This Week In History: Cat Stevens no more

On December 23, 1977, legendary British singer-songwriter Cat Stevens converted to Islam.

Cat Stephens 370 (photo credit: Youssef Boudlal / Reuters)
Cat Stephens 370
(photo credit: Youssef Boudlal / Reuters)
On 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.A 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."Thus 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.Stevens, 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.With 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 focus.In 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.However, 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." Islam 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."The 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. Islam, 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.Israel 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."There 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 terror group.The 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.In 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 song." Islam 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 Islam.
Material from the Jerusalem Post archive was used in this article.