Kourosh Ziabari – Tehran Times: He is indubitably the greatest name in Islamic rock and pop music. Iranians feverishly call him their fellow citizen, but he has spent only his first 3-4 years of life in Iran. He immigrated to Britain with his parents when he was a child. He prefers to be simply called a Muslim artist, and not be associated with his national roots in order for his message to reach out to as many people across the world as possible instead of simply appealing to a certain nation or group of people.
Referred to as “Islam’s biggest rock star” by the Time magazine, Sami Yusuf is a well-known singer, songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist who was has received widespread worldwide acclamation for his unique style of Islamic, spiritual music presented in modern artistic forms. He calls his musical style “Spiritique.”
Sami Yusuf was named the “king of Islamic pop” by the Al-Jazeera network and listed by the BBC as one of the 30 More Famous Britons in 2009. Mr. Yusuf has performed for the gatherings of thousands of his enthusiastic fans across the world, including a concert for a 250,000-strong audience at the Taksim Square in Istanbul.
Perhaps one of the most significant places Mr. Yusuf has missed is Tehran. He has held concerts in Moscow, Dubai, Doha, Cairo and Washington D.C., but never in Tehran. He has received several requests to perform in Iran, but citing timing issues and certain technicalities, he has decided not to come to his mother country and perform for his Iranian fans. Just recently, there were reports on Iranian news agencies that Mr. Yusuf would soon embark on a tour of concerts in different Iranian cities as Tehran, Tabriz and Arak, but his official representative firmly denied the rumors and said that the publishers of the false news would be prosecuted by the police.
He has produced different songs in collaboration with renowned fellow musicians, including Hamza Robertson, Ian Brown, Conner Reeves and Babak Radmanesh. He has always been proactive in charities and humanitarian efforts and in 2014, joined the World Food Programme as the Global Ambassador Against Hunger.
I had the privilege to do an 80-minute-long phone interview with Mr. Yusuf in early 2014 for the Tehran Times. We discussed some essential subjects which Mr. Yusuf usually talks about in his songs: the significance of spirituality, the interrelationship between religion and prosperity, the decline of moral values in the 21st century and the solidarity of Muslim Ummah. What follows is the text of the interview.
Q: Firstly, I would like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk to you. I have been one of your staunch Iranian fans; I have listened to all of your music since you first released Al-Mua’lim and I’m really delighted to talk to you.
A: Thank you very much. It’s very nice to be talking to you. As you know, Iran is very important to me and very close to my heart.
Q: Thank you, brother. If you agree, let’s go on and I would ask my first question.
A: Bismillah, go ahead.
Q: You’ve performed many songs for the suppressed Muslim nation and downtrodden people, and your songs, aside from having a religious aspect, have taken a humanitarian dimension as you are working to promote human values. What has motivated you to stride on this path and sing for bringing to light the pains and sufferings of the Muslim nations? Do you think that arts can play a role in changing the way our unjust world works?
A: Thank you very much for your kind words and thank you very much for this interview, brother. I don’t know how much you have been following my humble journey up to now, but you are right. My humble music has matured over the years, but the essence remains the same. I also do not have a secular outlook towards my music or the world in general. I have a traditional worldview which means that nothing for me can be in the domain of the ‘secular’. In the traditional world, every aspect of life, even a single particle, is connected to higher truth.
Therefore, my ‘humanitarian songs’ are still spiritual and true to my traditional worldview since all my humble works are from the same essence. I have always striven to do something that is connected to the Sacred and to higher truth. Since one of God’s names, as you know, is al-Adel, meaning The Just, I felt it was pertinent that I talk about the injustices taking place throughout the world. I personally believe that lack of justice is at the heart of so many of the problems facing us today. People always complain about religious extremism and how it seems to be a symptomatic problem within the Islamic community or even the faith itself! However, very rarely do the media try to analyze the root causes of such acts, which can never be justified and must be condemned unequivocally. What they – the terrorists – do is ultimately demonic and satanic, but they exist because there is a vacuum; and that vacuum is the vacuum of injustice. Sadly, not enough people, especially the right people, speak out in defense of the truth, for saying the truth is among the greatest Jihad, or “struggle” or “exertion” in the path of God. My humble works aim to bring about awareness and relay the truths of some of the many injustices taking place today in our world. I hope it will inspire others to do the same, inshaAllah.
