To call it a split personality would be to overstate the case, but there is a measure of contradiction pulsing through Yusuf Islam’s character. I see it when he arrives for a photographic shoot at Leighton House, near Holland Park in west London.
The gallery has been chosen as a setting because of its Arab hall – an appropriate backdrop for Britain’s best-known Muslim convert.
Although he was born in London 58 years ago – and raised in the city, too – it is Islam’s first visit here and, as he maunders around the hall, examining its Islamic tiles, he looks like an Eastern mystic: serene and greybearded in a kameez shirt, his hands forming a fig leaf behind his back; he is nodding to himself and silently mouthing translations of Arabic phrases he reads on the walls.
But when the shoot begins and he is asked to sit on the mosaic floor, he shakes his head. The temperature changes. He has become the veteran pop star once more, aware of his image, used to getting his own way. He doesn’t want to look ‘hunched up’, he says, holding up his hand to silence any objection.
The song You’re So Vain by his one-time girlfriend Carly Simon was said to have been written about him. Then again, it was said to have been written about a lot of Seventies rock stars. ‘Vanity was one of my problems,’ is all Yusuf Islam will say on the subject now.
He pointedly uses the past tense – was – to refer to the days when, under the name Cat Stevens, he sold more than 60 million albums, experimented with drugs, flew all the way to Washington just to get his teeth capped, and, in the memorable phrase of one of his associates,‘wasn’t exactly celibate’.
The present tense is for what happened after 1977, the year he turned his back on the music industry and the hedonism that came with it, renouncing both as sinful. He auctioned his guitars and gold records for Islamic charities.
He even wrote to his record company and asked it to stop selling his albums (it refused). More significantly, he changed his name and dedicated himself to founding Muslim schools in north London – four of them to date.
‘There is a cultural difference between what I represented as Cat Stevens and what I represent today as Yusuf Islam,’ he says carefully, with a trace of London in his vowels. He says everything with care and films himself saying it.
There is a small microphone strapped to his arm, its neon light glowing, and it is wirelessly linked to a video camera he has placed in the corner of the room. He seems earnest, sincere and defensive.
He has good reason to be. In 1989, he was quoted as saying that, according to a literal interpretation of the Koran, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie was understandable, sort of. A media storm broke and he claimed he was misquoted, or at least his meaning was wilfully misconstrued. He has recorded his every public utterance since.
His manager – with a new album, his first in 28 years, his career needs managing once more – comes in and says that his man doesn’t want to answer questions about Iraq, which might seem a little eccentric, given that Yusuf Islam is a pop star.
But I know what he means. Whether he likes it or not, Islam has been cast in the role of unofficial ambassador for Britain’s two million Muslims, and in recent years that has not been the easiest gig in the world.
On the CD box of his new album,‘An Other Cup’, his former stage name is, perhaps with some weariness, acknowledged on a sticker. He can’t get away from it, it seems.
But even if it wasn’t there, you would know straight away it was Cat Stevens you were listening to: a semitone lower, but the same folksy, fluid, easy-going vocals and acoustic guitar patterns – a patina familiar from songs such as Moonshadow, Father and Son, Peace Train, The First Cut is the Deepest and, that staple of school assemblies, Morning Has Broken.
Cat Stevens has a long and impressive back catalogue, so long and impressive that it has kept him in royalties for life. As with his name, the old songs just won’t go away.
On the morning I meet him he has just been told that Wild World (‘Oh, baby, baby it’s a…’ – that one) has re-entered the Top 40 because teenagers have been downloading it onto their iPods, the song having just featured on a youth television programme.
His Tea for the Tillerman, meanwhile, has re-entered the collective consciousness thanks to Ricky Gervais: he uses it as the theme tune to Extras.
The ‘why now after 28 years?’ question meets with a sweet answer. He and his wife, Fauzia Mubarak Ali, the daughter of a Surbiton accountant, have five children. One of them, his 21-year-old son Muhammad, brought a guitar into the house and started writing songs on it.
Islam had assumed that his religion frowned on music. ‘But my son helped me come to a better understanding of where music sits in Islamic culture and I found myself free to sing again.’
So there was no taboo about it, after all? ‘My son broke the taboo for me, because he had no hesitation in buying a guitar. He is a Muslim, too. It made me realise again that music helps us to share moments.’ He nods thoughtfully.
Islam had planned to make a one-off return to music in 1985: he was lined up to play at Live Aid but – tuh! – Elton John over-ran and he was squeezed out of the schedule. Had he not even been singing to himself in the shower in all that time?
