When the other children at his Roman Catholic school went forward tomake their confessions or receive Holy Communion, Stephen did notparticipate. As the son of a Greek-Cypriot restaurateur and a Swedishmother, he was different from the other kids. He was Greek Orthodox. Heattended the Catholic school because it was the only parochial one inLondon's West End.
"I was sort of an oddity," the grown-up Stephen, now known as YusufIslam, said in a recent lecture to a mostly Muslim crowd of 1,500 at theUniversity of Houston.
Today, the word "distinctive" describes him more appropriately. Although his conversion to Islam prompted shock among his fans, thenovelty of the switch has lessened. Slight and bearded, this servant ofAllah exudes a quiet air of peace, whether he is lecturing to a group ortalking one-on-one.
"The biggest instrument of change came with prayer. Because Islamteaches you not to wait a week until you sort of get religious. It saysevery day you should be keeping your connection with God throughout theday," Islam, now 51, said in an interview during his Houston visit.
Especially among fellow Muslims, he is widely respected for hislectures on behalf of the faith and for his work in Islamic education.
Millions were surprised when he left rock music after becoming aMuslim in 1977. To a generation of music fans, he was the lyricalminstrel of softer rock, a vocalist and guitarist known for such hits as"Moonshadow" and "Peace Train." But two years after his conversion, hechanged his name to Yusuf Islam and left behind Cat Stevens, the monikerhe used while a rock musician.
"Many people cannot understand why someone, who apparently hadeverything, would suddenly quit and dedicate himself to something sowidely misunderstood," Islam told the university crowd. "I try to tellpeople that I didn't have anything before my conversion -- I didn't knowmyself, and I had no concept of what I was meant to accomplish. From theday I became a Muslim -- December 23, 1977 -- I was floating on air. BecauseI had finally found out who I was."
In conversation, Islam is gentle and funny -- sometimes evenself-deprecating. One minute he seems almost bemused by histransformation from an icon of popular culture to an active proponent ofone of America's fastest growing religions. The next moment, thepiercing brown eyes that went straight to the heart of a generation ofmusic fans turn serious.
He is discussing his faith.
"There are five prayers in a day," he said. "That may sounddifficult to some. Quite frankly, it's as long as it takes you to have acup of tea. It just means rather than looking and working andconcentrating on this world and ... the goodies of this life, it'slooking toward and focusing on your Creator, and your ultimatedestination."
Islam said that while many people may have lost the ability tocommit to an ideal, becoming a Muslim energized his inner and outerexistence while stilling the uncertainty of his restless soul. It was not so much a matter of change as an example of "evolution ordevelopment," he said. His tendency to thoughtful searching dates to hisCatholic school days.
"One of the most important questions I ever asked one of the nuns... I said, 'Sister Anthony, when do the angels start writing down yoursins?'" Best as he can remember, the sister said one year beyond hischronological age of 7.
Despite a strict Christian upbringing at school, the lights ofLondon's arts and entertainment community lured him. "I wasn't clever," he said. "I probably couldn't have gotten intothis university. But I was artistic, so I thought I could do that for aliving. I soon found that most artists don't die rich. So what should Ido? I know! Music."
With the Beatles as living proof, music seemed the fastest way tomake a million. His dad gave him a guitar. He finagled a recordingsession, performing his own song, "I Love My Dog." His career took off,but for an introverted young singer at the mercy of publicists whowanted to make him larger than life, it was an unpaved road fraught withmistruths and pitfalls.
Once the publicity machine defined his reality, "the public thenexpected me to live up to this image, so the only way was for me toresort to intoxicants," he said. "I lost control. Staying up late,drinking, partying, smoking endless cigarettes -- I fell sick andcontracted tuberculosis."
Within a year, he found himself hospitalized, physically ill -- andeven more ill-at-ease. Surrounded by doctors, he focused on his ownmortality and spiritual questions.