Converted Musician Speaks About Islam
By Thomas J. Castillo, The Harvard Crimson, 5 April 2000
A hodgepodge of students, Muslim admirers, critics and classic rock fans packed Science Center C yesterday to hear Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, speak about his ongoing spiritual journey.
The speech, titled "In Search of the Center of the Universe," is part of the singer's tour of New York and Boston, which included a stop at Columbia University. The event was sponsored by the Harvard Islamic Society, the Islamic Society of Boston and the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.
Frequently referencing both his own songs and the Koran, Islam described his youth as a rock star, his discovery of Islam, and how conversion has changed his life.
"You may be wondering why a rock star who had everything decided to come down from the stars, put his head on the ground, hang up his guitar and say goodbye to that kind of world," Islam said at the beginning of his speech.
Islam discussed his path from childhood in London to becoming a rock star during a time when British rock was at its height.
Born in London in 1948 with the name Stephen D. Georgiou, Islam changed his name to Cat Stevens before he released Mathew & Son in 1966, the first of several popular albums. He is best known for his 1970 album, Tea For The Tillerman, which included the hits "Wild World" and "Father And Son."
But Islam said he was unsatisfied with the fast-paced lifestyle of a rock star. After a bout with tuberculosis at age 19, he began what he described as a "spiritual quest" that culminated in his conversion to the Muslim faith in 1977. At that point, he also changed his name.
Islam said the public has never understood his conversion and has continued to have many misconceptions about his life.
"I left a question mark that was not filled in by me, but by others," Islam said. "And that's why, perhaps, giving a talk like this helps."
Islam said he hoped his speech would help others live life "on the straight path" of Islam in addition to clarifying facts about his life and his religion.
Some misconceptions have proved very harmful, he said. When the English press misrepresented his opinion on Iran's death sentence for author Salmon Rushdie, he was later denied entrance to Israel in the early 1990s.
He said other misconceptions about his life are more harmless, citing the widespread belief that he wrote or sang the song "Cat's in the Cradle." The song was actually written by Harry Chapin.
And although Islam has not released a rock album for over two decades, he said that nothing in his religion prohibits singing. He is glad his son still listens to his songs, he said.
Islam used many of his own lyrics in the speech, but said he now disapproves of some of his earlier songs for their association with a lifestyle that involves sex and drugs.
He told the audience that he has not stopped recording - though his current albums are a cappella religious collections. Several of his latest works, including Prayers Of The Last Prophet, were on sale outside Science Center C yesterday.
Islam said that he chooses not to play the guitar anymore so that his music is more widely acceptable to Muslims.
"There are strict orthodox Muslims that wouldn't approve of the guitar, and I want to be friends with everyone," he said.
The wide variety of questions that followed Islam's speech touched on the many aspects of the singer's life.
Some in the audience congratulated Islam on his philanthropic work with children in Bosnia and in the Muslim schools he has founded in England.
Some questioned his politics. Others just wanted him to sing again.
Dozens showed up in traditional Muslim garb to listen to the religious figure, but many were drawn solely by Islam's musical past.
"He's a part of music history I want to find out more about," M. "Gene" Otto '03 said.
Daniel D. Springer '03 said he wanted to see how Islam has mixed his music and his spirituality.
"His music before his conversion was not very spiritually profound," Springer said. "I want to see how his music has changed in his spiritual journey."