Religious awakenings and conversions are nothing new. From Martin Luther to Mohammad Ali, in one sense or another they have helped create and define our nation. Yet when Cat Stevens, the tremendously popular British singer/songwriter, gave up the life of a music superstar to become Yusuf Islam, the most private of personal decisions became something to mock and ultimately to scorn stateside.
For more than a decade, Islam’s name has been mud for “endorsing” the Ayatollah’s fatwa against author Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. If you’re enamored with the notion of an endless scavenger hunt, try to find that endorsement somewhere in writing. As happens, with the passing of time fiction become fact, myth becomes legend. A backlash ensued. 10,000 Maniacs pulled Stevens’ “Peace Train” from In My Tribe. His songs were banned from radio and his religious beliefs publicly ridiculed.
Meanwhile, Islam quietly worked to a number of charitable ends in his native London. He released a number of albums that sold quite well internationally, though they received little attention in the States. But it’s a new century, and Yusuf Islam is back in the news. Universal is in the process of launching a complete reissue program of his catalogue with the prospects of a box set later in the year. VH1 is trying to land him for an episode of Behind the Music. And he’s covering America on a speaking tour that just might clear the air of a decade’s worth of rumor.
Was there a particular reason for your recent U.S. speaking tour?
My reason for coming to the U.S. is to reconnect with my fans, those who feel I turned my back and who deserve an explanation. There are many people who also want me to visit their communities and I enjoy that greatly, meeting and sharing thoughts and, of course, enjoying wonderful hospitality.
Your religious conversion seems so basic, yet people’s reactions were hyper-critical. Why do you think there was so little understanding?
When I accepted Islam, a lot of people couldn’t understand. To my fans it seemed that my entering Islam was the direct cause of me leaving the music business, so many people were upset. However, I had found the spiritual home I’d been seeking for most of my life. And if you listen to my music and lyrics, like “Peace Train” and “On The Road To Findout,” it clearly shows my yearning for direction and the spiritual path I was travelling.
The Rushdie fatwa incident seems to be accepted as fact here, despite the fact that no one seems able to cite your endorsement of it. How did this rumor start?
I’m very sad that this seems to be the No. 1 question people want to discuss. I had nothing to do with the issue other than what the media created. I was innocently drawn into the whole controversy. So, after many years, I’m glad at least now that I have been given the opportunity to explain to the public and fans my side of the story in my own words. At a lecture, back in 1989, I was asked a question about blasphemy according to Islamic Law, I simply repeated the legal view according to my limited knowledge of the Scriptural texts, based directly on historical commentaries of the Qur’an. The next day the newspaper headlines read, “Cat Says, Kill Rushdie.” I was abhorred, but what could I do? I was a new Muslim. If you ask a Bible student to quote the legal punishment of a person who commits blasphemy in the Bible, he would be dishonest if he didn’t mention Leviticus 24:16.
The backlash here was particularly fierce. Albums were banned, songs pulled from albums.
For years after that, I have been viewed as someone capable of saying such words and doing such things, which I never actually said or did! The fact is I have always held strong humanitarian views; I always stood for the elimination of conflict and wars, and any of those causes that ignite them. One only has to view my music and all the charitable efforts I’ve been involved in since I left the music business and even before that. To quote one of my lyrics, “Why must we go on hating? Why can’t we live in bliss?” But it seems some people were intent to damage my character, they tried to trap me and paint me into a box, taking what I said out of context. This was very hurtful. As for banning my music and records, it seems my “freedom of speech” was not quite as free as that of others — except when what I said was totally distorted. If anyone had just sincerely reached out to me and asked me for the truth — none of this would be an issue today and I would not have been disconnected with the public for so long. Perhaps some journalists and a few DJs made a bit of a career out of blowing this up out of proportion.
Did you ever think about issuing a statement to clear up misconceptions about the incident?
I issued a statement myself to clear up the misinformation, but the truth never made the headlines. My statement was almost entirely ignored — and thus the myth was perpetuated. Various things were said, such as the fictitious report about me living in Tehran and begging on the streets! When I had never left my home in England, even up to today I still have never stepped foot in Iran.
Did you consider taking legal action?
Legal action was never considered; in retrospect, perhaps it should have been. But going through the legal system just prolongs the issue and I wanted to distance myself and move on. Unfortunately, this “distance” also removed me from my fans. But those were the days when I didn’t have a manager or any real connection to the music business. In retrospect, I could have handled it better with a bit of help. But I was trying to avoid further confrontation.
The accusations seem to ignore your various charity works.
After a lot of heartfelt searching, I set about using my talent to produce books and recordings that would explain Islam in a more honest and accurate way. I couldn’t just sit back and just watch all this bad news being written. I know how wonderful Islam is and how it has affected my life and enlightened me; it was clear that many people were getting the wrong message. My first album after seventeen years of silence was released in 1995 entitled, The Life of The Last Prophet. To date it has sold over 300,000 copies. For those who have heard it, I believe it has made a difference. As far as my charity work is concerned, it is part of my faith as a Muslim to try to help those who are suffering from poverty or economic or political injustice. It’s very difficult to ignore humanitarian disasters, such as we’ve seen in Bosnia, Kosova and Mozambique. The royalties from my albums continue to support my charity work. At the present time we’re looking after thousands of orphans who are the innocent victims of recent wars. We are trying to help those who have survived and have no parents, we can’t do anything about those who have been killed.
