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

: It’s part of it. I think Muslims have a profound chip on their shoulder. I call it the “post-colonial traumatic stress syndrome.” The trauma of being colonized, especially when you were as great as the Muslim civilization was. They live in the ruins of greatness. If you’re in Cairo, it’s very hard to ignore the Mamluk majesty. It’s very hard to ignore the incredible past that they had; even the pyramids and the Pharaonic history. They live in the ruins of greatness. And, when they were colonized, beginning with the Napoleonic invasion, and then with the coming of the English and Lord Cromer, I think they really grappled with the collapse. Unfortunately, they identified the crisis with a lack of know-how. Most of the Muslims really believed that the reason that we were colonized was because the West got ahead of us. Hence, they direct all of their young people to study things like engineering and medicine because if we could just get the know-how and learn how they do these magical things, we’ll once again restore our greatness. The problem with that is that the real foundation of any civilization is morality. That’s where the real crisis is in a lot of the Muslim World, public morality. I think in some ways the private morality and generally sexual morality and things like that, family, those things are more stable in the Muslim World. I’m not naïve of all the hanky-panky that goes on everywhere, but generally you find that. Partly it’s because of the segregation that occurs and the opportunities are not as available.

CAIRO REVIEWYou’re saying that this corrosion is not because of Islam, but because there’s not enough Islam?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: That’s my thesis. Western people think that religion is a scaffolding that we built our civilization with and now that it’s built we can get rid of the scaffolding. I think there’s a very strong argument that it is the civilization, and if you get rid of it you’re left with buildings that are devoid of meaning. I think that’s what a lot of Western people are struggling with. The Muslims don’t have that crisis. Their crisis is that buildings are derelict but they still have meaning in them. And they don’t have the wherewithal to renovate. Renovation is a beautiful word, because in the Islamic tradition people are called to renovate, to renew.

CAIRO REVIEWAre Islam and democracy compatible?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: There are a lot of people in the West that are asking, “Are democracy and corporatism compatible?” Democracy is a very fragile form of government and there are strong arguments now in the West that we’ve lost our democracy. That we don’t really have that much say, that we’re more kind of happy farm animals. They take care of us and we provide income tax dollars and consume their corporate products. Democracy is a contested term and if you mean by that, can Muslims vote and participate in the government, I think Turkey is an example of where Muslims clearly have worked within democratic institutions successfully. Malaysia is another example. It’s different; it’s not Western democracy. One of the things about the West is that we love to create others in our own image. When we were Christians we went around proselytizing Christianity, trying to form people into a Christian version of ourselves. Hence Amazonians singing Latin psalms. But, now that we’ve abandoned Christianity and we’re liberal democrats and consumers, the idea is to go and proselytize liberalism and consumerism. Part of our egocentricity and ethnocentricity is that we want to create the world in our own image. For instance, the Gulf states, like the Emirates, or Qatar, or Kuwait, for example, are places where the people being ruled are actually quite content with their rulers, by and large. Al-Nahyan has a very, very high rating amongst their people. It’s not a democratic environment, but it’s a type of benevolence, a benevolent paternalism, that works for them—setting aside labor problems of people coming from very impoverished areas. I’m not convinced that democracy has to be this universal way of governing ourselves. I would be perfectly content to live in a constitutional monarchy. I’d be perfectly content to live in a place like the Emirates. I could live in the United Arab Emirates and not have a problem with it. I spent four years in the Emirates so I’m speaking from real experience. I think we have to be very careful in trying to recreate the world in our own image. I think other places have to determine what’s right for them and if that’s democratic, then fine. I’m not an Islamist by any stretch of the word, but when an Islamist government was elected in Algeria, they were overthrown. One of the French commentators said sometimes we have to subvert democracy in order to save democracy. And this is the odd thing about it. If you give Muslims an election, very often they will actually vote in the Islamists because they actually believe that they represent God and that we should follow God and if they are going to apply Islamic law then we should vote for them. There’s a lot of Muslims that believe that.

CAIRO REVIEWMy definition of democracy would be more the values than institutions, like the right to individual liberty, the culture of tolerance, the culture of community decision-making rather than top-down decision-making, treatment of minorities, treatment of women.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I think all the things you said, I think people would be shocked at how progressive Islam is in a really proper understanding of it.

