Religion is personal. A personal journey. Our financial problems, our professional failures, our estranged relationships with our parents, our infidelities… all can be disclosed to the world and spoken about freely. But what is about the ‘R’ word that makes us so uncomfortable? Why is it so difficult to discuss our religious journeys and, in particular, our descent from fundamentalist interpretations of Islam? Unless you have a mullahist epiphany, your story doesn’t count. But half the time, we are too shy to speak. Why is religion such a ‘personal’ matter when its presence or, dare I say, its absence, is one of the defining features of our lives?

When Junaid Jamshed left music for good and re-entered the entertainment industry as a televangelist, most Pakistanis were impressed. Eventually, he even made an impression on Ali Haider. Ali Haider, hailing from a Shia Muslim family, abruptly left music. Judging by his wavering naat choices, he subsequently became confused about whether he should be Shia or Sunni. Surely, he consulted his good friend Junaid bhai. Thereafter, Ali’s beard became longer and waistline became broader. Pakistani internet forum users enquired no longer about his sexual preference but sectarian preference.

A few months later, the worldwide web reported that Ali was now a born-again Shia Muslim. Now many of his songs made references to “Maula Ali”. When the prejudice against Shias hit him (and his sales) hard, Haider decided to settle for Sufism – perhaps the style of Abida Parveen could bridge and blur sectarian lines and allow him to say all sorts of stuff in his music while looking religious (Bulleh ki jaana main kaun?). Eventually, even Sufism became too limiting and Ali came back to rock the stage in sparkly clothing with his best hits. Though most of us speculated, Ali told his fan base nothing about his intellectual changes. During an interview with the popular talkshow host Farah, he said something on the lines of, “I left music because I wasn’t interested in anything at that point in my life.” Yes, thanks for that.

Then came Najam Sheraz. Another singer who left the filthy world of “secular music” for a more spiritual genre. However, after his famous “Na Tera Khuda Koi Aur Hai”, Najam was suddenly back with “Khwabon Ke Rishtay”, a progressive track picturised on sexual abuse. Not once did he explain the radical shift in his image from paindu rockstar to Subcontinental mystic to liberal social activist. Music certainly depends on the mood of both the maker and listener, but what if the maker does not reveal his mood? The listeners can’t be left to figure out what is going on.

Perhaps the most curious case was Shiraz Uppal. This Punjabi munda went from being a spoilt elite high school brat with a singing career to a raging mullah. Shiraz, the diva that he was, gained the support of thousands of hypocritical Pakistani fans when he decided to leave music. “Mashallah brother Shiraz, I admire you lots. Music is haram, I knew it!!” said Shiraz’ fans when he made a public announcement on Facebook. Shiraz stated clearly that he had been listening to the online sermons of [notorious] Wahhabi preacher Abu Mussab. For this young scholar, breathing is haram. In a matter of weeks, Shiraz was giving inspirational talks at Lahore’s very own Salafi club led by the fat fundamentalist Elahi-Zaheer brothers. The club has ties with Tanzeem-e-Islami, a pro-Caliphate movement founded by the deceased radical preacher Israr Ahmed. For many months, Shiraz would post a daily rant about the evilness of music, sometimes quoting the Quran, sometimes the Hadith, sometimes quoting both.

Shiraz then went into hermit mode in the United States of America. Yes, he moved to the USA not to escape religion, but to find more of it. Shiraz surrounded himself with more Salafi preachers – this time they represented the diversity of the Ummah in full spirit: men of black, white and Arab stock in jubbas further warned him against the sin that music was. But by 2014, Shiraz Uppal reappeared on the music scene with his Bollywood break in the film Raanjhana and a qawwali recital alongside the legend that is A.R. Rahman. Shiraz knew his judgemental Muslim fans would be disappointed. So he deleted his old Facebook page, and created a new one. A fresh start? No, we remember everything, Shiraz. One day, Shiraz appeared on Juggan Kazmi’s talkshow to clarify his story. The most he said was, “I left music because something was missing in my life. Then I moved to the US.” No mention of online indoctrination, Salafism and the depression that comes with adopting extremist worldviews.

Much has been said about “creating a counter-extremism narrative” in both the UK and now Pakistan. Our favourite mullah Junaid will jump on that bandwagon too, it seems. There have been moments in his own religious journey where he returned to sinning with a haram guitar “Naya Pakistan” piece and an accidental blasphemous remark about the Prophet’s youngest wife. Again, no clarification on the part of Junaid bhai regarding his evolving views. The awareness of religion-inspired terrorism amongst even religious sections of Pakistani society is rising. However, creating a counter-extremist narrative requires former extremists, particularly public personalities, to speak openly about their past. The future can only be bright if we know where we went wrong. Do not be ashamed of religious fundamentalism if it brought you closer to enlightenment. And, dear Pakistani singer-turned-mullah-turned-singers, stop doing intellectual somersaults on your own fan base, then evading questions as if nothing ever happened.