Book Review
The Lamp of Love: Journeying with the Sabri Brothers
By Dr. Ahmed S. Khan
Chicago , IL

 

The first decade of the 21 st century is about to conclude, the era of micro-technologies is ending and the dawn of nanotechnologies is on the horizon. The intended and unintended consequences of technology are posing serious challenges to humanity.

The pace of technological advancement continues to increase exponentially but the world of today is experiencing a sharp decline in moral and ethical values. People's minds around the globe are focused on gaining material welfare and happiness, and yet their hearts are yearning for spiritual fulfillment and love. However, in the quest of love, wisdom and truth, people fail to realize that the things of material world are immaterial and the realm of the immaterial can only be understood through the spiritual sensors of the heart. The Lamp of Love, Journeying with the Sabri Brothers by Amatullah Armstrong Chishti is an exquisite mosaic of many stories telling the tales of hearts yearning and searching for love, wisdom and truth.

The Lamp of Love, Journeying with the Sabri Brothers, is  a fascinating story of an Australian lady who was informed in a dream by the prominent qawwal Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri that she will write the book about him. The author Amatullah Armstrong Chishti hails from Sydney, Australia. She was trained as an art teacher and ran her art restoration business in Sydney.

Amatullah's spiritual quest began in early 1980s when she embarked on a 5000-km bicycle journey from Paris to Tunisia via Corsica and Sardinia. During her journey she encountered Islam. The author first traveled to Pakistan in 1998 and met Sabri Brothers, and performed ziyarats at the mazars of Sufi saints ( Data Sahib, Baba Farid Ganj-i Shakar, Baba Bullhe Shah, Hazrat Abdullah Shah Ghazi, Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and others) all over Pakistan. The author also narrates her experience of accompanying the Sabri brothers on their performing tours. She also visited Sufi saints in India in the company of the Sabri brothers.   The author's passion about Sufism led her to complete a graduate thesis titled "The Artist Transformed: Sufi Views on the Development of the Self and Art" at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia. She continues to write extensively on her experience on Sufism and Islam, following her yearning "Light the lamp of love in the darkness of my heart, ya Khwaja!"

The author has dedicated the book to  Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri, the king of qawwals, and the Sabri brothers. In the preface the author describes the motivation for writing the book:  "I never met the great Pakistani qawwal Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri in this world. Yet he came to me in many dreams and in one dream he told me to write a book. It happened like this. It was a cool August morning in 1997. I had just offered the dawn prayer in our tenth floor apartment. The northern city of Brisbane was still and tranquil at that mystical hour of the day, when receptive hearts are opened in readiness to receive whatever may be sent from the Realm of Imagination. I fell asleep and saw a dream. I am standing in an empty space. I can hear the voice of Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri but I cannot see him. I can only hear his deep voice. I can see Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's face. Haji Sahib says to Nusrat, 'This is the lady who is going to write the book about me.' Nusrat scrutinizes my face. He looks straight into my eyes and then with a gentle smile, nods his head in approval, indicating that I am the one who must write this book. Emerging from the mists of my dream I awoke and entered the day. Within only an hour or two I received a phone call from a friend. He told me the sad news that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, another famous Pakistani qawwal, had passed away in London only a few hours earlier. The veils were removed from my dream. Now it stood out in sharp clarity, revealing its message. Not only did the dream inform me of the book that had been assigned to me; it also brought direct news of Nusrat's death, immediately after it had happened. At the time of seeing the dream Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had just joined Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri in the spiritual realm. The two great divinely inspired qawwals were together and I was the lady to whom a book had been given!"

In the foreword, Amatullah expounds about the inner and outer dimensions of Islam: "Islam has an outer dimension and an inner dimension. Its exoteric or outer dimension, which is the domain of Sacred Law (Shari'at) of the Qur'anic Revelation, is concerned with the attainment of salvation, that is, with the securing for all men a blessed return to Allah. Its esoteric or inner dimension is Tasawwuf, known in the West as Sufism. This is the domain of the Spiritual Path (Tariqa) of the Qur'anic Revelation and is wholly concerned with the attainment of human perfection, and therefore sanctity, in this life, Tasawwuf could be likened to the heart within the body of Islam."

