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Das Magazin #45 
November 11 - 17 2006
Written By Guildo Mingels
Courtesy of Lucy
Translation courtesy of Lucy

“In Order To Be, You Must Give Up What You Are.”

Cat Stevens is back. After 28 Years. An Interview.

Excitement in Universal's London office. Yusuf Islam, 58, known as Cat Stevens until 1979, who after 28 years' hiatus has once again made a secular record with An Other Cup, sits in the interview room and requests an audio cassette. He takes care to record copies of interviews himself, because he has had bad experiences with journalists, but he has no cassette with him for his tape recorder. Half the staff on the floor rush around, searching, and this anecdote demonstrates two things: in a record company in the year 2006, cassette tapes no longer exist, and Yusuf Islam is technically still at the level of Cat Stevens. Apart from this, everything has changed in his life.

Born in 1948 in London, the son of a Swedish woman and a Greek-Cypriot man, Cat Stevens recorded a couple of albums about the year 1970, that moved the world to tears and sold more than 50 million copies. They were songs about uninhibited melancholy, words full of soul-searching, love troubles and misunderstood existential angst. A voice with sheer metaphysical presence, possibly the most hypnotic in pop history. Along with these came messages: save the trees, let the children play, make peace. Many of these songs have not grown out of date. Lady D'Arbanville remains the perfect campfire hymn, "Wild World" belongs in every good karaoke establishment, "Father and Son" and "The First Cut is the Deepest" land in the charts roughly every other year in a new cover version.. And schoolchildren sing "Morning Has Broken" in their early English classes.

Like every new convert, Yusuf Islam was pretty radical at first. After his departure from the music business, he sold all his instruments and gold records, learned Arabic, founded his Muslim schools in London and put his means into charities. He entered into an arranged marriage with a Muslim woman and had five children. Once, when by chance he ran into Patti D'Arbanville, his previous muse, he spoke on religious grounds only through her husband, who stood next to her. Only his voice was to be heard on educational Arabic spoken-word records, and he completely shunned the inclusion of musical instruments. In 1989, he landed in the headlines because of awkward remarks he made, which gave the impression that he supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie; this he immediately withdrew, however. The English paper, The Sun nevertheless ran the headline, "Cat says: Kill Rushdie!" and as a consequence, many radio stations removed his songs from their playlists. In the 90s's Yusuf Islam busied himself with countless charity projects via the United Nations - in Kosovo, in Bosnia, in Iraq - and took on an increasingly public role as a leading spokesman for Islam. In 2003 he received the World Social Award. Meanwhile, the former popstar has published official statements on his website regarding West-East relations on many topics, whether it be the Danish Mohammed caricature or the Pope's questionable statement.

The man from the record company gives some last minute advice. No questions about politics or Islam; this should be about music. The freshly pressed CD lies on the table, a coffee cup, in which a blue ocean glistens, decorates the cover. The man who was once Cat Stevens sits deep in a sofa, and is astonishingly small, wearing a wool sweater, cords and a faintly grey beard.

Mr. Islam, congratulations on your new album. I have all your old records and…

Please call me Yusuf. You have all my records? Mona Bone Jakon and all the later ones?

Even the earlier ones. Yusuf, would you say An Other Cup is a comeback?

Not really. Because everything I did in my life was a progression. With a constant view ahead. Which doesn’t mean that one ignores one’s past. I believe this album is a further development of my earlier records, my earlier thoughts and songs. It shows where I stand today.

You released this album under the name Yusuf, but there are very many ties to your era as Cat Stevens. There are cover versions of several of your old songs, whereby in one case you secularized the text, in which you translate “girls” to “souls”.

The song was originally a love song, now it concerns a higher love, Godly love.

Music is back in your life. How does that feel?

It’s great. I must say, it’s like a flood. And I let myself be carried by this flood and enjoy it very much.

For over 20 years you almost completely denied yourself music, on religious grounds. Why the change now?

I only recently came to a decision over the use of musical instruments. Whether it is allowed. Up until this point I was full of doubts. Over the real definition. But there are many different opinions in Islam regarding this. There is no clear teaching. I took a lot of time to be sure that I’m doing the right thing. And I believe I got an answer that’s very simple: that which brings about good things is good, and that which brings about bad things is bad.

Still, only three years ago, during the Night of Remembrance, a concert in the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate the 20th anniversary of your Islamic schools, you sang accompanied only by percussion and an accapella choir. What’s happened since then?

That evening was a breakthrough for the Islamic community in London. People are still talking to me about it today, and they say it was the best concert they had ever seen – although perhaps one must say, that for many of them this was the first time in their lives that they had been to a concert. That evening brought me closer to the music again. I saw that the public was happy. I saw that the people listened to my words. And I realized that even the Muslim community wished for me to continue. Most of all the youth. Because here you have a problem: Islamic youth are, in a sense, fairly disadvantaged and secluded, based on cultural restrictions. Whereas these prohibitions aren’t necessarily based on Islamic doctrine, rather they developed out of tradition.

