"I think it was my birthday, and my brother decided to buy me a copy of the Koran. He knew of my ardent search for big answers, and he had realized that here was a religion that very few of us in the West had taken the time to study," Yusuf said. "It's all been colored by our prejudice, connected to the history of wars in Christendom. But really the religion is quite hidden. I personally was surprised when I discovered how well it fit in with my dreams.
"It was," he said, pausing briefly, "kind of miraculous."
A long break
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, May 04, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Yusuf Islam profile: An article about singer Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens, in Sunday's Arts and Books section said that his "Boots and Sand" song would be offered as a bonus track at Amazon.com. The song will be available as a bonus track on iTunes and Best Buy but not Amazon.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 10, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Yusuf: An article about Yusuf, the former Cat Stevens, last Sunday said that his song "Boots and Sand" would be offered as a bonus track at Amazon.com. The song will be available as a bonus track on iTunes and Best Buy but not Amazon.
The profundity of his awakening wasn't something he felt compelled to try to translate immediately into song. So he stopped singing. Instead, he directed his attention to starting the first Muslim school in London, which he still supports. He met and married a Muslim woman and worked with her in raising a family that grew to include five children.
He unexpectedly became a flashpoint for Muslim-Christian tensions 20 years ago after Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini decreed that author Salman Rushdie should be put to death for his 1988 book "The Satanic Verses," which many Muslims considered blasphemous. Asked for his position, Yusuf never said Rushdie ought to die but pointed out that the Koran does say that anyone who defames the prophet is subject to death.
"The whole stigma of the Rushdie issue was something people tried to attach to me," he said in a tone as close to impatience as would come up during the interview. "It was extremely unfortunate and still carries immense distortion in the way the whole issue was dealt with.
"If we're talking about the issue of freedom of speech, that really is a very large subject," he said. "But if you talk about the right to hold a faith or not to hold a faith, that's what the world is made of, and God has given us that freedom."
Lost in the firestorm of public opinion was the belief of serious scholars of sacred texts -- Islamic, Christian or otherwise -- that their essential meaning is hidden in metaphor and allegory rather than found on the surface in literal interpretation. Comparative religion and mythology professor Joseph Campbell once told interviewer Bill Moyers that when scripture is read as prose rather than poetry, not only is the beauty lost but also the truth -- a view to which Yusuf, as a poet and artist, subscribes.
"The Bible says that if your right hand offends you, cut it off. That's quite stark. Jesus spoke against hypocrisy and about people who don't notice the plank of wood in their own eyes," he said, referring to the New Testament verse in Matthew that states, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"
"There are such great lessons to be learned from the masters and teachers of mankind," he said. "I just wish people would turn their concentration to those areas, rather than focusing on the incredibly damaging torrents of political antagonism and conflicts."
A few years ago, Yusuf began tiptoeing back toward the legacy he'd left behind, recording new versions of some of his old songs using just voice and percussion. When the 2004 tsunami disaster devastated wide swaths of Southeast Asia, he recorded a new song, "Indian Ocean," to help raise money for relief efforts. Veteran record producer Steve Buckingham started exploring whether he might be interested in making a whole album and invited him to Nashville to record.
That's when Yusuf's world turned inside out for a while.
After a transatlantic flight with his daughter to begin the sessions, Yusuf's plane was diverted to Maine, where Homeland Security agents detained him for hours because his name was similar to one on a federal "No-fly" list assembled in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"They kept asking me to spell my name," he said. "Are you sure it isn't Y-O-U-S-U-F? It was like a bad B movie, where you didn't know the plot and didn't know the outcome. The worst thing was they kept me separated from my daughter."
Unsure whether he was the person on the list, Homeland Security sent him home. "The musicians were actually waiting in the studio," Buckingham said in a separate interview. "It was just unreal."
"I take things gracefully and don't hold things against anyone," Yusuf said. "The idea of being safe is completely understandable, but when you start to misunderstand what kind of person I am, then something's wrong."
Eventually Yusuf recorded his first full-on pop album, "An Other Cup," released in 2006. He did only one concert in the U.S. at the time, a private show for a small audience in New York. Now he's also gently returning to the public stage and will appear May 11 at the El Rey Theatre.