Unofficial Biography of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

Last update Dec 1, 2020
lay, 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…"16

And then finally, the conversion,

I was in a used-book store and I saw on the bottom shelf a little Qur'an and I thought that's the one religion I don't know anything about.  So I bought the Quran, and the introduction said the Muslims believe in a very simple creed - La illaha Ill Allah and Muhammad is His messenger, and I looked in the Contents and saw the chapter of Mary and I was amazed that they believed in Mary.  I saw all these names of Prophets that I recognized, like Joseph and Moses.  So I read the chapter of Mary and there's a verse where God says, "The likeness of JEsus is the likeness of Adam.  That God only says to a thing: Be, and it is.  And it was kind of negating the Son of God thing that I'd always had a hard time with.  And all the Christians that I'd met that have converted to Islam - they'd always said that.

I became Muslim about a week later.

...I told her (a friend) that I was reading about Islam.  She'd met a Muslim from Mecca at the University of California at Santa Barbara.  I was 18, and I said I really want to meet this person.  He invited us to dinner with him and his wife.  So we went and I started asking about Islam, and after that I'd met them a few other times.

I took Shahada with him and then the journey began.

He was a member of a group of Muslims that was based in England.  They were Sufis.  I was in college at the time.  I left.  I ended up staying in Monterey (ed: California) for a few months and learned just the basics about how to pray, how to fast.12

New York

After conversion, Shaykh Hamza travelled to New York, 

When I first became Muslim, I came to this city from California (Ed: New York)

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 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 selling books and suddenly some people start shooting each other; Say Welcome to New York, that was my welcome...

So that was my welcome to New York, and then in order to survive here, people used to sell jewelry.  So, I actually went and they taught me how to buy 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.

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 their car, talking with this African-American prostitute and they started talking to her and we walked by and this guy Abdul Qadir says, "Sister don't get in that car".

She said, "I'm not getting in that car."

Well this one guy gets out of car with a baseball bat and said to him "What's it to you"

And I swear to God, he (Abdul Qadir) was probably six foot 3, 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, and study Arabic.  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 Khutbahs there.  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 he had his Burnoose on and his yellow sandal.

I'll never forget the first time I ever saw Bullgah yellow-sandals. 

You went up there, it was like, you know, 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.  That was only ten/twelve years after he died.

I mean these are people that 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 of.  This is a historical transition, What was happening to 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 York17

The Pursuit of Knowledge

It appears the University of California student convinced Shaykh Hamza to visit his Tariqa in England. It's probable that Shakyh Hamza stayed with these contacts 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 (ed: at College in California), about 6 months, and then after that I left (to England).

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

Soon he realized that he had to learn Arabic, to learn this religion from original sources:

" I was in Bradford, England, and there was a Kuwaiti man.  I was telling him how hard it was to call English people to Islam because they're just not interested, and he said, "Well don't forget the words of Noah, when he said, 'I called my people by night and by day, and it hasn't increased them except in distancing themselves from me.'"

He told me that Noah was doing that for 950 years, so I shoudln't get discouraged.

When he said those ayats in Arabic, suddenly Arabic had a relevancy that it didn't have before.  And  I just saw him applying something to everyday life, and the Quran hadn't had that effect on me yet.12

…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."18

"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.  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.  You have to come and study, and I'll facilitate that for you."18



Before moving on to the UAE to start his formal studies, Shaykh Hamza spend time travelling through Tunisa and Libya, and possibly Spain.

I have visited Libya once, which was in 1979 and was quite a bizarre experience. Ghaddafi had been in power for just a decade, seizing control through a military coup in 1969 while King Idris was out of the country for medical treatment. On this trip, I accompanied a British convert to Islam who was raising money for a mosque project in England. 


While in Libya, I visited the home of a delightful and cultured Libyan named Sidi Abdal Hamid Ben Halim, now deceased, may God have mercy on his soul.

He had been a student at al-Azhar University before becoming a politician and went on to become an ambassador to Italy for Libya.

