In 2017, a suicide attack at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Pakistan killed at least seventy-five people and injured more than two hundred others. The devotees had assembled for dhamal, a Sufi musical ritual where practitioners dance to the beat of drums in search of mystical ecstasy. The simplest way to interpret this tragic event is to view it through the lens of the rivalry between Sufis and the Taliban. But although the Jamat-ul-Ahrar (a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban) claimed responsibility for this unprecedented violence, hostility toward Sufi music is increasingly visible across denominational lines in Pakistan’s religious discourse. This trend should give us pause. Spiritual music has long been a vital element of Islam in the region comprising areas of Pakistan and North India. What explains the growing antagonism toward mystical sound art in a country that has inherited a rich legacy of devotional music? To be sure, the aversion has multiple sources: it is not only rooted in a long history of theological debate about music in Islam but also entangled with acute questions about Muslim identity and nation-building. In what follows, I argue that shifting assumptions about “authentic Islam” have catalyzed the scandalization of mystical music in Pakistan. The emergence of Arabization, with its emphasis on rediscovering true Islam in Arab culture, has vilified local sonic genres in the Islamic republic.
Today, scholars who hail Sufism add their voices to the notable, even puzzling, calls to purify Pakistan’s soundscape from mystical musical forms such as qawwali, an imaginative devotional genre traced back to the thirteenth century CE. This is surprising because liturgical music has been a site of audacious spiritual experimentation in prominent Persian and South Asian Sufi traditions since the medieval era. The moral ambivalence never fully subsided but music flourished nevertheless in many strands of medieval Muslim mysticism. Prominent thinkers took up the cause, crafting sophisticated theologies of sound. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a towering figure of Muslim intellectual history, supplied one forceful response. Al-Ghazali’s interest in music was inseparable from his interest in cultivating emotional well-being. What is the nature of emotions? Are they forms of cognition? Or are they unconscious responses to various stimuli? These questions fascinated him. Ultimately, he synthesized what today scholars would call cognitivist and physicalist approaches to generating emotion.
Like Muslim mystics before him, al-Ghazali welcomed the contemplative life. He invited Sufi initiates to inculcate the love of God and instill the desire to meet him through meditation. At the same time, he was particularly eager to explore how the body and its senses could induce emotion. For al-Ghazali, music was a divine blessing because it could elicit preconscious and automatic emotional reactions. Sound was felt before it was thought. Thus, melody was a secret potion for mystics because it facilitated intense intimacy with God in a manner that minimized ritualistic mediation. Al-Ghazali was one among many crucial figures whose groundbreaking mystical theorization of sound reverberated and precipitated liturgical creativity in transcultural Sufi orders.
Hence, although music never escaped controversy in South Asian Islam, powerful theologies of sound emboldened Sufism’s musical proclivities. Influential Sufi orders such as the Chishtis ritualized the mehfil-e-sama—“gathering for spiritual audition.” Even today, custodians of famous shrines in the Punjab (Pakistan) believe that classical Chishtism’s musical exploration remains one of its strongest legacies. These same custodians, however, confront a growing faction of scholars who insist on banning qawwali—the ultimate devotional technology of Chishtis. Casual observers might assume that the polemic against qawwali is a symptom of rising “Talibanization,” when in fact, even pro-Sufi scholars participate in this discourse.
Over the course of the last five years, I have participated in several baithaks (gatherings) in the rural countryside of the Punjab where religious scholars and laymen discuss the cultivation of Islamic moral habits in society. These discussions focus on contentious subjects such as the moral status of musical instruments.
In the winter of 2019, for example, I visited the Punjabi village of Aroop where I listened to some of these mystically inclined scholars dwell on qawwali’s feminizing effects. Muscular manhood, they pointed out, consists of physical robustness, extraordinary bravery, and superior tactical acumen. Far from nurturing these traits, however, qawwali promotes soft emotions. The sound of the tabla, a pair of hand drums used in qawwali, was said to “breed soft men” who are “gentle, submissive, and vulnerable.” The pervasive use of the tabla, they concluded, poses a grave threat to Muslim masculinity. What made the discussion particularly intriguing was their insistence that the daff is conducive to optimizing masculine attributes. How could this be? Why were these ulema passionate critics of the tabla but enthusiastic proponents of the daff? After all, both the tabla and the daff are percussion instruments. From a practical standpoint, their musical function is analogous. Why wasn’t the daff a bone of contention?
I learned that determining a musical instrument’s moral status requires deciphering its cultural identity. Although these instruments have a complicated cross-cultural history, most ulema associate them with different musical streams: they consider the daff a part of an “Arabian musical system,” while the tabla, they explain, comes from the Hindustani (North Indian classical music) tradition. The ulema denounce the tabla, for they yearn to cleanse Pakistan’s soundscape from “Hindu accretions.” Yet the Hindustani system is a product of Hindu-Muslim musical syncretism. It is a blend of Persian, Arab, and Indian musical elements, and has been prevalent in the northern parts of the subcontinent since the thirteenth century CE. So why does this legacy of religious and musical synthesis pose a pressing problem for ulema today?
