Unofficial Biography of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

The Unofficial Biography of Shaykh Hamza

Last update Nov 21, 2013

School Years

Shaykh Hamza’ s early Western education includes a mix of California / New Age education with Private Boarding Schools.

"I went to school here in California; I also went to school on the East coast.

…Teachers are such interesting figures in our lives and I was thinking about my first grade teacher, Mrs. Gilmore. I remember her name; I can see her black hair, very tall, thin lady. She was almost a classic school Marm…

But, particularly, I remember my 3rd grade teacher, Miss Williams, because there was an event that happened in 3rd grade that had a very deep impact on me, and that was that I was falsely accused of something, and I remember the mortified state that I was in, when someone came into the classroom, and whispered into her ear.

And they both looked at me, in front of all these small children and then the teacher said, 'Oh we don't like boys that do that', and I was completely non-plussed, I didn't know what they were talking about. And I was taken to the principal's office, and wacked with a paddle.

This was a complete case of false testimony by one of my arch-enemies in the playground. That was my first real taste of injustice. There I was, the arbitrary victim of false testimony, and I suffered the consequences. And that taught me something about the nature of justice and injustice and that the sense that people feel when they are wronged. When there is an injury, which is a beautiful word coming from the Latin Injuria, unjust.

Then in fifth grade, things began to change radically. I had a teacher named Dennis Hasslinger, and this was the beginning of Summerhill…This was the 1960's and a lot of experimentation and we moved into a whole other realm of teaching. I went from these very old school marms, to a very radical young man, who was dedicated on undoing that damage that had been done. And he did his own damage, unintentionally." [10]

During an interview on Rihla TV, Shaykh Hamza's Mother reminisced about Shaykh Hamza's childhood. When asked what stood out in her mind, she said,

"Specific things I remember: One he was very curious, and he was always asking why, always wanting to know why things were.

He was never satisfied. If you answered one question he had another; Just one question after the other. And he was a great talker. He loved to talk, he loved to ask questions.

He had great adventures; He was an adventurer. When we went out, Hamza would somehow wander away.

For instance, when we were at the Fair, he disappeared and the rest of the children and I went all over looking for him. When we finally found him, he was sitting with a police officer eating an ice cream cone.

One of the things that really stood out in my mind, and I've never really gotten over it, was when he was about 11 or 12, he was an avid reader and he told me he had read 'War and Peace', and so I assumed he had read a comic book story of 'War and Peace'…It's a long book. But the movie came out, the Russian Film, and it was 3.5 hours (long). So, I took him to see it, and during the intermission, he was discussing the difference between the book and the film. So I was convinced he had read it.

And the other thing I do remember is that he had such an incredible sense of balance. He was just a tremendous athlete, just natural. (We would go) skiing, and he would ski the highest slope as soon as he got on. As if he had been skiing his whole life. And he played football and baseball the same way. Whatever he did, he just seemed to already know how to do it." [11]

On the same show, Shaykh Hamza asked his younger brother Troy, about his thoughts on their childhood. Troy said,

"Growing up as your younger brother…I don't know how much you remember of this, but you were really kind of the hero of not only me, but all of my friends. I think everybody was jealous that I had such a great older brother who seemed to be cut, from a very different cloth, from anybody we knew." [12]

The Incorruptibles [V] [13] [VI]

In his 12th year, Shaykh Hamza spent the summer in Greece with his sister Nabila. They went to a "Greek Orthodox Camp", to learn the Catechism of advanced Christian studies. [14] The camp affected his future outlook, as Shaykh Hamza describes himself,

"(My family sent) me and my sister to a camp, and I was 12 years old; To Greece to teach us the precepts of our religion.

That was a turning point in my life.  You see, my sister and I, we became Muslim. Out of 7 children, we were the 2 that went on that journey, that pilgrimage.

I'll tell you what really struck me on that trip. It was on a little island and you can look at it on a Greek map; it’s called Zakynthos. [VII]

And I went into a church there. And in that church was a 6th century saint. A pre-Islamic Christian Saint named St. George. That's like Juraaj [VIII] in Arabic. Juraaj is in Sahih Bukhari; The Saint who they built a big church for.

And the Saint is in the church. The Prophet condemned that because that's something the Christians did with their Saints, they put them in the middle of the church.

I'll never forget, open to glass, we went up and kissed his foot. I looked at his face, his face was uncorrupted. There was no change.

And that's called an Incorruptible. The Incorruptibles in Christianity were the people that their bodies did not decay, and there are a lot of them. And we believe that too about Muslims.

