Transcript of Interview with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson by Michael Enright on the September 11 Tragedy
Aired on September 23, 2001 Transcribed by Raneem Azzam
Michael: Can we start first of all with your visit with President Bush? What were you talking to him about?
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: The President basically invited a lot of the religious leaders or people here that represent different religious communities, and there were quite a few of them. And from that group, six of us were chosen to have a private meeting with the President and I was among that group. Basically, he initially told us some of his ideas and what he was thinking about the situation and the seriousness of it and the gravity, and the need for the religious community to help the American people get through this because he felt that religion would play a very important role in that. So he expressed those concerns and then he opened up the floor for us to voice whatever we had to say. And I was very pleased that he gave me time to… I had certain points that I wanted to put forward and he allowed me to do that.
Michael: Did he touch on, as he did on Thursday night, the question of - there have been attacks on Muslim citizens in both the US and Canada.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: Yes, he did that in the private and in the larger gathering. And he emphasized that he had told Mr. Ashcroft, who is the Attorney General, that these crimes would be… that anybody perpetrating them would be taken to account to the full extent of the law and he was very adamant about that. And he did express a very serious concern about that.
Michael: Did you determine anything from his body language, or the way he talked or the things he said, something about his state of mind at the moment?
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: I did, definitely. I think that he is definitely on an adrenaline rush right now.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: Yes, and he said that. I think he mentioned that going to New York was a very profound experience for him, being there. And he said that he was making serious efforts to keep himself contained. So he, I think, did express that in very real human terms of what he was experiencing emotionally. I mean I think none of us can really fully comprehend what happened. I think we’re all still in a bit of a shock, and I think that the fact that the American people… the World Trade Center towers there are really a symbol of American economic prowess and really of the capitalist world, so for them to literally be destroyed in a Shiva-like manifestation there, of just utter destruction, not just before the eyes of onlookers in New York but really of the entire world because of the film footage. And people watch this thing over and over again and I think it expresses just the profound impact that just those images have had on all of us.
Michael: Thank you for that, for talking about your meeting at the White House. I want to turn now to the essential...
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: I did mention - because it was mentioned on the earlier part of the program - about the "Infinite Justice". I actually did express my concerns about the name to him.
Michael: Your concerns being?
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: That in the Arabic language "Infinite Justice" is an attribute of God and I said that I felt that the Muslims would consider that almost a proclamation that America was God.
Michael: And ditto his use of the word crusade.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: He actually expressed his own regret at using that word but he did say that the Pentagon doesn’t have theologians and they’re the ones that name these things. And he said that they wanted to get it changed for that reason. I felt that there was a definite sincere response there.
Michael: All right. You raised the question of words and language and we seem to know so little about Islam. I want to just get from you a sense of what we’re talking about here in trying to share communication. The phrase we’ve heard "fundamentalist Islam" or "Islamic militant" what do those words mean?
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: Yeah, I think that an adjective that goes with Islam is dangerous. Islam is unique among our world historical traditions in that the name that it is called by is the name that it was given in its book of revelation. The Christians actually were called Christians derogatorily by people that opposed them and Judaism is from the name Judah - it comes from a name of one of the tribes or a geographical location, Buddhism etc. Islam means submission. To say fundamentalist Islam I think it’s an unnecessary adjective. I think these are attempts in the modern world to distinguish perspectives but I think they’re all dangerous. "Militant Islam" I think is very dangerous. I would say it’s oxymoronic because while Islam does have a martial tradition as well as Christianity, Judaism - even within Buddhism there’s a martial tradition according to Buddhist scholars. So the idea that Islam is a militant religion is a dangerous concept to put forward.
Michael: OK, I take your point, but then we hear the word, and the media use the word, jihad. What does the word mean and how are we misusing it.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: Yes, jihad. I think that part of the problem, I think, Michael, is that we are so ignorant of Islam in the West. Generally, we’re an ahistorical community, particularly in America, I’m not so sure about Canada, but in America we tend to be more provincial. We’re a community concerned about our own events and happenings, a lot of people don’t know about the rest of the world. And unfortunately Islam, because of the historical antagonism that existed between Europe and between the Muslims, because Islam is a religion that’s over 1400 years old and for almost 800 years the Ottoman Empire was just an extraordinary empire of power, of military might, great civilization, had its flaws, but nonetheless, it represented to Europe a monolithic antagonist for centuries. And in a sense Europe and the West were in a sometimes cold, a sometimes hot war, so that environment, we have a lot of that in our background. And crusade is a word that to the Christians, it has a good meaning. And I think that it does have a good meaning in its sense if you look it up in the vocabulary.
Michael: Well we know now it was more plunder than religion.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: Well, that’s true. And unfortunately a lot of religious wars tend to be for other than religion. But the word jihad is probably one of the highest concepts that the Arabs and the Muslims have. It represents really the best of humankind. In the Qur’an it is never once used to express a military meaning. Not once.
Michael: It means… does it not mean to go to war with yourself?
