When Junaid Jamshed died in a plane crash with his second wife Neha and more than forty other passengers in December 2016, there was a long list of mourners.

Some belonged to the artistic community who admired him as a pop singer.

Some belonged to the religious community who adored him as a pop preacher.

Some belonged to the army who arranged a special funeral with a Pakistan Air Force guard of honor. Other than the well-respected humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi, Junaid Jamshed is the only non-army celebrity honored by the Pakistan Army after his death.

Some belonged to his family consisting of his first wife Ayesha and other relatives.

And then there were those who had mourned him nearly twenty years ago when he had converted from a pop singer to a religious preacher, cut his long hair, grew a long beard and joined a Muslim evangelical group Tableeghi Jamaat.


One afternoon I received an unexpected call from my social activist friend Munir Saami asking me, “Dr. Sohail! What is the psychology of religious conversion? Why do secular artists become deeply religious?” I responded, “My immediate reply would be that it is a spiritual reaction to an existential crisis. Your question is simple but profound, though, and I have to do more reading and reflection to give you a more meaningful response.” This essay is the outcome of my reading and reflection on the topic.


Junaid Jamshed was at the height of his fame and fortune when he experienced an existential crisis. He belonged to a small group of the rich and famous of Pakistan. His songs were frequently played on radio and television. His CDs and his music group Vital Signs were a great hit. He had everything. But one thing was missing: peace of mind.

When I reflected on the life stories of world celebrities in fine arts, I realized that Junaid Jamshed was not the only one in the world of rich and famous celebrities who have all the materialistic things: a big house, a big car, a big boat, a big bank account, lots of lovers, but no peace of mind. They spend sleepless nights tossing and turning in bed, obsessed by their past or their future. They cannot enjoy their present success. They are preoccupied with the idea that their materialistic possessions and world fame are temporary. They feel as though they are chasing a mirage. To fill the inner void, some get addicted to drugs, while others get addicted to religion.

Some artists who grow up in religious families and puritanical communities also feel that their lives full of music, money and sex are sinful. They feel guilty on their own or their religious families and friends make them feel guilty. With the passage of time, their feelings of guilt become more intense and their dissatisfaction grows. When these celebrities reach the height of their fame as well as the height of dissatisfaction, depression and despair, they become vulnerable to having a crisis, a breakdown. And if they meet a charismatic religious leader who can sense their despair, he realizes that they are ready for a religious conversion.

When I listened to Junaid Jamshed’s ninety-minute Youtube video sharing the details of his religious conversion, I learned that he was experiencing an existential crisis when he met the charismatic religious leader Tariq Jameel in a Tableeghi Jamaat meeting, where his high school friend had taken him. When Junaid Jamshed met Tariq Jameel, Tariq Jameel knew that Junaid Jamshed was a famous pop singer as he had seen him singing in a television program, surrounded by beautiful young women. He had also seen his pictures on music posters all over the country. When Junaid Jamshed shared that he was feeling empty inside and was looking for peace of mind, Tariq Jameel stated that fame and fortune were food for the body, but he needed food for his soul. When Junaid Jamshed said, “But I thought music is the food for the soul,” Tariq Jameel disagreed. He said that music created lust of the body, not love for God. Hearing that statement, Junaid began to sob uncontrollably. Tariq Jameel knew he had hit the nail on the head, and it was the beginning of the end of Junaid Jamshed’s music career and a start of his religious career.

Over the next few months Junaid Jamshed started to withdraw from the world of music and arts and entered the world of religion and spirituality, gradually becoming as popular as a preacher as he had been as a singer.


Tariq Jameel became Junaid Jamshed’s new mentor, a mentor of the religious world. But before his religious conversion Junaid Jamshed had been inspired by the famous writer, scholar and film-maker Shoaib Mansoor, who was his secular and artistic mentor. Shoaib Mansoor was the person who had groomed Junaid Jamshed as a musician and singer and introduced him to the group Vital Signs. Shoaib Mansoor was deeply hurt and disappointed when he found out about Junaid’s religious conversion. In 2007 Shoaib Mansoor wrote,

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.


