This brief biography of Hamza Yusuf was everything I knew of him before leaving for a three-week teaching program for Muslim youth in Saudi Arabia this past summer at which he was one of the primary teachers. My first glimpse of him instantly told me that this man was not someone to take lightly. His eyes bespoke of an above-average intelligence, and his concentration never wavered once during the lectures he gave us every day.
Yusuf was a scholar, certainly, but little can prepare you for the breadth of his knowledge: In addition to being an expert in Qur’anic sciences, he is a master of Hadith (Prophetic sayings), Arabic grammar, morphology, and literature, jurisprudence, philosophy, ethics, spirituality, history and astronomy. In other words, the man can converse about nearly any topic under the sun.
From Van Allen’s electromagnetic belts, myelinated sheaths and quantum theory to the Circle of Dante, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Utilitarianism, it seemed like there was nothing he didn’t know. Far from scholars who only quote the Qur’an and Hadith, Yusuf quoted people from all times, cultures and spheres of society — George Bernard Shaw, Marcus Aurelius, Rumi, Confucius and Shakespeare —and all from a seemingly photographic memory.
His lectures are peppered with contemporary references, and he injects humor into material that would be otherwise very dense.
But a great teacher definitely requires an attentive audience. In the middle of a lecture that came after a very long day, Yusuf told the story of how his father attended a lecture by Robert Frost, the poet, who came into the hall and shouted at a freshman who was slouched to “Sit up!” The boy sat up and paid attention, concentrating throughout the lecture. It was Yusuf’s subtle way of telling us to pay attention in class — and to look like we were, too.
That wasn’t the only time during the course that Yusuf referred to his parents. He quoted his scholarly father often and in order to illustrate to us how Muslims should lead by example, he talked about his activist mother, who sent his sister to an all black school before integration, and had them doing recycling in the 1960s.
“My mother was never a talker or gave speeches,” he says. “She just did what she believed in. She lived her ideals and they had a big impact on me.”
Yusuf has five children, all boys, and all very well behaved. At a surprise birthday party for his wife at an all-women gathering, they all trooped in to give their salams [greetings] before leaving to ride bicycles. His oldest, Sheikh, who can’t be older than 10, sits through several 90-minute lectures without a peep. Yusuf invites him up once to sit next to him and to tell us all a riddle that he made up. He then took his son by the hand to get ice cream when class ended.
Yusuf is also a man who is not ashamed to show how much he loves his religion and its messenger. He tears up often when talking about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and got choked up when we visited sacred sites in Medina while telling us the story of the place we were visiting.
“Remember,” he tells us, “we visit the places not because of them, but because of the Beloved. He was here.”
The World Today
As a man who straddles two cultures, Yusuf offers potent insights into the challenges facing the ummah (the global Muslim community) today.
Although he rails at what he sees as an increasingly self-centered world in which people do only those things that are in their best interests, he also complains that “Muslims blame destiny for their own ineptitude.” Destiny, he explains, can only be blamed once you have done everything in your power to get what you want. “The bird,” he elaborated “leaves the nest every morning. It doesn’t wait for the worms to come to it, but trusts that once it goes out, Allah will provide it with worms.” Fatalism, he concludes, is a sickness that we must cure in ourselves.
That’s why Yusuf urges Muslim countries and communities to start working for themselves instead of depending on others. “Look at the hotel we’re staying in. It’s a Swiss hotel. The water is Swiss. The cutlery is Swiss. They want to benefit their country. This is mercantilism.” He goes on to quote the caliph ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, who said that: “There is no benefit in people who eat that which they do not plant and wear that which they do not weave.”
“Cultures,” he adds, “no longer have common collective desires or sense of homogeneity.” Even something as simple as coffee: There used to be two primary brands of coffee, but now coffee is individualized to “hot, ginger, foam free, double sugar, 2 percent milk coffee” — to satisfy your nafs (base self) as much as you can. This further compounds the problem of people being self-serving, of wanting only to please themselves — and not doing what’s for the good of the community.
It’s another hallmark of what Yusuf calls the “iPod culture,” which he says is causing people to lose their ability to be silent and to contemplate the world. “People are divorced from the natural world,” he says. “No one sees stars anymore. We’ve become divorced from the sense of the sacred and divine.”
In essence, we’ve lost the ability to contemplate that which is bigger than us, to feel that there is more to the world than our individual existence.
Biggest Problems and Opportunities
So all of that is problematic, true, but what are the greatest problems Muslims around the world now face?
“The greatest problem is materialism,” says Yusuf.. “When the Prophet foretold of the deplorable state of the ummah towards the end of time, and informed us that the previous civilizations that he identified as the Jewish and Christian communities — now what we broadly call the West — would conquer Muslim lands and devour their wealth, the companions asked what is wrong with us that we should find ourselves in such a state. Is it because we are few in number, they wanted to know. Is it from paucity?
‘No,’ the Prophet replied, ‘You are multitudes, but you are like flotsam without any substance. Awe will be removed from your enemies’ hearts and great weakness will enter yours.’
‘What is the weakness?’ they asked.
