Miroslav Volf: So my name is Miroslav Volf. I teach theology here at Yale University. I direct the Yale Center for faith and culture and part of that our effort is a program on Life Worth Living in its conjunction with the program called Life Worth Living that. We have with us guests for today a very prominent Muslim scholar and president of Zaytuna College in Northern California. Welcome.
Hamza Yusuf: Thank you.
Miroslav Volf: Our conversation is going to be about what makes life worth living great philosophical traditions, but also great religions at least it seems to me having placed this question of the nature of human nature and human destiny at the heart of their endeavors. Would that be true of Islam?
Hamza Yusuf: I think that it's fundamental to the religion. There's a verse in the chapter known as the be nod I think it's 97th verse where the verse says that “Whoever does good deeds whether male or female and is a believer we will bring them to life in a good life.” It literally says hayatun tayyiba like a good life and. But it's God who is bringing that life about. So the two the two fundamental keys to that good life are faith and deeds. This was a big debate in Christianity as you know justification.
Miroslav Volf: Yes.
Hamza Yusuf: In Islam interestingly enough justification is through faith alone according to the dominant but deeds are necessary and so then it comes to what is faith and what are good deeds.
Miroslav Volf: Yes and as you mentioned this kind of debate was going on and still in some ways is going on but in Christianity today kind of various schools. So the good life or the flourishing life, life worth living it consists of deeds. What are the deeds? What kind of agency do we need to exert well to live or lead a good life?
Hamza Yusuf: I think one of the things if for many people now in the West around the world I think a good life is associated with a pleasurable life. Certainly if you go back even to the Greek period Aristotle's in the Nicomachean ethics he talks about the necessary components of a good life. Wealth is one of them; having a modicum of wealth that enables you to do what you want. And certainly we see that it gives you a certain type of freedom. Then he talks about friendship that has a whole chapter on friendship was very interesting because to have a good life certainly friends it would seem would be included in that and any talks also about virtue and a contemplative life. I think the 10th chapter to me is the most interesting because it's almost like he doesn't really ever get to what he's really talking about. It's almost as if it's it's it's a hidden tradition that he's just hinting at in there. For Muslims that is the key to a truly good life is a contemplative life. There has to be meditation on reality. That meditation on reality by nature is going to engender good deeds.
Miroslav Volf: So in our history there are these two components or circumstances of life right as you mentioned wealth, friends, stability, health of a person plays a very significant significant role as does the agency of human beings. So in terms of Islam you would say the good life may be possible under all sorts of circumstances, but actually or people may may find that they can they can lead the responsible human life and there are all sorts of circumstances. But actually what we ought to strive for is to have a certain level of comfort in circumstances which make the human life possible.
Hamza Yusuf: In the piranha I think it's very clear that circumstances are not necessary because for instance right now in Syria is a good example where it's incredibly war-torn despite that fact there are people in the midst of that that are in a state with of submission because we can't determine our circumstances, but we can determine our responses to our circumstances. I think that is the essential meaning if you really truly believe no matter what God throws at you like Jobb in the Quran no matter what God throws at you do not question God. This for the Muslim this is absolutely essential that the verse. In the Quran that says “God will not be asked about what he does but you will be asked about what you do.” I think this might be a fundamental difference certainly with the Jewish tradition and the Islamic tradition is that submission really is a submission it's not to say that we in ourselves ask questions it's not that but it's a type of submission to whatever God throws at me my response is what I'm going to be asked about.
Miroslav Volf: Is that is that closer than say I think about splice, where you can have a kind of circumstances your own state of the good life or flourishing is independent of circumstances and the goal is to make it as much independent as possible so that you can have this independence notwithstanding what surrounds you?
Hamza Yusuf: I think there's definitely a relationship between Islam and Stoicism. I mean there are people that have argued that Muslims took things from the Stoics. I don't think that's a sound historical argument. It's interesting to me that the Stoics the two great philosophers of Stoicism one of them was a slave and the other was an emperor and I just find that very intriguing.
Miroslav Volf: Maybe the emperor was as much of a slave as the slave was as much of an emperor.
Hamza Yusuf: I think the Stoics would definitely look at it like that the circumstance you do not-- I didn't choose the family I came into my family was highly educated so that enabled me for instance my language skills are just going to be naturally better because I grew up listening to articulate parents. I didn't choose those. So each one of us gets circumstances that we're given, but what we do with those circumstances this is what is going to determine the merit or the medal of our character.