Q: Insha Allah. So you believe that arts can a play a role in changing the way our unjust world is working. It can be music, it can be cinema, it can be all kind of artistic creations, right?
A: I think so. I think that music is obviously a very powerful medium. In fact, so powerful, that the Greek philosopher Plato had even suggested banning music because he believed musicians were unaware of the power they possessed! It is a very powerful medium, and as you know, many of the great religions have been opposed to it – not so much on the mystical but more on the theological side – and have generally been somewhat skeptical towards music. Obviously, I would assume and I think, this is due to its power and the effect it can have on people. That being said, we live in a world where the single most affective medium is audio-visual, which has an unbelievable influence on mass culture – cinema, radio, TV etc., and how the media portray news. I think it is very important for those who are responsible and whom God has endowed with a musical or creative gift to do something useful with it so that God-willing, it will bring about positive change.
Q: So, my next question for you is on the promotion of Islam’s human values through the work of art. It seems that what you are doing through producing inspirational, spiritual music is way more effective in advocating the message of Islam. What do you think is the source of your success, as you surely admit it? Do you think it is possible to attract more people to the beauties and subtleties of Islam through such forms of art as music and cinema?
A: Well, thank you very much, again, for your kind words. I usually avoid divulging to such personal or even sensitive matters for fear of falling into “Riya” (showing off) or appearing ostentatious. Suffice it to say that, by the grace of God, I have received countless thousands of kind words and praise; wonderful people who sent me emails saying that the songs affected them to become a Muslim or made them closer to the Sacred, to God. And this is a great honor, which requires a lot of humility and invocation of the Divine to remember that ultimately we are Fuqara (single: “Faqir”) or “poor”, and Allah alone is Al-Ghani, or The Rich. I feel extremely honored and deeply grateful for such an experience. Regarding the source of success, I think, it’s “Tawfiq” or “success”, and it’s very difficult to explain. I realized from a very young age that I did not want to be in the industry and I certainly did not wish it as a career. During my late teenage years I had wished to leave the music scene –I was producing professionally since the age of 14, and pursue a degree in Law.
However, before doing so I decided to release a one-off album about the Prophet (PBUH). That album subsequently became one of five more to come! The rest is history as they say. I never planned for any of this. It was providence, or “Naseeb”, and the Will of God.
Q: Thank you. You may admit that our world is experiencing a serious moral decline. Are the Islamic arts and your special style of music which you have termed Spiritique capable of eliminating these ugly threats to the future of humanity or at least reducing them?
A: It’s a very sensitive question; a philosophical question that requires a long answer. But in a nutshell, I think what we can do we should do. And yes, it’s always important to contribute whatever we can and to do when we can. But at the same time, you know, we have to appreciate that the Sunnah of God, or “The way of God” is that things do not get better, but they get worse. The Blessed Prophet said: “The best generation is my generation, then the next and the next…” So ultimately it’s important for people of conscience, and especially people of faith, to understand that we are living in a world that is experiencing a moral decline because it is part and parcel of the signs of our time, it is an existential and philosophical reality; things do not get better, things get worse. Of course, I am not saying we remain passive and do nothing at all. But just look at the terror and damage organizations such as “ISIS” or other terrorist organizations have brought about? What do they want to do? They want to ‘purify’ Islam and the world. But this going against the very religion they are trying to ‘serve’. It goes without saying that I am a traditionalist at heart. I do not wish to romanticize the past, but pre-modern times, the world was much more beautiful, and if we keep going backwards it becomes more beautiful. And if you consider for example what we have experienced in these past few hundred years: the Industrial Revolution, Modernity, separation and divorce from the Sacred, the de-sacralization of virtually all spheres of life which took shape in the West, a worldview that is dominated by materialism, consumerism, commercialism; obviously, I would prefer to live a traditional way of life in the twelfth century! But, as you know, this is the way we live in this time, so we must say Alhamdulillah. And, with all that I mentioned above, it is still very possible to live in a moral way, in a decent way and to be connected to the Supreme Sacred Center, which is God, Allah. To conclude, I believe we are living in a time where we need to do what we can try to protect ourselves and our loved ones; and also to be realistic and have mercy on one another; have “Rahmah”. We cannot be too harsh on ourselves and more importantly, on others.
Q: InshaAllah. You have performed many songs in different languages form English and Arabic to Turkish, Persian and Urdu. This is an inventive and creative idea to sing in various languages as an appeal to people speaking those languages. How much effective and impressive has this innovation been in promoting your message of peace and helping you reach out to more global audience?
A: Very much so. It keeps me connected and I’m truly honored to have so many supporters from around the world.
Q: I read in one of your interviews that you said you have become somewhat cautious in the recent years following the growth of your popularity because you believe we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people. So how do you think we can realize a peaceful world in which there is only honesty and truth rather than deception and duplicity ruling? Is it really possible to realize such a world?
A: No brother, this is not possible. This is a utopia, this is heaven. Etymological root of the word Dunya (world) is low, the lower world. And Jannah is precisely the opposite; it’s the celestial world, the higher world. We are fallen creatures; we are not from here. And by default, it’s supposed to be difficult and there are difficulties and that is why we have spiritually. Spirituality navigates us in a world of obscurity and different types of mazes and not knowing really what to do. Spirituality provides us with the essential apparatus and the tools to navigate and to know what to do, and to accept, as well, that this world is imperfect, and that there are always going to be problems or hurdles, The Blessed Prophet himself went through this, his companions experienced it and, of course, we know that Sayyidina Ali Alayhesallam (and Ahl Al-Bayt) experienced it, and all the great people including his grandchildren and so on, which you know. Is it not absurd to assume utopia over a thousand years later? The reality is that we live in an imperfect world. Blessed are those who remember the Sacred, remember God, and stay connected to Him.
Q: You mentioned somewhere that if you win a Grammy Award one day, you will come on the stage and say, “Salam Alaykum,” and will tell the whole world that Muslims are not terrorists, lunatics or extremists, as some in the West tend to say, and this is really what I appreciate and admire. Is it really possible to debunk the myths created about the Muslims that they are relentless warmongering and aggressive people?
A: Well, this is very good question but again a deep question because it goes back to a deeply rooted anti-God, anti-religious movement that started 600 years ago called Modernity as we know it today. The Renaissance, Enlightenment that started in the Western Europe was deeply anti-Islam. So much so that many of the Arabic words that had found their way into English, European were suddenly removed and replaced with Latin equivalents. There were, of course, some words they could not change as there were no Latin equivalents for them: For example, “Kimiya” (chemistry) or “Qotton” (“cotton”) etc. Now the reality is that the world we live in today is a world that is dominated by Modernism. The dominant civilization, the dominant worldview, the civilization that is in power at the moment is the Western Civilization and this Civilization is driven by an unchecked and uncontrollable materialistic worldview brought about through its divorce from the Sacred. In short, I believe it is possible to debunk many of the myths about Islam. However, for this to be meaningful and intellectual, the West would first need to reconnect with its Christian roots.
Q: Yes, that’s absolutely true. Well, you have attracted millions of people across the globe regardless of their faith, color, religion and language and this is while what you sing is oriented on spirituality and moral values, whereas the majority of popular rock or pop stars simply sing about romantic love, mundane and worldly issues. How has your message of spirituality and modesty appealed to so many people who may not be even religious or practicing Muslims?
A: Thank you. The answer really is, InshaAllah or “God-willing”. I’m trying to be sincere and I avoid overthinking things. I follow my heart and its voice. I can only speak for myself and for me, music has to have a higher calling and a higher purpose. For me, I’m a lover of traditional things, traditional music and traditional sounds. I grew up in England so I’m a lover of classical music as well, particularly the sacred compositions. My humble desire is that through music and through Spiritique, people feel closer to the Centre and to remember the higher Truth, to remember the Sacred.
Q: Fantastic. As a Muslim artist, what’s your response to those who want to demean the Holy Quran by burning it or those who ridicule Prophet Muhammad by drawing offensive cartoons of him? How can a Muslim artist respond to the media war waged against Islam and the Muslim sanctities?
A: Have you seen my music video “It’s a Game” in response to this?
Q: Not unfortunately.
A: It’s called “It’s a Game”.
Q: I think I have listened to the music, but I haven’t seen the video clip so far.
A: Yes. You should watch the video. It’s a kind of answer to this question and refers back to what we were talking about earlier on anti-tradition, Modernity etc. At the end of the day, “freedom of speech” comes with responsibility. I loved what Pope Francis said recently. He said jokingly at a press conference regarding the same matter – I am paraphrasing: “If you insult my mother, expect a punch! No one should denigrate other religions.” He also said no act of violence could justify the horrendous acts that sometimes take place by some Muslims.
