From the Archives: Maqbool Ahmad Sabri



Maqbool Ahmad Sabri, of the famous Sabri Brothers qawwali group died in South Africa on September 21st, where he had gone to seek medical treatment. He was 70 years old and had not sung for several months.  It is sad and ironic that the demise of the mighty voice of qawwali came with the softest of whispers in the world press.

I first heard the Sabri Brothers when they visited the States in the mid 70s. They played at Carnegie Hall and are credited with being the ones who introduced western audiences to traditional qawwali.  I loved them because they had long hair and connected me with a land I missed. For years when you heard the word ‘qawwali’ you automatically said, Sabri Brothers. The two words were synonymous.

In their steps would come others like Aziz Mian that other great purveyor of traditional naat qawwali.  And following behind him the giant Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who popularised and blended qawwali with contemporary sounds and western sensibilities to raise the form to an internationally loved and lucrative style.  [Original post with goodies]

The Spirit Can Never be Killed


Amjad Farid Sabri Qawwal Marhoom

The story is told that one day, Akbar the Great heard some wandering minstrels singing about the glorious wali who lay slumbering in the desert town of Ajmer. He enquired of the malangs about this great soul who moved them to sing so beautifully. They replied in verse:

Hazaron badshah aaye
Hazaron sultanat badli
Na badli na badlegi huqumat mere khwaja ki
Mere khwaja badshah hai

[Thousands of emperors have come
Thousands of kingdoms have fallen
The kingdom of my lord has never and will never change
My lord is the emperor]

The devotion of the minstrels so impressed the Emperor he let their frankness pass without comment. Some years later he made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Khwaja Hazrat Moinuddin Chisti, founder of the most influential Islamic mystical order in South Asia, and in effect, gave the House of Timur’s blessing to the Sufis of Ajmer.

Khwaja was well loved by his followers not just for his teachings but also for his methods of teaching. These included the practice of sama, which involved the playing of instruments and singing (solo as well as chorus) to aid spiritual contemplation and produce trance states in the faithful. From this practice, and through the creative brilliance of a disciple of one of Khwaja’s successors, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, this practice became gradually known among devotees as qual and ultimately, qawwali. The disciple who is credited with creating this new and distinctly subcontinental religious music is Amir Khusro, one of India’s great artistic geniuses.

When Khwaja Moinuddin passed away in 1265, the Chistia silsila (Chisti order) produced two branches. One, centered in Delhi, was led by Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The second, founded by Ali Ahmed Alauddin ‘Sabir’, is known as the silsila Chistia Sabriya. Both branches gained disciples all across northern India and both nurtured and promoted the practice of sama through qawwali.

These days, qawwali is loved across the world. It is performed not just by Pakistani and Indian qawwali parties, but also embraced by jazz musicians, Spanish flamenco guitarists, American mystics and the ultra-chilled lounge music set. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is usually regarded as bringing qawwali to the West but in fact, it was two adherents of the Chistia Sabriya silsila who blazed that trail more than a decade earlier.

The Punjabi qawwali tradition draws inspiration for its lyrics from the saints and shrines of Punjab and other parts of what is now Pakistan. This style of qawwali is regarded as a more vigourous and emotional form than the traditional, sophisticated style from further east in India.

It was part of the Sabri brothers’ brilliance that they were able to sing and perform in both styles. They quickly realised there was a new Urdu-speaking audience in the cities that also had expendable incomes. Their first record, Mera Koi Nahi Hai Terey Siwa (“I have no one but you”) was released in 1958, when Maqbool was still a teenager, to great acclaim, partly because it was accessible to this new audience. [full article]

Worth every cent: Sabri Brothers

Maqbool Ahmed and Ghulam Farid

Maqbool Ahmed and Ghulam Farid

I found this record in my favourite vinyl store in Melbourne, Licorice Pie (“We Sell All Sorts”) on High Street, Windsor and eyed it for a number of months. The guy wanted too much I thought, as by the way, how the hell would some Greek shopkeeper know the value of the Sabri Brothers vs any other pair of recording siblings?