Miroslav Volf: How about in Islam there are certain legal provisions, certain even political visions certain economic kind of strictures that ideally ought to characterize or we aspire for them to characterize societies because they make devotion more likely or expression of the devotion. There is a creation of circumstances I'm asking know that creates or fosters faith.
Hamza Yusuf: I think well you're absolutely right that that we are challenged and really in quite literally commanded by God to exert our efforts in bringing about circumstances that are going to make the good life possible; certainly Medina is an example of that. Mecca was persecution. The Prophet Sanim fled to Medina and set up an environment. The first thing he did was he established a free market and what's interesting about Islam to me is it's the last economic religion. I mean we know that in early Christianity one of the major debates was about faith and wealth and yet I rarely hear Christians talking about for instance usury despite the fact that it was considered a mortal sin all the way until the 19th century exactly. You went to hell and they wouldn't even bury users in Christian cemeteries. Usury is still a very vital element in Islam. I mean very devout Muslims will not buy houses in America because they won't take the mortgages to do that. People take that very seriously. They're very afraid of in any way violating certain aspects of commercial law in Islam. Commercial law is probably one third of the Sharia is about commercial law.
Miroslav Volf: Well the debates about usury in Christianity they're originally motivated that every time you require interest you put the person who has borrowed from you deeper into a whole in many respects; so to protect it. I think it still continues to be well regarded.
Hamza Yusuf: Exploitation of people also poor people on. Even Calvin if you look the bankers actually erected a monument to Calvin in Geneva I think. When you look even Calvin he only allowed a user II what he called interest with people that that could afford it.
Miroslav Volf: It could be productive.
Hamza Yusuf: He put a cap I think on three percent it was very small.
Miroslav Volf: It's a very important discussion in general to have today given the levels of debt all over the world.
Hamza Yusuf: Debt is a form of slavery indentured servitude. Even in the United States I mean debtors prisons were very common in the West.
Miroslav Volf: Especially poor suffering and disproportionately high.
Hamza Yusuf: Absolutely I mean payday loans which the banks often like Wells Fargo and Bank America have paid; they also cater to that element. So I mean for me I really feel like one of the fundamental rights of children is to be born debt-free. We’re sixteen trillion dollars in debt in the United States I don't see how a good life can be sustained in this country because eventually that debt is going to fall due. If you read for instance Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations that last chapter on public debt no civilization has survived a public debt. The other thing about a good life for me is entertainment because I really feel want one of the humans love to be entertained. The prophet Mohamed Salah once saw some people going to a wedding and he said, “Is there entertainment?” So what's called “Laho” and we need respite from the world right both spiritual respite, but also just pleasurable respite from the world. That's why singing was so important in most religious traditions. The Sufis put a lot of emphasis on singing right in Schad what they call in Schad. One of the things that I find increasingly difficult for people in this country is the degrading nature of our entertainment culture. I think one of the most important things to live a good life for me is human dignity and just--
Miroslav Volf: You mean to have a sense of dignity or to actually have the kinds of circumstances instantiated also in laws that would make sure that the dignity of every person is in fact preserved.
Hamza Yusuf: I think both. I think human being we have to see who we are we're not animals. I hear a lot of people say this interesting thing we're just animals you know there's a lot of people that make that claim.
Miroslav Volf: Just is the problem in this in this phrase.
Hamza Yusuf: Exactly we are part animal but we have something that clearly distinguishes us not in kind you know but actually in the genus. We have an immaterial component and despite whatever neurologists and neuroscientists say nobody has pinpointed consciousness and that is simply a fact it is a biological fact; nobody can pinpoint conscious. We know that there's mechanisms that enable consciousness, but consciousness itself is an immaterial reality and therefore we are you know the highly morphic if you want to use Aristotelian terms “we're body and soul” One of the things that [Inaudible 13:54] book on ethics says is “First let us establish the existence of the soul.” He said, “This is not a debatable point because even the drunkard in his drunkenness even the sleeper in his sleeping is aware of himself.
