All-American Sheikh By Scott Mcleod

Transcript Details

Event Name: All-American Sheikh By Scott Mcleod
Description: Article on Cario-Review website
Transcription Date:Transcription Modified Date: 4/27/2019
Transcript Version: 1
Original Reference URL:

Transcript Text

As he tells it, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, born Mark Hanson in Walla Walla, Washington, hails from a family of seekers. His journey to Islam began at age 17, when a head-on automobile accident led him to serious reflection on the meaning of life. In a spiritual quest over the ensuing decades, he converted from Christianity to Islam and studied with Muslim scholars in Britain, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Morocco, and perhaps most notably, with Sheikh Murabit Al-Hajj and Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah of Mauritania. Today, Yusuf is widely regarded as one of the leading Western scholars of Islam and one of the most influential Muslims in the United States.

In 1996, Yusuf, 55, co-founded the Zaytuna Institute, which in 2009 became Zaytuna College, located in Berkeley, California, America’s first Muslim liberal arts college. As Zaytuna’s president, and in the classroom as a professor, he is on a mission to upgrade the quality of Islamic education, revive the classical teachings and sciences of the faith, and prepare Muslims for the modern world. Zaytuna offers a rich curriculum designed to integrate Islam and Arabic with the Western canon. “Mr. Yusuf dazzles his audiences,” the New York Times wrote in 2006, “by weaving into one of his typical half-hour talks quotations from St. Augustine, Patton, Eric Erikson, Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Auden, Robert Bly, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, and the Bible.” Earlier this year, Zaytuna became the first accredited Muslim institution of higher education in the country.

Yusuf has also been a passionate opponent of U.S. policies in the Middle East as well as a vocal critic of Muslim extremists—condemning the September 11 attacks as an act of “mass murder, pure and simple.” Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Yusuf on August 27, 2015, in his office at Zaytuna College, located in Berkeley’s tranquil Holy Hill neighborhood, known for its small theology schools and seminaries.

CAIRO REVIEWWhat does the Muslim faith mean to you?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I essentially see Islam as a culmination of the Abrahamic traditions. I came out of the Abrahamic traditions. I was an Orthodox Christian. My father was Roman Catholic, Irish Catholic, my mother was half-Greek and half-Irish, so her father, who was an Archon in the Greek Orthodox Church, raised us Greek Orthodox and my father didn’t have a problem with that. My mother was very open-minded and she raised me to believe that religion, for most people, was largely an arbitrary phenomenon because they tend to take the religion they were born into. So, if we were in Sri Lanka we would be Hindus or Buddhists or in Poland we might be Jewish or Catholic. I really took that to heart. I did go through the various religions when I was 17, and Islam was the last on my list. There is something very troubling about Islam for a lot of Westerners because it’s the similar that’s not similar. We have about fourteen hundred years of conflict, with few bright spots: Sicily during Roger II, or Frederick II, the Peace and Friendship with Islam, Eternal Enmity to Rome. Then Spain, during a very brief, shining moment, the Convivencia, when there were Jews, Christians, and Muslims living together relatively harmoniously. But I think for most Western people there’s just a lot of prejudice that’s there. I was fortunate that I was raised in a household that—my mother had antibodies towards racism, sexism, prejudice, so we were raised not to look at things with a prejudicial eye as much as anybody is capable of doing that. When I studied Islam, I felt this has my Abrahamic faith with a lot of the things missing that bothered me about the Abrahamic faith. It was, for me, a very good fit.

CAIRO REVIEWWhat does it mean that you’re a Muslim and not a Christian?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Everything that I loved about Christianity I got to bring into Islam. I didn’t see Islam as an abandonment of my Christian upbringing. I saw it as a fulfillment of it. I really didn’t have any conflict there. The Ten Commandments, I got. Jesus is a prophet as opposed to an incarnation of the divine, but one of the highest honored prophets. Mary is still a virgin in the Islamic tradition. The love of Jesus is in the Quran, but also the justice of Moses. So the Quran, although it appeals to the better angels of ourselves and asks us to be more Jesuit in our attitude towards the neighbor, it also allows for the redressing of wrongs. Muslims get that choice between the Mosaic justice and the turn-the-other-cheek of Christianity. I really felt that Islam was a fulfillment of that Abrahamic trinity of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Final Testament.

