‘I’m going to be a pop star’
Born Steven Georgiou in London in 1948, Islam had a Greek-Cypriot father and Swedish mother. He began playing on the family’s grand piano at the age of 8 before moving on to the guitar at 15. With influences ranging from The Beatles and Lead Belly to Nina Simone, the teenager (giving himself the Cat Stevens moniker after being told his eyes resembled a feline’s) amassed a number of self-written songs to land a record deal. With his first two singles – the string-laden I Love My Dog and the swinging Matthew and Son – topping charts in 1966, Islam became the United Kingdom’s latest pop star and was touring with artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Engelbert Humperdinck.
‘If you want to sing, sing out’
Islam’s most creative and successful music spell was triggered by a serious health scare. After contracting tuberculosis in 1969, he spent nearly two years in recovery. The experience triggered bouts of deep introspection, some of which found its way in the rapid back-to-back releases of Tea for the Tillerman (1970), Teaser and the Firecat (1971) and Catch Bull at Four (1972). The trio of masterworks – home to the classics Where do the Children Play, Father and Son, Moonshadow and Peace Train – made Islam one of the pop-world’s biggest stars with a fan-base stretching on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite being young and wealthy, Islam expressed in later interviews that he was never at ease with the trappings of fame.
‘I listen to the wind of my soul’
Another brush with mortality resulted in Islam’s next major life shift. Sobered from the experience of nearly drowning on a Malibu beach in 1976, Islam’s deep interest in faith (having already studied Buddhist and Taoist traditions) took on a new urgency. That same year he came across the Holy Quran, a gift from his brother’s Middle Eastern travels. Islam recalls being blown away by the spiritual text.
“The Quran was talking to me in terms of humanity. I’d never heard that before,” he told CNN in 2004. “When I saw the name of Jesus and Moses, Abraham, along with the Prophet Muhammad, of all these prophets mentioned in the Quran, that was quite startling. I never expected that.”
In 1977 he converted and took on the name of Yusuf Islam, a decision inspired by the 12th chapter of the Quran detailing the life of the prophet Yusuf (Joseph).
‘Now there’s a way, and I know that I have to go away’
After fulfilling his contractual obligation with the release of 1978’s brooding Back to Earth, the last under the name Cat Stevens, Islam shocked fans and the industry by retiring from music.
The newly married Islam dedicated the next phase of his life to humanitarian projects. He set up a range of international charities including Muslim Aid (first established after the 1984 African famine) and the United Nations-registered Small Kindness, which focuses on social and education programmes for orphans in regions such as the Balkans, Iraq and Indonesia.
The music bug never went away, however, and Islam continued to blend his melodic gifts with his faith through the spiritual spoken word and child-friendly a cappella albums. Examples include A is for Allah (2000) and I Look, I See (2003); both went on to become some of the genre’s most successful releases.
‘Roadsinger came to town’
Needing a break from the hustle and bustle of London, Islam and his family moved to Dubai in 2001 to establish offices and live semi-permanently. “I have enough space and time [in Dubai],” he told this newspaper in a previous interview. “I don’t have the problem of people on my doorstep all the time and ringing me and bothering me with all the different jobs to do. That leaves me with time to think.”
The reflection proved fortuitous for music fans as Islam, after much theological study, began considering a return to music. Convinced the universal messages of his songs were not contrary to his faith, he slowly began composing new songs that would eventually form his 2006 comeback album, An Other Cup.
Buoyed by its success, he released the follow-up Roadsinger in 2009 and began touring worldwide. Meanwhile, on the local front, the Dubai Studio City recording facility Jamal Records, owned by his daughter and son-in-law, produced some of Islam’s more spiritually themed releases and educational material.
‘Time rolls on, ain’t no good to sit alone’
Not one to remain idle, Islam’s talents extended to a number of projects. Last year, he launched his debut musical, Moonshadow, a fantasy tale featuring more than 40 Cat Stevens songs. This year, Islam lent his voice to the Islamic Museum of Australia in Melbourne, a project founded by a Dubai resident, the Australian construction executive Moustafa Fahour. A recording of Islam’s call to prayer and Quran recitation can be heard in the museum galleries. Expect new songs and words, too: Islam has been working with the legendary producer Rick Rubin on a new album to be released later in the year in addition to penning a spiritual memoir to be out in time for Ramadan.
• Yusuf Islam’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at New York’s Barclays Center can be watched on www.rockhall.com on Friday at 3am