Amjad Sabri is one of Pakistan’s most famous and respected musicians, celebrated for performing traditional Sufi Muslim devotional songs known as qawwalis. On June 22, 2016, Sabri was gunned down in Karachi as he was heading to perform at a television station to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan. Two gunmen on a motorbike fired at the singer’s vehicle, killing Sabri in a targeted assassination. The TTP Hakimullah Mehsud group, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that Sabri was targeted because his music was blasphemous. The music and the Sufi shrines in which qawwali flourishes have been mercilessly attacked by militants in recent years and serve as targets for the Taliban and other religiously conservative groups that reject music as un-Islamic and blasphemous.
Amjad Sabri was part of one of South Asia’s most celebrated qawwali singing families, which is said to trace back to the 17th century court of India’s Mughal Empire. Amjad Sabri’s late father, Ghulam Farid Sabri, and late uncle, Maqbool Sabri, were renowned qawwali icons in Pakistan, known together as The Sabri Brothers. Qawwali, a popular expression of Islam and Sufism in Pakistan, is a form of devotional music that emphasizes the personal relationship between the singer and God. The songs, steeped in mystical Islamic poetry dating back to the 13th century, remain an integral part of Sufi religious life.
In 2014, Amjad Sabri was given notice during a blasphemy hearing held by the Islamabad High Court, after he had gone on a morning talk show hosted by Geo Television Network to sing a qawwali. The song was reportedly blasphemous because it referenced members of Prophet Muhammad’s family, and because it was performed under inappropriate circumstances. The allegation of blasphemy can carry the death penalty in Pakistan, but no action was taken against Sabri.
Sabri’s assassination is part of a larger pattern of violent sectarian groups targeting and attacking religious minorities and Sufi shrines in recent years. In 2010, a suicide attack on a Lahore shrine killed 42 people. The city of Karachi, in particular, has also been wrought with extremist and political violence, and the Pakistani government has been accused of doing little to protect minorities and enforce security in Karachi.