Shoaib Mansoor was so distressed and disappointed by Junaid’s religious conversion that he wrote a script for a movie Khuda kay liay [For God’s Sake]. He asked Junaid Jamshed to act in it. Initially, Junaid Jamshed agreed to shave his beard and star as himself, but then he changed his mind. That confirmed in Shoaib Mansoor’s mind that the damage done by the fundamentalists was irreversible.


Junaid Jamshed was inspired by Tariq Jameel, the charismatic leader of the religious group Tableeghi Jamaat. Such a group has a very strict interpretation of religion. They demand that women wear the hijab and burqa and stay at home. Women are not allowed to drive and work outside the house. This group is against all kinds of fine arts—music and dance, painting and acting—as according to their interpretation of scriptures, all these are considered acts of Satan that condemn people to hell.

It is interesting to note how fundamentalist religious leaders transform any emotional or existential issue into a religious problem. They connect existential angst with sin and guilt. Then they ask these celebrities to repent of their sins and come close to God. They want them to dedicate their life to preaching religion to earn an eternal peaceful life in heaven.

In my opinion as a psychotherapist and a humanist, there is a big difference between a religious worldview and a secular worldview. In the religious worldview, life revolves around good and bad, right and wrong, sin and virtue, halal and haram, based on scriptures, divine revelations and holy books; while in the secular world people use modern science, medicine and psychology to discover the secrets of happy, healthy and peaceful living. They want to create a meaningful and successful life on planet Earth in their lifetime rather than fantasizing about heaven and waiting for life in the hereafter.

When I listened to the sermons of Junaid Jamshed and Tariq Jameel I was struck by their obsession with women and sex. While they insult earthly women and wives by disparaging them as fat and ugly, they are full of praises of heavenly women, the hoors, calling them slim and beautiful. They describe them vividly, as if they had just returned from heaven after dating a few of them. Their fantasies of heavenly hoors border on spiritual porn. Their sermons are erotic enough to excite men who grow up in sexually repressed, sexually starved and sexually segregated communities of the Muslim world.


While I was studying the life story of Junaid Jamshed, I recalled Cat Stevens, a pop singer from the Christian world who had also experienced a religious conversion. He became a Muslim and changed his name to Yousaf Islam.

Cat Stevens had experienced a health crisis. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1966 and was close to death when he began to review his faith and religious ideals.

In 1976 when he was swimming off Malibu, he got caught in a strong current and started to drown. In desperation, he cried out, “Oh God, if you save me, I will work for you.” After that prayer, a wave appeared unexpectedly and took him to shore. Stevens believed it was a miracle.

His brother David Gordon, who had embraced Judaism, gave him a copy of Quran on his way to Jerusalem. When Stevens read Quran, of all the holy stories, he was most inspired by that of Joseph, so when he became a Muslim he chose the name of Yousaf Islam. After embracing Islam he said goodbye to the world of music and entered the world of religion.

At one stage Yousaf Islam became so fundamentalist that he supported Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, which he later denied.


There are many religious cults all over the world who specifically focus on celebrities. They are well aware that the religious conversion of one celebrity can bring hundreds, if not thousands, of fans and followers to that religious cult. One such cult in the Western world is the Church of Scientology. When Ron Hubbard started the Church of Scientology in 1954, he created a special segment of that church that enticed, seduced and bribed celebrities. Two famous Hollywood personalities that joined the cult are Tom Cruise and John Travolta. In a documentary titled Going Clear, depicting the inside story of the Church of Scientology, the narrator shares that Travolta was a “troubled young man looking for help”.  When Travolta read Hubbard’s book Dianetics, he was so inspired that he became a member of the Scientology Movement. I find it fascinating and disturbing that the leaders of the Church of Scientology record all the confessions of their members and then use those confessions to blackmail them. Once celebrities become members of the cult, they cannot leave. If the Church finds a friend or a family member a threat to the Church they make sure to get rid of that person. They do not hesitate to interfere with the personal lives of their members. Tom Cruise had to divorce his wife Nicole Kidman in 2001 when the Church of Scientology found her a threat to the cult. In appreciation of his sacrifice, the Church of Scientology gave Cruise many awards and rewards and appointed him Scientology Ambassador to the world. Tom Cruise, like many other Scientology members, is dead against psychiatry as he considers medications used to treat mental illnesses and emotional problems to be poisonous.


