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A Voice that Sings On

If you want to understand a culture, one of the best ways is to study its funeral rituals. Pakistan is a good example. You might say that its rich and complex culture comes out on the streets during a funeral, because large crowds are common after the passing of a politician, cleric or other prominent public figure. One recent example has been the funeral of the musician Amjad Sabri in the mega-city of Karachi, Pakistan’s economic and cultural powerhouse.

He was assassinated there at the age of only forty-five, shot to death by terrorists who called him a blasphemer for using music to celebrate his Muslim faith. His speciality was qawwali (pronounced roughly “kah-waa-lee”) singing, a centuries-old tradition in the Sufi branch of Islam, which believes in the use of music, poetry, dancing and bright lights and colours to bring worshippers closer to God. Qawwali singers pour their souls into their music in a very powerful and moving way, and Amjad Sabri was one of the most popular and respected performers in the genre.

He tried to live his Sufi faith in all other ways too, leading a humble life and working for charity. Many among the large crowds that gathered to mourn his passing spoke of how he had helped them with money or advice or simply by setting a holy example and sharing his musical talents with them. Because Islam first emerged in a very hot part of the world, it requires that the dead are buried as quickly as possible. This rule is obviously sensible and was certainly followed in the case of Sabri. He was assassinated on Wednesday 20th June 2016 and buried the following day, mourned not only in Pakistan but in many other countries where qawwali singing is popular and the Sufi tradition of Islam followed.

The Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif spoke of his sorrow, as did the ex-cricketer Imran Khan and many other important figures in Pakistani politics, academia, sports and entertainment. The assassination again emphasized a difficult and dangerous fissure in Pakistani society between advocates of moderation, who believe in allowing many different forms of religious and cultural expression to flourish, and advocates of extremism, who want to impose a strict and austere form of Islam on the nation.

Prominent among the extremists are various branches of the Taliban, who claimed responsibility for Sabri’s assassination and whose rule in Afghanistan was notorious for its suppression of music, dancing and any other form of entertainment or enjoyment regarded as un-Islamic according to their rigid interpretation of the Koran and associated traditions. Amjad Sabri had been repeatedly threatened with death by extremists in Pakistan for what they called blasphemy. This year, they have put their threats into action, but the popular response to Sabri’s death was a powerful rejection of their ideology.

His funeral was, paradoxically, a celebration of life and an open defiance of extremist violence. Sufi worshippers wore coloured turbans, crowded around the ambulance that was carrying Sabri’s body to his final resting-place and lit oil-lamps whose bright and dancing light symbolized the spirit of joy and love that inspired Sabri’s music. His death and funeral have simultaneously emphasized two aspects of Pakistani culture, one colourful, life-affirming and pluralistic, the other grim, cruel and literally deadly. Amjad Sabri is no longer able to perform, but he has left countless recordings and television performances that no extremist will ever be able to censor or destroy.