... Seeing that man had an immense impact on me. It really struck me, why didn't his body decay like other people's bodies? Because we're talking 1600 years.

That's the thing about those early people, the early Christians and the early Muslims, those people were people of God. They brought so much faith with them, that people would become Muslims from just seeing them.

How is it that a dead person can affect me so much compared to living people? …Who is really dead, and who is really alive?" [15] [16]

Grade 8

Once back from Summer Camp, he started a new school,

"…8th grade I went to an experimental school in Marin County which had 4 quads: Earth, Wind, Fire and Air. …Based on testing, you were put into a Quad in order to enhance your natural aptitude. So I was put into "Sea School" which was for people that were gifted with language. Reading and writing.

Sun school was for Mathematics. They had Wood school which was for Arts and crafts, Hand type things, and then they had a music school." [17]

A Separate Peace

Ready for High School, Shaykh Hamza moved to a boarding school on the East Coast.

The combination of age, puberty, distance from home, East Coast culture and the boarding school mindset was too much for him, and he soon moved back West.

The East Coast boarding school is not named, but indications are that it was the "Georgetown Preparatory School", [IX] established in 1789, in North Bethesda, Maryland. The school is Elitist, and graduates the top minds in the country. The average SAT score of graduates hovering at 1950.

Speaking of his time at Georgetown Prep:

"And then something very radical happened, a major disruption in my education. I went to a Prep-School on the East coast, and went into deep shock.

I had gone through 8 years of California and suddenly I was thrust into an institution on the East Coast that was founded in 1789 and it was run by Jesuits. It was a very difficult experience for me personally. I remember having a lot of difficulty there, dealing with the East Coast children that were very different from the West Coast.

There was a lot of bullying and I remember a novel that really impacted me, called "A Separate Peace"; I lived that experience, and that novel had a major impact on me when I was in the 9th Grade, And the pain that was inflicted…

This recent event of hazing, I think what was so troubling about that, not the hazing, hazing has been around in this country for a long long time. But young girls were doing it. I mean it's like, Chris Rock said, 'you know the world's upside down when the best rapper is a white guy, and the best golfer is a black guy.' [X]

The same case here, we've got young girls that are hazing brutally. If that's equality, I'm deeply worried about what we're doing to these girls, because I think that making girls more like men is actually the wrong the way to go, it's the other way around. It's actually the men that need to learn how to be more like those natural qualities that women have: Mercy and compassion. This is the humanization process. We don't call our schools alma-maters for nothing. The nurturing mother. That's what a school is supposed to be, it's supposed to give you your humanity.

So in looking at my own education, I couldn't take 2 years of that on the East Coast, and I went to an Augustinian school on the West Coast, which was much easier. And that's the difference, probably, between the Jesuits and the Augustinians. One's a militant order, and the other is less so." [18]

Reflections

During his high school years, Shaykh Hamza began reflecting on religion and God. Like the Cave of Hira, this reflection period, preceded his life-changing conversion.

"When I was 16 years old, I came to the realization that the only reason I was a Christian, was because I was born in a Christian family.

'The only reason I'm a Christian, is because my parents taught me that Jesus was my savior, Blah, Blah, Blah.'

That's the only reason…I thought, 'If I was born in Sri Lanka, I would be a Buddhist. Because my parent's would tell me, 'Here's your God, and pray to him, you'll get whatever you want.'

If I was born in Israel, I would have been a Jew maybe or a Palestinian.

…I remember that, very clearly, that realization…

And I thought, 'I should think about this.'

I took this class on World Religions, at a college [XI] , and we had the book by Houston Smith, The World's Religions.

I started reading about this. (And I thought) "Man, they have 1 Billion followers? What do they believe?"

I started thinking about all these other religions. And then I remember hitting on Islam; And I thought, 'Now wait a second, what's going on here?'

I went and got a Quran, and I read the introduction, and I remember saying, "The whole of the Islamic Creed, is summed up in the statement, 'There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.'"

"What does that mean?" you know, "There is no god, but God."

That's such a strange statement, when you first hear that. But the first time I heard that, I wanted to know what that means.

There was just something very intriguing about it.

I remember I started saying, "There's no god but God".

It was kind of like a Zen Koan, 'What's the trick here? What is it? What am I supposed to realize here?'

And then I realized what it meant, "That's it.  'There's no god but God.' That makes perfect sense."

Nothing else that can be worshiped, but what's worshiped in truth.

La Mabooda bi Haqqin see Sala.

