Reconciling Cat and Yusuf

How well I remember the sixties and the seventies, that singular musical era! Styles and genres mixed and mingled in an effervescence of creativity and non-conformism, in a search for meaning and renewal that was as singular as it could be troubling. In the London of July 1975 the songs of Cat Stevens could be heard at every corner. There was something about his voice; an unmistakable musical talent combined with words that told of a spiritual journey; the poetry of life and suffering, peace and childhood, separation and death. Peace Train, Wild World, Lady d’Arbanville, Father and Son: all popular hits, all expressing the rich, complex and often tormented inner life of their creator.

Two years later, in 1977, Cat Stevens converted to Islam and turned his back on music. He later explained his decision as driven by the need to make a clean break with his past as a star and as a musician. There was no place for music in his early understanding of Islam; nor did music fit with his natural need to separate himself from a world in which he had become an “idol”, with all the inflated sense of appearance and possession that the term implies. He craved silence, intimacy; sought simply to be. His journey had become an inward one, spiritual and demanding. There was no longer room in Yusuf Islam, his newly adopted convert’s name, for the man who had once been Cat Stevens.

Over the following years Yusuf embarked on a series of far-reaching initiatives. In retrospect we can see that each bore the seal of Cat’s aspirations and of Yusuf’s newfound beliefs. He established schools that combined academic excellence with clear-cut ethical objectives. He set up an aid and solidarity organization that financed projects around the world; he was one of the first to travel to Sarajevo to defend and celebrate Bosnian culture through art and song. He wrote tirelessly, composed children’s songs and anacheeds (Islamic chants) to be recited with no instrumental accompaniment except percussion, in conformity with the views of several Muslim scholars. The scope of his action was as broad as his gift of self was limitless: Yusuf emerged as a man of spirituality, a man with a cause and a vision. What before he’d expressed in music, he now brought into being in the most concrete way in the name of his faith, through his commitment to education, solidarity, love and peace. Music without music: Yusuf no longer wished to be Cat.

Then came his reaction to the Rushdie affair, which shocked many of his friends and admirers. How could a man who had spent so much of his life singing of life, love and the quest for meaning, then taken up the cause of education, solidarity and peace, lend his support to a government’s call to kill a man? I quickly took a stand against Khomeini’s fatwa, arguing that it was more politically motivated than grounded in Islam. When, years later, I met Yusuf Islam for the first time, I asked him two questions: one, on his endorsement of the fatwa, and the other on his position on music in Islam. His response to the first was clear, unequivocal. When asked by the media about the question of blasphemy in Islam, he had answered that the Jewish Torah, the Christian Bible and the Qur’an all prescribed the death penalty for blasphemy. For all its absoluteness, his answer, based on scripture, was by no means an endorsement of the fatwa, which for him was an act of illegitimate vengeance that respected neither British nor international law. On the other question, that of music, we disagreed. I submitted to him other views on the subject, and encouraged him, with all his talent and creative powers, to return to music. Firmly believing that musical instruments were not permitted in Islam, but above all driven to cut himself off from that world, he could not accept my arguments. But though I differed with his position on music in Islam, how could I not grasp his desire to remove himself from such an intense, invasive and often disturbing past? Yusuf could never entirely escape the light or the shadow of Cat, whether in his personal quest, his one-time celebrity, or in the way others—Muslims or non-Muslims—saw him. Cat was part and parcel of Yusuf.

Time went by… 28 years. His children had grown up; now they would help their father Yusuf rediscover Cat the child. Yusuf caught a whiff of Cat’s musical perfume in the guitar that his son had left in a room by mistake. It was a beautiful mistake—and our good fortune. That guitar, one of Cat’s old friends, was to summon Yusuf and to represent the reconciliation of past and present, of the star and the believer, of art and the quest for meaning. Yusuf returned to music with all his power, his voice and his humanity. With his guitar he sang of life, love, war, the environment and freedom; he now sang of the human and the universal, never ceasing to be Muslim, speaking the most intimate hopes and dreams of his fellow human beings. Once again he sang his original successes, which even then had so faithfully conveyed his doubts and hopes, and mankind’s universal humanity. At long last, Cat and Yusuf had become one.

For Muslim women and men around the world, his story embodies a powerful lesson. We hear of “Islamic chants” (anacheeds) that are supposedly “Islamic” because they express religious themes, or because they employ no instruments, or because they are based on traditional or Qur’anic texts. In this light, only such chants are permissible (halal) in Islam, the only form of creativity recognized. There are indeed scholars who hold such a position, but it is far from unanimous. In To Be a European Muslim (written in 1996) I dealt with these views and took a clear position on music in Islam. Not only is it permitted, but Muslim women and men must also reconcile themselves with art, with creativity, and with the imagination in all its dimensions. Guided by their ethical bearings, they must not allow themselves to be enchained by the adjective “Islamic” that ends up isolating them, suffocating them, and depriving them of their creative energy in the universe of art, of music, painting, sculpture and literature. Muslims are constantly justifying themselves; they feel obliged to describe everything as “Islamic” to satisfy and to conform to the norm. But our ethical concerns must not force upon us an obsession with the norms of “licit” and “illicit” (halal and haram).

