A bearer of hope, Pakistani American rock star Salman Ahmad’s recent memoir, Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star’s Revolution, is suffused with the warmth of spirituality and the author’s deep-rooted faith in God. “We can only wake up each day and go out and plough the fields, armed with our God-consciousness and a clear awareness of the purpose of our individual life,” he writes.
With fans including the pop group U2’s lead singer Bono and former US Vice President Al Gore, Ahmad is among the first rock stars to use music to build bridges between feuding neighbours India and Pakistan and between the West and the Muslim world, exposing Western audiences to a different side of Islam through music.
Rock & Roll Jihad chronicles Ahmad’s journey from the first flickers of his passion for rock to his rise as the founder of South Asia’s best known band, Junoon, with world peace as his mandate. His memoir's title aptly includes the term jihad, which in Islam refers more to striving for self-improvement, but is commonly associated in the West with violence. Ahmad's personal jihad is bridging global chasms and playing his music freely.
Ahmad deftly captures the pangs of being an immigrant child in the United States and his journey as a musician dedicated to interfaith understanding and peace, in the context of what ails Pakistan: corruption, “extreme poverty, extreme despair, and extreme injustice.”
His father’s job brought the family from Lahore to New York, where Ahmad spent his middle and high school years. At this point, life was about struggling to fit in, learning to play guitar, looking to the musical groups Led Zeppelin and the Beatles for inspiration and dreaming of being a rock star.
Another of his father's career moves took the family back to Pakistan where Ahmad succumbed to parental pressure and decided to attend medical school. Despite studying to become a doctor, Ahmad never let his real dream die: to bring his style of rock music to a new audience in South Asia and beyond. The memoir is a must-read – especially for young adults caught between two worlds, whether they are straddling two cultures or caught between personal dreams and parental expectations.
Even though Ahmad graduated from medical school, he never went on to practice. He started a traveling guitar club that met in private spaces in Lahore. There the musicians mixed Urdu love poems with Casio synthesisers, tablas (drum-like instruments) with Fender Stratocasters, and ragas (melodies in classical Indian music based on five or more notes) with power chords, finally blossoming into the band Junoon.
Ahmad also describes the struggle to hold on to Pakistan’s historic romance with the arts and music in the face of angry conservatives and oppressive dictators who wanted to dress Pakistan in grey. He criticised politicians for their corruption, which eventually led to a nationwide ban on his music on the airwaves. Meanwhile, religious fanatics targeted him for being a negative influence.
But for most Pakistanis, music is an integral part of their lives and Ahmad's brand of music has become a "rainbow bridge", linking them to the rest of the world.
Despite the troubles Ahmad has faced because of religious conservatives and politicians in his home country, he rocketed to the top of the country's music charts, bringing Western-style Pakistani rock and pop to Pakistani teenagers.
Junoon quickly became the U2 of Asia, a Sufi-style rock group crossing boundaries and selling a record 30 million albums. The lyrics of his song, "Ab Tu Jaag", meaning “awaken now,” is a call to action for all people to change their environment for the better: “Awake traveler, move on, Trailing its star, the night is gone, Do what you have to, today, You will never be back this way, Companions are calling. Let's go, Awake traveller, move on.”
Nothing has stopped Ahmad's star from rising. He continues to tour with his band, teach and travel the world as a UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador. The lessons he has learnt as a musician building bridges, whether within South Asia or between the Muslim world and West, he shares with his readers in Rock & Roll Jihad.
* Naazish YarKhan is a writer, editor, public speaker and NPR commentator. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).