I was looking for a photo from the deluge of rain and subsequent flash floods we had last night here in Cairo; instead, I came across this article about a well-known singer named Sami Yusuf, but he is much more than just a singer. His message transcends religion, culture, ethnicity, and class.
The following article appears as the cover story for the magazine available online, "Egypt Today."
A Voice for PeaceWith God in his heart and the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) at his side, British-born singing sensation Sami Yusuf is taking the world by storm — and even has non-Muslims humming his tunes — but don’t make the mistake of calling the widely acclaimed ‘King of Islamic Pop’ a preacher
HE HAS THE GOOD looks, chart-topping music and stylish video clips of a bona fide pop star, but sings about God, the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and the inherently peaceful message of Islam.
Today, both the devout and the non-religious have taken notice of the musically gifted, British-born 25-year-old, who has proven himself to be more than just a one-hit wonder. In 2005, his website, www.samiyusuf.com, recorded more than 2 million visitors. The live chats he hosts every six months have attracted fans from around the world; 4,000 people tried to participate in the last one, which took place in early February, and the site was shut down for two days afterward to upgrade to a more robust server able to meet the demand.
Children love his catchy tunes, parents applaud his integrity, and the teenagers and twenty-somethings who make up the bulk of his fan base have taken Yusuf as their new role model.
The secret of Yusuf’s success? He presents himself in a way that no other Muslim performer ever has, proclaiming that you can look hip, sound cool and still be a good Muslim. That approach has made him a pop idol throughout the Muslim world, where youth and adults alike have bought into his message of a moderate lifestyle that embraces ‘modern’ amusements while glorifying God.
The region’s budding boy bands are taking notice after word spread throughout Egypt of the thousands of (mostly female) fans who recently descended on Virgin Megastore in Heliopolis for the launch of his new CD, My Ummah: God is cool. Sami Yusuf is someone Muslim fans can really relate to; he’s one of their own and they are proud of him and what he stands for.
As trite as it sounds, little of Yusuf’s success appears to have gone to his head: Yusuf as the ‘public personality’ is indistinguishable from Yusuf the ‘private citizen.’ He speaks as he sings — from the heart. Casually dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt, his unpretentious nature comes through loud and clear before he even utters a single word.
Unlike some Islamist figures now in the spotlight, he has no problem shaking a woman’s hand and looking me straight in the eye.
“I never intended to become a role model,” says Yusuf. “I’m just trying to do my best and make the best music I can. The fact that I get recognized and people like what I do is overwhelming. The love is overwhelming. But my fans don’t just love me because I’m a singer; it’s because I talk about things that are dear to them. They love me because I am proud of my faith.”
Yusuf, whose family originally comes from Azerbaijan, was born and raised in the United Kingdom and claims that when he first embarked on Al-Mu’allim, he was targeting Muslims living in the West. Both his lyrics and music swing back and forth between East and West in a manner that reflects the stew of cultures in which he grew up.
“I wanted to give Muslims living in the West some kind of identity, something that would help make them proud of Islam; alhamdulillah we have succeeded in doing that. What I didn’t expect was that my music would become such a hit in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, where the Islamic identity is already very strong,” says Yusuf. “I think people here have embraced my music because of the values that it portrays. In the video for Al-Mu’allim it was clear that it was all about values that transcend the rigid structures of religion. It’s not just about haram, halal and fiqh,” he adds.
Yusuf extended a planned trip to Egypt into the first two weeks of February as the British Embassy in Cairo, in cooperation with British Petroleum (BP), hosted the Nazra Festival, a delegation of British Muslims working in various fields including the media, art, music, politics and business to discuss what it means to be a Muslim in Britain. The festival included a number of open debates, online discussions and performances by British Muslim artists including Yusuf.
“The Nazra Festival is really about British Muslims and their contribution in every field. It’s a great initiative. The UK is very unique in that it promotes multiculturalism. I feel more British than Azeri or anything else, and the reason that I love England so much, other than that it is my home, is because the values that it holds dear are values that we hold dear as Muslims. These are the universal values of diversity and respect for others, regardless of their faith or race,” says Yusuf. “Yes, discrimination exists on some level but the problems are minimal.”
“Even after the 7/7 bombings, there was no widespread violence toward Muslims. Instead, the reaction was one of calm and reflection. I think that the vast majority of the people in the UK realized that the perpetrators of such a catastrophe cannot represent the religion of over a billion people. They represent a loud minority who have lost their mind. What they did was entirely un-Islamic and inhumane.”
Yusuf claims that growing up as a Muslim in the UK was as difficult in some respects as it was easy in others.