‘Love of the world [materialism], and fear of death [lack of sacrifice],’ he replied.’”
This, Yusuf believes, is one of the worst diseases of the heart. “Our preachers today,” he explains, “focus on political causes too often to the neglect of spiritual causes. The Prophet’s companions asked what was wrong with them, not why others were able to do that to them. This is because they were students of his school of empowerment that enabled them to look to themselves. The Prophet, as was his wont, took them to the subtle realm of real causation, not apparent cause. That is the realm of the heart. Weakness lies in the state of our hearts. They are filled with the love of this world and have a disdain for sacrifice, which only comes when one sees that there are things beyond this world worthy of sacrifice.
“A second major problem,” he continues, “is the increasing secularity of society. Religion is being marginalized and the secularists in the Arab world are clamoring for a clear separation of religion and politics. The reality of the matter is they are and have been separate in most Muslim states for some time. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, entirely secular regimes — and often ones that are quite belligerent towards Muslim piety and practice — run most Muslim lands.”
The last major problem he identifies is “the increasing politicization of Islam.” Islam, he believes, is now considered a vehicle for resistance to the unjust states that currently rule the Muslim lands.
“The problem with this,” he stresses, “is that many Arabs now see Islam as a political movement that will solve their often-excruciating social and economic problems. That is simply false and a dangerous utopian assumption that has no tangible examples from history, with the exception of the prophetic period and what immediately followed.”
Yusuf has an interesting explanation of a Qur’anic verse commonly used to justify why it is that Muslim rule is best. “[In the verse] ‘You were the best community brought forth for humanity, you command to good, forbid vice and believe in God,’ the past tense is used. ‘You were.’ And according to Ibn ‘Abbass and Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, as related by Imam Tahir bin Ashur in his commentary, it meant the first community and did not apply to later communities. This is really the only logical reading of the verse given the moral depravity of the current Muslim community.”
How, then should these problems be tackled? Is there a way forward for the legions of Muslims looking to better their circumstances?
“Youth,” he answers. “Most Western countries have low or negative birthrates. They are not even replicating their populations in America, which is doing better than Europe. Europe is literally a dying society. Japan also is graying, and these cultures have a crisis of family. In America, for the first time ever, a dominant civilization has more people living out of wedlock than in. The family is in crisis in the West. While the family is dysfunctional in the Muslim world, it is far more intact as a system than in the West.”
“Because family is [in the Muslim World] strong and extended family is strong, birth rates are high,” he continues. “This is partly due to poverty, but not, in my estimation, entirely — Muslims still genuinely love children and having children is still very important in Muslim lands. In the West, there is a subtle and sometimes not so subtle anti-children environment. Many people put off having children to pursue careers and then, in their late thirties, have one child, maybe two. The youth of the Muslim world can be the single most powerful potential force — if they are properly educated and directed. Unfortunately, that is a big ‘if’.”
Is he optimistic about the future of Islam? “We are obliged to be optimists by our religion,” he says. “The Prophet said, ‘If the end of time comes upon you and you are planting a tree, if you are able to, finish planting it.’ He who plants a tree, plants hope. Things look very bleak from one window; from another, they look stunningly bright. It keeps us balanced to look out of both from time to time.”
America and Muslims
There are few issues on which Yusuf is as often queried by non-Muslims as relations between Islam in the West, as he himself is among the first to acknowledge.
“I was once asked, ‘Do Muslims want to take over the world?” Yusuf recalls. “The answer is, ‘No, they’re just reacting to the West taking over the world’.”
But Barbie dolls to Big Macs and military bases aren’t the only means by which the West is influencing the ummah. In the years since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, it has become vogue in the West — and among many Westernized Muslim scholars — to argue that the time has come for a reformation in Islam. In other words, for Islam to be “updated” to bring it into synch with the modern world.
“Islam does not need reforming as God formed it, according to our belief,” Yusuf asserts. “But it does need renewal and reinterpretation, without a doubt. There are many things that need to be revisited.
“The problem is that we no longer have qualified people to do the revisiting,” he continues. “Most of the so-called scholars are rejects from the school system. Their grades were so low they couldn’t get into other schools and got stuck in Shariah. This is a fact of the Muslim world. Thank God there are some who come from families of scholars and, despite trends against Islamic studies, they desired and were encouraged to pursue them. Most, however, are poorly trained and not capable of doing the reassessment of the tradition that can help bring in some fresh air in to a rather musty madrassah [Islamic school].”
Yusuf hopes that youth with potential, the best and brightest, will go on to study sacred knowledge, but admits that “They have to learn the tradition before they can reassess it, and that alone is a vast enterprise that takes years of disciplined and serious training and most people have neither the patience nor the aptitude to complete such a momentous task.”
He then delivers a biting judgment over many of the scholars of our time, who do not have the patience or aptitude he mentioned, resulting in “half-baked, week-end muftis calling for ijtihaad [deduction of rulings from primary Islamic sources] after looking its meaning up on Google.”
