"The word tolerance holds no value for me; I believe the word should be acceptance"
In what was a candid conversation right after his Ramazan show, singer-turned-entrepreneur-turned-televangelist Junaid Jamshed spoke to Instep about his entrepreneurial dreams, Ramazan show formats and his moment of enlightenment.
It was an easy interview to prepare for given the wealth of information available on Junaid Jamshed’s transformative journey online and the number of controversies he made headlines for over the past couple of years. Adding to the advantage was the fact that it was the month of Ramazan that lent a perfect opportunity to question the absurdity and irony of over-commercialized religious transmissions from the man right at the forefront of it all. But it wasn’t quite a walk in the park when it came to conducting the interview. He has quickly become a celebrated cleric amassing a considerable fan following and as tempting as it was to delve straight into a heated debate, recent turn of events were enough of a warning on what can happen if a woman tries to challenge a cleric’s stance (case in point: Marvi Sirmed).
Junaid Jamshed now is vastly different from the Junaid Jamshed of the ’90s. His sparkling electric guitar has been replaced with a tasbeeh and his ripped jeans with a Muslim skull cap. But despite the difference, he has remained a constant source of news - at times because of his entrepreneurial or charitable efforts but often because of his televangelism. And while some admire him for his righteousness, others aren’t too pleased with his chauvinistic statements. Those also contribute to the reason why he is the most preferred subject for satire in print media. Naturally then he is also not the most loved by women apart from during lawn season. A fellow journalist is particularly vocal about disliking him ever since he said that people suffering from depression are merely away from God. Surprisingly enough, certain religious groups aren’t fond of him either as was seen when he was attacked by a charged mob at the Islamabad airport. That said, those, who have taken his Hajj service, just cannot stop praising him for the facilities and comfort it provides
None of the above, however, influenced me before the interview. All that I was concerned with was whether I am supposed to cover my head before meeting him; how far am I supposed to sit from him while asking questions and what if the interview turns into an unexpected dars - will that fit the bill for the cultural section that I work for? It seemed to require a fair bit of pre-planning and strategy from my end but much to my surprise, the 53 minutes went by as normally as they could with some interesting insights and more than a handful of religious anecdotes that did steer the interview towards becoming more or less a ‘bayaan’. But well, any knowledge is good knowledge.
Straight out of his live Ramazan transmission, dressed in a charcoal gray kameez and shalwar, tucked right above the ankle as it should be, and a white Muslim skull cap with a renewed freshness on his face post iftari, Jamshed looked every bit the televangelist he plays for the full 30 days of the Holy month. And even though it’s a role his fans adore, being a religious anchor isn’t quite the career field he connects with the most. Entrepreneur is what he prefers to be known as, first and foremost.
"I never imagined that I’ll become what I am right now in life," Jamshed began by saying. "I was a studious boy all throughout school and college and I never wanted to be a musician but ended up being one. When I finally decided to let go of music to pursue a clothing business, I was very serious about it and I still am very serious about it. I am not my blowing my own trumpet but I always wanted to launch a Pakistani brand that excels in everything and that would do well all over the world. So I discussed the idea with my friend, Sohail, who was an exporter and doing quite well in his business. I pushed him to shut down all of that even though he was making millions out of it and got him to think the way I was thinking. Life isn’t all about making money. You’ll find a gazillion people in this country who are making big money but how many those can say that the glasses that Sharon Stone is wearing are from their company? I remember when somebody asked me why opened a clothing store on the first day of that launch, that’s exactly what I told him that one day I want Sharon Stone to wear my brand’s glasses (she’s my favourite actress). The aim was never to stick to Pakistan, I always wanted to take the brand all over the world and that’s where I’d like to place myself as a professional."
"Branching out to different avenues just happened by chance," he added, while speaking on juggling multiple roles including that of a televangelist. "Jerjees convinced me to do the Ramazan transmission even though I told him that I won’t be able to pull it off because I may make mistakes but he had faith in me and said that ‘it’s alright you’ll learn’. First year was very difficult to be honest but I am thankful to my colleagues for giving me the encouragement to continue."
One would like to believe Jamshed has a sound knowledge of religion. It’s also quite apparent from his show where he is either seen quizzing audience on Islamic history or giving a lecture. He has also made a conscious effort of bidding adieu to his musical background, if not completely, and that has helped him avoid making a hypocritical impression on his fans, at least. The same cannot be said about the many actors, actresses and artists, who only assume an Islamic getup for Ramazan with no thorough sense of religious teachings whatsoever or how and what they are meant to discuss about Islam on national television. The commercialization of Ramazan remained a hot topic this year and these shows, countless in number, came across as much a popularity game for celebrities as a ratings rat race for channel owners. But perhaps the biggest criticism was how unequipped these celebrities are to debate on religion and how they instead end up making a mockery out of it. Jamshed, however, disagrees.
