Sami Yusuf is perhaps the most famous British Muslim in the world. Adored in the Middle East, his records sell millions and he has just sold out Wembley Arena. He talks to Aida Edemariam about music and faith, extremism and why he thinks Islam needs a marketing campaign
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It's a nondescript place, where Sami Yusuf is staying, a muted Quality Hotel in a west London suburb, but its neighbour rather makes up for it - Wembley Stadium, arching silver into clear, cold autumn air. And next to it, Wembley Arena, which Yusuf filled, a few nights ago. His concert, organised by Islamic Relief in aid of Darfur, was sold out: 10,000 people came to hear him sing."It was amazing," he says. He is courtly, friendly, but obviously entirely strung out on sleeplessness and adrenaline. "Really amazing. I mean, I've performed for big crowds - 13,000 people in Cologne Arena, 200,000 people in Istanbul. It's not about crowds. Wembley is very symbolic." Here, I think he's going to say that it's because finally he was at home, singing in London, where he grew up, but he doesn't. "It symbolised the true spirit of the British public, and among them the British Muslims." Unless you're a British Muslim, or you live in the Middle East, or, say, Bosnia, you probably won't have heard of him, but Sami Yusuf has good claim to being the most famous British Muslim in the world. He has sold more than 3m albums, though, "if you consider the bootlegging - no, really, because in the Muslim world copyright has no meaning - it's millions. Dozens of millions." His team was expecting only about 50,000 at that concert in Istanbul, and was taken aback when 200,000 came. He gets red-carpet welcomes when he lands in countries across the Middle East, must give press conferences to 50-odd journalists before he's allowed even to leave the airport (where guards often let him bypass security checks, because they know who he is). A 10-minute walk down the street in Cairo, where he now lives part of the time, can take two hours, so many people want to talk to him and shake his hand. Much of this adulation, in the letters he receives, from those who call in with questions when he is interviewed on, for example, al-Jazeera, is tinged with gratefulness. Yusuf really can sing - in swooping ballads, in the note-filigree of Arabic maqamat, against violins and rousing male choruses - but it is his subjects, and the modern-ancient hybrid with which he treats them, that seem really to strike a chord. So, for example, Hasbi Rabbi, his latest hit (and, incidentally, a ringtone heard everywhere from Cairo to Damascus) begins, jauntily, "Oh Allah the Almighty/Protect me and guide me/To your love and mercy." The video shows him in a suit, walking down a London street, giving up his seat for an old lady on a bus, then, when the lyrics switch to Hindi, strolling around the Taj Mahal. My Ummah, the title song of his second album (Ummah means nation, and in this context, nation of believers) is a call to praise and pride: "Let's become whole again/Proud again/'Cause I swear with firm belief in our hearts/We can bring back the glory of our past." He is unafraid to be baldly political, to sing about Aids, about Beslan ("Would he [the prophet Muhammad] allow the murder of an innocent child? Oh no"), about the right to wear the headscarf. There is nothing subtle or particularly poetic about it, but it's defiant and addresses the now: "Time and time again/ You speak of democracy/Yet you rob me of my liberty." It has been suggested that much of his popularity stems from recognition - from young Muslims seeing, finally, a role model they understand and who speaks to their own situation, but he's defiant about this, too, for the understandable reason that it belittles his skill. "Possibly. But I do have to say that a lot of the time when I perform concerts, I get people coming, in huge numbers, who are perhaps nominally Muslim. It's not about faith, it's not because they like me because of faith. And then again, my second album isn't that religious. My supporters - my fans, if you like - they don't see me as a munshid, or in Arabic they call it a nasheed, a religious figure, they don't see me as that, and in the Arab world they call me an international artist. Because they appreciate the fact that I play most of my own instruments, I compose my own music, I arrange my own music. What I'm trying to get at is, they like my music." Fine, but there's something else going on there as well, isn't there, apart from simple music appreciation? "Recognition. I think it does apply, but again, I think, quite frankly, what it boils down to is quality and music and the art. Because in the end everything else dies away. You know, I went to Azerbaijan, and in Azerbaijan - I mean, it's a Muslim country, but they're not particularly - I had 10,000 people in the stadium. And four of them were covered, wearing hijab. The niqab - that scares me." Has he performed in Saudi Arabia? "I have. It was," and he pauses, pointedly, "a very interesting experience. But they still knew my songs, and sang all my songs." Recognition and representation, he does point out, go both ways, and if there is something he would like to stand for it's moderation, tolerance and anti-extremism. "Mecca and Medina are holy for Muslims. Saudi Arabia isn't. They've got their own problems and their own issues and they need to deal with them. They don't represent Muslims." As for the Abu Hamzas of the world - they're why he thought his Wembley gig so symbolic. "Just contextualise it, just for a second, the situation with Muslims in the UK. I think it was about time that they had something like this. Because Abu Hamza, and Abu this and Abu that - they don't represent us. They can go back to wherever they came from, frankly. I'm serious. They really don't represent us. I'm just sick and tired of seeing those ugly - and they are ugly, really they're ugly. I'm scared of the guy with the hook - I mean, who is he? I've hardly come across people like that. It's just in the media. And