When I was sharing my reflections on religious conversion, my friend Shahid Rassam, a well-known artist in the world of painting, brought to my attention that Saeed Anwar, a famous Pakistani cricketer, had also experienced a religious conversion. When I studied his life story, I found out that after marrying his cousin Doctor Lubna in 1996, he faced a family crisis when his daughter Bismah, died after a prolonged illness in 2001. That crisis created an emotional breakdown, after which Saeed Anwar reviewed his spiritual life, joined Tableeghi Jamaat and grew a long beard. While reading Saeed Anwar’s story I discovered that Saeed Anwar had also inspired a well-respected cricketer from the Pakistani cricket team, Yousaf Youhanna, who had become Mohammad Yousaf, after embracing Islam.




While I was studying religious conversion in the world of sports, I also came across Cassius Clay, who was inspired by Mohammad Elijah. Cassius Clay attended the first meeting of the Nation of Islam, also known as the Black Muslims, in 1961 where he listened to the sermon of the charismatic leader Mohammad Elijah. The Nation of Islam was reluctant to accept Cassius Clay but after he won his heavyweight fight with Sony Liston in 1964 they opened their doors to him. They knew that Cassius Clay’s conversion would bring a lot of attention to the Nation of Islam. After embracing Islam, Cassius Clay became Mohammad Ali. He stated that Cassius Clay was his old “slave name” and Mohammad Ali was his new name as a free man. For a while Mohammad Ali was also inspired by Malcolm X. When Mohammad Ali was drafted to go to Vietnam to fight for America, he refused. He stated, “War is against the teachings of Quran.” Mohammad Ali remained politically active through out his life. In 1980 he visited Kenya and convinced their government to boycott the Moscow Olympics because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

In 1996 Mohammad Ali had the honor of lighting the flame of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.

After the 911 tragedy, Mohammad Ali made many speeches stating that Islam was a religion of peace.

In 2002 Mohammad Ali visited Afghanistan as a Messenger of Peace. He died in June 2016. By the time of his death he had become a symbol of peace all over the world. In his later years he had become a follower of the peaceful mystic tradition of Islam.



While there are some celebrities who embraced Fundamentalist Islam, there are others who embraced Spiritual Islam. One such person was the mystic poet Jalal-uddin Rumi. Rumi was an ordinary maulvi [cleric] but after his encounters with a wandering darvesh, Shams Tabrez, he had a spiritual awakening. His religious conversion inspired him to become a mystic poet and he created thousands of verses of Musnawi, one of the most celebrated collections of mystic poetry in world literature. He shared his encounter with Shams Tabrez in his couplet:

Maulvi hargiz na shud maula-e-roam

Ta ghalam-e-shams-e-tabrea-e-nashud

[A cleric does not become a master

Until he becomes the slave of a mystic]

The meeting of Rumi and Shams lasted for only forty days but it left a life-long impression on Rumi. Shams left mysteriously and never came back. Some believe that Shams was killed by Rumi’s son and students as they were jealous of Rumi’s passionate and mystical relationship with Shams.


Whether fundamentalist or spiritual, religious conversion is a mysterious process, a combination of a breakdown and a breakthrough. The more we analyze its dynamics, the better we will be able to understand how some celebrities in some communities are more likely to go through it than other communities. In my opinion, when celebrities experience an existential crisis and meet a charismatic religious leader belonging to a religious group, they are more likely to go through that religious conversion.


December 2016