"Iqbal once said, ‘Zamane ke andaaz badle gaye, naya raag hai saaz badle gaye. Khirad ko ghulami se azaad kar, jawanon ka peeron ka ustaad kar’. Religion isn’t anyone’s personal property. You are just as much a Muslim as I am and similarly our celebrities. But an artist already understands the responsibility of being in front of the audience and the camera. And when he/she is made to sit on this pedestal in Ramazan, they are aware that they have to speak and act in a certain manner, which is also a way spiritual cleansing, and so there is no harm in it. All they should do is sit alongside a group of religious scholars, who guide them and ensure that whatever message they are sending out, it’s authentic. If they just make a scholar sit in place of the celebrity, people wouldn’t want to listen to him either, and now everyone also wants to criticize the celebrity, then whose fault is it then? Them or us?" Jamshed questioned, while also supporting the format of these religious shows.
Often conceptualized in a game show format, these transmissions are filled with mundane antics that result in a string of sponsored gifts that range from household items to 24 karat gold. And while these are pitched as an act of faith and a way of celebrating the spirit of the Holy month, many have argued that they do little but inculcate greed in people, who line up for registrations months in advance.
"Giving gifts is an essential part of our religion and according to Hazrat Ayesha (RA), our Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) charitable efforts during Ramazan would increase like the intensity of winds on a stormy day," he justified with the anecdote. "Unfortunately, our nation is famous for being beggars across the globe but through this we are giving an impression that no we are not freeloaders; we believe in distributing and sharing our wealth. I agree that sponsors get a lot of mileage from these shows but there is also a lot of spending involved as well. I have also been a sponsor so I know that a tremendous amount of money goes to these people so it’s not easy. Besides how rich can a person get with a couple of kurtas or a can of oil? Only one out of a thousand gets a motorcycle or a car but such acts build a stronger community."
A similar concern and heartfelt love for his nation is what led Jamshed back into the world of music last year, where he collaborated with Shahi Hasan and Junoon’s former band member, the ‘soul’-ful Sufi Salman Ahmed, for the song ‘Chand Sitara’. The song marked one of the biggest reunions in Pakistan’s musical history but fell flat on the ears for it just did not feel organic. At the same time, it pushed Jamshed under significant scrutiny - what’s he doing singing when Islam doesn’t allow music?
"The idea developed around the time when the Peshawar carnage happened and I, myself, was being accused for blasphemy by a certain faction of our society which I believe has no credibility whatsoever," Jamshed revealed. "It was a rude shock for me that the people of my country can think about me in such a way. I was really heartbroken so I called Shoaib Mansoor and suggested that we do something to wake up our nation; to revitalize them. He told me that he has already shared something that would interest me, with Salman, and that I should have a look at it. When I did, I fell in love with it. Salman had already made a tune for ‘Chand Sitara’ and I wanted to sing it so we recorded it at Shehzad’s studio without the drums or the melody in the background. But then Pepsi wanted it and they wanted to produce it as a proper soundtrack. I felt that if this was the only way our nation would feel motivated then so be it because the point was to stimulate them."
Even though, it seems that Jamshed’s sole intention is to do good for society and his country, obstacles have been far too many - sometimes it’s his own, draconian statements that make liberals disapprove of him as a figurehead, and sometimes these come in form of looming threats to his life. Yes, as hard as it may be to believe for the more liberal clout, Jamshed too is a victim of our growing intolerant society. Yet he disregards the word in itself. He believes the better way to approach this is to focus on acceptance first instead of tolerance.
"Every time someone decides to speak up for peace and goodwill, people will stand against him. That happened with Prophet Muhammad (SAW) when he embraced Islam and travelled to Medina and that’s exactly what’s been happening ever since the beginning of human race. And that is why I feel the word tolerance needs to be replaced with acceptance. Nobody in this world can tolerate each other; even siblings and spouses can’t, let alone strangers. It’s just not possible but what they do is accept each other as they are. We cannot change each other hence it’s better to learn to accept one another whatever the differences maybe. Even abroad, the Jews and the Christians don’t see each other eye to eye but they still live together in the same society. Acceptance is what our society needs the most. All sects need to accept each other and believe that if one has the right to live then so does the other," Jamshed stressed.
As I said earlier, Junaid Jamshed is a lot different from what we knew of him in the ‘90s. It’s obvious that Jamshed’s personality has experienced a paradigm shift of sorts. A West-inspired pop artist that ushered a new era in Pakistan’s music industry is now a well-versed religious mentor and takes every opportunity to offer a bit of spiritual cleansing to those around him. But while such a change of heart and religious inclination was seen across many a celebrity in the ’90s, only a few remained determined over not backtracking into music - Jamshed being a major example. What eventually stopped him from giving into life’s musical temptations? We all are well aware of the change by what, after all, was the reason behind the change?
