How one of Pakistan’s greatest pop icons started a new life as an Islamic entrepreneur

01 August 2012
Junaid Jamshed at a 2011 appearance in the US.

BY 1 PM, the producers were finally ready and the show time sirens wailed. Junaid Jamshed made his entrance, standing tall in a deep teal kurta with Greek-style black sandals visible under his white pajamas, which were hiked, as his religious views dictate, above his bare ankles. He was wearing a white skullcap and sported his now-signature long, scraggly beard.

We were at International Studios, a facility in Sorabh Goth in the northern outskirts of Karachi, where Jamshed was pre-recording episodes of Alif Laam Meem, a 2011 Islamicised version of Who Wants to be A Millionaire for Geo TV, one of Pakistan’s biggest television networks.

I sat in the in the top-most row, close to the exit from which Jamshed had just made his entrance, and scanned the eagerly awaiting crowd. The audience was separated across the entrance aisle, by gender. Earlier in the week, when I had persuaded Jamshed to allow me to accompany him to one of his recordings, he had insisted that I cover my head for the occasion. That morning, on our way to Sorabh Goth, he seemed disappointed by my attempt to adopt the hijab, and helped to properly wrap my hair under a dupatta so that even the tiniest strand was hidden away. Sitting in the audience in my ill-fitting head-gear before the show began, I looked in front and to my left and noticed only a few other women who had made the same effort. One of them, Saba Aamir, sat beside me. She was dressed in a black abaya, studded with little floral diamontees. Now 32, Saba admitted to having been a Junaid Jamshed fan from the time she was a teenager. “That was before I became religious myself,” she said, shyly. A smile lit up her face in acknowledgement of the journey she and Jamshed shared. “I’ve met him twice before. The first time was at an IBM Computer Event where he performed—my father worked there and I got a chance to go.”

Although she seemed to be trying hard to remain composed, Saba couldn’t quite conceal her excitement at seeing Jamshed live in his current avatar. He didn’t disappoint. Just as he entered the room, he interrupted my conversation with Saba by whacking me on my leg. He winked in our direction and then bounded in, displaying a contagious energy and excitement as the show began rolling. I turn to Saba and found her already lost in the game.

Jamshed greeted his audience from the studio’s floor-level circular stage and launched immediately into an evocative story about the life of Prophet Muhammad before turning to his eight contestants, one of whom was in the hot seat, and firing off the first question of the show. It was quickly obvious that the producers didn’t have high expectations of their contestants. In one question, Jamshed asked them to arrange the names of four given Muslim-majority countries alphabetically. Only five of the nine contestants got that one right—they were clearly not of Jeopardy calibre. Most didn’t know much about Islamic history or Islam. They would get the first question or two right and stumble along using lifelines as if they were in contention to win a million rupees.

Meanwhile, a producer weaved in and out of the stage area in between breaks, informing the audience not to clap. “If you like something or want to support something, just say ‘Subhanallah’. Don’t clap.”

Jamshed prodded and winked at the contestants, he hinted and helped people along. His obvious favourite was a portly gentleman in a floral print shirt and a pair of grey slacks. The man, Shahid Iqbal, was an advocate in the high court and answered questions with an ease that won him Jamshed’s admiration and warmth. Guests on the show didn’t get better than the advocate. So when he lost, Jamshed seemed genuinely disappointed.

He reminded his audience: “You only have to get seven answers right to get two tickets for Umrah, and if you get fourteen correct answers, you can win an all-expenses paid Hajj for two.” A murmur ran through the audience. “Subhanallah, Subhanallah.”

At various points during the show, when Jamshed had momentarily exhausted his ability to befriend and joke with a contestant, he would refer a question to Mufti Sahib, a religious scholar seated on a hidden throne who popped up on two large screens on either side of the stage and offered guidance informed by Islam, based on questions posed to him. He reappeared four times during the span of the show. At one point, Mufti Sahib told the audience about the importance of taking good advice from the right people to get on the right path in life. Jamshed agreed and turned the spotlight on himself: “You’re absolutely right, Mufti Sahib. I spent a large part of my life in the world of music. But after I started taking advice from the right people, I’ve come on the right path.”

I turned to look at Saba again. She was riveted.

“We ran the first episode without any advertising money,” the producer of Alif Laam Meem told me backstage. “People are tired of religion-themed shows. They think they will be boring and lecturish. But after the first show, we had the advertisers. They were calling in from all over and the ads came pouring in. It’s the concept of the show, but it’s basically because Junaid is the host.”

Jamshed as host of the Islam-oriented game show Alif Laam Meem, whose grand prize is an all expenses paid Hajj for two.

Two-and-a-half decades ago, Junaid Jamshed made a name for himself as the lead singer of Vital Signs, a band that redefined live performance and pop music in the morally-controlled, military-run Pakistan of the 1980s, at the tail-end of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s 11-year rule. Vital Signs broke all sorts of records in Pakistan. At a time when pop music across South Asia had yet to take the form of Western-style bands, Vital Signs gave local expression to a desire for just such music. And the most recognisable face of that pop movement was Junaid Jamshed. His image was enlarged and enshrined next to posters of Pink Floyd, Duran Duran and A-ha on the walls of teenage bedrooms across the country.

