Where Islam Meets Rock ‘n’ Roll

Salman Ahmad introduced the world to Sufi rock and now to the culture behind the music.

By Laila Kazmi Mar 20, 2008

Clad in jeans and a T-shirt, Salman Ahmad stands center stage, intently strumming his guitar to a hall full of mostly young South Asian Americans in Seattle. The guest tabla player strains to keep up. The audience rocks to legendary poets Bulleh Shah’s and Iqbal’s words skillfully woven into melodies–the same ones that made Ahmad’s band, Junoon, into South Asia’s biggest rock band.

This has been the scene at many stages around the United States, where Salman Ahmad has been performing solo for the past few years.

Tall, with a goatee and a ponytail, Ahmad is best known as a rock star. At 26, he founded Junoon in Pakistan in 1990 and has been the driving force behind the band.

With lyrics heavily influenced by Sufi poetry and infused with hard rock, Junoon (meaning "passion" in Urdu) introduced the world to a new genre of music: Sufi rock.

In the process, they brought a whole new generation of South Asians back to the works of celebrated Punjabi and Urdu poets from the subcontinent such as Shah, Iqbal and Shah Husain. The band went on to become an international success, selling over 20 million albums and packing performance halls around the world.

But just as he’s known for his music, Ahmad is also known for speaking out regularly on political issues in the United States and Pakistan.

Ahmad spent his teens in the United States after his family relocated due to his father’s job with the Kuwait Airways. They settled in New York, where Ahmad developed his interest in rock music.

"My first introduction to rock ‘n’ roll came at the age of 13," says Ahmad. "A friend of mine had an extra ticket to go see Led Zeppelin in Madison Square Garden. There, I saw this amazing spectacle of people with peace signs and beads. Then Jimmy Page came on stage wearing an outfit with dragons painted on it. He started to play his
guitar, and I was just blown away by the whole scene." Not long after, Ahmad took on a job as a busboy for six months and began scrounging to save the money to buy himself a Les Paul, Page’s signature guitar.

After finishing high school, Ahmad moved back to Pakistan with his family. At his mother’s urging, he enrolled in medical school, all the while sticking to his guitar playing, which became more than a mere hobby. "I was studying medicine in Lahore, and I ended up starting several secret bands on campus," says Ahmad. Secret, because of the strict censorship laws of the time. It was the ‘80s, and the military dictator General Ziaul-Haq was in power. The Cold War was going on, and Pakistan was then an American ally. Zia, with his strict religious beliefs, instituted an era of censorship of the media and the arts.

"You couldn’t perform [music] publicly, couldn’t appear on TV, couldn’t appear on radio," recalls Ahmad. "But on campus I’d meet other kids who also had a passion for music, so I started seven different underground bands. I had my guitar, and I was teaching everybody all these songs I knew. When we were playing that music, it was such a counterculture, we started right under the nose of the military dictatorship." It was during this time that Ahmad developed a passion for composing music and writing original songs.

After medical school, Ahmad decided to "take a year off" from medicine. He had planned on returning to it, "but once I put the stethoscope down and strapped on the guitar, life never became the same again."

Ahmad joined a band called Vital Signs as their guitarist. A precursor to Junoon, Vital Signs became a huge success in Pakistan and is recognized as one of the pioneers in pop music there. After a couple of years with Vital Signs, Ahmad left in 1990 to form his own band with friends Brian O’Connol and Ali Azmat, and Junoon was born. With the charisma of Ahmad as the lead guitarist, Azmat’s powerful vocals and O’Connol on bass, Junoon shot to fame after their third album, Azadi, in 1996. Featuring songs like
"Khudi," "Sayonee" and "Yaar Bina," the album was an instant success due to its unique style of mixing lyrics inspired by Sufi poetry with hard rock. Once the albums Parvaaz in 1999 and Daur-e-Junoon in 2002 were added, the genre of Sufi rock was officially part of the international music scene.

