When I Sing for God...

The legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Excerpted with permission from "Inside the Music."

A few days after attending the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards with Peter Gabriel, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sat down with me in a dimly lit lounge of a hotel in midtown Manhattan, attended by an interpreter and his manager. As his vast corpulence settled into the couch, his beige gown draping the floor, he seems at once kingly, unearthly, and decidedly out of place in the middle of New York. There in the shadows, rocking his girth from side to side, Khan spoke softly and without any hint of his awesome lung power, his presence largely unnoticed by passersby unaware of the qawwali master in their midst.

Although Khan's music is based entirely on the Sufi tradition, an offshoot of Islam that emphasizes mystical and often poetic expression of the divine, he is circumspect about his personal religious affiliation. "I am not Sufi," Khan says, "but I spent a lot of time from my childhood up until now with the Sufis, and I deeply studied them. Sufi music is a kind of prayer, and if you sing in this manner, you will become closer to God, very close. That's basically what I do.

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"Every religion has its own way of describing God. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism--they all have their own way of following God. Sufism describes God and teaches how to come closer to God. So basically, I follow the Islamic form of Sufism to find my way to God."

According to Sufism, the voice is indicative not only of a man's character but also of his spirit, the degree of his spiritual evolution. Sufis believe that no word uttered is ever lost, that the sound reverberates into the cosmos infinitely, according to the spirit put into it.

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