By Karin Friedemann
TMO Contributing Writer
In 1971, Cat Stevens’ rendition of the Christian hymn, “Morning Has Broken” reached #6 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart and #1 in the US Easy Listening Chart in 1972. My family’s church sang this hymn every Sunday of my childhood. Also in 1971, he provided nine songs to the soundtrack of the black comedy Harold and Maude, a film which was very important in my impressionable youth. But by 1977 the pop singer Cat Stevens had already embraced Islam and taken on the name of Yusuf Islam.
“To some people, it may have seemed like an enormous jump, but for me, it was a gradual move to this,” he stated regarding his conversion.
Yusuf Islam stopped performing music for almost 30 years and used his wealth to busy himself with humanitarian service.
“A lot of people would have loved me to keep singing,” he said. “You come to a point where you have sung, more or less … your whole repertoire and you want to get down to the job of living. You know, up until that point, I hadn’t had a life. I’d been searching, been on the road.”
He finally found and married the ‘hard-headed woman’ he had prayed for in his song, Fauzia Mubarak Ali, on 7 September 1979 in London, and had five children with her. He became re-interested in music when his son brought a guitar back into the home.
I was very impressed with Sister Fauzia’s performance in 1987, when she and her husband came to Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan campus to promote the cause of Islam. Yusuf’s speech was interrupted by hecklers including a stripper who shouted out that she was a liberated woman, to the point where he left the stage and on stepped his wife, who calmed everybody down and explained Islam from the point of view of a woman. It made a long lasting impression on my 16 year old self, though it took a lot more travel before I made a decision to embrace Islam.
I visited an innocent Muslim prisoner yesterday who began to sing the old Cat Stevens song that I hadn’t heard in years, “Trouble, oh trouble set me free…” I was so surprised that he knew the song, being 20 years my junior and from a foreign country. It was an amazing moment.
This inspired me to learn the chords on my ukelele. Which I did, thank you very much. Learning a song once in a while is so important for keeping one’s youth.
While I was searching for the song online, I found out that just last week, February 2015, Yusuf ‘Cat Stevens’ Islam gave a deeply moving, almost two hour superstar performance at Festival de Viña del Mar 2015, Somos el Canal Histórico in Chile. I cried when I watched it!
While his songs on cassette tape formed my youth and guided me towards Truth even beyond where my parents could lead me, I had never actually watched the man perform. The man is a superstar, but with the most humble mannerisms, even in front of a crowd of thousands.
Except for the white sneakers, the adorable grey bearded man on stage could be assumed to be any grandfather from the Arab or Pakistani community anywhere in the west. Except that he is surrounded by an amazing sound system, magnificent stage display, light show, and multi screens… old ladies crying, lovers holding each other, so much love, the entire audience knew all the words, despite English not being their native language.
“We’re in the mood for children!” is one of the only comments he made between songs. At another point, after a rocking number he spoke, “You can see why I used to dance.”
Honestly my heart broke at that moment. At the pinnacle of success as an artist, he is still dealing with this conflict of religion in his old age. His period of introversion was so very important, to gain knowledge, but it was righteous that he decided to use the power of his music for the common good. His songs were the soundtrack to my young adulthood. Without Cat Stevens or Yusuf Islam, there would be no me as I know me.
Although I could not interest my teenager in the Cat Stevens songs from the 70s, he still remembers Yusuf Islam’s English-Arabic rendition of Tala’ al Badru ‘Alayna from the Bosnia album, which used to play in the family car when he was a toddler, back when I used to have a working CD player.
In September 2004, Yusuf Islam appeared on the US No-Fly List and was prevented from meeting with Dolly Parton, who is the biggest Christian songwriter in America. Homeland Security claimed there were “concerns of ties he may have to potential terrorist-related activities.” The two recorded a version of his song “Peace Train” on her album, anyway.
One of the coolest things he has done with his power in this life was suing media companies for slandering him. Every dollar that he won, he donated to charity.
In a very emotional moment near the end of the show, the female host reappeared all covered up in respect, wearing a black shawl. The love and deep gratitude, the crowd’s adoration was so thick and sincere.
Editor’s note: Karin Friedemann is a contributing writer for The Muslim Observer. Her views are her own.