DURING a vacation in Marrakesh, Morocco, Steven Demetre Georgiou aka ‘Cat’ Stevens was haunted by the sound of the Athan (the Muslim call to prayer) that rang out at random times of the day. Intrigued, he asked someone about the strange call and was told that it was ‘’music for God.”
Years later, Yusuf Islam recalls that trip and remembers thinking, ‘’Music for God? I’d never heard that before – I’d heard of music for money, music for fame, music for personal power, but music for God!”
A series of incidents fueled his quest for faith further – while recovering from a bout of tuberculosis during his heydays as a pop star, he began to question aspects of his life and spirituality. He later recounted, “to go from the show business environment and find you are in hospital, getting injections day in and day out, and people around you are dying, it certainly changes your perspective. I got down to thinking about myself. It seemed almost as if I had my eyes shut.”
He experimented with some of the more esoteric elements of spirituality in an effort to find peace of mind, until he was given a copy of the Quran as a birthday gift by his (non-Muslim) brother – a souvenir from a trip to Jerusalem.
In an interview later, Yusuf recalled reading the Quran and strongly identifying with the story of Prophet Yusuf (peace be upon him), which is called “the best of stories” in the Quran, and talks about “a man bought and sold in the market place” – which is how Yusuf felt in the music business.
When he accepted Islam in 1977, he was content: he said he had found inner peace, answers to the questions that had troubled him, and “the spiritual home I’d been seeking for most of my life.”
The experiences of several celebrities – entertainers, sports persons, authors and scientists – who have accepted Islam in recent times have many elements in common with Yusuf ’s story: the path to faith unfolds for the one who actively seeks it, who realizes the emptiness of material comforts even at the pinnacle of worldly success, who recognizes the Truth and is willing to stand up for it even at great personal cost.
It’s undeniable that rich and famous adherents to Islam bring numerous benefits to the community: they pique public curiosity, create positive awareness about the faith (especially in non-Muslim societies); often use their sphere of influence and ‘celebrity appeal’ to highlight worthy causes, and employ their talent and resources for the benefit of others. At the very least, they give every Muslim the spiritual equivalent of a shot-in-the-arm, a chance to reaffirm their own gratitude for being guided to Islam.
However, making a fuss over ‘celebrity converts’ is not without its pitfalls – not just for the community, but for the spiritual benefit of the individuals themselves.
For a start, considering some Muslims more worthy of being feted than others simply because of their superior looks, wealth, fame or influence seems like a negation of the basic Quranic premise: ‘The most honorable amongst you with Allah is that believer who has At-Taqwa (Godconsciousness)’.
The road to growing in faith is a long, often rocky haul, and we would do well to remember this before anointing or accepting brand new members to the faith as “leaders,” “spokespersons” or even “role models.”
Ultimately, it is a disservice to the community that other Muslims who may be more knowledgeable, but perhaps are less charismatic, are pushed to the background to make room for the “stars” under the spotlight. Most of all, it is unfair to expect new Muslims – no matter what their worldly background – to become well-versed in all things Islamic, simply by uttering the testimony of faith. As Muslim American TV star Dave Chappelle said in an interview with Time magazine, “I don’t normally talk about my religion publicly because I don’t want people to associate me and my flaws with this beautiful thing. And I believe it is beautiful if you learn it the right way.”
Celebrities who come to Islam often request respect for their private life usually to no avail. It is time we overcame our weakness for ‘big names’. What’s interesting is that some of the Salaf were ‘celebrities’ (read rich, famous, influential) in their own right, yet people neither obsessed over their faults nor exalted them to the point of deification. Similarly, it’s time we stopped treating celebrities coming to Islam as mere showpieces or statistics that shore up the image of Islam, and started treating them with the consideration, respect and Husn-az-zann (good opinion) due to our ‘ordinary’ brothers and sisters in faith.