Miroslav Volf: So let's take this awareness of ourselves whichever way we want to call it. The Islam emphasizes significance of the knowledge primarily of God significance of remembrance of God memory of significance of being conscious of God. Would it be true to say that one of the main features of our own agency vis a vie the good life is the knowledge of God? You mentioned earlier from that knowledge of God from this relationship to God other things flow. Can you talk about what this knowledge of God means?
Hamza Yusuf: There's knowledge of God that is theoretical in Islam that for instance if you were outside of Islam you could learn it as a theologian. So you could learn dogmatic theology in Islam you could even learn the natural theology or doctrines. You learn these things actions about God. God has no place. God is outside of time and space God is simple you know he's not complex or compound. It is very similar like Aquinas is very close to the Islamic presentation of God. So you can learn all that but there's another element and this is what Ghazali said “Ultimately faith is not doctrine.”
Miroslav Volf: What is faith?
Hamza Yusuf: He said it's something that is in the heart that can come about from being in the presence.
Miroslav Volf: So Christians talk about faith obviously faith is having this cognitive component which you just described but also faith being fundamentally trust, fundamentally in some sense finding refuge in God, in some sense finding in God proper home for oneself.
Hamza Yusuf: I think that that well like I was saying that Imam Al-Ghazali said that faith can actually come into you in sitting in the presence of a sanctified being and I'll give you an example.
Miroslav Volf: What is it come into your faith can come into you? What's the faith that comes into you? What can you describe in different words the added--
Hamza Yusuf: When the Prophet was asked what is faith he gave the object of faith. I think that he said, “Faith is to believe in God.” It's very difficult. I read Kenny's book when I was in you know what is faith right. I mean there's a lot of debates about what this term means obviously but I think faith is you know I'll give me an example father [Inaudible 16:58] one of the great theologians of Islam from 13th century was walking and he and he had all these students behind him and an old woman said to one of the students “Who is that man?” He said [Inaudible 17:13] don't that's forbidden all right he has 70 proofs for the existence of God.” She said, “Why does he need proofs for the existence of God what kind of faith is that?” When [Inaudible 17:24] heard that he said, “You should have the faith of old women.”
Miroslav Volf: That faith she’s talking about firmly is that at the level of cognition? This guy's got all these proofs but I don't need proof. You simply intuitively ascend to the existence of God. I bought the idea of I seek refuge in God. I submit to God. You can have all the proofs of God's existence and then not actually--
Hamza Yusuf: I think the point that he was she was making and he was making was that there is a difference between doctrine and the reality of faith. You can have all the proofs you want and many atheists know all the dominant proofs philosophical proofs for the existence of God. I mean they know the cosmological argument you know the argument from design all these things, but there's no faith. So one of the things in the Islamic tradition is what's called [Inaudible 18:25] which is realization.
I was going to give you an example of I know somebody Guy Eaton who wrote a book called “The Remembrance of God”. Guy Eaton was a committed atheist and he told me this and he said that faith came into his heart after meeting a man named Martin Ling's. He said it was the first time he'd ever met what he felt was a truly pious human being and it really had an effect on him. Another example is CS Lewis who was an atheist but when he met Chesterton hmm he said he was forced to reassess his entire understanding of religion because he thought it was a simpletons belief and when he met this incredibly brilliant man who had such profound faith it forced him to reassess his faith. So I think just meeting a deeply faithful person can have an impact on the human soul.
Miroslav Volf: In some ways also in the Christian tradition of saints are much more compelling quote/unquote arguments because they are trapped by their very existence and once you find the way of life that you encounter compelling you're pulled at the level not of cognition simply but at the level of volition at the level of emotion toward that.
Hamza Yusuf: I think you to me you've hit on the crux of the issue. I think what our world lacks is sanctified people and I and I think that that I think in the past one of the reasons Christianity spread so rapidly was because of these extraordinary human beings that even some of the Stoics who watched the Christians being eaten by lions converted to Christianity because they felt that these were the first true Stoics that they'd ever seen. I think the same is true if you study the early spread of Islam. There's no religion that spread as rapidly as Islam in history. I mean you can just see this in a beautiful something was done. On the internet where they showed the timelines of the spreads of the world religions and Islam just it just goes like that it's so quick in terms of the timeline and a lot of it were these people.
