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This Heavenly Sound: The Ecstatic Music of Islam

When my son was three years old, we used to ride around with a CD of the Pakistani Qawwali (Islamic mystical devotional) group Sabri Brothers blasting in the car. The lead singer, Ghulam Farid Sabri, would end every song with his rich baritone, singing, “Allaaaaaaaah!” My son Jacob, who was three years old, would patiently await that familiar refrain and, with impeccable timing, blend his toddler voice with that of the famed Qawwal.


The Sabri Brothers were my gateway to a world of devotion, ecstasy, poetry, and joy. It was a living tradition that stretched back about 700 years to the time where Muslim vocalists in what is today Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India would sing songs of love and devotion to God, the Prophet, and the saints. The Sabri Brothers claimed (and, as we say, God knows better) descent from some of those 13th-century musicians who blended together Persian poetry and Indian music.

After the deep voice of Ghulam Farid Sabri was called up to heaven in 1994, it was his son, Amjad Sabri, who carried on the legacy of qawwali music. Imagine our collective shock to hear that Amjad had been assassinated on June 22 of this year, in the month of Ramadan, after singing a beautiful poem in honor of the Prophet on Pakistani live TV. It would be akin to hearing that someone of the stature of Mahalia Jackson had been shot and killed on Christmas morning.

Many other pieces are exploring the political context of the Taliban-affiliated groups who are to blame for this assassination and ripping Pakistani society apart. For that political analysis there are other sites to turn to. What I want to do here is to honor the living tradition of devotion that produced the Sabri Brothers and Amjad Sabri. So I will focus not on the assassination, but on the tradition of beauty and devotion that shines through them.

This tradition is not unique to them. After the assassination, tens of thousands of people showed up for Amjad’s funeral. Here is the tradition of Islam that has been a unique marker of the Indo-Persian Islamic tradition. Let’s explore this beauty.

Amjad Sabri’s best-known qawwali was a lovely poem called “Bhar Do Jholi,” a beautiful little supplication in which an impoverished soul comes to the threshold of the Prophet.

Not having anything to even hold out towards the Prophet, the beggar lifts up the hem of his robe, and asks the Prophet to “fill my skirt.” There is a lovely translation of the whole poem here. The few lines below, slightly modified, give a sense of the tenderness of the South-Asian Sufi tradition towards the Prophet of Islam.

O King of Madinah,
hear my plea, for God’s sake
Bestow your favor upon me,
O Beloved of God, for God’s sake
O Prophet, let the bud of my hopes blossom now
I am a pauper at your door, here to seek alms
Fill my skirt, O Muhammad
I will not go back empty-handed

This devotion to the Prophet shines through the entire repertoire of qawwali poetry. Here is the translation of the poem that Amjad sabri sang the very last Ramadan morning on live Pakistani TV, before he was assassinated.

O one of the green dome, accept my request
When my time is upon me, grant me (your) vision
O Noor e Khuda [“light of God”], embed yourself in my eyes
Or call me to your doorstep, or come into my dreams
O veiled one, remain in the veil of my heart
When my time is upon me, grant me (your) vision
O one of the green dome, accept my request
When my time is upon me, grant me (your) vision
When in the darkness of my grave, I fear
Come to my aid, my master
illuminate my grave O Noor e Khuda
When my time is upon me, grant me (your) vision
O one of the green dome, accept my request
When my time is upon me, grant me (your) vision
I’m a criminal of every kind, on the day, keep my honor
Disillusioned with the world, envelope me in your succor
accept my words my Lord
When my time is upon me, grant me (your) vision
O one of the green dome, accept my request
When my time is upon me, grant me (your) vision
From his face the moon and stars took their splendor
From his doorstep, the afflicted and sad took healing
Only he knows how to heal every affliction every sadness
When my time is upon me, grant me (your) vision
O one of the green dome, accept my request
When my time is upon me, grant me (your) vision
I have not seen more beautiful than the beloved of God
It is his station that even his shadow its not seen
God chose not to detach even his shadow
When my time is upon me, grant me (your) vision.

I had first learned about this tradition of devotion to the Prophet from Amjad’s father and uncle, the original Sabri Brothers. An American convert to Islam, a dear Sufi friend of mine named Mahmud had years before played the Sabri Brothers meditation on the Prophet Muhammad, titled “Ya Habib” (O Beloved). It was an enchanting song, culminating in:

ya sahib al-jamal
wa ya zinat al-bashar…

O possessor of beauty
O adornment of creation

After that, I sought some more qawwali music, and immersed myself in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and others. But my heart kept seeking the Sabris. Some years later, I came across a magical poem of theirs which refers to the Prophet as nothing less than the light of God embodied:

Ya Muhammad Nur-e Mojassam:
O Muhammad, embodied light.

Tasvir-e kamal-e muhabbat
Tanvir-e jamal-e khoda-yi

Image of love’s perfection
illumination of God’s beauty.

Afaq-ha gardidam
mehr-e botan varzidam
besyar khooban didam
laken to chiz-e digari

I searched from horizon to horizon
I sought the love of all the idol-beloveds
I saw many beautiful ones
But you, Muhammad…
you are something else!