At that time, his was the single most important Libyan diplomatic post. His brother, Mustafa, had been the prime minister under King Idris, who ruled Libya in the post-colonial period until the 1969 coup. From his close and personal knowledge of King Idris, Sidi Abdal Hamid recounted that not only was King Idris a just ruler, he was also a pious and erudite Muslim who dreamed of building Islamic schools and colleges throughout Africa with the newly acquired oil revenue. The King was of the Sanussi tradition and represented the best of the benign monarchies of the old Muslim world that crumbled throughout the twentieth century, only to be replaced by malevolent dictators, all of whom came in the name of progress, freedom, and democracy; despite their claims to reform, they became tyrants aspiring to the very monarchies they had supplanted by setting up their sons for ascension to their newly acquired “thrones.”19

West Africa / Timbuktu

"The first time I went to West Africa was 1978"20– Shaykh Hamza

After England, Shaykh Hamza travelled to Timbuktu for a visit.M.That trip led to a sickness, and ended with him enrolled in the UAE.  

Timbuktu is an ancient trading center in the middle of the Sahara or the Niger River.  Very beautiful oasis town.  It's where the nomads bring the salt tables still to this day from mines in the desert by Caravan.  The was just a simplicity and beauty that I hadn't seen before, because most of the Muslim world has been turned upside down since colonialism - and its like the post-Renaissance period.21

So he loved Timbuktu, but things went bad:

"...I almost died in Timbuktu by getting amoebic dysentery and was saved by some French tourists, who had flagyl with them.  So I owe my life to a French tourist."21

He discusses this serious sickness: of the interesting things about converting to a religion with a lot of fervor, is it's almost like a temporary insanity that you go through because you are just so filled with this incredible expansion that occurs. 

When I was in high school I was kind of a daredevil.  I used to do things that I think now, I would consider completely insane; but when I became Muslim one of the benefits of having a personality like that is that I would do things that  more rational people would be hesitant to do.  One of them was going to West Africa, With really little or no means and pretty much joining a bedouin tribe out there and drinking water that they drank without ever thinking about any bacteria.  I used to just say,

Image result for bismillahi la yadurru ma'asmihi

Bismillahi La Ya Duru Ma Ismi Hi Shayoon Fil Earth, Wa La Fis Samaee Wa ho Was-Samil Aleem 

And I was convinced that that was enough, which is why you need that hadith, you know "Tie Your Camel, and Trust in God."

So taking pills preventive pills is sometimes very useful thing to do, but I didn't think like that at that time.  So when I was in Mali, I got amoebic dysentery and I was with a man who lives in San Francisco, he was an eyewitness to this named Hassan Barrett.

Had it not been for him really, I was very fortunate that he was with me because I was in a place there weren't any hospitals.  There's no 911 you can't call an ambulance shows up and takes you and I was literally defecating blood.  Going into what I would now understand as a dehydrated state.  I couldn't even get up, I mean he had to clean me, He took care of me during that time that I was sick. 

But I was very fortunate in that some French tourists happen to come in to town and he was telling them about what was going on with his travelling companion and they gave him Flagyl which is an antibiotic and it's specific to amoebic dysentery and literally, I believe it saved my life at the time, By Allah, but it was it was serendipitous it was very fortunate that they were there, just some pills.  it's a very strange thing when you're sick and the truly some pills can you can be given pills and suddenly you're starting to feel better after a little time and you regain your health so these things when you watch these things they're very real.22

Old School: The Arabian Educational System

I got very sick (Ed: while in Timbuktu, Africa), and I had to go back.  I went to Switzerland and I was in the hospital for while.  And then I went to the Emirates...12


There is no information specifically on what Shaykh Abdullah from England, did for Shaykh Hamza. But it is reasonable to assume 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-Islami23 / Islamic Institute of Al-Ain N.

This was 1979, and Shaykh Hamza would spend the next 5 yearsO in The United Arab Emirates7.  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.)7 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.18

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."8

"…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.'"18

"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."18

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.'"24

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 P 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 ) ShaybaniQ and Shaykh Bayyah Ould SalikR.

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."2

Al-Muezzin: The Caller

"I lived in al-Ain for four years without AC, in a cinder block house.  I was 20-24"  23
-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."24

"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.SHence, 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."2


"…After a year of doing that…I learned the last portions of the Qur'an; I could recite them