Y Magazine

Song of a Preacher Man

Sami Yusuf, singer and musician, just made his debut performance in Oman
Words: Kate Ginn
Give us a snapshot of who you are?
I grew up in Britain, have Persian roots (I was born in Tehran), a home in Dubai, and think of Egypt as my second home (I lived there for four years). I’m a British citizen who has been going round the world trying to connect people to the Almighty through music.
Since releasing your first album at the age of 23, you’ve sold more than 15 million albums globally. Religion underpins all your music. So are you a preacher or a musician with a message?
I think that in the world that we live in, we can divide the time into pre-modern and modern. With pre-modern, or traditional, everything is connected to the sacred. Today, we are living in a time of forgetfulness. Since 2003 (the release of first album Al-Mu’allim – The Teacher), through my humble words, I have been trying to remind myself, and my listeners, of this. That’s what is important – engaging people to entertain and connect them to the sacred, to the world in spirit.
You were raised in London and have talked about how you reconnected with your Islamic faith after a ‘religious awakening’ at the age of 16. Tell us about that.
Growing up in England, we didn’t have a cultural pressure to conform, we were left to follow whatever path we wanted. But the Islamic faith was always in my soul, it’s embedded. I’m not ever going to shy away from it; it’s who I am. Lots of other singers can talk about their latest music video but I talk about my beliefs.
You are considered to be one of the biggest messengers of love, hope and peace in the Islamic world, and coined the genre ‘Spiritique’. What is this?
My works are inspired by the Holy Quran, peace, and spirituality. I personally believe that spirituality can add so much value; it can connect us to higher things. I don’t say that I make Islamic music; otherwise you preclude everyone who isn’t Muslim.
We loved your show in Muscat last week. How did it feel to appear for the first time in Oman?
I can honestly say that it was like coming home. I came to Oman with my wife during Eid last year and we found it enchanting and beautiful. I love the traditional houses, the clothes and the mountains. I was delighted to be appearing here for the first time. I hope the music was searching and uplifting, something that everyone could connect to. Oman feels like a very real country; it’s not trying to be something that it’s not.
There is unrest across the Middle East, where you have a huge following. What do you think needs to be done to bring about stability in the region?
That’s a political question. I’m not a politician and I’m not qualified to answer these questions. Sometimes it’s better to not get involved if you don’t know what you are doing. It’s not my job. Of course, violence of any kind is totally unacceptable but all I can do is pray and do these types of events. It’s a very difficult time that we are living in. It’s a game and I don’t fight politics, not because I want to be safe but because I know that a lot of it isn’t to be taken at face value.
Last month, you released a song, Silent Words, to help raise awareness about the plight of Syrian refugees. Do you think your music can help? 
I pray from the bottom of my heart for all the refugees in Syria. I have been very sad about the tragedies occurring in Syria ever since the problems first started. However, the catalyst for writing the song came about during my trip to the Zaatari Camp in Jordan in my capacity as Celebrity Partner for the United Nations World Food Programme. While at the camp, I asked how I could help and a middle-aged lady responded ‘Sami, just sing for us. We will survive this. Just sing a song so the whole world will know of our suffering.’ This left a profound impression on me. I was so touched by the dignity and honour of the Syrian people at the refugee camp. They are resilient and strong people known for never giving up.
Can you share any other thoughts on the issue?
My record, Wherever You Are (released October 2010), was quite a sad album. It came from my own personal experiences when I had been very hurt. What’s happening in the Arab world is the same. What I felt at a micro level is now being felt at a macro level. The new album, Salaam, is very relevant to what’s happening today. I wanted to release it for everyone in Cairo and the Arab world. They are feeling weak and sad. I am saying ‘don’t worry, things will get better.’
So people see you as the modern face of Islam. Do you agree?
I’m not modern. I’m traditional. Modernity is Osama bin Laden. Total modernity, no one knows where it comes from. A lot of problems, such as the environmental crisis, consumerism, are not due to religion but a lack of religion, and ignorance and a lack of knowledge.
Do you think your music has changed the Western view of Islam?
The modern world does not like religion. Whatever you do, no matter how much you water down your beliefs, it will not be accepted. I would love to wear traditional clothes but in reality, we live in a world where religion is not accepted. You don’t sell your soul, though. I’m very happy with who I am.
Getting the message out there means using social media. We notice that you have 237,416 followers on Twitter. Is that a good thing?
I’m not a big fan of social media. I do it because I need to. It’s good for talking to fans and supporters. The problem is that is breeds a competition or battle for figures. It’s a mentality that has led to number chasing, putting quantity before quality. It’s not just celebrities but governments and politicians. It’s become about who can show off at
all costs.
You’ve been described as ‘Islam’s biggest rock star’ and the most famous Muslim in the world. How does that feel?
I never expected fame. I do feel very uncomfortable with the ‘pop star’ and ‘rock star’ labels. I don’t mind people using them as I understand why but I’m much more humble. I’m blessed to have travelled most of the world and met all sorts of people, but I never sought anything.
You sing in Arabic and English. What languages can you speak?
I understand Turkish, Persian, Urdu and Hindi and I’ve got a good Arabic vocabulary. I studied Arabic for a while. It’s such a beautiful language but it’s a question of finding the opportunity to use it. When you have a home in Dubai you don’t hear Arabic spoken much.
What’s in the pipeline for you?
I’ve been asked to write a score for a film, which is very exciting, and I’ll be working with humanitarian charities. I have also set up my own foundation to foster good relations between the faiths.
Music is your life. You started performing at the age of nine and once sung in front of a record crowd of 250,000 in Istanbul. If you had to give up either music or religion, which one would it be? 
If I had to choose one, it would be music, 100 per cent. Music is just an extension of what I feel inside.
What sort of music do you like to listen to?
I love classical music. If the music of man is Lady Gaga, then the music of heaven is Bach.