Sami Yusuf does not conform to your assumptions of what celebrities are like. He is polite and courteous, offering multiple thanks even though all you may have done was pass him some tissues or placed his seat in position.
We know this because the 36-year-old was at Virgin Megastore at Mall of the Emirates on Wednesday to launch his album with a fan meet and greet. Yusuf has previously been dubbed ‘the biggest British star in the Middle East’ by the Guardian, and ‘Islam’s biggest rock star’ by Time magazine, for his characteristically spiritual music.
And a rock star reception he did receive, with fans queuing up to meet him on a workday — one of whom had flown in all the way from Switzerland just for the launch of the album. Yusuf’s latest album is titled Barakah, an Arabic word that can be loosely translated to mean abundance, grace, and blessings. So what does the singer, writer, composer and UN Global Ambassador against World Hunger think barakah means in the turbulent times we live in today?
“In this context, barakah really means the grace of Mohammad [peace be upon him]. Which means barakah Muhammadiyya is the grace emanating from the Mohammadian message, [and] his presence. Barakah was made for one reason and one reason only,” said Yusuf. “It’s basically my response to the atrocities that are being carried out in the name of Islam.”
He also laments the destruction of religious sites in the region by extremists.
“Given the context that we’re living in today, which is madness and extremism of an unprecedented level… We’ve never seen anything like this before. I was reading the other day, actually, earlier on today, to be precise, about a mosque that had survived the Mongol invasion but not the extremists that destroyed it last year,” he said, referring to the 13th-century shrine of Imam Awn Al Din in Mosul, Iraq.
“It’s a very, very difficult time. I think this extremism is not just something exclusive to Islam — you can see Donald Trump and you’ll know what I mean — perhaps [other extremism is] not as violent, but the extremism is there, unfortunately, at all levels. And I think one of the reasons for that is metaphysical. It is that we have lost who we are, our sense of belonging and who we are at a metaphysical level.”
Despite being known for his reverential music, Yusuf does not believe himself to be a representative of Islam. The purpose of the album, he says, was to help himself and his fans reconnect with the roots of faith — the core of spirituality in all religions, which he believes is love.
Celebratic Islamic music
“Barakah is specifically my response to the atrocities being carried out in the name of my faith, and it celebrates over 1,000 years of sacred Islamic music. Contrary to what extremists would want us to believe, the traditional understanding is that, in Islam [and] I believe in all the great traditions, the default position is one of beauty, love, and compassion,” said Yusuf.
“But what we see [instead] is madness and ugliness, and quite frankly most of the problems are modern, are a result of modernity. So that’s why it’s important to put things into perspective, and that’s why I worked on this album.”
The singer also believes that the path to the core of spirituality is through art and the appreciation of beauty; a path that is constantly being denied access to by terrorist groups. Since 2014, Daesh has destroyed world heritage sites across the Middle East, and has stripped mosques of their characteristic Islamic decorative tiling, claiming that they are a religiously erroneous form of creativity that contradicts the basics of Sharia, the Islamic legal system.
“To truly understand the tradition, you have to really appreciate the tradition, you have to immerse yourself in the art. And Islam, like other great religions, has its own art,” said Yusuf.
According to him, simply listening to poetry by ancient Muslim thinkers such as the 17th century Punjabi philosopher Bulleh Shah, or by 13th century Arab-Andalusian scholar Ibn Arabi, “has more barakah and grace, authenticity and truth in it than to read a modern book written in the 19th century on the fundamentals of religion.”
“But, you see,” said Sami, “this beauty that I’m talking about, is being denied by a movement that, until very recently, was considered a heresy by the scholars. And now, it’s become the norm. We find it where I’m from, the UK, you find it in France… because of the propaganda and the financial support.”
Over the past few years, Yusuf has intentionally stripped back the sound on his music, choosing to focus instead on the use of traditional sounds and instruments. For the latest album, he worked with philosophers and professors at Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and Cambridge, to compile the research that ultimately went into its creation. Barakah consists mainly of covers of traditional Islamic music, and includes a 27-page booklet with commentary for every song, explanation of where it came from, who the authors were, and why they wrote what they wrote.
“You will find one common theme — love. The common theme that you find is of knowing and love. And all these people [the original writers and poets], they were knowers of God… and they loved God,” said Yusuf.
“That is what permeates within the normative tradition of Islam. That is what permeates through the cultures, whether it’s India in Ajmer or whether it’s in Lahore or whether it’s in [what was] Andalusia, parts of Nigeria or West Africa or Algeria or Istanbul. That same theme, or consistency of love and tradition and culture. The forms may be different. A qawwali is different to a traditional Moroccan piece. But the barakah is the same. You can see it, you feel it, and you hear it.”
Yusuf also says that the album is not merely a musical album created with the goal of commercial gain. “This album is not just a musical album. It’s an experience,” said Yusuf.
“It is an invitation to bask in the barakah of traditional sacred music. To know what the knowers and lovers of God knew. To understand, and to be connected to that. And I believe that the only way to tackle the extremist world view is by reconnecting with normative tradition.”
Sami Yusuf’s latest album Barakah is available in the UAE at Virgin Megastore for Dh45, and is on iTunes for $10.99 (about Dh40).
— Sayema Wasi is an intern at Gulf News.