That's how our Ulema interpret it. La Mabooda bi Haqqin see Sala, There's nothing worshiped in truth except Allah. Everything other than Allah that is worshipped is worshiped by falsehood.

But then the second one, Muhammadan Rasoolalah. 'Muhammad is the messenger of God'. What does that mean? Who is that Man?

Then you start reading about him. And, you realize, this is amazing. And why haven't we been taught this? Why don't we know about him? I mean really? Why don't people know about the Prophet Muhammad (saws); As a historical figure?

Everyone knows about Napoleon. Do you think Napoleon had more impact on human history? They know about Waterloo.

People know about Michael Jordan. They know he's the greatest ballplayer that ever lived. Americans know about General Grant. They know about Sherman, the defeat of Atlanta. They know about all these things that are so insignificant in terms of Human history. And nobody (knows about the Prophet Muhammad (Saws)" [19]

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 think for me it was a confrontation with Death at an early age. I was in a serious car accident, and that began a journey of reflection. Just about death, and the nature of Life, also coming to terms with the fact.

…Just the idea of mortality, is something that hit me very early on in life. And looking death very close, up front, I think will give someone an introspective perspective. And that's what happened to me.

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" [20]

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…" [21]

Al-Andalusia [XIV]

"I lived in Spain for over a year" -Shaykh Hamza [22]

"The first time I went to West Africa was 1978" [23] – Shaykh Hamza

Shaykh Hamza's time in Spain is a little sketchy. This time has only been mentioned twice in 2 different speeches, so it's difficult to piece together when he was there.

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.

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 <Arabic>. "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." [24]

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." [25]

"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." [26]

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' [27] / Islamic Institute of Al-Ain [XVII] .

This was 1979, and Shaykh Hamza would spend the next 5 years [XVIII] in The United Arab Emirates [28] .  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.) [29] 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. [30]

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." [31]

"…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.'" [32]

"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." [33]

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.'" [34]

In another narration, Shaykh Hamza provides more details of this monumental meeting and what happened there,

"…in 1980, at a bookstore in Abu Dhabi, where I met Shaykh Abdullah Ould Siddiq of the renowned Tajakanat clan. I knew immediately he was from West Africa, given the dir'ah, the distinct West African wide robe he was wearing, as well as the turban, a rare sight in the Gulf at that time.

I had met scholars from West Africa when I was in Mali [XIX] two years before and was interested in studying with them, so I asked the Shaykh if he knew anyone who taught the classical Maliki texts in the traditional manner. He affirmed that he himself was a teacher of that very tradition…

I started to study with Shaykh Abdullah Ould Siddiq in addition to my required classes at the Islamic Institute in Al-Ain.

Unlike most Mauritanian teachers, he did not emphasize rote memorization or use of the wood slate known as the lawh. I studied directly from books. After a few years and much benefit from him and two other great Maliki jurists, Shaykh (Mohammad Ahmad Al ) Shaybani [XX] and Shaykh Bayyah Ould Salik [XXI] .

My education took a major turn when I met a young electrician from the Massuma clan named Yahya Ould Khati.

He was of the view that while these scholars were excellent, the truly illustrious man of his age was Murabit al-Hajj, who lived in a forgotten part of Mauritania, far away from civilization and the distractions of this world.

He informed me that Shaykh Abdar Rahman, the son of Murabit al-Hajj, was now in the Emirates." [35]

Al-Muezzin: The Caller

"I lived in al-Ain for four years without AC, in a cinder block house.  I was 20-24" [36]

-Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

While Shaykh Hamza continued to study with Shaykh Abdullah Ould Siddiq, he also had to take care of his personal effects. Feeling distracted at the dormitory he moved out, into alternative housing.

"…(I became a muezzin) at a Mosque, in Al-Ain, because I didn't want to live anymore in the institute dormitory. They (The other students) were very young; I don't think a lot of them were as serious as I was.

They were just young high school students, and I was a little older and probably more serious about what I was doing. Not all of them, certainly there were some good people.

But I didn't like the environment, so I asked somebody who was at the Ministry of Religious Endowments, if they could work out a situation where I could be a Muezzin, and just live in the Mosque. Because the mosques have, in those countries, living quarters for the Muezzin and for the Imam.

I didn't take money for what I was doing, I had a stipend from the Institute, not very much, but enough to get by. So they let me do that, I was a muezzin, and I lived in the mosque." [37]

"Shortly after, at the house of Shaykh Bayyah, an elder of the Massuma clan who had taken me under his wing and from whom I benefited greatly in my studies, I met Shaykh Abdar Rahman.

