Coming to Islam in my late twenties, after years as a wandering pop star, one of the first interesting things I learnt was that the word Islam itself comes from salam or peace. It is a faith far away from the violence, destruction and terrorism we have seen in recent days. The finger has already been pointed at Muslims and the Arab world. But the display of death and indiscriminate killing has nothing to do with a religion that blends scientific reason with spiritual beliefs, a unifying faith.
As a Westerner I had been warned about Islam - that strange foreign religion which seemed to belong to people with a different colour and culture. But after being given the Qur'an in 1976, I discovered the opposite of what I expected. The Qur'an first showed me a belief in the universal existence of God (Allah), one God for all. It did not speak against peoples; it said although we may be from different countries and tribes, we were all human born of the same original parents, Adam and Eve. The Qur'an directly says:
"The best of people are the most God-conscious."
British Muslims feel nothing but sympathy for those families who lost loved ones in this awful tragedy we've all just witnessed in the US. This is why, today, along with most Muslims in Britain, we should make it clear that such acts of horrific carnage as we've seen on TV and in the newspapers have nothing to do with the beliefs of most Muslims. The Qur'an specifically declares:
"If anyone murders an (innocent) person...it will be as if he has murdered the whole of humanity."
It goes on:
"And if anyone saves a person it will be as if he has saved the whole of humanity."
The Qur'an does not teach us to live in a different world; rather it is full of stories and lessons from the history of humanity as a whole.
The Gospel and Torah - the books of the Christian and Jewish Bibles - are mentioned. So are Jesus and Abraham, in fact it may be interesting to know that there is more mention in the Qur'an about Moses than any other Prophet. Why? Because Islam acknowledges all true faith began with God, and in doing so, it accepts the existence of other cultures and shows how we can all live together in peace. It says:
"There is no compulsion in religion."
Meaning once a person is of a certain faith there should be no force imposed on that person to change. Elsewhere it states:
"To you, your religion; to me mine."
So respect for religious values and justice is at the core of the Qur'an.
But some extremists, among them self-appointed Islamic clerics, take parts of sacred Book out of context. This is a dangerous thing. For instance, some would quote verses which say:
"Think not of those who are killed in God's way as dead. No, but they are alive, finding their reward with their Lord."
This has been quoted to support the action of the suicide bombers. However these verses are actually meant for people who are defending their land under a legitimate state authority, against unjust external invaders. Never does it allow the killing of innocent civilians. In fact suicide itself is strictly forbidden by the Qur'an. It says:
"Do not kill yourselves ... Whoever does this in hatred and injustice we shall cast them into the fire."
Another verse often used out of context says:
"Do not take the People of The Book (Christians and Jews) for friends."
However, they fail to mention the historical context behind the verse, which warned not to make alliances with certain tribes who had helped to attack Muslims from behind in the early 7th Century. In fact the Islamic principle is well known and states, "Show friendship and mercy to People of the Book who are not attacking you."
The Qur'an also says:
"Repel evil with good."
Muslims believe in the authority of just government and the principle of consultation. Radical fringe groups of any race, colour or religion who organise to threaten or kill innocent people of any country, disregarding God's boundaries of justice, are deplored by the majority of scholars and ordinary Muslims. The problem is that these small groups try to represent Muslims as a whole outside of Islamic law. You find such dissident factions creating their own rules, contrary to the spirit of the Qur'an.
The Prophet 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 [outside of due process]."
Such knowledge and words of guidance are desperately needed at this time to separate the true from the false.
All I have to say is what you know already, to confirm what you already know ... the message of the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, as given by God - the Religion of Truth. As human beings we are given a consciousness and a duty that has placed us at the top of creation. It is important to realize this obligation to rid ourselves of all illusions and to make our lives a preparation for the next life. Anybody who misses this chance is not likely to be given another; to be brought back again and again. It says in the Qur'an that when man is brought to account, he will say:
"O Lord, send us back and give us another chance."
The Lord will say, if I send you back you will do the same.
My Early Religious Upbringing
I was brought up in the modern world of all the luxury and the highlight of show business. I was born in a Christian home, but we know that every child is born in his 'original nature' (al-fitrah), and it is only his parents that turn him to this or that religion. I was given this religion (Christianity) and thought this way. I was taught that God exists, but there was no direct contact with God, so we had to make contact with Him through Jesus; he was in fact the door to God. This was more or less accepted by me, but I did not swallow it all.
I looked at some of the statues of Jesus; they were just stones with no life. And when they said that God is three, I was puzzled even more but could not argue. I more or less believed it, because I had to have respect for the faith of my parents.
Gradually I became alienated from this religious upbringing and I started making music. I wanted to be a big star. All those things I saw in the films and on the media took hold of me, and perhaps I thought this was my God -- the goal of making money. I had an uncle who had a beautiful car. Well, I said, he has it made. He had a lot of money. The people around me influenced me to think that this was it, this world was their God.
I decided then that this was the life for me, to make a lot of money, have a 'great life'. Now my examples were the pop stars, I started making songs, but deep down I had a feeling for humanity, a feeling that if I became rich I will help the needy. (It says in the Qur'an, we make a promise, but when we make something we want to hold on to it and become greedy). So what happened was that I became very famous, I was still a teenager, my name and photo were splashed in all the media. They made me larger than life, so I wanted to live larger than life and the only way to do that was to be intoxicated (with liquor and drugs).
