One of Salman Ahmad's earliest gigs was a talent show at King Edward Medical College in Lahore, Pakistan, where he was studying to be a doctor. Moments after he strummed his first chords, Islamic fundamentalists barged in, smashed Ahmad's guitar and drum set, and broke up the show.

Ahmad wasn't so much scared as confused.

"I thought rock musicians were supposed to break their own instruments," he said with a smile.

Little did they know at the time, but those fundamentalists helped spawn an international star whose faith-based music reaches millions of Muslims, prompting comparisons to another do-good rocker, U2's Bono. Perhaps more important, by promoting interfaith understanding, Ahmad has become a pivotal figure in the war between moderate and extremist Islam.

"That one incident really changed the way I started thinking. I realized that if there are some people who feel threatened by music, and what music means for people, then I should do more of it," Ahmad, a devout Sufi Muslim, said in an interview.

Ahmad, 41, is best known as lead guitarist of Junoon, a Pakistani-American rock band that is wildly popular throughout South Asia and among the South Asian diaspora, selling 25 million albums -- as many as Nirvana, ZZ Top and Janet Jackson have sold in the United States. Many of his songs have topped MTV India's music charts for weeks on end.

But fame was never enough for Ahmad, who has parlayed his popularity into lobbying for Third World development and building bridges between the Islamic and Western worlds. "I can't imagine anybody else out there who as a single person can make a bigger difference than Sal," said Polar Levine, a Jewish-American musician with whom Ahmad has collaborated since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "He's not making music as a sales unit or to get babes. He's got an agenda."

Born in Lahore, Ahmad moved with his family to Tappan, N.Y., when he was 12. There he grew to love Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, and bought his first guitar. He also maintained his Pakistani-Muslim roots, speaking Urdu at home, fasting during Ramadan and perusing the Qur'an. Ahmad returned to Lahore for medical school and after graduating chose music over medicine, figuring that if he failed at rock 'n' roll he could always go back to doctoring.

He never picked up a stethoscope again. Junoon, which Ahmad formed in 1990, created a distinctive sound -- electric rock braided with Pakistani folk music and lyrics that drew from the Qur'an and Sufi poets like Rumi and Baba Bulleh Shah. He quickly won a following that grew over the years.

"My inspiration comes from a lot of these Sufi poets, and the fact that they saw the world as one," Ahmad said. "I'm a believer, and a lot of my music and my life take inspiration from faith. And the Qur'an is a huge source of inspiration."

Despite his deference to Islam, not all Muslims approve of Ahmad and Junoon.

"Islam needs musicians like Ahmad ..."
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His group was banned from performing in Pakistan from 1996 to 1999 after referring to government corruption in a song and protesting Pakistan's and India's nuclear testing. After fundamentalists won local elections in Pakistan's northwest Peshawar region in 2002 and outlawed all music as un-Islamic, the BBC, in the documentary "Rock Star and the Mullahs," chronicled how Ahmad challenged fundamentalists to show where in the Qur'an music is forbidden.

They couldn't, but still held to their views.