CAIRO REVIEWCan you explain that?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: For instance, women’s rights. One of the things that only recently they are acknowledging is the fact that women that work at home actually are contributing to the GDP. This is very recent. In the Islamic tradition, the jurists of Islam, thirteen hundred years ago, argued, and this is actually considered canon law in Islam, that women are entitled to be paid for their domestic service in their homes. They can actually charge their husbands for their domestic service if they choose. It’s a choice for them. That was understood, that they don’t have to serve a husband. That’s only very recently even an idea in the West. A lot of divorce in our country is over domestic chores, because you have two-income families and then the husband comes home and expects the wife to do the laundry and make the dinner. That stuff was dealt with centuries ago in the Muslim World. I think, in terms of minorities, in some ways the West has surpassed the Muslim World. There is full enfranchisement. There’s a lot to be desired undeniably, and there’s still a lot of racism in our culture, but I think Europe and America and Canada have done amazing things in that area. Unprecedented. It’s quite sad that there’s so much racial tension in our country because for the first time America is a society that was really beginning to overcome some of this. There’s a lot of historical baggage. In the Muslim World, minorities were always protected but they were seen definitely as subjects and second-class citizens, but they were protected. I think there is a reading of Islam, and that’s certainly the one that my teacher, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, has—he argues recently [that] the whole concept of jizya is only one among different possibilities. So the idea of a poll tax for non-Muslim minorities is one. The other model is what they call the Constitution of Medina, where the Prophet fully enfranchised the Jewish tribes and that was the first model. It was replaced by the jizya model. He argues that it was never abrogated and I think there’s a solid argument for that. He does feel that that’s the most appropriate way, that minorities should be fully enfranchised.

CAIRO REVIEWWould you argue that Islam has a space for these democratic values?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I think they are certainly compatible with Islam. I think there are definitely areas—for instance, pornography, violence—when we argue that freedom also means the freedom to corrupt people, this is where you’re going to get into some entanglements amongst the Muslims. In the West, even though these are recent ideas, is the idea that the pornographer has the right to be a purveyor of smut in the society and that’s his individual right. The Muslims would say that if harm overrides benefit, if the social harm is greater than the social benefit of something, then in Islamic law it’s prohibited. And, certainly with pornography, the evidence of the social harm is immense. I’ve read a lot in this area. Oddly enough, Muslim civilizations tended to be a lot more tolerant of what until recently was called sexual deviancies. Muslim cultures had a greater tolerance of these things, even though they are prohibited. The actual cultures tended to be tolerant. One of the interesting things that has always struck me as odd is [that] nobody has ever looked at the Muslim transvestites. They call them mukhannathoon; we find them in India, in the Arab World, West Africa. They go to the weddings and they are men that behave like women. Muslims have always recognized that there is a spectrum of behavior amongst peoples and I think they’ve been a lot more tolerant to human foibles and idiosyncrasies than a lot of Western cultures, which demand a type of conformity. But puritanism tries to stamp that out and a lot of what we’re seeing today is the rise of this puritanical Islam that is very repressive and makes it very difficult for people that are not in that.

CAIRO REVIEWIs that legitimate? Is it Islam?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Arguably there are elements that are Islam. Undeniably. But the way that it is practiced and the cruelty with which it is practiced are very alien to Islam and to the Muslims. This Graeme Wood argument [in the Atlantic magazine], that he made using Bernard Haykel and a few other people, that what ISIS is practicing is Islam, I think that argument is a very fallacious argument for anybody that knows the Islamic tradition.

