Unofficial Biography of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

The Unofficial Biography of Shaykh Hamza

Last update April 21, 2019

Seeing the Light

That period of introspection led to serious thought on religion, but nothing further occurred.

In 1977, (at the age of 19) just after starting Junior College at Ventura[XII], Shaykh Hamza was involved in a serious car accident. It was a head-on collision, causing serious injury, bringing him close to Death. The accident began a serious inquest on his part about life and death. The search for meaning after the accident would take another year, culminating in his conversion to Islam.

Speaking of his conversion, he says,

“I remember it clearly when I was 17 years old, I had an incredible tribulation and I remember the night.  I was in a car, I'll never forget that night, where I know that I called on Allah with absolute sincerity.  I remember it very clearly and that prayer got answered and that's the beauty because that's the Ismu Azeem (The Great Name).”[20]

Also,

"...I was 17 and I was in a really intense car accident.  I realized during the accident that I might be going into the next world.  I realized it, I mean completely, a total realization of mortality.  And that completely altered my experience of life after that.  I was disconnected for about a year after that accident.  Completely disconnected.  Conversations:  I couldn't hear people talking.  I mean it was very very profound experience for me and that was my experience" (Hamza Yusuf, "The Lives of Human Beings". https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiXRHpATKoQ)

He said elsewhere,

"… it was a confrontation with Death at an early age. I was in a serious car accident, and that began a journey of reflection...I began a search. Because I was in Catholic schools, I had been exposed to religions quite a bit. Although I think there are a lot of positive things in religion, I think there are a lot of very negative things as well.

I became interested in what happens after death. And I began to study what various traditions have to say…I was already disappointed with the Christian tradition in many ways…I find European history is really embarrassing for European Americans.

If you look at comparative religion, traditionally you find that Islam has added more to the after death scenario, then any other tradition.

..(Christianity doesn't) have a great detailed account literally of what takes place. And what I find fascinating, is work like Raymond Moody's "Life after Life" and different books. And actually at 17[XIII], I went to see him lecture. And I got interested in near death experiences because that's really what I had.

I find it fascinating that many of the experiences that people have, are very similar to what has been defined by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) as what happens after death. And one of the signs of the later days of the human experience, according to the Islamic tradition, is that people will be brought back from death. This is in the Hadith literature, or the traditions of the Prophet.

…This is 1977, probably '76, '77, prior to the Iranian Revolution and what was happening then. Islam is the last place that people look in the United States, traditionally. You'd look at Buddhism, Hinduism, probably Shintoism or Daoism, before someone would think about looking at Islam.

Because there's such a negative stereotypical image of Islam and the Muslims, and there's also this incredibly anti-intellectual backlash.

One of my father's friends, who was a lawyer…they were just in conversation, and he mentioned that Islam is just an idiot's religion. And my father said, "Well, my son is a Muslim actually, and I don't think he's an idiot"[21]

As Shaykh Hamza studied more about Islam, the truth of the religion dawned on him. At some point he had to make a serious choice.

"…I didn't want to become Muslim, Allah Ghalib, because I was very young, 18, I had not sowed my wild oats yet, as they say in America, which just means acting like a fool. They say adolescence is schizophrenia with a good prognosis; that you go mad for a short time, but then you get well later.

But Alhamdulillah, I just realized it was right. Like Winston Churchill said, 'I've bumped into the truth a few times in my life, and I quickly get up and brush myself off, and get along with it.'

Well, I bumped into the truth a few times, and I had a choice to brush myself off and get on with it, or to become Muslim, and Alhamdulillah, by the Fadl of Allah, I chose to become Muslim.

…I didn't bump into a Muslim; I bumped into a Qur'an, a translation of the Qur'an; that was the beginning. I didn't read that much (of the Qur'an) before I become a Muslim. I read, in fact, a few chapters. I just had some strong indications.

One of them was, (when) I went to a play called, "Midsummer's Night Dream," when I was thinking about this. And I bought from a hacker, a woman out in front of the play, some tickets, and she was wearing a necklace.

I asked her "Oh, what's that?"

