Sufi musician is gunned down in Pakistan

By Max Bearak

People comfort the brother, centre, of Sufi singer Amjad Sabri, who was killed by unknown attackers, outside his residence in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo / AP
People comfort the brother, centre, of Sufi singer Amjad Sabri, who was killed by unknown attackers, outside his residence in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo / AP

By firing at least three shots into a beloved musician's car in Pakistan's largest city, two gunmen ushered in one of the darker days in that country's quest for tolerance, art and peace.

The man shot dead was Amjad Sabri, 45, part of a duo with his brother, and a son of one of Pakistan's most renowned singers. The city was Karachi, which is racked by organised crime, kidnappings and assassinations. The gunmen's identities and whereabouts remain unknown.

The Sabri family sang a kind of music particular to South Asia's Sufi community. It is called qawwali. The Sabris were arguably the second-most famous qawwali singers after the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who introduced the form to the world beyond the subcontinent. There are millions of Sufis in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

Above all, qawwali is devotional music, and its songs are odes to love of God. They often conjure a relationship between the singer and God that is intensely personal, almost as if they are lovers. The Sufi tradition from which the music derives is unique to South Asia.

Its practice often takes the form of mystical, musical folklore, and followers pay respects to dead Sufi saints at shrines big and small. Sufism preaches tolerance and peace, and is about as far as can be from the strict forms of Islam that have gained a foothold in Pakistan in the past generation.

And perhaps that is why Sabri was killed. Sufi shrines have been mercilessly attacked in Pakistan in recent years, as well as in Bangladesh, where similar hardline groups have succeeded in recruiting large numbers of young people. Radical Islamists have also carried out bombings and executions targeting Pakistan's minuscule minority groups, including Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, as well as human-rights activists.

The Pakistani Government has been accused of doing little to protect minorities. A draconian blasphemy law is often used to harass minorities, and Pakistan is officially an Islamic Republic. Unconfirmed reports have claimed that Sabri asked a provincial government for protection after he received death threats but didn't receive it. Some conservative politicians have called for the banning of qawwali music.

- Washington Post

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