His black beard is
bushier. His locks, once long and tousled, are now cut to medium length and parted neatly
in the middle. He wears glasses today, but the eyes still sparkle, and hes garbed in
a white, ankle-length robe.
He is Yusuf Islam. Once he
was Cat Stevens, the British singer-songwriter superstar who charmed millions with such
ballads as "Morning Has Broken," "Peace Train" and "Father and
Son." Last spring, with sunshine and childrens voices streaming in through the
window, we talked in the headmasters office in a mock-Tudor house that is now a
primary school in the North London borough of Brent.
The Islamia Primary School
is Yusuf Islams brainchild. Hes provided much of the financing for it through
the Islamic Circle Organization (ICO), a charity he helped found. And, in a sense,
its what he discovered down that long "road to find out" that took him,
finally, to the religion of Islam.
The little school, which
draws 85 four- to eight-year-old boys and girls from Brent and nearby boroughs, is special
for another reason: It is bidding much against the odds to become the first
Muslim school in Britain to receive government funding, putting it on an equal footing
with Roman Catholic, Anglican and Jewish schools that have long received state money for
salaries and maintenance.
approval of the application for "voluntary aided status" would make the school
"the first in the whole of Britain and one of the first in the whole of Europe
to get government aid where a state can fund a religion" other than those
historically its own, says Arthur Steel, a Conservative-Party councilor who helped Yusuf
Islam push the aid application through the Brent Borough Council last April. Approval
would also set a precedent for state help to schools for the children of Englands
1.4 million Muslims, who form the countrys largest minority religion.
To qualify for government
aid, the Islamia School must be recognized as serving a community need, and its curriculum
and its classroom building must meet government standards. With state funding, Islam says,
the money now being spent at the Islamia School could be channeled to help another Muslim
school in East London.
Parents say government aid
for the school is "long overdue," arguing that their tax money should be
available for their own childrens education as well as that of Christian and Jewish
children. "Its about time they gave us our rights," says Samir al-Atar, an
Egyptian whose two children attend the school. Adds New York-born Abd Allah
Trevathan, who teaches at the Islamia School and has a son there, "Most Muslims pay
taxes that go to the borough. Why shouldnt they get some of the money back?"
To achieve voluntary-aided status, a new building must be erected near
the present structure and the schools enrollment boosted to 175 children up to age
11. Of course, more teachers would have to be hired to swell the current 10-person
full-and part-time staff. Finding the extra children would be no problem: there are
already 560 youngsters on a waiting list.
Early this year, however,
school officials were blocked in their efforts to erect the new building when the Borough
Council, controlled by the Labour Party since May 1986, refused planning permission for
it. Now, while appealing to the Conservative national governments Environment
Secretary and looking into other options, "we must wait even longer," says
spokesman Ibrahim Hewitt. The aid programs cost to the local Brent government
if approved would be some 250,000 pounds a year about $400,000 and
the national government would pick up the tab for 85 percent of capital expenditure. In
the meantime, the Islamia School encourages parents to contribute as much as they can
toward the education of their children. But only about 15 percent of the schools
100,000-pound ($160,000) annual budget comes from pupils families. The ICO, to which
Yusuf Islam admits he is "the largest contributor," pays the rest.
Muslims come mainly from
that 20 percent of Brents 280,000-person population that is Asian, according to
Steel. He backs the funding proposal, since approval would enable the Islamia School to
enroll more children, reducing the need for new borough-built facilities. But Steel also
agrees philosophically with what the school stands for. "Its better that people
have schools in which they can retain their own cultures and, more important, in which
they can learn the moral values of their own religions," he says. "That
wont be taught in a state school."
Islam, who attended many a
Council meeting to lobby for aid, made it clear from the beginning that "money was
not the problem," says Steel. "It was acceptance lof funding for a Muslim school
that was the thing. He was more interested in the principle: that it be accepted as a
state aided school on a par with the others."
The Conservative councilor,
51, says-the name Cat Stevens didnt mean anything to him when he was told of
Islams earlier identity until someone sang him a few bars of "Morning
Has Broken." " I quite like that one," he says.
To be sure, Yusuf Islam has
come a long way from capturing the hearts of young people around the world, to
making the case for a primary school in Borough Council chambers a decade and a half
As Cat Sevens, he performed
with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Engelbert Humperdinck in Europe in the late
1960s, and triumphantly toured coast-to-coast in the United States and worldwide in
the seventies. He even set up a tax-haven residence in Brazil for a time, but donated
liberally to charities and organizations, including UNESCO, even then. He reeled off eight
straight 500,000-selling "gold" records. His popularity was unquestioned.
Now, soft-spoken, intense
and a devout Muslim, Yusuf Islam is light years away from his past. But hes
unchanged in important ways, too.
He embraced Islam in 1977
and is now a leading member of a community of Muslims in London, the city where he was
born Steven Georgiou and schooled as a Roman Catholic, and where he got his start in music
in his teens.
At 39, he devotes himself
to the work of the ICO, which he founded with friends from the United Kingdom and Saudi
Arabia in 1982, and to the Jslamia School. He also chairs the London-based Muslim Aid
organization. In that capacity, hes traveled to Sudan, Pakistan and Bangladesh on
refugee-relief missions, and met Afghan refugee children arriving in Britain for treatment
of their war injuries.
Hes been called
"a Muslim Bob Geldof," after the lead singer of the Boom-town Rats whose series
of aid concerts recently raised millions of dollars for drought-hit Africans.
But the school is the apple
of his eye.
Yusuf Islams interest
in children goes back a long way. There is ample evidence of it in the lyrics of his most
popular songs, and in the handful of interviews he gave at the apex of his career.
Notably, two of those rare interviews were with a U.S. publication for students, Senior
Scholastic. He also wrote and illustrated a book for children, called Teaser
and the Firecat after one of his top-selling albums.
seen youth lost, Ive watched my,elf grow, and seen my attitude to children
:change," he told Rolling Stone in a 1974 interview that provided a hint of his
direction. "One must always change; thats what children do. I find a lot of
people take their kids for granted. I still enjoy kids on the street, and theres a
school across the back that Im looking forward to visiting."
Though Islam long ago put
away the guitar that set the tone for his thoughtful, sensitive songs, and auctioned off
all his gold records for charity, he says hes still making music. Now, its
poetry, written and taped especially for children.
He describes his first
recording, "A is for Allah," as "a sort of singing, but without
instrumentation." The tape, in which Islam explains in English a number of Arabic
words important to the faith, is almost as popular as his earlier records. "Its
being distributed today, and copied, and its all over the Muslim world," he
The former star has kept
his lilting voice and joyful sense of rhythm, and the "singing" brings smiles of
recognition to old Cat Stevens fans. He says hes considered making a new album, with
receipts to be donated to Afghan refugees, but adds that the plan is only in the
"Music is anything
which will involve goodness in a person," says the man whom the Los Angeles Times
once lauded in a concert review as "an exceptional singer and artist. . . [able] to
combine strength, fragility and sometimes mystery in his highly personal
Today, he describes his
music of the sixties and seventies as "kind of feelings in the dark." He says he
chose the title "Footsteps in the the Dark" for his last album released in
1984 and composed of songs he wrote before he embraced Islam because it documented
a period when "I was walking somewhere but I dint know where."
"A long time ago I
started my quest for peace and enlightenment," Islam wrote for the jacket of the
album. "My soul was thirsty for the truth. My songs became a vehicle for my spiritual
search,.., but that still didnt satisfy me." When he discovered Islam, "it
was as if someone, somewhere, had switched on the lights."
His first encounter with
Islam was in the suq in Marrakesh, Morocco, where hed gone to gain inspiration and
write in 1972.
heard singing," he recalls, "and Ill never forget: I asked, What
kind of music is that? and they told me, Thats music from God.
Id never heard that. Music [had been] for praise, for applause, for people
but this was music seeking no reward. What a wonderful statement."