Seen in this light, any song, any form of artistic expression that celebrates humanity, love, justice, the quest for meaning, and peace is, in fact, in full conformity with Muslim ethics and needs no further qualifiers. Meaning, hopes and human edification are to be felt and to be lived; they have no need of a normative framework that bridles and ultimately annihilates them. The expression of ultimate ethical causes in art transcends the narrow limitations of specific ways of belonging, and brings together the universal quality of all that is most precious to humans, who can feel themselves uplifted, broadened, vibrating, becoming more human, more peaceful; who can feel themselves being regenerated by a voice, a hand, a pen or a brush. Music can be a prayer, a painting a path, a song a story: as long as art speaks to mankind of its heart, its wounds, its hopes, tears, smiles and aspirations, it forms the universal language of humankind and can bring about by way of imagination, emotion and the heart what no dialogue of reason or of civilizations can hope to offer.

It’s true. Yusuf had been a part of Cat before Cat became Yusuf: a paradox that the Sufi tradition has long taught us. It was necessary for Cat to set out in search of Yusuf for Yusuf to discover and understand Cat’s secrets. Now at last the quest and the path converge: artist and believer now sing with the same voice. For faith and art are friends of the beautiful, and in the end, together create a love story: “God is beautiful and He loves the beautiful,” as He loves those who create beauty, the friends of hope and the seekers of meaning.

22 تعليقات

  1. Beautifully written and stated. MashAllah.

    So why all the opposition against Music? Can you send me a resource to better discuss with those who are unsure what is the Islamic Ruling on Music.

    JazakAllah Khair & May Allah keep Yusuf on the straight path and allow his talent to continue to inspire many.

  2. This is an important article on many levels, including issues of human development, spiritual knowledge, aesthetics in Islam, and the impact of modernity on the Muslim community.

    I agree with the author that music is an integral component of modern life. How we cope and incorporate it into our lives is a significant topic of discussion for the Muslim community particularly those in Europe and North America.

  3. Welcome back to brother Yusuf and may Allah reward you for all the work you are doing for the muslims and wider communities. Thanks again for clearing all the misunderstanding regarding Islam everywhere you go.

  4. thanks for this article , now i understand the yusuf ‘s coming back to music. as you said , it’s reconciliation with himself, the artist and the believer are singing withe the same voice… it’s so sensitive…Father and son remembers me the dialgue between loukman be peace on him and his son…

  5. A very interesting and thought-provoking article, indeed. As for the debate over Music, a vast majority of muslim scholars believe that Islam does not allow music with instruments. I have not read any of the ‘classical’works of any muslim scholars who played a great role in compilation of fiqh and jurisprudence in the early years of Islam being in favor of music,or saying that singing with music is allowed in Islam. I wonder whether the learned writer of this article could quote any uncontroversial authority on Islam or from the Qur’an and Sunnah as an evidence to prove his claim that Islam allows this kind of music!

  6. Just as many of his songs resonated with me, so does your article. Yusuf’s ‘reconciliation’ with Cat should be an allegory for Muslims in majority non-Muslim countries today.

  7. Slm Br Tariq Two excellent points captured through the life of one dynamic personality. Islam does not give unto God what is God’s and unto Ceasar what is Ceasars’, even Ceasar belongs to God. When Rushdie blasphemed against Islam the response of Imam Khomeini was a position of a scholar of Islam. It is sad and unfortunate that you do not recognise Imam Khomeini by even the title of Ayatollah if you do not like the title of Imam. This makes your criticism of his fatwa itself questionable as you have an issue with him that is negative and not balanced. Debating with people who blasphemes is not good enough, people such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali who are engaged in a war against Islam and presenting Muslims as legitimate targets for killing requires a more appropriate response….. What is the difference between Ariel Sharon, Mubarak etc and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Salman Rushdi…they both agree on killing Muslims just authors do not have an army and secret police to do it for them.

  8. Salam Tariq,

    One again, your analysis is sharp and true, as the ones that are coming from people who have clear judgment (in French « discernement »).

    Some of us (and the converted ones are part of it) are going through this path where the inward earthquake of the conversion (often coming in the heart as a flash of undeniable light) can lead to the refusal of our previous being. Indeed, as you clearly explained it, the previous being was the root of the new one and the new one must accept the previous one with his lights and shadows.

