”Follow the music and it will show you the way.”
As discussed in my previous article ”The Music of Unity and the Politics of Division”, music can be a very powerful medium to overcome boundaries between different groups of people and convey the humanitarian message by the sheer emotional force of the music itself. In religious terms, this is also a concept integral to Sikhism, most mainstream South Asian versions of Sufi Islam, and many devotional versions of Hinduism. The famous 13th century Persian Sufi Rumi eloquently summarised it: “Follow the music and it will show you the way”.
A prime example of this can be viewed in the video below, which shows Eddie Vedder of the American rock group Pearl Jam singing “The Face of Love” with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan during a live tribute concert for the film “Dead Man Walking”. For Pickled Politics readers who are unfamiliar with Urdu/Hindi, the lyrics sung by Rahat (and later Vedder) can be translated as “What is living without love ? Since you have come into this world, love each other“.
Many South Asian readers of PP will also be aware of the Pakistani rock group Junoon, who have sold 30 million albums and whose music combines Western rock with Sufi-based themes. Junoon became particularly famous during the 1990s with a number of huge hits such as ”Sayonee” and ”Bulleya”. The latter was a highly unconventional rendering of poetry originally written by the Mughal-era Sufi Muslim Bulleh Shah, now one of the most famous and influential historical Sufi figures in northern India and Pakistan (he’s also one of the Fateh Ali Khan family’s role models); Bulleh Shah forcefully opposed the ongoing atrocities and religious fanaticism of the imperial administration at the time, especially the escalating conflicts with the Sikhs. He is also recorded as speaking highly favourably of the last Sikh Guru Gobind Singh, who was recently discussed on PP here and here.
Like the Fateh Ali Khans and numerous historical South Asian Sufis during the past thousand years, Junoon have long been heavily involved in opposing divisive extremism and promoting interfaith & intercommunity friendship and understanding. Their original efforts focused considerably on relations between Indians and Pakistanis during a period of escalating military & political tensions between the subcontinent’s two nuclear powers (as one of the band members said at the time, what was needed was “cultural fusion, not nuclear fusion”); in fact, after they returned to Pakistan after a tour in India in 1998, they were charged with treason by the Pakistani government because of their opposition to the nuclear tests in both countries on the grounds that the alleviation of poverty should be a higher priority and the fact that, as neighbours, Pakistan and India should be trying to promote mutual friendship. The band members challenged the authorities to publicise everything they had ever said, let public opinion decide if they were guilty of treason, and if this was indeed the case they were willing to be executed by hanging. The charges were dropped.
Junoon have also been involved in directly confronting the spread of Taliban/Wahhabi-style Islam in Pakistan and the influence of the more ultraconservative members of the Islamic clergy in that country. The group’s current lead singer and original founder Salman Ahmad (pictured at the top of this article), who recently published his autobiography, was filmed in a BBC documentary in 2003 confronting militant clerics at a madrasa in northern Pakistan about the allegation that Junoon’s music (and indeed music in general) is prohibited in Islam; Salman himself had an early nasty experience of such attitudes, when a member of a radical Islamist organisation accosted him while he was performing a Van Halen song during a talent show at his medical school in 1983 and smashed his guitar to pieces for playing what his assailant viewed as “sinful and vulgar” music. More recently, Junoon have also vociferously opposed the “Talibanisation” of Pakistani culture, including any appeasement whatsoever of the Pakistani Taliban itself, the influence of Saudi-trained clerics in recent years, and any attempts to implement the hardline aspects of Shariah Law.
Junoon released a particularly appropriate song in 2002 called “No More”, dedicated to the victims of 9/11. The atrocity was especially poignant for Salman, a qualified doctor who had spent his teenage years with his immediate family in New York before going to medical school in Pakistan, and who has said that the terrorists’ actions marked the hijacking of Islam as well as the passenger jets. You can see a live performance of this song in New York below.
”View the whole of humanity as one race.”