In the domain of Sufism, qawwali is a unique tool that unfolds the spiritual power of the heart where the seeker gets into the state of wajd (spiritual ecstasy) allowing him to feel the union with the eternal beloved. In the foreword of the book, commenting on the qawwali tradition of South Asia, Omid Safi writes: "The Qawwali tradition of South Asia is a magnificent spiritual treasure for all Muslims. It brings together, in a beautiful manner, the Indo-Persian Sufi tradition, the courtly refinement of Indian music, and the poetry tradition of Persian, Urdu, Punjabi and local vernaculars. With the exceptions of Mevlevi (Mawlawiyya) order in Turkey and beyond, no other  Sufi Tariqa (spiritual order) has made such extensive use of music than the Chishtis of South Asia. The music of Sabri Brothers, which figures so prominently in this wonderful memoir by Amatullah Armstrong Chisti, unfolds from the very heart of that Chisti tradition."

Describing the art of qawwals, the author writes, "The voices of qawwals singing their messages of Praise and Divine Love, and the rhythms of the music, which is performed on harmonium, dholak and tabla, with accompaniment of hand clapping, are similar to the ceaseless recitation of Divine Names in Sufi practice of Zikr (Remembrance, rhythmic repetition of Divine Names to purify heart). Qawwali is an art of communication. It is an art of the 'moment,' an art of spontaneity, in which the qawwals and their musicians must respond, immediately, to the spiritual needs of the audience. The qawwals respond to their audience who in turn respond to the qawwals, back and forth, an art of communication. Just as Zikr is a means to reach the goal, so too is qawwali. Qawwali is not an end in itself. The sublime voices, the mystical poetry and the powerful music are vehicles to carry the 'one who hears' across the bridge to the Infinite Realm of Wonder."

The author describes Sabri Brothers as "the Roving Ambassadors for Pakistan." Over the past half century they have been inspiring the qawwali audiences throughout the world. In fact, they have perfected the art of qawwali, established 700 years ago by,  Hazrat Amir Khusrau in Delhi.  The Sabri Brothers' musical lineage stretches back to Mian Tansen, the great musician  of the court of Mughal emperor Akbar. Commenting on the qawwali tradition of Sabri Brothers, the author states that originally there were four Sabri brothers. The eldest brother, Haji Ghulam Farid, a man of immense spirituality, passed way in 1994 [his son Amjad Farid Sabri continues to practice the art of qawwali around the world, keeping the legacy of the qawwali legend alive]. The second eldest son Haji Kamal Sabri, a master of the technique Tan Tarana, passed away in 2001.  Since their inception as a qawwali group, the Sabri Brothers  had been led by Haji Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, a maestro par excellence of classical qawwali. The youngest brother, Mehmood Ghazanavi Sabri continues to enthrall the audience all over the globe.

Describing the art of the Sabri Brothers, the author writes: "The Sabri Brothers’ stunning virtuosity and brilliant exposition bring audiences to the heights of amazement and awe. While the tremendous power, subtlety, sensitivity and beauty of their voices reaches to the depths of human heart, speaking in a divine language beyond words. But these techniques of qawwali would be nothing without faith and unable to communicate what they are singing about; love. The Sabri Brothers sing from their direct experience of Divine Love. And it is for this reason that they take so many of their listeners to the Divine Presence." Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri has left this worldly domain but his immortal Sufi music in the form of qawwali continues to resonate across the globe. Sabri Brothers to their credit have a number of masterpieces, but the love for Prophet Muhammad (SAW) they have expressed in their Qawwali titled Habib (translated by Dr. Annemarie Schimmel in And Muhammad Is His Messenger) tops all of their mystical works:

Ya Muhammad Nur-e-Mojassam

O Muhammad, embodied light

Tasvir-e-kamal-e-muhabat

Tanvir-e-jamal-e-khoda-yi

You, Image of love's perfection.

You, Illumination of God's beauty.

Afaq-ha gardidam

Mehr-e botan varzidam

Besyar khooban didam

laken toh chez-e degari

I searched from horizon to horizon

I sought the love of all idol-beloveds

I saw many beautiful ones

But you, Muhammad ...

You are something else!

In Lamp of Love the author has also presented short biographical sketches of many Sufi saints. In a sketch of Data Sahib, she writes, "Hazrat Syed Ali Bin Uthman al-Hujwiri was born in Ghazni, Afghanistan, around year 400 (AD 1009). After traveling widely on his spiritual quest he was instructed by his Murshid to proceed to Lahore and spread the message of Islam. His book, Kashf-ul-Mahjuub, written at the request of a student of Sufism, is the earliest Persian treatise on Sufism. Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya said of Kashf-ul-Mahjub, 'Whoever amongst you is unable to find a Pir may read this book thoroughly and it will enable him to succeed in his mission.' That is, for he who has no Shaykh let Kash-ul-Mahjub be his Shaykh. Hazrat Shahiduallh Faridi, the Englishman who gave up a life of ease and luxury in England to pursue the spiritual path in India, embraced Islam in 1936 after reading Kashf-ul-Mahjub."