My own experience in meeting the first Muslims I met that had these qualities that I hadn't seen before and my teachers that I studied with. The Hindus have something called “Darshan” which is sitting you know in the presence of somebody who has done that work on himself and in sitting in that presence you can enter into a Samadhi state. I can testify to that truth. But those people now actually I think they're very hidden.
Miroslav Volf: You know what strikes me sometimes that the various religions of [Inaudible 21:27] speak about Christian faith. It is both about how life should be lived but it's also about judgments about what kind of life is worthy of human beings. Sometimes criteria for worthiness are more difficult to communicate simply cognitively and so you in a sense need to be faced by either community or by person who embodies this and you can imagine the entire Gestalt of this thing how life might look if criteria of what measures the value of what makes judgments about values would be different. People find it sometimes incredibly desirable and irresistible.
Hamza Yusuf: We model, I mean this is our nature; children model. This is why it's so important for us to be dignified. One of the things that I've noticed just in my own lifetime and I don't know I think Europe's a little different from America. But one things that I've noticed just because I'm approaching my 60th decade and I think about when I was young how I looked at adults and what I find is adults today are much more childish. They dress like children, they act like children--
Miroslav Volf: And children dress like adults to kind of the leveling between them.
Hamza Yusuf: It's very strange whereas if you look for instance at portraits from you know the 15th century 16th century children are always dressed like little adults.
Miroslav Volf: That's interesting.
Hamza Yusuf: So this idea of becoming an adult was so important like getting your first breeches this was a transition for for kids because they wore the shorts, but then they got pants breeches and this was a rite of passage the bar mitzvah the circumcision at 7 entering into the age of discrimination. Even Aboriginal peoples have these rites of passage where you enter into adulthood. I think we have allowed for a sustained adolescence. In some ways Western civilization to me is a very adolescent civilization. We don't have the gravitas the debt then, the depth and weightiness. One of the things that Quran calls humans is “the weighty ones” that there were a weighty species. The frivolity even in our language we've lost gravity in the way we speak. One of the things that that historically I think was very important to people was to speak properly. Even I mean the wonderful Bernard Shaw's play “Pygmalion” even though you know it's obviously the satirical; but the desires of the lower class to speak like the upper class. This desire when we look at a rose what we want to see is the beauty of the rose the more we admire it that the closer it is to our understanding of what a rose is. We have some sense of the perfection of a rose and that's why if it has that that the closer it is to that ideal in our mind why we have that ideal. This is what I feel in our culture the type of inversion that's happened where beauty is scoffed and ugliness is that the fact that people buy clothes that are rags now they wear rags; whereas people in rags always wanted to be able to afford clothes that weren't ragged.
Miroslav Volf: It's interesting I think I mean we can talk about fashion and I'm quite interested in fashion and kind of a spiritual dimension.
Hamza Yusuf: So there's a spiritual dimension I mean our clothes wreak atheism.
Miroslav Volf: [Laughs] that would be interesting to explore, but let me take it just slightly differently because I think it's obviously at least I think it's to the heart of what we think in terms of what one thinks about the good life. One way to conceive of it is to have this kind of ideal almost like ideal types or exemplars into which one inspires. Then the question becomes which is a typically very modern question is what happened with my particularity in this that I was born in this place with these kinds of gifts with these kinds of propensities, with this kind of a kind of a body you want to put me into some kind of a straitjacket and you see the whole this ideal of authenticity. In the Christian tradition you have two impulses and you can see it so that somebody like SCOTUS where you have this general, but you have to also the emphasis on the on the particularity of each one of us. Martin Luther for instance says, “God calls each of us by our name.” That's so significant. Can you talk to me well about significance of my own authentic particularity?
Hamza Yusuf: You know Heidegger has this concept of thrown-ness were thrown in to this world and then we become historical products we imbibe our culture our ideas, the way we articulate all these things and much of it is given to us it's not and therefore we come into this crises. So if we're reflective people that I'm not really an authentic person I'm just a historical product. I think one of the things for me about pre-modern cultures is that what you would find is outwardly there was a lot of conformity, but inwardly and I've seen this because I've been in pre-modern societies Mauritania and West Africa where I was. What I noted was they have an outward conformity decorum which they used to call decorum we don't even use that word anymore. But decorum it's a good Jane Austen word you know decorum-decorum. There's a type of comportment the way we carry ourselves and it's a respect for social norms because society thrives on stability. When there's great change in society there's always turbulence and Technology thrives on rapid change. So this is part of the crises that we have in the modern world is this loss of a conformity to norms. Cultures have norms and they're there for a reason, but we are still individuals and within those cultural norms we have our own personalities. I think one of the things about our culture is that outwardly people are all very different, but inwardly they're actually quite vacuous and similar in a lot of ways.