CAIRO REVIEWThe Arab Spring gave so much hope to the young generation. Part of the failure is that the Islamist movements have not been successful. How do you read that? Why hasn’t the Islamic movement brought about a just society?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: First of all, I think it’s akin to the Spring of Nations which happened in 1848 with the revolutions in Europe that were quickly squelched by the authoritarian regimes. But, over time, that gave rise to major changes that happened with World War I. That might be what it will take, a horrible World War III, and then from those ashes will emerge more equitable societies. I would hate to see that but I think it’s very possible. The Hapsburgs, the Hohenzollern, the Romanovs, they all collapsed but they should have reformed in 1848 when people rose up against these ossified, petrified regimes, but they didn’t. The same is true with the Ottomans, with Abdul Majid who made incredible reforms with the Tanzimat and then Sultan Abdul Hamid, for whatever reasons, suspended the constitution. I mean, he had his justifications for doing it but it was suspended, the parliament was shut down. So, those reforms were not fulfilled and then comes the Young Turks and the overthrow of the Ottoman caliphate. I think these things eventually are going to play out. I don’t know how brutal it’s going to be but people can’t take tyranny, and they rise up. Aristotle, in his book of politics, has a section on revolutions, and I think his descriptions of why revolutions occur are as valid today as they were when he articulated them two thousand five hundred years ago. It’s very clear that when you have diseased societies, the disease has to come to a head, like the boil that brings all the pus out of the body. So I think this was just the beginning, it’s a kind of bloodletting and if they don’t make the reforms that are necessary, it’s going to happen again. This happened back in the 1950s. People forget because they don’t read history, all this happened in the Arab World in the 50s. They had these great revolutions, Gamal Abdel Nasser came, everything was going to be different. It was going to be a great society. And that spread like wildfire. They overthrew the government in Iraq, the king. They tried to overthrow the monarchy in Morocco several times. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before. And it was squelched and those revolutionaries became the very same thing that they had overthrown. King Farouk was much better than Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egypt was better off during Farouk’s rule.

CAIRO REVIEWWhere is Islam in all this?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I think Islam is just enlisted as an impressed sailor on this mutinous ship. That’s how I view it.

CAIRO REVIEWIs there a role for Islam in governance? Does the world need another caliphate?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: No. Well, let me qualify that. I would want that the rulers of the Muslim World, especially if you have very large populations of Muslims, that they recognize the authority of Islam in the state, especially for those things that directly affect people. The single most important aspect of the sharia after personal law of marriage and things like that are the commercial laws. If you look at all Islamic books on Islamic law, the vast majority of them relate to commercial law. And those commercial laws, if they were implemented today, we would have far more just societies, because much of it is the prohibition of these commercial transactions that exploit people. So, I think there is definitely a role for commercial law. In terms of the penal codes of Islam, most of them are at the discretion of the judge. The punishments of Islam, these ideas of cutting off the hand and stoning the adulterer and crucifying, what ISIS is doing, they say that in eight hundred years of Ottoman rule, they never stoned anybody. These were not applied because, like the Jewish tradition, to actually apply them would take basically a confession. It’s almost impossible to determine. For instance, for fornication, you have to have four witnesses that actually see penetration, basically legal fiction. It’s not going to happen. Pregnancy can be explained away if they do. According to the Shafi’i madhab, repenting from the sin actually removes the hadd, punishment. So a person can actually be forgiven if they sincerely repent from the sin. So even the penal codes would not be a problem in most modern applications of them.

CAIRO REVIEWSo ISIS has declared a caliphate.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: It’s bogus. It doesn’t mean anything.

CAIRO REVIEWThey’ve taken territory.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: No, no, it’s completely bogus. First of all, the caliphate has to be agreed upon by Muslims and that’s in the most authoritative text, in Al-Bukhari, which all Sunni Muslims accept. In Al-Bukhari, Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, the second caliph, says, “If anyone claims to be caliph, do not accept his caliphate until all the Muslims agree on it.” That’s right in the text. I could declare California as the land of the caliph and I’m the caliph, come and take bay’ah with me. It’s bogus, it doesn’t mean anything.

CAIRO REVIEWBut a lot of stuff is happening there. They’re creating a lot of chaos.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: You know what? A lot of stuff is happening with drug dealers just south of the [American] border. They’re cutting off heads. They’ve killed thirty thousand people. A lot of them were beheaded. They have a drug caliphate there. Why doesn’t anybody talk about that? Americans don’t know a lot about that. Every once in a while they read about people disappearing in Juárez or something like that. There’s bad things happening all over the planet.

CAIRO REVIEWTrue, but huge numbers of Muslims are being adversely affected by ISIS.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Yes, it’s horrible. Also, huge numbers of Muslims were being adversely affected by Shia militia which gave rise to ISIS. They were a response to these Shia militia that were totally out of control that were tyrannizing the Sunni villages. Initially, if you read the most accurate reporting on this, initially, a lot of these villages welcomed ISIS in. In fact, in The Week they have an article about this, that initially Iraqis wanted ISIS because they were bringing some semblance of order back to an anarchistic situation. Then ISIS revealed themselves to be the demons that they are and now people are turning against them. We created that vacuum. The United States of America, my country. We created that vacuum. Even Bush the First did not take out Saddam because, like Kissinger, he knew what political vacuums bring. They bring chaos and anarchy. Bush Senior wouldn’t go in. They could have gone in and finished it but they didn’t want to create that vacuum because they thought it was too volatile, especially in the region. But these neoconservatives were planning on taking out Saddam and Iraq in the 90s and writing about it. They got into power and they fulfilled their wish. They created and wreaked havoc.

