When Cat Stevens Became Yusuf Islam and Left It All Behind

Born in 1948 to Greek and Swedish parents, Steven Demetre Georgiou – his given name – spent his childhood in London. His Orthodox and Baptist parents decided to send their son to Catholic school. The young boy took a liking to the piano at an early age, practicing on the family’s piano.

Cat Stevens / Cat Stevens / Cat Stevens / Cat Stevens.
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At 15, as Beatlemania was permeating the world, Cat Stevens bought his first-ever guitar for a mere eight pounds. He was inspired by Blues legends Muddy Waters and Leadbelly and was particularly inspired by Bob Dylan’s storytelling lyrics. He never expected to make waves of his own in the music industry, only to completely abandon it in the name of a wildly different religion.

A Father and Son Conversation

The song Father and Son, from the 1970 album Tea for Tillerman, is one of Cat Stevens’ most notable songs. And over five decades later, the father and his son collaborated on the album’s second version, Tea for the Tillerman2.

A dated portrait of Cat Stevens.
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

Father and Son is a conversation between a young man and his father, debating the philosophical question: should one seek to change the world or make do with what he has. Cat Stevens – now Yusuf Islam – chose the first option, which is why he left it all behind in the name of religion and spirituality.

His 1970 Voice Was Used as the Son’s Voice

He’s 73 now, but the musician was 29 when – at the height of his fame – he gave it all up to devote himself to Islam. By his 70s, he was traveling with his adult son, Yoriyos, and his touring band. They decided to re-record a new version of Tea for the Tillerman.

A photo of Cat Stevens addressing the media.
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The whole thing was his son’s idea – a way to commemorate the album’s 50th anniversary. Yusuf calls it a “reimagination of the album.” With Father and Son, they used his voice from 1970 – a 22-year-old young man singing in LA’s The Troubadour – as the son’s voice. Yusuf’s voice now is the father’s.

As He Lay (So He Thought) on His Deathbed

Yusuf originally wrote Father and Son all those decades ago for a musical he called Revolussia. But after he entered the world of pop and folk music in the mid-to-late ‘70s, he got very ill with tuberculosis and “was suddenly erased from the scene,” as Yusuf put it.

A dated photo of Cat Stevens playing the guitar.
Photo by George Wilkes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He really looked within himself and tried to find where his center was – where he was going. He was asking himself all the important questions one asks himself “when you’re on death’s doorstep” (at least he thought he was dying at the time).

It Was Written for a Musical

He realized he wanted to do what he was originally inspired to do – to compose musicals. He was living in the West End at the time, and he got together with Nigel Hawthorne to begin writing this musical they called Revolussia, about the last Tsars of Russia in comparison to a family in the farmland.

A dated portrait of Cat Stevens.
Photo by Jack Kay/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The father wants to keep things as is while the son is inspired by the revolution. This was the inspiration for Father and Son. Yusuf said he represents both sides, although his preference was on the son’s side. The song, he explained, is all about change.

He Was Shaken by His Newfound Fame

When Tea for the Tillerman (his fourth album) came out in 1970, Yusuf experienced a “roller coaster” of a ride. And once it began, it got faster and faster. “My success was an incredibly large thing to deal with,” he told GQ. The album soared to the top of the Billboard charts.

A picture of Stevens during a show.
Photo by David Warner Ellis/Redferns/Getty Images

It “shook” him, and he was uncomfortable with it all. “I didn’t want to feel I was a product, which tends to be the thing that happens when you get to a certain stature.” It led to his radical decision to abandon it all and adopt a new religion.

A Near-Death Experience in 1976

In Malibu in 1976, Yusuf experienced a near-death experience. And it was this event that led him to convert to Islam. It wasn’t the three months he spent in the hospital recovering from TB that pushed him off the edge. It was a day at the Pacific Ocean that changed his life entirely.

A portrait of Stevens.
Photo by RB/Redferns/Getty Images

Swimming in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Malibu, he suddenly got swept out to sea on a strong undercurrent. “I was an Englishman. I didn’t know it wasn’t wise to go out at that time of day and take a swim, so I did.”

