Today's Paper Latest stories Obits 10 things to do this weekend The TV Column Newsletters Wally Hall Weather Puzzles/games
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

BIRMINGHAM, England -- About 11 p.m. one recent Friday, in a room backstage at the International Convention Center here, pop star Maher Zain, dressed all in white, was meeting his fans after a sold-out 90-minute show.

Fiaza Kausar, a 23-year-old receptionist for a vacuum cleaner company, walked up to him, somehow managing to keep her cool. "When you're having a bad day or something you just listen to him and you feel happier," she'd said earlier, adding that she plays his music out loud at work.

After taking a photograph, she faced him and said, "May Allah bless you with happiness and success always." Zain smiled and touched his hand to his heart. Then Kausar was ushered out of the room, and replaced by more people who had each paid about $200 for the chance to meet him.

Zain, who was in Birmingham for the eighth performance of a tour for British charity Penny Appeal, is one of Islamic pop's biggest stars. The 36-year-old has more than 26 million likes on Facebook and gets more than 100 million views on YouTube a month, particularly from Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. His song "For the Rest of My Life" is an Islamic wedding fixture. (In Birmingham, one concertgoer said she'd heard it at a nonMuslim wedding, despite its opening line, "I praise Allah for sending me you, my love").

He even has friends in high places: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey "loves me as an artist," Zain said. They have met many times.

Zain works hard to ensure his music reaches a wide audience. He releases albums in Arabic, Turkish and sometimes in Malay, and includes songs with lyrics in Urdu and Indonesian, writing the words phonetically in Swedish so he can sing them. His songs cover a wide range of styles, from slick ballads to driving Europop, but he also releases vocal-only versions for strict Muslims who consider instrumental music haram, or forbidden.

Given his popularity, his public image is surprisingly narrow: focused on his charity work and little else except the fact that he likes working out. In Birmingham, fans asked what they knew of Zain other than his music could say only that he is a family man and role model.

Sitting in a London hotel room three days after the Birmingham concert, Zain denied having any strategy for a public image. "I'm the same guy on and offstage," he said. He added that he liked his privacy and the quiet life in Sweden.

"I don't want to live this life, basically. I really don't," Zain added. "I believe I'm on a mission and you cannot turn it down, you know what I mean? I've been chosen."

Zain was born in Lebanon, but, when he was 8 years old, his parents sold their car and other possessions to buy fake Swedish visas so they could escape the country's civil war. Zain remembers little from this time, apart from playing in the snow shortly after arriving in his new country: "You're just a kid -- everything's new and fun," he said.

Music was largely a hobby for Zain until his 20s, when he met Nadir Khayat, the Swedish-Moroccan music producer known as RedOne, who has worked with high-profile artists like Lady Gaga and Shakira. Khayat needed an assistant, and Zain went to the United States to work for him. But just before RedOne hit the big time, Zain returned to Sweden to take a break. "It was supposed to be a short time," he said. "It was, like, 'I will go back, I will go back' -- but that didn't happen."

Instead, Zain said, he rediscovered his faith -- though he is vague about the details. He said he had experienced many difficulties in his teens and mid-20s. "It's everything from a love story to family problems," he said, "things every youngster goes through." There was an identity crisis, too: "I had many questions about life and death. It doesn't make sense that I'm just born and then I'm going to work and I'm going to have fun, whatever I'm going to do, then die and that's it."

All that meant he was receptive when an acquaintance invited him to a lecture at a mosque. "And that's how this started," he said, adding that "it wasn't a hallelujah experience." He said it took time for his faith to grow, "to be strong enough to say, 'I want to leave it behind, all these opportunities.'"

"Islam for me is not just about God, about the Prophet; Islam is emotions, it's human beings, it's what I breathe, it's what I do every day," Zain said. "Just by waking up and hugging my wife, that's Islam."

He still kicks himself for failing to mention Allah in one track on his debut album. Faith, he said, "is not something I shy away from."

"It's the opposite. I'm proud of it."

Zain is very active on social media and regularly highlights issues that affect Muslims. He has championed the support that Erdogan, president of Turkey, has shown to the Rohingya in Myanmar and to Syrian refugees, for instance. (Turkey is doing what "no one in the world has done," Zain said.)

But he insisted that highlighting such issues was "more humanity than politics."

"I'm really, like, so not into politics," he said. "When you see these things, I feel as a human and as an artist I have a responsibility to highlight what people are going through."

Later that evening, Zain took the stage at Central Hall Westminster. The show was far livelier and louder than Birmingham's. At one point, two teenage girls, wearing abayas and headscarves, stood on their chairs to see better and sing along, and were reprimanded by security.

Halfway through his set, Zain covered Michael Jackson's "Heal the World," a song that seems to perfectly sum up what he stands for. But the biggest reaction came when he played "Number One For Me," a song about his mother. "Who here loves their mother?" he asked, to screams from the audience. "No -- who really loves their mother?" The screams got louder. He told the audience members to hug their mother if she was with them -- dozens did -- and to send her a text message if she was elsewhere.

"And if she's not with you anymore, don't forget to pray for her, inshallah," he added. The audience swooned.

Religion on 11/25/2017

Print Headline: Muslim pop star keeps his focus on charity work, Allah

Sponsor Content

Comments

You must be signed in to post comments
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT