After the master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, there are few artists of the Qawwali tradition who are better known than Amjad Sabri. He sadly passed away today after being gunned down in Karachi, a city that has been marred by politically driven target killings and terrorism for far too long (though in recent times the city has calmed due to a military operation targeting terrorism). There are conflicting reports currently circulating on who may have been behind the killing, with some citing the artist’s political leaning towards the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party and how rival factions could have attacked him for reportedly rejecting a request to perform at an event. Other reports are indicating the responsibility of the attack lies with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani extremist group responsible for the horrific massacre at a school in Peshawar in 2014.
What we do know is that another universally loved artist has left us in 2016, in harrowing circumstances and with no mystery surrounding the cause of death. What makes the situation all the more difficult to swallow, especially for the Muslim community, is the timing. The killing occurred almost directly in the middle of our holiest month, in daylight hours. It is difficult to explain completely the incomprehensibility with which Muslims will view this. In a month in which we are supposed to avoid basic, permissible necessities, someone has decided that coldblooded murder falls outside of that line. It is however something not new to us. We read about bombings in mosques, the massacre of children in schools, and all manner of unspeakable acts committed from Abuja to Aleppo; acts that would break our hearts and stop us all in our tracks were we not so desensitised.
If the latter is true, if he was killed for supposedly blaspheming the religion, then animosity towards artists in the Qawwali and Sufi tradition is not new to Pakistan. Just weeks ago, I was told about the uproar regarding “Tum Ek Gorak Dhanda Ho” (“You are a strange thing/puzzle”), a Sufi poem written by Naz Khialvi in the early 90s. This poem reads as a conversation between the writer and God, and is honestly one of the best examples of Sufi poetry I have ever heard or seen. I say this as someone who has to ask and search the meaning of certain words – I can only imagine the regard in which scholars and academics view it. The uproar surrounding the poem came from certain religious figures who I assume were as oblivious to metaphor as their modern day colleagues and misinterpreted the poem as blasphemous. It is so very sad that such a monumental work that adds richness to Muslim heritage would garner such a response.
Sufi saints and poets have an ability to discuss the infinite in ways that traditional philosophy simply cannot, a way of addressing the existential questions of thinkers and scholars that is not only insightful but full of power and beauty. Divine Love is a central theme. Allah and Muhammad are central – and this is something which should not be forgotten. The Sufis are Muslims – a true Sufi is a devout Muslim. This must be emphasised in a time where the label ‘Sufi’ in the West, attempts to make Islam slightly more palatable, and pacifist. It is this same phenomenon that loves Rumi but doesn’t understand (or perhaps doesn’t want to understand) that the Rumi quotes we use on Instagram are often talking about Allah when they refer to “the Beloved”; the same Allah that the West is frightened of when terrorists shout His name. That’s a little more difficult to unpack than simply posting a Rumi quote on longing because Steve left you for your best friend. It seems the true tradition of Tasawwuf is under attack on two fronts: by the West who would like to foolishly separate it from its new enemy in Islam, and by literalists who simply don’t understand it. Amjad Sabri may have been a victim of the latter, who joins hundreds of his people who have fallen under the wrath of a sinister mixture of ignorance and hate, in a city that was the home of his maestro father Ghulam Farid Sabri, another great of the Qawwali tradition.
I recently met a Sudanese man who, upon learning I was Pakistani, proceeded to tell me of his love of Qawwali. He told me how he had seen Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan perform live, and was so enamoured that he eventually learnt to play the very music he had seen that day. What results in the collaboration of the harmonium, tabla, dhol and poetry can be something so beautiful that listeners who understand none of the poetry at all can sit for hours absorbing and enjoying this ancient and sacred art. So sacred, in fact, that I’ve been told off by my mother for referring to Qawwali as music or song altogether. It really is something else. Its greats are deeply loved in the subcontinent and the world over, and like another loved artist by the name of Prince Rogers Nelson, Amjad Sabri did not leave us without some ominous, poetic words. He performed the following lines through tears, in a segment which would be his last televised piece that aired only this morning:
When I worry alone in the dark grave,
Won’t you come and help me Messenger of God
Rest in Peace Amjad Sabri (1976-2016)
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Jamal Mehmood is a writer, poet and committed people watcher living in Kent and working in London. As well as poems and essays he is currently writing his debut film script which you can follow online. Jamal also works in arts and cultural affairs for Restless Beings – a human rights organisation focusing on marginalised communities. He loves Yasiin Bey, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Nina Simone. You can find him tweeting @_jamalbhai and find his work at jamalbhai.com
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