Yusuf Islam’s new book a brief chronicle of a lifelong spiritual quest

Yusuf Islam surprised many when he began to make music again after almost 30 years — and a slim new memoir shows his evolving faith.

Yusuf Islam in concert eralier this year. Lucas Jackson / Reuters
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When Yusuf Islam made his return to the music world, the reception was as celebratory as it was controversial.

The news seemingly came out of nowhere with the surprise release of his 2006 album An ­Other Cup, his first since 1978.

Inspiration flowed from the writer of such songs as Words, The First Cut Is the Deepest and Peace Train with the follow ups, 2009's Roadsinger and his latest collection, Tell 'Em I'm Gone, out this week.

For the fans, the re-emergence of Islam (known previously as Cat Stevens) was akin to the return of a long-lost friend.

Despite the time apart, Islam’s recent albums and sold-out tours demonstrated he hasn’t lost his knack to inspire through his reflective lyrics and uplifting melodies.

Not everyone shared the sentiment however.

A significant portion of Islam’s conservative Muslim fan-base, those largely acquired during his non-musical years when he was involved solely in humanitarian causes, were dismayed. Some went as far as labelling his actions un-Islamic.

This constant negative online chatter, not to mention the direct hate mail sent to his management, played a large role behind Islam's penning his debut book, Why I Still Carry a Guitar.

“My abrupt departure from the spotlight confused many of my friends and fans,” he writes in the opening chapter. “Sadly, a few decided to believe strange rumours about my decision based on inaccurate information and myths.”

Published in both English and Arabic, the book is at times a revealing spiritual memoir. Through its brisk 100 pages, Islam details “the spiritual journey” from his conversion in 1977 and his decisions behind his return to music. More powerfully, the book is a pointed message against conservative Muslims promoting the shunning of the arts due to a misconstruing of their faith.

At a time where Muslims are under an unrelenting critical spotlight, he states, the arts can play a healing role in tackling misconceptions and in building bridges with others.

For such broad and important topics, it seems strange that Islam tackles them in such a brief – if immaculately presented – book. The 15 chapters – each little more than four pages and paired with some personal portraits of Islam throughout the years – touch upon the major aspects of his spiritual quest without delving too deeply. This is a pity as it would have been beneficial to fellow Muslim converts facing the same journey.

The end result is a series of revealing yet ultimately frustrating vignettes into Islam’s life.

For instance, that wintry day in December 1977, when Islam strolled into a mosque in London to publicly embrace his new faith, is dealt with in only three paragraphs.

Islam also skips over other potential autobiographical gold mines, such as how his Greek father, Swedish mother and brother all eventually became Muslims.

Another major drawback is the style Islam employs throughout the book. The poetic and reflective prose central to his songwriting is jettisoned for a voice close to polemical.

Initially, one can understand such a decision, particularly in the book’s middle section where Islam details the numerous Quranic passages and Hadiths where music is not expressly banned. “There was not enough undisputed evidence in Islam’s original scriptural sources of divine knowledge to support the complete banning of music from human life and its objectives,” he concludes.

Carefully footnoted, these chapters skilfully deal with the controversial topic and are a worthy addition in carrying the academic conversation forward. However, when the same laboured approach is employed to describing intimate moments, such as playing the guitar for the first time in more than two decades, it becomes cumbersome and robs the moment of any power.

However, it is ultimately the overarching sincerity of the book that makes it a worthwhile enterprise. It also forms the ultimate theme of the book, which is to promote the Islamic principle of intentions.

Throughout Why I Still Carry a Guitar, Islam demonstrates how most of the major decisions in his career – from quitting music to setting up his residence and office in Dubai – are done with the intent to complement the faith.

Such passages should inspire Muslims from all walks of life to keep their focus and encourage Muslim artists struggling to reconcile their faith with their art.

As for Islam himself, the book shows he has come to accept his place as a pop-culture icon, inspirational Muslim figure and a lightning rod for bigots.

Why I Still Carry a Guitar concludes with the message Islam places in a majority of his songs, that peace and resolve are fostered through introspection. "I am not seeking or asking any­one to follow me, or my various conclusions," he states. "But only to look within themselves."