With God in his heart and the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh at his side, British-born singing sensation Sami Yusuf is taking the world by storm — and even has non-Muslims humming his tunes — but don’t make the mistake of calling the widely acclaimed ‘King of Islamic Pop’ a preacher.

By Hadia Mostafa

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HE HAS THE GOOD looks, chart-topping music and stylish video clips of a bona fide pop star, but sings about God, the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and the inherently peaceful message of Islam. Today, both the devout and the non-religious have taken notice of the musically gifted, British-born 25-year-old, who has proven himself to be more than just a one-hit wonder.

In 2005, his website, www.samiyusuf.com, recorded more than 2 million visitors. The live chats he hosts every six months have attracted fans from around the world; 4,000 people tried to participate in the last one, which took place in early February, and the site was shut down for two days afterward to upgrade to a more robust server able to meet the demand.

Children love his catchy tunes, parents applaud his integrity, and the teenagers and twenty-somethings who make up the bulk of his fan base have taken Yusuf as their new role model.

The secret of Yusuf’s success? He presents himself in a way that no other Muslim performer ever has, proclaiming that you can look hip, sound cool and still be a good Muslim. That approach has made him a pop idol throughout the Muslim world, where youth and adults alike have bought into his message of a moderate lifestyle that embraces ‘modern’ amusements while glorifying God.

The region’s budding boy bands are taking notice after word spread throughout Egypt of the thousands of (mostly female) fans who recently descended on Virgin Megastore in Heliopolis for the launch of his new CD, My Ummah: God is cool. Sami Yusuf is someone Muslim fans can really relate to; he’s one of their own and they are proud of him and what he stands for.

As trite as it sounds, little of Yusuf’s success appears to have gone to his head: Yusuf as the ‘public personality’ is indistinguishable from Yusuf the ‘private citizen.’ He speaks as he sings — from the heart. Casually dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt, his unpretentious nature comes through loud and clear before he even utters a single word.

Unlike some Islamist figures now in the spotlight, he has no problem shaking a woman’s hand and looking me straight in the eye. “I never intended to become a role model,” says Yusuf. “I’m just trying to do my best and make the best music I can. The fact that I get recognized and people like what I do is overwhelming. The love is overwhelming. But my fans don’t just love me because I’m a singer; it’s because I talk about things that are dear to them. They love me because I am proud of my faith.”

Yusuf, whose family originally comes from Azerbaijan, was born and raised in the United Kingdom and claims that when he first embarked on Al-Mu’allim, he was targeting Muslims living in the West. Both his lyrics and music swing back and forth between East and West in a manner that reflects the stew of cultures in which he grew up.

“I wanted to give Muslims living in the West some kind of identity, something that would help make them proud of Islam; alhamdulillah we have succeeded in doing that. What I didn’t expect was that my music would become such a hit in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, where the Islamic identity is already very strong,” says Yusuf. “I think people here have embraced my music because of the values that it portrays. In the video for Al-Mu’allim it was clear that it was all about values that transcend the rigid structures of religion. It’s not just about haram, halal and fiqh,” he adds.

Yusuf extended a planned trip to Egypt into the first two weeks of February as the British Embassy in Cairo, in cooperation with British Petroleum (BP), hosted the Nazra Festival, a delegation of British Muslims working in various fields including the media, art, music, politics and business to discuss what it means to be a Muslim in Britain. The festival included a number of open debates, online discussions and performances by British Muslim artists including Yusuf.

The video for “Hasbi Rabbi” took Yusuf to England, India, Turkey and Egypt. “The Nazra Festival is really about British Muslims and their contribution in every field. It’s a great initiative. The UK is very unique in that it promotes multiculturalism.

I feel more British than Azeri or anything else, and the reason that I love England so much, other than that it is my home, is because the values that it holds dear are values that we hold dear as Muslims. These are the universal values of diversity and respect for others, regardless of their faith or race,” says Yusuf. “Yes, discrimination exists on some level but the problems are minimal.”