“I went to a public school in England, so naturally you see a lot of things that you just have to abstain from, but I think ultimately I had it easy because I was free to think, which is one thing many Muslims growing up in Muslim countries don’t allow themselves to do. God says in the Qur’an that people who know are the people who ponder. I think one of the problems that we have in the Muslim world among youth is that they are scared to think, afraid that thinking will lead them to doubt their religion. It’s not true. There is nothing wrong with thinking. I think it’s the whole system in the Arab world that discourages thinking — not only on issues of religion.”
Although Yusuf calls himself “a proud Brit,” he admits he doesn’t always agree with his country’s foreign policy. “There’s good and bad everywhere, we just have to be fair and objective enough to acknowledge that.”
A Preacher He’s Not
If there is one thing Yusuf hates, it is to be called ‘preachy.’ In the course of our two interviews last month, he made it very clear that he is not preaching anything to anyone.
“We are living in a day and age where individualism is held in very high regard. No one likes to be preached to, including me. I’m very comfortable with the ‘do your own thing’ philosophy. I am just an artist sharing his culture, identity and beliefs through his art,” explains Yusuf.
With a voice and talent that could lend themselves to any musical style, Yusuf chose to wade into uncharted waters when he came out with Al-Mu’allim. Asked if it was his strong religious beliefs that kept him from trying for a mainstream pop-music career, Yusuf says he always wanted to do something with music that was “dignified and respectable.”
Al-Mu’allim was the outcome.
“For something to be commercially successful and at the same time dignified and balanced is a very difficult formula. Art these days has been hijacked by the commercial world. For a long time I just forgot about music as a career. I was going to study law at King’s College, but I picked music in the end.”
Yusuf considers what he is doing now to be a form of pop music.
“It’s popular and people are listening to it, so it’s pop,” he says. His current hit single, “Hasbi Rabbi,” which he sings in Turkish, Hindu, English and Arabic, is not only popular in Egypt and countries where the Islamic identity is strong; it has also topped the Turkish charts.
“Turkey, of course, is a very secular country, but they loved the song. Every artist throughout history has shared his ideas through his art. That’s why people write and compose. It’s a means of self-expression. Take the “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven, for example: It was inspired by his feelings. When one listens to my songs, there will be a strong Islamic feel to them. It is because Islam is important to me, not because I am ‘an Islamic artist’.”
Yusuf claims that his next album will probably be more mainstream. “There will be songs about the Prophet (PBUH) because I love him very much and he will always be the baraka of my albums, but there will definitely be songs that just talk about humanity at large.”
Yusuf’s musical talents manifested themselves early on. The son of an accomplished musician, composer and music instructor in the UK, Yusuf was born with music in his blood. He taught himself to play his first instrument, the Persian drum known as a tombac, when he was just seven years old.
“My father gave me a book he uses to teach the basics of the tombac, went out to make tea, and came back half an hour later to find that I had pretty much mastered a book that took some of his students months to finish. From that moment on, he noticed my musical talent and nurtured it carefully,” Yusuf smiles.
From the tombac, Yusuf, the youngest of three children in his musically inclined family, quickly moved on to the santoor, piano, violin, oud, sitar, tar, and duf. He says he now plays “nine or ten instruments,” but considers himself accomplished in four: the tar (a Persian instrument similar to the Indian sitar), tombac, oud and piano.
“I am a piano player, not a pianist, which means that I use the piano as an accompaniment to my voice and I compose with the piano. There is a difference: pianists don’t make mistakes while piano players often do, which is fine,” notes Yusuf, a self-proclaimed perfectionist.
Yusuf went on to study music and composition at the prestigious Royal Academy in London. Ironically, he never imagined himself to be a singer. “I was more into composing and arranging and never really knew I could sing before Al-Mu’allim,” says Yusuf, who admits he was always fond of singing in the shower.
“My father, who is an accomplished vocalist as well, used to compliment my singing in the bathroom all the time,” he says with a laugh, adding that his father, a pivotal figure in his life, never wanted him or his siblings to follow in his footsteps and take on music as a career.
“He knew how volatile and unpredictable the music industry was and that most musicians die poor,” Yusuf says. “He would have preferred me to go into academia. Unfortunately, the commercial art industry is not very healthy. Even if you choose to live a certain way, it’s very easy to get dragged into the whole ‘artist’ lifestyle. It’s not the art per se that makes you that way, it’s the commercial side of it — and if you want to make money you have to be commercial to an extent.”
But Yusuf insisted on following the path that he loved, drawn from his love of everything from folklore to classical music. “I love listening to Chopin, Bach as well as Egyptian icons like Abdel Wahab, for example. But the one thing that really inspired me to make Al-Mu’allim was the life of the Prophet (PBUH), his example, his light and his prophetic universal message of peace and love.
“I do not come from an excessively religious family, though. I had a very normal Islamic upbringing and graduated from a normal public school in England. I used to pray on and off until I became ‘more practicing’ at the age of 16. My father was always very spiritual and a great lover of the Qur’an and the writings of Sufi poets such as Rumi, so the spiritual influence was always there,” says Yusuf.
