The singer Sami Yusuf is an icon to young people in the Islamic world, proof that you can be hip and pious - Mary Fitzgerald met him in Cairo.

With his carefully-styled hair, designer stubble, open-necked shirt and sharply-cut pinstriped suit, Sami Yusuf could almost pass for a former boy band member.

Sami Yusuf performing in Amman (Reuters)

In fact, his rather earnest personality, together with his clean-cut image and songs about his mother, somehow brings to mind Ronan Keating. Young, British and Muslim, Yusuf is fast becoming the closest thing the Islamic world has to a bona fide pop star, his songs about the Prophet Muhammad regularly topping the charts in Turkey, the Arab world and beyond.

Because he has presented himself in a way no other Muslim performer ever has, many young Muslims look up to Yusuf as proof that you can look hip, sound modern and still be a good Muslim.

His face looks down from countless billboards in several Arab countries, mobile phones ring with his songs and and his slickly-produced music videos are some of the most requested on local versions of MTV.

Even in conservative Saudi Arabia sales of his latest album have climbed past 100,000 copies. An appearance on al-Jazeera drew millions of viewers and his concerts sell out as fast as his manager can arrange them. This month his diary is filled with a string of dates in the US. As we sit chatting in a Cairo hotel lobby, a steady stream of young fans approaches for autographs and photos. But for all the success and adulation, he is uncomfortable with the celebrity tag and all it can imply. He's not entirely sure about the role model description often attached to him either.

And it's best not to mention that many have referred to him as some sort of Islamic pin-up, something he is not keen to encourage. A recent spat with Yvonne Ridley, the British journalist who was captured by the Taliban in 2001 and later converted to Islam, still rankles. She wrote a column lambasting Yusuf and other young Muslim musicians, claiming that they inspired "unIslamic" behaviour.

Referring to a Yusuf concert she attended in London, she wrote: "Sisters went wild in the aisles as some form of pop mania swept through the concert venue. And I'm not just talking about silly little girls who don't know any better; I am talking about sisters in their 20s, 30s and 40s, who squealed, shouted, swayed and danced . . .

"Apparently the sort of hysteria Sami helped encourage is also in America, and if it is happening on both sides of the Atlantic, then it must be creeping around the globe and poisoning the masses. Islamic boy bands like 786 and Mecca 2 Medina are also the subject of the sort of female adulation you expect to see on American Pop Idol or the X-Factor. Surely Islamic events should be promoting restrained and more sedate behaviour."

Her comments sparked a huge debate on the internet and in other Muslim publications. Yusuf declines to comment on the column, saying that he responded to Ridley's criticisms through a letter published on his website. He prefers to talk about his work. "I don't want to be seen as some kind of celebrity pop star because that's not what my music is about," he says. "But I'm not a preacher either. I'm an artist. My faith means everything to me and I want to share that as an artist."

At the same time he attributes much of his success to what he says is a chronic shortage of Muslims in the public eye who are truly representative.

"I think Muslims want to see not a celebrity, but some sort of famous Muslim personality that they could look to and say 'this is the guy who represents us instead of bin Laden and his crew'," he says.

"The problem we're facing now, particularly in the west, is that we don't have many positive Islamic role models, moderate role models. We have Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam and some others, but it's not enough. We don't have enough well-known Muslim personalities who are proud to be Muslim and proud to be part of whatever country they are from. People who are loyal to their country and their religion, people who are moderate and balanced and really represent the vast majority of Muslims.

"I feel so proud that I'm doing something for Muslims. I feel proud that I can represent my faith but at the same time make decent music and fill this vacuum."

Born in 1980 to parents from Azerbaijan, Yusuf grew up in London and first studied music under his father, a composer. From an early age he learned to play various instruments and at the age of 18 he won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Two years before that, he says, he experienced a religious awakening and became a more devout Muslim as a result.

In 2003, Yusuf released his first album entitled Al Mu'allim, a word that means "the teacher" in Arabic and is used as a reference to the Prophet Muhammad. In the album's cover notes, Yusuf described his music as stemming from "a deep conviction that we have a duty to provide an Islamic alternative for the Muslim youth that is vibrant and enjoyable to listen to and is produced to the highest standards of composition, singing, sound production and engineering, being in all these aspects a match for any albums produced by the western music industry and yet containing the beautiful teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)."

Along with his debut album came the release of what was hailed the first "Islamic music video" for the album's title track. The song shot to number one in several countries, staying there for 21 weeks in Egypt and for 12 weeks in Turkey.

Combining English, Arabic and Turkish lyrics, most of Yusuf's songs deal with faith and love for family. His current album, however, grapples with more controversial issues such as terrorism, extremism, human rights and Aids. Called My Ummah, a reference to the Muslim community of believers, the album includes a song called Muhammad which condemns violence in the name of Islam. The song is dedicated to those killed in the Beslan school siege in 2004.

The album also features a track defending Muslim women's right to wear the Islamic headscarf, or hijab. This track was, he says, inspired by the situation in France, where state schools have banned the veil along with other religious symbols.

"I was doing a concert in France when a girl approached me and said: 'Please do something on the hijab, you don't know how much we're suffering'," he explains.

Yusuf loves to talk tolerance and integration, regularly attending major conferences on the issue in Europe and the Middle East. He is very much in demand with those who want to put a popular face on mainstream, moderate Islam. But, he points out, what that "moderate" tag means - for Muslims and non-Muslims - can be difficult to pin down.

He tells the story of being stopped by security officials at Houston Airport in the US and asked what kind of Muslim he was. "A moderate one", I replied, and they said to me: "Oh, so you drink alcohol then?"
"That was their idea of a moderate Muslim - unbelievable. Really, we have a long way to go in many respects."
Yusuf does not shy away from acknowledging and highlighting how far his fellow Muslims may have to travel too.

"We need to make a change and start integrating," he says. "We're living in this country, say Britain or Ireland, and we're enjoying the rights available here. If we don't like it, then we should leave. It's about being productive, not destructive.

"People can be very traditional in the Muslim world. Many don't want to think out of their own cultural space. I'm not saying that's wrong, it's just not really applicable in our day and age. We're living in a world that, whether we like it or not, is very individualistic, where everyone is thinking for themselves and doing their own thing. That can be good and it can be bad, but it's the reality. We, as Muslims, need to dare to think. You know, there is a lot of anger out there, on both sides. I think we live in a world where this idea of 'you're either with us or against us' is gaining ground. This is very dangerous. We don't need this intolerant 'I'm right and you're wrong' philosophy. We need to celebrate what we have in common and learn to co-exist."

As a British Muslim, he remembers the London bombings last year as particularly difficult. "I'm proud to be Muslim and British. For me, being British complements my faith, it doesn't run against it. I was brought up in London and I have always loved its multicultural identity, so the bombings really hurt me on a personal level.
"The people who engage in this sort of violence want to bring confusion, hurt and anger to Muslims and non-Muslims, to create division and tension - that is their intention. The vast majority of Muslims detest, condemn and resent these actions as inhumane."

As for the future, Yusuf says he doesn't want to be pigeonholed and hopes to bring his music to a wider audience. "I've had so many positive responses from non-Muslims who like the meditative nature of some of my work," he explains.

A big fan of U2, he confides that he would love to work with Bono at some stage. "Who knows," he says. "What I would most hope for is that some day the world will see Muslims like me, and there are many, many of us, doing what we do and think 'that is Islam'."

© The Irish Times 2006