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Last Updated: Monday, 15 December, 2003, 20:28 GMT
When the rock star met the mullah
By Umber Khairi
BBC Urdu service

The pony-tailed legend of Pakistani rock is on tour in his country's North West Frontier Province.

Salman Ahmad with madrassa students
Ahmad signs autographs at a religious school: despite the ban, he is famous

He is not there to make music with his band - but to meet the men who have banned music.

Salman Ahmad, guitarist with rock group Junoon, has one question for the clerics: "Where in Islam does it say that music is forbidden?"

His journey in search of an answer, taking in affectionate fans and fiery preachers, was filmed in a programme shown on BBC4.

Hit single

They want to listen to music themselves, they just don't want us to have it
Man in Peshawar

A public ban on music has gradually taken effect in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, after a radical alliance of right-wing religious parties swept to power in local elections last year.

Music and film stores have closed, musicians have been harassed and vigilantes routinely tear down posters and torch tapes, decrying them as "un-Islamic".

But in the town of Peshawar, near the Afghan border, an encounter with a bus-load of Pashtuns shows Ahmad how the masses are still in thrall to music.

Ahmad is mobbed by men who ask for his autograph and then start singing the tune with which his band hit the big time - "Jazba Junoon".

When Ahmad asks them why they think the provincial government has banned music, he is told "They want to listen to music themselves, they just don't want us to have it."

Electrifying cleric

At a Peshawar religious seminary, or madrassa, the young mullahs all know of Ahmad and his famous band.

Salman Ahmad at the shrine of Mian Mir Sufi, Lahore
Ahmad visits a Sufi shrine: Mysticism and music have a long history in Islam

But they cannot tell him why music has been banned - and seem distinctly displeased when he sings a few verses from the Holy Koran to the accompaniment of a guitar.

Ahmad also met the maverick preacher, Maulana Bijli, a critic of Western powers, weak Muslim governments and pop music.

His name, Bijli, means "electricity" - a nod to the electrifying power of his sermons.

The Maulana is not convinced by Ahmad's argument that music should no more be banned in Pakistan than in 52 other Muslim countries.

'Moderate modernists'

Ahmad then meets Gulzar Alam, a traditional Pashtun musician who has first-hand experience of the authorities' crackdown on song.

Salman Ahmad and Maulana Bijli
Maulana Bijli is famed for the electrifying power of his sermons

Alam attributes the rise of the religious hardliners to the US-led war in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Many Pashtuns from the province saw the war as an attack on their ethnic kin, and duly voted for the Islamist parties that were the war's loudest critics.

But Ahmad finds anti-Americanism alive and well in other parts of Pakistan.

A girl at an elite school in the southern port city of Karachi tells him the Americans are "mean" and "do everything for their own purposes".

Ahmad sees the ban on music as part of a battle between Islamic extremists like those who rule the North West Frontier Province and "moderate modernists" such as himself.

He regards the radical, puritan faith being laid down in the province as alien to his country, which has a long tradition of Sufism and devotional music.

Scenes of ecstatic singing at Pakistan's shrines and the dancing, cheering teenagers at Junoon concerts appear to back him up.

Song of devotion

No answer emerges to Ahmad's question - no one he meets can tell him which passage of the Koran explicitly states that music is "anti-Islamic".

But there is a relief of sorts.

As Ahmad's meeting with Maulana Bijli draws to a close, the firebrand cleric pats him on the hand and expresses the hope that he hasn't caused offence and that the two men will, one day, meet again.

And then, with the instruction to "play this for them in London," Maulana Bijli bursts into song - a song of religious devotion, but melodious nonetheless.

The BBC4 programme is "The Rock Star and the Mullah", October Films, Angus McQueen and Ruhi Hamid


SEE ALSO:
Musicians claim police harassment
30 Jan 03  |  Entertainment
Pakistan's political pop stars
12 Jul 03  |  Entertainment


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