This quote is attributed to Guru Gobind Singh, and it is a universal humanitarian principle that has been advocated by numerous historical and contemporary figures from many different backgrounds worldwide; in fact, as this article from The Independent discusses, Salman Ahmad is currently in the UK promoting the need for both Muslims and non-Muslims to oppose Islamist extremism and confront & expose those responsible for it. In his own words, “In a darkened room a piece of rope looks like a snake, doesn’t it? But when you turn the lights on, you see it’s just a piece of rope. We need to turn the lights on.”
A firm believer in the musical principle promoted by Rumi which I mentioned at the start of this article (and which Salman frequently likes to quote), he is also a huge fan of John Lennon and The Beatles. Salman has spoken at the Clinton Global Initiative panel in New York, engaged in musical collaborations with numerous famous Western and Indian artists (including a world-leading Jewish musician at a synagogue in New York as part of a concert celebrating Muslim and Jewish musical heritage), performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, and given speeches and performed concerts at prestigious American universities including Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
Furthermore, Salman is a UN Goodwill Ambassador for HIV/AIDS who has given concerts inside the UN General Assembly Hall, and he and his wife have jointly formed the Salman and Samina Global Wellness Initiative (SSGWI), “dedicated to making a tangible difference all around the world in a way that increases understanding, cooperation and mutual enrichment among cultures.”
From Sindh and Punjab to London and New York
During the past few weeks, Salman has spoken to Oxford University’s union for Pakistani students and is involved in touring some mosques in London. He has also arranged to play music at a mosque in Stratford which is run by the international Pakistan-based Sufi organisation Minhaj ul-Quran, itself dedicated to opposing extremism and promoting interfaith friendship. The leader of this organisation is Dr Tahir ul-Qadri, who was one of the individuals mentioned in my “Music of Unity” article and recently issued an official (and extremely detailed) global fatwa unequivocally condemning Islamist terrorism, especially violence which originates in or is inspired by Al-Qaeda. Dr ul-Qadri has also been very critical of Wahhabism.
The message is brilliantly conveyed by another of Junoon’s live concert performances in New York; this wonderfully uplifting song, which they performed in tribute to the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, is called “Lal Meri Pat” (original album version here), and was originally dedicated to the medieval Indian Sufi Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, another of the Fateh Ali Khans’ historical role models. He was from the Sindh region of what is now Pakistan, and is still revered by huge numbers of South Asians (Hindus and Sikhs as well as Muslims) for promoting peace, tolerance and mutual understanding between members of different religious groups.
”Lead us from Falsehood to Truth, from Darkness to Light, from Death to Immortality; Let there be peace”.
This ancient Hindu prayer still has tremendous resonance today. Humanity’s long history contains numerous examples of the immense suffering people have inflicted on each other, using various pretexts to justify, rationalise and excuse their twisted beliefs and often horrific actions. The 20th century alone involved an estimated 180 million deaths as a result of organised violence motivated by the darkest impulses which people are capable of. There is no shortage of those who have sought to promote division, hatred and bigotry, and such individuals have existed (and continue to exist) all over the world.
However, throughout history there have also been heroes who have forcefully stood up to those possessing such malevolent sectarian attitudes, whose stubborn refusal or deranged inability to comprehend our common humanity and whose actions intended to scapegoat innocents as “the enemy” result in themselves effectively being the enemies of the whole of the human race.
To quote the historical Persian Sufi Sa’adi, whose poetry now graces the entrance to the Hall of Nations at the UN in New York:
”All men are fellow-members of one body
For they were created from one essence
When fate afflicts one limb with pain
The other limbs may not stay unmoved
You who are without sorrow for the suffering of others
You do not deserve to be called human.”
As long as there continue to be people willing to oppose preachers of hate such as Al-Qaeda & Al-Muhajroun and the BNP & EDL, there remains hope for the future of mankind. The light cannot be extinguished so easily.
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Filed in: History,Islamists,Muslim,Pakistan,Religion,South Asia,Terrorism