Upon meeting him, I was struck by the otherworldliness of his presence, which is not unusual for Mauritanian scholars, but it was clearly pronounced in him. I remember thinking, 'If this is the son, I must meet the father.'

I also began studying with his close friend and companion, Shaykh Hamid, after I helped him get settled and with the help of Shaykh Bashir Shaqfah, another of my teachers and at that time the head of the Office of Endowments at Al-Ain, secure a position of Imam for him in the main mosque of Al-Ain, where I was serving as a muezzin.

From Shaykh Hamid, I learned about the merits of memorization. Although I had studied several texts, and my Arabic was quite fluent by this time, Shaykh Hamid was adamant that without rote memorization, one was dependent upon books and did not really possess knowledge within oneself. Mauritanians, he told me, distinguish between daylight scholars and nighttime scholars. A daytime scholar needs light to read books to access knowledge, but a nighttime scholar can access that knowledge when the lights are out, through the strength of his memory and the retention of knowledge. [XXII] Hence, he felt that I should start over.

I had studied Ibn Ashir, al-Risalah, and sections of Aqrab al-Masalik privately; I had studied the early editions of al-Fiqh al-Maliki fi Thawbihi al-Jadid, which were used at the Institute; and I had studied Hadith with Shaykh Ahmad Badawi, one of the great Hadith scholars of Sudan. But I had put little to memory other than what I naturally retained.

Shaykh Hamid procured a slate for me and began teaching me the basics again, but with rote memorization. It was humbling, but edifying, to see how this tradition has been carried on throughout the ages with these time-tested models." [38]

Imam

"…After a year of doing that…I learned the last portions of the Qur'an; I could recite them well. So they let me become the Imam in another mosque that was near there. And people were very generous to me, they would bring me food, and things like that." [39]

"I was leading prayer for a community of mostly Afghan workers, who were sending their earnings back home to support families and the war effort against the Russians, who had invaded Afghanistan four years earlier.

It was then that I began to have dreams in which I saw a great man, whom I learned later, was Murabit al-Hajj. One of those dreams included an elderly woman whom I had also never seen before." [40]

On to Bigger Things. The Journey to Algeria

"I decided to leave my very comfortable and enjoyable life in the Emirates in 1984, and headed towards Mauritania via Algeria, where I planned on spending some months memorizing the Qur'an. I made this decision even though I was warned that there was a drought in Mauritania and living conditions were extremely harsh. Somehow, I felt compelled to go and nothing could deter me." [41]

Shaykh Hamza spent several months in Algeria, and then moved on to Mauritania sooner than he expected. His exit from Algeria was due to Algerian intelligence; they arrested him as a spy.

"They didn't know what to make of this American who wanted to learn Arabic and study Islam," [42]

They expelled him from the country, and it was just as well, because he was to meet his destiny in Mauritania.

The Land of a Thousand Poets

Reflections on Mauritania

Shaykh Hamza had visited North Africa in 1978 soon after conversion.  His second trip in 1984 would last 3 years.  The country was still pre-modern (pre-modern in 1984, not so much now), still having a sizable Bedouin population and limited access to technology. 

“The second time that I went, (1984) Mauritania was an isolated place.  (A) lot of people (there) didn't know about America;   Just that there was a country called America.  I actually met people in the Saharan dessert that did not know America as a place. 

 It was very amazing to see people that weren't just pre-modern, but they were pre-modern people that had no interaction with the modern world“. [43]

Regarding the educational system,

"When I got to the Sahara, I was just so overwhelmed by a people that basically had no Ministry of Education so to speak. They had no school system, they had no salaried teachers, and they had no budgets for books, nothing. Yet these extraordinary schools exist out there." [44]

Onward

“After spending some months with Sidi Bou Said at his madrassa (Bilal ibn Rabah Madrassa [45] ) in Tizi, Algeria, I traveled on to Tunisia, obtained a visa to Mauritania, and took a flight to Nouakchott, which lies on the Atlantic coast of the Sahara."

“I arrived in that capital city, with its extremely primitive conditions and vast slums that surrounded a small city center, with no addresses and no specific plan, other than to find Murabit al-Hajj.