So for a long time you listened to bad advice?

I listen to my heart. If you know my song, “The Wind” from 1971…

I know all of your songs.

I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul…

[he continues singing: I let my music take me where my heart wants to go.] I distanced myself from music because I had certain doubts. As far as I’m concerned, these doubts are now cleared up.

What was it like, to be back in the studio again, making pop music? Rock music?

I wouldn’t call it Rock. Maybe not even Pop. It’s contemporary music. Music for today. Going back into the studio, for me, was like going back home. I spent early months in the recording studio, day and night. For my family it was a bigger adjustment than it was for me – they kept asking themselves, “when he’s coming home tonight?”

Two of the songs on the record reputedly stem from a musical named “Moonshadow”.

Yes, I’ve been working on this for years. And I hope that one day it sees the light of day. I hope so. But naturally we don’t really have control over our own future.

This new record is a part of your future?

Yeah, yeah. Definitely. Obviously.

How come the record is called “An Other Cup” .. an other cup? What’s with the space in “another”? Not even your record company manager could explain it to me.

A little grammatical whim of mine. I wanted people to understand that this record really is an OTHER cup. Not just another cup. Rather: An. Other. Cup.

I don’t understand.

The cup is also to be found on the cover of Tea for the Tillerman, from 1970. My most famous album, and this small interval should show that something happened in between. That we live in another world. This CD is a new step, and some consider it to be a very courageous step. I’m building a bridge and I’m going to try to walk on it. Many people fear to tread on this bridge.

The bridge between East and West.

Exactly. The symbol of the coffee cup also references the hidden treasures of Islamic civilization. Coffee houses, the cafes that we find on every corner are an invention of Muslims. They existed even back in the 15th century in Istanbul and even earlier in Yemen. So the cup becomes a symbol of what we all share. Culture is not something we fight over but something that we share, that binds us. That’s a different outlook than that of “clash of civilizations.” The history of humankind is one continuous stream.

Theres’ a song on your record, “Midday” whose refrain goes, “but avoid city after dark.” Are you speaking here of London? Your hometown? Lately this city has become increasingly upleasant, particularly for your fellow Muslims.

The words are meant to be symbolic. It has to do with light and darkness. The moon is a symbol of light. That was always a theme in my songs. The dark night represents our state of ignorance; we don’t know what drives the universe, where we come from, where we’re going, but there’s always the moon, its light, which can lead us to an answer.

You also sing on your record, the Nina Simone classic, “Please Don’t Let me Be Misunderstood.” This is apparently a message to the press, which has dealt you malicious headlines.

Yes. The words are custom written for me. I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.

What are you thinking of, when you plead in this song, not to be misunderstood?

From day one, when I became a Muslim, many people viewed this step as an unusual path and took a negative attitude toward it. When you see today, how the media – or certain media -- portrayed me during all these years, it’s indeniable. From day one. And these were people who had no idea what I stood for when I was Cat Stevens, and they understand even less who Yusuf Islam is.

You’re thinking of headlines such as “Cat Says: Kill Rushdie,” about your…

Let’s not talk about that! Let’s not talk about that.

I only mean…

Let’s not talk about that.

But the song …

If I were you, I’d change the subject.


My favorite on your record is “The End.” The piano part is a little reminiscent of “Oh Very Young” Wasn’t that the song that you were supposed to sing at Bob Geldof’s Live Aid Concert in 1985, but then you weren’t able to?

Yes, that was the song. It was the first song that I wrote as Yusuf Islam. I would have sung it for Live Aid but Elton went so far over that there was no time left for me.

There’s another version of this story, whereby the arrangement of the lyrics wasn't permitted. “You can’t argue with the truth,” you sing, because after you die, everything is revealed before God, all the good and all the bad. Even I found the music nicer than the words.


Because I got the feeling I was listening to a sermon.

There are people, like you, who react in this way to the song. Surely it’s the only song on the CD that one could suggest is a little preachy. Listeners should make their own judgment. Maybe the song is simply unsettling for those who have a bad conscience. [laughs]

Is it accurate to say you write religious pop?

I think that it’s music that tries to explain human nature. Naturally, I’m completely convinced that man presses for the truth. Some would call it religious. I see my music as more in the context of humankind’s striving for eternal happiness.

When you look at old photos, when you were Cat Stevens, don’t you sometimes think, “was that really me?” How do you reconcile Steven Demetre Georgiou, Cat Stevens, and Yusuf Islam?

