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Music A Question of Faith or Da'wah?


By Yusuf Islam                                                                                                                               


(Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens the Pop Star, was born on July 21st, 1948 and christened as Stephen Demetre Georgiou.  His father was a Greek Cypriot and his mother was Swedish, they decided to send him to a Roman Catholic school. He was brought up Greek Orthodox but didn’t take part in the religious rituals at school. He adopted the stance of his Greek Cypriot father and hated everything about the Turks, including their religion: 'Islam', whatever that meant. He grew up in the West End of London, England.  At 19, he contracted tuberculosis and was whisked off to hospital. The thoughts which he developed during that teenage period of illness helped him to reflect on things, and paved the way for the life he now leads as a Muslim.  He became interested in music in his teens, began performing under the name Steve Adams in 1965, and eventually became known to the world as songwriter and singer Cat Stevens before converting to Islam and becoming Yusuf Islam in 1977. At the peak of his musical career in the 1970's, Cat Stevens had eight consecutive gold albums and 10 hit singles in the United Kingdom and 14 in the United States. His best-known albums include Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecats, Catch Bull at Four, and Buddah and the Chocolate Box. His most beloved songs include anthems such as "Peace Train," "Moon Shadow," "Morning has Broken," "Father and Son," and "Oh Very Young."  Stevens retired from the music world soon after accepting the faith of Islam. He subsequently married, had five children, auctioned off his possessions, and founded a Muslim school in London.)


Whilst Muslim lands are in chaos, pounded by devastating military forces and Islam is being dragged through the gutter by the media owing to the misdeeds of certain extreme groups, we must ask: where are united voices of the Ummah to right the picture and change the state of affairs?

I bear witness that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him).  Regardless of all the other unnecessary controversies surrounding me at the moment, I was saddened to recently hear that some voices in the Muslim community have been criticizing me because of various record companies re-releasing and advertising a DVD and other past music albums. They appear to be making it out to be a question of Faith; it seems they have not yet understood certain fundamental truths about these issues. So I decided to respond and pray for Allah’s assistance to make the matter clear.

When I embraced Islam in 1977 I was still making records and performing. The chief Imam in the London Central Mosque encouraged me to continue my profession of composing and recording; at no time was there ever an ultimatum for me to have to choose between music or Islam.

Nevertheless, there were lots of things about the music industry which contravened the Islamic way of life and I was new to the faith, so I simply decided myself to give up the music business. This helped me to concentrate fully on learning and practicing Islam - the five pillars - and striving to get close to Allah through my knowledge and worship.

However, it is interesting to quote here part of the first interview I gave to a Muslim magazine back in 1980; when asked about my thoughts with regard to music I said, “I have suspended my activities in music for fear that they may divert me from the true path, but I will not be dogmatic in saying that I will never make music again. You can’t say that without adding Insha Allah.” (2) For those who may not be aware of the basics of Islam, the things which make a person Muslim begin with his firm belief in the one and only God, Allah, and Muhammad as the last Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him).

Next a Muslim must pray the five obligatory prayers every day; then he must give a portion of his wealth each year to the needy; he must fast the month of Ramadan; and finally he must try to make the pilgrimage to Makkah.

It is important to note that I first came to learn about Islam, not through any effort from any Muslim advocate (da’ee), but solely by the Divine Grace of Allah when I received the Qur’an in 1976 as a gift from my brother - al Hamdulillah - who was not even a Muslim at the time. It was then I realized the Qur’an was the Truth I had been seeking. Sadly, today there are many Muslims who have not deeply studied the meanings of the Qur’an, and the majority takes religion from birth as a cultural identity, not an educated choice. A large amount do not fulfil the five pillars of Islam, some do not even know how to pray! Unfortunately, there are also many born Muslims who adopt an exclusive and sometimes even racist attitude; only a few have considered trying to invite others to the Religion. This is an extremely important point because, actually, it is well known that if the People of the Book, like Christians or Jews, learn Islam and become Muslims by Allah’s Grace, they receive twice as much reward. Allah the Most High states in the Qur’an, when I first began to learn about Islam it was the greatest moment of my life because it brought me the message of spiritual unity (Tawheed).

The message of One God resonated in my soul, and I suddenly could recognize it in every law and atom of this immeasurable universe - Subhanallah! Now going back to the subject of music - so long as it is within certain moral limits and does not divert a person from worship - it obviously doesn’t make people Kafirs (non-Believers). The truth is that most of those who buy my records as Cat Stevens are not Muslim, but many who listen to those old songs recognize that they represent the poetic inspiration of a seeker, someone thirsting for peace and trying to understand the unexplained mysteries of life. They were not just typical ‘Rock & Roll’. Indeed, most of my well known songs carried strong moral messages: ‘Peace Train’, ‘On the Road to Findout’ and ‘The Wind’, to mention a few.

