien’ faith. This was their biggest challenge and this was their biggest triumph and in this respect they stand above their brethren who served in other parts of the world.

Indian Sufism owes it uniqueness to its great power of selective assimilation of local culture, folk tales and symbology. While it protected itself from any considerable or overwhelming external influence, it included whatever struck and impressed it and in the act of inclusion transformed it in harmony with its own Essence. In this process Sufism in the Indian subcontinent has developed its own flavours and shades. Apart from contributing to the spiritual upliftment of rulers and ruled alike, two of the greatest contributions of the Indian Sufism have been: the creation of syncretic traditions in the Indian subcontinent thereby creating communal harmony among followers of diverse faith; and the creation of exquisite and divine music, prose and poetry that further enriched the astonishingly diverse culture of this subcontinent.

A picture of greatness

This picture arrived in my inbox few days ago. Amazing to see some of the biggest names of literature and intellectuals all in one group picture. I didn’t have the chance to find out where and when this picture was taken and the occasion that brought all these great personalities together.

how many can you identify? how many do you know about?

Music of Nagore

Nagore is famous for Sufi saint Syed Abdul Qadir popularly known as Qadir Vali. Syed Abdul Qadir born in Manikpur in present day UP in the year 1504 (910 hijri). Around the age of 18 he left home seeking a spiritual teacher. He found a spiritual mentor in Mohammad Ghouse in Gwalior. After doing Hajj he landed in Ponnani in Malabar and traveled to Maldives, Sri Lanka and finally made Nagore in Tamil Nadu his home where he died in 1570 (978 hijri). His beautiful dargah was built years later with its unique white minarets.

Periya Minara at Nagore Dargah built by the Tanjore King.

Dargah’s influence over Tamil Muslims was so much that when a number of them migrated to Singapore they built a replica of the dargah for their spiritual needs.

Nagore Dargah in Singapore. [Photo by dozafar]

Lately, music of the Nagore Dargah is getting international recognition thanks to the Laya Project which has produced a CD with seven songs that can be purchased here:

Videos of the two of the songs are here:

Ya Allah:


Urdu song, that is not part of the CD:

Qadir Wali Urdu Song by nagoredargha

A Journey to the Heart of Islam

THE first view of the area outside the holy mosque. A giant clock tower (second tallest building in the world) overshadows everything in its vicinity, sadly, even the house of God. Did Mecca really need it? That too so very close to the mosque. The towering hotels challenge the very principles of the pilgrimage. People with money can have the best view of the holy mosque. What about the white ‘Ihraam’, which stands for unity in simplicity!

As a Muslim you grow up prostrating in the direction of the Kaaba, five times a day. You hear stories about prayers being realised on its first sight. Naturally, you long to visit it one day. So when your plane touches Saudi Arabia, it’s this very moment you are looking forward to. When you do see it, you are speechless! You feel the closest to God and that’s when he answers your prayers.

Technology and spirituality merge at the Prophet’s [PBUH] mosque in Medina. The beautiful pillars double as umbrellas during the day. You feel trasported to another world altogether.

The mountain of Uhud in Medina is a grim reminder of hypocrites in Islam. They fled the battlefield while the Prophet [PBUH] was alive, what to talk about the state of affairs 1400 years after him.

A mosque established by a prominent follower (Salman Farsi) of the Prophet [PBUH] in Medina is one of the last few old structures holding ground.

Heritage has given way to grandness. Is this our legacy to the generations to follow!

Jannat-ul-Baqi, Medina – the final resting place of many members of the Prophet’s [PBUH] family, some of his prominent followers and other Prophets [PBUT] of Islam.

Although the Saudi government is doing a fine job in safely handling millions of pilgrims every year but they need to strike a balance between modernity and care for Islamic heritage.