She said, "Oh, it's from the Qur'an, it protects me"

I said, "Oh really? How does it protect you?"

She said, "Well that's what this Egyptian man that sold it to me, said." (Laughs)

"…Then I went in, and watched this play, which was all about being asleep and how you're totally manipulated by the unseen, it's a Shakespearean play. The play actually had an impact on me…"[22]

New York

When I first became Muslim I came to to this city from California. I was very young and it was very overwhelming to be in this city.  You can go outside now (ed: 2005) it looks as crazy today as it did back then it's just different but it's still crazy.  And when I came here I hooked up with the Muslim community that was here and amongst them was Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid.

I was actually caught in the middle of a gunfight in Harlem, I'm not making this up you couldn't make this up and he remembers too.  I was like selling books and suddenly some people start shooting each other say welcome to New York that was my welcome I'm coming from California people smoked marijuana in California everything's slow we have medical marijuana and everybody's sick in California so everybody's stoned right.

So that was my welcome to California welcome to New York and then in order to survive here I people used to sell jewelry so I actually went and they taught me how to do silver from the Koreans went down to Greenwich Village I was there with a man named Abdul Qadir although I don't know if he's still alive he got stabbed while I was here but he was from Georgia and we were walking one day this is a true story we were walking one day and there was a prostitute and there was four or five guys from New Jersey they had Jersey plates white guys in his cars african-american prostitute and they started talking to her and we walked by and this guy Abdul Qadir who I'm with says, "Sister don't get in that car". She said I'm not getting in that car.

Well this one of the guys gets out of car with a baseball bat and said to him "what's it to you" and I swear to God he was probably six foot three or something he looked like a ex-football player he walked up to this guy he'd been in prison he walked up to this guy and right up to his face and he said "I'm a Muslim we don't hit first so you go ahead and take your best shot" and this guy just got in the car and with their tail between their legs drove back to New Jersey so that's a New York state of mind right that was the state of mind that I was getting into a little scary so I was ready to go overseas to the Middle East study Arabic right seriously I was here studying Ebonics but I went over and studied Arabic but it was a good experience for me to see this community here because I was part of history. 

I was at State Street I went to Atlantic Avenue I saw Muhammad Abdi when he used to give those Qhutbas there and and there was a brother african-american very light-skinned Imam Ibrahim who had studied overseas I met Shaykh Dawood sister Khadija and I went up to Shaykh Dawood's room and saw this incredible looking man dressed in a Moroccan robe and had his got a Burnoose on

and his yellow sandal I'll never forget this first time I ever saw Bullgah yellow sandal looking down saying you went up there was like the you know that it was a ritual to go up and visit Shaykh Dawood but that was history and I was with people in Harlem who had lived with Malcolm X they were that was only ten twelve years after he died.

I mean these are people that went that was where they went and heard the Qhutbah that's what's happening here so you have to understand where you're from and what's your part up this is a historical transition that's happening Islam at that time was an African American phenomenon with a certain level of immigrant coming into the scene but Islam was very much an African American phenomenon in the United States this is what the Muslims here the African American Muslims were right there on the front lines and they were taking it to the streets they were talking about Islam with people selling incense and giving Dawa that's what was happening in New York. (Inner City Muslim Experience. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8ShgCmm5Gg)

Al-Andalusia[XIV]

"I lived in Spain for over a year" -Shaykh Hamza[23]

"The first time I went to West Africa was 1978" [24]– Shaykh Hamza

Shaykh Hamza's time in Spain is a little vague. It's difficult to piece together when he was there as he does not mention it often.

Based on his brief statements and Dr. Umar Farooq's testimony, we can say that he was in Granada, Spain, studying Arabic and Quran at a madrassa there.

This occurred possibly right after his conversion, before he went to England.

Shaykh Hamza reminisces about their first meeting:

Dr. Omar Abdullah Faruk was always old for me.  I first met him when I was about 18 years old.  I was wet-behind-the-ears and we met in a garden in Granada in Spain and he was like the old man of the mountain.  I realized that he was actually less than 30 years old at the time.  So he was not old, but he seemed old, because he is an old soul, he's a very wise man and arguably I think we could make a very strong case that he's probably the single most learned Muslim scholar that we have in the UnitedStates (Yusuf, Hamza and Omar Farooq. Primordial Nature of Human Beings, Renovatio: The Journal of Zaytuna College, 26 Apr. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIj44LWAiDU.)