    This may come from the real upheaval which the touch of the Beloved can be in our hearts. Then, after a while comes the time of the reconciliation of all our beings. The opening of the heart and the study of our religion may lead to this peace of mind. We are one before Him, that means that we should not be in inward conflict, even if the one of before was an atheist.

    Music can be the link of our various beings that are continuously changing still remaining the same ever. In music, true feelings can be expressed, true creativity as you said, and we can dance along with our Friend!

    Thanks for putting in the light those common concerns of Muslims, thanks for keeping on opening the eyes of the ones that could confuse our religion with some kind of jail, thanks for being at the service of the Truth.

    I have been reading you and following you for a long time now, listening to your French tapes in the car first and reading your books and online papers then. Keep on bringing light to the river of Islam!

    May the Beloved protect you!


  9. I must say this brings refreshing reading. I am 100% in agreement with the content of this article and it is such view that I have always postulated and this is a very balanced shariah position, though many would want us to believe this has always been a minority view.

    When the Rasul (peace be upon him) cautioned the early Muslims with respect to musical instruments as instruments of the devil, he was only telling them (and us) to be weary and cautious of these instruments, not a condemnation or even a prohibition. This is because he similarly said the toilets and marketplaces are abodes of the devil and we are not prohibited or even discouraged from these places, but we are told to be careful as we may fall prey of the entrapments of the devil in these places. Therefore, as long as Music is used to reflect human virtues of romance and remembrance, heavenly spirituality or earthly aspirations and as long as the moral ethical codes of speech, moderation and performance are observed, there is absolutely nothing wrong with music.

    Thank you for this article which I am happy to retweet and share on facebook.

  10. I don’t understand this reform thing. It seems like giving ‘ muslimthinkers’ all the power to decide what to keep (in your case for instance the hijab) and what to throw out, like the prohibition of music!! Based on their taste and liking!!! I guess this is my problem with (organised) religion/ islam in general. Not to be critical of you personally, but as a concern maybe you would like to address on this site sometime.

    Salaams to you all.

    • A real muslim woman shoudn’t even want to sing in front of men. That doesn’t suit the dignity islam gives to women!!

    • This is ridiculous, if a muslim man can sing so can a muslima!!! The problem with some muslim men is that they use the excuse of modesty to prohibit a woman every single thing. I protest. Mister Ramadan, what do you think?

  11. May Allah forgive you for your mistake. Surely you have gone against the saying of the prophet Muhammed(SWS) and the noble scholars.

    • I have this twist with my brother, who thinks the muslims in Europe (and elsewhere) will be more ‘Europeanized’ and future generations will be more secularized and less muslim. When I tell him there are interesting things going on and appealing thinkers, he says my view is distorted because I listen too much to Tariq Ramadan (which is true…). But of course he has a point here: if it takes a Tariq Ramadan or Cat Stevens to connect to people on an islamic level and to be the examples to present and future generations all over the world, we are in trouble, aren’t we (even in a global era)?

  12. I do not agree to instrumentation in music because Allah (swt) and his prophet frowned at it. But i do not also see reason why muslims should restrict themselves from everything beautiful because really Allah loves beauty. Good poetry and lyrics should be appreciated. Reality is that globalisation brings everything to our doorstep and that is why we see reasons for some things. Assuming the musical instruments does not exist, we wont see the need to apply it in music. When Islam in form of the revelations frowned at musical instruments, and the western doctrines sees it as a means to glorify God, there is really a difference of opinon and these difference has to be recognised by both parties. Muslims must try to create a system of institutionalising our beliefs in a peaceful manner built on knowledge and methodical application of wisdom. We shouldnt bend to the western defiinitin all the time because of pressure. Mr Yusuff should have continued on the right path of the revelation and forget mortal Tariq ramadan and his friends. Unless we say we are no more muslims, that is when we can wean orselves of the ordinaces and revelations.

  13. I use to listen to his music when I was in secondary school. His songs are meaningful, clean and appropriate. Father and the son for instance. Yes Yusuf came to highlight the significance of art in Islam and also to significantly contribute to the education of Muslim children within British secular society. Indeed he is an artist, educationalist, , Porte -parole for Muslim in the UK .and a real role model for Muslims in general. Thanks for this informative article,

  14. I never heard Cat Stevens sing live until he became Yusuf Islam. I have heard him live only once when he called the adhan at a small function in Sydney. His familiar voice sent a tingle down my spine. His music resonated with his spiritual quest and with mine. I found Islam much later than he did but also cut myself off from much that was comfortable and familiar. It took some time on my spiritual journey before I returned and felt comfortable in my own « skin ». I am so happy that Yusuf has also completed the circle and is back enriching us with his music. Sadly I have missed all of his comeback concerts.

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