CAIRO REVIEWIn the sweep of this history of fourteen hundred years, how has Islam benefited individuals, societies, and humanity?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Most people are unaware of the incredible contribution that Islam has made to human civilization. We call our numerals Arabic numerals. Many of our stars have Arabic names because the great Muslim astronomers were the ones that wrote the most advanced books on astronomy. When I went to Turkey I was so struck by how much of European civilization came from the influence of the Ottomans. John Locke, who wrote the treatise on toleration, was a student of Edward Pococke, at Oxford, who happened to be the foremost authority on Islam at the time. Locke was very interested in Islam. I think there’s a clear indication that Locke was influenced by the Ottoman way of dealing with multiple religions. The first Edict of Toleration in the West was in Transylvania, which [had] a heterodoxic Christian ruler working under the Ottomans who decided on tolerating other Christian sects. The Ottomans never persecuted the Protestants, so Protestants would flee to Ottoman Turkey from Catholic countries where they were being persecuted. The Jews, when they were being persecuted in Spain, went to Turkey, and Bernard Lewis highlights that in his book on Islam and the Jews. One of the most ironic things to me is that St. Thomas Aquinas, who really becomes the chief spokesperson and greatest theologian of the Catholic Church, Augustine notwithstanding, he was heavily influenced by Muslim theologians and he has them in his bibliography. He was influenced by Averroes, by Avicenna, by Al-Farabi, by Al-Ghazali. And you can see things in the Summa that are directly lifted from Muslim theological treatises. The Catholic Church itself has a debt to Islamic theology. A lot of people don’t know these things and it’s unfortunate, but there are many Western scholars who do know these things. California historical textbooks, because of Muslim advocacy, have actually begun to change that. And there’s pushback, obviously, from some of the more either secularist or fundamentalist Christians that don’t like the fact that Islam could be presented in any good light.

CAIRO REVIEWYou have fantastic epochs in the Islamic civilization. What went wrong?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Well, that’s the question that Bernard Lewis posed, “What went wrong?” In some ways, we could ask the same questions about the West. I find it ironic that the moral capital of our civilization is so low at a time when we’re condemning Muslim civilization. ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria], for instance, is a pure outgrowth of a war that even the Pope declared unjust, that was waged by our administration on the Iraqi government. Yet we don’t take any responsibility for that. These are just “crazy Muslims” that arose out of a completely insane situation where a repressive regime was removed. But I would say that more things have gone right in the Muslim culture. You’re living in Cairo, so you know the family is far more intact in the Muslim World than it is in the West. We are now witnessing the disintegration of the family in the West. One of the things that really strikes me—I was just in Turkey, and people just look normal. And when I come back to my country, I feel like I’m in a freak show. What I realized recently was I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that in the Muslim World children still grow up with two parents and the mother is actually home so they get all the attention they need when they’re young and they don’t need to do all these attention-grabbing antics when they get older. Whereas in the West so many people don’t get that attention when they’re young so they spend the rest of their life looking. “Look at me, I have to tattoo my whole body to get people to look at me because I didn’t get the gaze of the significant other when I was a child so now I need the gaze of the insignificant others as an adult.” So I think a lot of what we’re seeing in the West, to me, is profoundly troubling, and in the Muslim World there are a lot of things that are actually positive so I’m not totally convinced that this whole question, “What went wrong?” is even a valid question. What’s happening in the Muslim World, the media’s magnifying glass has focused on one area that is definitely dysfunctional and having really severe crises, but there are many other areas of the Muslim World that are actually functioning quite well.

CAIRO REVIEWFor example?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Every year I spend a month in Turkey and I feel so much safer, it’s one of the cleanest countries I’ve been to, it has all of the modern amenities that I find in my own country, and it has really nice people. Istanbul is rated almost every year as the number one spot to visit on the planet for tourists because of its beauty, because they have incredible cuisine, they have amazing history. Malaysia is an amazing country. Multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious. The Malay Muslims live with the Chinese, live with the Orang Asli, the aboriginal peoples. And then Africa, Morocco, with all the problems that it has, is another country that I love to visit. There’s a lot of problems but it’s not one of the Arab countries that imploded. A lot of the Arab countries have real problems. Some of them are economic. Some of them have to do with the fact that dictatorship and oppression have been part and parcel of those countries for a long time. Oppression is a horrible thing to live under. Unfortunately, if you’ve ever read Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, those cycles are difficult to break.

CAIRO REVIEWThis is what I’m getting at.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I think in some ways they are failed states, to lesser and greater degrees. Civilizations, like people, have ages. They have youth, they have middle age, and old age, and in many ways these are decrepit societies perhaps waiting for a reincarnation to be reborn because societies do get renovated. They are renewed. We’re a relatively new civilization and yet we’re, I think, looking pretty world-weary of late. But the American civilization has been a very dynamic civilization because it’s a relatively new civilization. Europe is, I think, having a lot of troubles. The whole planet, in some ways, is going through this. There’s a whole set of philosophical problems: the collapse of traditional societies, the collapse of traditional worldviews, the introduction of Western philosophical ideas, the Enlightenment, secularity. These have been introduced in the Muslim World that emerged in very different environments than they did in the Western world. The Western world had a gross reaction against religion because of a lot of the repressive tendencies of religion. In the Muslim World, knowledge was not the domain of religion itself. There was no priesthood to keep knowledge limited to a select group of people. For that reason, Muslims did not have this crisis of religion as a repressive force as it did in the West. Secularity, which is a reaction to that, laicism, which is the extreme reaction, did not occur to the Muslims. That’s why the imposition of secularity on them has been very traumatic for these societies because they are deeply religious societies. They’re still theocentric societies. That’s shifting. I agree that there are shifts happening in the youth because of the Western culture that is incredibly pervasive because of all the new technology. People are now exposed to things. Thirty years ago in Cairo they were watching Bahibbak LucyI Love Lucy, reruns, or something. Now they’re streaming from YouTube whatever they want to watch from the West. If you’ve watched The Square it’s very clear the incredible influences of these technologies even on the quote-unquote Arab Spring. These are complex questions.

