For the love of God
Sami Yusuf, hailed as the new voice of European Islam, tells Dena Rashed
about inspiration, improving his Arabic, and life as a role model
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Clockwise from top left: still from Al-Mu'allim; Yusuf with Al-Gannouchi; with kids on the set of the video clip; Yusuf in action; playing the role of a photographer; the set of Al-Mu'allim; director Hani Osama (exclusive photos to Al-Ahram Weekly courtesy of Hani Osama)
It was a typical Ramadan evening: young women and men crammed into a café filled with shisha smoke and noise. A number of TV screens scattered around the room were playing the latest songs, most of them accompanied by images of young women in less than demure dress writhing in front of the camera. And then, breaking through the smog of noise, came a different song, as if dropping down from another more peaceful planet into the midst of chaos. Without warning, all the talk abruptly stopped. Eyes were glued to the screen, and even the cloud of shisha smoke thinned out as pipes were laid down. For the next five minutes, the crowd were riveted, immobilised, transfixed.
"It is a beautiful song," said the young woman at our table, with her head turned to the screen. "He is great," commented the young man with a smile. The object of their admiration was Sami Yusuf, and his song was in praise of the Prophet Mohamed. It is a song which has caught the attention not only of the young people in the café that night, but of many others throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Yusuf's nasheed s (religious songs) have taken Cairo by storm over the last few weeks, as young people prepared for the holy month of Ramadan, a month of fasting, meditation and dedication to religious duties.
Even before Ramadan started, the voice of Yusuf began to dominate certain local FM radio channels. Soon it was announced that Yusuf himself would soon be in town to perform live at one of Cairo's luxury hotels. Days later, the video clip of his nasheed "Al Mu'allim" ("The Teacher") was all over the most popular satellite music channels, and his two Cairo concerts were sold out.
Yusuf's fame rests on a simple achievement: he has renovated the classic inshad to make it appeal to the younger generation. The recreation of traditional religious song in terms which are accessible to the MTV generation has been reinforced by the impact of the video clip by first-time Egyptian director Hani Osama. With its blend of material consumerism and simple spirituality, the clip speaks directly to the conflicts of upper- middle-class Muslim youth, in Egypt and elsewhere. But where does its author come from? With his modern looks, and singing in a mixture of English and Arabic, many are understandably confused as to just where Sami Yusuf belongs.
The answer, like his music, is both simple and complex. Yusuf's family are from Azerbaijan, but he himself is born and bred in the UK.
At Egyptian director Osama's office in Cairo, Yusuf explained. "I am not used to identifying myself with my ethnic origins in Europe," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "I have lived all my life in the UK, but my parents are Azeri. I would identify myself rather as a Muslim, or a British Muslim."
The 24-year-old artist's father is himself a poet, composer and musician, and Yusuf was raised to the sound of music. At 18, he received a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London. "It was my father who inspired me," he acknowledges. "He is certainly my most influential teacher."
Yusuf has drawn his inspiration from many different cultures -- classical Azeri, Arabic, and Turkish. But rather than confusion, the result is an elegant richness. "I feel so blessed that I can do something where I can blend these feelings and emotions," he confides. "For a long time now, we have lacked artists who were prepared to talk about Islam or share their Islamic backgrounds through music, which was a real shame. But, thank God, things are getting better."
The Al-Mu'allim project was a year in the conceptualisation. By choosing this name for his debut album, Yusuf sought to emphasise the role of the Prophet as a model and example to mankind, and he hopes this will encourage people to learn more about the Prophet and his life. As the dedication note on the CD makes clear: "I wanted to remind my brothers and sisters of the message of the Prophet who was sent by God to teach humanity the moral values of justice, kindness, humility, sacrifice and love, he was the best example of everything he taught. I also wanted to strengthen our love for our beloved teacher as loving him is part of our ibadah, or worship of God."
For Yusuf, the decision to go back to the inshad was just one aspect of a whole transformation process. "Sometimes people's faith seems to fade away, but then they go through an awakening," he explains. "They find that their faith is back in line, stronger than before. And this gives them the desire to do something. That is what happened to me." Yusuf admits he tried very hard to be as good a Muslim as he could when he was young, and he always performed the five daily prayers. But it was not until he was 18 that he knew he wanted to do something in his own name. "I wanted to express my feelings, and I wanted to use music to do that."
In doing so, Yusuf has not just revived the genre of the inshad. He has broken the traditional mould, enlarging the musical possibilities of the form, and introducing it to the brave new world of the video clip.
According to Michael Frishkopf, at the University of Alberta's music department, the Inshad Dini (Islamic hymnody) was widely practiced in Egypt throughout the 20th century, crossing all geographical and social boundaries. It has always focussed on the supplication and glorification of God, praise and love for the Prophet Mohamed, expressions of spiritual experience and religious exhortations.
Yet nothing in the tradition sounds quite like Al-Mu'allim, with its blend of simple ritual phrasings and a cappella harmonies.
"We thought about the use of instruments carefully," Yusuf explains. "That is why there are so few of them on this album. Many people think we used a lot of instruments, but there are just percussion and voices. I have always planned to use instruments, but I don't want to do it just for the sake of using them. I want to use them to beautify art, to reach out to people." Although he expects criticism from musical hardliners and purists, Yusuf believes that "in these matters, all you can do is have the correct intentions and plan well. Then you just go ahead and do it, and rely on God."
He consciously sought to break with the structure of the classical inshad, too . "I am not saying that my songs are good or bad, but they have the structure of a song: there is a beginning, an introduction, and a verse," he explains. "Most inshad I hear nowadays may be very beautiful, but they are also very repetitive in the way they use the verse and chorus."