For the past 10 years, Jamshed has built a new, albeit equally popular cult personality in Pakistan and abroad. After publicly shunning his music career, he acknowledged himself a sinner and gradually developed into a born-again Muslim and a successful Islamic entrepreneur. His sermons draw large audiences; podcasts and recorded talks on the Internet generate countless ‘likes’ and comments. But aside from the already unlikely pairing of television star and preacher, Jamshed is also a boutique clothing designer, the owner of a travel agency that helps facilitate pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina, and co-owner of a high-end butcher shop.

Jamshed’s transformation has been a deeply personal one. And yet, as someone in the public eye, his experiences have been closely scrutinised by his peers and the Pakistani public, by both admirers and detractors. His is the story of a man drawn equally to two—some feel incompatible—lives. One, that of a flashy showman, the other of a deeply serious spiritual leader.

BORN ON 3 SEPTEMBER 1964 in Rawalpindi to Jamshed Akber Khan, a Pakistani Air Force officer, and his wife Nafeesa, Junaid Jamshed Khan was the eldest of four children—three sons and a daughter. Home was never one place; the family moved from air force base to air force base depending on his father’s posting. Religion was important to his parents, but was never central to their way of life.

His mother Nafeesa was from the Loharu family, one of many courtly families of British India whose roots are in modern day Uttar Pradesh. “She was a Mughalani, you know. We were not allowed to say haan at home,” Jamshed told me.

Jamshed remembers his father being very strict with them as children, especially with him and his brother Humayun, who were often the causes of destruction in their home. “We all children have been beaten by our mother and our father because I guess we were a handful.” He was a shy, quiet and sensitive child and admits that he cried every time he was scolded. The Khans followed a strict moral code at home. Interactions with the opposite sex were limited. “I don’t remember ever talking to a girl until I was eighteen or nineteen,” Jamshed said. “It was not considered right.”

When it was time to attend university, Jamshed chose to study aeronautical engineering at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore. It was while he was in college that Jamshed picked up music as a hobby, starting by singing with different bands, later even travelling as far as Islamabad to jam with other musicians.

Junaid Jamshed during his early years with Vital Signs.

Jamshed’s journey from hobby musician to professional performer was an unplanned one. His parents had hoped he would choose a more traditional line of work, but during his time in college, he found himself increasingly drawn to music. The turning point came in 1986 when Jamshed and other musically inclined friends travelled to Islamabad for a jam session. There, he met Rohail Hyatt, a young musician well known in Islamabad’s underground jamming scene, who had formed a band earlier that year with bass guitarist Shahzad Hasan. Hyatt heard Jamshed sing and invited him to join his band as the lead vocalist. Jamshed accepted, and the band began performing in colleges and small events.

At the time, Pakistan Television (PTV) ran five regional centres, one in each of the country’s major cities. In the run-up to the enormously popular 14 August independence holiday, the channel hosted a competition for the best Independence Day song and encouraged performers to contend for the title by sending in original catchy patriotic jingles. The young and successful television producer Shoaib Mansoor, or ‘Shoman’, had heard Vital Signs, as Hyatt’s band had by then come to be called, and was impressed by their talent. Mansoor approached them, and encouraged them to compete, suggesting that the contest could well serve as a launch pad for a successful new career.

“When Shoaib suggested this to us, we thought this was terrible,” Jamshed recalled, laughing. “We didn’t want to be part of that television program. We didn’t want to be seen as another one of those groups standing and swaying in front of a mike singing a patriotic song. We really resisted the idea, but Shoaib was persistent. He told us, ‘Dekho, just try this.’”

The making of ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ still holds a special place in Jamshed’s heart. If you ask him about it, he recounts all sorts of details with the playful pleasure of a little boy. The process was collaborative, he said, with each of the band’s members putting in their two cents. Studio facilities didn’t really exist in Islamabad at the time and even if they had, the band wouldn’t have been able to afford them. “Do you know how we recorded that song?” Jamshed said. “The only room that could give us some sort of acoustic sound was Rohail’s bathroom. I locked myself inside and sang ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ there.”

It was a song born over jokes and uncertainty, its creation propelled by Mansoor’s commitment to the idea. When the lyrics were written and a melody strung together, Mansoor agonised over every aspect of the song before submitting it to PTV.

‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ won the national competition. Nothing of its sort had been seen in Pakistan before. The video, put up on YouTube four years ago, has more than a million hits. The music video might seem unconvincing today, but in 1987 it was revolutionary. Young musicians riding motorbikes (even if they weren’t exactly Harleys), strumming guitars, hanging out of jeeps, essentially gifting to an entire generation of young Pakistanis a breed of pop musicians to salivate over.

Their sound was not entirely new. Pop had entered the Pakistani consciousness through a number of musicians—1970s Urdu pop singer Alamgir, Mohammed Ali Sheikhi, and the super-popular Hassan brother-sister duo, Nazia and Zoheb. But Vital Signs was served up differently.

“It was four or five young people together who expressed what it was like in Pakistan to be young in a much freer way considering the political restrictions of the time,” said journalist Fifi Haroon, who befriended the band and became close to all of its members, especially Jamshed. “They were a complete breath of fresh air. We were used to people who were much more staid, much older and much more predictable in presentation, but here was a band who was like us and so I think young people just responded to them.”

Vital Signs’ albums, produced by EMI, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and made them pop icons.

What had also begun to change around the time of Vital Signs’ rise was the packaging of pop and the emergence of a nationwide culture of bands. Gone were the days when singers dressed conservatively and bobbed gently as they crooned on national television. Vital Signs were young, they were rebelling against social convention and singing with a kind of freedom that mainstream audiences hadn’t experienced.