‘No, no, no. I really walked away from the business. It was a statement in a way because I felt a kind of rejection from the media the moment I adopted a new name. They didn’t really want to know me. They wanted me to remain as I was. When I received a cold shoulder at this turning point in my life I felt: well, if you don’t love me then maybe I don’t love you.’
He didn’t love himself much either, presumably, given that he had changed his identity in such a profound way. ‘I got to the point, like many a pop star, when I thought the world rotated around me. Islam put me in a spot where I realised I had to bow to a higher power and simply dedicate myself to living properly. Without guidelines that is difficult to do.’
His conversion occurred after he nearly drowned off the coast of Malibu in 1976.A strong current was pulling him out to sea and, having no strength left, he said, ‘God, if you save me, I’ll work for you.’
At that moment, a wave came and he was saved. When I ask him how he was sure it was Allah who had answered his prayers and not the Christian God of his Catholic upbringing, he smiles and says, ‘There is only one God.’ He had been reading the Koran at the time.
A coach party of 25 people turns up at the gallery so we walk to a nearby café – and, as we do, Islam is recognised by a Muslim man who wants to shake his hand. He gets that a lot, he says. He always feels at home in cafés. His father ran one in Soho.
Born Steven Demetre Georgiou, he was the son of Stavros, a Greek- Cypriot, and Ingrid, a Swedish Baptist. When Steven was about eight years old, his parents separated, but both continued to run the restaurant and live above it.
Islam says he was forever trying, and failing, to reconcile them. His father was known as ‘Belos’ – The Mad One – because he had a short temper.
Was the appeal of Islam for him partly paternalistic? ‘Yeah, but there is a central dimension to Islam which a lot of people don’t see. They see the external, which can look paternalistic, but there is an internal perspective of knowing your Lord. I don’t think any prophet ever came except to connect people to the one Lord. Once you see there is only one Lord then you realise you are not the boss, you have to serve.’
You learn humility? ‘Humility. Exactly. Not often associated with pop stars. That is the character change I had to go through. For that reason, standing on stage in front of 40,000 people did not suit me.’
He didn’t enjoy the applause? ‘Some introverts overcome their problem by exhibiting themselves publicly. I think Jimi Hendrix was the same. He was a very shy person. Mmm. To know him, he was a very gentle speaker but his image required him to be a big personality.’
Cat Stevens toured with Hendrix in the late 1960s. Hendrix, indeed, had helped him overcome his stage fright – he gave him a pint of brandy mixed with port to drink every night before he went on.
Does he ever shake his head at the thought that he hung out with Hendrix and somehow survived? ‘Yes, well, that was one of the strange things. There was a lot of clubbing and drug-taking going on. But it gave me an insight: that whatever happened on the outside of showbusiness, there is an inner journey that you have to take as well.’
Or you end up dead? ‘There was a flurry of rock-star deaths at that time and their names all seemed to start with J: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin… then I went and chose Joseph as a name! Luckily it is the Arabic pronunciation, Yusuf. There was a time when I did wonder what was going on. I was a victim of it too, in a way, because I ended up in hospital for months with TB, in a convalescent home in the middle of Surrey. I had lost control. I was forced to step back and think.’
Fame and fortune had certainly come to Cat Stevens at a young age. He was only 18 when he had his first hit, Matthew and Son, in 1967. Did he feel like an impostor?
‘Suddenly, I was having to find my own identity while being put on a pedestal; people were forging my identity for me as I went along. I felt lost and unfulfilled. I didn’t know who to listen to. The only role models I had were other pop stars. And chart success is a fleeting delusion.’
All the songs on the new album are written by him, apart from one, a cover of the song made popular by Nina Simone and then The Animals: Don’t Let me be Misunderstood. ‘Yes, I do feel misunderstood and not just in the Muslim phase of life. It was partly my fault because I was looking for my identity. I was afraid of being misunderstood.’
Even before he became a Muslim, though, journalists found him heavy-going intellectually. He complained of being ‘misinterpreted’, but it may have been more a case of interviewers being baffled by his opaque pronouncements about everything from Maoism to UFOs.
He does tend to get a little tangled in his thoughts, and I have untangled him in places here. The biggest misunderstanding was over Salman Rushdie.
‘I was pretty green; I had no idea what kind of traps were being laid for me. Rushdie was never my subject. And people tried to make it my subject and I feel offended, deeply offended because of that… I just wanted to enlighten people as to what I had learnt from the Koran in my research; this as far as I could see was what the Koran had to say on the subject, but then I got tagged with something completely different.’