I asked him once to cut me some slack. “The record’s been sitting there for over a year,” I said. “Obviously, it’s not going to move at that price.”

He gave me a weak smile but didn’t bite. He mentioned that similar items were selling on the net for much more.

“Well, we all know those prices are inflated,” I countered. “Who would pay $300 for some old Lollywood record? Those prices are for suckers.” By implication, of course, I wanted him to know I was not one of those.

“This price isn’t inflated,” he said, hardly looking at me. He kept working on reviewing a stack of new (old) LPs that stood between him and me.

Eventually, some months later I forked over the required (and stickered) price. Did he give me a wry, victorious smile? No, he’s a fine Greek gentleman and a paragon of discretion and honor. He accepted my fistful of dollars and muttered something like “you’ll enjoy that”.

Indeed, I have enjoyed it.

I hope you do to. A fine Pakistani pressing of Ghulam Farid and Maqbool Ahmed Sabri which from the photo of the two brothers on the back cover should be dated in the early to mid 1970s.

Qawalli in its present form is a well established art of singing in Indo/Pakistani music. In the past, many a teams have earned subcontinental reputation in this particular field. Through this record we are pleased to present a widely known ‘party’ of Karachi who have built up their fame through a lengthy period of career, excellent team work and expressive rendering.

Headed by Ghulam Farid Sabri and ably assisted by his brother Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, the group has won many laurels and participated in several important functions.   On this disc we have recorded following four well chosen devotional items The worthy listener will do doubt appreciate the theme of each elaborated with supplementary verses and ‘baits’. He will also, we are sure, enjoy the sincere and superb presentation by the Sabri brothers. We further hope that the listener will notice the skilled balancing in recording of the orchestra which has given a total brilliance to all the performances. (Liner Notes)

Ya Ali Madad!

front back

Track Listing:

  1. Balaghal Ula Be Kamalehi (Amber Shah Warsi)
  2. Savere Savere (Sahrai Sanbhri)
  3. Tajdar-e-Haram ho Nigah-e-Karam (Hakim Mirza Madni)
  4. Qaul Tarana (Amir Khusroo)


Complaining to Allah: Sabri Brothers

Sabri Brothers

Sabri Brothers

The century from 1857-1947 was not a good one for India’s Muslims.  After ruling Hindustan (roughly, the territory between Afghanistan and Bengal and the Himalayas to the Deccan Plateau) for the better part of 600 years, Muslims found themselves politically and economically marginalised by a hostile British colonial administration and a resurgent Hindu population.  Educational and employment opportunities were difficult to come by; the vast majority of Indian Muslims remained poor and undereducated, especially in ‘modern’ or Western subjects. And for the first time the Muslim elite had had to confront the challenge of making Islamic law and custom fit into a political system which they did not control.  Communal self-esteem swung, very quickly and violently, from supremely confident to self-doubting and impotent.


Sir Mohammad Iqbal

Sir Mohammad Iqbal

Allama Sir Mohammad Iqbal was the towering intellect of contemporary Islam not just in South Asia but across much of the Islamic world. Born of Kashmiri Pandit stock (same as Jawaharlal Nehru) his forebears converted to Islam and moved to Punjab (Sialkot).  Iqbal’s father was a humble tailor and it is great testament to his son’s capability and ambition that he became one of the Muslim world’s great modern philosophers.  Indeed, he is credited with conceiving of the idea of a separate Muslim homeland on the Indian subcontinent, something that became reality in the country of Pakistan, some 10 years after his death.

In 1905, he traveled to England for his higher education. Iqbal qualified for a scholarship from Trinity College in Cambridge and obtained Bachelor of Arts in 1906, and in the same year he was called to the bar as a barrister from Lincoln’s Inn. In 1907, he moved to Germany to pursue a doctorate; he earned his PhD from the Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich in 1908. Working under the guidance of Friedrich Hommel, Iqbal published his doctoral thesis, The Development of Metaphysics in Persia, in 1908.