“Everyone knew that urban pop had come to Pakistan with songs like ‘Boom Boom’,” recalled Umer Sheikh, chief operating officer of EMI, Pakistan’s largest and oldest music label, which picked up the band’s first album in 1988. “Nazia and Zoheb’s music had brought the country together in the sense that the dehati [country bumpkin] and the babu [the urban dweller] were both singing the same song. What happened with the Vital Signs was that modern pop music became fashionable, especially among the affluent classes.”

Vital Signs enjoyed chart-topping success for several years after ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’. Other songs by them crept into the Pakistani consciousness, like ‘Sanwali Saloni’ and ‘Yeh Shaam’. But like any group, they struggled with competing ideas about their collective future. Some members left the band, new faces joined. When the band’s guitarist Nusrat Hussain called it quits, Salman Ahmad took his place. (Ahmad had serious misgivings over the band’s approach and direction as they earned greater success, and split off in 1990 to start his own group, Junoon.)

In 1989, Vital Signs launched their first album, Vital Signs 1, much of it composed in Ahmad’s house, and recorded in EMI’s Karachi studio. They followed this up in 1991 with a second album, Vital Signs 2, with a new guitarist. The mood of the follow-up album was different—sadder, angrier and more mature. Fans accepted the shift, and the album was a commercial success.

Vital Signs went on to release two new albums and two ‘Best Of’ albums with EMI. To date, the band’s first album, Vital Signs 1, has sold 800,000 cassettes and some 20,000 CDs. In comparison, Junoon, itself a wildly-popular band founded some years later by Salman Ahmed, only crossed 100,000 in sales for each album they released with EMI.

Those who knew Jamshed during the pinnacle of the band’s career remember how much he enjoyed the thrill of stardom and the attention from women. The same people also speak of Jamshed’s generous qualities. “The music world can be really gossipy and nasty,” said Bilal Maqsood, lead guitarist and sometimes-vocalist of the Pakistani band Strings. “It’s always happened that people get together after an event and they talk about one another. In all the years that I have known him, I have never heard him say anything bad about anyone.”

Rohail Hyatt, who was more media-shy, and tended to shun the spotlight, described Jamshed as a “perfect diplomat”. “The only few times I’ve had a conflict with him is when he’s gone and committed stuff on behalf of the band that I just didn’t agree with.”

The son of an air force officer, an engineering student in Lahore had become an unlikely star in a nation craving entertainment. Fans were recognising Jamshed wherever he went, approaching him in airports, in stores and on the streets.

His family could hardly believe it, partly because Vital Signs’ success kicked off while Jamshed’s father was posted in Moscow as defence attaché.  “I shot to fame by around that time, so when they came back they were so amazed because everyone knew me at home,” Jamshed said. “And my mother used to say, ‘They know him? This shy, quiet boy? They know him? He sings songs on stage? It’s not possible.’ I never took my mom there. I never took her to a show. She just got news about me from the television, from papers and whatever she heard from others. She used to enjoy that because she really loved me.”

By 1995, the band had made four albums together, but were beginning to have differences of opinion on how to move forward. Jamshed, as the face of the band, was being approached for all sorts of gigs and events. Often he would accept offers without conferring with his bandmates.

The introverted Hyatt did not enjoy performing live, but Jamshed loved the stage. His desire to be in the spotlight had drawn corporate sponsors like Pepsi to the band—this meant money, but it brought obligations that even Jamshed resented. “Pepsi had begun to interfere in our affairs, telling us what kind of songs to make,” Jamshed said. “That really hurt us because we needed the money and we were all living a certain lifestyle. Once Pepsi started to interfere with our creativity, we found ourselves in a Catch-22 situation. We couldn’t sing with them and yet we couldn’t do without them. It began to destroy us as a team.”

The members of the band drifted apart and Jamshed continued to pursue music independently. His first album, written in partnership with Shoaib Mansoor, who continued to be an important mentor to him, released in 1995 and was titled Junaid of Vital Signs, presumably to capitalise on the public’s still-fresh memory of the dispersed band.

But despite his legions of fans across the country, Jamshed’s venture into solo waters was not as successful as he had hoped it would be. His popularity and commercial success would decline steadily over the next few years. His first solo album was followed by Us Rah Par in 1999, and his last album Dil Ki Baat in 2000. Many performers accept the ebb and flow of public attention as part of the profession, but to Jamshed, what he saw as a failing career was a source of pain and frustration.

JAMSHED’S CASUAL FLIRTATION with religion had begun in the summer of 1997, some time before the release of his second solo album Us Rah Par—it was a time when his dipping popularity had begun to play on his mind and torment him. An old school friend, Junaid Ghani, whom Jamshed hadn’t met in 17 years, had been trying to contact him for some months. Ghani was a member of the country’s chief missionary organisation devoted to bringing Muslims back on the path of orthodox Islam. To get Jamshed’s attention, Ghani drove up to his Karachi residence in a small van with a number of young born-again Muslims and stationed himself there with them.

Junaid Jamshed was first drawn into the world of orthodox Islam in 1997 by his friend Junaid Ghani.

“Junaid pressured me,” Jamshed recounted. “He would bring a bandwagon of young Tablighis [a missionary movement] to my house. I would watch from my bedroom window, and wonder, ‘When are these guys going to leave?’ They never did. When I went out they would follow me.”   Ghani was trying to coax Jamshed to accompany him to the mosque for a three-day session with his mentor, a man by the name of Tariq Jamil. Maulana Tariq Jamil was a preacher from a small town in the Punjab province of Pakistan who achieved his own spiritual awakening while studying medicine in the city of Lahore in the early 1970s. He ended up abandoning his medical career and pursuing Islamic education from Jamia Arabia in Raiwind, near Lahore, where the Sharif brothers of the Pakistan Muslim League hold sway.