Miroslav Volf: That's very interesting and this is kind of inward conformity notwithstanding the emphasis or maybe because of the emphasis of distance.
Hamza Yusuf: Yes I read a book on the philosophy of tattoos and one of the chapters in there was “I think therefore I am”. It was this idea of wanting to be you know I think people feel a lot of anonymity and a desire to assert themselves. To me I think one of the main reasons for that I mean god only knows really, but I think personally the problems that we have in our culture is when you don't have caregivers that are devoutly committed to children at an early age I think children lose a sense of self and so they spend the rest of their life trying to assert and establish that. When they're given a lot of care a lot of attention a lot of love when they're young they don't need to be attention seekers.
Miroslav Volf: But also we will live in a kind of market driven culture and often market driven culture rather than simply market culture rich market is an important instrument. Market driven culture often tends to have a quick rate of obsolescence because it also drives. The result is I mean I'm thinking of a phrase from Karl Marx a communist manifesto maybe I shouldn't leave [Inaudible 29:39] okit but I think that document is diagnostically very interesting. “Everything that is solid melts into air” he says at one point and it's kind of a plasticity where one doesn't have a place to stand but you can make it up or you can create stability with certain forms of decorum social emulation. But you can also that there's something about the relationship to divine also that gives this stability. Is that also it?
Hamza Yusuf: I think that's the source of weightiness.
Miroslav Volf: You have Unbearable Lightness.
Hamza Yusuf: Unbearable Lightness of being that's it and and no real connection because you know Kierkegaard's idea that you have to at least establish one true love. You have to really understand hence the relationship between man and woman was so central to these religious teachings certainly in the Abrahamic faiths. I mean I know Christianity has an ideal of for at least the priests and the Cardinals and things an idea of celibacy complete and utter dedication to God. But still it acknowledges the sacrament of marriage. This idea that that this relationship of really unconditional love at best when it's truly a relationship that is how we're informed of love and understanding them and that's why love is so central to the religious teachings. I mean there are a lot of people that criticize Islam. I've seen this in many Christian books you know that it's not a love based religion, but the reality of it is love was always identified as the highest ideal in the Islamic tradition.
There were certain theologians that said you couldn't really love God because God is not of our species and you could only truly love your own species. Ghazali says “Theologians say there's nothing of true religion.”
Miroslav Volf: I like Ghazali.
Hamza Yusuf: Ghazali is great and this is why traditionally the Sufis used the divine essence in Arabic that is is a feminine word and so they use the feminine as an expression in their poetry and Leila what they called Leila and Salma. They use that expression because that erotic love that intense desire. I mean one of the motifs that's really nice I saw last night in the church that we were at one of the motifs in churches and mosques and this very intriguing is the vine. The vine in traditional cosmology the vine is the only willful plant. It has a type of will but it's also got the word in Arabic for erotic love is the same word for the The Binding of the Vine. There is this idea of just falling in love with God.
Miroslav Volf: We talked earlier and I'll tie it with what you just said I think it's very important point. We talked earlier about a need for stability for structures. Often people flee into artificially constructed structures that aren't good for them. So there is kind of rigidity of meaning that's imposed upon them and then flee out because they see how vapid the pleasures which have no particular meaning except satisfying my own limited desires. Presumably I think of it in terms of Christian faith that there's kind of unity there needs to be unity between a meaning which requires certain stability and certain expansion of the self to something larger than oneself and pleasure and some kind of emotional fulfillment or we might say joy as well. Did you see that tension in Islam maybe the people who like to press with the thumb down in order to create those structures and forget about I think you're right somewhere, but the pleasure that the person has in God rather than in the worldly things? On the other hand you've got kind of empty pleasures that lack the meaning.
Hamza Yusuf: I think pleasure is an ancient just problem it's one of the great ideas right just the whole--
Miroslav Volf: Not just problem right? You don't mean it in itself.