Amjad Sabri had his own beautiful version of Ya Muhammad, Nur-e Mojassam. This was the Muhammad that I know, the Muhammad of devotional life, reflected in a song: the Prophet who was the rahmat al-‘alamin (Mercy to all universes), the one for whom God created the Heavens and the Earth (la lawka). Here is a powerful demonstration of how the popular tradition of veneration for the Prophet was still being transmitted today through the Sufi music of Sabri Brothers and Amjad Sabri.

Like the classic lovers who fall love with one glance and yearn for more, I, too, kept seeking more music that spoke to the heart like this, something that was rooted in the beautiful Sufi tradition, and that reminds one of our eternal home and destination. One day when I was in a music store in North Carolina, I saw the new CD by Sabri Brothers, called Ya Mustafa. I remember putting the headphones on, and hearing:

hasbi rabbi jal Allah
ma fi qalbi ghayr Allah
Nur Muhammad salla Allah
Haqq! La ilaha illa Allah

My sustaining lord suffices me
Glory be to God!
There is no room in my heart
except for God!
Blessed be the Light of Muhammad…
        	Truth!  There is no deity except God!

The refrain is a familiar Arabic one that I had heard in many Sufi gatherings from India to Turkey and Egypt, on to North America. Here was the chorus of a song, being recited with passion and beauty by the Sabri Brothers. Each time that it was repeated, it resonated more and more in my heart, and I felt the rust of forgetfulness being knocked down. And there, in the midst of a music store, there were tears streaming down my face (to the slight amusement of the quite hip patrons of the store!). I remember grabbing the CD, paying for it quickly, and rushing home where I could listen to its healing words over and over again.

The qawwali tradition of South Asia is a magnificent spiritual treasure for all. It beautifully brings together the Indo-Persian Sufi tradition, the courtly refinement of Indian music, and the poetry tradition of Persian, Urdu, Punjabi, and local vernaculars. With the exception of the Mevlevi (Mawlawiyya) order in Turkey and beyond, perhaps no other Sufi community has made such extensive use of music than the Sufis of South Asia.

Jurists and Sufis have carried on a thousand year old debate about the propriety of music in an Islamic context. Some jurists have declared all of it haram (forbidden), others have adopted a more nuanced approach that bases the verdict on the heart of the one who hears the music. This is indeed the opinion of the famed theologian al-Ghazali (d. 1111) who concludes that music brings out yearning for God in the heart of one whose heart has been purified, and in the heart of one who is ruled by nafs (ego-self, carnal self), merely more ego and more passions.

It is for that reason that, historically speaking, Sufis have always insisted that music as sublime as this should be played in the khanaqah (Sufi lodge) or dargah (Sufi shrine), where one could also receive instruction from a Sufi master to purify one’s heart. In a way, the fate of qawwali has been somewhat akin to reggae music, which had a sacred origin before becoming something of the soundtrack of fraternity parties. Sometimes becoming more “popular” and being relegated to “world music” means being ripped from the original context in which sacred music has thrived.

Qawwali music was historically played in the context of shrines of Sufi saints. Let’s explore how this context, and the sequence of songs in a qawwali sessions moved from the love of God to the love of Prophet to love of saints. Every proper session begins with a song in praise of God, often with an Arabic refrain like “Allah Hu”: He is God.
It then moves to a praise of the Prophet, usually with a Persian refrain like the Tajdar-e Haram or Namidanam Koja Bodam:

It was God who presided over our gathering In that place of placelessness It was Muhammad Who was the candle of our soiree In that night gathering where I was.
It then moves on to a praise of Imam Ali, Muhammad’s closest spiritual heir and companion, praised by Shi’a and Sunni alike. In an age where we are used to seeing horrific sectarian conflict in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and elsewhere, how lovely to see Sunni qawwals singing Man Konto Mawla, a reminder of the Prophet saying to the Muslim community:

“For whosoever I have been his master, his saintly protector, now Ali is his master.”

It is then that the qawwali changes to more vernacular languages like Urdu and Punjabi, often including praise of local saints (awliya’). The trajectory from Arabic to Persian to Urdu and Punjabi is a reminder of the multilingual, cosmopolitan trajectory of indigenous Islam. Muslims’ imagination about God and the sacred has always spoken in multiple languages, not just Arabic.

This is the legacy of qawwali. The legacy of the Sabri brothers and Amjad Sabri. Today, the attention of the world is on the Taliban, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and so much violence. How good and lovely to remember that this violence today, especially in South Asia, was not always the case. The tensions in South Asia go back largely, as they do in so many places, to a disastrous colonial experience under the British, and an even more disastrous partition plan into what eventually became India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

What had characterized South Asian Islam over the centuries was in fact much more the legacy of this cosmopolitan, devotional, mystical tradition of Islam that linked together the love of God, love of the Prophet, love of the Family of the Prophet. It was this tradition of beseeching a Prophet for intercession, healing, and mercy. It was this tradition of bringing together Arabic and Persian, Urdu and Punjabi that lent the very distinctive fragrance to the world of Islam.

That is what I will choose to remember. This heavenly sound is what I hope to have resonate in my heart, even through the tearful days we live in.


Cyclists ride past a mural honoring late Sufi musician Amjad Sabri in Karachi. Image by Asif Hassan/Getty Images, © All Rights Reserved.

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