It is fascinating when musicians use songs to communicate religious ideas. Audiences may or may not pay attention but there are many examples of the attempt. Consider, for instance, George Harrison's posthumous Brainwashed (2002), a welcome gift to fans still grieving the loss of the silent Beatle who died Nov. 29, 2001. This intriguing album offers everything one expects from Harrison at his best: wit, warmth, smooth guitar and, yes, those sometimes-cryptic references to Eastern religion. This album involves a sustained engagement with one of Hinduism's sacred writings known as the Bhagavad Gita. A few years back, I used Brainwashed as a way of entry into the Gita and found the exercise not only instructive as an outsider to this tradition but also appropriate. It seems to me Harrison is deliberate in his efforts to make Hindu spirituality accessible to Western audiences.
I bring a similar curiosity about religious expression in the mainstream music industry to Yusuf Islam's newest work. Cat Stevens converted to Islam in 1977 at which time he changed his name. (More recently, he goes by the shortened stage form Yusuf.) After almost 30 years of near musical silence, Yusuf is again active, putting out two full albums of new material in recent years inspired by his faith (An Other Cup, 2006; Roadsinger, 2009) and a few singles (including 2011's "My People"). In addition to an active website, there are interviews, concerts and television appearances reawakening interest in the earlier Cat Stevens catalogue and Yusuf's newer, post-conversion music. During his hiatus from the stage and recording studio, Yusuf turned his attention toward various humanitarian and educational initiatives, something recognized by the University of Gloucestershire and the University of Exeter, which bestowed honorary doctorates in 2005 and 2007, respectively.
Controversy and criticism tend to follow Yusuf, however, including continued fallout from remarks made about writer Sir Salman Rushdie and his novel "The Satanic Verses." During a Nov. 24, 2010 interview, George Stroumboulopoulos of the CBC asked Rushdie to comment on Yusuf's recent appearance on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" (Oct. 30, 2010). His response was unequivocally harsh, insisting it was "a mistake" for Stewart and Colbert to include Yusuf, adding that the singer "is not a good guy." The history behind Stroumboulopoulos' question and Rushdie's response is generally well known. Not long after the publication of "The Satanic Verses," on Feb. 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa calling for the author's death, forcing Rushdie into hiding (a period the writer refers to as the plague years in "Step Across This Line: Collected Non-Fiction from 1992-2002"). When asked to comment on the fatwa around that time, Yusuf made remarks appearing to support the Ayatollah's condemnation of Rushdie (statements that circulate widely on the web to this day).
Yusuf now attempts to explain those comments and answer charges on his website in an FAQ section called "Chinese Whiskers." Here he writes candidly about his beliefs and with reference to Salman Rushdie, he offers the following:
I never called for the death of Salman Rushdie; nor backed the Fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini - and still don't. ... When asked about my opinion regarding blasphemy, I could not tell a lie and confirmed that - like both the Torah and the Gospel - the Qur'an considers it, without repentance, as a capital offense. The Bible is full of similar harsh laws if you're looking for them. [Here he footnotes Exodus 20:7; 21:17; Leviticus 20:14-15; 24:16; Matthew, 12:31-32]. However, the application of such Biblical and Qur'anic injunctions is not to be outside of due process of law, in a place or land where such law is accepted and applied by the society as a whole. The accusation that I supported the Fatwa, therefore, is wholly false and misleading. It was due to my naivety in trying to answer a loaded question posed by a journalist ... in 1989 .... To indicate my actual stance about this matter before this front-page controversy erupted, it's useful to quote a letter of complaint I sent to Viking, a subsidiary of Penguin Books, the publishers, on 8th October, 1989. This was after I had been sent a preview of the text of Satanic Verses: "I wish to express my deepest outrage at the insensitivity of Penguin Books in Publishing Salman Rushdie's book, 'Satanic Verses', [sic] This book is clearly blasphemous in nature and so deeply offensive to the Muslim Community ... I urge you to give the contents of this letter your most urgent attention and take a responsible decision." As can be seen from the above, my personal response before the heat-seeking media got involved was significantly different from the fables and myths which have been circulated. Sad that no matter how many times I've repeatedly tried to explain my true position, journalists inevitably bring up this subject again and again; as if it was the only memorable thing I was reported to have done in my sixty-odd years living on this planet (yawn).
Assessments of Yusuf's explanation are bound to vary, with some taking him at his word and attributing his remarks to such things as misunderstandings, media distortions, overstatement stemming from religious zeal or bad taste. Many more, I suspect, are less generous, suspecting him of revisionist history, fear and hate mongering and, perhaps worst of all, censorship.
Rushdie's novel "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" (1990), his first after the fatwa, is a cautionary tale. In it, the author imagines what the world might look like if storytelling and dialogue ceases; if the enemies of creative thinking -- like the Ayatollah Khomeini (though not mentioned by name in the book) -- impose silence on all; if those calling for censorship get their wish; and if by distorting beautiful stories they make them ugly. Rushdie describes such a world as dark, cold, uninspired and dull. The villain in the story attacks the ocean full of stories and attempts to silence those who tell them. This enemy, called Khattam-Shud (meaning "completely finished," "over and done with") is attempting to plug up the wellspring of all stories and pollute the existing waters in the ocean. Khattam-Shud, we are told, "preached hatred only towards stories and fancies and dreams." This enemy prefers silence to speech, conformity to creativity, and abhors works of the imagination. His ultimate aim is uncontested rule: "'The world is for Controlling.'"
What Rushdie describes here is indeed terrifying. Free speech, open dialogue and respect for those who differ ought to be prized values in any society, and when absent, travesties like the horrific reactions to "The Satanic Verses" occur. This warning is pertinent closer to home as well. Islamaphobia and the demonizing of outsiders is a reality in Western societies and we must resist those choosing to preach hatred against the Muslim world, such as those idiotic Khattam-Shuds who thought it appropriate and pious to burn a Quran not so long ago.
My dilemma is this. I have tremendous respect for both Salman Rushdie and Yusuf Islam, and suspect this is not an issue allowing us simply to "take sides." Of course, the fatwa was monstrous and the "naivety" on display in Yusuf's interviews at the time was regrettable. At the same time, I wonder what is lost if we turn too quickly from Yusuf's most recent work, writing him off as "not a good guy"? Are there forms of reverse censorship at play when we refuse to allow him a voice? Some may not hear the beauties of Yusuf's new music because of the overwhelming dissonance created by his remarks about Rushdie and "The Satanic Verses."
If we take Yusuf at his word though, if we allow that "The accusation that [he] supported the Fatwa ... is wholly false and misleading," it opens up interesting possibilities for understanding his newest work. To give but one example, his cover of the Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell and Sol Marcus classic "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" (on An Other Cup, 2006) is conspicuous because it is the only song on the album not written by Yusuf himself. Dare we recognize an acknowledgement of missteps in the words, "I have faults like anyone / But sometimes I find myself alone regretting / ...some foolish thing / that I have done"?
I certainly want this to be true because it would open up other possibilities for these compelling lyrics. Perhaps the phrase "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good" are more than the words of an often despised and misunderstood singer. Maybe he bares his soul here in an attempt to communicate across that yawning chasm separating Islam and the West. Perhaps, as with George Harrison's Brainwashed a decade earlier, this music offers a brief glimpse into a cultural and religious world many of us in North America know little about.