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The Musical Revolutionary: Salman Ahmad

Mehvash Amin

Excerpted from ‘Rebels in the Establishment’ that first appeared in The Aleph Review, Vol. 3 (2019).

The title of Salman Ahmad’s book, Rock and Roll Jihad, A Muslim Rock Star’s Journey, defines the ethos inherent in the work of the celebrated Junooni, as he calls himself. In it, he has accepted Jihad, which is ‘struggle’ rather than the bloody religious war understood by Westerners; he has defined himself as defiantly ‘Muslim’ rather than ‘secular’; and the word ‘Journey’ implies being on the road rather than reaching a destination and symbolises the revolutionary, as opposed to the establishment, figure who sees himself as having reached his destination.

A junooni is, of course, someone who loses himself or herself in a mystical trance. His junoon, it can be presumed, is his Sufi brand of music.

Several threads in his book point to this revolutionary ethos and to his leanings towards the Islam of the tolerant mystic rather than that of the rite-obsessed religious bigot: “You can destroy the mosque, tear down the temple, break all that can be broken. But never break anyone’s heart, because that’s where God lives”, he quotes the great Punjabi Sufi poet and mystic, Bulleh Shah. He goes on further to say: “I wasn’t cut out for blind worship. I had a lot of questions about my faith and my Prophet, but they lay dormant for many years because I didn’t know how to articulate them.” The poverty of a third-world country also ate at him. “Seeing the poverty all around me got under my skin and burrowed into my conscience, leading me to take myself on punishing guilt trips even as a small boy.”

In other matters too, Salman was a rebel right from the get-go. “I was essentially a free spirit and didn’t like being told what to do, and my parents saw me as a wild horse that needed to be reined in.” His mother, in particular, had to deal with a difficult child: “My mother had warned me about strangers and stalkers lurking around and told me not to go anywhere by myself. Why didn’t I listen to her? Why was I so stubborn?”

He spent several years in the U.S. In New York, he found “a city suited to my rebellious heart”. That is when he went to a Led Zeppelin concert at the age of 13 and fell in love with rock and roll—the rebel in him had found a voice: “I couldn’t stand being in my desi cultural shackles much longer.”

Back in his country, he went through the Zia years, when music and freedom of expression were quashed. He writes, “if someone had told me in the late sixties and early seventies that a dictator would come along and squelch Lahore’s musical kaleidoscope, I would have thought he was insane.”

His beloved guitar was smashed during a concert that was attacked by zealots; and he saw rebellion fomenting in his country in the wake of such draconian measures. At a procession he would see “the women and men defiantly holding their ground even as the police had them trapped and surrounded in the middle of daytime traffic.”

And again, it was music that came to his rescue. At family wedding qawwali performances, he “saw an enduring feature of my cultural heritage that has survived wars, religious fanaticism, colonial rule, and even the Partition.” The qawwali is, of course, a mystical trance-inducing form of music, performed at shrines and mazaars for centuries before it was elevated to a worldwide audience by qawwals such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Along the way, Salman had befriended Imran Khan, now prime minister of the country. I was keen to know if the price of becoming part of the status quo meant shedding some of those junooni robes.

Yet every time he appears in photos, he looks like his old self, dark glasses, ponytail et al., even as his band, Junoon, got together in December 2018 (Karachi) and in January 2019 (Dubai) for ‘reunion concerts’.

Whether this revolutionary zeal continues to live on in his heart as he dons the mantle of a UN Goodwill Ambassador and stays in close ambit of the prime minister, only time will tell.

Mehvash Amin: Reading your book, it’s clear that you’ve always been a bit of a rebel. How did that affect your music?

Salman Ahmed: When you listen to your inner voice and follow your heart, you will naturally become unique and authentic. The actions you take will seem rebellious to the majority who live their lives following trends and fashion. To that extent, I guess I’ve always seemed unconventional and out of step with the herd mentality. That is why the music and social/spiritual themes I’ve created take time to digest and be absorbed by a trend-savvy public.

After a lifetime of following my heart, I’ve realised that there is no other way to find your true self and purpose, other than listening to your qalb.[1]

Dil se jo baat nikalti hai, asar rakhti hai

Par nahin, taaqat e parwaaz magar rakhti hai[2]

– Iqbal

M: At this time, you are a well-known personality, with collaborations with many artists, a book to your name and wide celebrity—but this was not always so. Your music was ‘underground music’ during the regime of Zia ul Haq, for example. How do acts of suppression impact on your music? Did your lyrics become more rebellious in that era?

S: All of life is a struggle to find yourself and your purpose. Bulleh Shah said it best: Bulleh, ki janan mein kaun.[3] I’m stlll on that journey and all the struggle. Suppression by various regimes and vested interests only made my work stronger and more focused toward freedom, love and peace.

M: Right now, your great friend, Imran Khan, is the prime minister of the country. Has that fact changed you?

S: I’ve known Imran Khan since I used to play cricket with him at Lahore Gymkhana and then when he picked me to go to Bangladesh as a young college cricketer. I’ve learnt many things from IK and have supported him in his quest to make Pakistan a country in which there is aman o insaf, rozi aur taleem (peace and justice, livelihood and education). I composed and recorded ‘Naya Pakistan’ and asked my late friend, Junaid Jamshed, to join me in singing a song of hope back in 2013.

In 2018, the journey to Naya Pakistan has gathered momentum and I am very hopeful that the next five years will see Pakistan make positive strides toward self-sustainability. I have total trust in the Prime Minister’s vision and intentions.

As a UN Goodwill Ambassador, I will try and do my best to raise awareness for polio eradication, climate change and peace in our region.

Photographs: Chris Ramirez

[1] An Arabic word meaning ‘Heart’. It is the second among six purities in Sufi philosophy. [2] When passion streaming from the heart turns human lips to lyres/ Some magic wings man’s music then, his song with soul inspires. [3] Bulleh, to me I am not known.


Mehvash Amin: A Pushcart Prize nominee, Mehvash’s poetry has appeared in various journals internationally and been part of anthologies. Her passions include learning languages—she is currently into Spanish—as well as interior design. She is publisher and editor-in-chief of this review.


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