Remona Aly
Wednesday 01 November 2006 emel

Cat is Back: Yusuf Islam Returns

Mid-August and we are waiting to be ushered in to the back doors of Alexandra Palace in London to attend the launch of Islam Expo, a three year project whose chief guest at the opening ceremony is Yusuf Islam. I glance back at the queue and see the world renowned singer walking quietly towards the tiny gate where one of the security guards steps forward and says abruptly, “please could you wait sir.” For a moment, he looks at Yusuf, and in a flash of recognition brings his hands clasped palms together in a humble appeal and utters, ‘Mr Stevens, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise. Sir – thank you for your music.”

The impact that Cat Stevens’ music has had is undeniable, with stories of people who were on the brink of suicide, finding a Cat Stevens LP and hearing life-affirming songs that have changed their lives. As Yusuf Islam, his songs are still a powerfully positive force, as he himself admits. “My ability to deliver a message in a melody that effectively moves many people’s hearts and minds is still there. It’s a fantastic gift. As the Qur’an says ‘whoever saves the life of one soul, it is as if saving the whole of humanity’. That to me is indicative of what music can do if it has the right message.”

Listening to the words of songs like Moonshadow, The Wind, and Peace Train, there is deep-felt resonance of a sincere search for the truth within Stevens, and when he took his first steps towards Islam, it struck a spiritual chord in him. “When I finally discovered Islam, I found the word derived from peace, and I had been singing about Peace Train, which symbolises a movement of unity, of humanity travelling towards one place. Then if you look at hajj and what Islam directs humanity towards, I thought isn’t that what I was trying to hint at? It was subliminally in my consciousness. I was talking about Islam but I didn’t know it.” The glimpses into his soul through his songs even led some Muslim fans to pray for him. “I have met more than one Muslim who has told me that when they heard my songs, they prayed for me to become Muslim.”

Once Stevens embraced Islam, he was warned about his profession as conflicting with his new found faith. “One voice of warning came from Abu Ameenah Bilal Phillips. I met him on the gates of Madinah mosque and he told me instruments are haram. So I retreated to where I felt was the safest place and that was to do nothing. I gave myself the chance to have a life, to learn my faith and not be diverted. But I never once stated that I believed that music was forbidden. I kept a reserved view on it, and I didn’t play it myself which was a statement in itself. The sound of silence – that was my statement.”

Some Muslims’ vociferous opinion that music is haram, Yusuf professes, is a regurgitation of what they have been brought up to believe. The tendency of immigrant Muslim culture to be cautious in their practice of Islam in foreign lands is a reflection of uncertainty that confirms feelings of unsettled displacement. Yusuf is baffled by the fact that most of these immigrants have come from countries that profess a keen relationship with music. “The reality is, go to Egypt, go to Pakistan, go to the traditional marriages in Bedouin society and you are going to find music. Switch on the radio on Makkah, what are you going to hear? Music. Perhaps Muslims are over cautious in the absence of indisputable prohibition, where there are no two opinions. But that is a matter of fiqh, not aqeeda. Fatwas are necessary when there are no clear texts. And of course the issues of music are all run on fatwas.”

Yusuf’s opinion is often sought by mainstream press as a respected figure in the Muslim community, and he was recently dubbed by BBC’s Andrew Marr as ‘the prominent Muslim voice in the UK’, though he confesses this role is not a comfortable one. “The idea of having an influential role beyond music petrifies me more than anything. I have always remained neutral and non partisan. I never joined any group for the simple reason that Islam is Islam. I don’t want to be used as a political mascot. Sometimes it’s not right to talk, as Prophet Muhammad said ‘speak good or be silent’. Look at what the Pope did, he didn’t gauge what he was saying and what impact it would have. So you have got to be careful. Even if you’re the Pope!” The Pope, it seems will be receiving a complimentary copy of Yusuf’s re-released ‘Life of the Prophet’ album that will come as a CD and book, in a message of goodwill rather than an angry response from the singer. As he says. “I always take the positive route.”

