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.
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.
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 . . .
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',"
"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
"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
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
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',"
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 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,"
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