Aahang: The Sublime Music of Pakistan

The Urdu word aahang (aahung) could be translated in English simply as “melody” (a word I quite like). But as explained to our UPIC group by LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences) student Monahil, aahang is a tightly knit ensemble producing beautiful music, but if even one instrument is missing, the song becomes discordant and ruined. At LUMS, Aahang is the name of a student-conceived and run group focused on interreligious and intercultural dialogue — the first and only of its kind on this verdant, tropical campus, Pakistan’s premier institution of higher education, often described as a bastion of secular fundamentalism.

A few years ago, the group began intentionally gathering students to celebrate minority religious holidays such as Diwali and Christmas. (Pakistan is home to every Christian denomination and was founded on principles of religious pluralism and tolerance by Muhammad Ali Jinnah.) Aahang hosted dialogues, programs, and even took a dramatic road trip by van through rural Punjab and Sindh provinces to meet and interact with the diversity of religions and ethnicities in Pakistan. They are writing a book about this extraordinary experience.

In a Pakistani context that produces visceral feelings about the practice and study of religion, Aahang’s work, and that of other groundbreaking organizations like The Center for Dialogue and Action, courageously led by Dr. Amineh Hoti, which is creating Pakistan’s first diversity curriculum, is remarkable. Aahang faced challenges including banning certain activities and losing official support. Despite this, the group continues thanks to the dedication of student activists such as Monahil and Fatima who embody what their religion, and interreligious dialogue, should be. They advocate for those who are marginalized and oppressed in society. When Christians are attacked in Lahore, they go out and form a human chain to protect their communities. Dialogue is not easy or superficial — not least when your own family members are threatened at gunpoint because of your commitment to this work.

What we experienced in Pakistan was aahang, a symphony of words, music, and prayer. Words: At every university we went to, students and faculty shared their ideas, studies and hopes for the future, and I was struck by how many of them are students of literature and poetry, be it English, Urdu, or Sufi. At LUMs, we heard from students who write personal reflections, fiction and poetry for KidSpirit, an online youth magazine. These students were motivated to form the organization’s first ever Pakistani chapters in Lahore and Karachi to share their literature and poetry — their stories — with the world.

Music and prayer: In a humble Christian church in the Kotchi Abadi section of Islamabad, women lifted their voices and arms in praise to the Lord. Throughout the day we heard the adhan call to prayer — freezing in wonder to hear it at Lahore’s glorious Badshahi Mosque. Opening our session at UMT, Pakistani delegate Ali Tariq recited from the Qur’an, his voice rising and falling in devotion. Rabbi Reuven Firestone closed singing the Shehecheyanu blessing. Rev. Bob Chase called upon the Lord to bless and keep us and give us peace. This Friday night, probably the first-ever Shabbat dinner was held on the LUMS campus with our Jewish brothers and sisters: candles lit, Kiddush sung, bread broken and shared.

What is so special about words, music and prayer? They have the power to move people to action. Student activists, young female poets, Christian slum residents, Pakistanis stopping their daily routines on the street to ask us — a group of visibly religious Americans — “Welcome. Why have you come here?” These people tell us a different story than the dominant media and state narrative concerned with politics, not people. If you take one of these voices away, the music becomes discordant. By listening to each other, together we are writing an alternative history — a popular historiography that has the power to lead to transcendent change.

With the mainstream news of Pakistan reaching the United States typically so negative, we are numbed; kept aloof by detached professional accounts of violence and mayhem. We become programmed to repress our instinct to question the reasons behind the violence. Denial of reality can help overcome a feeling of futility and desperation in the face of frightening conflict.

Living out an interreligious encounter like our group did moves us away from hopelessness and towards what philosopher Edmund Burke called the sublime. The sublime moves the imagination to awe and instills it with a degree of horror by what is “dark, uncertain, and confused.” When the sublime object is confronted, the pain is removed, and there is delight from the absence of pain. Immanuel Kant saw our inability to grasp the enormity of a sublime event, such as an earthquake, as evidence of the inadequacy of our human sensibility and imagination — a weakness our sacred texts highlight again and again, telling us that there are matters utterly beyond mankind’s knowledge that belong only to God. Events such as terrorist attacks could in this sense be called sublime, for they defy comprehension in their terrible enormity.

In Pakistan, a nation that has suffered more than 60,000 victims of violent extremism, and with more than half of 190 million people under age 22, the words, music, and prayers produced each day are the urgent ACTIONS that are directly leading to change.

They are what allow us to confront the terribly sublime with compassion and love, in order to remove the pain, and experience delight. Pakistan, we hear and contribute to your delightful aahang, and record it as our official version of history.