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Art as hope
I was really sad to hear about the death of the great Qawwali singer Amjad Fareed Sabri (b.1976) a few days ago. As so many obituaries and social comments following the murder insisted: ‘The Taliban may have killed Amjad Sabri, but they did not kill his art.’
Qawwali – an open invitation to love
Amjad Sabri was at the forefront of the effort in giving a new impulse to the art form of Qawwali. He encouraged a new generation of singers in face of mounting extremism and after so many of the great Qawwali singers passed away in recent years. Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan (1948-1997) and the Sabri brothers (Ghulam Fareed Sabri, d. 1994; and Maqbool Ahmad Sabri, d. 2011), to cite only a few.
Qawwali is a Sufi art based on ‘sama’ (listening) where music and words are intended to inspire the listener towards a heightened sense of spirituality. The celebrated poet and musician Amir Khusraw (Delhi, 13-14th c.), disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya, was the first practitioner to blend the sensitivity of ghazals (Persian and Arabic poetry) with the music and rhythms of India.
Today, Qawwali has retained its universal character with an appeal reaching beyond the borders of South Asia, even successfully blending with jazz, among other forms of music. Personally, I remember feeling the same wave of emotions whether at a concert by Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan in New York City in the 1980s, or a Qawwali performance in Nizamuddin’s shrine in Delhi.
An open and peaceful Islam
The Qawwali revival, urged on by Amjad Sabri, and today carried on by many others, is also a push towards advancing an open and peaceful, and dare I say, more spiritual Islam in the face of the strictness and brutality of extremism.
Qawwali is one form of art through which many, Sufis and non-Sufis, Muslims and non-Muslims, can appreciate the beauty and richness of poetry and music. Combined, they are to lift the spirit towards appreciating life and all its components.
To quote Amir Khusraw,
‘Cho shama sozan cho zaraa hairan,
Hamesha giryan be ishq an meh.’
‘Tossed and bewildered, like a flickering candle,
I roam about in the fire of love.’
How can anyone resist the message of love?
‘His music was blasphemous,’ the Pakistan Taliban’s message said to justify the killing of Amjad Sabri. “His message was love,” fellow Qawwali singers answered. The outpouring of grief at his funeral by men and women alike in the streets of Karachi is in itself a testimony of the appeal of the message of Qawwali.
Islamic heritage at risk
When I heard of the news, my immediate thought was: ‘Oh no! Another blow to Islamic culture!’ You must admit that at first sight, it seems that Islamic heritage is being shredded into pieces.
Extremists, including ISIL and the Taliban, are ruthlessly eliminating some of the greatest elements of Muslim culture through imposing a stringent cultural austerity centred upon a violent hostility to art-forms which they deem unIslamic. This is the very antithesis of our heritage. At the same time, this heritage is being demonised in the West, reduced to the image of some killers with beards and women wearing the niqab.
And worse yet, wars are taking children away from education or simply killing them, reducing further our cultural inheritance and capacity to create. Just to take Syria, more than 30 civilians are being killed on a daily basis. Of these, many are children.
Art as hope
In many ways, art is what enables us to see and touch beauty, to feel our humanity. Whether in the form of poetry or music or architecture, it is one way to realise that we are more than the simple sum of our parts, that we are more than just bones and blood, and that we are all parts of the same human race.
And this is precisely what the extremists are afraid of. As we open our eyes and hearts to the beauty and love that is in us all, no matter what our religious identity might be, their hateful discourse and violence will have no appeal.
A closed culture simply withers and dies, and its people with it, as it sinks into intellectual and spiritual poverty. To strive a culture needs to be open to, and blend with, other currents, while retaining its essence. And this is part of the greatness of the Islamic heritage, as with other cultures around the world.
From the beautiful mosque in Cordoba to the Kufic manuscripts in Baghdad to the poetry of Hafez and the songs of Oum Kolsoum, this heritage continues to live, despite the passing of years and the campaign for its destruction. It is rich precisely because it continues to inspire. And on its more spiritual side, as it is with Qawaali, the universal message of love and brotherhood means it is an open invitation to all cultures.
I have faith that no matter what the hurt is today, beauty will prevail over cruelty and ignorance. I still have hope that from this chaos something more universal and kind may emerge.
As the first line from Tajdar-e-Haram (King of the Holy Sanctuary), a renowned Qawwali sang by Amjad Fareed Sabri, appropriately says:
‘qismat men miri chain se jeena likh de…’
‘Let a life of peace and contentment be my fate…’
Kenza Saadi holds a BA from Cornell University and a PhD from Columbia University. Among other activities, she worked in the humanitarian field in war zones. She now lectures on ethics and publishes poetry.