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."

Since his conversion, Islam has lectured worldwide to tell others about his faith. Today his new recordings -- including spoken and a capella compositions -- are about Islam, released from London on his own Mountain of Light label.

Islam said that while many people may have lost the ability to commit to an ideal, becoming a Muslim energized his inner and outer existence while stilling the uncertainty of his restless soul. It was not so much a matter of change as an example of "evolution or development," he said. His tendency to thoughtful searching dates to his Catholic 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 your sins?'" Best as he can remember, the sister said one year beyond his chronological age of 7.

Despite a strict Christian upbringing at school, the lights of London's arts and entertainment community lured him. "I wasn't clever," he said. "I probably couldn't have gotten into this university. But I was artistic, so I thought I could do that for a living. I soon found that most artists don't die rich. So what should I do? I know! Music."

With the Beatles as living proof, music seemed the fastest way to make a million. His dad gave him a guitar. He finagled a recording session, performing his own song, "I Love My Dog." His career took off, but for an introverted young singer at the mercy of publicists who wanted to make him larger than life, it was an unpaved road fraught with mistruths and pitfalls.

Once the publicity machine defined his reality, "the public then expected me to live up to this image, so the only way was for me to resort to intoxicants," he said. "I lost control. Staying up late, drinking, partying, smoking endless cigarettes -- I fell sick and contracted tuberculosis."

Within a year, he found himself hospitalized, physically ill -- and even more ill-at-ease. Surrounded by doctors, he focused on his own mortality and spiritual questions.

"That took me through many different religions, philosophies, and thought processes. I felt that there was no one religion that could satisfy my unique outlook on life. I think everybody in our generation was espousing this kind of individualistic lifestyle concept."

You can hear the searching in his music. His career prospered, especially in the United States, where idealistic young people found themselves drawn to his reflective songs. Questing is a recurring theme.

"I suppose if you look back into those albums, 'Tea for the Tillerman,' 'Teaser & the Firecat,' 'Catch Bull at Four,' and so on, a person today would see quite clearly that there was a man who was not really comfortable; looking for something higher, better, and more real," Islam wrote in a booklet describing his transformation.

"In a rather unorthodox way, I was trying to find out the truth whilst still being a so-called 'superstar.'"

In 1976, his brother, David, knowing Stephen's fondness for philosophical and religious books, bought him a copy of the Qur'an on a visit to Jerusalem.

"I was given the opportunity, in the last stages of my journey, to read the Qur'an," Islam said. "The big change came here. Accepting the concept of revelation was a big, important step forward.

"I kept on looking and tried to understand who authored the Qur'an. In the end, I realized the author's name was at the very beginning of the book."

He pauses naturally, not for dramatic effect, and turns to his listener, a smile on his face. "It says, 'In the name of God.'"

"It was at that point I had to accept a new form of knowledge, or a new way of receiving knowledge, and that is through trusting the word. I couldn't do that until my heart had accepted. That happened when I read a chapter of the Qur'an called "Joseph and the Story of Joseph, Son of Jacob."

"It says in the Qur'an, this is the most beautiful story. When I started to cry, I just knew this book was from God."

On a wintry Friday a year after receiving the Qur'an, he went to a mosque, enlisting the support of a local imam to learn how to become a Muslim. After making his testimony of faith that same day, his spiritual journey deepened.

He married his wife, Fawzia, a devout Muslim, in 1979. Today they have four daughters and one son, ranging in age from 12 to 19. In Great Britain, he is a leader in Muslim education and humanitarian projects. And in his heart, he said, he is at peace.

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