Dr. Umar Farooq describes how he found Shaykh Hamza in Spain,

"…We met when I was already in my 30's and he (Shaykh Hamza) was a very young man.

He was 16 years old[XV], at that time. And I have never seen Imam Hamza as anything less than a superior, even at that time. When I met him in this beautiful garden in Granada, where we had a wonderful school, I was impressed from the very beginning with the intensity of this young man; And by the perception that he had.

It's said in the famous tradition, which is attributed to Ibn Abbas and to others . "Whoever will put in practice what they know, God will give them as an inheritance, Knowledge of what they did not know."

And this has always been the characteristic of my beloved brother (Shaykh Hamza), because of the fact that he always put into practice, what he knew. And as his knowledge increased, his practice changed. But you could always know what he was learning, by where he was, and what he was doing.

I know whatever Shaykh Hamza believes, he will do that, he will apply it. And therefore his knowledge increases. From the time that I met Imam Hamza, I saw him as a vanguard. The Vanguard are of course the troops that go before the army. They check out the territory, and open up the ground. Because this is what he always was for me.

When he met me the first time, I had been given a task, to teach the Ajromia[XVI] in Arabic to that community, in Spain that we had.

And quite frankly, I didn't know what the Ajromia was.

I had studied Arabic in the oriental fashion, but I had never studied in the traditional. And I had never been able to, because when I had opened the book to the "Seebaway", which is the place to end, and not begin, it was so difficult, I couldn't get past the first chapter.

So, he (Shaykh Hamza) brought to me not only the text of the Ajromia, but he brought to me also, a beautiful English commentary of it, which remains one of the best available to this day. And he brought other books as well."[25]

Timbuktu

I actually visited Timbuktu.  I almost died in Timbuktu by getting amoebic dysentery was saved by some French tourists who had flagyl with them.  So I owe my life to a French tourist. (The Secular and the Sacred in Higher Education with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf & Dr. John Sexton, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQJnjfq_aMk)

The Pursuit of Knowledge

There isn't much information about why Shaykh Hamza moved to London, England after conversion. Either he was told to go there, already had friends there or he arbitrarily chose England. It's probable he had contacts there and moved there to improve his understanding of Islam.  Shaykh Hamza explains that early period,

"I actually became a Muslim a month or so before my 18th birthday. I spent a short time there (at College), about 6 months, and then after that I left (to England).

I think initially when you do something that radical, like changing your life, your entire way of thinking (it affects you). And Islam is quite Monolithic in its approach.

…I went to England, and I was with a community there, and was studying.

…I spent a few a years in that community, I was studying very seriously. But then, at some point, I realized that I wanted to learn Arabic, because I wanted to get into the sources. To really experience Islam from its sources and I think being at that age, about 22, for me it was still one of these things that could go either way. There were a lot of people dabbling in religion in the 60's and 70's; you become a Buddhist for a few years (then went back to Christianity) etc. So people did their religion thing."[26]

"I decided I wanted to seek knowledge, and I said, 'where do I go?'

Well I got an opportunity, from a wonderful man, named Shaykh Abdullah Ali Mahmoud. Who was a man from Sharja, in the Emirates.  And he was an older man who remembered, he actually rode by camel around the Nejd. I mean that's the era he came out of. And he was a Faqih and he was a very spiritual and sincere person. And he met me in London, and I had just learned some words in Arabic, I was trying to put them together.

I had a little book, I was trying to learn how to speak Arabic, and I said to him, "Kayfa Ha Looka. Ana min America, Ismi Hamza" (How are you, I am from America. My name is Hamza)

And I'm calling 'Hamza', it's actually a letter, it's not a name.

So he said, "Jazakullah Al Kharan" he said, "You have to come and study, and I'll facilitate that for you."[27]

Old School: The Arabian Educational System

Al-Ain

There is no information specifically on what Shaykh Abdullah did for Shaykh Hamza. But it is reasonable that he arranged travel, a scholarship & entrance to a school in the UAE. 