He Asked God for Help

“I decided to turn back and head for shore and, of course, at that point I realized, ‘I’m fighting the Pacific.’” He figured he was facing imminent death, and there was no way he was going to win. That’s when he started talking to God.

Cat Stevens performs on stage.
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“There was only one thing to do and that was to pray to the Almighty to save me. And I did.” He told God that if he survived the ocean, he would devote himself to a life of service. Yusuf recalled that in that moment, a gentle wave carried him back to shore.

Becoming Yusuf Islam

“So, I was saved,” he stated. Afterwards, he “didn’t know what was going to happen next.” Following the event, Yusuf’s brother gave him the Quran. “I would never have picked up a Quran,” the musician admitted. “But it became the gateway. After a year I could not hold myself back. I had to bow down.”

A picture of Stevens after converting to Islam.
Photo by Stephenson/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Within a year, he formally converted to Islam and adopted the name Yusuf Islam. One particular story from the Quran resonated with him, and that’s the tale of Joseph, “a man bought and sold in the marketplace.” It was essentially how Yusuf felt within the music business.

His Fans Were Heartbroken

When news of his conversion came out, his fans around the world were heartbroken. But it was too late. Yusuf, formerly known as Cat Stevens, had already made his choice. His conversion was met with mixed opinions. In Turkey, for instance, he was “raised on a pedestal.”

A photo of Stevens during an interview.
Photo by Tony Bock/Toronto Star/Getty Images

The other side consisted of people who said, “He’s a bit of a traitor, isn’t he? He’s turned Turk.” Yusuf said he wasn’t prepared for all the “sharp-toothed journalists.” He was accused of supporting the fatwa, when he never did. But he made his bed… now he needed to lay in it.

He Started Out as a Pop Star

He started out as a teenage pop star in Britain in the late ’60s, before tuberculosis almost killed him. He came out of it alive, but with an acoustic guitar and an entirely different approach to song writing. Not only did he survive but he became a superstar with hits like Morning Has Broken, Moonshadow, and Peace Train.

A promotional portrait of Cat Stevens as a teenage pop star.
Photo by Sylvia Pitcher/Redferns/Getty Images

But when he renounced his music career in 1977, it wasn’t that he disappeared. Instead, his new religious beliefs took him in different directions. He donated his time and money to education and charities.

Three Decades Later, He Picked Up the Guitar

Also, despite the religion forbidding him to play musical instruments (or at least that was his interpretation of it), he still lent his voice to spoken word and children’s albums in the Muslim world. But then the whole political hoopla over the fatwa against writer Salman Rushdie happened.

Stevens performs on stage.
Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

Because of it – and the wild misunderstanding – people began to dissociate themselves from his music. It took a while – about 30 years – but Yusuf picked up his guitar again and started making music in the mid-00s. In 2006, he returned to pop music, using the name Yusuf.

Yusuf Islam, the Artist Also Known as Cat Stevens

By 2014, Yusuf accepted his musical past… for the most part. He billed himself as Yusuf/Cat Stevens (his Twitter handle), and his bio says, “Yusuf Islam the artist also known as Cat Stevens.” He even made a new album, with producer Rick Rubin, and showed up to his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.

Cat Stevens poses for the press.
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He then embarked on his first US tour since the ’70s. Fans were pleased, of course, especially when they go to hear him revisit his early work. Recently, he’s been reissuing some of his earlier and most popular albums.

Alone, Like a Cat

The new-ish music and the fact that he has written an autobiography makes it seem like he’s making amends for walking away from music all those years ago. “The songs were better than I was,” he said in a recent interview.

A portrait of Cat Stevens.
Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images

After his early success, he moved to Rio de Janeiro for a couple of years “to hide away … to empty myself, to escape. I was alone, totally alone … like a cat that you get too close to.” When it came to his relationship with his fans, he has some regrets.

He Didn’t Understand How Much His Fans Were Affected

Yusuf admitted that he could have managed his exit from the music industry with more grace. He also disclosed that only recently did he understand the intense emotional attachment that people still have to his music.

Stevens performs on stage.
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage/Getty Images

During his recent tour, he was genuinely surprised to see that his old songs provoked such emotion from fans. “I mean, I knew that there was a devoted listenership,” he acknowledged, “but I just didn’t realize how much people’s lives changed as the result of listening to my music.” Why the return to music? A large part of it is a sense of responsibility to share the talents he’s been given… with everyone.

The 1989 TV Appearance

There was one particular 1989 appearance on the British TV show Hypotheticals that put Yusuf in the hot seat. Earlier that year, writer Rushdie was targeted because of his novel The Satanic Verses. On the show, Yusuf was asked directly if Rushdie deserved to die.

A photo of Stevens after converting to Islam.
Photo by Ian Cook/Getty Images

“Yes, yes,” he replied quickly. But Yusuf insisted that it was nothing more than a bad attempt at dry humor. But the damage was done. After the show aired, a fury ensued. People demanded Yusuf issue a press release to say his comments were manipulated in the editing room and taken out of context.

The Aftermath

Radio stations chose to boycott his music, and his records were destroyed in public demonstrations. Rushdie himself chimed in, saying for years, Yusuf “has been pretending he didn’t say the things he said in 1989, when he enthusiastically supported the Iranian terrorist edict against me and others.”

A portrait of Stevens wearing a white turban.
Photo by Ian Cook/Getty Images

“However, his words are on the record, in print interviews and on television programs.… I’m afraid Cat Stevens got off the peace train a long time ago.” But Yusuf insists that he never agreed with the fatwa against Rushdie.

He Wants People to Move On

Yusuf also said he wishes people would just “move on” from the decades-old issue. The thing is this fatwa wasn’t just some argument made on TV. Bookstores were bombed and people associated with Rushdie’s book were killed or attacked.

A dated photo of Stevens during an interview.
Photo by Ian Cook/Getty Images

But the whole fatwa thing wasn’t an isolated incident. Two years prior to his Rushdie comment, he made an appearance at the University of Houston. There, he said the Jewish faith was “a distortion of monotheism,” and he even questioned the basic concepts of modern science, such as the theory of evolution.

The Days of Carly Simon and Cat Stevens

When he was still a star in England, Yusuf was preparing for his first US shows at the Troubadour in LA. There, he met the up-and-coming Carly Simon. As the two chatted after his first gig, they compared notes on song writing and the music industry in general.

A dated portrait of Carly Simon.
Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

The two instantly hit it off and embarked on an on-again/off-again relationship for about seven months. The tale of their relationship can be seen through the songs they wrote for each other.

Waiting for Cat to Show Up

Simon, the daughter of a wealthy family (Simon & Schuster Publishing), was performing with her sister Lucy as The Simon Sisters at the time. Simon, however, had recently gone solo and released her first album. She even had a top ten hit: That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.

A portrait of Carly Simon during an interview.
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

Dubbed “the first feminist pop star,” Simon was eager to make a second album. After meeting Cat Stevens that night at the Troubadour, they made plans for a date. As she sat in her hotel room, she began strumming her guitar, awaiting his arrival.

Her Songs About Cat Stevens

By the time her date knocked on the door, Simon already had the first parts of her next hit song, Anticipation. The lyrics of the song expressed her hope for their future relationship, with a dash of realism, too. The song made it to the top five on the charts.

A studio portrait of Carly Simon.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But you’re a legend in your own time

A hero in the footlights

Playing tunes to fit your rhyme

Carly’s new album included a second song about Cat, called Legend in Your Own Time. It was about his rise to fame, through her eyes – as someone who adored him.

His Sweet Scarlet

The Simon-Stevens love tale ended in 1971, and he released his album Catch Bull at Four. The album came to be known for its early use of synthesizers, but Sweet Scarlet was a simple ballad that – you guessed it – was written about Simon.

A picture of Carly Simon smiling to the camera.
Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

All I knew was with her then, no couldn’t see the time

As we drank down the wine to the last Sweet Scarlet

Simon’s songs about him were more enigmatic, but Yusuf was very direct in his. He described her curly hair, her shawl, her feathered hat, and their breakup. The two, reportedly, remained friends to this day.

Wild World Was About Patti D’Arbanville

Yusuf revealed that he didn’t like Wild World, one of his biggest hits, when he recorded it. Wild World was a song he wrote as he was coming out of a relationship with his then-girlfriend, Patti D’Arbanville. Their time together ended, and he “wished her well, which came out as a kind of nice message.”

