Yusuf Islam talks about his spiritual memoir, living in Dubai, and new album

In an exclusive interview, Yusuf Islam, the renowned musician formerly known as Cat Stevens, talks about his first book, the spiritual memoir Why I Still Carry a Guitar, and his forthcoming album.

Yusuf Islam, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April, says his book explains the actions and decisions he ‘made in real life’. Courtesy Yusuf Islam
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The eminent musician and humanitarian Yusuf Islam – previously known as Cat Stevens – has returned to the spotlight with a project that is perhaps his most personal work to date.

In his first book, Why I Still Carry a Guitar, the 66-year-old speaks – powerfully and with some dry humour – of his spiritual journey since converting to Islam in 1977, and tackling the many misconceptions that came along the way.

“There have been too many myths circulating for a long time and I felt it was time to put a few of them to bed,” he says. “I hope to write a more comprehensive autobiography in the future – inshallah. Till then, this book will certainly fill the gap.”

How did the idea for this book take shape?

We were hearing stories about Muslims in certain countries lamenting my return to writing and singing with a guitar again. Some even thought that I had left Islam – God forbid.

Because of the climate of conservatism, which has dominated certain Muslim communities and their perception of Islam recently, I decided to address some of these issues face-on by laying down the principles of Islam and its approach to leisure and entertainment.

The evolvement of the science of Fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] is a fascinating subject, but it is also not a closed subject. What is halal and what is haram have been stated clearly by Allah and His Prophet (peace be upon him) in the Quran and Sunnah [the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed].

But where there are grey areas, there are allowances for different opinions. During the early days of the Khilafah [early rulers who came after the Prophet Mohammed], Muslims had a much more open and receptive attitude to the cultures they came into contact with. And ijtihad [interpretations by scholars of topics not covered in the Quran or Sunnah] was a major instrument of its ability to progress and deal with new questions or challenges.

Many have to learn that entertainment and music can be socially and intellectually centred and, if used correctly, a powerful means of change.

One of the most interesting features of the book is that it is different from your songwriting voice. While your songs are rich and heavy with metaphor, in the book you have adopted a crisp and direct writing style. Was that a conscious decision to appeal to as many people as you can?

Perhaps I did it subliminally. In music you can use metaphors with ease – if a person doesn’t understand the parable they can still enjoy the melody of the music.

If, however, a person reads a book and misses the meaning of its metaphors, this will be extremely disheartening for both the reader as well as the author.

So, my objective was not to write another song, but to reveal some of the clear thoughts and interesting backgrounds that lay behind the decisions I made in real life. That way everybody gets to understand the basic message of the book – as well as looking at the pictures.

Since your last album, 2009's The Roadsinger, you have been explo­ring different forms of writing. You wrote and composed the musical stage play Moonshadow in 2012 and now this book. Did you use different creative approaches for the different mediums?

Every medium has its rules. Content dictates form in most cases. Most of my songs in the past and up to today are stories and provide a picture or an emotional scene for the listener to feel, enter and take part in.

The theatre is a world in itself. The possibility for creating experiences that move people is increased many times over. In the end, the best stories are usually about a battle of good over evil – that has never changed.

In the book, you mention the negative media reaction you received when you announced your conversion to Islam. How tumultuous was that period?

I mention this particular point in the book and try to let the reader appreciate how difficult it is to change people’s minds once they have already made them up. It gets harder as people grow older, especially if it helps to secure certain people’s comfort zones.

I suppose in my youth I just had less fear about going places people were told to be scared of. So I took the vilification in my stride and went on doing what I wanted to do. But now this book may help explain my silence and not interpret the silence as guilt.

One of the key themes of this book is that Islam is being wilfully misinterpreted by extremists – both Muslim and non-Muslim. Your book also details some of the steps you have taken to correct that imbalance. In a way, is this one of the goals of the book – to act as a call to action for Muslims to take back their religion?

I believe Islam was truly spread by example. So whatever good a Muslim does publicly will be seen – the same is true for the bad.

Looking at the life of the Prophet and the early followers of his message, you will certainly be able to judge the difference between the great example of the Prophet, who was chosen by God to lead humanity to the height of faith and eternal peace, and those who distort and misunderstand Islam’s noble objectives.

I hope that whatever actions I do are in conformity with the right example. One of the main messages of my book is to explain how important it is to refer to Allah and His Prophet, and not be swept away by the waves and force of calamities that engulf our world.

Allah Almighty says: “Give good news to the patient.”

In the book’s final pages, you mention that you have “become a looking glass, through which the West can see Islam and Muslims can see the West”. For someone who prefers to stay away from the limelight, is that an uncomfortable position be in?

Considering the fact that I have been in the spotlight more or less since I was 18, there is an aspect of normality to my public profile, which I have grown to live with. As much as I would like to disappear into the crowd, my work won’t let me – difficult as it is for my family.

However, if you do happen to see me in a supermarket, please allow me to get on with my shopping.

Nearly 12 years ago, you decided to relocate from the United Kingdom to the UAE. What did your UAE stay offer you, personally and creatively?

The weather, as well as the comforts of Islamic culture and knowledge. The position of the UAE in the world is strategic, especially as the economic power of the East grows.

I hope that the model, which is being built here in the region, can lead the way in showing the potential of Islamic modernity and tolerance and reduce the stereotypical image of the Arab – although camels will forever be beautiful in my eyes.

Why I Still Carry a Guitar by Yusuf Islam is out on September 16 through Motivate Publishing. For more details about the book, go to www.booksarabia.com or www.yusufislam.com. Islam will appear at a special book signing event at The Dubai Mall’s Book World by Kinokuniya on September 25 at 7pm