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.

In fact, a young Iraqi Shii religious figure with whom I organized a panel with Zine last year explained that while he doesn't like metal as a style, "When we get together, chant, pump our fists, march, beat the drums fiercely, we're doing heavy metal too." What's most interesting here is that unlike metal artists in the U.S. or Europe, who haven't tended to be the most intellectual or activist artists around (think of Metallica joining the suit against Napster), and while hip-hop artists have become largely depoliticized since the late 1980s heyday of political rap, the most important rock and rap artists in the Muslim world are in fact well-educated and very political. Ahmad is a doctor, Zine is about to finish his Ph.D. at the Sorbonne, and French-Lebanese rapper Clotaire-K is incredibly well-read and musically diverse. Iran's most famous rapper, Shahkar Binesh-Pajooh, is a professor of urban planning.

These artist-intellectuals mix Led Zeppelin, Santana, Public Enemy and even Ozzy with the great artists and styles of their cultures to produce music that is at once innovative and politically challenging. And unlike the Dixie Chicks (to whom great respect is owed), the risks they take in playing political music go far beyond a Clear Channel radio ban. The Moroccan government arrested more than a dozen local metal musicians and fans two years ago on charges they were satanists; the Iranian government has censored Binesh-Pajooh. But the rewards are as great as the risks, which is why they keep working to bring art, intellect and activism together in the space of great five-minute songs.

Ahmad ended one of our conversations by explaining that despite the official hostility between India and Pakistan, "People in both countries yearn for peace. The Indians saw a reflection of themselves in Junoon as we did in them, and music is providing the soundtrack for the peace process. The politicians and leaders have to pay attention to their young constituencies, since more than half of the 1.5 billion people in India/Pakistan are under the age of 25." He might have added this: the alternative to Junoon writing the soundtrack for the future is likely to be Osama bin Laden and George Bush, a duet we've all heard enough of in the past five years.

Dr. Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and author most recently of Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld, 2005).

SALMAN AHMAD PERFORMS WITH  HIS NEW INCARNATION OF JUNOON AT THE UC IRVINE STUDENT CENTER, CRYSTAL COVE AUDITORIUM, W. PELTASON AND PEREIRA, IRVINE, (949) 824-2419. WED., 6 P.M. FREE. A SCREENING OF THE ROCK STAR AND THE MULLAH  AND DISCUSSION WILL FOLLOW.

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