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The Pakistani musician Maqbool Sabri, who has died from a heart attack aged 65, was a founding member of the Sabri Brothers, who took to the west the devotional music known as qawwali. Rooted in the mystical Islamic expression of Sufism, qawwali is traditionally sung at the shrines of saints. Its roots lie in Persia, and today the music is particularly popular in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Its initial purpose, according to Maqbool, was to spread the message of Islam, which for him was always one of love.

Qawwali lyrics are focused on the divine, with often humorous metaphors used to make broader observations. Maqbool was considered a master of improvisational wordplay, often making references in Urdu and Punjabi, as well as Persian or Arabic, to historical events or traditional poetry. A qawwali group, or "party", is typically led by one or two vocalists, supported by harmonium, tabla and dholak drums, as well as a chorus. The best performances often culminate in peaks of musical and vocal ecstasy. Many last well into the small hours, attracting a diverse audience of young and old, devout and curious.

Maqbool opened the doors for international qawwali stars such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, as well as broadening the music's fanbase at home. Alongside his brother Ghulam Farid, he formed the group in 1957, recording Mera Koi Nahin Hai Tere Siwa (There Is No One But You) for EMI Pakistan in 1958. His later hits included Tajdaar-E-Haram (King of the Holy Area, 1975) and Balaghal Ula Be Kamalehi (Reaching the Highest Heights Through Perfection, 1977).

Born in Kalyana in eastern Punjab, Maqbool was initially educated in the north Indian classical tradition by his father. The family came from a musical background, and claimed direct descent from Mia Tansen, who had played at the court of the 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar. They made the perilous journey to Karachi during the partition of India in 1947, though Maqbool was almost left behind and rejoined the family party only when a servant found him still in the house – he had to run to catch up, clutching one of his instruments.

Showing musical talent from a young age, he received tuition from musical ustads (teachers) and when he began performing publicly from the age of 11, people were impressed by his mature delivery. Ghulam was initially part of another group, but then joined Maqbool. The Sabri Brothers' fame peaked in 1975 with a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York. They played the Womad festival in the UK in 1989 – one of a series of appearances there – and released the album Ya Habib (O Beloved) on Peter Gabriel's Real World Records label the following year. Ghulam died in 1994.

Maqbool expressed surprise when, at their first Womad concert, people danced instead of sitting and listening as is normally the case during a recital. "It felt like we were the Beatles," he joked.

At the start of a recent performance in Islamabad, he seemed frail, needing help to sit down and stand up (a legacy of hours spent performing in a cross-legged position), and he struggled initially with the higher notes. But as his voice warmed up, and the crowd urged him on, it was clear that he had lost none of his power or musical magic, with the same vocal peaks and wordplay that had endeared him and his group to audiences around the world. 

He is survived by his wife, Fatima, a son, Shumail, and his daughters, Ameema Shah, Gulerukh, Kanza-Imaan and Tini.

• Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, musician, born 12 October 1945; died 21 September 2011

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