When Yusuf left the music business 29 years ago, he effectively left an artistic hole in the scene, which in the 80’s took a turn towards what he describes as “very bland music”. After 14 albums, along with compilations and anthologies that sold over 60 million worldwide, his largely optimistic songs were keenly missed. It was later on that he realised the impact his music had on people. And this was further confirmed when he came across a powerful example proclaiming the importance of song to lift spirits in times of great difficulty. “Much of that manifestation of a hopeful and brave Muslim community was borne out of the tragic Bosnian war. When I learnt the nasheeds coming out of the Balkans during the genocide was one of the things that kept the spirits high, I realised how powerful song could be.”

In a spate of recent anti-war and politicised songs from musicians like Green Day, James Blunt, and even Sami Yusuf with Outlandish, does Yusuf think musicians can be more vocal about injustices? Yusuf is clear about his own take on singing down the political path, and warns that explicit anti-war songs could be detrimental. “Politics is really for the politicians. The Prophet saw so many injustices, but that did not divert him from the most important message – to bring people closer to the One God. In one of the songs on the album ‘Greenfields and Golden Sands’ I dedicate it to all those long suffering people who wish to return to their home in peace and security. In that song I say: ‘A small house and an olive tree to keep and feed my family. That’s all I need and all I want.’” So the subtlety in song here is more of an ode to suffering than a message to expose injustice. And for Yusuf at least there is a deeper, more effective means for change. “What are the big issues today – the defining of boarders, national flags? No. I think it’s the heart. If you don’t concentrate on rebuilding the heart and its sensitivity to divine truth, then how will you succeed?”

In what is seen by critical eyes as controversial, Yusuf has compiled a new album that is set to send a few shockwaves through the community. The 12 tracked album will be released on 14th November, and has already provoked a mixture of censure and support. “Some people have equated my picking up a guitar again with leaving Islam which is utterly blasphemous as far as I am concerned. It exposes the ignorance of what people confuse over what is aqeedah and what is fiqh. In the beginning, the criticism hurt like an arrow in me. But then you get used to the wounds and move on. “Music can be a powerful medicine as well, a healing”

Yusuf, though was prepared for the feedback. “I always knew that if I picked up a guitar that it would have an impact. Before I picked up my son’s guitar, I learnt about the evolvement of the guitar, and how it was introduced to Europe through Muslim Spain by a man from Baghdad called Ziriab, whose name meant blackbird because he had such a beautiful voice. I reserved any judgement until I was absolutely sure. Now I feel the good I can do with singing to the world is much more that if I did not. As I quoted in the last Imagine series, ‘You can argue with a philosopher, but you can’t argue with a good song’, and I believe I have a few good songs.”

His new album, entitled ‘An Other Cup’, is something of a sequel to his days of ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ and we ask what the name signifies. “I’m leaving it open to interpretation. Though I will say it has some connection with what Islam brought to the West, one of which is coffee. There were no coffee houses before Muslims developed them. Culture is a matter of sharing, not of clashing. We have already helped the foundations of western society. But we have somehow become removed from it. We have so much to offer, we just have to look to where we can connect.”

It seems this connection, this synthesis is what is important here. Just as we cannot separate sincerity from song, we cannot separate Cat Stevens from Yusuf Islam, as Yusuf states when asked of his album. “People are gob-smacked. They find it unbelievable that my style of singing hasn’t really diminished.” He goes on. “I have been a Muslim as many years as I have been a non-Muslim. 29 years. That’s symbolic. It means I have lived long enough as a Muslim to have learned and synthesised that knowledge into my life and express it. The Prophet said, ‘people are like mines of gold and silver.’ The best before Islam are the best in Islam once they comprehend it which can take a long time sometimes. And he concludes when asked if his album is a reminiscing of old times or a move forward, in a simple statement. “This is Yusuf.” And from what he reveals, or remains silent on of his upcoming album ‘An Other Cup’, it seems that either way, we are in for quite a brew.

This article originally appeared in emel magazine in November 2006, Issue 26.