CAIRO REVIEWWhat does the world do with ISIS now? Should the United States intervene?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I’m a libertarian when it comes to that. I think America has done enough intervention.

CAIRO REVIEWWe can’t have a humanitarian intervention?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I don’t think we’re capable of it.

CAIRO REVIEWWho’s going to stop ISIS then?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I think the Muslims have to deal with it. I think the Arab states do. It’s embarrassing. They have armies. I think they should be intervening. I think they should send their own troops in there. But they would demand that they have more just governments and they treated their soldiers better. Because they’re worried that they’ll go in there and they’ll join the opposition. That’s a fact. But they’re the ones who should be doing it. I don’t think it should be left to the Turks. The Turks will probably have to get involved because it’s threatening their borders and as the terrorism increases. And then they have the Kurdish problem as well. No, I think this whole idea of America being the global policeman, it’s over. We’re almost bankrupt, if we’re not already bankrupt. We’ve got trillions of dollars in debt. We can’t afford these budgets anymore. Americans are living in a fantasy world. They really are. Look at the debt that China holds on us. If you want a security threat to this country, it’s the trillions that are in Chinese coffers. They’re buying up all the real estate in California because they have all these dollars and they’re just dumping it on real estate because it’s a hedge against inflation. So, I think we need to take care of our country.

CAIRO REVIEWHow would you explain Muslim extremist violence?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: It can’t be summed up in some short sound byte, unfortunately. It comes from a profound misreading of the Islamic tradition. Revelation is very dangerous. Historically, the Catholics developed a system to ensure that common people did not read the Bible on their own. Protestantism said no, common people should read the Bible on their own. This led to horrible religious wars and the fragmentation of Christianity, which led to the rise of secularism to be an arbiter so that people who were interpreting the Bible on their own were demilitarized. You could have your own church on the corner of the street, but don’t get violent about it. Well, in the Muslim World, this is what has happened. You have people reading primary sources, the Quran and Hadith, without the requisite tools to read those sources, and they are very dangerous without those tools. I’ll give you one example. In the Islamic tradition, the Prophet, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him, prohibited burning people. He said only God can punish with fire. That’s in Sahih Al-Bukhari, which is considered an absolutely sound hadith. In fact, the full hadith says, “Burn this person and that person as a punishment for them burning some other people,” but then he came back and said, “No, don’t do that,” because he was given a revelation not to burn and he said, “I told you to burn, but don’t burn, because only God can punish with fire.” That hadith stands but there are other traditions that say, for instance, that Ali burnt people for apostasy in Palestine. That hadith is also sound. But the narrator of that hadith, whose name is Ikrimah, was in a group that was against Ali. So even though the hadith has soundness, it has a problem. So ISIS takes that hadith and burns this Jordanian [captured air force pilot], claiming that they have an authoritative source to do this. They don’t. It’s just ignorance. And then to top that, there’s no application of lex talionis in war. That’s agreed upon by Muslim scholars. Even their application of lex talionis was not correct because in war there’s no qisaas, there’s no killing people for killing people because war is war; the point is to stop the cycles of violence. It’s a gross ignorance. Look at them, they’re all kids. There’s no old people there who have studied. I mean, I’m almost 60, this tradition takes years to learn. I don’t even feel that I’m qualified or adept and I’ve been studying it seriously for many, many years. Historically, you have what are called shuyukh, which literally means “old men,” like senators, from senatus, which is Latin for old. There’s a reason why you can’t be a senator until you are 30; you’re hoping some wisdom will kick in.
CAIRO REVIEWWhere are the scholars?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I’ve been to so many conferences condemning this stuff. The media ignores us. There are books written on this.

CAIRO REVIEW: But are Muslim populations listening to these scholars?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: A lot of the Muslim populations, particularly in the Arab World, they’ve been poisoned against the scholars, largely from the Islamists. It’s a competing narrative, because most of the scholars are against political Islam. So the Islamists have painted the scholars as lackeys and basically supporters of tyranny and as these traditionalists that just want to calm everybody down. Unfortunately, there is a war going on, a war of ideas, and the traditionalists have been losing it.