I went to the marketplace and asked around if there was anyone from the Massuma clan, and was directed to a small shop where I met Abdi Salim, a very friendly man who was from the same branch of Massuma as my teacher, Shaykh Hamid. When I told Abdi Salim I wanted to find Murabit al-Hajj and study with him, his face lit up and he wholeheartedly endorsed the idea. He then took me to someone from Mukhtar al-Habib, the branch of the Massuma clan that Murabit al-Hajj was from, and they took me to the house of Mawlay al-Maqari al-Massumi, a small place made from tea boxes with open sewage in the back. Similar houses were all around, as far as the eye could see. Mawlay al-Maqari al-Massumi was one of the most hospitable and welcoming people I had ever met; I later learned he was loved by all who knew him. I stayed with him and his family for several days.

Providentially, Shaykh Abdar Rahman soon arrived from the Emirates to visit his mother and father and, not surprisingly, it was his wont to stay with Mawlay al-Maqari whenever in the capital. He would accompany me to his family's school in Tuwamirat, but the journey required camels. A message was sent to the encampment of Murabit al-Hajj via the government radio announcements, which was how people in the capital communicated with the nomads in the desert. The message stated that Shaykh Abdar Rahman and Hamza Abdul Wahid (my given name when I converted and used at that time) would be arriving in the town of Kamur on such-and-such a date and were in need of camels there to take them to their village, Tuwamirat. We then set out on a rather unpleasant journey in a truck to Kamur, which was several hundred kilometers inland into the Sahara desert. The road at that time ended at Bou Talamit, and two-thirds of it was simply rough desert track worn down over time by loaded trucks and jeeps. It was the bumpiest, dirtiest, and most difficult road journey I had ever taken in my life.

After two grueling days, we arrived in a beautiful town known as Geru, which at the time had no technology, and the buildings there were all a lovely adobe. Hundreds of students studied at seven madrassas, called Mahdharain Geru. At night, with the exception of a few flashlights, candles, and kerosene lamps, all was dark so the Sahara night sky could be seen in all its stellar glory. The entire town was filled with the soothing sounds of the recitation of Qur'an and other texts.

We stayed with Shaykh Khatri, the brother of Murabit al-Hajj's wife Maryam, and a cousin of Murabit al-Hajj. While in Geru, I came to know a great saint and scholar, Sidi Minnu, who was already an old man at the time. He memorized all of the Hisn al-Hasin of Imam al-Jazari and recited it every day. His other time was spent in praying for the entire Ummah. Once, we were sitting on the sand and he picked some up with his hand and said to me, "Never be far away from the earth, for this is our mother."

He then said something that struck me to the core: "I have never regretted anything in my entire life, nor have I ever wished for anything that I did not or could not have, but right now I wish that I was a young man so that I could accompany you on this great journey of yours to seek knowledge for the sake of God."

After a few days, we set out for Kamur, which we had passed on our way to Geru, and then took camels and set out for Murabit al-Hajj; by nightfall we arrived in Galaga, a valley with a large lake that rises and lowers with the rainfall and the seasons. After breakfast the next morning, we set out for the upper region some miles from where Murabit al-Hajj's clan was encamped.

As we came into Tuwamirat, I was completely overwhelmed by its ethereal quality. It was the quintessential place that time forgot. The entire scene reminded me of something out of the Old Testament. Many of the people had never seen a white person before and the younger people had only heard about the French occupation, but never seen French people or other foreigners for that matter. I entered the tent of Murabit al-Hajj.

My eyes fell upon the most noble and majestic person I have ever seen in my life. He called me over, put his hand on my shoulder, welcomed me warmly, and then asked me, "Is it like the dream?" I burst into a flood of tears. I had indeed experienced a dream with him that was very similar to our actual meeting.

…Murabit al-Hajj insisted that I stay with him in his tent and sleep next to him. I soon came to know his extraordinary wife, Maryam Bint Bwayba. Completely attentive to my needs, she took care to see that I was comfortable, and provided me with a running commentary on the place and its people. Maryam was one of the most selfless people I have ever met.  [46]

Meetings with Masters: Murabit al-Hajj

It was 1985 and over the next 3 years he sat at Masjid al-Hajj [47] , the school of Murabit al-Hajj and studied not only the sacred sciences, but also the traditional Bedouin way of life.  It was a profound experience, and changed him fundamentally.

Shaykh Hamza gives an amazing account of his Master,

"Murabit al-Hajj's birth name is Sidi Muhammad ould Fahfu al-Massumi, and he was nicknamed Hajj Umar by his mother after the great scholar and warrior, "Umar Tal of Senegal".