Jamshed had no idea who Jamil was or what the session with him that Ghani wanted him to attend would comprise. But eventually, he agreed to go. As he remembers it today, his decision was not borne out of any calling to religion or spirituality. “I went against my will, just to quieten this guy,” he said.

Today, Jamshed’s friends don’t quite buy the story that he went “against his will”. “Well, I was approached by the same people as well,” Hyatt said. “I think Junaid was the one who brought them. It took fifteen minutes for them to realise that they were barking up the wrong tree. Point being, it does come down to an individual’s choice. No one can force you to join something.”

Looking back on this moment, Jamshed’s friends have tried to understand why Jamshed chose to take that first step in a direction that would define his new life, one that practically uprooted his past. For Fifi Haroon, who knew the pop star very well, the change, in retrospect, was explainable: “The Tableeghis are a band. They are a neo-band. Vital Signs was over. I think maybe in his mind Junaid figured it was time to move on. There were so many more bands on the scene. There was so much more competition.”

Whatever the explanation for Jamshed’s decision, his three days with Jamil left him confused. He found himself drawn powerfully to Islam, a pull which led him to

question the rest of his life and lifestyle. Spending time in the masjid, in conversation with Jamil, he felt as if things were taking their own course, slipping out of his own hands like some sort of destiny he had never anticipated.

The change was far from comfortable. “As I started going out more and more and meeting these people and trying to learn why am I in the world, what am I supposed to do, the first thing that started happening was that I started losing interest in music, and that was something that really started bothering me,” Jamshed said. “Because I did not want to leave music at all, at any point in time. Music was my passion. I thought music was in my soul. I thought that the fire was going away.”

The pop star’s transformation had begun. But it was not a transformation that would be completed overnight—Jamshed struggled for many years with his relationship to his career. He continued to perform but he had a nagging feeling—accompanied, no doubt, by plenty of pressure from his new missionary friends—that there were things in his life that he needed to change.

FIVE YEARS AFTER Junaid Ghani first paid him a visit, Jamshed was still struggling with his identity as a musician, both because of the changing musical landscape of the country, and his confusion over his belief system. Jamshed’s family had never been overtly religious, but his parents were believers, and as a child he had been taught that religion was important. “Once I got into music, it all got washed away. I absolutely lost it all. I had lost the concept of humility. I had lost a connection with Allah,” Jamshed said. He was living his life “just going through the motions, and just enjoying the successes”.

As his career went on the downswing, Jamshed began to look back on his life, and wonder if he had been on the wrong path. He recounted a conversation over dinner in 1997, with Shoaib Mansoor. In the course of their meal, excited diners spotted Jamshed and approached him for autographs. Jamshed voiced his frustration with the situation to Mansoor who, for his part, preferred to stay out of the limelight. “I told him, ‘I wish I could get your peace,’” Jamshed said. He remembers that Mansoor warned him about the addictive power of the attention he was receiving. “‘You will not be able to survive without it. Your subconscious will desire it,’” Jamshed said. “I told him that that sounds dangerous. ‘It is,’ he told me.”

Mansoor’s words have come back to Jamshed many times over the years, as he increasingly embraced religion and his public persona shifted from what the public had come to expect him to be. As Jamshed began to experiment with religion, his audience started to sense his internal angst and confusion. To his fans, he had stood for a pop revolution, one that provided entertainment in a place where it had been silenced for so many years. Those same fans now felt that his confusion was unforgivable.

The failure of his 2000 album Dil Ki Baat (A Matter of the Heart) saw Jamshed plunge to a new personal and professional low. “The irony was I wasn’t really able to speak from my heart. The real truth was that I was just losing it big time,” Jamshed said. “I was just straining and I was just trying hard. Musically, that album was my best album but it was a very sad album. Even now when I want to listen to my music, it’s that album I listen to. But Dil Ki Baat just went into oblivion. It was a big shock you know. Here I was—I was someone who had always done hit albums. Every song that I ever did in an album used to be a popular song.”

It was a difficult reality for Jamshed to face. “He used to say that the day people stop wanting to hear him sing was the day that he would stop singing,” said Adeel Bokhari, who played with Jamshed during his solo days, until the end of his pop career. “He got very frustrated when people couldn’t accept him as both maulvi and musician.”

By 2001, Jamshed was feeling quite alone. Struggling to understand his isolation, he went to visit Maulana Tariq, who over the years had become his mentor. He posed to Tariq the question that had been troubling him for some time: Why was the fire inside him, his passion for music, dying?

Jamshed remembers Tariq’s words, spoken in Urdu, very clearly: “I believe that through music, Allah has closed the door of fame for you. After today, you will never get fame through music.”

A part of Jamshed wanted to be nobody. But somehow his life had pushed him in a radically different direction—he knew what it was like to be known, followed and controversial. “I guess we get used to being famous,” Jamshed admitted in an interview. “We get used to being praised. No matter how much you dispute it, the fact of the matter is your subconscious becomes used to it.”