Al-Mu’allim’s anasheed-style music and lyrics have a clear Sufi feel throughout, particularly on tracks such as “Allahu.”
“I wouldn’t label myself as a Sufi in the negative sense that I hold my faith inside my heart and I’m withdrawn from the outside world,” he quickly adds. “That’s definitely not it, but if you look at the historical context of spirituality and Sufism, you will find that they play a huge part in our faith. The greatest of sahaba (companions of the Prophet (PBUH)) and the greatest of Muslims were Sufis in the proper understanding of the term. Tasawuf (Sufism) definitely plays an important part of my life, but so do other things.”
In just about every interview that Yusuf has ever given, he talks about his father as one of the greatest influences on his life and talent, yet never mentions his name.
“That’s the way I’d like to keep it,” smiles Yusuf. “He has been very influential in my life, but I am a very private person by nature so I don’t like to put my family in the limelight.”
Yusuf does, however, proudly tell me that he has been very happily married for the past 10 months. His wife, Mariam, comes from Bavaria, one of the most Christian and conservative areas in Germany, but embraced Islam five years ago.
“We have been very blessed, but again I like to keep that part of my life as private as possible. To this day, the public does not know what my wife looks like because she hasn’t been photographed, even though we do spend a lot of time together,” says Yusuf.
When he is not working, Yusuf claims that his favorite thing to do is compose, which is almost an oxymoron: “I’m doing what I love, which is music and composition. I have an iPod with a mike, so sometimes when I’m walking, a favorite pastime of mine, I hum melodies. To the casual observer it looks like I’m talking to myself. People who see me are probably asking themselves, ‘Is he nuts?’ The answer is no, that’s just me. I love music.”
Although not a big football fan, Yusuf caught soccer fever while he was in Egypt and attended the Egyptian national team’s quarter-final match during the Africa Cup of Nations last month. He’s an avid reader and reads everything from the Qur’an to works of history and novels by the likes of Dan Brown. “I read The Da Vinci Code in three days. It’s an exquisite book. I think everyone should read more often. A nation that doesn’t read can never revive itself. In England if you have 10 people on a train, at least eight of them have to be reading. I rarely see that in this part of the world.”
Yusuf paid a visit to the Cairo Book Fair during his stay, loading up on as many Arabic books as he could carry. He even bought a copy of the Bible in Arabic.
“I was a bit disturbed to see completely separate Christian and Muslim [floors] at the Book Fair. We don’t have this kind of marginalization in the UK and it’s not something that I like to see anywhere.”
Yusuf hopes that his grasp of the Arabic language will soon be strong enough for him to read the books he purchased. He has studied and continues to study Arabic, but is a bit reticent about speaking the language in public for now.
“I speak only fus’ha, so I sound like I come from a museum or something,” says Yusuf, who speaks fluent Farsi and a little bit of Azeri.
The Message is Peace
With all the negative images that Islam has to contend with today, Yusuf’s constant influence on peace is refreshing.
“There is nothing new about the message that Islam is peace, that has always been the rhetoric, but we can’t just keep on saying that while we walk around with an attitude that is the complete opposite. There’s a lot of aggression and that has to change. We have to go back to our history and look at the Prophet (PBUH) with his merciful attitude.”
Yusuf believes that only a revival of art will put the Muslim world on the same page as the Western world. “The artistic, literary and creative horizons are so huge right now because there is a vacuum in terms of art, music and film. I think artists and creative-minded people, the composers, journalists and poets of the Muslim world, have to seize this opportunity to revive a civilization that has been lost.
“It cannot be the Islamic scholars who are specialized in issues of fiqh alone who will do the job,” says Yusuf.
While many have embraced Yusuf’s message of peace and tolerance, a vocal minority has been highly critical of his music and message. Mixing music with stories of the Prophet (PBUH) is taboo among fundamentalists who believe that music is in and of itself haram.
“These people do exist, they are a minority — but a very loud minority,” says Yusuf. “The vast majority of Muslims and the vast majority of human beings are very civilized. They just want to get along with their lives. But if you want to take the fiqh perspective, there is a school of thought that says music is haram. I obviously don’t prescribe to that view. I have gotten some criticism, but it has been very minimal.
“What we need today in the Islamic world is more balance. It’s a pity that people are either becoming more conservative or more liberal. A balanced person in my view is someone who can sit with someone who is a Wahhabi and someone who is the most secular person in the world and not only listen to them, but also respect their opinion. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many people today who can do that.”
My Ummah is a departure of sorts from the simple melodies and heavy reliance on the anasheed-style music popular with Sufi traditions on his debut, Al-Mu’allim. The new album is much more musically complex, deploying a range of musical styles and featuring lyrics that tackle hot issues in the Muslim world.
