Meet Islam's Biggest Rock Star

  • Share
  • Read Later
REUTERS

Sami Yusuf in concert in Amman, Jordan, July 2006

The concert hall is charged with anticipation. The 5,000 Arabs in the audience break into deafening cheers, stomp their feet, clap their hands and chant "Sa-mi! Sa-mi!" until at last the lights go down. The orchestra swells and Sami Yusuf, 26, emerges through billows of smoke, dressed in a chic black suit and white open-collar shirt. Catching sight of him, the crowd goes crazy, screaming and whistling as though Elvis just entered the building. But when Yusuf begins to sing, it's clear he's not quite like other rock stars. "Peace and salutations upon you, O Messenger of God," he croons. And for all the palpable excitement in the audience, an unspoken decorum is observed. The heartfelt cheering and singing never spills over into co-ed dancing in the aisles — after all, that could be considered a violation of Islamic law.

Some scholars of Islamic law even argue that playing music at all is forbidden, but — despite being a devout Muslim — Yusuf believes Islam values art and music. "Islam is all for modernity and all that is good and beautiful in this world," he says. Yusuf is Islam's answer to Christian rock. His hit songs, which he writes himself, range from upbeat tunes about love for the Prophet Muhammad to soulful ballads mourning the suffering of Palestinians, Iraqis and Sudanese. And while staying true to causes that are dear to Muslim hearts, he is channeling his fans away from extremism with a message of moderation, tolerance, patience and most of all, hope.

During performances in Jordan and Syria in advance of his U.S. tour, which started last week in a series of benefit concerts organized by Islamic Relief International in Los Angeles, Dallas, New Jersey, Chicago and Detroit, Yusuf passionately sang and spoke about the current Middle East crisis. "Our hearts, our minds, our souls are with our brothers and sisters in Palestine and in Lebanon," he said to thundering applause in Amman University's Arena Hall before dedicating his next song to all those suffering in the Middle East. "As Allah says in the Quran, 'With hardship, there comes ease and comfort.' God willing, dawn is near, and night will pass. We should never lose hope."

Thanks in part to his willingness to tackle hot political topics other pop stars will not touch, Yusuf's fame is growing. Everywhere he goes in the Middle East, he is trailed by admirers who press him with pocket-sized Qurans, neatly folded notes and flowers. One Jordanian dentist even offered to clean his teeth for free. In Yusuf's home base of Cairo, he can no longer walk down the street unmolested. "The attachment people have to Sami is beyond celebrity," observes Sharif Hasan al-Banna, co-founder of the singer's Awakening Records music label. "People are always coming up to him or writing him to say 'Your music inspired us, your music changed us.'" In many ways, it is his commitment to defending Arab and Muslim causes through his music that heartens youth who are discouraged by their sense of helplessness in the face of current events. "After what has been going on in Gaza, Lebanon and all these countries, he's singing about this, and that's really perfect," says Diana Nassar, 17, a Jordanian student in a hot pink headscarf who sang along from her seat in the Amman audience.

"We're going through this very difficult period," Yusuf told TIME as he sat in the backseat of a black Humvee on his way to a rehearsal in Amman. "Muslims feel victimized." But Yusuf does not believe conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims is inevitable. "I don't believe there's a clash of civilizations. I believe there's a clash of the uncivilized. We need a wave of people to come along and bridge the gaps, because we have so much in common, so much to learn from each other. We need to silence the extremists. Let's hope the moderates will take the microphone and be louder."

A British citizen born in Iran to Azeri parents, Yusuf spent most of his life in London. Like his music, he is a fusion of East and West. A devotee of Bach, Chopin, U2, and Sting, Yusuf studied Middle Eastern and classical music with his composer father and instructors at the Royal Academy in London. He feels it is a Muslim duty to speak out against oppression no matter the religion of the victims. His songs have criticized Muslim rebels for the Beslan massacre of schoolchildren in Chechnya and France’s government for banning headscarves in public schools.

Despite the Beatle-like frenzy that sweeps crowds at his concerts, a closer look reveals that Yusuf is a different kind of pop singer. His boy-band good looks are framed by the close-cropped beard of an observant Muslim. He sings about God's love, never romantic love. His backup singers are all men. His screaming fans include not just star-struck young women in head scarves, but teenage boys in blue jeans and gelled hair, old men in traditional Arab robes, and middle-aged moms bouncing toddlers on their knees.

Yusuf's first two albums sold more than a million and a half copies, topping the charts across the Arab world and Turkey. His latest hit song, "Hasbi Rabbi" (My Lord is Sufficient), is the top-selling ring tone in the region, heard whenever cell phones go off in cabs and cafes from Cairo to Damascus. But the real sensation is Yusuf's slickly produced, MTV-style music videos, which consistently register as the top most-requested on Middle Eastern music TV channels. The videos depict the singer as a model Muslim citizen who visits the mosque, tends to his aging parents, interacts comfortably with his British colleagues at a fictional London office, and still manages to come across as cool.

To his fans, it's not just the music, but the message. "You can listen to it like any pop song, but the lyrics are different, more meaningful," says Falah Hannoun, 25, who attended the Amman concert sporting a trim beard and wire-rim glasses. "You feel closer to God and your religion." Bara Kherigi, Yusuf's childhood friend and lyricist, believes the singer strikes a chord with young Muslims who do not feel represented by the offerings in the mainstream media. "They see singers, male or female, just dancing, living the high life, and that's not them," Kherigi explains. "Or they see some clip of Bin Laden preaching to them and speaking in an extreme way that doesn't represent them either. When they see Sami, they are saying, 'Wow. Finally, someone is on TV doing something that kind of resembles my life.'"

Not that all pious Muslims are fans. Yvonne Ridley, a British reporter who was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan and became a radical Muslim convert upon her release, recently lambasted Yusuf for "poisoning the masses" by encouraging "excessive behavior which demeans Islam." In her view, Yusuf's call for East-West coexistence is a "pipe dream." Yet the need for cross-cultural understanding and dialogue is precisely the message Yusuf is bringing on his U.S. tour, and it should get a warm reception. After all, even if his particular brand of religious music may not have a wide enough appeal to crack the mainstream American charts, most people are likely to cheer Yusuf's upbeat tune, which could use a lot more airplay these dark days.