For several years, Jamshed’s friends, family and bandmates watched him struggle to negotiate the transition from one world to another. His inner conflict was accompanied by vacillation in the way he presented himself to the world. Where once he might have been described as boyishly handsome, he now cultivated an appearance more in tune with his religious beliefs. “Junaid kept, then removed his beard two or three times,” Bokhari recalled. “Finally, the third time, when he kept his beard, people just couldn’t accept him on stage as the same Junaid Jamshed. They would call him names while he performed, and begin to ridicule him.”

Jamshed tried to ignore the abuses hurled at him, but that didn’t help resurrect his image among his once adoring fan base. They wanted modern, hip, Western. He was offering old school, religious, confused. The menu didn’t match the palate. Going through an internal crisis followed by an awakening was one thing, but dealing with public pressure and criticism was a reality he hadn’t prepared for.

“When he would come on stage, he’d ask the audience, what would you like to listen to. And they would laugh back at him and say, ‘Maulana sahib, why don’t you recite a naat, instead,’” Bokhari said.

For Jamshed, the acceptance that something was amiss was part of a slow but necessary journey. “Slowly and gradually I started realising that I was leading a sinful life. What was I doing? This was something that was bothering me a lot,” Jamshed said.

But Jamshed’s journey hasn’t quite been a straight one of rejecting an old life for a new one. I asked him about music—signature songs like ‘Aitebar’, a 1992 hit. He didn’t need much coaxing to start talking. It was clear he loved the process of creating a song. Listening to him talk about the steps, the little details that he remembered, the wistful look in his eye, I sensed a man trapped by conflicting convictions. A mention of a song that Jamshed liked and he quickly broke into the tune. He looked genuinely happy.

After a while, he returned to his present self. “I cherish my past. I don’t miss it,” he said. “Every time I think about it, I feel good about it.”

One particularly extravagant incident stands out in Jamshed’s progression from pop star to preacher, suggestive of a man who, for some years, uncertainly straddled two worlds. In 1999, long before Begum Nawazish, the cross-dressing television talk-show host, became a sensation in Pakistan, Jamshed made an appearance on national television dressed in drag,

It was a time when Jamshed was transitioning between his mentors. For a large part of his musical career—ever since ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ became a hit—he had been guided by Shoaib Mansoor. Now Jamshed had found a competing mentor in Maulana Tariq, whose altogether different but powerful allure had captivated him. By 1999, he had begun to demonstrate his religious inclinations but was still charmed by the world of showbiz. When Mansoor asked him to be one of six celebrities in a show called Gulls and Guys that year, he readily accepted. The show was timed to coincide with the arrival of Discovery, a yacht that was journeying around the world (sponsored by British American Tobacco) and was scheduled to make a pit stop in Karachi along the way. Gulls and Guys sent six Pakistani celebrities off on trips to major European cities where they were meant to absorb local cultural behaviour, pick up language skills and learn to prepare the area’s cuisines. The show sent Jamshed to Paris to try and convincingly ape the French.

Jamshed recounted the incident in question: “We were on the Champs-Élysées. While we were walking, we saw these funny looking, whatever you want to call them, men or women. They look like women and they talk like men. They have broad shoulders. They were men but they were dressed up as women. You know—we were in fits looking at them. And Shoaib said to me, ‘You have to do this.’ And I said, ‘You can’t be serious!’”

But Mansoor was serious—serious enough to persuade Jamshed that it was a good idea. And so, on national television, Jamshed entered a salon and emerged as a transvestite. In a 2000 interview, he said that he actually enjoyed the moment: “Yar, it felt strange. But I was such a natural. In fact for sometime afterwards I wondered if I wasn’t a transvestite in a previous life.”

Not everyone was thrilled with the gag. “My mother was so upset and my wife was so upset and so many people were so upset,” Jamshed said of his appearance on Gulls and Guys. “But obviously I was part of showbiz and I had to do something which meant something. We had to show the culture of France. We had to show the culture of Paris. So we did.”

Given his formidable instincts as a showman, it is perhaps unsurprising that friends remained unsure for years what to make of Jamshed’s religious inclinations. “He kept going back and forth,” said one musician friend. “None of us thought this would stick. We thought it was a phase, an exploration. It’s been quite a while now, so I guess it wasn’t a phase.”

Jamshed’s most marked shift came in 2002 when he officially announced the end of his music career in the form that Pakistanis had known it. Gone were his days of  pop music. If he recorded anything, it would be naats and religious songs. In the years that followed, thousands online would view his sermons, podcasts and YouTube videos.

The Tableeghis who had approached the pop star had long been in search of celebrities. They needed people who had public credibility and who could influence the imagination of Pakistan’s youth as the nation struggled to define itself in a post-9/11 era. They found just the man they were looking for in Jamshed.

JUNAID JAMSHED HAD SPENT LITTLE TIME with his former bandmate Rohail Hyatt after the split of Vital Signs. The men had travelled in opposite directions, chosen careers that made their friendship almost incompatible.

Vital Signs band members (left to right) Rizwan-ul-Haq, Rohail Hyatt, Junaid Jamshed and Shahzad Hasan. The band rose to success after their patriotic song ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ won an Independence Day national competition hosted by PTV in 1987.

Jamshed became a symbol of Pakistan’s increasing dalliance with religion and missionary work, taking his new found zeal to seminars, lectures and conferences. When Saeed Anwer, Pakistan’s legendary opening batsman, lost his three-year-old daughter, it was Jamshed who guided him towards the path of religion to help him understand and come to terms with his loss. Anwar’s religious transformation was apparent in the flowing beard cricket fans saw him sport on the cricket grounds. He even set off a sort of domino effect within the Pakistani cricket team. Among others who subsequently underwent similar transformations were Inzamam-ul-Haq; Yousuf Youhana, formerly the only Christian in the team, who became Mohammed Younus; and Mushtaq Ahmad.

