Colleges in Diverse Borough of Queens Create Musical Mosaic Featuring Voices of Moses and Mohammad

CUNY Matters

Perhaps it was predictable that some of the most interesting cultural dialogues regarding the Middle East would surface in the borough of Queens.

In February of 2002, right after the beheading of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl by Muslim extremists in Pakistan, a New York-based Pakistani newspaper, Sada-e-Pakistan U.S.A., mourned the slain Jewish journalist as "shaheed," a martyr in the cause of good.

In reaction, a Queens-based Muslim imam denounced the paper, saying that the Pakistani-American editor was merely trying to "shine [the] shoes" of Americans and that it was theologically impermissible to call a non-Muslim a martyr.

The imam was roundly denounced by a number of other local Pakistani leaders.

Fast-forward to today, and a Pakistani Muslim immigrant, teaching as a visiting professor at Queens College, is using the universal language of music to bridge the cultural divide now dangerously separating Muslims from others groups, especially Jews.

He is Salman Ahmad, a medical doctor turned world music rock star, who has gained a measure of notoriety throughout Asia—and not a few threats against him—as he has embarked on a mission to foster humanistic dialogue in these times of hatred and killing in the Middle East.

It is surely worth mentioning that Ahmad's band, Junoon (which means obsession in Urdu and Arabic), is based in Karachi, the port city in Pakistan where the journalist Pearl was abducted and slain by his captors.

In the aftermath of the killing, Ahmad received a phone call from Pearl's father, Judea Pearl, who told him that "Danny was a musician himself and loved Junoon's music," according to a 2002 dispatch by Agence France Presse.

Junoon has sold 25 million albums and has a devoted base of fans throughout the Asian world.

In an interview for a CUNY podcast (visit and then click the podcast link)—conducted by Hunter College journalism graduate Sudip Mukherjee—Ahmad explained how he came to teach at Queens College.

The person who recruited him, he said fondly and gratefully, was Professor Mark Rosenblum, who had been looking for someone with a personal and rigorous knowledge of Islam, the better to complement Rosenblum's efforts teaching a complex topic: "The Middle East and America: Clash of Civilizations or Meeting of the Minds."

A critical component of Rosenblum's approach has been a requirement that students learn to "Walk in the Others' Shoes," that they—Muslims, Jews and Christians—put themselves mentally in the shoes of others, particularly on the gut-wrenching issues of the Middle East.

Said Ahmad: "After I met Mark Rosenberg in September of last year...we continued a conversation we were having about how we can best learn about Muslim culture, and how Muslims can know better about Jewish culture."

Ahmad's class is called "Islamic Music and Culture of South Asia." He said of the class, "It gave me an opportunity to explore, to illuminate, my interests in Sufi poetry, which is love poetry, Islamic love poetry, and the musical inspirations behind it...and to show the students another side of Islam."

Ahmad will be teaching his class again this fall semester and believes it will not only be enjoyable, but will make a contribution to world understanding.

"When you learn about a culture's music, food, art, literature, you get a wider view of those people."

Rosenblum's program was funded through the Difficult Dialogues initiative of the Ford Foundation, and Queens College was one of only 26 in the nation to receive an award, designed to "promote an open campus environment where sensitive subjects can be discussed in the face of reports of growing intolerance."

Notably, LaGuardia Community College, located in the Long Island City section of Queens, was also an award recipient. (See accompanying article.) Of the University's 17 undergraduate campuses, three colleges in Queens—Queens, LaGuardia and Queensborough Community College—had the highest numbers of Muslim students, according to figures released by the University's Office of Institutional Research.

Classifying his musical influences as a bridge between classic rock musicians, and Pakistani devotional artists, a cross between Led Zeppelin and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ahmad has infused his messages of peace and increased social awareness into his eclectic songs.

Ahmad's cultural duality was witnessed by a broad array of Queens College students and other Queens residents during a May 2007 "Common Chords" concert."

The event—the last of the Spring '07 semester sponsored by Rosenblum's project—brought Ahmad together with Yale Strom, an acclaimed Jewish violinist and Klezmer artist. Their music inspired many students to stay beyond the concert, and talk with one another about issues regarding the Middle East.

"It was a wonderful evening, with great food and great music, that provoked great discussions on interfaith relations," said Ari Moshkovski, a 21-year-old Political Science and Jewish Studies double major senior, who plans to attend law school after college.

Speaking at the concert was Queens College President James L. Muyskens, who paid special tribute to a former student whose life spoke sad truths about post-9/11 New York.

Sal Hamdani, a trained paramedic and Muslim immigrant, had gone missing on September 11th. In the days following that tragedy, as Hamdani's absence was noted by neighbors in Queens, there was speculation that he was one of the terrorists. The rumors spread, and his mother prayed that he had been arrested so that she one day would see him alive again.

However, six months after the attacks, Hamdani's remains were found at the site, confirming that he had gone to the World Trade Center site to help those in need and lost his life in the process.

"How dare people say that our differences are greater than the things we have in common," Muyskens intoned with indignation to those at the concert.

At the concert's end, some students were said to be near tears as they approached the participants and expressed gratitude over their newfound connection to other groups.

Of that memorable evening, Ahmad told writer Sudip Mukherjee, "There was sort of this visceral melting down of the hostilities, of what we call the misunderstandings between Jews and Muslims, and I find that it's really inspiring for me to see that happen because music has a really strong truth compass."

Involved as a partner with Ahmad and Rosenblum has been Queens College alumnus Nasser David Khalili, an Iranian Jewish immigrant and wealthy investor who has perhaps the largest private collection of Islamic art.

Khalili's exhibit of photographs was on display at the college's Godwin-Ternbach Museum through May. Titled "The Art of Islam: A Glorious Tradition," it drew rave reviews from the media, as Khalili commented in his remarks at the opening that "ignorance is a true weapon of mass destruction, which must be combated."

A special bond has been formed among Khalili, Rosenblum and Ahmad. Ahmad played selections at the opening.

Toward the end of last semester, in Baruch College's student newspaper The Ticker, staff writer Tabassum Ali authored an article about Ahmad, headlined "Star Performer Uses Music as a Tool Against Islamic Fundamentalism." The story noted Ahmad's involvement in two documentaries, "Muslims in America: It's My Country Too" and "The Rock Star and the Mullah," the latter of which shows Ahmad engaged in dialogues with other Pakistanis about Islam.

Of his trip to Pakistan, Ahmad is quoted by The Ticker as saying, "I went to Peshawar because there the local government had banned all types of music (even traditional folk music) and I spoke with politicians and the general population as well as a radical Mullah known as 'Mullah Electricity,' who tries to convince me to give up music but doesn't see the contradiction in his own argument when he starts singing devotional Islamic songs to me on camera, perfectly in key."

According to his biography, Ticker staff writer Ali was president of the Pakistani Student Association at Baruch. He had formerly been a student government representative as Queensborough Community College.