Q: What are, in your view, the main reasons for the lack of solidarity and cooperation between the Muslim nations? How should we unite the Muslim people across the globe to come to the help of each other and resist the powers that want to disintegrate them and defeat them? Why do we see some kind of indifference in some of our fellow brothers?
A: It’s a very deep question and I’m somehow humbled by the question because you should be asking somebody much more educated and much more worthy to answer it. But in my very small capacity, I’ll try to answer you. I believe unless the Muslim world ejects the foreign and Western influence, intervention and nosiness, unless it ejects that influence, its’ going to be the same scenario. The Muslim Ummah must be united based on Tawhid, based on its firm intellectual spiritual gravity. Unfortunately today there is far too much meddling going on from intrusive foreign powers. I’m not a politician, and in all honesty, I don’t like politics at all. But I study it to keep up to on current world affairs and I try not to allow myself to become politicized. In short, I can give you a somewhat simplistic intellectual answer and my humble intellectual belief is that Muslims themselves need to reject and eject the foreign influence.
Q: Thank you. Brother, I would like to ask you a question about your Iranian background. As I know, you were born in Tehran. What happened that made you leave Iran? How much are you familiar with Persian music? This is something which I’m really interested in knowing about.
A: The first question is my Persian-Azeri background. I have always been very proud of my Persian roots but the reality is that if I had stressed too much on my Persian background, I would not have been accepted in the Arab world. This is a very sad reality but it’s true. My objective has never been to propagate nationalistic notions. My humble aims and objectives have always been to evoke something higher. But I am very proud of my Persian background and roots!
With regards to your second question that why my parents left Iran, I really don’t know the exact answer to that question. I don’t really remember much as a child but I love Iran very much and Iran is an incredible country with an unbelievable heritage and history. God-willing, when I come to Iran I think I will need to stay for six months just performing Ziyarah (pilgrimage) at all the beautiful shrines of Awliya (Saints and sages of God), starting in Mashhad. I think I will be very emotional! Also regarding my familiarity with Persian language, I speak Persian well enough but it’s a work in progress. It’s improving by the day. It used to be very bad, really bad unfortunately; especially when there was a gap due to my stay in Egypt. So I’m picking it up now. I’ve been spending these past few years practicing and learning. I’ve been trying very hard to practice. So InshaAllah, next time you and I talk Mr. Kourosh, we will speak a little bit in Persian!
Q: InshaAllah! Before the last question, I would like to ask you a short and brief question. At what age did you leave Iran exactly?
A: I left Iran at a very young age – three or four if I’m not mistaken .You asked me about Persian music; I love classical Persian music and I am a huge admirer of Traditional Persia in general. I actually studied the Radif and Dastgah system with my father. I absolutely adore Persian classical music. It is undeniable that my musical roots are very much steeped in the Persian tradition.
A: I pray to God to come to Iran to visit not as a singer, just to come to Iran and just to spend some time there, be with my family in Tabriz, my family in Tehran and just to be connected to my roots, InshaAllah.
Q: InshaAllah. And let me ask you the final question. You have traveled to so many countries across world, many Muslim and non-Muslim countries, and I should tell you that you have thousands of fans and supporters in Iran who eagerly listen to your fantastic music. Why don’t you plan a trip to Iran to perform live for your Iranian fans? Have there been any suggestions to you so far for holding a concert in Tehran that you may have declined for certain reasons?
A: There have been many requests in the past. In fact, there was a request to perform in Azadi, at the stadium, which is incredible. But so far, none of the invitations have been meaningful or serious enough. Also, I am very selective. I’m not really a commercial singer, Mr. Kourosh. I don’t release that much music; I don’t perform too much. If I perform, I perform four or five concerts a year; I’d rather perform four or five concerts a year that are well-done than to do hundreds of concerts that are mediocre and not well executed or not well-arranged. I hope my dream will come true and we perform in the country of my birth soon!
I embrace you Mr. Kourosh and I send my warmest wishes to you from here. I ask you to pray for me. God bless you for this opportunity and InhsaAllah we will meet soon.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Sami Yusuf. I’m really delighted to talk to you.
A: Sure, Inshaallah.
This interview was originally published by Tehran Times.