He studied Goethe’s Faust, Heine and Nietzsche but discovered that Persian was the language in which he could best express his spiritual and creative self. He continued to write poetry and philosophical works in Persian throughout his life, with his Persian verse being considered the very acme of the genre.  In contemporary Pakistan he is considered the spiritual father of Pakistan and accorded on an equal, if not even  more elevated, status as the country’s political founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

In 1909 upon return to India from Europe he wrote an epic of Urdu poetry entitled Shikwa (Complaint).  Like the Old Testament prophets or the sage, Job, who railed against the Almighty for his supposed injustice and negligence of his chosen people, Iqbal’s 186-verse poem captured the zeitgeist of early 20th century South Asian Muslims.

If we lived, we lived for the calamities of wars. If we died, we died for the grandeur of Thy name. We did not wield the sword for our kingdoms. Did we roam about the world fearlessly for wealth? If our nation had been greedy of worldly wealth why would we have been idol breakers instead of idol sellers?

We continuously wandered all over the world. We wandered like the wine cup with Tawhid’s [Monotheism] wine. We wandered with Thy message in the mountains, in the deserts. And doth Thou know whether we ever returned unsuccessful? What of the deserts! we did not spare even oceans! We galloped our horses into the dark oceans!

We effaced falsehood from the earth’s surface. We freed the human race from bonds of slavery. We filled Thy Kaa’ba with our foreheads. We put Thy Qur’an to our hearts. Still Thou complaineth that we are lacking fealty. If we are lacking fealty, Thou also art not generous.

There are other nations, among them are sinners also. There are modest people and arrogant ones also. Among them are slothful, indolent as well as clever people. There are also hundreds who are disgusted with Thy name. Thy graces descend on the other people’s abodes yet lightning strikes only the poor Muslims’ abodes.

The idols in temples say ‘The Muslims are gone’ . They are glad that the Ka’ba’s sentinels are gone. From the world’s stage the hudi singers are gone .They, with the Qur’an in their arm pits, are gone. Infidelity is mocking, hast Thou some feeling or not? Dost Thou have any regard for Thy own Tawhid or not?

Now, the world is the lover of others. For us it is only an imaginary world. We have departed, others have taken over the world. Do not complain now that the world has become devoid of Tawhid. We live with the object of spreading Thy fame in the world. Can the wine cup exist if the cup bearer does not live?

We do not complain that their treasures are full. Who are not in possession of even basic social graces? Outrageous that infidel are rewarded with houries and palaces while the poor Muslims are placated with only the promise of Houries! We have been deprived of the former graces and favours. What is the matter? we are deprived of the former honours.

The verses above (not in chronological order) show the depth of feeling, hurt and disempowerment felt by Muslims. The poem was an instant sensation. Published repeatedly in journals across India it was hailed by intellectuals as a great masterpiece.  However, conservative elements of the community objected: how could a mere human address the Almighty so directly? And with such spite? Surely, God is blameless, they said. There is no basis for complaints.

Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa

Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa

Four years later Iqbal felt compelled to answer (and placate?) the conservatives. He published an accompanying piece called, Jawab-e-shikwa (Response to Complaint) and it is together that the two poems are most usually read.   A few verses from God’s response to his complaining creation are included below.

They said, “Can Man now roving come and reach these regions high?
That tiny speck of mortal clay, has it now learnt to fly?

How little do these beings of earth the laws of conduct know;
How coarse and insolent they are, these men who live below.

So great their insolence indeed, they dare even God upbraid!
Is this the Man to whom their bow the Angels once had made?

Of Quality and Quantity He knows the secrets, true—
The ways of humbleness as well If he a little knew!

That they alone are blest with speech how proud these humans be,
Yet, ignorant, they lack the art to use it gracefully.”

Unto a nation faith is life, You lost your faith and fell,
When gravitation fails, must cease concourse celestial.

