Musicians vs. Fundamentalism

The recent assassination of the Sufi musician Amjad Sabri is a reminder that sacred music can spread messages of peace, love, and inclusivity – messages that terrify fundamentalists.

Imagine silence. Not just the silence between two beats; imagine the silence of having no music at all. You might imagine the silence that is performed in the famous composition by John Cage, 4’33”. The absence of music is the music; the silence gives way to spontaneous sounds, like a cough, a sneeze, people adjusting in their seats, or the sound of one’s own breath. I am not talking about that kind of silence. Imagine the silence of having no musicians or composers at all. Imagining silence could be an effective way to think about the value of music in our lives. For instance, in the classic environmentalist book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson uses the image of a spring without birdsong to convey the dangers of continuing to use the pesticide DDT, which had the unintended effect of killing bird populations. You know that something is a problem when it starts silencing the musicality of life. That applies to all kinds of music, not just birdsong. When we lose music, we lose the zest and meaning of life. This adds a particularly poignant dimension to the recent killing of a Sufi singer in an act of religious terror. The violence of fundamentalism is not just murdering people. In this case, we hear “The Murder of Music.”

On June 22, 2016, famous Pakistani singer Amjad Sabri was shot and killed when two motorcyclists opened fire on Sabri’s car in Karachi. The killers initially escaped, although three men connected with the killing were arrested on July 6th. It was a targeted killing that was claimed by a group affiliating themselves with the Pakistani Taliban. Why did they kill him? Sabri was accused of blasphemy. What was he doing that they considered so severely offensive or sacrilegious? The answer is simple. He performed popular devotional music: qawwali.

Qawwali is a form of devotional music in Sufism, a mystical path within Islam. Originating in South Asia in the thirteenth century, qawwali integrates many musical styles from that area. Its name derives from the Arabic word referring to a statement of utterance (haul) of the prophet Muhammad. Qawwali songs include instruments (usually a harmonium and drums) and vocals. The lyrics are comprised of the prophet’s utterances organized into verses and choruses, which are repeated with increasing intensity. Songs typically last for approximately fifteen to thirty minutes, but some reach lengths of an hour or more. Blending Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Indian styles, qawwali has international appeal. It is popular throughout many parts of South Asia. Qawwali has become a mainstream success, extending far beyond the Sufi shrines (dargahs) in which it was originally performed.

Qawwali is profoundly offensive to the violent fundamentalism at work in the Taliban. Qawwali represents a mystical strand of Islam (Sufism) that puts forward an open-ended, peaceful, and inclusive interpretation of the relationship between humans and Allah, which stands in stark contrast to the narrow-minded legalism and hateful exclusivity that characterize the Taliban. Sufism has had polemical and contentious relationships with many strands of Islam. That is not uncommon for a mystical sect of any tradition. Mysticism is contentious, with its ascetic intensification of practice and its affirmation of intimate closeness with the ultimate ground of being. However, the relationship between Sufism and Islamic fundamentalism is particularly violent, with acts of persecution increasing dramatically in the twenty-first century as fundamentalist groups have intensified their reactionary violence. The incidents of persecution are too numerous to detail here. For a thorough historical account, the anthology by John Curry and Erik Ohlander is a good place to start: Sufism and Society: Arrangements of the Mystical in the Muslim World, 1200-1800.

The assassination of Sabri was not just an attack on a Sufi or on Sufism. It was an attack on a celebrity Sufi. Amjad Sabri was an international pop star. He was considered the “rock star” of qawwali. Sabri’s qawwali is doubly offensive to fundamentalists because, on one hand, it is a manifestation of the mystical path of Sufism, and on the other hand, it represents the global phenomenon of pop stardom. International celebrities are on television and film. They are complicit in the technology and mass media that are spreading the cosmopolitan values of globalization all around the planet. For fundamentalists like the Pakistani Taliban, cosmopolitan values of diversity and freedom are viewed with violent antagonism. For Sufis like Sabri, they are viewed as opportunities to communicate a sacred message of peace, love, and inclusivity.

As a Sufi, Sabri was an insider to Islam. As a celebrity, he was an outsider. In celebration and devotion, Sabri’s musical message of peace, love, and inclusivity thus undermined Islamic fundamentalism, attacking it from within and from without, as a local insider and global outsider. Far from silencing him, his death has spread his music even further. His voice is being heard by more people now than ever. Qawwali too is far from silenced. It is resonating with even more international appeal than before, as many ears outside of South Asia are hearing it for the first time. Listen for yourself: “Savree Savree” and “More Haji Piya” are two of my favorites. You can also listen to his album of Best Qawwalis.

What do you hear when you listen to Sabri’s music? Muslim fundamentalists killed him because they thought his music sounded like a modern celebrity turning a sacred tradition into a commodity, whereas they would prefer if it sounded like a religious devotee reacting violently against the decadence of the modern world. For many, including myself, Sabri’s music resonates with a hope for the end of fundamentalism and the beginning of a peaceful integration of Islam and contemporary society.

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