Q&A: Yusuf Islam on music and faith

Artist once known as Cat Stevens explains why he left music, why he returned and why his latest project tops the rest.

Yusuf Islam
Yusuf is currently working on a musical featuring songs he wrote as Cat Stevens [GALLO/GETTY]

The artist formerly known as Cat Stevens is starting a new chapter – one that has been in the making since the day he first picked up a microphone.

Rock icon Yusuf Islam – who goes by the single name Yusuf these days – is putting the finishing touches on what he calls a lifelong dream, Moonshadow: A Musical Fantasy. Set to premiere in Australia on May 31, the production is a mix of the artist’s hits from the 1970s with a string of fresh songs penned for the play.

The musical represents a summit of sorts – topping a storied and at times controversial career that has seen Yusuf go from triple-platinum award winning musician to a man on the verge of abandoning his craft forever.   

Yusuf spoke to Al Jazeera about that journey during a stop in Doha, Qatar following his first concert in the Middle East

Al Jazeera: You’ve talked before about your journey through music, saying that you put down the guitar after converting to Islam and then picked it back up again. What is your view on the intersection of faith and music?

Yusuf Islam: At one point, perhaps music was my religion. For a lot of us growing up in the West in the early ’60s and then ’70s, music was a way of life. It was a way to express ourselves. I was a serious dreamer and I was looking for the truth. It was only when I finally bumped into Islam through a gift of the Quran that I realised that all the answers I needed were there.

I was still making records, but I lost my interest. I found something that was so much more pure and sacred, so I asked the imam at the mosque in London about music and he said ‘there’s no problem’. But I had some doubts, because there were other brothers who quoted opinions that ‘there’s a consensus that music is haram (forbidden)‘. When you’re a new Muslim, you’re very careful of what you do. So I tread very carefully. I decided because of the almost insulting approach that the media took to me upon embracing Islam that I had had enough of that, so I didn’t bother to continue.

After [the 2001 attacks of] September 11, there was a serious crisis. We were facing Armageddon almost and it seemed that now we needed to build bridges back to our middle ground, because the extremes had been exposed. Therefore I sang Peace Train again. It was just a cappella, but that was the beginning.

It was my son who finally brought guitar back into the house. When I picked that up, I suddenly realised: I’ve got another job to do.

Yusuf Islam speaks to Riz Khan on how the Arab uprisings helped inspire his art [Al Jazeera]

AJ: What was it that your son said that made you want to pick up the guitar again?

YI: He didn’t say anything. He just left it, and I was surprised that I remembered where my fingers should go.

AJ: What would you tell other Muslims who have a passion for music but are also trying to walk this line – this schizophrenia of sorts that oscillates between ‘music is good’ and ‘music is forbidden’?

YI: As far as sacred texts are concerned, they cannot be ambiguous. There are no gray areas. When it comes to music, there is no word ‘music’ in the Quran. Obviously there are insinuations and implications and situations where music is being played and its haram because there’s drinking and fornication – well that’s sex, drugs and rock and roll. But in the end, it is the interpretation. So yes, I believe there is haram music and yes, I believe there is halal (permitted) music.

AJ: Is there an over-arching theme in your music or an outward meaning of your songs you want to convey?

YI: I tell stories. I try to tell true stories. It’s about how people live and what their problems are – how we love and fall into trouble and bleed and laugh. That’s ended up being the theme of the musical that I’m writing and that I’m going to put on in Australia at the end of May. It’s all to do with journey. There are only two types of stories: those about leaving home and those about coming back.

AJ: Where did the idea for your musical Moonshadow come from?

YI: I grew up on the West End of London surrounded by theaters and musicals and I always dreamt of writing a musical. It happens that now I have the perfect opportunity, after having written so many songs. It’s a story about a world where there’s no sun and no day, only night. There’s only one moon providing natural light. That means everybody has to work extra hard to buy these embers to keep their houses warm. In the middle of all this, there’s a boy who has a dream about another world – the World of the Lost Sun, called Shamsiya. He meets his moon shadow and he decides to go on a journey to find that World of the Lost Sun.

AJ: What is your creative process like and where do you get the inspiration for your songs?

YI: That’s a difficult question. I’m unscientific about it all. There’s a mood and I catch the mood. I entertain myself. I’m the first one to hear the song, and if I like it, perhaps others will like it too. There was a great philosopher who once said ‘there’s nothing more joyous than the joy of that child who creates something and then shows it to others’. It’s being gifted.

AJ: What happens when you give that gift and it is not received in the way you want it to be? Particularly after your conversion, and after you starting making more Islamic-themed songs, was there a backlash?

YI: You go through various phases. Living up to your ideas is not an easy job and when other people have ideas of you that you have to live up to as well, it’s even harder. That’s why we have a clear direction from our Lord as to how to live. As long as you keep your focus on God and his prophet I dont think you can be diverted. It’s all down to that intimate and direct relationship and that’s what you maintain in your prayers. So yes, it was difficult. But I always had my prayers.

AJ: Let’s talk about your song “My People“. You’ve said before that you were looking at the events of Cairo’s Tahrir Square [during the Egyptian uprising]. What was the greater inspiration and what did you hope the song would do?

YI: There wasn’t much we could do sitting and just watching [the uprising] on television. We wanted to contribute and that was the best way I knew how – to write a song. We got people from around the world to contribute their voices to the cause and we put out a call on Facebook. I sang a demonstration of what the key should be and they sang the chorus and sent it back. We got all the voices on the track and then made it for free.

AJ: To what extent does music have the ability to change people’s perceptions and the lens through which they see?

YI: I don’t focus on that and I think that’s important, because if a person thought he had control over others’ lives that would be frightening. Everybody has a part to play and if I’ve got a song to sing, I sing it. If it affects people, now I just say alhamdulilah (praise is due to God).

But it does go two ways. When you do finally break through the wall of the business and reach people – which is what everyone wants – they have an effect on your direction.

AJ: What advice do you have for young people starting out and looking at art as a way to contribute to civilisation?

YI: It is a high wall to climb. It was probably shorter in my day. It’s not an easy world right now for any profession. But if you can, then try. As I once wrote – ‘if you want to sing out, sing out; if you want to be free, be free; if you want to be me, be me’. Well (laughing) – you can’t really do that last one.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Follow Malika Bilal on Twitter @mmbilal

Source: Al Jazeera