He was more than just misunderstood in 2000, when he was denied entry into Israel for allegedly making donations to Hamas, something that he strenuously denies and which was never proved. Four years later, he was en route to America when his name came up on a ‘no-fly’ list; the plane was diverted to Maine.
‘Wait a minute!’ he thought, as he sat in front of three FBI agents in the US immigration office. ‘Am I supposed to be the baddie?’ Yes, was the answer as far as the FBI was concerned. The following day, Yusuf Islam was deported back to Britain.
He still hasn’t been told why he was on a no-fly list, but he assumes there was a mix-up of names and identities. It provoked a small international controversy and led the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, to complain personally to the American Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations.
Powell responded by stating that the watch list was under review. Yusuf has since been allowed back into America.
It sounded like he was a victim of religious profiling, but does he blame people for feeling nervous when they see bearded Muslims on planes? ‘Even I get nervous when I see someone with a beard! If I don’t know who that person is. It’s true that some look a bit frightening. Some of these people, I know them, they look ferocious. The beard happens to give a masculine look, a more virile appearance, but what goes on behind it, well, I’m an example, if you listen to my music. Yes I had a beard as Cat Stevens but now I have grown wiser and my beard is longer.’
Is it true that American airport security personnel asked for his autograph? ‘So many people do, even Cherie Blair. I was in Downing Street with a number of Muslim delegates and scholars and she was so excited to meet me because my music had had an impact on her.’
What advice does he give on these occasions? ‘I would say the age of reason hasn’t ended and for every effect there is a cause. I suppose even for the Task Force Group who looked into what might have ignited 7/7, it comes down to a common agreement that foreign policy had an enormous amount to do with it.
‘It has nothing to do with ordinary Londoners in the street, it is to do with governmental attitudes abroad. We all suffer from that. The Government is suffering from that, too, because of a misinformed adventurous approach to security, when in fact security can be solved quite easily with a little more attention to the injustice to Muslims continually perpetrated around the world.’
As well as with the Prime Minister, he has also had meetings with Kofi Annan and Prince Charles. He doesn’t like being seen as a spokesman for British Muslims, but can he see why, given the current religious tensions, people might want to know his views?
‘A person like myself, who has been brought up in the West and lived most of my life aiming for the same goals that we all do in this society, and, having achieved them, discovered they were still not fulfilling and then finding Islam…’ The answer drifts away.
‘Because of the extremes that some people have gone to, on both sides, of wanting to start wars and polarise the world into two camps, and I think the natural instinct of humanity is to come to a balanced position after a while.’
Does he feel he has been a victim of Islamophobia? ‘Yes, exactly. What happened on the plane. Islamophobia affects me directly because Islam is my name, Yusuf Islam. Then came the bad news.’ He refers to 9/11.
‘That took over the headlines and allowed people to define Islam politically. They are using the wrong dictionary, the dictionary for Islam is a spiritual one, and it’s a harmonious one, a universal one.’
I suppose the trouble is that we didn’t really think about Islam much in the West until 9/11, when we were… He finishes my sentence: ‘Forced to think about it.’ Exactly, I say, and one thing we were forced to think about was where the loyalties of British Muslims lay.
‘I think the loyalty question for British Muslims doesn’t matter; being British doesn’t mean you can’t be a believer. I do find it very strange that it tends to be liberals who argue with you that you have no right to believe anything different from them.’
He laughs, a slow bubbling laugh. ‘To me, what I found in Islam was it contained scientific reason, along with spiritual reality. It is only when those things are distorted that people disagree.’
Does he feel his religion has been hijacked by extremists who don’t represent what he thinks? ‘There are extremists on both sides who are determined to create conflict, and so they have missed one of the great messages that Islam contained peace in its own name: salaam. Islam.
‘That is one of the first things I learnt as a Westerner. Oh my god, that’s interesting, didn’t I write a song called Peace Train? A Muslim roughly translated is someone who has made peace with God and who has learnt to live with others.’
The 7/7 suicide bombers described themselves as martyrs in their ‘martyrdom videos’. Does he think they were martyrs? ‘This is not my subject, but the Koran forbids the taking of your own life in clear, categorical terms.’
So they didn’t go to heaven? His tone changes at this question, takes on a harder edge.‘I’m not a judge, and neither are you! That is the wrong kind of question to ask someone who has a record of wanting peace.
I want to communicate that peace. I don’t want to be entangled in the confusion in your mind or other people’s minds about what Islam is. Let me speak clearly from my heart. Let me express myself through my music.’
Fair enough, Yusuf. Fair enough. Is it going to be another 28 years before his next album? A grin. ‘I believe I have a few more good songs in me yet.’