From Stephen Demetre Georgiou to Cat Stevens to Yusuf Islam

From Greek Orthodox to spiritual rock star to Muslim activist: the spiritual journey of a lifetime

BY: Cecile S. Holmes


HOUSTON (RNS) -- Way back before Yusuf Islam, long before Cat Stevens, there was a little boy named Stephen Demetre Georgiou.

When the other children at his Roman Catholic school went forward to make their confessions or receive Holy Communion, Stephen did not participate. As the son of a Greek-Cypriot restaurateur and a Swedish mother, he was different from the other kids. He was Greek Orthodox. He attended the Catholic school because it was the only parochial one in London's West End.

"I was sort of an oddity," the grown-up Stephen, now known as Yusuf Islam, said in a recent lecture to a mostly Muslim crowd of 1,500 at the University of Houston.

Today, the word "distinctive" describes him more appropriately. Although his conversion to Islam prompted shock among his fans, the novelty of the switch has lessened. Slight and bearded, this servant of Allah exudes a quiet air of peace, whether he is lecturing to a group or talking one-on-one.

"The biggest instrument of change came with prayer. Because Islam teaches you not to wait a week until you sort of get religious. It says every day you should be keeping your connection with God throughout the day," Islam, now 51, said in an interview during his Houston visit.

Especially among fellow Muslims, he is widely respected for his lectures on behalf of the faith and for his work in Islamic education.

Millions were surprised when he left rock music after becoming a Muslim in 1977. To a generation of music fans, he was the lyrical minstrel of softer rock, a vocalist and guitarist known for such hits as "Moonshadow" and "Peace Train." But two years after his conversion, he changed his name to Yusuf Islam and left behind Cat Stevens, the moniker he used while a rock musician.

"Many people cannot understand why someone, who apparently had everything, would suddenly quit and dedicate himself to something so widely misunderstood," Islam told the university crowd. "I try to tell people that I didn't have anything before my conversion -- I didn't know myself, and I had no concept of what I was meant to accomplish. From the day I became a Muslim -- December 23, 1977 -- I was floating on air. Because I had finally found out who I was."

In conversation, Islam is gentle and funny -- sometimes even self-deprecating. One minute he seems almost bemused by his transformation from an icon of popular culture to an active proponent of one of America's fastest growing religions. The next moment, the piercing brown eyes that went straight to the heart of a generation of music fans turn serious.

He is discussing his faith.

"There are five prayers in a day," he said. "That may sound difficult to some. Quite frankly, it's as long as it takes you to have a cup of tea. It just means rather than looking and working and concentrating on this world and ... the goodies of this life, it's looking toward and focusing on your Creator, and your ultimate destination."

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