CAIRO REVIEWAfter 9/11, the idea of a clash of civilizations took hold and this became a narrative in the West. What did you make of that at the time?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Duncan MacDonald said that the three great civilizations on this planet are the Sinic, the Islamic, and the Christian. Until they find a way of living together harmoniously, we’re always going to be faced with the threat of these civilizations clashing. He wrote that in 1906, I think. We’ve been clashing for a long time. I think partly there are forces working on the world that don’t mind those clashes because they make a lot of money out of them. We have a huge armaments industry, the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned this country about. I think they need bogeymen to scare people into having half their taxes going to military budgets. I’m as cynical as believing that they really don’t mind. I think they have some sociopathic tendencies that human suffering doesn’t seem to bother them a whole lot.

CAIRO REVIEWWhat about on the Islam side?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: The Arabs are a very proud people. Palestinians have been humiliated for so long that they feel the one thing they can do, “We can kill ourselves and we’re not afraid of dying and you Jews have to build walls.” I think there are issues that relate to the psychology of the people themselves. Osama Bin Laden said we’ve been living in humiliation for eighty years. I think humiliation has a lot to do with the violent reactions. In the African American community, I learned this from personal experience. They have something called stepping on toes. It’s an insult to step on toes. You will sometimes get a violent reaction if you do it, even inadvertently, because it was a way of dissing somebody. There’s a lot of stepping on toes going on around the planet and people get violent. Even the pope said if somebody makes fun of his mother, he would get violent with them. Do you remember that quote? That’s an Argentinian speaking, not an Italian. I think a lot of it is about that. It’s just honor. It’s not really a word that we use anymore. We forget that we used to have dueling. Dueling was outlawed in the 1840s. These were before libel suits, we demanded satisfaction. We had a vice president who killed a [former] secretary of the treasury in a duel. That’s pretty amazing. It was over honor. People take these things very seriously even if we don’t anymore.

CAIRO REVIEWWhat about your concern about Islamophobia in the West?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Phobia is an irrational fear. In some ways there’s a valid and legitimate concern about terrorism because we’ve seen a lot of examples of Muslims behaving badly. However, we do forget that one out every four people is Muslim and these terrorists represent an incredibly insignificant number of people in relation to the overall numbers of Muslims. The Ku Klux Klan, which was clearly a terrorist organization in the United States at one point, had about three to five million members. I would argue there’s not anywhere near that number of terrorists in the Muslim World. You’re dealing with tens of thousands, maybe. Even ISIS, they haven’t reached huge numbers. I think people have to keep things in perspective. I’m concerned with a rightwing element in this country that has a very clear agenda. Partly, there are elements that are very pro-Israel and Zionist, and are worried about Muslims having a greater voice in relation to Middle Eastern politics and the support of Israel because America has a really unconditional love affair with Israel since Truman. That’s a concern and it’s a legitimate concern from the Jewish community. But there are certain rightwing elements within that community that have used 9/11 as an opportunity to really paint the Muslims as this fifth column in the United States and to create a lot of fear about that. And they have allied with fundamentalist Christians that see Islam as a kind of competing corporation for consumers of their religious goods.

CAIRO REVIEWWhat does that mean for American Muslims?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I think it endangers us. It’s interesting that ISIS has issued fatwas against scholars who have spoken against them publicly. I guess that came from the khutbas against them, which some of us have given. Then I’ve got these rightwing people saying that I’m a stealth jihadist. There have been several books where they’ve put that in there. I think it threatens me personally; I don’t feel like I did before. It’s a serious concern with me. I think a lot of our mosques feel it now. A lot of Muslims feel that their mosques are no longer these safe havens. Which is really sad because, again, America is one of the few places that really was beginning to become an exemplar for a multireligious, multicultural civilization. That’s very sad for me.

CAIRO REVIEWWhy have you spoken out publicly against ISIS?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I gave a khutba that went viral, called “The Crisis of ISIS.” It was seen all over the Middle East. It was translated into Arabic. It was tweeted by even some of the heads of state. I guess they didn’t like that too much. I drew blood first.

CAIRO REVIEWWhat was your message?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: That they have nothing to do with Islam.

