By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
29 June, 2016
For scores who sing and listen to Qawwali, the music and verse, connects them to a spiritual domain, pristine and pure as compared to the daily routine of life characterised by lies, deceit and chilling distance from one another. In that moment where the singer connects himself and the listener with the divine, one feels as if through this connect, one has regained humanity. What one has lost on the market place of exchanges, one is able to search for it deep within the recess of his own spiritual being. In this communion, the human ceases to be a commodity, but sees himself as part of an all-embracing universal soul where boundaries and markers of differences like caste, religion and gender seem meaningless and become so hazy that they begin to dissolve through the cadence of music.
This moment of transcendence threatens the world of classificatory, hierarchical and religious certainties that we live in. Religions, particularly the Semitic traditions, encapsulate these certainties and that is why any challenge to them is met with violence. Before the march of secularization, Christianity and Judaism behaved very much like present day Islam: executing non-conformists by calling them heretics, condemning and burning homosexuals and exiling or killing those who had alternative interpretations of these religious traditions. That Islam continues to do so is a cause for worry. And not just worry but a deep introspection on what has gone wrong and what continues to be justified in the name of Islam.
We have mourned the death of Amjad Sabri and various others musicians who were maimed and killed for transgressing religious codes. The Taliban of Pakistan has claimed responsibility for the killing as it has on many other occasions. Most politicians, including Imran Khan, have condemned the killing and wept at the funeral. All that had to happen has happened. We can now happily go back to our daily lives and try living as if the killing of this Qawwali singer was just another episode of violence perpetrated by the Islamists. No one should question, why Imran Khan’s party is happily soft and in many ways in alliance with the Pakistani Taliban; no one should question why the Pakistani establishment was complicit in the creation of the Taliban itself; all of us should maintain a deafening silence on why Saudi led Wahhabism funds so many mosques, madrasas and even universities in Pakistan; no one should even think of why a follower of Barelwi Islam thought that it was his duty to kill the ‘apostate’ Salman Taseer. No one needs to think anything. Mourning has just become an empty ritual rather than an occasion for deeper reflection.
There are no easy answers to difficult questions. The problem is that we have stopped posing difficult questions. We hide behind nonsensical formulations like Islam is a religion of peace. We forget that like all projects Islam is also a work in progress; no religion is innately violent or peaceful. It is incumbent on the followers of the religion to make it into a religion of peace or religion of war. But the problem perhaps is much deeper and it has to do with our refusal to speak up.
Amjad Sabri was killed not just for being an ‘apostate’ but also for practising his love of music and Qawwali. Sufi music is the soul of much of south Asian Muslim experience. Both sacred and secular spaces have been full of music: it is our way of experiencing and expressing who we are as Muslims. Yet there is much denunciation within Islam about music being Haram. How many of us have questioned our local Maulana when he pronounced in public that music is un-Islamic? How many of us have done so publically? The deeper question is why haven’t we been able to mount a challenge to a virulently conservative interpretation of Islam which is taking away so much which we have cherished for so long?
Is it, that deep inside, we believe that what the Mullahs are saying is true? Is it that somewhere we have already begun to believe that so far we have lived a life which is not true according to the teachings of Islam? Or have we accepted the hegemony of conservative Islam without even mounting a respectable challenge to it?
Ahmad Sabri’s murder is not just the murder of a singer. It is the murder of an idea and of a practice which for centuries together has remained an essential ingredient of being a south Asian Muslim. It is a murder of fusion: of lifestyles, cultures, sharing and peaceful coexistence. Mere condemnation is not going to do. It must become an opportunity for deeper soul searching within the Muslim community.
History is always a good teacher and we can begin by asking a very simple yet difficult question: in terms of cultural practices, why have we discarded so much which were considered as part of Muslim culture less than hundred years ago. Failing to do so would only mean that we are all complicit in the murder of Amjad Sabri.
A NewAgeIslam.com columnist, Arshad Alam is a Delhi-based writer.