Amjad Farid Sabri (23 December 1970 – 22 June 2016)

Today is the 4th anniversary of the shooting death of Amjad Farid Sabri. He was a majestic and highly revered Pakistani Sufi singer and famous qawwal. Sabri came from a storied family of musicians, a “proponent of the Sufi Muslim tradition.” His musical family is recognized as the “legendary Sabri brothers,” for its musical heritage. They were one of South Asia’s most prominent qawwali singers. Amjad Sabri was the son of Ghulam Farid Sabri, and a nephew of Maqbool Ahmed Sabr. Sabri often recited poetry written by his father and uncle. The Sabri Brothers followed the “Seniya Gharana of music established by the great Mian Tansen in the sixteenth century.” According to reports in Pakistani press, on June 22, 2016, two motorcycle-borne assassins shot Amjad Sabri in the head in broad daylight. Sabri was driving his car in Karachi’s Liaquatabad area. The singer took two bullets in the head and was pronounced dead upon arrival at a hospital. On that fateful day, he was on his way to a radio show to tape a performance for Ramadan. Only 45 years old, Sabri left behind his wife Nadia and five children. Amjad was a family man who loved playing a rambunctious game of Ludo with his children.

The news of his death had felt very surreal that such a colorful and vibrant Qawwal is no more! I am drafting this piece late Sunday afternoon (July 21) while listening to the audio of Amjad Sabri singing Ya Mustapha Ya Mustapha on my smartphone. I can vividly recall seeing the pain of love on Sabri’s 12-year-old wailing son Mujjudid Sabri’s (Mujji) face. Now I am fighting back tears thinking how agonizing it must be for 16-year-old Mujji and his four siblings as they are growing up without their father.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Hakimullah Masood group (Pakistani Taliban) had claimed responsibility for the attack.

Sabri’s premature death was not only a loss to the world of music, but to everyone who had the opportunity to be at his live performance, watched him on YouTube or listened to him on the radio. “Mein kabr andheri mein ghabraoon ga jab tanha Imdad meri karnay aa Rasool Allah” (“In my dark grave, when I am afraid and alone Come to my aid, O Prophet of Allah.”)

“In hindsight, it is tragically ironic that the verse above was among the last Sabri sang before his assassination. His performance, which aired less than 12 hours before he was killed, was part of a Ramadan program. The ghazal Sabri performed, called “O Sabz Gunbad Walay” (“O you of the green dome”), is a plea to the Prophet of Islam and God for mercy in the hereafter. True to Sufi tradition, the ghazal contains no direct reference to the performer’s faith or beliefs – it is meant to be for everyone who believes in the power of God. It is a message of salvation, if not peace – one that can help, and certainly not harm,” according to The Diplomat.

Right after the shooting, many newspapers in Pakistan, including the Dawn highlighted a question: “Who would kill a gentle soul like Amjad Sabri?” His death news echoed in every corner of Pakistan and across the subcontinent as he had millions of fans who loved his renditions as he made those his own with his individual style. Sabri once was quoted saying, “A few believe that I sing because I am a capable musician…I sing for a totally different reason. I believe in qawwali because of my love for Prophet (PBUH). Singing in praise of Him is the greatest pleasures of my life.”

“He was such a simple, straightforward and down-to-earth person,” said his paan maker Shakeel, the owner of a corner shop near Sabri’s home, after Amjad Sabri’s death.

Three weeks before his death, on June 7, 2016, on the first day of Ramadan, at an Iftar party, I had watched on the overhead large screen television Amjad Sabri’s soulful performance of “Balaghal ula bi kamalihi/Kashafadujja bi jamalihi/Hasanat jami’u hisalihi/Sallu ‘alayhi wa Aalihi” (“He attained exaltation by his perfection/He dispelled darkness by his beauty/Beauteous are all his qualities/Benediction be on him and on his family”).

Sabri’s killing had significantly deepened the sense of uncertainty when Pakistan was trying to establish some semblance of normalcy by undermining the Taliban presence in its territory. After the shooting, Pakistan’s Additional Inspector General termed the incident as a “target killing,” and said the motive of killing is unknown. The Dawn newspaper initially had said that they are doubtful about the Taliban claim and was looking into it.

From Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to the Chief of Army staff, and countless citizens were outraged about Sabri’s death and had condemned this very strongly. It had hit the core of each Pakistani because the energetic musical performance of qawaali is regarded as religion in Pakistan. Sharif had said, “Sabri’s death came at the hands of coward terrorists.” He had announced monetary compensation to Sabri’s immediate family, and promised that the state will bear all educational expenses of his children.

Though qawaali music as Sufi Muslim poetry is performed mainly in the presence of male spectators, an overwhelming number of women had gathered and threw rose petals as Sabri’s body was being carried in a van followed by a procession. On the day of Amjad Sabri’s namaz e janaza, mourners had spread blankets in the alley near his house and sat there because the house exceeded its capacity to let more people in. As I kept on reading the follow-up reports on his shooting death, I felt a lump form in my throat.

According to the Dawn newspaper, “Amjad Sabri was one of the country’s finest qwaals, known for his soul-stirring performances of mystic poetry. He enthralled music aficionados with his brand of spirituality, mysticism and ecstasy for many years. He was not only well-versed with the structure and aesthetics of qawwali, but also knew how to make it adaptive to contemporary music keeping its essence alive.” Then why Sabri, one of the most sought-after qwaal was targeted? In 2014, “Amjad Sabri was named in a blasphemy case in Pakistan, after he had gone on a morning talk show to sing; the qawwali he had chosen to perform reportedly referenced members of the Prophet Muhammad’s family.”