A dated image of Patti D'Arbanville posing for a portrait.
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It’s known that their relationship didn’t end well, at least from Yusuf’s perspective. In the song, he addresses a “girl” who has parted ways with him. And he doesn’t seem to be happy about her decisions.

It Was His Warning to Her

Now that I’ve lost everything to you

You say you want to start something new

And it’s breaking my heart you’re leaving

Baby, I’m grieving

He sings about how he “lost everything” to her, and that he’s still in love.

A portrait of Patti D'Arbanville.
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

Nonetheless, he’s made peace with the whole situation. The title of the song is his warning to her that “it’s a wild world.” In other words, he’s telling her she’s safer by his side – not alone. He wishes her, sarcastically, that she “take good care” and “make(s) a lot of nice friends out there.”

He Thought It Was Too Commercial

Oh baby, baby it’s a wild world

It’s hard to get by just upon a smile

Oh baby, baby it’s a wild world

I’ll always remember you like a child, girl

He also tells her that he’ll always remember her like a child, probably insinuating he’ll always worry about her.

A photo of Stevens performing on stage.
Photo by Richard Aaron/Images/Getty Images

Yusuf revealed that he wasn’t happy about the song, feeling as though it was a bit too commercial. When talks came about releasing the song, he said no. He said that Chris Blackwell loved it and wanted Jimmy Cliff to do it.

He’s Come to See It as a Warning to Himself

So, Yusuf produced the track for Cliff, and it did well. Meanwhile, in America, they were “screaming” for Yusuf to release his version of it. He finally agreed, but it was a bit like the commercial songs he used to write in the early days of his ‘60s career.

A photo of Cat Stevens during an interview.
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“I was slightly averse to that being representative of me,” he admitted. In 2009, Yusuf stated that the song is more about his own life – that it’s something of an exercise in speech. He said he’s basically warning himself about the world.

Making Some Controversy

This song came out in 1970 with Tea for the Tillerman. A&M Records presented it as the second single in the US, and it charted in both Canada and the US, peaking at no. 11. There happened to be some controversy concerning the song.

A dated portrait of Stevens.
Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

Writer/musician Jonathan King claimed that the group the Pet Shop Boys plagiarized Wild World in their 1987 song It’s a Sin. King then released his own cover version of Wild World to prove the point. Eventually, however, he was proven wrong and even had to legally settle with the Pet Shop Boys.

Morning Has Broken Is From a Hymnbook

Back in the ‘70s, if you weren’t hearing the Beatles on the radio, you were listening to Cat Stevens. Morning Has Broken was one of those songs, and the inspiration behind it, as Yusuf later explained, came to him from a Christian hymnbook.

A dated photo of Stevens playing the guitar.
Photo by George Wilkes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He never wrote the lyrics to the 1971 single, but he did put the chords to a song he stumbled upon in a Christian hymnbook he found at a bookstore while looking for song ideas. It was actually a children’s hymn written by Eleanor Farieon.

A Funeral Song

Morning has broken like the first morning

Blackbird has spoken like the first bird

As Yusuf grew up in England, it could be that he heard the hymn at elementary school. “I accidentally fell upon the song when I was going through a slightly dry period and I needed another song or two for Teaser and the Firecat,” Yusuf said.

A dated portrait of Cat Stevens.
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

Praise for the singing, praise for the morning

Praise for them springing fresh from the world

It was considered more of a Christmas hymn for Scottish kids. It sounds all lovely with its pleasant images and lyrics, but its often sung in funeral services.

The Record Company Didn’t Believe in It

His record company, at first, didn’t want to release the song as a single; they were worried it wouldn’t perform well because of its religious nature. Little did they know the song would become the biggest seller the company had. It topped the charts at no. 6.

A photo of Cat Stevens during a show.
Photo by Robert Knight Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

Even the pianist, keyboard player Rick Wakeman, doubted the song’s potential when working with Yusuf during the recording process. At the recording studio, Yusuf had come in with a lot of ideas and ran through them with Wakeman.

