This is an unofficial Biography of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson. It was written without his knowledge, but later received his acknowledgement. All information is based on the public domain and heavily referenced in the end notes.
Only items that could be corroborated or referenced were included. Rumors or innuendo were generally ignored (unless I couldn't resist). The Biography does not include any official information and should be taken as an unofficial Biography.
I left out personal information about his immediate family, for privacy reasons.
Lately, I've taken some artistic license in cleaning up the quoted language. Sometimes, spoken statements don't read well. Mostly, I'm dropping pauses, and joining sentences.
This Biography is as much a joy to write, as it is for you to read. Reach me through the contact page if you have any questions, concerns or comments, Jazakullah.
"I don't know anybody that knows English Poetry better than my father does. He was somebody, who as far as I can tell, had a religious experience at Columbia University, taking classes with a man named Mark Van Doren.A
Van Doren was a teacher of literature. He taught the Great Literature of Western Civilization,B and my father sat in his classes for 3 years at Columbia University, and then audited his classes.
…He named me after Mark Van Doren (Mark Hanson). I was his first born son, and I think that tells you the impact this man had on his life.
My father actually wrote a commentary on an Elizabethan treatise on Verse. So I grew up hearing (a lot of poetry) and also just hearing his discussions of these things.
But I didn't appreciate any of it until I had a great teacher and that occurred in the Middle East. And he was from West Africa."1
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf was born Mark Hanson, in Walla Walla, Washington, 1958. The second boy and the middle of seven children.C He grew up on the suburban West Coast.
Speaking of his Parents, Shaykh Hamza says,
"My father was a University Professor in Northern California. On my mother's side, they've been in California for over 100 years, so it's an old Californian family. And I was raised (with a) Christian background."2
"…Both my parents are University educated, are very broad minded people. My father was a humanities professor, (he has) very philosophical inclinations in his world view."2
Shaykh Hamza states that his Mother was conscious of the environment, eating organic food and being respectful of the Earth. She inculcated this belief in her children and Shaykh Hamza grew up eating cucumber sandwiches, and other wholesome foods.
"My mother went to Berkeley, and that says enough. She was very active in the civil rights movement. She took me when I was 12, to the Soledad Brother's (trial), to George Jackson's prison trial, just to see what was happening, that there were political struggles going on in this country.
She was very opposed to the Vietnam War. We grew up, with a lot of social awareness…my close family is wealthy, my particular family is not wealthy at all…But definitely the area we were in was quite wealthy. So, I think my Mother wanted to make sure that we understood that this country has a lot of inequities.
My sister was in Salma, Alabama marching …that's the type background we were raised in. And the 60's was a fascinating time. Berkeley was right across the street, I grew up quite literally across the street…and we were aware that there were big things happening, in the states."3
Shaykh Hamza traces his roots to various European sources. His family has a rich American history, some of his ancestors reaching North America in the 1700's and being involved in early American history.
His lineage links back to Scottish, Greek, and Northern European blood. About his paternal lineage, he says,
"My great, great grandfather, Michael O'Hanson, fled the impending potato famine of Ireland and arrived in America in the early 1840s with his bride, Bridget. They headed for Philadelphia…a mecca for Irish-Catholic immigrants then.
They didn't get a warm welcome to America, and instead found themselves smack in the middle of the Nativist anti-Irish-Catholic riots of 1844, which left scores of people dead and two beautiful Catholic churches destroyed. The riots were prompted by false rumors that the Irish-Catholics wanted the Bible removed from public schools to ensure Protestant doctrine would not be taught to their children.
Ordinary Americans were appalled by the viciousness of the attacks, and their good sense prevailed. It eventually led to the famous consolidation of the city in 1854. But Irish-Catholics had still not arrived, and my great grandfather, Michael Hanson Junior, dropped the "O" from his Gaelic name and blended into Philadelphia society, going into partnership with the enlightened Jewish newspaper giant, Paul Block. And while he practiced his Catholicism openly, he hid his Irish ancestry even from his own children, to spare them the perceived shame of being Irish in upper class society."3
Shaykh Hamza's paternal great-grandfather (father’s mother’s father) was Archibald Chisholm. Archibald was an Iron-Ore magnate and owned large parts of the Iron Range. D In 1901, he plotted the town Chisholm, Minnesota, and had it incorporated as a village. 4 Shaykh Hamza's own father was born in Duluth, Minnesota.
On his Mother's side, Shaykh Hamza's great-grandfather and grandfather entered the US in 1896 through Ellis Island5. Shaykh Hamza relates a story about his Grandfather,
"My grandfather was a very successful business man. He had what they call "The Midas touch", everything he touched turned to Gold. One day he was with his wife, and they went to a church to go to a wedding. My Grandfather was not a religious man at that time, and when they came in, there was a big statement on the wall.
It's a quote from the Gospel, and it said, "What has a man gained, if he's gained the whole world, and lost his soul?"
My Grandmother said to my Grandfather, "That's a question you should ask yourself."
Well, he became a very religious person after that, in his own way, in the way he understood. He ended up sending me and my sister, to a camp (In Greece), and I was 12 years old…To teach us the precepts of our religion."6
One of his Grandfather’s raised horses on a ranch, and Shaykh Hamza would spend time there, learning to ride horses.
Another Grandfather was the President of the Orthodox Church in Marin County7. Possibly a factor relating to Shaykh Hamza's early education in the Greek Orthodox Church.
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."8
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."9
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."9
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.11 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.G
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 H 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.
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."8
Ready for High School, Shaykh Hamza moved to a boarding school on the East Coast, "Georgetown Preparatory School",I 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.
The combination of age, distance from home, East Coast culture and the boarding school mindset was too much for him, and he soon moved back West.
Speaking of his time at Georgetown Prep:
"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…
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."8
Elsewhere, he said,
"I was around Jesuits. I thought there was something very strange. A lot of them were alcoholics. I lived in dorms and I definitely saw them staggering down the halls and there was some homosexuality and they just seemd liked real odd fishes to me.12
Back on the West Coast, 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 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)13
That period of introspection led to serious thought on religion, but nothing further occurred.
In 1977, (around the age of 18-19) just after starting Junior College at VenturaK, 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).”2
"...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"14
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 17L, 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"15
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, a