Once arrangements were complete, Shaykh Hamza travelled to the small city of Al-Ain in the UAE, and there he was enrolled in the School 'Al-Mahad al-Islami' [28] / Islamic Institute of Al-Ain[XVII].

This was 1979, and Shaykh Hamza would spend the next 5 years [XVIII]in The United Arab Emirates[29].  Shaykh Hamza does not speak much of this time in his speeches, but it was easily the longest and most foundational educational period of his life.  He would solidify his understanding of Arabic, and enter into serious study of Fiqh. 

As he didn't know Arabic, he was placed in the 3rd grade, and sat in the back of the classroom with all the other non-Arab students (typically older African students.)[30] As he states himself, it was a good experience because he saw first-hand the horrendous pedagogy practiced in Muslims countries. Going so far as to say, that his Western high school education was better than his Eastern University education.[31]

Shaykh Hamza explains this,

"By good or by bad fortune, I went to extremely good schools in the United States. I went to a private Jesuit school. So I was used to a very high standard of education in the West.

When I went to Mahad ul-Islami, I found it was a good experience for me, because I learned a lot of words immediately, like "Ya Himar", "Ya Ghabbi", "Ya Washi", "Ya Ahmuk". And the Arabs know what it means, and most of you who don't speak Arabic know what it means, because this is what the teacher used to say to the Student constantly.

'O Donkey', 'O Jackass', 'O Fool', 'O Idiot'. So I learned those words very quickly, because you learn things you hear all the time.

Now, I had never seen that, because I grew up in a place where the teachers actually respected you. Really we should actually be crying, because we know now what that type of attitude does to children."[32]

"…The punitive measures that were used in that school, the humiliation, just horrendous pedagogy that was practiced by these teachers. (They) inherited the same style (of teaching) from their prior teachers, and this is what happens.

Niche says 'We recreate ourselves, we just keep giving the next generation the same problems that we too had.'"[33]

"What I saw basically was a gross pale imitation of western education; it was really at the lowest levels of Western education. The school was started by a very righteous man, with very good intentions, but unfortunately, people of the best of intentions are still encumbered with the difficulties and the problems that exist, from the post-colonial trauma of the Muslim Ummah."[34]

Meetings with Masters: Shaykh Abdullah Ould Siddiq

In addition to his studies at Mahad ul-Islami, Shaykh Hamza would begin extra studies on the side, with scholars he met on his own.  Possibly the first of such scholars was Shaykh Abdullah Ould Siddiq.  Shaykh Hamza describes the first meeting,

"Now, after a very short time there and I was learning Arabic more and more rapidly, I met a West-African scholar, from Mauritania. The first thing I recognized is the man had light on his face. Unlike a lot of the people that were teaching me at the Mahad (they actually appeared sometimes dark to me.)

I went up to him and I asked him where he was from.

He said, Mauritania.

I said, 'I'm looking for someone who knows how to teach Islam in a traditional way. '

He said, 'Well that's the way I learned, and I'm a Mufti at the Shariah court, and you can come anytime to my house that you want to, day or night.'

That's what he told me. He gave me his number and he gave me his address. And I started going to this man's house, and he would sit there and he would say, "What do you want to study?"

And then I would ask him questions, he would answer them, he would tell me, this this and this.

And he would say you should memorize this, because that's the only way to learn. And I noticed the people in that environment, other Mauritanians, most of them memorized the Qur'an, they knew Fiqh, they were very clear in their understanding of Islam.

I was very affected by these people. They affected me because I hadn't seen people like them. Now the secret of these people is simply one thing and one thing only, and I'm convinced of this now, after thinking about it for a long time. These are people that the colonials never got to, because they were in the middle of the Sahara desert. And Europeans tend to not like to be in conditions were they don't have all the perks that go with staying there. And Mauritania is an extremely difficult environment to stay in. And like Solomon Nyang says, 'Thank God for the Malaria Mosquito, because it really helped the West Africans out a lot against these Europeans.'"[35]

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