Heavy Metal Muslim

Salman Ahmad really does rock the Casbah


It was about midnight at the Nova Club in northern Beirut, and I was onstage with the Kordz (thekordz.com), Lebanon's premier rock group, blasting through a set of originals and classic covers to a packed house of fashionable twentysomethings. I'd spent the past 48 hours with band founder and lead singer Moe Hamzeh—discussing censorship and music in the Arab world at a conference by day, recording at his studio by night. We were joined in this superband jam by Moroccan heavy metal heavyweights Reda Zine and Amine Hamma. The only person missing was Salman Ahmad, lead guitarist of the Pakistani supergroup Junoon, the U2 of Asia, one of the best rock bands on the planet with 25 million albums sold and counting (junoon.com).

In a music scene that blends political dissent and virtuosity, Ahmad is a big draw. Raised in New York and Lahore, he's a religious man, a doctor and a head-banging musician out to change the world.

But his absence wasn't surprising. Earlier that day, an earthquake had leveled entire towns in northern Pakistan. When he finally turned up, it was with the knowledge that his aunt and cousins were buried in the rubble that had been their home. "My uncle is still digging for them, but it's probably too late," he said. "I have to leave tomorrow for Pakistan."

He said this with a strange calm that caught me by surprise. "Look," he said, "I'm a Sufi. I must believe that whatever happens does so for a reason, and all we can do is remember our loved ones and honor them by bringing joy to others. Let's play some music."

When we hit the stage for the next set, Ahmad ripped through a few guitar solos before taking the microphone to tell the crowd about his family, and then turned to us and called out, "With or Without You." If you want to understand the universality of music, imagine this scene: a Pakistani singer playing an Irish rock anthem with a Lebanese band and two Moroccans and an American sitting in. As we found the groove and slowly built the song's momentum, Ahmad sang a tribute to his lost relatives that might have been felt in Pakistan. Even in the dark, I could see the audience crying with him. Later, he said, "Isn't that what music is supposed to be about?"

Tell that to the Taliban, you might think. And, well, Ahmad has. In addition to being a rock star and a Sufi, Ahmad is an M.D. He formed Junoon while in medical school in Pakistan precisely to criticize the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq. "Being a rock musician and a doctor may seem diametrically opposed," he once told me, "but I believe my destiny has always had something to do with healing. That is what I am trained to do and what I am trying to do with my music."

As part of that healing, Ahmad recently filmed The Rock Star and the Mullahs, a BBC documentary that brought him together with fundamentalist religious leaders to discuss the meaning of Islam. The film features Ahmad challenging the religious leaders to show him where the Koran forbids playing music (they can't, because it's not there) and demonstrating that singing and playing an acoustic guitar can be a religious act. As his hosts look on, he pulls out his guitar and sings a verse from the Koran. This is not Ray Charles turning gospel into the devil's music, just a religious Muslim using the instrument he knows best to sing a verse from his holy book. The mullahs are very nervous and insist this is prohibited by Islam. But once the cameras were off, Ahmad said, they admitted that they knew the words to most of his songs.

Such is the complexity of Pakistan, home to some of the world's biggest terrorists and best rock musicians. But for Ahmad, this seeming incongruence makes perfect sense. "My environment in Lahore was a mix of poverty, violence and religious extremism," he said. "So the songs I wrote naturally yearned to express freedom, love and hope. With my music and documentaries [in his other documentary, It's My Country Too, he interviews American Muslims after 9/11], I try to hold up a mirror for people."

The culture wars are all about power, he said. "In Pakistan the mullahs are afraid of losing their gig to longhaired rock musicians, and so come down hard on music; in the U.S., foreign policy is being shaped by global terrorism and politicians who want to control the political and social agenda by raising the specter of fear. In both cases, Muslims are caught in the crossfire. As a result of being under the microscope, they are being forced to re-examine their religious, social and cultural identities."

Hence, the crucial role of what I call Heavy Metal Islam. As Reda Zine explained to me, "We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal." From Morocco to Pakistan, metal, thrash, punk and rap are increasingly popular precisely because they offer a public space for the criticism of closed and oppressive societies.

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