This Week In History: Cat Stevens no more
On December 23, 1977, legendary British singer-songwriter Cat Stevens converted to Islam.
Yusuf Islam (Cat Stephens) Photo: Youssef Boudlal / Reuters
December 23, 1977, legendary British singer-songwriter Cat Stevens
converted to Islam, abandoning his musical career and soon after
changing his name to Yusuf Islam. Born Steven Demetre Georgiou into a
Christian household with a Greek-Cypriot father and a Swedish mother,
the singer now shed his stage name, which he had adopted after a
girlfriend told him his eyes resembled those of a cat.
near-death experience at the Californian coast of Malibu in 1976 was
the trigger to Steven's transition from a rock star life to a quiet and
pious existence. "Without warning a strong current carried me out to
sea," he told the Los Angeles Times
in 2000. "My whole life flashed in front of me, as they say, but I knew
someone was there and I said, 'Oh God, if you help me I'll work for
you.' Anyway, a wave came from behind me and gently pushed me towards
the shore and then I had all the energy I needed to get back."
Stevens began his journey toward Islam, though he wasn't yet clear of
his path: "I'd made this commitment to work for God, but I didn't know
what to do about it. I didn't tell anyone what had happened. I was
embarrassed," he recalled.
long disillusioned with Christianity, had explored Eastern mysticism,
astrology, Buddhism and several other practices but was yet to find his
religious calling. Then, his brother returned from a trip to a mosque in
Jerusalem and presented his brother with a gift which Islam later came
to describe as a miracle - a translation of the Koran. In this book,
Stevens discovered the "the purpose of life."
"I felt that the only answer for me was the Koran, and God had sent it
to me," Islam explained on the “Islam Tomorrow” website. A year and a
half later, following his own trip to Jerusalem and deep study of the
Koran, Stevens converted.
this move, Stevens disappeared from the public eye entirely; he stopped
making records, performing or giving interviews. Islam married, and
involved himself in charity work and humanitarian issues. After a long
silence, he gradually returned to music in the 1990s, with a new Islamic
his new Muslim life, however, Islam received a lot of bad press. In
1989 he found himself in the center of controversy when he was accused
of supporting the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s call for author Salman Rushdie's execution for defaming the Prophet Muhammad in his book The Satanic Verses.
While speaking at Kingston University in London, a student asked Islam
his opinion of the fatwa. Islam responded, "The Koran makes it clear -
if someone defames the Prophet, he must die." The former singer was
immediately swept up in a media tempest, and the next day issued a
statement denying that he supported vigilantism and claiming that he had
simply repeated the Islamic legal view.
the issue resurfaced several months later when Islam appeared on the
BBC's “Hypotheticals” program. Again questioned on the issue, Islam
affirmed that he thought Rushdie should be killed and when asked if he
would attend a demonstration where an effigy of the author would be
burned he replied, "I would have hoped that it'd be the real thing."
later clarified that those comments had been made in jest, "meant to
lighten the moment and raise a smile – as good ol’ British sense of
humor occasionally is known to do unfortunately for me it didn’t." He
regretfully acknowledged that his remarks had been "stupid and
offensive" but also stressed that the program was edited in way that
misrepresented the dialogue: "Hardly any laughs were left in and much
common sense was savagely cut out."
Years later in a Rolling Stone
interview in 2000, Islam was rueful that he was still being questioned
on the matter, and portrayed himself as an innocent victim of a brutal
media industry. "I had nothing to do with the issue other than what the
media created. I was innocently drawn into the whole controversy… I was a
new Muslim. If you ask a Bible student to quote the legal punishment of
a person who commits blasphemy in the Bible, he would be dishonest if
he didn't mention Leviticus 24:16."
Rushdie affair was not the last of Islam's battles. In July 1990, the
Interior Ministry refused Islam entry into Israel for "security
reasons." Sources said they believed the "security reasons" were that
Islam, who made extremist statements against Israel during a visit here
more than two years ago, was planning to meet with Palestinian leaders
during his scheduled five-day visit.
41, accompanied by his eight-year-old son, Mohammed, was told by
passport control that he was on a list of "undesirables" and could not
enter the country. Islam was "not surprised" by the news, which he took
very quietly, sources said. He and his son were taken to the departures
lounge, where they were treated "very politely," and boarded a British
Airways return flight to London.
turned Islam away again in 2000, saying that he had made large
donations to Hamas in the past. He arrived on a Lufthansa flight from
Frankfurt, and was held for several hours before being sent back to
Germany, GPO director Moshe Fogel said.
was a problem with allowing him into the country because he is a Hamas
supporter," Fogel said. "He didn't seem like he was coming here for a
summer holiday." Islam denied knowingly supporting Hamas or another
US – which had added Islam to a "watch list" - also denied the former
singer entry in 2004, citing "national security grounds." This provoked a
complaint by then-British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. The US
Secretary of State Colin Powell replied that the watchlist was under
review, and two years later Islam traveled to the US without trouble.
2009, he again drew Israeli criticism when he released a single "The
Day the World Gets Round" in aid of children in Gaza. Proceeds went to
charities and organizations including UNESCO, UNRWA and Save the
Children to aid children and families in the Strip following Operation
Cast Lead. Fox News quoted Israeli Consul David Saranga as saying, "It
is good Mr. Islam is interested in helping the children of Gaza," but
that "The children on the other side of the border should not be
forgotten, as well, and it would have been nice for their situation to
also be considered when Mr. Islam decided on the dedication of the
continues today to perform around the world, intertwining his
re-launched music career with peace and human rights activism, which
have garnered him numerous awards, both humanitarian and musical. The
voice of Cat Stevens lives on in both new albums and old, but the songs
of his second musical journey convey the morals and messages of Yusuf
Material from the Jerusalem Post archive was used in this article.