“I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul, where I end up? Well I think only God really knows”

It’s true that I have gradually softened my objections to the use of music and songs over the years, and there are good reasons. Since the genocide against Bosnia in 1992, I learnt how important motivational songs are in keeping people’s spirits high during times of great calamity. One of the things that changed me greatly was listening to the cassettes coming out of the Balkans at that time; these were rich and highly motivating songs (nasheeds), inspiring the Bosnians with the religious spirit of faith and sacrifice.

In addition, from the letters we’ve received in our office over the years, it’s clear that my songs have actually helped many people; some even on the very verge of suicide have been influenced to see life in a positive light again, Allah says, ‘Whoever saves the life of one human being it is as if he has saved the whole of humanity'. Also, if listening to music and songs invalidated Islam, then most of the Muslims during the Abbasid Khilafat and the golden age of Islamic Spain would be considered non-Muslim, God forbid!

Interestingly, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the ‘Ulema have recently decided that the songs I sang as Cat Stevens provides a good example for the youth, to show that there are positive aspects to some music and art . Maybe the ‘Ulema in other countries should take a closer look at what’s happening to their youth, before the gulf between them becomes irreparable and too wide to bridge. We must be able to provide an Islamic alternative.

I truly believe that we don’t have to go beyond the generous paradigms of Islam for our solutions. If we turn our attention to the Sunnah (example) of the blessed Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, there are evidences for the allowance of listening to inoffensive words and songs of non-Muslims. Yes, it’s true. Once the Prophet was listening to the poetry of a non-Muslim, Umayyah bin Sault, after listening to around a hundred couplets of the poem, the Prophet, peace be upon him said, “He (Umayyah) was close to accepting Islam.”

The issue of music within Islam is an ongoing debate amongst Muslim scholars; some argue that it is totally Haram (prohibited) and others argue that its allowance depends on the song’s conformity to Islamic values and norms. Whilst I agree that some songs and musical influences are haram, this Judgement does not apply to every singer or every single note and crotchet played.

We must distinguish: for example, what is the message in the words of the song? What is the moral context and environment where the songs are being played? What is the time it is happening? Who is delivering the song? How is it delivered? And importantly, what is the intention? Some scholars say that as long as it conforms to moral norms and doesn’t divert a person from his or her duties in worshipping Allah Most High, then it has its place in the culture of Islam.

Different opinions about music indicate that it is not to be taken as a question of faith (‘Aqidah), but is simply a matter of understanding (fiqh). And after having studied this subject for more than twenty five years, I can say that it is certainly not as black and white as some have tried to make us believe. I used to be doubtful about the issue but now realize that many of the Hadith used to support its banning are either weak, unclear, or they do not balance with other specific Hadith showing its allowability. The actual word ‘music’ was never recorded in the original sayings of the Prophet and can not be found in the \preserved ‘Arabic language of the Qur’an - and Allah surely knows best.

After having discovered Islam through a complex maze of different spiritual paths and religions, my commitment is to share this treasure of knowledge and understanding of Tawheed with others; this I consider a Fard (obligation) upon me. That is why I am trying my best to reach out to people, who have many misconceptions about Islam.

Many Muslims today are frustrated, they believe that nothing can be done except to withdraw and pray for Allah to change the situation, or they go to extremes. Of course, Allah the Almighty can change the situation in a second if He wishes, but we must also correct ourselves, Whilst Muslim lands are in chaos, pounded by devastating military forces; and Islam is being dragged through the gutter by the media owing to the misdeeds of certain extreme groups, we must ask: where are united voices of the Ummah to right the picture and change the state of affairs? While the killing of souls is as acceptable as sweeping the streets; while blood gushes from the innocent victims of poverty and unjust aggression, surely there is something we can do? This should not push us to extremities either. Allah Most High says, do Da’wah, inviting mankind to belief (Iman) and worship of the One God, the True Lord and Creator of the Universe and reminding people of the Day of Judgement, this is the most fundamental issue in whatever time and space. Not performing our duty and ignoring the power of the media is one of the main reasons, I believe, for our failure as a Global Community in creating a more peaceful and just world.

Now, going back to those accusations against me and questions about my Iman, the conveyors of such rumors should earnestly seek Allah’s forgiveness. Critics of my music and Da’wah should be aware that we are trying our best to show Muslims and non-Muslims the transcendent beauty \and light of Islam, for this we must work within the media or our voices will never be heard.

The DVD release of my Concert in 1976 contains an extremely important interview where I explain why I left the music business. Thank God, many are seeing and hearing this side for the first time without the usual journalistic distortion. Additionally, my contribution to those charity concerts protesting against the war on Iraq and for victims of AIDS - particularly innocent children - were charitable acts which I wanted to perform on behalf of the Muslims, although I didn’t necessarily agree with some of the un-bashful presentations from other artists.

In the end, the sayings of the Prophet, ‘Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should either speak good or be silent' and, ‘A Muslim is he from whose hand and tongue other Muslims feel safe’, are enough to remind such accusers of the Islam we still need to understand and practice. Furthermore - though some may still wish to argue - the best answer I can give is in the words we read from the Qur’an.

‘Do you argue with us, when Allah is our Lord and your Lord? To us are our deeds and to you are your deeds, and to Him we are sincere.’


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