Cat Stevens: 'They have hijacked my religion'

The events of 11 September were the fruit of 'blind irreligious hatred': Yusuf Islam, formerly the singer Cat Stevens, explains why the attacks had nothing to do with Muslim beliefs
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The Independent Online

My personal page in the history of Islam was added in 1977 (which corresponds to 1398 of the Hijri calendar), when news first broke that I had become a Muslim, 24 years before the world-shaking events of Tuesday 11 September 2001. Sadly for all of us, since then the world seems to have lost its balance: a violent group attacked innocent civilians, hijacked a religion and a large army is out hunting for their blood.

It seems that someone like me, having seen life from both sides – East and West – is appropriately placed to confront certain myths and to try to reduce the demonisation of a religion that is still appallingly misrepresented.

Like other Westerners, I was wary of approaching Islam. But after being given an English translation of the Koran in my late twenties, I discovered something different from the negative images portrayed. As well as belief in the one God of this universe, it was quite a revelation to find that the word Islam itself came from salam or "peace" – a notion light years away from the violence and destruction we have all seen in recent weeks.

Scanning the pages of the Koran, I was amazed how close Islam was to my religious upbringing as a child. Prayer and charity, paradise and angels were mentioned; the Gospel and Torah of Jesus and Moses respectively were referred to. Soon, the Koran was carrying me beyond home and customary landscapes to a new religious shore inhabited by people of whom I had always been told to be suspicious – Arabs and Muslims.

But, surprisingly, the Koran was full of stories and instruction from the history of mankind as a whole. It did not speak in favour of one special race against others. It said that although we may be from different countries and tribes, we are all human, born of the same original parents, Adam and Eve. The Koran says: "The best of people are the most God-conscious."

In 1977 I was listening, and quietly decided to embrace Islam. Since then, I have continued to be surprised by how little people know about a religion of more than a billion fellow humans. After the nightmare of 11 September and what has followed, it's vital that people understand more about Muslim beliefs – not just the views of the extremists.

Most newcomers to a faith go through an initially zealous phase – call it "born again" – followed by a period of measure and maturity. Muhammad Ali is a good example of that learning curve. I was no different. All I wanted was a happy, trouble-free life, which meant a change to my environment, as far away from the showbiz lights as possible. I stopped drinking but still continued to make records in the studio. Naturally, what the public didn't see was my spiritual growth, subtly softening the ragged edges of my character.

Meanwhile, I was still quietly learning about Islam. Married in 1979, within a few months I received the glad tidings: my wife was expecting. Unicef asked me to do a benefit concert for the Year of the Child – divinely timed by my reckoning.

Following that, I announced the end of my career as Cat Stevens and sold all my instruments, giving the proceeds to charity. Having assumed my new name – Yusuf (as in the story of Joseph, son of Jacob) Islam – I grew my beard slightly longer and donned long white clothes; an image which to the untrained eye looks shockingly similar to their idea of public enemy number one. This is another good reason why in-depth explanations about the meaning of Islam, beyond the shallow images, are desperately needed.

But at that time, and for years afterwards, I was too busy raising a family and establishing schools for Muslim children to stop and explain. I didn't realise how vital communication with the public was. At that time most of the media didn't seem very interested in my new life anyway; they were waiting for another sensational headline. That came ungraciously with the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.

Still a relatively new Muslim, but being a well-known personality, I was invited to join a letter campaign requesting the publishers of the controversial novel to think again. They ignored the plea.

Suddenly the media tried linking me to supporting the latest fatwa issued from Iran. The fact is that I never supported the fatwa. Such is the irony. You wouldn't ask a Christian to deny one of the Ten Commandments; equally, as a new Muslim, I couldn't deny that the Koran – just like Leviticus in the Bible – forbade blasphemy and stated that if there is no repentance, it is a capital offence.

But what most people – and that includes many Muslims – fail to recognise is that the Koran repeatedly calls on believers to repent, to uphold the rule of civility and not to take the law into their own hands. So clerics and extremists who call for the assassination of civilians outside the recognised bounds of the Islamic state without due process are wholly out of line with the limits and spirit of Islam. The Koran again states: "And do not let your hatred of some people cause you to transgress [the law]."