What we need, he stresses, are “classically trained captains who can navigate the current waters, [captains who are] conversant with the modern navigating equipment, but who are also thoroughly trained in star navigation. Indeed, because the modern tools breakdown and are not foolproof, the stars must always be the basis upon which they navigate. Even modern pilots must learn the stars so if their equipment breaks down they are not lost.”
Yusuf perfectly articulated the most troubling problem for Muslims who want to learn about their religion: the lack of well qualified scholars. In Saudi Arabia, he had added that scholars, who get their knowledge from other, well-known and respected scholars, are the ones to trust. “But it’s because [people] don’t,” he said, that results in ridiculous fatwas [religious verdicts],” citing the now infamous Egyptian breastfeeding fatwa, while smiling and shaking his head.
Scholars are also important to non-Muslims, as they frequently serve as the most high-profile emissaries of Islam in the West.
“Malcolm X, in the chapter on Hajj in his autobiography, mentions that the Arabs are in dire need of public relations,” begins Yusuf. “That particularly struck me because although he said that in 1964, it seems we have learned nothing since then. Part of the problem is that if Muslims have a minute to say anything on a news station or a talkshow, they use it to convey their grievances. When I look at the seerah [Islamic history] and the Prophet’s meetings with the people who were persecuting him, he always used it as an opportunity to tell them about Islam and what it could do for them, how it could help them. He never used such opportunities as platforms for voicing his grievances. Even with God he asked for their forgiveness.”
I ask if he feels he has a responsibility to correct the impressions — and misinformation — left behind by such ‘scholars.’ He answers: “This is something converts in the West have been doing since Alexander Russell Webb back in the nineteenth century. It goes with the territory and we should not shy away from it. It is both an Islamic thing to do but also a very humanitarian thing as well.”
He adds that there are also many non-Muslims in America who wind up defending Islam and Muslims, including the author Karen Armstrong, Georgetown professor John Esposito (who directs the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding) and the businessman and philanthropist George Russell.
Converts live under a veil of suspicion in the West, and even among many Muslims; they are often seen as too extreme, too zealous to fit in. One of the reasons Hamza Yusuf has such a strong following in the West is because he is neither —indeed, he’s the textbook image of the well-balanced convert.
“Converts to Islam are an important source of renewal,” Yusuf explains. “They bring into a faith new blood, energy and insights. Many of the greatest Muslims in the history of Islam were either converts or children of converts, including first and foremost the companions of the Prophet and some of the best scholars of Islam such as Imam al-Bukhari and Abu Hanifah.”
“There are different types of converts,” Yusuf continues. “Most enter into Islam as zealots and need reining in to a certain degree. Conversion is a powerful experience and one can lose one’s bearings quite easily and slip into extremist forms of Islam — not necessarily violent ones but rather doctrinal.  There are also lukewarm converts who sometimes become Muslim for less than the right reasons, such as marriage. We should still welcome and encourage such people and recognize they existed even at the time of the Prophet.”
As for how he himself experienced conversion? “In my early days of conversion I had very low tolerance for lukewarm Muslims. They made me angry. I have since recognized that they are like I was when I was a Christian. The faith was something I inherited and grew up with and not something that was my own, a discovery of great import.”
Other converts, particularly those from non-Arab countries, try to adopt cultures other than their own. “I was one of them, so it is hard for me to blame them,” Yusuf says honestly. I was reminded of something he had said in one of his lectures about converts changing their names to Arab or Arab-sounding names. He had advised converts to keep their names. “It’s wrong to change it,” he had said, “because it’s the right of the father to name you. I forced my father to call me Hamza. I was ignorant. He named me after his university teacher.”
Why, I wonder, do converts try and adopt another culture? “[Because] when one becomes Muslim in the West,” Yusuf answers, “there is a divorce that takes place from one’s own culture. This is natural because Islam is a powerful, all-encompassing reality that challenges core beliefs and attitudes of the modern consumer culture that relishes and glorifies the seven deadly sins.”
“But,” he clarifies, “divorce does not have to be the War of the Roses, where the two never talk to each other and can’t sit down and be human together or recognize the common ground they have. We need to ‘indigenize’ Islam, to use Dr. Abdal Hakim Jackson’s term. We need to make Islam something that is Western and not alien to the West, but this will take time.”
Hamza Yusuf is one of a kind. To feel his true power as a scholar, though, one has to be in his presence. The sheikh who advised George W. Bush on what to do following 9/11 will sit with you and talk to you. He’s a strong speaker, and people leave his lectures a lot more introspective and a little transformed. What does he think sets him apart from other scholars?
“My being a Western student of Islam enables me a certain vantage point from which I can see certain things that some people who grew up in the traditional Muslim world might not see as clearly,” he says. “I am [also] grateful to have a reasonably strong background in the Western canon of literature and tradition that has afforded me tools and ways of viewing things that give a different perspective.”
Yusuf is in the process of trying to build a serious seminary in the West, writing articles and books, including his next project in the Zaytuna Curriculum series. Following that, he has a handful of film projects lined up and is working on the translation of the Seven Odes of pre-Islamic Arabia.
“Life,” he says, “is very short in its length, and I hope to finish a few things with the time that remains.” et