In the Hospital
After a year of financial success and 'high' living, I became very ill, contracted TB and had to be hospitalised. It was then that I started to think: what was to happen to me? Was I just a body and my goal in life was merely to satisfy this body? I realized now that this calamity was a blessing given to me by Allah, a chance to open my eyes, 'why am I here, why am I in bed', and I stated looking for some of the answers. At that time there was great interest in the Eastern mysticism. I began reading and the first thing I began to become aware of was death, and that the soul moves on, it does not stop. I felt I was taking the road to bliss and high accomplishment. I started meditating and even became a vegetarian. I now believed in 'peace and flower power', and this was the general trend. But what I did believe in particular was that I was not just a body. This awareness came to me at the hospital.
One day when I was walking and I was caught in the rain, I began running to the shelter and then I realized, 'wait a minute, my body is getting wet, my body is telling me I am getting wet'. This made me think of a saying that the body is like a donkey and it has to be trained where it has to go; otherwise the donkey will lead you where it wants to go.
Then I realized I had a will, a God-given gift: follow the will of God. I was fascinated by the new terminology I was learning in the Eastern religion. By now I was fed up with Christianity. I started making music again and this time I started reflecting my own thoughts. I remember the lyric of one of my songs. It goes like this: 'I wish I knew, I wish I knew what makes the Heaven, what makes the Hell, Do I get to know You in my bed or some dusty cell while others reach the big hotel?' and I knew I was on the Path.'
I also wrote another song: 'The way to find God out.' I became even more famous in the world of music. I really had a difficult time because I was getting rich and famous and at the same time I was sincerely searching for the Truth. Then I came to a stage where I decided that Buddhism is alright and noble, but I was not ready to leave the world, I was too attached to the world and was not prepared to become a monk and to isolate myself from society.
I tried Zen and Ching, numerology, tarot cards and astrology; I tried to look back into the Bible and could not find anything. At this time I did not know anything about Islam and then, what I regarded at a miracle occurred. My brother had visited the mosque in Jerusalem and was greatly impressed that while on the one hand it throbbed with life (unlike the churches and synagogues which were empty), on the other hand, an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity prevailed.
When he came to London he brought back a translation of the Qur'an, which he gave to me. He did not become a Muslim, but he felt something in this religion, and thought I might find something in it also.
And when I received the book, (a guidance that would explain everything to me: Who I was? What was the purpose of life? What was the reality and what would be the reality, and where I came from?) I realized that this was the true religion - religion not in the sense the West understands it, not the type for only old age. In the West whoever wishes to embrace a religion and make it his only was of life is deemed a fanatic. I was not a fanatic, I was at first confused between the body and soul. Then I realized that the body and soul are not apart and you don't have to go to the mountains to be religious; we must follow the will of God, then we can rise even higher than the angels. The first thing I wanted to do now was to be a Muslim.
I realized that everything belongs to God, that slumber does not overtake Him. He created everything. At this point I began to lose the pride in me, because hereto I had thought the reason I was here was because of my own greatness. But I realized that I did not create myself, and the whole purpose of my being here was to submit to the teaching that has been perfected by the religion we know as Islam.
At this point I started discovering my faith. I felt that I was a Muslim, on reading the Qur'an. I now realized that all the Prophets sent by God brought the same message. Why then were the Jews and Christians different? I know now how the Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and that they had changed God's Word. Even the Christians misunderstand God's Word and called Jesus the son of God. Everything made so much sense.
This is the beauty of the Qur'an; it asks you to reflect and reason, and not to worship the sun or the moon but the One who has created everything. The Qur'an asks man to reflect upon the sun and moon and God's creation in general. Do you realize how different the sun is from the moon? They are at varying distances from the earth, yet appear the same size to us; at times one seems to overlap the other.
Even when many of the astronauts go to space, and see the insignificant size of the earth and vastness of space, they become very religious, because they have seen the Signs of Allah. When I read the Qur'an further, it talked about prayer, kindness and charity. I was not a Muslim yet, but I felt that the only answer for me was the Qur'an, and God had sent it to me and I kept it a secret. But the Qur'an also speaks on different levels. I began to understand it on another level, where the Qur'an says:
"Those who believe don't take disbelievers for friends and the believers are brothers."
Thus at this point I wished to meet my Muslim brothers.
Then I decided to journey to Jerusalem (as my brother had done). At Jerusalem, I went to the mosque and sat down. A man asked me what I wanted. I told him I was a Muslim. He asked what was my name. I told him 'Stevens'. He was confused. I then joined the prayer though not so successfully.
Back in London, I met a sister called Nafisa. I told her I wanted to embrace Islam and she directed me to the New Regent Mosque. This was in l977, about 1 year after I received the Qur'an. Now I realized that I must get rid of my pride, get rid of Iblis (the devil) and face one direction. So on a Friday, after Juma'ah I went to the Imam and declared my faith (the kalimah) at his hands. You have before you someone who had achieved fame and fortune. But guidance was something that eluded me, no matter how hard I tried, until I was shown the Qur'an.
Now I realize I can get in direct contact with God, unlike Christianity or any other religion. As one Hindu lady told me, 'You don't understand the Hindus. We believe in one God, we use these objects (idols) to merely concentrate'. What she was saying was that in order to reach God one has to create associates, and they use the idols for this purpose. But Islam removes all these barriers. The only thing that separates the believers from the disbelievers is the salah (prayer). This is the process of purification.
Finally I wish to say that everything I do is for the pleasure of Allah and pray that you gain some inspirations from my experiences. Furthermore, I would like to stress that I did not come into contact with any Muslim before I embraced Islam. I read the Qur'an first and realized no person is perfect; only Islam is perfect, and if we imitate the conduct of the Noble Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) we will be successful.
May Allah give us guidance to follow the path of the Ummah (community) of Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.
Yusuf Islam [formerly Cat Stevens]
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