Yusuf is aware that many people will take pleasure in the song less for the music than for its religious message. But despite that, he sees himself as essentially a composer, not a singer. As he starts to talk about this aspect of his work, his face lights up with enthusiasm: "It is not about singers: the singer is just an instrument. Most people know nothing about the composer or the process that goes into writing a song. I respect singers and I love the way they communicate their feelings, but the most important thing is to come up with the concept and create the music. In the end, the real creativity is from God."
Another cause for the success of "Al-Mu'allim" is doubtless the image which Yusuf conveys in the video clip. In it, he manages to reconcile modernity and tradition in his own particular way. He plays the role of a young photographer who spends his time taking pictures of the beauties of nature. His character is materially successful -- he lives in a lavish house and rides around in a jeep. At the same time, he conforms to many of the stereotypes of the good pious Muslim -- he is kind to his mother, does his work with care and attention, helps others, and finds time to lead children in prayer. Abandoning the traditional galabeya of the religious singer, Yusuf has thus become an icon for the many young Muslims who aspire to be simultaneously devout and trendy. In this, his image is close to that of the young preacher Amr Khaled, who also turned his back on the traditional robes of the preacher in favour of classic Western suits, and adopted a language which is simple and direct in order to appeal to the young.
The cooperation between Yusuf and Osama on the video was not planned. "Osama was introduced to me through a friend six months ago," Yusuf says. "I heard a lot of good things about his work in general. God bless him for directing the video." This first collaborative venture has given birth to what promises to be a regular team, and Osama has already directed Yusuf's second nasheed "supplication" in Cairo.
Although Osama, who is in his late 20s, started out as a producer, he insisted on directing "Al-Mu'allim" himself. "Our office had produced video clips for famous singers," he explains. "But a point came where we felt uncomfortable with the clips from a religious point of view, and we decided to stop." Working with Yusuf, however, was a chance to do something different. "I really liked the idea. I liked everything about it! To the extent that I was afraid that it might be spoiled, so I decided I would direct it myself."
Osama admits that while they were making the clip, he did not really know Yusuf. "I had only heard the song: I had never seen him perform it live," Osama recounts. "I thought I would focus on the music and the story in the video clip, but as soon as we started shooting I realised that was a mistake. Yusuf's live performance was so powerful, some of the technicians at the studio broke down in tears."
After his visit to Egypt to shoot the clip and perform live, many of Yusuf's plans have changed. He is now thinking seriously about taking a break for a year from the Royal Academy of Music in London to study Arabic and Islam in Egypt. "My Arabic is not very good," he admits. "I need to strengthen it by studying at Al- Azhar."
After talking with Yusuf for a while, it becomes very clear that he does not pay any attention to differences in nationality, language or culture. "Living in the UK and performing in many countries around the world, I find it amazing how we share the most comprehensive view of Islam, simple, yet sweet and pure, with millions of other Muslims," he confides.
Yusuf and his lyricist and co-producer Bara Al-Gannouchi have lived in the UK all their lives. And though their lives have not been a highway to success, they have never found it hard to blend into Western society as Muslims, even after 9/11.
"It is not easy growing up in the West," Al-Gannouchi told the Weekly. "There is a lot of peer pressure. But at the same time, there is a lot of tolerance. Despite the UK's foreign policy in Iraq, there are a lot of good policies there. Many schools allow the prayers, and there are many rules to ensure respect for the rights of minorities."
Yusuf, for his part, believes Islam and the West have a lot to offer one another. "In the West, people are very organised, unlike us. They are very punctual, and honest most of the time. These are all Islamic modes of behaviour. We still have a lot to learn from their technology, but they certainly have a lot to learn from us too. By that I mean the essence of Islam, which is to love humanity. It is important not just to say it, but to do it: to love and respect everyone, and have respect for all God's creations."
Yusuf hopes that by learning to take the good the West has to offer and leave the bad, it will be possible to bridge the gap that might evolve between the two cultures. "If this process is done properly, in the right spirit and with the right understanding of Islam, they will be affected as well. At the very least, they will not hate us. They will respect the Muslims."
As a monshid who now has a message to deliver through his music, Yusuf acknowledges that Islam is going through a transitional phase which many civilisations and religions have to pass through. That is why it is particularly dangerous to try and fix the image of Muslims into a stereotype right now. "It becomes too apologetical, and we dilute the message of Islam to such an extent that it becomes meaningless, we lose the essence," he laments. "We must have our own values and our own beliefs. Some of those values may not be shared by others. But there is much more to agree on than to disagree on." As a result, he believes strongly that it is wrong for Muslims to go around apologising for their faith and their beliefs. "This is Islam, and this is how it is. We are not going to try and make it look nice just to please the people who are attacking us."
He admits that some Muslims are extremists, but for Yusuf, these people do not represent Islam. "The extremists have been around since the time of the Prophet," he notes, with resignation. "Moreover, there are terrorists in every religion."
Yusuf and Al-Gannouchi strongly believe that the solution to the problems of the Islamic world lies in the hands of the Muslims themselves. As Yusuf puts it, "what we need is a lot of work, rather than just talking all the time, arguing, debating and apologising."
"But the most important thing to do is what God has asked us to do," he adds. "Then the attack on Islam will backfire. We just have to be good Muslims, practise our religion, our Islam, which is so simple, so comprehensive and so beautiful, and people will be affected."
Yusuf recognises that his life will not be easier now that he has become a role model for young Muslims all around the world. "I know that this is a burden, but I have always been honoured to be part of Islam," he says, simply. "I am a sinner, as we are all. And I am just an artist who believes in his ideology and wants to promote it. An artist who respects art for the sake of art, and tries to be true to his good intention."