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A journey in devotion

The Express Tribune traces the evolution of Naat as a devotional art form from humble beginnings to popular mainstream

By Najam Soharwardi
PUBLISHED May 16, 2021
KARACHI:

Unconditional love and uncompromised respect for the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) is the most defining element of the Muslim psyche. That sense of attachment and reverence is so deep and powerful that it emotionally defines the Muslim identity and provides the building blocks for Islamic ideology. It is this underpinning theory that makes Iqbal end his marvellous poem Jawab-e-Shikwah with this couplet where God tells the people that “Ki Muhammad Se Wafa Toone To Hum Tere Hain”. Roughly translating to: If you show faithfulness toward Muhammad, then We are yours.

Since the recitation of Durood – salutation upon the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – comes as a direct order from Allah in the Holy Quran, it becomes a part and parcel of a practising Muslim’s to find means to have a spiritual connection with the Holy Prophet. So here comes Naat as an effective medium to let one transport their salutations and spiritually communicate with the Prophet.

But Naat also has its profound significance in our culture and tradition beyond the question of religion or righteousness. Poets have presented their ideas and expressed their emotions in Naat, an Arabic word that literally means praise but has practically been a popular medium of sharing thoughts about and feelings for the Holy Prophet. It is this wider sense of liberty that allows Ghalib to say that “Ghulaam-e-Saaqi-e-Kausar hoon, mujh ko gham kya hai”. (I am a servant of the Cupbearer of Kausar – what grief do I have?) Kausar is the name of a fountain or river in paradise from which all other rivers are believed to flow.

So Naat is what comforts our mind and soothes our soul. And this rich poetic tradition has not been confined to Muslim poets as Hindu, Sikh, Christian and other non-Muslim poets too have produced work in this genre. One famous example is of Maharaja Sir Kishan Prasad Shaad of Hyderabad Deccan. Yet Naat as a literary genre did not get acceptability in the literary circles of Pakistan immediately after the partition of the subcontinent.

 

Naat as a mission

Poets who identified themselves as Naatgo Shu’ara (Naat writers) in Pakistan led a multifaceted movement to get Naat recognised as a literary genre, make it a part of official and cultural activities, and get slots for its recitation in media.

“They carried out it as a mission, it was as if they were Naat missionaries,” stresses Sarwar Hussain Naqshbandi, Naat Forum International chairman and quarterly magazine Midhat editor.

While Naat was always popular as a symbol of devotion, it was not acceptable as part of creative literature. Thanks to the untiring efforts and creative work of poets like Hafiz Taib and Muzaffar Warsi that Naat finally got its well-deserved place in the literary circles, adds Hussain, who is a noted poet too.

“Hafiz Taib is the most significant person who turned the tables and subsequently eminent poets such as Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi followed his feat and produced timeless work in this genre," says Sarwar, who held the first National Literary Naat Conference in Lahore in 2019.

When maestros who had made their name in Ghazal and Nazm, and were famous for their Marxist and liberal ideas, like Arif Abdul Mateen and Sarshar Siddiqui, came towards Naat, it was the real turning point in our history, states Dr Aziz Ahsan, a poet and critic who reviewed in his PhD the literary criticism of Urdu Naat.

Secondly, he adds, there was a lack of criticism work on Naat that hampered its growth and let populism prevail that appropriated below-average work in many cases. “Only those genres or art forms leave a distinct impression in the history that get genuine critics besides genius artists.”

Mehfil-e-Naat culture

While a section of poets laid their focus on making space for Naat in literature, others took it to the public space.

“We have quite a few names who devoted their lives to the Naat cause. Abdul Sattar Niazi, Adeeb Rai Puri, Muhammad Ali Zahoori Qasoori, Qamar Anjum and Syed Riazuddin Soharwardi are among the most significant names,” states Sarwar Hussain.

In 1972, Riazuddin Soharwardi laid the foundation of Kul Pakistan Mehfil-e-Naat which started its journey from Karachi’s Nishtar Park. Top Naat reciters from across the country would appear on the stage. The Mehfil-e-Naat would run throughout the night, attracting large crowds having people of all age brackets.

“What we adore as literature or art form become part of our culture. To inculcate a sense of belonging to Naatia literature and impart Naat recitation skills to aficionados, Riazuddin Soharwardi founded Pakistan’s first Naat College in 1980 which has trained thousands of enthusiasts till date,” says Syed Shahabuddin, one of the teachers at Naat College in Karachi. It was due to the efforts of what Sarwar Hussain describes as Naat missionaries that the Naat art form gained in popularity and became a part of religious gatherings, school assemblies and cultural activities.

 

Naat in the Parliament

In the era of former military dictator Ziaul Haq, the government rewarded poets for producing Naatia literature. Government sponsorship played a vital role in the promotion of this genre and eventually more Naat books came out.

Even so, until the end of 2015, the Naat recitation was an occasional activity in the Parliament. But in December that year, Naat recitation became a permanent feature of the National Assembly as Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leader Capt (retired) Mohammad Safdar moved a motion to seek amendments in the rules of procedure and conduct of the business of the lower house of the Parliament. The house members unanimously supported his motion. Before its passage, only verses from the Holy Quran were recited to initiate the house proceedings.

The love for Naat recitation is not confined to only right-wing parties in Pakistan. In January 2021, a newly elected legislator of the leftist Pakistan Peoples Party, Syed Ameer Ali Shah, took the oath of office as a member of the Sindh Assembly with recitation of Naat in the provincial assembly. Shah had won the by-election for Umerkot’s PS-52 constituency on January 18.

