As the sea of love recedes

In parts of modern Pakistan, being a qawwali musician is now a high-risk occupation. By intimidating those who play, listen or even dance to this devotional music, puritan hardliners in Pakistan are insulting and violating an indigenous culture that for centuries has celebrated love both earthly and divine, says Jurgen Wasim Frembgen

By Jurgen Wasim Frembgen

Thousands of people accompanied the funeral procession for the Pakistani singer Amjad Farid Sabri, shot dead by a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban in Karachi on 23 June 2016. He was one of the famous Sabri brothers, responsible for bringing the genre of emotionally-charged, devotional qawwali music via Pakistan and South Asia to the West.

Two years before his brutal murder, Amjad Farid Sabri was issued with an official warning for blasphemy by the highest court in the land: in the lyrical verses of a contemporary Urdu poet, which he was performing, he allegedly disparaged the Prophet Muhammad and his family.

The verses were about the wedding of the Prophet's daughter Fatima Zahra and Ali, the cousin of the Prophet and later, the fourth Caliph. The fanatics were angered not only by the suggestion of intimacy in this hymn at a marriage blessed by God, but also by the fact that the singing group's performance, which was broadcast on television, took place at a wedding where guests danced to the rhythm of the music.  

Indigenous culture coming under fire

For centuries, a wedding – the union of two lovers – has been a core theme of the mystical poetry of South Asia, the content of which oscillates between earthly and divine love. Today however, such moving scenes from daily life are condemned by Islamist hardliners, along with all expressions of joy or pleasure. The indigenous culture of the sub-continent is coming under fire.

Probably the greatest exponent of this popular devotional music – the world-famous Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (d. 1997) – used to sing a poem by Naaz Khialvi (d. 2010), the main lyric of which was: tum ek gorakh danda ho ( literally: "You are a trickster, a player/You confuse me"). Since the song addresses God directly, it has since been condemned as blasphemy.

These days, Sufi lyrics set to music, which combine the fervour of divine love, the capacity of moving people to tears and the sense of profoundly experienced emotion with references that, in the syncretic milieu of southern Asia, speak to Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians alike, are condemned as "impure" by the blinkered preachers of a purely Arabised, literal version of statutory Islam. They criticise it for being "un-Islamic"; in conservative areas it is often banned. Apparently there is no more room for ambiguity and cultural diversity. Figuratively speaking, musicians and their audiences are being deprived the very air that they breathe.

Shrines targeted by suicide bombers

The shrine of the Sufi saint Rahman Baba, an 18th century poet and mystic, lovingly revered by the people as the "nightingale of Peshawar", has always drawn qawwali singers and lute players every Thursday evening and Friday to pay homage to their master. These are the sacred places where listeners to mystical music seek to achieve a state of spiritual ecstasy in the belief that it brings them closer to God.

Several years ago, a large Saudi-funded Wahhabist Koran school was founded not far from the tomb of Rahman Baba. The scholars banned the devout pilgrims from singing at the shrine and physically attacked them. In 2009, an attempt was made to blow up the shrine – on a Friday, when there was a particularly large number of visitors there. The attack was on the music, the musicians and the women who had gone there seeking intercession from the holy man.

Sham-e Qalandar with Madame Afshan, Lahore (photo: J. W. Frembgen)
Mystical love poetry set to music: the great Sufi masters only allowed qawwali when it did not distract from thinking about God, but instead led spiritually to him. The prerequisites for mystical "listening" were laid down in accordance with Sharia law. Accordingly listeners must demonstrate a deep desire to be close to God and reject the idea of listening for sheer pleasure

Those who claimed responsibility for the attack condemned music, saying it led to obscenity. Since then, barely a year goes by in Pakistan without a similarly monstrous suicide attack or a bombing on a Sufi shrine taking place – with numerous dead and injured.

Message of reconciliation and pluralism

Pakistan, demographically the nation with the second-largest Muslim population in the wider region of South Asia and today home to almost one in every three Muslims, is a cradle of Sufism. Despite the widely-held belief that it represents a "soft" form of Islam, this Islamic mysticism – a "religion of love" with a rich spiritual tradition – has a clearly authoritarian character.

Nevertheless, Sufis spread their message of the personal experience of God, reconciliation and pluralism through mystical song performed in the genres of qawwali and sufiana-kalaam, disseminating tolerance and acceptance. Take, for instance, the following striking verse by Baba Farid (d. 1265) sung by Abida Parveen, the grand dame of Pakistani Sufi music:

"Don't give me scissors, give me a needle!

 I join together, I don't cut!"

Or we can ponder the ecstatic verses of Bulleh Shah (d. 1758), a Sufi poet known as "Rumi of the Punjab", who straddled the Muslim and Hindu religions. In the following lines, he sang about the dissolution of religious boundaries:

"We are neither Hindus nor Muslims. We just sit and turn the spinning wheel.

 We have nothing to do with the pride for the religious confession.

We are neither Sunnis nor Shias. We are non-violent towards everyone."

It was through such mystical lines, not written in Arabic, the language of the Koran, or in Persian, but in more widespread vernaculars (in this case Punjabi), that Islam took hold on the subcontinent. In modern times they have even featured in popular Pakistani rock music , such as in the album ″Parvaaz″ by Junoon.

No need of spiritual catharsis?

Yet, despite all this, Sufism seems to hold little fascination for young Muslims between South Asia and North Africa. The ideological relevance of mysticism is fading; after all, those struggling with personal identity crises rarely turn to Sufism for the answer. Undeniably, times have changed: musicians in Pakistan now receive death threats, their instruments are vandalised, concerts in the public sphere are subject to strict security measures and are frequently cancelled. Is it any wonder that tea house owners no longer play music?

During the 1980s and 90s in the city bazaars, it was commonplace to hear loud Bollywood film music blaring out of shops selling music cassettes and videos, now streetscapes are dominated solely by the deafening roar of traffic. The transition was gradual, almost imperceptible: shop owners were intimidated, their stores eventually closed down and Islamist hate speech pronounced music taboo – it became bland and monotonous, an atmosphere of joylessness took hold.

Although music had always been frowned upon within the context of conservative statutory Islam and was mostly condemned and prohibited, the ecstasy it triggered within the mystical dimension of this world religion was sanctified. Here too, however, 'sama' – the mystical act of "listening" – has remained controversial. For Sufis of the Indian Chishti order, who take a very positive view of music, sama should lead to spiritual catharsis. In ecstasy, hidden insights can be revealed to adepts, they can "drown in a sea of love", they can gain a foretaste of the union with the divinity. To them, sacred music is a sine qua non of Islamic mysticism.

Jurgen Wasim Frembgen

© 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon