Written by Student Rights on 19 May 2010 at 4pm

In Conversation: With Salman Ahmad

junoon_in_dubai4-255B1-255DEarlier in the week, we brought you a story about Salman Ahmad, the Muslim rock star from Pakistan who has created waves all over the world with his Sufi inspired message of peace through music and culture.  Ahmad was in London this week as a guest of the Quilliam Foundation.  Student Rights attended a lunch discussion as James Crabtree (Prospect Magazine) interviewed Ahmad in what was an extremely insightful event.


Salman started the session with a short video clip of him in Pakistan with locals.  He sang parts of the Qur'an accompanied by his guitar.  After this, the men around him told him that what he was doing was 'haram' and forbidden by the holy book.  Salman protests.  "If my intentions are good, what harm is it?"  This is clearly his overarching philosophy that comes across strongly during his interview with Crabtree.  The audience listens patiently as Ahmad explains,

"Islam inspires my creativity.  As it has done for people for over 1400 years."

Sure enough, Ahmad has come across varying levels of protests against his music since he first began strumming on his Gibson Les Paul.  He recalls to us a moment when he began playing to an audience for the first time, Van Halen no less.

"I was playing with my eyes closed and I heard lots of screaming.  I thought, 'great, they like it.'  But when I opened my eyes, I noticed that Jamaat-e-Islami members had found out about our gathering and came in and broke the meeting up.  One guy got on stage, took my Les Paul from me... and went Pete Townshend on it."

Salman Ahmad protests quite rightly, that 'murderous thugs' have distorted Islam away from it's history and culture of peace.  Even the word 'jihad' he tells us, has been taken by these politically driven groups to further their cause.  When Ahmad was growing up, he remembers the word defining an 'inner struggle' or 'betterment' for Muslims.  This is why, when asked about the title of his book, he responds in the affirmative, that he intentionally chose this word as to him, it means 'to improve'.

"On September 11th, when they flew those planes into those towers.  They didn't just hijack the planes.  They hijacked Islam and the Muslim community."

Funnily enough, the same people who told him that music was haram in Islam later told him (when the TV cameras were off) that they were once singers and dancers at the age of 16.  Upon being questioned upon their change of heart, the response came that, 'who would attend prayers, if all the kids are at rock concerts'?  This is not a religious ideology but rather one, as Ahmad goes on to explain, about political power and control.  Over 50% of the population of Pakistan are under 30 - and the would be rulers know that.  They don't want to lose control over this base of people.  Instead, Ahmad explains, they would rather have them 'brainwashed by extremists'. Salman goes on to draw parallels between his work and other artists around the world, who don't just make music to make hits or to make money, but to make a difference.  Youssou N'Dour comes to mind, as well as the Danish-Muslim group Outlandish - who do a lot of social action work.  One member of the audience tells Ahmad,

"You're far too modest.  You're a star.  A superstar.  A true rock star."

So what does Ahmad put the rising, or persistent tensions between Islam and the West down to?  Two things, he repeats twice.  Number one, is a failure of the Muslim community, to explain to it's children what jihad really is and what Islam is about.  That it's not about this distorted narrative.  He claims that, "once young people who have been brainwashed realise the message from the Taliban is a false message," they see the true nature of their faith.  He claims that Sufism has always won over the centuries, but that the community needs to do more for it's youth. Secondly, is the failure of the media.  A failure to investigate, fact-find and report, rather than just reacting sensationally to stories from a few hours or days before.

"It's about mutual respect and mutual interest.  This is what resonates with the Muslim community.  It's like being in a dark room with a rope hanging from the ceiling.  It might look like a snake.  Once you turn the lights on, you can see that it's just a rope.  We should be trying to turn all the lights on in this area."

Salman Ahmad's book, "Rock and Roll Jihad," is available now. Follow Salman on Twitter here and follow the Quilliam Foundation here.