After attending a concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1989, 9-year-old Sami Yusuf was handed something that was destined to change his life.
It was an exquisite Azeri tar – a traditional long-necked lute. It came from Azerbaijan, the homeland of his father, a poet and musician. Yusuf practised tirelessly on the instrument, and on the tombak (a goblet drum).
“I was actually about 5 years old when I composed my first piece,” says the 36-year-old, and hums the melancholy melody for me.
“I was blessed to be born into a home filled with music and poetry, surrounded by visits from artists and intellectuals from around the world.”
Yusuf, an Iranian-born British national – described by Time magazine as "Islam's biggest rock star" – has sold more than 30 million albums of his devotional music, sometimes referred to as nasheed.
A UN global ambassador against hunger, he was recently awarded the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Award for World Peace. He has more than eight million followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and when he announced an autograph session for his latest album, Barakah (blessing), at Virgin Megastores in Mall of the Emirates in Dubai last week, hundreds of excited fans showed up – a multigenerational, multicultural gathering that included Arabs, Africans, South East Asians and Australians.
Among them was 26-year-old Turkish doctor Leyla Yilmaz, whose husband flew her in from Switzerland for her birthday without telling her about the surprise chance to meet Yusuf.
“I listen to Sami Yusuf’s music whenever I am doing surgery,” she says. “This was the best birthday gift. I love his music – it is unique, spiritual, and so peaceful. I feel closer to God when I listen to it.”
While appreciative of his fans, Yusuf balks at his music being labelled as nasheed.
"I have avoided using the term 'Islamic music' to define my work," says Yusuf, whose first album, Al-Mu'allim, was released in 2003.
“I named my own genre of music spiritique, where timeless wisdom and the sacred are at the heart of the music.”
Regarding Yusuf’s luscious new album, he says it is about taking stock of the current volatile political and social climate.
“Barakah is my musical response to the atrocities and violence being carried out in the name of my faith,” says Yusuf. “This violence denies 1,400 years of our rich culture, knowledge and wisdom. It promotes intolerance and hatred.
“Islam, as with all the major religions, encourages compassion, tolerance, love, generosity and kindness.”
But the album is also a journey into Islam’s rich and eclectic musical heritage, with tracks blending elements dating back 1,000 years from countries such as Morocco, Egypt, India and Turkey. All the tracks are lyrically tied by the overarching theme of reverence for the Prophet Mohammed.
Yusuf says plenty of research went into each song – in fact, the CD has a booklet with information on the origins of each one.
“The musical recitation of the Quran has given birth to many other profound musical Islamic traditions, which have spread barakah throughout the world and across the centuries,” says Yusuf, explaining the inspiration behind the album’s title.
“In a world that is increasingly noisy and chaotic, the music and lyrics – drawn from centuries of Sufi traditions – offer a window onto an inner oasis of peace and harmony.”
The album opener, Awake, was composed by the renowned 17th-century Ottoman Polish scholar and musician, Wojciech Bobowski (1610-1675), who embraced Islam and adopted the name Ali Ufki Bey.
The only original piece on the album is the stirring title track, the structure of which is based partly on the traditional maqam mode, anchored by a powerful, repetitive rhythm. An echo of the Sufi Sama, a ceremony of listening and remembrance, can be heard in the song’s resonant refrain “Allah Hu”.
“My hope is that whoever listens to my album is taken on a journey back in time, to their inner self – back to tradition,” says Yusuf. “It is an invitation to explore the timeless truths and wisdom emanating from the sacred traditions, wherever you may be from.”
Yusuf laments the commercialisation of the nasheed industry, saying that it goes against the genre’s goal, which is to be spiritually uplifting.
“What is happening nowadays is that the word ‘Islamic’ is sometimes used and abused for commercial and marketing ventures,” he says. “Halal hotels, halal trips, halal this and that – it is demeaning to the profound essence of Islam.”
One of the factors the artist says is missing today is “Ihsan” – excelling in one’s faith, both spiritually and through good deeds.
“Too many people are focusing on appearance, such as what a Muslim should look like, instead of working on becoming better people within,” he says. “We need to judge less, be kinder, give more. A great sage once said: ‘Any knowledge that doesn’t help to transcend the self [ego] is ignorance in disguise. So we should seek knowledge that helps us become better human beings.”
Yusuf becomes animated when asked which historical Islamic figure he would have loved to meet. His answer is unequi-vocal: Ibn Al Arabi (1165-1240), the Arab Andalusian scholar, mystic, poet, and philosopher.
“I just feel a great affinity with him and his profound spirituality,” he says.
If there is one thing Yusuf wants listeners to take away from his latest album, it is to appreciate everything we take for granted – the blessings hidden in life’s little details.
“Barakah can be seen in the great masterpieces of Islamic architecture and calligraphy,” he says. “It is also heard in the arresting beauty of the adhan [call to prayer], in the recitation of the Quran, and in the various traditions of sacred music presented in my album.”
• Sami Yusuf’s Barakah is out now. Visit www.samiyusufofficial.com for more information