Hyatt, meanwhile, had moved on to a lucrative career in advertising and other telvision work. He is now perhaps best known as the man behind Coke Studio, a television show that offers Pakistani musicians a chance to perform in a professional studio—it is credited with attracting a new audience to Pakistan’s many musical traditions.

Vital Signs cofounder Rohail Hyatt, who went on to become the man behind Coke Studio Pakistan.

Hyatt’s impetus for producing the show was his feeling that cultural life in Pakistan was stagnating. “Post 9/11, I did wake up and I wanted to discover who we really are and which part of the world we are in and what our history might be,” Hyatt said. “I was confused because every time I spoke to people there were two kinds. One who, when I asked about the cultural history, they would say, ‘Well, in the last 60 years…’ and I would say, okay, that’s a shallow perspective. And the second perspective was, the Mughals and what they left behind. Nobody would go past that.”

Pakistanis trying to understand their role and their identity had turned to their heroes, their cultural and sports ambassadors, for answers. Jamshed and the cricketers had given them one answer. Hyatt was trying to uncover an alternative way to understand the country’s cultural soul.

“Anything that suggests some other theology or some other people or some other religion, we shun immediately. Unfortunately, we just lost so much we don’t even know what we lost,” Hyatt said. “That for me was an awakening. That we are Hindus, we are Dravidians, we are Central Asian, we are Muslims. We are a melting pot of all these people and these cultures and they’ve brought their art forms over the years, their instruments and their ways and their philosophies. So that was liberating, and of course that led to a process of self-discovery.”

Though their paths may have diverged, Jamshed remembers Hyatt fondly. When he spoke to me about his old bandmate and buddy, his eyes moistened over. He relived many stories from his past over our conversations, but the ones with Hyatt seem tinged with a special nostalgia. I couldn’t help but feel that he still missed him.

Hyatt, who has his own fan following, didn’t want to say much about Jamshed’s rejection of the kind of music they played together, or of the change in his personal, religious and cultural preferences. But he did say this about what might have brought about that change: “I have a theory which may upset him… I think I’ll have a chat with him someday. Perhaps he cherished fame so much that his current position might be an alternative to a failing pop sort of phase in his life. It might have been a good transition to keep himself engaged with audiences.”

RESTING AGAINST THE ARM of a sofa in the sitting room of his Karachi home, Junaid Jamshed casually pulled out a small comb from the pocket of his white shalwar kameez, crumpled from a night’s sleep, and ran the comb down the length of his beard in four lavish strokes. I sensed him gauging my reaction as he groomed himself. It was 6:30 am. Jamshed was up early for his morning prayer and raring to go.

Jamshed’s house is a builder-constructed home characteristic of the bungalow-filled residences in Karachi’s Defence Housing Authority, a southern district that is home to the city’s elite. I had woken up a chowkidar when I rang the bell, and walked past Jamshed’s two cars and into a darkened foyer. Jamshed bought the house some years ago after his fortunes changed and his many business ventures began to bear fruit. Returning to Karachi was also a concession to his wife, Ayesha, whom he married in 1987.

“I really like Islamabad but we came back here because Ayesha just couldn’t adjust there. She tried but she’s a Karachi girl,” he told me.

I tried to catch a glimpse of Ayesha, imagining that Jamshed’s house would be abuzz with worshippers in the early hours of the morning. But the house was quiet. It was simply decorated—there was art up on the walls, but the room we met in hadn’t been dressed up with any great aesthetic forethought.

Junaid’s wife Ayesha and his four children were likely asleep. I asked him about Ayesha, who had supported him through his turbulent quest for selfhood and understanding. Jamshed was categorical in acknowledging the importance of his wife’s role in his journey.

“She was really great about everything,” he said. “Whatever that girl has withstood, only I know.” Jamshed’s response was a lightly veiled reference to his reputation as a ladies’ man during his music career. Women would throw themselves at his feet, he recalled while making clear his discomfiture with their behaviour—behaviour that had once excited him, many of his friends told me.

Vital Signs’ albums, produced by EMI, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and made them pop icons.

“I only learned to focus after marriage. My father was in the air force and that’s the only life I knew. When we came to Karachi [after Vital Signs], there were so many girls. After two or three experiences, I was ready to get married to her.”

Ayesha Junaid was from a modern Karachi family. Many women in Pakistan considered her the luckiest girl in the world to have bagged the most iconic icon in Pakistan. In those days, even the much sought-after eligible bachelor cricketer, Imran Khan, would have come in second.

But the experience was far from a dream. “It was really tough on Ayesha,” recalled one of Jamshed’s bandmates, who didn’t want to be named in association with the question. “She was so young, we were young. We were living this bachelor life. We had no money. Junaid was the only one married and all these girls were throwing themselves at his feet. I don’t know how she managed.”

Jamshed also acknowledged this conflict. “I was in a real quandary when I got married. I was a musician, an engineer, a husband, a celebrity,” he said. The financial challenges were considerable. As a married man, he was under the most pressure to earn an income and while music might have been emotionally gratifying, it wasn’t paying the bills.

The businessman in Jamshed saw an opportunity in 1990, he recalled, when a Pepsi executive called him and offered the band an advertising gig for PKR30,000. The amount had seemed huge to all of the boys. But Jamshed pressed for more.

