A singer who has achieved fame in the Middle East with songs about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) says his music is quenching a thirst for spirituality in pop.

Sami Yusuf combines English, Arabic and Turkish lyrics with Middle Eastern and Western instruments in his songs.

Brought up in London, of Azeri descent, 25-year-old Yusuf has achieved celebrity status in Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt.

"Spirituality is missing in the vast majority of most songs," Yusuf says. "The art world has been hijacked by the commercial environment. That's why we have a vacuum in producing positive art with positive messages, promoting good values."

Yusuf says he is not a preacher and that he recorded his first album, "Al-Muallim", for Muslim minorities in the West, who he says are in need of role models from their own faith.

Confused youth

"In the West, we don't have enough Islamic celebrities who would make minority Muslims proud," he says. "In my father's time we had Cat Stevens, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali. Now you find that a lot of people think: 'Islam. Ah, Osama bin Laden,' You find some youth who are confused, who might feel disillusioned."

Although it was mainly aimed at Muslims in the West, "Al-Muallim" has sold widely across the entire Muslim world. The title is the Arabic word for teacher and is a reference to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

"We were shocked when we realised it had become a success in Egypt, and not just in Egypt, in the whole Muslim world," Yusuf said during a recent tour in Cairo.

He says his work is popular in Arab countries because both the arrangement and lyrics offer listeners something new and different from Arabic pop, which typically deals with love and romance.

'New concepts'

"We need something different - new concepts in the Arab world. I feel that a lot of the messages, if there are any messages, are just a blind imitation of the West"

Sami Yusuf

"We need something different - new concepts in the Arab world. I feel that a lot of the messages, if there are any messages, are just a blind imitation of the West."

Yusuf plays several instruments including the violin, piano and the Arabic lute. His style at times evokes a traditional form of Islamic chanting called nasheed.

He refuses to label himself with one particular genre and says he is "blending Western harmonies with Eastern modes. You'll find a lot of Turkish influences, Arabic, Western and Indian. I want to show that Islam represents a huge amount of people and cultures.î

Yusuf's second album "My Ummah" was released last year.

Hijab defence

It includes a song called "Muhammad" condemning violence in the name of Islam. The song is dedicated to people killed in 2004 in a bloodbath at a school in the Russian town of Beslan.

"My Ummah" also includes "Free", which defends Muslim women's right to wear the Islamic headscarf, or hijab. French state schools banned the veil along with other religious symbols in schools in 2004.

"I was doing a concert in France and a girl approached me and said: 'Please do something on the hijab, you don't know how much we're suffering.' It's not just for people who are wearing hijab. It's for civil liberties," Yusuf says.

The singer says his second album is less dedicated to Islam than the first. "I hope to launch my next albums in mainstream Western pop"

© al-Jazeera 2005