“Even after the 7/7 bombings, there was no widespread violence toward Muslims. Instead, the reaction was one of calm and reflection. I think that the vast majority of the people in the UK realized that the perpetrators of such a catastrophe cannot represent the religion of over a billion people. They represent a loud minority who have lost their mind. What they did was entirely un-Islamic and inhumane.”

Yusuf claims that growing up as a Muslim in the UK was as difficult in some respects as it was easy in others.
“I went to a public school in England, so naturally you see a lot of things that you just have to abstain from, but I think ultimately I had it easy because I was free to think, which is one thing many Muslims growing up in Muslim countries don’t allow themselves to do.

God says in the Qur’an that people who know are the people who ponder. I think one of the problems that we have in the Muslim world among youth is that they are scared to think, afraid that thinking will lead them to doubt their religion. It’s not true. There is nothing wrong with thinking. I think it’s the whole system in the Arab world that discourages thinking — not only on issues of religion.”

Although Yusuf calls himself “a proud Brit,” he admits he doesn’t always agree with his country’s foreign policy. “There’s good and bad everywhere, we just have to be fair and objective enough to acknowledge that.”
Yusuf’s new album tackles a range of musical styles and hot issues facing Muslims today.A Preacher He’s Not
If there is one thing Yusuf hates, it is to be called ‘preachy.’ In the course of our two interviews last month, he made it very clear that he is not preaching anything to anyone.

“We are living in a day and age where individualism is held in very high regard. No one likes to be preached to, including me. I’m very comfortable with the ‘do your own thing’ philosophy. I am just an artist sharing his culture, identity and beliefs through his art,” explains Yusuf.

With a voice and talent that could lend themselves to any musical style, Yusuf chose to wade into uncharted waters when he came out with Al-Mu’allim. Asked if it was his strong religious beliefs that kept him from trying for a mainstream pop-music career, Yusuf says he always wanted to do something with music that was “dignified and respectable.”

Al-Mu’allim was the outcome. An avid composer, Yusuf can play “nine or ten instruments,” but considers himself adept in only four. “For something to be commercially successful and at the same time dignified and balanced is a very difficult formula. Art these days has been hijacked by the commercial world. For a long time I just forgot about music as a career. I was going to study law at King’s College, but I picked music in the end.”
Yusuf considers what he is doing now to be a form of pop music.

“It’s popular and people are listening to it, so it’s pop,” he says. His current hit single, “Hasbi Rabbi,” which he sings in Turkish, Hindu, English and Arabic, is not only popular in Egypt and countries where the Islamic identity is strong; it has also topped the Turkish charts.

“Turkey, of course, is a very secular country, but they loved the song. Every artist throughout history has shared his ideas through his art. That’s why people write and compose. It’s a means of self-expression. Take the “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven, for example: It was inspired by his feelings. When one listens to my songs, there will be a strong Islamic feel to them. It is because Islam is important to me, not because I am ‘an Islamic artist’.” Yusuf claims that his next album will probably be more mainstream. “There will be songs about the Prophet (PBUH) because I love him very much and he will always be the baraka of my albums, but there will definitely be songs that just talk about humanity at large.”

“I do not come from an excessively religious family, though. I had a very normal Islamic upbringing and graduated from a normal public school in England. I used to pray on and off until I became ‘more practicing’ at the age of 16. My father was always very spiritual and a great lover of the Qur’an and the writings of Sufi poets such as Rumi, so the spiritual influence was always there,” says Yusuf.

Al-Mu’allim’s anasheed-style music and lyrics have a clear Sufi feel throughout, particularly on tracks such as “Allahu.” “I wouldn’t label myself as a Sufi in the negative sense that I hold my faith inside my heart and I’m withdrawn from the outside world,” he quickly adds. “That’s definitely not it, but if you look at the historical context of spirituality and Sufism, you will find that they play a huge part in our faith. The greatest of sahaba (companions of the Prophet (PBUH)) and the greatest of Muslims were Sufis in the proper understanding of the term. Tasawuf (Sufism) definitely plays an important part of my life, but so do other things.”

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