I released a statement clarifying my position, but the press preferred to ignore it – perhaps for them it didn't go far enough. I was still learning, ill-prepared and lacking in knowledge and confidence to speak out against forms of extremism. But time taught me to try to avoid making that same mistake again.

The Koran expressly declares: "If anyone kills a person, except (through due legal process) for murder or spreading discord on the earth, it will be as if he has killed the whole of humanity."

Today, I am aghast at the horror of recent events and feel it a duty to speak out. Not only did terrorists hijack planes and destroy life, they also hijacked the beautiful religion of Islam and split the brother-and-sisterhood of mankind, many of whom are still sorrowfully ignorant and unaware of each other. The targeting of unsuspecting civilians going about their daily work was energised by nothing but blind irreligious hatred. Yet we should remember that this kind of atrocity has been a common occurrence, year on year, in many lands. My personal experience of the prolonged suffering and death inflicted on Bosnia at the end of the last century is something that I will not easily forget.

However, it is also good to hear spiritual and political leaders across all countries and cultural divides making it clear that such acts of murder as witnessed in the US have nothing to do with the universal beliefs of Muslims; and it is important that retaliation does not become a representation of Christian wrath. What we need now is for the whole world to rally for justice for everybody, and not just revenge.

The Koran states: "Repel evil with what is better and he, between whom and you was hatred, will become as a warm bosom-friend."

So out of the shadows of death, positive signs were arising. Tragedies can sometimes help break down the barriers of prejudice. In Chicago, three days after the attack, non-Muslim neighbours – Christian and otherwise – held hands in a circle to form a human chain around a mosque in which Muslims were praying. That chain, in the form of humanitarian aid, should stretch to those innocent and blameless people of Afghanistan and all fellow human beings like them who are now being bombed and barely surviving on the knife-edge between life and death.

If humanity can be revived through honour and deeds of compassion and charity, it is hoped that the tragedies of the past will herald a new tomorrow. The struggle to teach universal spiritual values is always going to be an astronomical task, and it's one I've been involved in for many years, through the establishment of faith-based schools in Britain and elsewhere. I was delighted that, in 1997, the British government finally agreed to give our primary school in London state funding. Previously, such funding only went to schools for Christian and Jewish children. A multi-faith society is possible; an educated and tolerant world doesn't have to be a distant dream.

Changing global paradigms certainly isn't easy. For some years now, I have been working with others to produce a catalogue of educational and entertaining CDs, videos and books through my Mountain of Light company. Our hope is to dispel the myths that have hidden the true picture and beauty of Islam, and to introduce noble principles that are so lacking in our material world.

As well as new works, I have been involved in compiling collections of my songs as Cat Stevens and showing the link between my past and my present life. I felt that I still owed something to those loyal followers of my words and music. I have also decided that royalties from the new box-set release in the US will go to the WTC Fund, as well as helping orphans and homeless families in war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan.

I belonged to that idealistic movement that grew up in the Sixties and Seventies with undiminished dreams and hopes for a more peaceful world. There are multitudes of people around the world who don't want more war and destruction. And I, as a Muslim, am still one of those.

Instead of talking about "them and us" we should avoid the dialogue of war, whether it comes from Al Qa'ida, the Pentagon or anywhere else. Such talk leaves no room for law-abiding conscientious objectors, humanitarian aid-workers or peacemakers – all of whom could unitedly remain faithfully anti-terrorist as well as anti-war.

The last prophet of God, Muhammad, peace be upon him, said: "A believer remains within the scope of his religion as long as he doesn't kill another person illegally." He also prophesied times of tribulation and trials, saying: "The one sitting will be better than the one standing." Such words are urgently needed now to relight a lamp of clarity in these dark times, and to recognise the definition of that which makes a person representative or otherwise of the faith that all the noble prophets of God taught, and that I try to follow.

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