A Conversation with Miroslav Volf and Hamza Yusuf

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Event Name: A Conversation with Miroslav Volf and Hamza Yusuf
Transcription Date:Transcription Modified Date: 5/3/2019 7:07:18 PM
Transcript Version: 2
Original Reference URL: Youtube

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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