CAIRO REVIEWWe have ISIS saying that they represent Islam and we have you saying they have nothing to do with Islam.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: There are insane Christians that say they represent Christianity. Did Rabbi Kahane represent Judaism? Baruch Goldstein, who killed all those people in the masjid: did he represent Judaism? There are a lot of people who claim to represent something. They don’t represent anybody but themselves.

CAIRO REVIEWBut the image of Islam…
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Has been tainted greatly. Partly the media is to be blamed. The great antichristic media. They have been so egregiously derelict in their duty in the way that they’ve portrayed Islam.

CAIRO REVIEWTalk about that a little more. What have the media done wrong, and what could they have done?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: One, they have to educate people about what’s happening in the Middle East, and why these things are happening. For instance, Mark Twain visited Palestine a hundred years ago and wrote about it. Just read his memoirs. Palestine was not like it is today. So what changed? Somebody like Gertrude Bell lived in Iraq as an English woman and went into the governor’s office without any protocol. What changed? The idea that this [ISIS] somehow represents Muslims and Islam is insane. We live in this temporal idolatry of now and there’s no historical context given to these things. Nobody ever gets an idea of what’s going on. Muslims and Jews weren’t always fighting. It’s a lie. It’s a historical lie, but how many times have I heard that canard reiterated: “Oh, it’s always been like this.” It’s not true. It wasn’t always like that. I recognize that we’re dealing with a largely inattentive, relatively uneducated, and highly distracted population. So, it is hard to get in-depth. If you go to Great Britain for instance and look at the BBC coverage of some of these issues, it’s just a lot more nuanced. That’s a fact. Even Haaretz, even the Israeli media, is more nuanced. We just have a cartoon worldview here that really bothers me.

CAIRO REVIEWIs there a role in changing this imbalance for the Islamic scholars?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Definitely. That’s not the main reason that we’re doing what we’re doing, but part of the reason is to educate Muslims here that can play that role. That’s definitely one of the aims of Zaytuna College. Yes, I do think we need educated spokespeople.

CAIRO REVIEWTell me a little more about Zaytuna College and the reasons why you founded the institution.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I come out of a liberal arts tradition. My father was a humanities professor. When I went and studied overseas, it really struck me how similar traditional Islamic education was to what we call the liberal arts. I was really flabbergasted by the emphasis on literature, the emphasis on logic, the emphasis on rhetoric, grammar. I think the liberal arts has disappeared from the Muslim World to a large degree. I was fortunate to study with some truly great scholars, but the West African school is one of the few places where it’s still there. There is some in Turkey as well. There is some at Al-Azhar, but it’s lost. Part of it is to revive that tradition but also with contextualizing it in the modern world. Today in ethics class we’re grappling with nominalism, and essentialism, and philosophical debates about ethics, command-theory ethics versus deontological, consequential ethics. Grappling with these things and where does Islam fit into all of this? Getting them to think about these things. Today I introduced to them their thesis they have to write and I told them they could write on any ethical problem. For or against, I don’t care. If you want to write for gay marriage in the Islamic tradition, like Scott Kugle is arguing for, and you want to put forward that argument, and it’s well written, I won’t agree with you but you can write on that. So, it is trying to get them to think creatively and deeply about problems that we’re facing as modern people with a religion that is fourteen hundred years old.

CAIRO REVIEWYou were born Mark Hanson. How did you become Sheikh Hamza Yusuf?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I come from a family of seekers. There’s a metaphysical bookstore in San Francisco, Fields Bookstore, which was opened in 1931, and that was my uncle who opened that. He had books on Sufism and Islam there back in the 30s. My grandmother left the south with that uncle, her brother, because they were interested in Buddhism in the 1920s and they didn’t like the racism in the south so they actually moved to San Francisco which at that time was considered one of the most open-minded places. My mother was a seeker. My father was definitely a seeker, more in philosophy. Plato and Aristotle were his focus in his seeking, he really came out of that tradition. All my brothers and sisters were like that, too. The real catalyst was a car accident when I was 17, which was a head-on collision. That forced me to confront mortality in a way that I hadn’t done before that. Everybody will confront mortality at a certain point in their life but sometimes it takes much longer than others. It happened to me very early on.

CAIRO REVIEWSo it’s really an American story?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Yeah, I thought that if I ever wrote an autobiography, I thought of calling it “American in Mecca.” Or “Renegado.” The Europeans who fled to the Muslim World and became Muslim—they called them renegados.