During the blessed time that I was fortunate to have lived with him in his own tent, I observed his daily routine: He would usually awake at about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning and begin the Tahajjud or night prayers. He would often recite for a few hours, and I heard him repeat verses over and over again and weep. Just before dawn, he would sit outside his tent and recite Qur'an, and then when the first light of dawn was discernible, he would walk to the open-air mosque and call the adhan. He would then pray his nafilah and wait for a short period and then call the iqamah. During that time, I never saw anyone else lead the prayer, and he would almost always recite from the last 60th of the Qur'an as is the Sunnah for a congressional Imam to do so according to Imam Malik.

After the sun rose and reached the level of a spear above the horizon, he would pray the sunrise rak'ahs and then return to his tent where he would have some milk brought fresh from a cow. He would then teach until about 11:00 in the morning and nap for a short while. After that, students would start coming again, and he would continue to teach until about 1:00pm at which time he would measure his shadow for the time of the midday prayer. He would then call the adhan at the time his shadow reached an arm's length past the post meridian time as is the Maliki position on the midday prayer, if performed in congregation, to allow for others to come from their work after the heat dissipates. He would always pray four rak’ahs before and after the midday prayer and then return to his tent where he would teach until afternoon. He would usually have a small amount of rice and yogurt drink that is common in West Africa. Then, he would measure his shadow for the afternoon prayer, and when he ascertained its time, he would proceed to the mosque and call the adhan.

After Asr, Murabit al-Hajj would return to his tent and usually resume teaching and sometimes listen to students recite their Qur'an lessons from memory and he would correct their mistakes. During any lulls in his teaching, anyone in his presence could hear him say with almost every breath, "La ilaha illa Allah," or he would recite Qur'an. At sunset, he would go and call the adhan, pray Maghrib, and then sit in the mihrab and recite his wird until the time of the night prayer. He would call the adhan, lead the pray and return to his tent. He would usually have some milk and a little couscous and then listen to students recite Qur'an or read Qur'an by himself. At around 9:00 pm he would admonish himself with lines of poetry from Imam Shafi's Diwan and other well-known poets. He would often remember death with certain lines that he repeated over and over again, especially the following that I heard from him many times:

O my Lord, when that which there is repelling alights upon me,

And I find myself leaving this adobe

And become Your guest in a dark and lonely place,

Then make the host's meal for his guest the removal of my wrongs.

A guest is always honored at the hands of a generous host,

And You are the Generous, the Creator, the Originator.

Surely kings, as a way of displaying their magnanimity

Free their servants who have grown old in their service.

And I have grown old in Your service,

So free my soul from the Fire

He often repeats these lines for what seems like an eternity, his voice penetrating the hearts of all those within earshot. He once admonished me with lines of poetry, one after another, until I wanted the earth to swallow me. He said to me, "And what is man other than a comet that flashes brilliant light for a moment only to be reduced to ashes."

He told me several times, "Hamza, this world is an ocean, and those who drown in it are untold numbers. Don't drown."

I have never seen anyone like him before him or after him, and I don't think that I ever will. May Allah reward him for his service to this deen and his love and concern for the Muslims. He was never known to speak ill of anyone. Once when a student was studying Khalil with him and asked what a certain word meant in the text, he explained to him that it was a slow and clumsy horse. The student then said, "like so-and-so's horse?" At this Murabit al-Hajj suddenly became upset and said, "I don't spend much time with people because they backbite, so if you want to study with me, you must never speak ill of anyone in my presence." It is not well known by Muslims that to speak ill of someone's animals falls under the ruling of backbiting.

Shaykh Murabit al-Hajj is a master of the sciences of Islam, but perhaps more wondrous than that, he has mastered his own soul. His discipline is almost angelic, and his presence is so majestic and ethereal that the one in it experiences a palpable stillness in the soul. As the Arabs say, "the one who hears is not as the one who has seen." I was told by many people from his family that had I seen him in his youth, I would have been even more astonished at his devotional practices.

He is recognized in Mauritania as being one of the last great scholars, and his fatwa is highly respected among the people of West Africa who know of him, and they are many." [48]

In another article, Shaykh Hamza commented on his "transparency":

"I never heard him say anything unkind or unflattering about anyone. A cousin of his who has known him for seventy years affirmed this as well.

Murabit al-Hajj never complained or criticized the weather, the food, the company, or any of the hardships so evident in the lives of West African nomads.

Once, a man from Geru, a nearby village, saw Murabit al-Hajj in a dream in which he was praying naked.

Embarrassed, this man went to a well-known dream interpreter and told him the dream but not the identity of the naked man.

The interpreter said, "That could only have been Murabit al-Hajj, because I don't know anyone who prays in a completely pure-hearted state other than him." [49]