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Yusuf Islam - Sounding Louder

Yusuf Islam - Sounding Louder

Issue 9 Jan / Feb 2005

Despite climbing down from the giddy heights of musical stardom 30 years ago, Cat Stevens is never far from making the headlines. Whether being harangued for his Muslim schools or being detained by US officials, Yusuf Islam feels he is often misunderstood. In this candid interview he talks about his position on music, his desire to build bridges and the deeper meaning of Father and Son.

"Today, you have to speak to people in the language they understand and music is a universal language; it knows no racial, religious or national boundaries. And so I believe we need more and more images of successful Muslims in the public arena doing the right thing and encouraging others."

Brondesbury Park Hotel in West London contains some good memories for me: my sister got married there; my children have run amok in the halls and corridors and I have attended no end of dinners, conferences and charity events in this former police hostel. But now it has closed down. The trust that owns it, founded by Yusuf Islam, is considering other options. It is no coincidence that since 9/11 all of Yusuf’s charities  and other Islamic charities in general - have suffered financially. “It is absolutely awful,” he protests. “The Islamic ethos is to encourage charity, whilst the actions of extremists and certain governments is putting fear into people and thereby discouraging them from donating to worthy causes. One of the deeply regrettable fallouts is that many people, including Muslims, have stopped the noble tradition of donating money.”

One of the lounges in the hotel is opened up just for us to have our meeting. Yusuf had arrived concerned about being late for his next appointment. Life has been a roller-coaster ride over the last few weeks. How does he feel about the Hollywood-style diversion of his plane and his subsequent deportation? “One wonders what a British passport is worth nowadays,” he retorts. “On the inside front cover there is some blurb about Her Britannic Majesty requesting and requiring the bearer to be allowed to pass freely without let or hindrance. Well, the Americans were clearly not minded to entertain Her Majesty’s request on this occasion. But perhaps,” he says on reflection “there is a lesson in all this. The US is no longer the welcome destination it had a reputation for. It is no longer the ‘dream land’ it once was. It is paralysed by fear and is sending frightful signals to the outside world. But good sense in the end will prevail, insha-Allah.”

Will he try again to go to the US? He smiles. “Well, the world is a big place.” In the meantime Yusuf is determined to carry on his work, helping the needy and promoting peace. His focus has turned eastward. He spends a lot of time in Dubai and is very proud of his charity Small Kindness (started in 1999). In November 2004 he was honoured with the Man for Peace award in Rome by a committee of Nobel laureates. His face is instantly recognisable in the Muslim world and beyond and he has become an icon for many millions of people. In my own travels I have often been asked about Yusuf Islam. His personality makes an impact on those he meets. I remember being told about one incident where two students from Oxford went into a restaurant. They saw Yusuf in one corner dining with his family. One of the students couldn’t contain his enthusiasm and skipped over to Yusuf’s table to greet him with salaams. The other student, being English, was naturally reserved and after the meal said sorry to Yusuf for his colleague’s conduct. “No need to apologise,” Yusuf consoled. “Your friend was doing nothing wrong. To say salaam is a good thing.” This small but genuine gesture left a deep impression upon the young man and he fi nds this humility lacking in many with a public profile – even Muslims.

There is a patent desire in Yusuf to do the right thing. He clearly has a concern for wider society evidenced by his international humanitarian work and his Islamic schools.Some have accused such schools of being divisive and of creating a segregated society. Yusuf appears impatient with such criticism. “Well, football can be divisive. I’m actually an Arsenal supporter and often we see the passion and hostilities generated by this game. But there isn’t a clamour to ban football. I believe the arguments against Muslim schools are ill-conceived. Firstly, a ‘Muslim school’ is not a ‘school for Muslims only,’ rather it is a school that runs on universal Islamic values – values which most people would recognise and admire. Islam has a strong tradition of pluralism and has created  multi-cultural and multi-racial societies. Secondly,  faith-based schools have consistently performed well. Year after year the results of students at such schools are remarkably good. Thirdly, a good Muslim school will help create well-rounded citizens who make valuable contribution to society and the world. The problem is not with the vision or idea of a Muslim school, but rather the implementation of that vision, which requires time, dedication and resources.”

Yusuf was born Steven Demetri Georgiou in London’s West End on 21st July 1948 to a Swedish mother and a Greek-Cypriot father. He is the youngest of three children and seems to have had a vibrant childhood growing up in the fast lane of central London. His parents owned a restaurant near Soho and young Steven would help out serving, sweeping the fl oors and even getting to turn thekebabs on the grill. He fondly recalls the restaurant receiving extra tips on account of his youthful charm and exuberance.

His parent’s marriage ran into difficulties, though they continued to live in the same house and even work together. Then, for a few months Yusuf lived with his mother in Sweden. He vividly recalls at school being the only dark-haired olive-skinned child in a sea of blue-eyed blonds, who treated him with intrigue and curiosity.

