Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Interview on Education, Inner City, Empowerment…
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1. EDUCATION AND THE INNER CITY One of the broad, common threads that runs through Zaytuna Institute, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) and a host of other Muslim organizations in the United States is that of education. Organically grown organizations will necessarily have differences, one from the next, in substantive focus, instructional method and academic intensity of educational programs. Despite these organizational differences, what are the core elements of a successful curriculum that will (a) sustain and (b) empower contemporary Muslims?
SHAYKH HAMZA: The key element of any sound curriculum is to ensure that basic humanistic tools are imparted to help a student become a better human being and a critical element in the human process. By critical here, it is implied that someone is able to see what’s wrong, identify it as a wrong and then able to evaluate the steps needed to redress the wrong.
For instance, a major wrong in contemporary America is consumerism (i.e. the goal of life is to accumulate wealth and material goods). This disenfranchises the poor from a societal project and builds resentment, which leads to anger and envy, which are two of the seven deadly sins, ... and one alone is enough to kill you! When we assess the project of consumerism, we realize that as an increasing venture it becomes clearly untenable for large numbers of people. It is a selfish path and ignores the very reality that if resources continue to be exploited at present rates, we will exhaust the earth's plentitude. An example: the monitoring of areas in which have ocean fishing takes place has shown that in the last twenty years, over ninety percent of the fish have been decimated. The root problem is that fish are not allowed to replenish their numbers due to over-fishing of areas that once had seemingly inexhaustible resources. Much of the fishing is processed into cat food. In most cultures, cats live off the leftover food of families, but here, they are spoiled into tasty treats that devastate our ocean's supplies further upsetting the delicate balance of the natural food chains in the oceans. Due to the critical nature of this type of information, it may surface from time to time; however it isn't news that one finds in daily corporate owned newspapers.
A student must also be able to think critically about the world he or she finds himself or herself in. So teaching students to think is of the essence of any serious training. For Muslims this includes an ability to access divine or sacred tradition in his or her daily life – in other words, to make the message real through implementation. This can only be done in an environment in which people are helped to live the message of submission to God.
2. LEADERSHIP, ADVERSITY, AND GLOBAL CONSCIOUSNESS
IMAN's Taking it to the Streets is held in Chicago's Marquette Park, where Martin Luther King, Jr. marched, and was stoned, only decades ago. Many Muslims today have drawn analogies between the current state of Muslims in America and the state of the broader African-American population during the era of MLK, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall and others. To what extent are these analogies on point? How can a focus on the history of race relations in this country enhance or detract from a contemporary Muslim's consciousness?
SHAYKH HAMZA YUSUF:
Enfranchisement is a process that has been present in this country since the start. Many communities who have been here for hundreds of years, in the case of native people, millennia, are still struggling for full inclusion into America. However, we must not despair due to clear signs of improvement. To deny advancement in many areas is ingratitude. Minority communities are in fact majorities in many communities now and they are running entire cities in America for the first time in over two hundred years. There is an immense opportunity to realize the dreams of philosophers of the past today in this country. The idea of equality before the law has rarely been conceived in human history, let alone achieved, and yet it is an ideal that is accepted now by the majority of people in this country. It still has a long way to go before it is indeed a reality experienced by all peoples in all cases. The Muslims are at the end in a long line of people that have come to these shores or were already here, attempting to realize their rights as equal before the law.
Many people before the Muslims have struggled and many have died in order that we as offspring or migrants might enjoy the rights that we do today. Those people must never be forgotten; it is incumbent upon Muslims in America to know their stories. The stories have people of all colors as protagonists. There have always been people of color who have opposed the injustices of racism, sexism and intolerance but we should not forget that there have been numerous good white people who have opposed injustice and they should not be forgotten. The issue cannot be black and white but rather wrong and right. It is as simple as that. We stand not with our tribe but with our principles and should they be against our tribe then we must act as witnesses "unto God even against yourselves."
3. "PROGRESS" IN THE INNER CITY AND THE WORLD You have previously discussed the "myth of progress" and asserted that the highest level of spiritual progress was achieved over a millennium ago in the desert and oasis of Arabia during the time of God's Emissary, may He grant him His peace and blessings. While "spiritual entropy" may be a regrettable reality facing humanity (at least en masse), today's Muslims in and out of the inner city, and abroad, hold conflicting views about the extent to which achieving material comfort necessarily involves dealing with, or is equated with, embracing "capitalism" with all of its arguably negative aspects (exploitation of labor, riba, corruption of big business, environmental neglect, etc.) and thereby losing religion. Is there a confluence or a contradiction in attempting to achieve both spiritual and material success in the contemporary globalizing economy?
SHAYKHA HAMZA YUSUF:
The problem with poverty in America is that it deprives the poor of their dignity. This is so for a number of reasons: one, the Calvinist view, which affects many Americans, states that wealth is a sign of God's blessings upon the person. In that way, poverty is seen almost as a punishment. In essence, this perspective states that in this land of plenty, there must be something wrong with you if you don't have anything. This way of viewing the world permeates our culture and does untold damage to countless souls.
Islam teaches us that wealth is inner wealth. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, "Contentment is an inexhaustible treasure." He also said, "Wealth is not a lot of goods but it is being satisfied with what one has." The endless pursuit of more is a disease, and as the hadith (prophetic tradition) states, "Nothing will fill the mouth of the child of Adam except the dirt of the grave. If someone had a mountain of gold, they would only desire another."
What we need to learn in this country is how to be poor with dignity. We need to learn to keep clean houses, clothes and bodies, to eat pure food, and to do this with money earned untarnished by illegal transactions. This is available to anyone willing to turn to God for support.
We must also free ourselves of resentment and envy of others and what they have. The Prophet, peace be upon him said, "Look to those better than you in your spirituality but look to those with less than you in your material reality. For indeed that will help you to aspire to be better and to be grateful for what you have."
Finally, poverty is "all my glory" according to the richest man that ever lived, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. He chose to lower his standard of living in order that others might have more. That is his way.