A Pack of Cigarettes First

Wakeman, who merely humored Yusuf at first by playing with him, never received credit for his part of the recording. “I thought he’d give me extra money, so I acted extra keen,” Wakeman joked about it later. Yusuf, who was over his bout of tuberculosis, would smoke a pack of cigarettes before singing the vocals.

Stevens performs on stage.
Photo by Gai Terrell/Redferns/Getty Images

The song achieved international success and fellow folk singers, like Neil Diamond, did their own versions of the song. Diamond recorded his version in 1992 for his Christmas album (despite being Jewish), although his version only reached no. 36 in the UK.

Miles From Nowhere

Yusuf, from his home in Dubai, has given his personal explanations of his songs. For Miles From Nowhere, he thinks of it as a “very important song” – one that defines where he was at the time. “I can’t say I’m at that place anymore,” he said.

A screengrab of Cat Stevens performing one of his songs.
Photo by Peace One Day/Getty Images

He mentioned that once he started this search for higher meaning, it never stopped. Still, that’s him in the song, he acknowledged. “That’s my bones. That’s my inner construct.” He equated it to the foundation of a building. “You’ve got to have a foundation. That’s what it is. It’s what made me who I am.”

But I Might Die Tonight

For Yusuf, the song But I Might Die Tonight has a consistently relevant message to so many people. “Either you belong to a company, or you don’t belong,” he posed.

A dated picture of Stevens after his conversion to Islam.
Photo by Graham Barclay/BWP Media/Getty Images

And if you don’t belong to one, you’re in danger. But I Might Die Tonight is about people who feel their life is in somebody else’s hands. “You’ve got to take ownership, because you might die tonight,” he said, and that’s its powerful message.

Longer Boats

For Tea for the Tillerman2, they redid Longer Boats with a new twist. After the original folky intro, they added some rap. “I’ve always loved R&B, so I just experimented with that song,” Yusuf said. At the time, he was working on a musical called Moonshadow and used this song.

Stevens poses for a portrait.
Photo by Graham Barclay/BWP Media/Getty Images

In the original recording from the Troubadour, he sang a verse that never made it onto Tea for the Tillerman. He revived the verse – about looking out at space – for the new album. “It’s what people are doing now — trying to find life on Mars or wherever.”

Tea for the Tillerman

The album cover for Tea for the Tillerman2 depicts a new scene five decades on – one that’s much darker and kids aren’t really playing. “They’re just listening to streaming music and playing with their mobile phones,” Yusuf described.

A photo of Stevens performing on stage.
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

But the Tillerman is a constant and reliable figure in the middle, he explained. he drinks his tea in a space suit, “because he’s prepared for whatever.” Behind him is a big white moon. “God has given us something to lighten our way. It’s a symbol of that… I love that song. And I love the Tillerman.”

Yorios’ Debut

Yoriyos followed in his dad’s footsteps and became a singer songwriter himself. When he started releasing his music in 2006, he never confirmed his relationship with Cat Stevens. When Stevens became Yusuf Islam, he named his son Muhammad Islam.

Cat Stevens and his son pose for the press.
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But his son eventually adopted the name Yoriyos, reportedly to conceal his identity. At the time, he was 21 and released his first album, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee through his own label, Rarechord. It came out only two weeks after Yusuf’s first album in 28 years, An Other Cup.

He Returned to Music Thanks to His Son

Yusuf, who hadn’t picked up his guitar in decades, attributed his own return to music to his son. “He bought a guitar back into the house and was writing songs in his bedroom,” he explained. “I had no idea he was doing it or that he was so talented.”

Cat Stevens performs on stage.
Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

Being so close to his son’s musical instruments tempted to start playing again himself. He recalled, “One morning a couple of years ago his guitar was lying around and it was difficult for me to ignore… I picked it up, found that I remembered the chords and started to sing some words I’d been writing. It was like opening a floodgate.”

His Wife and Children

After briefly being engaged to Louise Wightman, Yusuf married Fauzia Mubarak Ali in 1979, just two years after his conversion to Islam. The couple had five children together – one son and four daughters (a second son died in infancy).

A dated photo of Yusuf with his wife and daughters.
Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

They also have nine grandchildren. The couple married in London, and although they have a home in London, they live in a villa in Dubai.