“I felt we had nothing to lose,” Jamshed said. “Rohail told me not to be crazy—they would refuse us. I thought we should just play their bluff. I asked for two lakh.”

The folks at Pepsi agreed immediately. Jamshed was triumphant. Later, the same executive told him they had set aside PKR400,000 for the band. “I felt so bad that we had settled for two lakh!” Jamshed said, laughing.

IN THE YEARS AFTER 1997, as Jamshed’s musical star dimmed, he was also faced with uncertain finances. “I had to start selling things,” he told me. “I sold all my cars because I could not afford keeping them. Things in the house got sold. Bank balances vanished. Ultimately, my house got sold and I was literally on the streets.”

He recalled handing his last 100 rupees to his wife and telling her that he had no idea how he was going to support his family. His musical career as he knew it was over. His previous sponsors were all part of the music or entertainment business, and none of them found Jamshed’s new avatar compelling. They had struck him off their registers.

Jamshed recounted an afternoon in 2002, when he was praying at a mosque. “I sat there and I cried and I said, ‘Ya Allah, please, let it not happen that I have to beg before anyone or that I have to put out my hand for alms. Please don’t let that happen.’ I was crying, but I couldn’t see anything. There was just darkness ahead of me.” When he looked up from his prayer, he found a man standing by his side, similar in height and appearance to him.

“Junaid sahib, how are you?” the man said. “My name is Sohail. What are you doing these days?” Jamshed replied, “Nothing really. Just trying to survive day to day.”

The man had sought out Jamshed with a proposition. He wanted to partner with him in creating a designer label—Jamshed would be the name and designer behind the label, while Sohail would be the cash.

The two went to a mufti to ask for advice. “He said, you do three things. Number one, you write everything. Number two, you make this neeyat [intention] that you are doing it for the benefit of the Muslims. And the third thing is that you make this neeyat that you two will never deceive each other. Allah will become your third partner,” Jamshed said, pausing. “So, honestly our whole business is being done by our third partner, Allah. And he said, the moment you breach any of the three points, the first party to leave with be Allah.”

J. (pronounced “Jay-dot”) the designing company was born soon after, with Sohail and Jamshed as partners.

Jamshed’s transformation remains an unresolved puzzle to many who knew him as Vital Signs’ carefree frontman.

However, Jamshed’s new venture didn’t initially win appreciation from the public. “People started calling me names,” he said. “The papers used to lambast me. The press thought this was a temporary phase. My typical lunacy. They would say, ‘This guy is very eccentric.’ These things used to bother me a lot. Someone called me mad. Someone else called me stupid.”

Today, a decade later, J. has 34 outlets in Pakistan, four in the UK and three in the UAE. In the company’s early days, Jamshed had designed the prints himself, but today he has an in-house design team that produces the lively prints that are worn by women across Pakistan and are popular across religions. Jamshed’s booth at the Lifestyle Pakistan Exhibition held at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan earlier this year was packed with visitors eager to buy J. clothes. Jamshed still regards Sohail as his guardian angel, but was hesitant to reveal anything more about him.

Jamshed sees no conflict in being a designer and a preacher. In fact, he pointed to the Prophet Mohammad as an example to follow. Cloth and the clothing business, he explained, have a special place in Islam; merchants choose to enter the business because they believe that out of all work, it is one given the most blessings. Muslims, he said, believe that the Prophet Mohammad was advised by Allah to enter into the business of clothing.

Jamshed couldn’t recall the specific hadith, or Prophet’s saying, that referred to this; nevertheless, he seemed sure of it. “If in heaven any business is allowed, it would be clothing and fragrance. People never stop wearing clothes, so that business works. That’s why it’s the world’s most rampant business.”

SITTING IN THE FAMILY’S SPACIOUS and comfortable home in Karachi, it was clear that the pendulum had swung back in Jamshed’s favour. Although he and his family had moved out of the city in 2003 into a small three-bedroom flat in Islamabad, his newfound fortunes and his comfort with his new persona had enabled them to return. In 2007, Jamshed was awarded the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz, the fourth-highest state honour given to a civilian for extraordinary work in literature, arts, sports, medicine, music or science.

The Jamshed house is the sort of home you might just walk right past, and not stop to admire. Inside, the artwork and trinkets, many featuring Islamic calligraphy, offer some reminder that one is in a Muslim home.

A lanky 14-year-old in a T-shirt and a shalwar and wearing glasses ambled down the wide circular staircase and approached his father. He was reserved and polite. “Beta, you can go and enjoy yourself but make sure that you are up and dressed and ready for afternoon prayers.” Jamshed’s direction was firm, but he spoke gently. His son nodded in the affirmative and quickly retreated.

Jamshed’s fortunes are still on the rise. His designer business continues to launch new outlets in new locales. He is the co-owner, along with a number of partners who are also born-again Muslims, of Meat One, a chain of stores that provides Karachiites with good meat cuts in a clean, air-conditioned space, for a more Westernised experience. And aside from these pursuits, his religious beliefs and his success as a sermoniser have won him a distinguished list of people awaiting his counsel. In 2007 he opened JJ Travels, a company that helps ferry worshippers to and from Saudi Arabia for Umra and Hajj.

Jamshed said on several occasions that he is not much of an entrepreneur. He repeatedly used phrases like “so unbusiness-like” to describe himself. Allah, he claimed, is behind him, which explains why he has been so successful. He was secretive about his business pursuits, but it’s hard to keep things completely under wraps when you’re a public personality. During JJ Travels’ Hajj packages, for example, Pakistanis keen to go on either the religious pilgrimage or for Umra have been willing to pay large amounts to have Jamshed as their “special guide”.