Political rallies too have featured Naat recitation. One recent example is of singer and politician Abraul Haq who has recited “Rok Leti Hai Aap ki Nisbat Teer Hum Par Bhi Jitnay Chaltay Hain” at political rallies of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf many times.

From radio to social media

Among the earlier presenters of Naat on Radio Pakistan, a prominent name is Behzad Lakhnavi, a Ghazal poet who wrote the famous “Ae Jazbae Dil Gar Main Chahoon Har Cheez Muqabil Aa Jaye”. His recitations were highly appreciated by the audience and in the later stage of his life he only composed Naatia poetry. His Naat “Hum Madinay Se Allah Kyn aa Gaye” is among the most popular works in Urdu Naatia literature.

Likewise, Pakistan has produced several world-famous Naat reciters who have an international following and are invited to recite Naat in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Mauritius and other countries. Waheed Zafar Qasmi, Siddique Ismail, Syed Fasihuddin Soharwardi, Khursheed Ahmed, Saeed Hashmi and Sabih Rehmani are among the most popular Pakistani Naat reciters of the television era. They are called the heirs of the traditional way of Naat recitation which is considered as the “respectful and right way” of Naat recitation. Nevertheless, Sabih Rehmani, who is the editor of Urdu Naat’s most critically acclaimed magazine Naat Rang, has a dissenting note to present.

“Naat has been commercialised, and like any other commercial commodity, there’s no black and white rule to define the respectful way of recitation,” Rehmani contends. “While a section of society will live in nostalgia for what it would call the golden era of Naat, the wave of commercialisation will make its own path.”

Rehmani, nevertheless, asserts that he does not approve of the bizarre “social media culture of Naat Khwani” in which YouTubers-turned-Naat reciters have made a mockery of themselves.

“It’s the number of clicks that matter the most for them. It’s not only the Naat art form that has fallen prey to the cheap social media culture, we are witnessing total devastation in all forms of art and literature.”

Sarwar Hussain stresses that new Naat reciters would have to work on their vocals instead of only focussing on visuals. “It’s unfortunate that many among the new ones rely too much on autotune that their voice sounds like a robot while they are lost in how to produce a colourful video with zero aesthetic sense.”

The Naat Khwan identity

Before singer-turned- preacher Junaid Jamshed explored the Naat art form, it was exclusively associated with the Barelvi school of thought. Other Sunni factions either did not recognise Naat Khwani due to their religious interpretations or did not promote it despite having a soft corner for it. While noted Shia poets have authored Naat in abundance, artistes famous as Noha Khwan or Marsiya Khwan were not known as Naat Khwan. Similarly, singers who performed Naat were not called Naat Khwan. They would be labelled “a singer reciting a Naat”.

However, Junaid Jamshed earned the title Naat Khwan too quickly. What else he was quick to achieve was more space for Naat Khwani in Sunni factions other than Barelvis. In fact, Jamshed’s albums inspired hardline madrasas to let their students perform Naat in mosques and release their own albums.

Likewise, qawwal Amjad Sabri achieved a similar feat by adding the title Naat Khwan to his portfolio. Though his father Ghulam Farid Sabri and uncle Maqbool Ahmed Sabri – popularly known as Sabri Brothers – broke records with their world-famous kalaams, such as Tajdar-e-Haram and Bhardo Jholi, they have always been known as qawwals only. As soon as the Naat art form shattered its traditional boundaries to become a commercially acceptable identity, qawwals and singers too owned “the Naat Khwan identity”.

Sarwar Hussain recalls that there was once a time that famous poets and celebrities like Muzaffar Warsi would object to it if they were addressed as a Naat Khwan because there was an unsaid feeling that Naat Khwani was not a higher form of art. But its amalgamation with qawwli and singing has ended that stigma.

 

 

 

Naat is all-inclusive

With more and more singers trying their luck at Naat recitation, a debate has sparked over the recitation of Naat by noted members of the entertainment industry. Among those who are highly critical of Naat recitation with music is Syed Salman Kounain, the son of Naat maestro Syed Manzoor-ul Kounain who trained several Naat reciters in classical style.

“This is not Naat. They are just banking on our rich tradition of Naat. It seems the singers and musicians have run out of ideas so they have decided to make easy money,” says an agitated Kounain. “My heart weeps when I see their disrespectful videos.”

But Rehmani sees the Naat recitation by singers as a positive development. “Who are we to decide who’s closer to Allah. And then Naat is a universal expression of love for the Holy Prophet. It's not anyone's property. A singer’s recitation of Naat could be more acceptable to Allah and His Prophet than ours.”

Regarding the use of music in Naat, Rehmani says legendary singers like Lata Mangeshkar, Noor Jehan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have recited Naat and most people have had no objection to their recitations. “We have this special problem with music in the subcontinent. It’s mostly acceptable elsewhere in the world.”

In fact, he adds, this is a welcome sign for the Naat art form that singers with huge followings have made it popular among those “who would not get inspired by a typical religious person”.

Rehmani believes that the Naat artform will gradually improve its style.

“As soon as a more educated and sober audience will be attracted toward Naat, it will eventually put pressure on reciters to revive its lost spirit,” hopes Rehmani.

Narrowing boundaries will cause harm to Naat art form, he says, asking that how would one explain why non-Muslim poets would write Naat if a misplaced sense of religiosity was attached to Naat. As noted Indian poet Kunwar Mohinder Singh Bedi Sahar writes:

Ishq Ho Jaye Kisi Se Koi Chara To Nahin

Sirf Muslim Ka Muhammad Pe Ijara To Nahin