The singer who rose to fame as Cat Stevens, and is now known as Yusef/Cat Stevens, is getting candid about his conversion to Islam and the fallout that ensued.
On Sunday, the 72-year old musician — born Steven Demetre Georgiou to a Swedish mother and Greek Cypriot father — appeared on the BBC 4 radio program Desert Islands Discs to discuss his life, including the 1976 near-death experience that resulted in him turning to the Muslim faith.
“I was an Englishman,” he told radio host Lauren Laverne of nearly drowning in Malibu, Calif. “I didn’t know it wasn’t wise to go out at that time of day and take a swim, so I did.
“I decided to turn back and head for shore and, of course, at that point I realized, ‘I’m fighting the Pacific.’ There was no way I was going to win. There was only one thing to do and that was to pray to the almighty to save me. And I did.
“I called out to God and he saved me. A little wave came from behind. It wasn’t big. It was just simply pushing me forward. “The tide somehow had changed and I was able to get back to land. So I was saved. I didn’t know what was going to happen next.”
Following the incident, Stevens — who had already explored Buddhism while battling tuberculosis as a teen — was given a copy of the Qur’an by his brother.
“I would never have picked up a Quran,” he says. “But it became the gateway. After a year I could not hold myself back. I had to bow down.”
The “Wild World” singer formally converted to Islam at the end of 1977, adopting the name Yusuf Islam the following year. He also largely abandoned his music career, though he resumed recording in 2006.
“It was a hard tug. I felt a responsibility to my fans, but I would have been a hypocrite. I needed to get real. So I stopped singing and started taking action with what I now believed,” he told Laverne.
He added that his conversion was met with wildly different reactions; in Turkey, he was “raised on this pedestal” ... “but on the other side there were people who said, ‘He’s a bit of a traitor, isn’t he? He’s turned Turk.’”
Reflecting on the reaction to his conversion, Stevens shared, “That was very difficult because at one point I was an icon of the majority and now I am part of the minority who are looked down upon and certainly, to a large extent, misunderstood.”
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