Hamza Yusuf: Well it's a problem in that it literally becomes an idol for many people. The pursuit of pleasure is is literate becomes the goal of life the hedonists. There's a lot of it.
Miroslav Volf: That's the empty one.
Hamza Yusuf: That's empty and I think the problem with all pleasures is that they're temporary.
Miroslav Volf: That's where the reference is something outside in a sense you give yourself to nothing you just take everything in.
Hamza Yusuf: I think in a true relationship for instance the relationship between a meaningful relationship with a man and a wife the deepest pleasure is pleasuring the other. I mean there's an incredible thing. I have to believe that that's true in all deeply intimate relations the desire to give the other the gift of pleasuring the other.
Miroslav Volf: So unity of meaning and pleasure is in love.
Hamza Yusuf: I think it is. There's a beautiful verse in the Quran it's exactly said several times it's very common that God is pleased with them and they are pleased with God that this mutuality of of pleasure this idea. In our theology there's a chapter [Inaudible 35:42] has God experiences joy.
Miroslav Volf: Does he?
Hamza Yusuf: Yes.
Miroslav Volf: One simple God and a non compound experiences joy. Tell me about it. We have the same of course in the Quran.
Hamza Yusuf: You might have gotten it from us. [Laughter]
Miroslav Volf: No actually it must have gone around because remember what Jesus said about joy in Heaven when one sinner--
Hamza Yusuf: These are we believe that these are revelations from the same source and therefore they would have the same context. Both traditions influenced one another that's undeniable historically. One of the attributes of God in our tradition is laughter it's not taken literally, but God's love but there are Hadees of the part where it says “Your Lord laughs.” [Foreign Language].
Miroslav Volf: Soughing way or kind of rejoicing out.
Hamza Yusuf: Rejoicing.
Miroslav Volf: Laughing out loud kind of way [Laughs]
Hamza Yusuf: No. For instance there's a hadith a saying of the Prophet Salat says that “God laughs at a man who is is woken up for his dawn prayer by his wife.” What they say in the counter is that he's pleased with that it brings him joy just to see that.
Miroslav Volf: Presumably that's the kind of element of devout life in kind of imitation of God. So pleasure it's seeing the good and beautiful and true. That's one of leisure consistent.
Hamza Yusuf: One of the things you know in the lexicon and cosmos which has different meanings but you know one of them is the world in Greek, but another is order and another is decorum. Then another is moral goodness cosmos it has to do with moral goodness. So this idea of these three great virtues I think are all our traditions share of truth goodness and beauty and for us it's Iman Islam Asan. Iman is the truth the truth of God that we are knowers by nature in our triune nature we’re knowers and we're doers we will things, but we're also makers we produce things with our knowledge and our will. We're meant to know the truth was meant to do the good and we're meant to make the beautiful to produce the beautiful. This is why if you look at surgical tools from the Muslim period in Andalusia you can actually Google this as a [Inaudible 38:39] surgical tools you'll see that they're all beautifully embellished. They're surgical tools but they all had beautiful artwork on them. Why was it so important for pre-modern cultures to adorn everything? They adorned their clothes. Why was lace so important? All their buildings were adorned. Why was wainscoting so important? Why is this beautiful woodwork important? Now this functionalism of modern society which has lost the making of beauty what we call “Asan” it's lost and it's something in us that's lost.
I mean one of the things we say that that what is out there is inside you know that man is a microcosm. Imam Ali said that “You think that you're an insignificant thing and yet in you is the entire universe.” We are the microcosm. One of the things that I see that we're losing on the planet we're not losing cockroaches, we're not losing rats they're thriving, but we're losing Eagles, we're losing lions and tigers and leopards. We're losing these qualities in ourself that are majestic and beautiful and what's remaining is foulness and the filth. So we are ultimately-- if people want to clean up the environment--
Miroslav Volf: Or the consequences of misplaced desire. We could go on for a very long time, but maybe this broader framework of god who provides both the structures of meaning also is a source of pleasure indeed unity of meaning and pleasure in joy in the truth and the beauty and the goodness is a good place to to end. Thank you very much.
Hamza Yusuf: Well thank you Dr. Volf I really appreciate you honoring me by just inviting me and thank you.
Miroslav Volf: You're most welcomed thank you.