Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Why the killing of Amjad Sabri brings the survival of qawwali culture into question

The murder of the Sufi singer by militants exposes the faultlines in Pakistan. We take a look at the health of qawwali culture in modern-day Pakistan and the commercialisation of the traditional music form.
Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets of Karachi on June 23 to mourn the death of one of their most famous musicians, Amjad Sabri. The Sufi singer was shot dead by Taliban gunmen on June 22 in what many see as an attack on qawwali music. Rizwan Tabassum / AFP.
Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets of Karachi on June 23 to mourn the death of one of their most famous musicians, Amjad Sabri. The Sufi singer was shot dead by Taliban gunmen on June 22 in what many see as an attack on qawwali music. Rizwan Tabassum / AFP.

The untimely death of a celebrity often forces society to ask questions of itself. For example, when Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car crash in 1997, everyone wanted to ask about the role of the paparazzi. Over the past few weeks, Pakistan also had such a moment after a famous musician, Amjad Sabri, was gunned down in the city of Karachi.

A Taliban splinter group has claimed responsibility but there is still no clarity on the perpetrators or their motive.

Sabri, 45, was a renowned performer of qawwali music, which comes from Sufism (Islamic mysticism) and is opposed by religious extremists. He could faithfully perform traditional songs and was also comfortable performing alongside European jazz musicians. Sabri also opened for rappers in the United States and performed popular hits in Bollywood.

Known for his gregarious personality, he was a regular feature on television and played daily during Ramadan. He was also a passionate cricketer who was close to many of the national team’s stars and played in celebrity matches. Despite his considerable success and fame, he still lived in one of Karachi’s middle-class neighbourhoods and was known as a man of the people. It was also the area in which he died.

The murder has raised many issues, including questions on anti-terrorism military operations in the country, particularly in Karachi. A city with a population of about 20 million, Karachi suffers from political and religious violence. A clampdown by police has also drawn criticism over targeted killings.

Others have gone further to ask whether the attack represents an assault on the art form of qawwali itself, of which Sabri was a renowned exponent.

While it is unlikely that Pakistan will get closure over the murder anytime soon, it is important to understand the place of qawwali in Pakistani society, and to see where it stands today.

Qawwali is a form of devotional music exclusive to South Asia that has its roots in 13th century Sufi Islam yet also transcends religious boundaries. Developed from musical styles from Persia and Afghanistan, it was traditionally performed at shrines, starting in the evening and continuing through the night. The purpose was to take the listener into a state of ecstasy, through which it would be possible to grasp the true spiritual meaning of their faith.

The cultural critic Nabeel Jafri has noted that the advent of qawwali as a commercial product – a development that can be traced to the arrival of recorded music and radio – led to a split in the movement. Newly-urbanised populations could now listen to performances in their homes and their new lifestyles did not suit the ecstatic ideal.

What this meant was that over the past century, qawwals (performers of qawwali) had to contend with changed audiences; performance locations such as studios and concerts that were the temporal opposites of the sacred venues they inhabited; and a constant barrage of western influence in instruments, composition and industry organisation.

Yet all these changes also led to ideological debates within qawwali as well, and the contrast reached its peak in the 1970s – referred to by some as the golden age of modern qawwalis in Pakistan. At that time, there were two schools of thought, personified by two sets of performers.

At one end were Ghulam Farid and Maqbool Sabri, aka the Sabri Brothers, who were the father and uncle respectively of the slain Amjad. The Sabri Brothers were instrumental in developing a more melodious, less ecstatic and more conservatie style, that most importantly, eschewed using symbols of intoxication in their poetry – a longstanding qawwali tradition.

Their new approach was wildly popular with urban audiences. They would also use their lyrics to call out their ideological opposite, Aziz Mian Qawwal. A marvellously talented and eccentric performer, Aziz Mian revelled in lyrics adorned with indulgent imagery. Unlike the Sabris, he excelled at whipping his audience into a state of frenzy. He refused to take the literalist, more overt religious symbology of his rivals and continued using metaphors for drinking and intoxication, for example.

In essence then, this was a debate over which style was more suited to both the religion and society in Pakistan. Yet today, four decades later, the conversation here has moved to debating whether qawwali generally is compatible with religion or not.

A variety of factors, beginning with the process of “Islamisation” by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s and leading up to the current decade-long scourge of terrorism, have meant that the same urban classes have begun to view qawwali itself as too unorthodox and localised to be part of their vision of Islam.

Much of the speculation around the killers of Sabri noted the fact that many extremist religious groups believed that qawwali was sinful and those performing it should either repent or be killed. Indeed, militants have attacked musicians frequently in Pakistan over the past few years.

The Taliban oppose all music as heresy and they consider qawwali even worse as it claims to be religious, and mixes profane metaphors with the sacred.

This is not to say that qawwali’s very survival is threatened by militancy – that would be overstating the case. Despite all the changes in Pakistan, qawwalis remain popular.

One of the major reasons was the unprecedented success, global as well as local, of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Khan, who died in 1997, was also a trailblazer in incorporating western sounds and composers. This also opened up the world to the format, and the best qawwals today perform around the world.

Despite the violence, the threat qawwali faces in trying to conform to a commercialised society while retaining its spiritual roots is perhaps a more profound one. Equally, the lack of respect and interest among modern Pakistanis in encouraging their children to pursue music as an interest is a greater worry than the militant attacks.

But what the attack on Sabri has proven is that along with the decades-old debate on commercialism, qawwali now faces an existential crisis as well.

The resolution to that will not be provided simply by extra security to the vulnerable but through an honest evaluation by Pakistani society of what they consider to be part of their culture and tradition.

Ahmer Naqvi is a writer on music and sport and is based in Lahore.

Updated: July 14, 2016 04:00 AM