Cat Stevens: From Rock to Rocking Boats : Faith: Now known as Yusuf Islam, he has a different following as a lecturer on lessons of the Koran. He voices strong views on AIDS, Salman Rushdie.
Brother Yusuf Islam says AIDS is a punishment from Allah. He says Salman Rushdie “has got to be killed.” He says Western culture is dominated by “satanic worldly powers.”
Brother Yusuf, who otherwise seems like a nice guy with a genuinely sweet nature, doesn’t shrink from expressing his opinions. But there’s one subject he doesn’t seem wild about discussing: his former life as Cat Stevens.
“I haven’t downgraded it,” he insists in his middle-class English accent, when asked why he now derides his life among the Top 40. “I just haven’t talked about it. That’s the thing. I don’t talk about my music now.”
He’s a slight man with a bushy black beard, flecked by the gray hairs of advancing middle age. He wears a hospital-green djellaba that modestly covers his ankles, and a simple takke on his neatly shorn head--the garb of the pious Muslim. Behind his utilitarian glasses are liquid brown eyes.
Twenty years ago, he was a teen idol, wealthy beyond his dreams, cheered by ecstatic sellout crowds and pursued by groupies ripe for the picking. There was nothing crazier in the early ‘70s than the lifestyle of a rich and famous British pop star.
“That’s true,” Brother Yusuf agrees. “It was an easy living, in a way. You earned your living playing. That’s what you did. It’s an easy option for a person who doesn’t really want to buckle down and do anything serious with his life, so I did it!”
He punctuates the comment with a laugh. It’s a wry laugh, an un-self-conscious laugh, a laugh that suggests that, despite everything, he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.
“We are living under what I would call pseudo-Christian and secularist domination,” Brother Yusuf tells about 200 Washington-area Muslims at the Islamic Education Center in Potomac, Md. His tone is grim. “But we will be asked, " Why did you remain in that state? Didn’t I send My book to you? Didn’t I send My prophet to you?’ ”
He pauses to gaze searchingly at his audience, both American-born Muslims and Arab expatriates sitting shoeless on the carpet in the center’s auditorium--the men separated from the women by a wall of green-swathed tables.
“So who will have an excuse on the day of judgment,” Brother Yusuf demands, “that ‘I was a minority’?” He’s shaking with the sort of fervor and reproach familiar to anyone who has heard a Baptist preacher.
“WHERE’S YOUR FAITH?” he shouts, and his words echo sharply through the hall.
The audience has paid $10 a head to hear Brother Yusuf.
What do they expect of him? “To be honest with you, I’m not quite sure,” says Mahmoud Gowayed, an Egyptian-born accountant from Damascus, Md., when asked before the lecture. On the loudspeaker one of Brother Yusuf’s latest recordings is playing--children singing about Islam to the tune of “500 Miles.” (“A way of life, a way of life, Islam is a way of life. . . .”) This is the only kind of music he traffics in these days--"amateurish,” he proudly calls it, and far removed from “Peace Train,” “Wild World” and “Morning Has Broken.”
It’s Friday night. Brother Yusuf has flown in from London--where he runs a school for Muslim children, including five of his own, out of a refurbished townhouse--for the first stop of a lecture tour to raise money for Islamic schools in the United States.
He was born Stephen Georgiou--he celebrated his 43rd birthday recently--the son of a Greek-Cypriot father and a Swedish mother who ran a London restaurant where Stephen worked as a short-order cook. As a boy he was exposed to the Greek Orthodox tradition and attended a strict Catholic school, but, he says, “gradually the world looked much brighter and much more fun than the church. So I was sort of attracted to the neon lights, the show biz life.”
He burst upon the world as the heartthrob of the British bubble gum set, with such hit singles as “I Love My Dog” and “Bring Another Bottle.” But by age 20, fame had become too much for him. He began drinking to get through his concert appearances and came down with a severe case of tuberculosis.
He emerged from a long period of convalescence as something of a mystic, or what passes for one in the pop music world, but with his creativity recharged. Throughout the early ‘70s he produced a series of hit albums that sounded alternately lovesick and New Age spiritual, but which were always overflowing with catchy melodies and seductive, driving rhythms. Among serious critics of rock-'n'-roll, he was considered more sensitive than James Taylor--which was not meant as a compliment. Yet he maintained a huge following of loyal fans around the world. After 1977, the year of his last album, he decided to leave the business. He was by then a devout Muslim.
The previous year, his older brother, David, also a songwriter, gave him a copy of the Koran. Until that moment, Brother Yusuf told his audience in Potomac, lacing his testimony with many repetitions of “Insh Allah” (God willing) and “Al Humdulillah” (Praise be to God), “I was more guided by my heart, by my ambition, by my instinct, than I was by any true light.”
“When I understood the message of the Koran, I became frightened. Of course, you may say, from a logical point of view, 50% might be true, 50% not true. But if I am going to gamble on eternity because of my pride, because I just don’t want to bow with those who bow, then I am blameworthy. And I didn’t want to miss this chance.”
His conversion was, in a way, also a smart marketing decision. Brother Yusuf, the Muslim fundamentalist, is a much hotter commodity today than is Cat Stevens, the pop music has-been who sang “Moonshadow” and “Tuesday’s Dead” and other tunes.
Not that Brother Yusuf has rejected his music. He still gets royalties.
“Yes, I happen to be one of those smart songwriters who ended up owning them,” he said of his songs. Under the corporate aegis of Cat Music are songs that he considers acceptable to Islam, and thus he can live off them comfortably (both financially and morally). The other songs, which deal with such taboos as extramarital sex and drinking, fall under another company and he has assigned the proceeds to charity.
He was once again the focus of international attention in March, 1989, when he publicly supported Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death sentence for Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses"--in which a Brother Yusuf-like character, a singer turned zealous convert, has a cameo role--was denounced as blasphemy by Muslims the world over. The novelist was forced into hiding lest someone carry out the ayatollah’s fatwa.
In the United States, several disc jockeys reacted to Brother Yusuf’s declaration by banning Cat Stevens music from the airwaves and calling for the burning of his records.
“For a person who blasphemes, either 1,400 years ago or today, it’s the same thing in Islam,” Brother Yusuf explains. “And actually, if you endeavor to look into the Christian faith and the Jewish faith, you’ll find that there’s total support for that view. Which is that the blasphemer is considered very seriously, and the punishment is the same. . . .
“In the holy texts of the Bible, Moses condemns such a man to a stoning. Jesus himself says anyone who reviles the Holy Spirit . . . shall not be forgiven . . . not in this world or in the life to come. Now what does that mean, in this world? He’s got to be killed! He has to be executed!”
As he says goodby, he smiles and warmly offers his hand.
“I hope you can smooth over my little, uh, harshness,” Brother Yusuf says. “But, I mean, that’s the way it is. Once you become a Muslim you change yourself to become a Muslim.”