Back in the UK Yusuf did encounter Muslims at an early age, but because his father was a Greek-Cypriot there was inherent hostility towards the Turks and thereby towards Muslims in general. This makes it all the more fascinating how he became a Muslim. “Not really,” he says. “I had always been religious, being brought up nominally as a Greek Orthodox, but my parents sent me to a Catholic school to get a good moral grounding. You can see that much of my life and search refl ects a spiritual disposition which culminated in my becoming a Muslim.”

Ever since the age of 18, when he had his fi rst hit with I Love My Dog, Yusuf – then Cat Stevens – has been in the public eye. But about 27 years ago he gave up his singing at the height of his musical fame. Why? “I became a Muslim and stopped singing. Contrary to popular opinion, I never gave it up irreversibly, but I suspended using my talents until I knew better. Fame and fortune can be very challenging. I was being advised that music was prohibited. At the time I didn’t think for myself, but later I closely studied the sources of Islamic law and not just the fatwas (opinions).”

“Islamic jurisprudence is quite sophisticated and elaborate. For an action to be prohibited there must be a clear-cut ordinance (nass) which is not open to various interpretations. In my research I discovered for myself the different views on music – there is no clear nass against music itself but there are clearly dangers. It is not the music that is generally the problem, but all the other things that surround and accompany the entertainment  industry which can lead one away from God.”

Is he concerned that some Muslims will be dismayed at his return to the music scene? “I had walked away from the music industry, not the music itself. Music is around us everywhere. It is part of God’s creation and harmony within the universe: the sound of rain falling on a lake; the gust of wind rushing through trees; the melody of birds singing – all this is music to be enjoyed and appreciated. The problem I had with the music industry was that it became all-consuming and therefore a distraction from the higher goals of life and the Hereafter.”

On 13th December 2004 the singer Ronan Keating re-released with Yusuf the classic song Father and Son, written by Cat Stevens in 1969. How did it all come about? “It was really quite unexpected,” Yusuf explains. “I like Ronan; he’s a good singer with a clean image. I was asked by his management to join the recording with some ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. However, once in the studio I found it very diffi cult not to sing, and everything fell naturally into place. I am pleased with the outcome – after all, it is a great song.”

“Today you have to speak to people in the language they understand and music is a universal language; it knows no racial, religious or national boundaries. And so I believe we need more and more images of successful Muslims in the public arena doing the right thing and encouraging others. You know, when Muhammad Ali carried the Olympic Flame in 1996 that was a great moment.”

“I know my music as Cat Stevens has inspired people and even saved lives. If my music as Yusuf Islam can continue to do that then I will be honoured. But I tread with caution, for I am conscious that one day I will be before God and will have to answer for all my deeds.” Yusuf then explains that his son Muhammad was infl uential in his decision to enter the mainstream again. Yusuf married in 1979 and has four daughters and one son. “Actually, it was Muhammad who first noticed Boyzone singing Father and Son whilst we were eating kebabs in a restaurant. We later met the band on Top of the Pops and were very impressed by them.”

Interestingly, the song Father and Son has great resonance with the Qur’anic story of Abraham and his father. “The lyrics of my song originally related to a young man wanting to leave the comfort of his home to fight in the Russian Revolution. In the story of Abraham, he is in confl ict with his father’s values; he struggles for a long time and then eventually has to go his own way, giving up his home comforts for higher values. But when the father and son relationship works – as in the case of Abraham and his son Ismail, then great wonders can be achieved. Many millions of Muslims unite as one family of believers around the sacred House rebuilt by Abraham and Ismail in Makkah.”

And so back to the inevitable 9/11; has anything changed since? “Yes, most definitely. There is now a greater feeling of ‘us and them’. The world is much more polarised. Security concerns trump everything else. This is all very alien to Islam which teaches the middle way, the balanced way. And I think we Muslims have failed to explain what Islam is about to the wider world. I believe if Islam could be truly known, that it is the continuous message of all the prophets – Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and the many others before him – then we would not have such a fractious world. We forget our common origin (and joint destination); we do not emphasise enough of that which we share, but tend to squabble over the differences. Even in the Muslim world we have branded ourselves Salafi s and Sufi s, modernists and traditionalists - and a host of other things.”

The story of the Qur’anic Yusuf is an uplifting one. It is an illustration of God’s unfathomable direction of men’s affairs. From the depths of darkness to slavery and imprisonment and then to great prosperity, honour and dignity, Yusuf’s life account is profound and stirring, giving hope when all around there is despair. And of course, like Abraham and Ismail, this is a father and son story too. But in this story their separation was enforced and maliciously planned. The father though never gave up hope of meeting his son again, and their eventual meeting is powerfully evoked in the Qur’an. “My own father died testifying there is only One God,” Yusuf recalls. “That was one of the greatest moments for me. The message of unity is now carrying on with my son; that is a great blessing - thank God (Al-hamdu lillah).”


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