Amjad performed music from the Sufi tradition to form a spiritual union with Allah. This kind of music is unquestionably opposed by the Taliban; they must have believed Sabri’s music was blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Sufism is a tolerant and mystical practice of Islam. But the Sufi philosophy that had embedded in Semitic values and was influenced by mystical impulses is problematic for the Taliban to accept. Though it is outside the realm of a normal person’s understanding as to why the Taliban does such things. The Taliban perhaps finds offensive things in everything including listening to music which ordinary people enjoy, and can be a highly rewarding activity. Others listen to music just to feel enlightened. It appears that the Taliban with its extremist ideologies hate all kinds of music. It fervently opposes Sufi music mainly because it comes from a mystical sect of Islam.

Through such atrocious killings, the Taliban often takes credit for being able to manage and control the minds of the people. Somehow or other they make their presence known. In Pakistan, they are lurking everywhere, even in the shadows of unsuspecting people. Just because they are out of power in neighboring Afghanistan, does not mean that they are out of the scene. Time and again they have shown their evil existence by murdering prominent people like shooting to maim or kill the now famous schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in 2012. In 2016, Amjad Sabri was added to the list.

People are still outraged about Sabri’s death. It is incomprehensible for most people why a qwaal whose music is based on Sufi philosophy will be shot dead during the month of Ramadan.

Qawwali is a tradition that has lasted about 700 years in South Asia — home to about a third of the world’s Muslim population — going from Persia into what is now India and Pakistan. It is, for its performers and audiences, a conduit for experiencing the divine. In South Asia, qawwali is also one of the most popular and relatable expressions of Islam and of Sufism — the hugely diverse, mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes having a personal connection to God, as well as embracing tolerance, peace and equality.”

Sufism is denounced by the extremists because they also view it as “sacrilegious” as Sufi worship involves music and dance and the adoration of saints. “Qawwali draws upon North Indian classical music — a musical style that evolved within an expressly Hindu context — but is also uniquely its own, with call-and-response choruses as well as handclaps and drumbeats that are meant to evoke the human heartbeat. The songs build slowly in speed and intensity, swelling up to ecstatic heights. Listeners are swept up in that lyrical and musical potency, dancing, clapping and singing along. Qawwali is very much a communal experience that can last for hours.” Clapping with dholak and tabla gives an intoxicating effect to music. In the Sufi tradition, performers and spectators often enter a trance-like-state as music evokes the deepest feeling of pure love and a spiritual union between human and the divine. By forming a mystical bond, they all seek to get very close to God through singing, clapping and dancing.

In recent years, the Taliban has attacked and killed people who go to visit the shrines of the famous saints. In such devotional music, the dance part is considered a direct influence of Hinduism that is something the people with extremist ideology cannot handle. The early Muslim preachers who came to India incorporated music into religion in order to fully assimilate with the local culture. “In many areas of the world, local forms of Sufism incorporate other religious philosophies and practices as well as regional cultural references. For example, Sufi shrines in South Asia regularly draw not just Muslim devotees, but Hindus, Christians, Shiks and others — which have in recent years made them a particular target for terrorist violence. Some qawwali songs explicitly reference religious pluralism and tolerance.” The improved and the more colorful secular version of the religion are opposed by today’s Taliban.  

The three repeated themes in the Holy Quran such as submission (Islam), faith (Iman) and doing the beautiful (Ihsan) are practiced in Sufism in an attempt to experience God directly by establishing a divine union. The Sufi singers’ main theme is always Love of Allah. This tradition is mainly devoted to praising Prophet Muhammad, and it attains to “reach God through ecstatic practice in the form of devotional music.”

After Sabri’s death, in an article in the Washington Post, journalist and author Haroon Mughal wrote in an attribute to Sabri: “A band of singers joins together to deliver songs that ecstatically convey the deep love of God, which Classical Muslims expressed in secular metaphor: an intoxicating beloved, or an intoxicant itself…qawaali was distinctly Pakistani and was our own unique expression of Islam. That’s why this killing really strikes at the heart and soul of Pakistan.”

Sufism has millions of followers across the globe. Though it is mainly concentrated in various parts of Pakistan, it is popular across the Indian subcontinent, West Africa and beyond. Many Westerners, including British novelist Doris Lessing, and poets Ted Hughes and Robert Graves had allowed the influence of Sufism in their lives.

Sufi saints like Nizamuddin Auliya and Moinuddin Chisti had preached peace, tolerance and importance of love as a means of getting closer to Allah. Through musical renditions of the lyrics of great Sufi poets like Amir Khasru, Rumi and Hafez, the qawwals perform with a group of musicians.

The Sabri Brothers were trained in the North Indian classical and qawwali. Their lyrics were based on Sufi poetry written in Urdu, Arabic, Punjabi and Persian. Dr. Varun Soni, Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California (USC) wrote in a book titled ‘Natural Mystics’: “Popular music is created with an intention to entertain, while Sufi music is created with the intention to elevate.”

With his mesmerizingly awesome performances, and “extraordinary depth and artistry,” Amjad Farid Sabri took qawwali music to a different stature while experimenting with more commercial form of music. Amjad was the only lead singer among his siblings to lead his family group. Some of his most famous qawwalis were Bhar Do Jholi Meri Ya Muhammad, Tajdar- i- Haram, Ya Mustapha Ya Mustapha, Mera Kui Nahin Hai Tere Siwa and Mein Nazar Karoon Jaan Jigar. Today, we mourn the loss of an undeterred spirit, a much cherished musical talent and the end of an era.

Post Script: On April 3, 2018, Amjad Sabri’s shooters Ishaq and Asim were given the death penalty by a Pakistani court. After the shooting death of Sabri, his family moved to Lahore from Karachi.

Zeenat Khan writes from Maryland, USA


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