He impressed the
Marrakshis, too. Shop owners in the wool suq would recount his stay to anyone willing to
listen long after hed left for home. Yusuf Islams true introduction to the
faith came in 1976 when his brother, who had just returned from Jerusalem, gave him a
Koran as a gift. He started to visit a mosque m London, walking through the door not as
Cat Stevens the singer, but anonymously. Some of the men hes closest to today still
remember the surprise they felt when they learned their friend was a world-renowned
"Yusuf, I never knew
you were a singer," one told Islam when he found out.
"You never asked
me," Islam replied.
He continued to write
music, sing and perform into 1977. But he was changing.
"Id reached the
peak of my success and was riding the wave, but I was carrying the Koran everywhere with
me," he recalls. "It was the most important part of my belongings. The Koran
contained, for me, the complete universal guidance for human beings. Before that time I
didnt believe there was any religion I would submit to or commit to.
"Show business is not
conducive to a life of service. Either I was to go fully my own way making music and just
pleasing my own desires, or I was to submit myself fully to Islam."
He chose the latter,
praying and fasting, gradually withdrawing from the music world and letting his contracts
lapse. And he chose the names Yusuf (or Joseph, the prophet) and Islam ("submission
to the will of God") as a statement of his faith.
The Islamia School quickly
grew out of that faith and out of his family.
The facility opened in 1982
as a "play group," or nursery school, with 13 youngsters, the children of Muslim
friends, and Islams own two oldest daughters, Hassanah and Asma.
"The necessity of the
school came with the birth of my first child [in 1980]," Islam says. His entry into
education was spurred by a disenchantment with the schooling offered by
"experts" who "were ignorant of the facts."
The Islamia Schools
objective? "In one word, paradise," he says. "The basis of Islamic
education is to guide a person in his own life to believe in accordance with the divine
will, with God Almighty." The Islamia School aims at educating a child "in all
aspects of his life and personality, including his spiritual, emotional, mental and
Ultimately, the Islamia
School would like to open a secondary school for children 11 to 18, with separate
facilities for girls and boys, says Islamia headmaster Azam Baig, a Pakistani.
"Its better for kids to continue here than to go to a school where the
atmosphere is altogether different. We wont finish, God willing, until we have a
The primary school children
bring with them a rainbow of backgrounds from 23 different nationalities, offering each
other a rich learning environment before they ever open a book. Their parents hail from
countries including Zimbabwe and South Africa, Morocco, Iraq, Egypt and Libya, Jamaica,
Malaysia and Mauritius, and the United States and Britain.
Youngsters retain many
facets of their own culture in the schoolrooms. A cheerful boy coifed in Caribbean
dreadlocks provides a colorful contrast as he does his lessons a seat away from a dainty
little girl from Egypt who wears a head covering and a long dress.
The school offers the same
syllabus as English state schools, with one key difference: Along with science, geography,
English and mathematics, there are classes in Arabic, the Koran and Islam. The
schools own imam, a graduate of Cairos ancient al-Azhar University, teaches in
the musalla a prayer room with a mat-covered floor and the boys and staff
attend Friday prayers at one of two local mosques.
Farouq Hassanjee from
Mauritius put it simply when he stopped one afternoon to pick up his six-year-old
daughter, Shehnaaz. He called Yusuf Islam "the patron of the school," adding
that the facility "makes the general raising of children easier" by providing an
Islamic education during the day instead of only after-hours.
Islam comes to the school
every morning, to help out with sports activities and academic and administrative matters.
Notes headmaster Baig, "Yusuf is totally devoted and this is his mission. He has a
God-given gift and hes using it. Yusuf is lucky."
Consciously or not, Islam
has answered the question he posed some 15 years ago in "Where Do the Children
Play," a song in his album Tea for the Tillerman. In it, he asks:
you've cracked the sky,
Scrapers fill the air,
But will you keep on
Till there's no room up
I know we've come a
We're changing every
But tell me, where do
the children play?
Thats easy to see in
Brent. Theyre playing, and learning, at a little Muslim primary school built by the
man whom many of another generation still fondly remember as Cat Stevens. ~
has lived in Ireland and Morocco, and is now an Aramco staff writer in Dhahran.