You love your homes the least among the nations of the earth,
You are the most incompetent in knowledge and in worth;

Shikwa was a brave piece of moral protest and spiritual outrage. Jawab-e-Shikwa a (somewhat forced) attempt to save the situation.  Together the two poems, (or the two halves of the one poem) stand as one of the highlights of South Asian literature. For the angry and sceptical Shikwa provided an acceptable means of expressing their disquiet and even, disenchantment. For the true believer, Jawab –e-shikwa proved to be a platform from which to rebuild faith and hope in the eternal glory of Allah and his people. A win-win situation for all.

The poems have been set to music and sung by many performers.  Today’s post highlights the interpretation of the mighty Sabri Brothers. I particularly like this version as the two voices (the pleading, complainant and the Almighty Creator) are interwoven in the manner of a real conversation.  The performance is exciting. Thrilling. A real muqaabla (struggle) of and for the Soul of man.

Shikwa Jawab-E-Shikwa

Track Listing:

  1. Shikwa Jawab-e-Shikwa (pt.1)
  2. Shikwa Jawab-e-Shikwa (pt.2)




The Parrot of India: Amir Khusrau


Amir Khusrau is one of those historical figures credited with all manner of inventions, inspirations and the beginning of many movements and trends.  Most famously, he is identified in the South Asian popular imagination, as the spiritual father of Indian (in the non-geographic sense of the word) music.  His admirers and exponents claim that he invented the sitar and tabla.  That he created new forms of music including qawwali, tarana and even the classical khyal.

Like most hoary figures of the past, it is not entirely possible to say precisely exactly what Khusrau’s contribution to Indian music was. But historians are in general agreement that he was a heavily influential figure, and akin to what the modern age has termed a Renaissance Man.  Poetry, mystical reflection, music, art, social comment and history, as well as foreign languages were all fields of the great man’s accomplishment.  And the very fact that so many branches of subcontinental culture trace their origins to this medieval genius suggests that he was indeed, a Spirit to contend with.

Though born in a northern part of India now known as Uttar Pradesh, his father was a Turkic member of the upper classes of Central Asia who fled to India to escape the horrible, sweeping invasions of the Mongol hordes. Ab’ul Hasan Yamin al-Din Khusrow, who later became known as Amir Khusrau, was a boy of prodigious intellect and intellectual curiosity.  Fluent in several languages, including Persian and Arabic, he seemed to have been born with an innate understanding of poetry. Indeed, his Persian compositions are considered some of the greatest literary works in that language.  In modern Iran, Khusrau, is regarded as one of the most brilliant exponents of the Persian language, not very far below Hafiz and Sa’adi.

As a young man he met and became a disciple of the patron saint of Delhi, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Separated by only a few years they two men became very close associates and companions.  Of all his many disciples, the great Sufi, considered Khusrau to be his dearest and most loved.  Famously, he requested to for the two to share the same grave! While this, of course, did not happen, Amir Khusrau died several month after this Spiritual mentor and is buried next to him at a shrine that is one of Delhi’s most revered. One of many tales told of the men’s mutual affection and respect is included below:

Khusrau and Nizamuddin

Khusrau and Nizamuddin


Nizamuddin Auliya had thousands of disciples. Out of them, 22 were totally devoted disciples who considered him as God Incarnate.

Once, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya thought of putting them to a test. He roamed around with his disciples for the whole day in the market of Delhi. As night fell, he went to a brothel. The prostitute led him upstairs with great respect and courtesy. All the disciples were waiting downstairs in anticipation, ‘Guruji should be coming down soon…he should be coming soon.’

The prostitute was immensely pleased and wondered as to what stroke of fortune had brought this saintly person to her place. She said to Auliyaji, “I have been blessed by your presence here. In what way, may I render service to you?”

Auliya told her, “Instruct your maid to bring food on a platter along with water in a liquor bottle, in such a manner that my disciples get the impression that I have asked for food and liquor.”

The prostitute had but to obey the command. She instructed her maid accordingly.

After a little while, the maid carried the food and the liquor bottle upstairs as per the instructions. Some of the disciples contemplated, ‘We were under a mistaken impression…Guruji is not what we have been thinking all along. He has asked for liquor!’ Thinking thus, some of the disciples ran away 

As the night progressed, more and more of his disciples left one by one. Finally, it was dawn, and Auliya came downstairs.