"Jim Carrey recently tweeted that ‘everybody should get rich and famous and do everything that they ever dreamt of so that they can see that it’s not the answer’. That is the perfect explanation of your question. It happened around the time when ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ was quoted the third most popular song in the world. That same year I had a solo concert in Wembley Arena. The day after my concert, Tina Turner was performing at the venue. A total of 16000 tickets were sold for my concert whereas only 8500 tickets got sold for Turner’s. I saw it all, fame and fortune, and yet I wasn’t internally satisfied. I met priests as well as Hindu samrats while on my search for inner peace but it was when a friend of mine made me meet Maulana Tariq Jamil that I finally got a sense of things," Jamshed shared about his road to spiritual enlightenment. "When I told him that I have everything but even then I am a unhappy man, his exact words were as follows: ‘Tumhe chot ek ghutne pe lagi hai aur tum marham doosre ghutne pe laga rahe ho. Allah ne insaan ko do cheezon se banaya hai. Ek jism se banaya hai aur ek rooh se. Jism matti ka hai tou iski tamam zarooriyat ko Allah ne matti mein rakkha hai. Rooh Allah ka amr hai yeh, aasmanon se aayi hai. Is ki riza bhi aasmanon mein hai. Dil ke sukoon ka taaluq rooh se hai aur rooh ki ghiza hai Allah ka zikr’. That was a turning point in my life as if somebody had hit me hard on my head with a hammer. Then 9/11 happened and I was like no this isn’t what Muslims are. Americans can’t be thinking about us like this because America was one of my favourite countries; it was like the Mecca of music. So I decided to take it upon myself to show the world how a successful Muslim is really is like. And I am still on that journey."
Of business and branding
First launched in 2002, the J. brand has come a long way - from being a standalone shop on a street in Karachi to having multiple outlets not just across the country but also across the world - the last few were launched in Muscat, Damam, Dallas and Los Angeles. The brand initially took over the market through its annual lawn collection preceded with a marketing campaign that came under the spotlight for not featuring any model with bare arms on man-sized billboards. But, it won’t be wrong to say, that over the years the J. Lawn has lost its monopoly to a myriad of designer lawns that now crowd the market. That, however, hasn’t stopped the brand from branching out to perfumes, accessories and now make-up. Instep spoke to the driving force of the brand, Junaid Jamshed, on the brand’s ethos and its survival amidst growing competition.
Instep: Is J. Lawn suffering amidst increasing competition from designer lawns in the country?
Junaid Jamshed: Yes, it is. I see the accounts every day and I can see that it’s dealing with intense competition. I won’t say that we are not concentrating on womenswear; we are in fact working really hard but I also do realize that others are also working very hard. But as far as our menswear is concerned, others have a long way to go before they match us.
It’s not like we slacked; it’s just that we branched out to different product categories that shifted our focus and which, in turn, slowed down our progress in womenswear, allowing others to give us a tough time. That said, I am very happy with the way our local market is flourishing and I can see that they will eventually progress into the international market. I am actually enjoying the competition. We are 20 crore in population, it’s about time we concentrate on our own consumer base and economy.
Instep: You’ve recently launched a make-up line. How do you think it’s going to fare amidst stiff competition from Masarrat Misbah, currently a popular local beauty brand from a beauty expert?
JJ: I don’t think there is any stiff competition. The market is huge. We haven’t even advertised our make-up line properly and yet it’s becoming difficult for our sales guys to handle the demand at a handful of outlets that stock it for now. Misbah has her own market to cater to, she will do well with her line and we will with ours. And besides even if a 1000 make-up brands launch in Pakistan, there still won’t be a competition. All everyone needs to focus on is quality control and value for money and consumers will come to them themselves.
Instep: The brand has made a conscious effort of not using models or any sort of human figure for its marketing campaign. The same was approach was not followed in launching Wasim Akram’s perfume…
JJ: I am personally against the concept of displaying women on billboards. I am a modest Muslim and I fear Allah. I find it disrespectful. As far as Wasim Akram is concerned, it was the brand’s need so as to register which Wasim Akram we are talking about amongst our customers. I don’t think J. needs celebrities to boost its image. By Allah’s grace we are a big brand already but this was our tribute to Akram and so it was important that we show his face so as to avoid any sort of miscommunication and confusion.
Instep: At the perfume’s launch, a particular picture with actress Ayesha Omar went viral and attracted severe backlash from people who were quick to label you a hypocrite. Your response?
JJ: I was the host and she was my guest. If she wanted to come and get a picture with me, what do you think I should’ve done? Just blatantly refuse? To be honest, I was double-minded over getting the picture taken but she was my guest and I did not want to be rude to her. I did not have the heart to say no.