JAMSHED’S PAST LIFE is inextricably linked with Shoaib Mansoor, the producer who helped launch Vital Signs. Mansoor went on to a successful film career—his latest film Bol was recently released to largely positive reviews. He has been the backbone of many of Pakistan Television’s entertainment offerings, writing, directing and producing a number of popular comedy shows, most prominent of which was Fifty Fifty. He also wrote and directed the popular television drama Alpha Bravo Charlie in the days when all Pakistani entertainment came through government channels. The Intelligence Services Public Relations body, an active funder of Pakistani entertainment, often backed him. Shoman, as he is known, was prolific and bred an entire generation of would-be entertainers, mentoring them into the world of showbiz.

Vital Signs’ albums, produced by EMI, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and made them pop icons.

In the years after Vital Signs disbanded, and Jamshed continued a solo career, it was Mansoor who encouraged, supported and collaborated with him. The lyrics that Jamshed sang were penned by Mansoor, and while some called them “rickshaw fare at best”, the public for some years remained enraptured by the cult of Junaid Jamshed, and continued to buy his music.

Five years ago, in an interview in Chowk Magazine, Mansoor admitted that he was badly affected when his protégé turned away from music:

One morning I was going through a newspaper when I saw my friend Junaid Jamshed’s interview in it. After looking at his new attire in the photograph, published with the article, I could not stop myself from reading it. The more I read the sadder I felt. He had announced  that he was quitting music after being convinced that it was ‘Haram’. It really shook me badly. I have never believed that God could hate the two most beautiful things he has given to mankind—music and painting. I felt that a confused man like Junaid had no right to confuse thousands of his youthful followers. I had given him sixteen years of my life as a true friend and had played my role in his professional life to the best of my abilities. How could he throw away our sixteen years just like that without even consulting me? I feel that it was my duty to rectify the damage he has done to the already suffering society under the influence of fundamentalists.

Mansoor’s answer was the 2007 film Khuda Kay Liye, a film in which he explored the deep divisions and conflicts in Pakistan today through the world of two popular musician brothers who enter into different worlds. One brother heads to the US to attend music school while the other turns to fundamental Islam under the influence of Tableeghis. The lead role was written for Junaid Jamshed, and he even evinced an interest in it. But Jamshed had by then grown a beard. “It was the first time I had seen him with a beard,” Fifi Haroon recalled of a meeting with Jamshed around that time. “He had been offered a lead role. ‘Obviously you can’t do the film,’ I told him. ‘Maybe I’ll shave it for the film,’ he said.” Responses like this one convinced people that Jamshed was not certain about his future, and that the Islamist experience was just a phase.

Jamshed’s religious mentor Tariq Jamil, a preacher from a small town in Punjab, played a large role in his gradual transformation.

In the end, Jamshed didn’t do the film despite his strong ties to Mansoor and his initial interest. He won’t elaborate on the reasons behind his decision, but those who were close to the situation insist that his religious associates had forbidden him in no uncertain terms from acting. There had been too much tentativeness in Jamshed’s religious self. He had shaved and then grown his beard, and then shaved it again, enough to arouse concern in some circles that the man who had been chosen as the brand ambassador of one strain of religious doctrine did not appear serious enough about his commitment. Jamshed didn’t deny this fact, but he was keen on brushing aside the conversation.

“Just because you’ve discovered religion doesn’t mean you can just lock up your previous life,” Mansoor wrote in the Director’s Note for the film. “There are going to be cracks in the wall. One hears of things. People might say it’s hypocritical to sing in private circles. It’s going to happen. If he does do that, one can’t hold it against him. He hasn’t changed that much.”

Even after he promised never to sing again, Jamshed does sing in some circles. Privately, that is. Many of his musician friends can recollect these stories.

Among them are Strings’ Bilal Maqsood and his wife Tina. The couple hosts an annual open-mic jam session at their home in Karachi’s Defence Housing Authority for their musician friends to play together and reminisce about the past. It’s usually a full house and the party shuts down close to sunrise.

For years, Jamshed was a regular at these jam sessions. He loved the music, the company and the opportunity to sing, but as his solo music career began to fade, spiked by the rise in his study of Islam, Jamshed started to shun his musical past.

“I had heard that he was not singing,” Maqsood remembered. “I called him anyway and invited him, and he told me over the phone, ‘Yaar, I don’t sing anymore.’ So I told him, ‘Don’t sing. Just come. Hang out with the other guys.’ He said he would see.”

It was 2003, and neither of the Maqsoods had seen Jamshed in his religious incarnation—sporting a beard, and not singing. He came with his wife and stayed in the back for the first bit of the party, refusing to sing but enjoying catching up with friends from his music days.

On attendee remembered cajoling him to sing one song just for old times. Finally, Jamshed agreed. “But once he started, he just couldn’t stop. He was having so much fun singing, he was on a roll.”

Later in the night he dropped his wife Ayesha home and then came back to sing some more. Junaid Jamshed was one of the last people to leave that evening.

This reportage was completed on The Caravan-Panos South Asia Special Assignment Fellowship for Print Journalists (2010).

Sonya Fatah  is a writer and documentary filmmaker from Karachi based in New Delhi.

Keywords: Pakistan Islam pop music Sonya Fatah Junaid Jamshed