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.
"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.
When Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan performs, his hands seem to float on the surface of unseen waves. His wrists move in a dancerly fashion, describing small arcs and pirouettes, his fingers extended in a manner reminiscent of classical Indian dance. His face reflects an absorption that cannot be faked, as he reflects on the personalities of Allah, Muhammad, and the Sufi saints. Khan's performances are like public prayer sessions, during which he calls to mind through qawwali singing the nature of the sacred Muslim figures.
"When I sing traditional spiritual songs, I always concentrate on who it is that I'm singing about. For instance, if I am inspired by the Holy Prophet, I concentrate on the Prophet. When I sing, I sing for God and for holy prophets, and their personalities are in my mind. Accordingly, whenever I sing about God, or the Prophet Muhammad, I feel like I am in front of him. I feel their personalities, and I pray.
"When I sing for God, I feel myself in accord with God. The house of God, Mecca, is right in front of me, and I worship. When I sing for Muhammad, peace be upon him, our prophet, I feel like I am sitting right next to his tomb, Medina, and paying him respect and admitting to myself that I accept his message. When I sing about the Sufi saints, I feel like the saints are in front of me, and as a student I am accepting their teachings. I repeat again and again that I accept their teachings, that I am really their follower."
Sufism, a Muslim philosophical and literary movement dating back to the 10th century, requires that adherents make a direct connection with the divine, often through poetry or, in the case of qawwali, through music. Qawwali is traditionally passed on from father to son (and in very rare cases to daughters).
In Khan's case, his father, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, a great qawwali singer, died before initiating his son into the tradition, but shortly after his father's death, in 1964, Khan had a visionary dream. In the dream, Khan's father came to him and told him that he had been given his musical gift and should devote his life to qawwali. He touched his son's throat, and Khan started to sing. He woke up singing, and at his father's funeral ceremony on the 40th day after his death, he performed for the first time.
Since that time, Khan has grown not only as a singer but in his understanding of the deep message that his songs express. "Since the age of 16, when I started singing, I have had the same message to deliver to people about Sufism, as my experiences grew. Of course, you go to greater depths as time passes, and you grow and grow with the songs. My message is the message of humanity: love and peace. The goal is to bring people toward brotherhood, to bring them closer to each other, without hatred, without any concern for race, religion, or color. I try to bring people, through spirituality, to a position in which they'll be more honest with each other and live a truer life, less concerned with the materialistic world where they cannot find themselves. I try to bring them to a place where they can at least recognize themselves."