Amjad Sabri was a foremost Sufi qawwal from Pakistan. In that statement lies the answer to the above question. If you understand that, you don’t need to read this post. If you don’t, read on.
First, you need to understand: What does it mean to be Sufi?
Heard the qawwali, Allah Hu? Allah Hu is the truncated version of ‘Allah Hu Akbar’ which means ‘God is Great’. When the Sufi poet edits it to ‘Allah Hu’ he says, God is. And therein lies the essence of the Sufi thought. God is, and it is for us to find him or her - whether in nature, or in our beloved or in beauty or in God himself or herself. An essential respect and love for all humanity is the underpinning of the Sufi philosophy. (Which is anathema to the Taliban.)
Second, learn: How is the Sufi faith both Modern & Ancient?
A qawwali by the Sabri brothers that you might’ve heard: ‘Chaap tilak’? Composed in the 13th century by Amir Khusrau, the father of qawwali. A linguist, he often wrote poetry in which the first line was in Persian, the second in Hindvi. Some of you might remember this hit song from the Hindi film ‘Ghulami’ -
Zihaal-e-Miskeen maqun ba-ranjish,
bahaal(ba-haal)-e-hijra bechara dil hei.....
Written by Gulzar, it was inspired by Amir Khusrau’s
zihaal-e-miskeen makun taghafful,
duraaye naina banaaye batiyaan..
The first line in Persian, the second in Hindvi and thus the song goes. That a song from 700 years back could find its way into Bollywood and become a rage is a testament to the Sufi tradition where one proponent builds upon the legacy of the previous. And it is common for a Sufi singer to weave two different songs which are thematically common into one. If you’ve heard Abida Parveen you’ll know what I am saying. Or the Sabri brothers. Or Nusrat.
But going back to ‘Chaap Tilak’ - the song is still sung today in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh during festivals, ceremonies and gatherings. It is therefore both modern and ancient, Sufi and Bollywood. (Are you getting an appreciation for why the Pakistani Taliban might not be on board with Sufis?)
Third, know: How is Sufi woven into the fabric of the Subcontinent?
Baba Bulleh Shah is a 17 century Punjabi Sufi poet whose compositions are so widely used in Punjab - both in India and Pakistan - that it is difficult to conceive that the lyrics were actually written by a particular person. For instance, when a discussion in Punjab on the vagaries of life & living reaches its amorphous conclusion it isn’t uncommon for a person to end it with a declaration: Bullah, kee jaan main kaun! Which Rabbi Shergill with his rock/fusion rendition made a raging hit in the entire subcontinent in 2005.
If you’ve followed the post, by now you’d know that the values that a Sufi espouses are in direct contradiction of Talibani diktat. In a talibainizing Pakistan, is it any wonder then that a Sufi qawwali singer (three ticks for plurality, heterogeneity, mixing up) would be murdered? It is the same reason that ISIS destroyed Palmyra. Or Nazis conducted kristallnacht. You don’t need to go too far in history to know that the fundamentalists will always destroy minorities, miscegenation, music. In Pakistan, the Wahabbi dust storm from the deserts of Arabia has been blowing since Zia ul Haq decided that women on TV must cover their heads and “Allah” must replace Khuda in the parting phrase.
So stop wringing your hands and tweeting RIP. If you really want to honor Amjad Sabri, choose to be Sufi in your thoughts and actions. Which means, next time a Shia or Ahmedi is targeted in Pakistan, stand with them and speak up. Next time someone is threatened for their views in India with “We’ll send you to Pakistan”, proclaim your right to be Indian in an India that through millennia has been the world’s foremost melting pot. BE Sufi. (The alternate is in dreadful replay through the middle east and knocking on the subcontinent’s doors.)