BROOKLYN – His name is now Yusuf Islam and he is a practicing Muslim. He was born Steven Georgiou, to a Greek-Cypriot Greek Orthodox father and a Swedish Baptist mother.
But he remains best known by the name he used during an illustrious career as one of the most popular and acclaimed singer-songwriters of the 1970s: Cat Stevens. He is revered for his selfless dedication to peace and humanitarian initiatives, yet vilified for having supported the execution of a novelist.
And on April 11, more than 35 years after his 1978 abandoning of a spectacular musical career to immerse himself more truly in the faith of Islam, to which he had converted in late 1977, Cat Stevens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Born in 1948 in London, Stevens was only 18 upon the release of his first album, Matthew and Son. The title track climbed to Number 2 on the UK Pop Music charts, and his career soared like a meteor. His follow-up album, New Masters, released later that year disappointed in sales, but was critically-acclaimed years later, earning him songwriting awards years later when other artists, including Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow, covered the song “The First Cut is the Deepest.”
Spending much of 1969 in a hospital recovering from tuberculosis, it was then that Stevens began contemplating life and spirituality in a deeper sense, and reading about religions other than Christianity, including Islam.
After recuperating and releasing Mona Bone Jackson, five tremendously popular albums followed from 1970-74: Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat, Catch Bull at Four, Foreigner, and Buddha and the Chocolate Box. Three albums followed in the mid-to-late seventies: Numbers, Izitso, and Back to Earth, none equaling the previous five in terms of sales, though Stevens remained extremely popular and highly-regarded.
He nearly drowned while swimming at Malibu Beach, CA in 1977 and Stevens vowed at that moment, if God saved him, he would devote his life to serving God. Thus, Stevens converted to Islam and shortly thereafter took the name Yusuf Islam. Believing that some aspects of the music business, inundated with temptations of fame, fortune, vanity, and glory, were contrary to the teachings of the Quran, he retired from music altogether, renounced his material possessions, and dedicated much of his time to promoting peace and advocating for humanitarian causes.
Ironically, though he had devoted his life to striving to promote peace, Stevens found himself mired in a series of controversies from the late 1980s through the post 9/11 era. In 1988, author Salman Rushdie published a book called The Satanic Verses, which included some unflattering passages about the Islam founder and central figure, the prophet Muhammad. As a result, on February 14, 1989 – Valentine’s Day, a day of love and romance celebrated worldwide – Iran’s leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, notorious for having held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, issued a fatwa (legal decision) ordering Rushdie’s execution. Khomeini died less than four months after issuing the fatwa, and some Islamic law scholars contend that a fatwa may only be revoked by the person who instituted it. Accordingly, it can never be officially withdrawn, although Rushdie himself no longer believes it to be valid – and thinks any continuing fatwa of his execution nowadays is merely rhetorical and symbolic.
But around the time of Khomeini’s fatwa, Stevens made comments that many interpreted as being supportive of it, such as if he knew where Rushdie was, he would have tried to contact Khomeini to tell him. Would he set an effigy of Rushdie on fire, Stevens was asked? “No,” he said “I’d rather it be the real thing.” Though Stevens’ own words remain alive through Internet archives, Stevens, paradoxically, repeatedly denies being in favor of any decision to kill Rushdie, and was merely reiterating Islamic law.
Stevens issued a statement following the September 11, 2001 attacks, expressing “heartfelt horror at the indiscriminate terrorist attacks” and clearly proclaiming that that no right-thinking follower of Islam could possibly condone such an action. The Quran equates the murder of one innocent person with the murder of the whole of humanity.”
Nonetheless, while attempting to fly into the United States in 2004 to meet with country singer Dolly Parton, Stevens was denied entry because it appeared he was on a no-fly list. It turned out, they were looking for a “Youssef Islam,” whereas Stevens’ name is Yusuf Islam.
Two British newspapers, the Sun and the Sunday Times, claimed that Stevens had supported terrorism. Stevens sued both publications for libel and won, maintaining that he never knowingly supported any terrorist organization. He unwittingly had given money to the terrorist group Hamas without knowing their true purpose or causes – he thought he was supporting a humanitarian organization.
Stevens contended how entirely unfounded those claims were, especially since he had just received a Man of Peace award from a committee comprised of Nobel Laureates.
ON SECOND THOUGHT…
Stevens returned to performing music in the 1990s, having sensed that his decision to leave the music business was too rash, too harsh, too extreme, and based on an incorrect understanding of Islam. With encouragement from much of the Muslim world, he began recording albums again, including An Other Cup in 2006 and Roadsinger in 2009.
HALL OF FAME
Steven Georgiou aka Cat Stevens aka Yusuf Islam is now a senior citizen – he’s 65 – but it seems that he has much, much more to give in terms of music and peace. On April 11, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, appropriately by one of his contemporaries in era and genre, Art Garfunkel.
Stevens delighted the audience with the “Wild World,” perhaps the quintessential Cat Stevens song. “You know I’ve seen a lot of what the world can do, and it’s breakin’ my heart in two” are lyrics from that song, which he wrote in 1970, perhaps an early indicator of the life he has devoted to peace.