Unofficial Biography of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

The Unofficial Biography of Shaykh Hamza

Last update Nov 21, 2013

The Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Biography

Author's Preface

This is an unofficial Biography of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson.  It was written without his knowledge, but later received his acknowledgement.  All information is based on the public domain and heavily referenced in the end notes. 

Only items that could be corroborated or referenced were included. Rumors or innuendo were generally ignored (unless I couldn't resist). The Biography does not include any official information and should be taken as an unofficial Biography. 

I tried to keep personal information about his immediate family out, for privacy reasons.

Lately, I've taken some artistic license in cleaning up the quoted language. Sometimes, spoken statements don't read well. Mostly, I'm dropping pauses, and joining sentences.

This Biography is as much a joy to write, as it is for you to read.  Reach me through the contact page if you have any questions, concerns or comments, Jazakullah.

The Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Biography

Life as Poetry

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit.  Genius hits a target no one else can see."
- Arthur Schopenhauer

"I don't know anybody that knows English Poetry better than my father does. He was somebody, who as far as I can tell, had a religious experience at Columbia University, taking classes with a man named Mark Van Doren. [I]

Van Doren was a teacher of literature. He taught the Great Literature of Western Civilization [II] , and my father sat in his classes for 3 years at Columbia University, and then audited his classes.

…He named me after Mark Van Doren (Mark Hanson). I was his first born son, and I think that tells you the impact this man had on his life.

My father actually wrote a commentary on an Elizabethan treatise on Verse. So I grew up hearing (a lot of poetry) and also just hearing his discussions of these things.

But I didn't appreciate any of it until I had a great teacher and that occurred in the Middle East. And he was from West Africa." [1]

In the Beginning

"He is like Oceans, wherever you look, you will find precious things."
-Shaykh Abdullah al-Kadi

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf was born Mark Hanson, in Walla Walla, Washington, 1958.  The second boy and the middle of seven children. [III] He grew up on the suburban West Coast. 

Speaking of his Parents, Shaykh Hamza says,

"My father was a University Professor in Northern California.  On my mother's side, they've been in California for over 100 years, so it's an old Californian family.  And I was raised (with a) Christian background." [2]

"…Both my parents are University educated, are very broad minded people.  My father was a humanities professor, (he has) very philosophical inclinations in his world view. " [3]

Shaykh Hamza states that his Mother was conscious of the environment, eating organic food and being respectful of the Earth.    She inculcated this belief in her children and Shaykh Hamza grew up eating Cucumber sandwiches, and other wholesome foods.

"My mother went to Berkeley, and that says enough.  She was very active in the civil rights movement.  She took me when I was 12, to the Soledad Brother's (trial), to George Jackson's prison trial, just to see what was happening, that there were political struggles going on in this country. 

She was very opposed to the Vietnam War.  We grew up, with a lot of social awareness…my close family is wealthy, my particular family is not wealthy at all…But definitely the area we were in was quite wealthy.  So, I think my Mother wanted to make sure that we understood that this country has a lot of inequities.

My sister was in Salma, Alabama marching …that's the type background we were raised in.  And the 60's was a fascinating time.  Berkeley was right across the street, I grew up quite literally across the street…and we were aware that there were big things happening, in the states." [4]

The Family Tree

Shaykh Hamza traces his roots to various European sources. His family has a rich American history, some of his ancestors reaching North America in the 1700's and being involved in early American history.

His lineage links back to Scottish, Greek, and Northern European blood. About his paternal lineage, he says,

"My great, great grandfather, Michael O'Hanson, fled the impending potato famine of Ireland and arrived in America in the early 1840s with his bride, Bridget. They headed for Philadelphia…a mecca for Irish-Catholic immigrants then.

They didn't get a warm welcome to America, and instead found themselves smack in the middle of the Nativist anti-Irish-Catholic riots of 1844, which left scores of people dead and two beautiful Catholic churches destroyed. The riots were prompted by false rumors that the Irish-Catholics wanted the Bible removed from public schools to ensure Protestant doctrine would not be taught to their children.

Ordinary Americans were appalled by the viciousness of the attacks, and their good sense prevailed. It eventually led to the famous consolidation of the city in 1854. But Irish-Catholics had still not arrived, and my great grandfather, Michael Hanson Junior, dropped the "O" from his Gaelic name and blended into Philadelphia society, going into partnership with the enlightened Jewish newspaper giant, Paul Block. And while he practiced his Catholicism openly, he hid his Irish ancestry even from his own children, to spare them the perceived shame of being Irish in upper class society." [5]

Shaykh Hamza's paternal great-grandfather (father’s mother’s father) was Archibald Chisholm.  Archibald was an Iron-Ore magnate and owned large parts of the Iron Range. [IV] In 1901, he plotted the town Chisholm, Minnesota, and had it incorporated as a village. [6] Shaykh Hamza's own father was born in Duluth, Minnesota.

Family Tree: Maternal

On his Mother's side, Shaykh Hamza's great-grandfather and grandfather entered the US in 1896 through Ellis Island [7] . Shaykh Hamza relates a story about his Grandfather,

"My grandfather was a very successful business man. He had what they call "The Midas touch", everything he touched turned to Gold. One day he was with his wife, and they went to a church to go to a wedding. My Grandfather was not a religious man at that time, and when they came in, there was a big statement on the wall.

It's a quote from the Gospel, and it said, "What has a man gained, if he's gained the whole world, and lost his soul?"

My Grandmother said to my Grandfather, "That's a question you should ask yourself."

Well, he became a very religious person after that, in his own way, in the way he understood. He ended up sending me and my sister, to a camp (In Greece), and I was 12 years old…To teach us the precepts of our religion." [8]

One of his Grandfather’s raised horses on a ranch, and Shaykh Hamza would spend time there, learning to ride horses.

Another Grandfather was the President of the Orthodox Church in Marin County [9] .  Possibly a factor relating to Shaykh Hamza's early education in the Greek Orthodox Church.