it scares me." He is as scornful of Muslims he sees as being on the other end of the spectrum, "opportunists" such as Dutch writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali: "She doesn't attack extremism - she attacks Islam. And these people - they make money. They sell out halls. And this is sad. The world we're living in wants to hear this kind of thing. What we need, in my opinion, are people to bring back everything and say, 'Look, chill out. Cool down.' That's what I'm about." Yusuf was born to Azerbaijani parents, in Tehran. They moved to Britain when he was three, and he grew up in west London. (His parents now live in Stockport, where he also lives with his wife, some of the time.) "And this is the thing -" he turns vociferous again "- when I grew up, in school, we had Janet and Jack and Ahmed and Mohammed and Dipesh and Meninder - and we were just chilling together. Now you've got, 'Oh, he's a Muslim, and he's a that, and he's a this.' D'you know what I mean? This is not what London's about! This is not what I grew up with. And it's scary! I don't wanna see that." The majority of his friends were English, "middle-class, white guys", and even when, at 16, he went through a period of deepening spirituality and became a much more committed Muslim, he says there were no issues with peer pressure, no feeling that he was being left out because everyone else was experimenting with drink, for example; it's discrimination against them to expect that, he argues, and anyway, "they were good people, they were good guys. They weren't naughty." He started learning music from his father, a music teacher, and became an omnivorous student: he plays piano and violin, "from the western instruments. Eastern - most of the Persian instruments: santoor, taab, tombak, katar, daff - and the Arabic instruments - tabla, dufoof - and of course the Turkish instruments ..." He says, "I used to be an addict of Classic FM. I used to listen to it from 14 to 16, every night it was on in my room. It's a bit sad, but - I love classical music." And though he always knew his future lay in music, he thought it would be in composition and arranging, not in singing. He didn't even know he could sing, until his father heard him crooning in the bathroom one day and suggested he look after his voice. The Royal Academy accepted him as a composition student, but he wasn't there for long. "I left." Why? "You're making me feel really uncomfortable," he says, laughing. "There's an interrogation element." As interrogation goes, "Why?" is not exactly being Jeremy Paxman, but Yusuf, his manager tells me later, is used to a very different interviewing style: more fawning, by fans who more often than not want an autograph, or have brought along a nephew to meet him. "It was kind of snobby," he adds. "I felt a bit uncomfortable. And I had some personal problems at the time. And they were personal, so don't ask me what they were - they were personal." I try but no elaboration is forthcoming, so why uncomfortable? "I think classical music has been hijacked by - certainly in my day - by a kind of upper-middle-class white-oriented population, whereas in fact classical music was the music of the people in Mozart's time, in Beethoven's time - opera, for example, would be like the movies. I felt a bit uncomfortable, but I think mainly I really had some ... I just didn't want to be there." His first album was accidental, self-produced, arising out of a personal need to sing praise songs, and no one was as surprised as he was when it sold out in its first week. He has been famous ever since, which has brought its own uncomfortablenesses. Yusuf has come in for criticism from other Muslims about the fact that he sings at all (the issue seems to be the atmosphere that surrounds singing, rather than the singing itself); and about his celebrity - something he himself sometimes feels uneasy about. At Wembley, as one audience member put it on YouTube, "The concert was gud and bad as all the girls were screaming wen he came bak as they all fancied him it was lyk get ova him. the atmosphea was gr8 tho", but he is quick to dissociate himself from, say, the likes of Robbie Williams (though, it must be said, he wouldn't mind competing on similar turf: "I'm an artist, I wouldn't mind getting a Grammy or an MTV award. That's how I see myself"). "The reason I never wanted to be a pop star was because of a lot of the things they get up to after concerts," he says. "My father noticed something in me from a very early age and groomed me. But I just didn't want to get involved in the pop industry. I was scared of it. I've seen what it can do and I didn't want to get involved. I'm really glad that I've got this huge niche, if you like." And though he may slightly shrug off the suggestion, he knows it's a niche that gives him power. He's hoping to record a Christmas single, with an as yet un-named artist, to raise money for Darfur, and in the new year he and his record label, Awakening, will be launching a foundation called Exploring Islam, the aim of which will be to shatter, through ambitious national media campaigns, the misconceptions and stereotypes currently surrounding Islam here. They'll be commissioning polls, by YouGov, for example, to discover the top five misconceptions about Islam, and then tackle them head-on. "We'll treat it like a product that has a bad name," says Sharif Banna, co-founder of Awakening, "and then market it. We don't want people to convert, necessarily, just not to be afraid of it." The tag is to be "mainstreaming Islam" ; the intent to drive home the message that Muslims are as normal as everyone else. Yusuf is posing for the photographer when he calls over to me to make one thing absolutely clear. "You know something? I love human beings, I absolutely love human beings. It might sound a bit cheesy and corny, but I do. I love people, irrespective of their race and background. When people incite hate, it just gets to me, whether they be Muslims, or Christians." And then he has to be off, racing to catch a plane to Cairo.