“Muhammad,” for example, is dedicated to the schoolchildren who died in the Russian town of Beslan after Chechen Islamist terrorists took their school hostage. It condemns violence in the name of Islam with a chorus that goes: “Mohammed, the light of my eyes; About you they spread many lies; If only they came to realize; Bloodshed you despise.”
“Free” is about a Muslim woman’s right to wear the veil and was inspired by the ordeal that Muslim girls went through when France banned hijab in public schools.
“Try not to Cry” is a rap song performed with the Danish trio Outlandish, which has two Muslim and one Christian member. “They are doing a great job, particularly with their latest album, which is very spiritual. They asked me to feature on their album, and I asked them to feature on mine,” explains Yusuf, who writes most of his own lyrics in collaboration with Bara Kherigi, one of his closest friends in the UK.
“This one is a little deep,” says Yusuf of his latest release. “We really put a lot of work into it, and I think it’s deep in the sense that there are a lot of variables in the music. I didn’t want to make another Al-Mu’allim because I like experimenting. I wanted to do something creative, and insha’Allah it will turn out well.”
Yusuf expects that it will be another year to a year-and-a-half before he can start working on his next project. In the meantime, he’s debating new video clips, having already succeeded on that front with both Al-Mu’allim and My Ummah.
“I am indebted to a great team with great passion,” says Yusuf. Egyptian director Hani Osama directs all his videos; the two videos supporting My Ummah to date are Hasbi Rabbi, shot on location in England, India, Turkey and Egypt, and Mother, filmed exclusively in Egypt.
“For the Mother clip, Osama asked me to provide him with pictures of myself as a child, and sobhan’Allah he found models who looked just like me when I was five or six. My mother cried when she saw the clip and started a whole deluge, with my nephew, sister and sister-in-law following suit. It was crazy.”
An International Star
Muslim communities worldwide have embraced Yusuf’s music. Last month, he was among the 150 US and Muslim leaders and opinion-makers invited to participate in the Brookings Institute’s third annual US-Islamic World Forum held in Doha, Qatar, which aims to narrow the growing gap between the US and the Islamic world. Yusuf has performed in sold-out concerts in the US and is planning a five-city concert tour there this coming summer.
He will also be busy touring for the next few months with concerts scheduled in Algeria, Qatar, Bahrain, Germany and a six-city tour in the UK in April, where he will be performing at prestigious venues including the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Despite the demand, Yusuf says that performing live is not his favorite thing to do.
“It’s not a matter of stage fright, because I’ve been performing on stage from a very young age, it’s just that I’m a perfectionist. If one chord goes wrong, I will stare back at my chorus for a few seconds, so I often have this kind of tension when I’m performing live; that’s why I keep my concerts to a minimum. If I wanted to, I could probably do concerts every other day.”
Yusuf held only one live performance at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina during his month-long stay in Egypt. The February 12 concert, sponsored by BP, sold out five days before the curtain rose. Encouraged by the excellent feedback he received, Yusuf is entertaining the idea of future performances at Egyptian venues including the newly renovated Sayyid Darwish Theater in Alexandria and the Cairo Opera House.
“I contemplated living in Egypt for a while to study Arabic last year, but it didn’t happen. Still, I’m always in and out of the country, even outside my work. I love being here. The spirit of Cairo is amazing. The fact that you can walk outside at three o’clock in the morning and everything is alive and people are drinking tea at the cafés is something you won’t see elsewhere,” says Yusuf.
“I think people here love life and are for the most part balanced when it comes to religion. All of the prominent voices that have helped shape Islam are Egyptian, like Sheikhs El-Ghazali, Sharawi, Qaradawi and even Amr Khaled.”
Yusuf speaks highly of Amr Khaled, who is not a sheikh but a sometimes controversial — and highly popular — self-proclaimed preacher now in a form of self-imposed exile in London. “Amr Khaled is an amazing person and a dear friend of mine. He supports what I’m doing and I support him. Regardless of what some people say, he is a very sincere person. I can see it in his eyes and face. I know that what he speaks he speaks from the heart. He has no hidden agenda; he just wants Islam to rise up to the challenge and revive those values and morals that we hold dear to our heart.”
As for Yusuf’s goals? “I’ll shock you,” he laughs. “I want to see myself on MTV one day. I want to pick up an award, a Grammy maybe, and walk on stage in front of the whole world and say ‘Salam Alaykum, peace be upon you, thank you very much, this is Islam.’
“That’s my professional goal, but my personal goal is very simple: It all boils down to is what kind of person you are. I’m not interested in just the art or the material contribution. I’m interested in humanity. I want to be a good husband to my wife, a good friend to my friends and a good Muslim. Actually, when I say ‘good Muslim,’ everything else will just come with it.
“It’s as simple as that.” et