We cannot fully understand the current sense of discomfort with Hindustani sound art without analyzing state policies toward music in the final decades of the twentieth century. During the 1980s, the state framed an ideological narrative by partly disassociating Pakistan from some of its inherited traditions, including Hindustani music. Former Pakistan Television (PTV) officials recall how President Zia ul-Haq emphasized that Pakistan must emulate “authentic (Arab) Islamic culture” and cast “Hindu influences” aside. This line of thought was not unprecedented. Romantic notions of “Arabian Islam” have had deep roots in modern South Asian Muslim thought. The early work of Muhammad Iqbal, one of the leading Muslim philosophers of the twentieth century, epitomized this tendency. Iqbal conflated “real Islam” with the Islam of the Arabian Peninsula. He declared, for example, that the “Moslem races of Asia” let “Arabian Islam pass through all the solvents of Ajam and finally divested it of its original character.” The Arab conquest of Persia “meant not the conversion of Persia to Islam but the conversion of Islam to Persianism.” Why was this such a problem? The pantheistic outlook of Persia permeated Muslim thought and inspired the growth of otherworldly Sufism. In Iqbal’s view, these developments hastened the decline of Islamic civilization by turning Muslims away from engagement with the social and material world. What united President Zia-ul-Haq with this facet of Iqbal’s thought was the conviction that Arab Islam represented the religion’s uncorrupted essence. Accordingly, Zia believed that divesting Pakistan’s Islam from Persian, Indian and all non-Arab layers would usher a new golden era in Muslim history. This Arabization required the reinvention of diverse aspects of Muslim life, including practices of audition.
To paraphrase one Pakistani Television (PTV) executive, President Zia-ul-Haq did not wish to merely police Pakistan’s music; he wished to recreate it. To that end, his regime patronized Arab vocal and instrumental arts in the country. From the PTV official’s standpoint, the endorsement of Middle Eastern literary and aural practices would have been welcome developments. Indeed, as the soulful tunes of Hindustani classical music indicate, “foreign influences” have historically enriched South Asia’s auditory space. Unfortunately, however, the advancement of Arab sound art was accompanied by the demonization of many regional music genres. Hindustani music’s ragas (melodic frameworks)were too disruptively sensuous to retain a foothold in a sober Islamic soundscape. The government responded in two ways.
On the one hand, the authorities regulated the music market and selectively censored sonic material on state-owned radio and television. Zia was keen to embroil himself in the process of sanitizing musical content in Pakistan’s media. On one occasion, he offered a pungent critique of PTV’s decision to broadcast a song by the Benjamin Sisters—a trendy group in the 1970s-1980s. The president had arrived at the television center to inspect PTV’s program content. He was less than pleased with PTV’s taste in music: “I am talking about an Islamic system, and you people are broadcasting this Hinduistic type of song,” Zia protested before a group of PTV officials. “No one,” Zia lamented in a fit of frustration, “is trying to understand my vision!”
On the other hand, and far more crucially, Zia’s regime incited widespread religious hatred against such “Hinduistic” sonic art. A famous Punjabi qawwal from Aroop vividly recounts how clerics in his village responded to such calls for “Islamization.” Echoing a standard sentiment, even Barelvi scholars in Aroop inveighed against forms of folk music because they associated these with “alien Hindustani melodies.” According to the qawwal, the purifying urge was even more pronounced by the beginning of the new millennium; the ulema regularly sermonized on the debilitating effects of mesmerizing symphonies and the urgency of acting against their sources.
On an Eid celebration, some passionate reformers disrupted the qawwal’s musical performance in Aroop and smashed his harmonium to pieces. And as I have discovered in several baithaks, even four decades later, popular preachers laud the “great deeds of the pious men of the 1980s” who raised their voice (and sometimes their hands) against “paganistic musical ceremonies” in the “land of the pure.” The former president, who envisioned himself as a cultural architect, had thereby encouraged opposition toward local musical varieties without comprehensively banning sound art. The physical, even deadly, attacks on musical gatherings can be understood as extreme responses in this antisyncretic environment.
This story of “Hinduistic” melodies reveals unexpected connections that challenge us to broaden our analysis of religion’s sonic dimensions. It exposes how complex debates about bodies, emotions, masculinity, and national religious identity have shaped notions of cultural purity in Pakistan. “Was music banned in Pakistan?” an American friend of mine, an ardent devotee of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, once asked. Any nuanced reply must narrate how the state has not banned music but done something more consequential: it has sought to transform Pakistan’s soundscape.