He saw only Amir Khusro waiting for him. Feigning ignorance, he enquired, “Where have the others gone?”

Amir Khusro replied, “All have left.”

Auliya asked, “Why did you not leave? Didn’t you notice that I had asked for liquor, and spent the whole night with the prostitute.

Amir Khusro replied, “O Master! I might have left, but where could I have gone except towards your lotus feet?”

Benign Grace poured out of Nizamuddin Auliya’s heart, and he said, “Your wait is now over. You are accomplished.”

Such was the single pointed faith of Amir Khusro. Even to this day, the shrine of Amir Khusro beside that of Nizamuddin Auliya reminds us of a sincere disciple’s devotion to Guru, a disciple’s unshakable faith in Guru.

Click here for a lovely article on the relationship between these two mighty men of the middle ages by the poet, Aparna Chatterjee.

Today’s selection is a brilliant 3 CD collection of Amir Khusrau’s music and poetry produced by EMI.  All performances are by Pakistani artists, some internationally renown (Sabri Brothers, Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hassan), some less so (Bilqees Khanum, Ishrat Jehan, Ijaz Hussain Hazravi). All of the material is fantastic and I especially like the several tunes by Mehnaaz and the Bilqees Khanum/Ishrat Jehan combo.  This is indeed, a fine tribute to the man who called himself, the Parrot of India (Toot al Hindi).

Amir Khusroo Amir Khusroo_back

Track Listing (1)

01 Chhaap Tilak Sab Chheeni[Sabri Brothers]

02 Khabram Raseedah [Iqbal Bano]

03 Sakal Ban Phool Rahi Sarson [Bilqees Khanum and Ishrat Jehan]

04 Beshagufta Gul [Ghulam Ali]

05 Man Kunto Maula [Sabri Brothers]

06 Achchhe Banne Mehndi Laawan De [Bilqees Khanum and Ishrat Jehan]

07 Ek Sajan Mere Man Ko Bhaawe [Arifa Siddiqui]

08 Mara Dosh Goyi [Mehdi Hassan]

09 Har Shab Manam [Ijaz Hussain Hazravi]

10 Sajan Yeh Mat Jaaniyo [Nasima Shaheen and Nighat Seema]

11 Hare Hare Baans [Bilqees Khanum and Ishrat Jehan]


Track Listing (2)

01 Nami Danam [Sabri Brothers]

02 Jaan Ze Tan [Ghulam Ali]

03 Mohe Rakh Le Tu Aaj Ka Din [Bilqees Khanum and Ishrat Jehan]

04 Mai To Piya Se Naina Laga Aayi Re [Arifa Siddiqui]

05 Man Banda [Mehdi Hassan]

06 Abr Mere Bar Doman [Iqbal Bano]

07 Ae Chehra [Ijaz Hussain Hazravi]

08 Ambwa Tale Dola Rakh De [Bilqees Khanum and Ishrat Jehan]

09 Goondho Re Maalan Phoolon Ka Sehra [Mehnaaz]

10 Khabram Raseedah [Sabri Brothers]


Track Listing (3)

01 Aaj Rang Hai [Sabri Brothers]

02 Chali Re Nayi Naar [Mehnaaz]

03 Amma Mere Baba Ko Bhejo [Bilqees Khanum and ishrat Jehan]

04 Kahe Ko [Sabri Brothers]

05 Aaj To Na Mai Aisi Banaungi [Nahid Akhtar]

06 Chhaap Tilak Sab Chheeni [Bilqees Khanum and Ishrat Jehan]

07 Kahe Ko Byaahe Bides [Nasima Shaheen and Nighat Seema]

08 Zehaal-E-Miskin [Sabri Brothers]

09 Daiya Re Mohe Bhejo [Bilqees Khanum and ishrat Jehan]

10 Aaj Ye Kaun Sa Mehmaan Aaya [Hamid Ali Khan]