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A Musical Mission from Allah

Can a Pakistani rock star strike a new chord in the hearts of Islamic fundamentalists?
by Carter Phipps

The most important battle in the world right now may not be between radical Islam and the West but between Islam and itself. The fourteen-hundred-year-old religion has hit a crossroads. Moderates and extremists are vying for influence and power in this ancient tradition, and perhaps nowhere is that struggle more evident than in Pakistan. As one of the largest Muslim countries, with a population of 150 million, Pakistan is a test case for a religion that is being pulled apart by the twin tensions of modernity and fundamentalism. In the midst of this maelstrom, fate, with a little help from the BBC, has placed an unlikely champion of a more moderate version of Islam at the center of the debate. His name is Salman Ahmad, and he is the guitarist in the band Junoon. A South Asian trio with members from Pakistan, India, and the United States, Junoon has become a worldwide sensation over the last decade and is now a household name for millions of Pakistanis and Indians. And Ahmad, who has teamed up with award-winning producer Ruhi Hamid to make documentaries exploring Islam, may be the best-known face in what the New York Times has called “the U2 of Asia.”

“Who are the Mullahs who say that [music is forbidden]?” demands Ahmad, sitting calm and relaxed in a circle of students at a Pakistani madrassa, or religious school. What unfolds next in the BBC documentary The Rock Star and the Mullahs is a rare glimpse into a world few Westerners have ever seen. Ahmad asks the students of this fundamentalist Islamic school to tell him why they believe that music is haram, or forbidden, in the teachings of Islam. As he presses them and they respond, the young Muslim students are torn between their fascination with this cultural icon, who represents rock and roll and twenty-first-century values, and their adherence to a form of increasingly extremist Islam taught by their local mullahs. Eventually, Ahmad reaches for his guitar, and as the students sit around him, their expressions a mixture of shock and intrigue, he defies the ban on music and sings—a verse from the Qur'an. The teacher of this small group studies his famous visitor. “You can decide whether you want to go to heaven or hell,” he finally declares.

It is encounters such as these that are turning Ahmad, who is a practicing Muslim in the Sufi tradition, into much more than a celebrated musician. With his rock-star looks, down-to-earth approachability, and disarming charisma, he has a unique ability to speak to extremists and directly challenge their views even while respecting the essence of their faith. The result makes for an unusual window into the real human struggles that are shaping contemporary Islam. And it also makes for great television, as producer Hamid was thrilled to discover.

Originally trained as a doctor, Ahmad finished medical school in Pakistan in the early 1990s but decided to test the waters of the musician's life for a year before starting a medical practice. Against all conventional wisdom, he stayed in Pakistan, a country where a local rock-and-roll band was simply an oxymoron.

“Up until the eighties, all the pop culture we had in Pakistan was Indian Bollywood music or Western music,” he explains. “I was thinking, 'There's such a huge history of music on the subcontinent, why don't we have our own?' I had a spiritual connection with music, and I wanted to express it. So I decided that I would try it for one year.” Ten years later, Junoon has made history with its homegrown blend of rock and roll and spirituality. Indeed, a healthy dose of Islam is often mixed into the lyrics. And Ahmad doesn't hesitate to give his own views on where his religion should be headed in the twenty-first century. “If you look at Islamic history, the Prophet Muhammad lived a really tolerant life,” he explained at a screening of the documentary last winter. “He married a woman who was fifteen years older and a divorcée. He imbibed information from Christianity, from Judaism. He was a very open man.”

Such is the message that this pied piper of Asia is spreading to youth through his words and music. If the success of the band is any indication, the message is having an effect. And his sphere of influence is beginning to expand beyond Pakistan. Indeed, just as certain forms of religious extremism spread across the Near East, becoming a pan-Islamic phenomenon, so, too, is the moderating influence of Junoon and Ahmad in ascendance, touching Muslim youth from Lucknow to Lahore to London. Ahmad and Hamid have recently completed a second documentary entitled It's My Country Too, a cross-country exploration of how America is changing Islam and how Islam is changing America. How much impact can Junoon and its idealistic guitarist have? It's easy to underestimate the powerful combination of spirituality, music, pop culture, and a message that resonates with youthful dreams of a brighter, freer future. And in a time when somewhere in the mountains of North Pakistan a local folk hero named Osama bin Laden is hard at work selling young people a violent version of reactionary Islam, it is heartening to know that another kind of hero is eliciting a different kind of passion in that same generation. They are the ones who will ultimately shape Pakistan's future, and perhaps the rest of the world's as well.


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This article is from
Our Immortality Issue


September–November 2005