How has this affected your view of the United States? Has the rest of the world been kinder?
I enjoy visiting the U.S. There is a sense of optimism and openness, which if utilized correctly can help humanity to achieve great goals. I feel that Americans would like their lives to be more spiritual — I read somewhere that eighty-two percent believe in God — but the social-economic pressures are against that happening; the pursuit of wealth and commercialism often ends up distracting them from their higher purpose. I know, because that’s what personally happened to me.
You seem to be in a comfort zone with family, your art and charity work. Is life today better than in the Seventies?
Although I am not touring or playing 40,000 seat stadiums anymore, I have never been busier with my charities, schools and various other children’s causes. My family is extremely important to me and I try to spend much of my time with them. As I grow older, life’s blessings become clearer. The more God gives, the more thankful I try to be. Thankfulness leads to contentment, and contentment is another word for happiness.
Did you enjoy going back through your old work with these Cat Stevens reissues?
I am more mature now, and so is my attitude, I’ve managed to make peace with my past, as my past is making peace with me. I think there is a sense of mutuality for both artistic phases of my life. My present work is very important to me, but there are still many people who appreciate my previous work. A lot of my records still stand up today. I am sometimes surprised at the poetic content of some of the songs and say, “Did I write that?” Some songs like, “Sitting” and “100 I Dream” carry important meanings which still resonate.
What are your thoughts on the albums? Do you think they’ve aged well?
Albums, like children, all have something different to say and are equally valid. However, due to the way life goes, some grow bigger, some die, some are good and some are not quite so. It’s all part of my history, my views of life and the lifestyle of my generation. The fact that my son listens to my records and appreciates them shows that they still hold up today. Some of the messages are timeless.
I heard it was upon hearing some Bosnian music that you felt inspired to record again.
Bosnia was a tragedy which shook everyone. Looking at what was happening in the center of Europe: there was another genocide happening. I really wanted to do something. At one point I had met the Foreign Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina during a trip he made to London. Dr. Irfan happened to be a fan of mine in the old days. We had a very nice evening together. Half way through our meeting he put a cassette into my hand and said, “Listen to this, it’s my song.” The song was called, “I Have No Cannons That Roar.”
After that evening I was left with this cassette. Very soon after that I heard the news that he was killed — he was shot down in a helicopter above Bosnia while making a trip to his home in Bihac. My heart dropped! Suddenly, I remembered this cassette. I felt I had to do something. At that time I was listening to tapes of songs coming out of Bosnia, very inspiring songs full of spirit and hope. I realized I should put an album together and I wrote a couple of songs for the album. One was called, “Mother, Father, Sister, Brother” and another song which I sang for the album was called “The Little Ones” and was dedicated to the children of Sarajevo and Dunblane.
Do you feel there is less pressure to write and record now?
I only write and record when I feel there is a subject which needs to be focused on. The latest album which I have completed is called, A is for Allah. Conveniently, the name of God begins with “A” in Arabic. This is in fact the first song I wrote after becoming a Muslim, it was written at the birth of my first child, Hasanah, who was born in 1980. The idea was to teach my little girl that before everything, “A” is for Allah, the Lord of the universe, and that everything else that we love and cherish in this world — including apples — originate from His kindness and generosity to us. The album is also accompanied by a colourful book which shows lots of pictures. It goes through the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet, touching on the foundations of faith and trying to develop childrens’ moral consciousness. It also has songs and short sections of the Qur’an. Maybe if faith and morals are once again taught to our kids at a young age, we can prevent such tragic incidents like the recent fatal shooting of a six-year-old by a classmate in Michigan.
There has been a lot of talk lately about a Cat Stevens Behind the Music. Is it going to happen?
VH1 is still under discussion. It could help blow away some of those myths and erroneous stories that have circulated for years. Something tells me I should still be careful about the tendency of TV to reduce life into a convenient “box shape.” Although it will be difficult to capture my entire life in a short television special, I hope people will finally realize that my life didn’t change as much as it developed, and I always continued to be an artist. I made a choice to actively try to make a difference in the world, just as I wrote and sang about.
People did seem stunned by Cat Stevens’ retirement. Do you have any regrets about the way in which you converted?
The only regret I have, is that the communication which existed between those who listened to my songs and me ceased to exist. For a long time I lost that privileged link of communication by cutting myself off from the music business. I hope my coming out to speak will help rectify that — if God wills. I would like those who followed my music to know my lifestyle and to know me as I am today without the rumors and prejudices that were created about me. If you want to know me, then listen to my music, especially my lyrics, they mostly revolve around peace and humanity. That hasn’t changed — they are still the things I believe in.