On Tour With an Islamic Pop Star Who Makes Fans Swoon

Mr. 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. Mr. Zain remembers little from this time, apart from playing in the snow shortly after arriving his new country: “You’re just a kid — everything’s new and fun,” he said.

Music was largely a hobby for Mr. 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. Mr. Khayat needed an assistant, and Mr. Zain went to the United States to work for him. But just before RedOne hit the big time, Mr. 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, Mr. 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.”


Mr. Zain’s songs cover a wide range of styles, from slick ballads to driving Europop. Credit Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

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,” Mr. 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.”


Mr. Zain with a young fan after his London show. Fans paid around $200 each for the chance to meet the singer, and the proceeds went to charity. Credit Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

During an hourlong interview, Mr. Zain was charming and carefree. The only time he seemed ruffled was when discussing politics.

Mr. Zain is very active on social media and regularly highlights issues that affect Muslims. He has championed the support that Mr. Erdogan, the 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,” Mr. 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.”

A few hours after the interview, Mr. 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 head scarves, stood on their chairs to see better and sing along, and were reprimanded by security.

Halfway through his set, Mr. 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 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.

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