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Pop icon redefines meaning of Jihad
‘To overcome ego and inner greed and to strive for social reform is true Jihad’, says musician Salman Ahmad
By Amjad Bashir Siddiqi
KARACHI, Pakistan -- Pakistan’s most popular singer, Salman Ahmad, is on a mission.
The 46-year-old singer is striving to rescue what he considers the true concept of Jihad. He said imposters and terrorists have stolen it, terming it a “sinister case of identity theft”.
According to him, al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden have hijacked holy terminology to redefine Muslims and justify senseless violence.
“To overcome ego and inner greed and to strive for social reforms is true Jihad”, Salman told Central Asia Online.
In his view, the war under Jihad is “a defensive battle”, rather than an offensive concept. The world largely misunderstands Jihad’s true nature, he said.
Salman has sold 30m albums and enjoys the support of millions of Pakistani and foreign fans. Salman recently published his memoirs, “Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star’s Revolution”.
The book tells the story of his passion for making music and of rock’s power to unite. Grammy-winning American singer Melissa Etheridge wrote the foreword. Salman told Central Asia Online, “I have written the book to clear the misconceptions and confusions prevailing in the minds of youth”.
Facing religious zealots and a military regime in the ’80s that wanted all music banned, Salman and his band Junoon (Passion) rocketed to the top of the music charts.
Against this backdrop, Salman waged his “underground Jihad” to bring rock music to audiences in Pakistan. With modest beginnings, he started a guitar club that played for private Lahore parties, mixing Urdu love poems with Casio synthesisers, tabla drums with Fender Stratocasters, and ragas with power chords. Eventually he joined his first pop band, Vital Signs. Later, he founded Junoon. His creative vigour did not go unnoticed by his enemies. Fundamentalist zealots were unrelenting; they hounded him, trying to discredit him by charging him with infidelity and “un-Islamic” behaviour.
As was true for the rest of society, the 1980s were trying times for music under the military regime of conservative Islamist General Zia-ul-Haq. While rival politicians suffered public floggings and execution, censors barred musicians for the flimsiest of reasons. The brother-and-sister duo Nazia and Zoheb Hasan, who led the disco beat in the country in the 1980s, faced a ban under Zia for holding hands on national television.
In 1997, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League lambasted Salman’s former band, Vital Signs, saying: “Looking at those singing Dil Dil Pakistan, I feel like calling in a barber and having their long hair shaved off”, effectively creating an embargo of the group and others like them.
But Salman was not only persecuted by the Islamists. He and his band Junoon suffered political censorship during the rule of largely liberal Benazir Bhutto, partly due to a song denouncing political corruption.
Salman’s Jihad continues, but now he has taken on the Taliban. He criticised the government’s 2009 peace deal with the Taliban of Swat in a Washington Post op-ed piece.
“President Asif Ali Zardari’s ill-conceived appeasement will only embolden the Taliban and may squelch more of Pakistan’s voices of peace just when Pakistanis and the world need to hear them most”, he warned.
But the Talibanisation of society and the prevailing extremism have already bruised society.
Challenging the often rigidly held concept of music being taboo in Islam, Salman said a minority of extremists declared music forbidden.
“A very small body of the political and religious elite created confusion for selfish means”, he said. Religious scholar Khalid Zaheer, dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences at the University of Central Punjab, shares Salman’s viewpoint. Khalid says “melodious tones, sound, good poetry and recital are meant to be enjoyed and Islam has nothing against it”.
The problem and the prohibition, Zaheer said, “arise when it crosses the barrier of decency and turns obscene, vulgar and immoral”. Some religious scholars have misunderstood the nature of music and have declared it taboo, not realising the basic principles of Hadith and its full context, Zaheer said.
Citing political and religious persecution, Salman left Pakistan and settled in New York, where he teaches music and poetry at Queens College. Apart from being a leading Jihadist against the Taliban, Salman is working on themes related to world peace. Recently he recorded an album with Etheridge for Search for Common Ground, a non-profit organisation working for world peace.