CAIRO REVIEWIf we look at countries with major Islamic heritages—Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia—many are very problematic places and societies today.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Historically, to use Saudi Arabia as an example, in Saudi Arabia two hundred years ago, a movement emerged which was a puritanical movement which was a radical departure, it was more of a protestant movement against a kind of Catholic Islam. It was more of a protest movement against a traditional Islam. People say Islam needs a reformation; this is what we’re witnessing. People that say Islam needs a reformation don’t know how bloody the Western Reformation was and how horrible it was and how it fragmented Western culture, and because of it, secularism arose as a treatment. William Cavanaugh would argue against that in The Myth of Religious Violence, but generally secularism came as this so-called arbiter between these religious conflicts. The truth is that secularism has a history that actually outdoes religion in its severity and barbarity. I mean, nobody has been as bloody as the secular ideologues, Stalin and Hitler.

CAIRO REVIEWIn these countries with Islamic heritage, why have things deteriorated so much?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: If you want to get to core reasons, one of them is that there was a collapse of the school systems in the Muslim World. Ibn Khaldun already in the fourteenth century is arguing that there was an ossification that had penetrated these school systems to where they were no longer thinking creatively but rather just simply rote memorization. There are many places outside of Western civilization where that is the norm, where you just regurgitate information and parrot it back to the teacher. So that is one aspect of this idea of what they call taqlid in the Islamic tradition, which is blind imitation. Toynbee argues that civilizations rise or fall based on how they respond to challenges and the response has to come from what he called a creative minority. Historically, the Muslims had these creative minorities and they were able to deal with their challenges, but these creative minorities diminished until they became just individuals that weren’t able to really address the crises that were confronting them. In the West we still have a lot of creative thinkers. One of the things that really strikes me about the West that I don’t see in the Muslim World is that [when] I go to the bookstores in the spring and in the fall when they release the new books, I’m always amazed by the amount of serious literature and study. In the Muslim World, crises come and go and there are no books that analyze them. Most of what’s published in the Arab World, the best stuff is just critical editions of books that were written a thousand years ago.

CAIRO REVIEWWhy have these Islamic societies fallen into such states of decay?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: A couple of things. One is taqlid, and the ossification of the creative process in the traditional school systems. Another aspect is, if you’re familiar with Eckstein’s Congruence Theory. Eckstein said that whatever the ruling model of a society is, it’s only successful to the degree with which the model is replicated in the other social institutions of the society. If you have a patriarchal society, or you have an authoritarian society, like a dictator, then you need teachers that behave like dictators. You need parents that behave like dictators. One of the things that strikes a lot of my Muslim friends as odd when they come to America is the idea of asking children what they want for dinner. They just think that that’s really a weird thing to do because you just give children food. But part of asking the child is enfranchisement. It begins early and you enculturate them into the idea that they are a sovereign citizen of the household and they participate in decisions and choices. That type of enculturation of democracy that happens organically in our culture, it’s so far from happening in the Muslim World. That’s why if you get rid of the dictator but the models that enable the dictator to be successful are still replicated in all of your social institutions, you’ve changed nothing. You’re only going to wait for the next dictator to come and act it out.

CAIRO REVIEWHow did this happen?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Cultures decline and fall. The decline and fall of Islam was the rise of Europe. Don’t forget that Europe rose with the introduction of all the Islamic sciences that came into it with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the fall of Granada in 1492. This is the transformation of the West. This is when all these great works were translated into Latin. The translation movement was amazing. It stimulated Europe and they took it and they’ve been going for five hundred years now. But the truth is the Muslims were going for a thousand years before that. People forget, when you look in terms of the long-term vision of it, what happened in the Muslim World will happen here, it’s only a matter of time. The Romans had their time. Civilizations have their time. They decline and fall. Does that mean that Islam declines and falls? No, this is where the conflation of Islam with the so-called Islamic civilization is a fallacy. For instance, I’m here in California and we’ve started a Muslim liberal arts college that is filled with people that were born in the United States of America. This might be the seed. It might be, I’m not saying it is, but Islam has historically moved to different places. It left the Arab World a long time ago and it moved to different places. The Turks had it and they declined and they fell. They’re trying to have their own renaissance in a way and it might happen because they have a lot of really interesting thinkers and they’re very sharp and they have a very dynamic culture.

CAIRO REVIEWYou mentioned The Colonizer and the Colonized. Is that part of what’s at play?