Before Junoon, another Pakistani musician, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, introduced the more traditional Qawwali form of Sufi music to the West. Ahmad also worked with Khan and was greatly inspired by him. Speaking about the influence of Sufism in his music, Ahmad explains: "Sufism is the mystical side of Islam, the anti-Taliban. People who follow Sufism are tolerant and love diversity; they seek knowledge in beauty and truth. I am a seeker of beauty and truth."

During his talk and performance in Seattle, Ahmad presents the Junoon hit "Bulleya" from their album Parvaaz. The tune is based on a poem by Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh

Shah. On stage, Ahmad lightly strokes his guitar, and then stops to introduce the song. He translates Shah’s words for the audience before turning his attention back to his guitar:

I am not pure. I am not vile

I’m no Moses and I’m no Pharaoh

But, Bulleh, who is it that I am?

Bulleya, who am I?

Junoon’s sociopolitical tunes got them in trouble with Pakistani politicians. Their song "Ehtesaab," featuring a polo pony dining in a luxury hotel, criticized the corruption by then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government. The song and its video were promptly banned from the airwaves in 1996. Two years later, Junoon got in trouble again when,
during a concert in India, Ahmad asked the audience, "In a region mired with poverty and destitution, with millions of starving souls living in pitiful conditions, can we afford a
nuclear arms race?" He suggested that, instead, India and Pakistan should work together on the economic development of both countries. This time, Junoon was banned completely by the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The ban was later lifted, and although subsequent Pakistani governments imposed bans on the music, audiences packed the halls to see Junoon perform.

After September 11, 2001, Ahmad returned to the United States. "I decided to come back to New York after 9/11 because I wanted to see what the country was going through," says Ahmad.

He found himself in a new role. "Many of my friends in America had a lot of questions, questions about Islam and Muslims." As South Asia’s top rock star and a Muslim American, he appeared on CNN and NPR to answer some of those questions. Junoon was also the subject of a 2001 VH1 News Special called Islamabad Rock City hosted by
Susan Sarandon.

Since the "war on terror" began, Ahmad has been performing and speaking at different college campuses. He confidently addresses students’ questions on being Muslim in post- 9/11 America and on Sufi Islam. Through his talks, Ahmad has tried to counter the stereotypical images of Muslims typically splashed in the American media. It is a task that Ahmad enjoys. "Just having a conversation with college students is so energizing," he says. "They are so curious and honest in their questions."

In attempting to bridge a culture gap between the West and Muslims, Ahmad has not shied away from questioning norms within Muslim communities. In 2003, Ahmad hosted a documentary for PBS called The Rockstar and the Mullahs in which he explored the role of music in Islam. In the film, he travels to northwestern Pakistani cities near the border of Afghanistan, where clerics have instituted a ban on all music. There he visited some orthodox madrasas–Muslim religious schools–and he respectfully challenged students and clerics on their assertion that all music is un-Islamic because of its tendency to promote lewd behavior, as they put it.

In 2004, just before the U.S. presidential elections, Ahmad made another journey, this time through several American cities, talking to Muslim Americans about their experiences since 9/11. It is the subject of the BBC documentary It’s My Country Too. The people Ahmad speaks to range from a New York City cab driver to peace activist

Talat Hamdani, who lost her son at the World Trade Center on 9/11, and Ahmad’s own affluent aunt, whose family runs the "Muslims for Bush" web campaign and with whom Ahmad frankly disagrees.

Since 9/11, many Muslim activists and artists, as well as organizations, have condemned extremism and terrorism in the name of religion. For Ahmad, his music and films are a way of sharing his Pakistani and Muslim culture with the world. "I think it is when we share our cultures that the best conversations begin, and it’s through cultural interactions that we can best understand somebody else."

Ahmad currently teaches a course on Islamic Music and Culture at Queens College, New York. "I’ve got a mini planet earth in my classes right now," Ahmad excitedly
points out. "There are people from all walks of life. There are [white] Americans, African Americans, Koreans, Albanians, South Asians, Hindus, Muslims, etc. I find they are such a receptive audience and so eager to learn about the music and poetry that comes from Muslim culture."

To listen to Junoon music, visit http://www.junoon.com or http://www.magnatune.com.