The author narrates a fascinating story of a chaiwala (a tea vendor), a devotee of Data Sahib, "Six years after my initial visit to Data Sahib's I was taken to meet an old man, a very special old man, so I was told. I think he would prefer to remain anonymous therefore I will not mention his name. He owned a small teashop on a busy main road quite near the Darbar of Data Sahib. I was told that this chaiwala was somehow connected to Data Sahib. He was known to make a daily ziyarat to the Mazar . His love for Data Sahib was limitless. One day, within his heart, he requested Data Sahib to reveal himself.  The following morning this old chaiwala started out on his daily ziyarat. He climbed the stairs leading to the marble courtyard and when he looked towards the mazar he was awestruck. All he could see was the wings of angels, thousands and thousands of angels' wings, spread over every inch of the courtyard, covering every millimeter of the mazar and the green dome. He was humbled to the core. How could he have the impudence, the audacity, the pride and boldness to ask Data Sahib to disclose himself! Look at the rank of Data Sahib! The old chaiwala retraced his steps and along the lanes and alleys and the main road back to his chai shop. He was ashamed. How could he ever dare to even set foot anywhere near the Darbar let alone climb the stairs and approach the saint? He stayed away from the Darbar for three years. Then one day a presence approached him, enveloped him in his arms and told him to return. It was Data Sahib himself who had come to fetch him and bring him back! Data Ganj Baksh, the Bestower of Treasurers."

In another story, Amatullah recounts the Chishti-Mevlana Rumi connection. It is said that in Konya, on a frosty night, Mevlana Rumi and Shams Tabriz were secluded in a cell immersed in the ocean of ishq-e-haqiqi (True Love for Allah). In the middle of this Turkish winter night they received a gift of a rare flower from the unseen Realm. Mevlana Rumi pushed the flower under the door to his worried wife to assure her that all was well in the cell. She became quizzical: where did Rumi get this rare flower never before seen in Konya? After inquiring from local merchants she came to know that such kind of flower only grew in the distant land of India. Was it a gift from Baba Fariduddin Ganj-i Shakar to Mevlana Rumi? A gift from the Chishti Sufi to Mevlana Sufi? In Sufi circles it is well known that Baba Farid and Rumi are connected. To commemorate this connection the author, a follower of Chishti Silsila, has beautifully embedded Rumi's poetry of wisdom and love throughout the book.

The author has also painted scattered cultural pictures of Pakistan: the discomfort of train travel, the joy of tea sipping, the lack of reading habits of travelers, the calm of camels in the chaotic Karachi traffic, and the beauty of Margala Hills in Islamabad, etc. When Amatullah returned to Australia after her discovery of spiritual experience in Pakistan, she missed Pakistan and its spirituality. Remembering the "spiritual wealth" of Pakistan, and her longing for Pakistan she observes: “Back in Australia after my Pakistan experience, surrounded by comparative opulence and things in excess. I felt like an alien, no longer belonging. Pakistan may have been covered with a blanket of dusty grayness but the richness of her spirituality shone through. Australia, outwardly brilliant and shinning, was inwardly bereft of any mystical wealth. Like a fish on a dry land, I waited for another great wave from the ocean to sweep me once again out beyond my depths. I was miserable and homesick. But I continued to hang on that thread. I was longing to return to Pakistan and her saints and their lovers. 'There is no cure but the taste of what the saints pass round.' Indeed, often love conquers the ear before the eye. Amatullah Armstrong Chishti  sums up her qawwali experience of drowning in the immaterial realm and concludes the book  on the feelings of rapture:

Having said so much I realize,

there's really nothing to say!

Nothing to write!

Just the music

And the voice,

And--- the drowning!

In The Lamp of Love, Journeying with the Sabri Brothers, the authors has narrated a wonderful account of finding spiritual treasures in Pakistan and India and getting engulfed in ecstatic qawwali music of the Sabri Brothers. It is a fascinating read for all material beings who want to experience the immaterial realm of love, wisdom and the truth.

 (The Lamp of Love: Journeying with the Sabri Brothers, ISBN: 0-19-547165-2, Publisher: Oxford University Press)

(Dr. Ahmed S. Khan is Professor, College of Engineering and Information Sciences, DeVry University, Addison, IL   60101, askhan@devry.edu)

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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