There’s another song on the album that answers this question. It has to do with butterflies that leave their silk palaces. The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly is one of the greatest mysteries of life. When I think about the various phases of my life, I see everything as a metamorphosis, as a constant evolution, an unending search for happiness. And that’s why it’s also on this record. It doesn’t matter whether one indicates these feelings as religious or not, but what one can’t deny is the reality that every human searches for happiness. Only when it comes to what manner we arrive at this happiness, that is perhaps when we come to different views.

Cat Stevens was the caterpillar. Yusuf is the butterfly?

No! No. That was just a metaphorical example for the evolution of life. Look at a human embryo. It’s just a clot. It’s a clot of blood. You were a clot of blood, I was a clot of blood. And later this clot takes on the form of an individual living being, who becomes independent and believes it is the master of its own fate.

I don’t find that so astonishing. Science known this for a long time…..

Science can’t say why I’m me and you’re you.

This question, it occurs to me, you already posed in 1970, in a song .. “I wish I knew, I wish I knew. What makes me me, what makes you you.”

Yes, very good, that’s right. And the knowledge that I gained in the meantime I try to express in my music.

That means: Cat Stevens posed the questions. Yusuf has the answers?

No. But I’m at least a bit further along than I was then.

What’s your occupation today? Teacher? Musician? Philanthropist? Cultural mediator?

I’m not any one in particular. Certainly, I’m many things. I’m a father. I’m also a son. But I have a biography that’s been more publicly documented than most people. And that’s … a gift.

But it’s also pushed you into the role of ambassador for Islam. Today you are the most well-known convert in the world and must answer to this. Are you comfortable with this?

This responsibility does weigh heavily. But it's also a task that suits me well. Because all I have to do is speak about it, what I have done, and what I believe. I’m a mirror, a magnifying glass, through which some Muslims can see the West and the West sees Islam. That means however, that I must remain pure and transparent.

A huge burden.

Yes, that it is. But apparently it’s been ordained for me. Man must always be ready for changes in his life. If you don’t change yourself, life will change you. And therein lies the key: everything that we see in nature is in constant state of change. Man has a tendency to hang on to what he has, to become fixated.

What you always tried to escape as Cat Stevens. As soon as the public or the music industry created an image of you, you made an about-face.

Yes, maybe. That reminds me of a wise saying, that I picked up from a philosopher, he was called, I believe, Eckhart…

Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic.

He said, “In order to be, you must give up what you are.” I believe that to be very profound. Very profound. That’s roughly what I did. Or possibly what I’m doing now.

What do your Muslim community, the scholars, those you listen to actually say, about your return to music?

That still remains to be seen. Sometimes scholars make judgments in a vacuum. When you give them something new, that they don’t yet know, they first of all try to make references to things that they know and to make judgments accordingly. But in Islam there is also the principle of the “common good. It means the following: when one is confronted with something that doesn’t have any guidance in the scriptures, one should observe what use it brings. Does it serve the common good, does it protect the spirit, does it serve God? When scholars see that it comes to something good, then perhaps they will approve of what I do. And today I believe that my songs as Cat Stevens do good things for some people. I’ve heard of several credible cases of deeply troubled people who were considering suicide, but when they heard Cat Stevens songs, they changed their minds. And I think that’s fantastic.

One could have done away with oneself in style listening to Sad Lisa.

But it didn’t happen. At least not that I know of.

How does your son Mohammed like your new record?

He likes it. And I listen to him. He’s my manager.

He writes and plays music himself, doesn’t he?

Oh, yes, and he’ll be releasing his first album, soon after mine. But he doesn’t want me to reveal his stage name. He wants to stand on his own two feet.

It’ll hardly be a secret that he’s the son of Cat Stevens.

That won’t be easy for him.

What kind of music does he play?

He would prefer not to be categorized. At any rate, it’s not “heavy” what he does. He’s a young man with a vision. And he has a flair for music and he’s written a couple of great songs.

Last question, Yusuf. I noticed that in younger photos you sometimes have very dark and sometimes grey hair. Do you dye your beard?

Not any more. Up until a while ago I did - yes, as a matter of fact.

Is that allowed in the Koran?

Absolutely. It’s halal.

How come you don’t do it anymore?

A couple of years ago, during one of my trips to Mecca, I was in the Kaaba, the building that the Prophet Abraham built. When I was in this place, I contemplated that even Mohammed had a few grey hairs in his beard. And I said to myself, “you can’t do this anymore.” Enough with the dyeing.

You can’t bargain with the truth.



An Other Cup [Universal] is in stores as of yesterday. At the same time, two new biographies have appeared: a less worthwhile one (Albert Eigner: Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam – Mit Welthits auf dem Weg zu Allah) and a better, but more difficult one to obtain, in English: (George Brown: Cat Stevens The Complete Illustrated Biography and Discography)

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