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

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.

Dr. Salman Ahmad is a Pakistani-born musician who has partnered with Professor Mark Rosenblum (below right) to build bridge of communication on Middle East issues.

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 www.cuny.edu 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."

Prof. Mark Rosenblum

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.

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Ahmad's music is swooning and cerebral, but it has a funkiness. The lyrics of many of his group Junoon's songs, while ethereal in an Eastern way, are often existential in the questions that they raise.

One of Junoon's pieces is called "Bulleya," which appears to challenge the fundamentalist Islamic view of life.

Bulleya, who am I?
I am no believer in a mosque
And I have no pagan ways
I am not pure. I am not vile
I'm no Moses and I'm no Pharoah
Bulleya, who am I?
First and last, I see the self
I recognize no second to it
No one is more knowing than me
But, Bulleh, who is it that I am?
Bulleya, who am I?
Water nor dust are neither what makes me
I am not flame. I am not wind
I am not pure. I am not vile
I'm no Moses and I'm no Pharoah
Bulleya, who am I?
Bulleya, who am I?

Moshin Zaheer, the New York editor of the Pakistani newspaper that five years ago sparked a controversy by referring to the slain journalist Pearl as a "martyr," said that Junoon's song "Bulleya" is in no way sacrilegious.

Rather, it borrows from the eighteenth century Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah, said to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, who often wrote poems asking himself questions and addressing himself in the third person. Bulleh Shah was a Sufi, an adherent of a mystical tradition within Islam, explained Zaheer. "They believe in humanity, patience, love," he said.

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Toward the end of his article about Salman Ahmad in Baruch College's publication in The Ticker, Ali quotes the guitarist/physician/professor reflecting touchingly on his teaching stint at Queens College. "Queens College...has such a uniquely diverse student population that my class is like a mini United Nations. I've enjoyed the atmosphere at Queens College's music [department] a lot and loved the interaction with students and faculty."

The article then quotes a 22-year-old Queens College senior, Padmini Naidu, who says that she learned from Ahmad that music is "unifying."

"Through music," she said, "people can see how similar they truly are instead of trying to be secular and dividing themselves and using culture and religion as the dividers."

*Enrollment figures are estimates based on data from the 2002 administration of the Student Experience Survey of CUNY undergraduates.

Above charts from left to right:

  1. LaGuardia Community College — 1,419 Muslim students
  2. Queens College — 956 Muslim students
  3. Queensborough Community College — 789 Muslim students
  4. Borough of Manhattan Community College — 738 Muslim students
  5. City College — 716 Muslim students
  6. Brooklyn College — 242 Muslim students
  7. College of Staten Island — 563 Muslim students
  8. NYC College of Technology — 535 Muslim students
  9. York College — 496 Muslim students
  10. Hunter College — 474 Muslim students

LaGuardia Uses Grant to Learn About its Muslim Students

Ten percent of LaGuardia Community College's students adhere to Islam, the largest single religion on campus after Catholicism.

Imam Shamsi Ali, Deputy Imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, and Director of the Jamaica Muslim Center, speaks with LaGuardia students.

Reflecting the large number of Muslims, LaGuardia's Muslim Students Association has been one of the college's most active clubs, hosting weekly educational lectures and making sure that Islam is routinely represented in all interfaith dialogues.

At LaGuardia last semester, faculty and administrators benefited from a Ford Foundation Difficult Dialogues grant allowing them to study the great diversity of religions at the college, where students hail from more than 150 foreign countries and speak more than 100 languages. (Queens College, which also received a Difficult Dialogues grant, focused on the issues of the Middle East conflict.)

While the mandate of the LaGuardia project was broad—to look at all their religions—faculty and administrators learned a great deal about their Muslim students.

"We know so little about our students' faiths, because of the American tradition against discussing religion and politics in certain settings," said administrator Robert Kahn, who wrote LaGuardia's Difficult Dialogues grant proposal.

"Knowing more about their religious beliefs and practices will help the faculty teach better."

Zobia Arooj, a student, said she was pleased to find an environment so supportive.

"I've found a community here, and I'm so grateful," she said. "I came to the U.S. from Pakistan eight years ago, and before I wasn't really that close to Islam. But here I go to the meetings at the Muslim club, I've met people who converted to Islam and I've learned more about it; it gives me a really nice feeling."

There are, of course, Muslims who are not immigrants. Sean Williams, a U.S. citizen originally from Guyana who converted to Islam five years ago, found comfort in his adherence to Islam, relief from the stress of college life. "Everyone is working so hard just to get through school. I used to wake up feeling confused and angry, but when I go and pray, everything is at ease, everything is in God's hands, and my day pans out."

The LaGuardia community has respected and supported its Muslim members, even in the difficult days after 9/11, said LaGuardia graduate Shahram Hashemi, who came to the U.S. from Iran in 1999.

Pamphlets laid out during session of semester-long Difficult Dialogues project, during which LaGuardia Community College surveyed Muslim and other religious communities.

"The college held a couple of forums; a Muslim was in charge of one of them," said Hashemi. It was important to show the good faith of Muslims, and I think the administration handled it very well." Hashemi himself was praised for his heroism on 9/11, when he escorted some 15 people to safety from the smoke-filled World Trade Center plaza and remained to fight fires after the towers fell.

Hashemi, who last spring received a master's in international relations/ human rights from Columbia University, works part-time for Dr. Reza Fakhari, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Kingsborough Community College, where they are trying to establish an interfaith dialogue among Christians, Jews and Muslims for the fall semester.

"As Muslims we want to be engaged with Christians and Jews, because of our deep belief that our religion is a continuation of the other two," said Dr. Fakhari, himself an Iranian immigrant. "Shahram is an exemplary case. He has worked since September 11 in every way he could to show Americans the progressive, humane face of Islam."

Dr. Fakhari, formerly director of LaGuardia's international studies program, said that the Kingsborough administration is just as eager to expose its students to the diversity of Muslim life and thought. For the 2007-2008 academic year, all incoming freshman will be required to read The Kite Runner, a novel about a boy growing up in Taliban-era Afghanistan by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini. "This will give them a very human perception of Islam," said Dr. Fakhari.

While the borough of Queens is emerging as a center of the immigrant Muslim experience, scholars from around the University are engaged in teaching and writing about Islam and its societies.

For example, at the Graduate Center's Middle East and Middle Eastern-American Center (MEMEAC), co-director Beth Baron, author of Egypt as Woman: Nationalism, Gender and Politics, was recently named a Carnegie Scholar for her project, "In Their Own Image: Americans and Middle Eastern Muslim Women." Last fall, Baron taught a course at the Graduate Center on "Approaches to the Study of the Middle East" with vice chancellor Selma Botman, author of Engendering Citizenship in Egypt and Egypt from Independence to Revolution.

And while nations cope with violent results of religious conflict, the colleges of CUNY are the fountains of hope that future generations will replace violence and hatred with discourse and understanding.