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: Well, that’s one of the meanings. It literally means – if you look at the word, the root word is "jahada" which means to struggle, and juhd in the Arabic language means a struggle literally. So jihad is the act of struggling. And the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, said that the greatest jihad is to struggle with your own soul’s insidious suggestions. And I think that really clarifies to the Muslims. Building a hospital in the Arab world – and I’ve lived in the Arab world, I speak Arabic very well – building a hospital, the Arabs will literally say what a great jihad that was when it was completed. The idea of spending money for anything good… those firefighters who were pulling people out of the World Trade Towers, they would be considered, that’s an act of jihad. They would be considered mujahideen if they were described in Arabic. And I’m not exaggerating at all. That really is at the essence of this word.
Michael: When you read the coverage in some of the more fulminating columnists and commentators, it comes up time and time again, this business about the Qur’an promising the martyrs or the suicide bombers that if they die in the course of their mission they will go immediately to heaven where they will be greeted by ten or fifteen or sixty-eight or something or other, virgins. You must have seen that. What is that?
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: You know, again this is the problem with religious language for the modern mind. The Qur’an, just to give you an example, says that there is nothing like God and immediately after that – it’s in a chapter called Shura (The Council) – and immediately after that it says and He is the All-Seeing, the All-Hearing. So here’s a verse that says there’s nothing like Him and then it’s immediately followed by saying He hears everything and He sees everything. Well, how do we know what seeing and hearing is if we don’t have a likeness in this world of it. So on the one hand there’s pure transcendence and on the other hand there’s the imminent aspect of God’s manifestations, his attributes in the world. If you look in the Qur’an about the pleasures of paradise, the definitive verse in the Qur’an is that the pleasures of paradise are those which no eye has seen, no ear has heard of, and has never occurred to the heart of a human being. So that is the definitive verse about the pleasures of paradise. Now, there are some hadiths, it’s not in the Qur’an, there is mention of beautiful youths as well as beautiful women, and that’s more metonymy in rhetoric.
Michael: It’s an allegory.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: Exactly, it’s an allegory, exactly. And the thing about it is that our scholars say that the highest sensual experience in the world is orgasm and it’s quite literal. I mean this is a traditional opinion; Imam al-Ghazali, one of the early theologians said that the orgasm that a human being experiences in sexual intercourse is the closest sensual experience that one can taste of what the delights of paradise are like. The Muslims traditionally saw it as almost – and the Hindus have this concept as well – that there’s almost a mystical experience. Now, the vast majority of human beings do not have profound mystical experiences. The mystic has experiences that transcend sexuality and in fact, it’s well known that a lot of mystics lose their appetite for those types of things because of their own internal experiences.
Michael: They’re celibate.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: Exactly. So the idea being is that it’s really an approximation, it’s a way of describing. The number used is 70 and the idea of 70 in the Arabic language is that it just means an untold amount of pleasure and that’s really what it’s about. And unfortunately literalism is a danger in every religion and I think there are definitely people who look at these things in very literal terms and this goes with religion and with human understanding.
Michael: It’s like trying to explain in my faith the concept of the guardian angel or something like that, I think.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: Well, exactly, what is an angel? An angel is an old debate in theology.
Michael: Let me ask you this: people have been saying in the last few days that if the mullahs, or the imams, or the leaders, leadership of Islam, however you define that, came out and condemned in a loud voice or in a united voice, the terrorism, if there was some mechanism for excommunicating Osama bin Laden somehow. Is there…
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: Did somebody talk to you about that? It’s an excellent point because I’m working on that right now. Terrorism, interestingly enough, this is not a new thing, what is new is weapons of mass destruction. Terrorism is as old as the world. If we take the Biblical, as well as the Qur’anic idea of Cain and Abel, you know Cain is really terrorizing his brother. So terror I think is an ancient phenomenon. The Muslims were tried with a group called the Assassins, the Hashashin, which was a very bizarre sect from the Isma’ilis. It was, even within Isma’ilism, it was a radical sect, and what they would do was they would put sleepers, plant sleepers among Muslim rulers, and one day they would be told to kill them, and then they would kill them and then kill themselves. And these were a real, just a plague, on the Islamic world for a period of time. So there’s always been a condemnation of this.
Michael: But I guess we don’t hear it or think we don’t hear it.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: Well, because again, we don’t really understand what’s happened in the modern Muslim world. In some ways the Muslim world is undergoing a protestant reformation right now and unfortunately because people don’t know about colonialism, about the shutting down of traditional Muslim universities all over the Muslim world with rare exception, and the fact that Islam has very few scholars at very high levels. Most of the brilliant students in the Middle East now go into medicine and engineering, they go into other things, they don’t go into philosophy. One of the interesting things you should think about, almost every one of these terrorists that are identified - and I will guarantee you that you will not find amongst them anyone who did his degree in philosophy, in literature, in the humanities, in theology - you’ll find that almost all are technically trained. And one of the tragedies in the Muslim world is that technical schools now, from an early age they identify students that are very brilliant in mathematics and they direct them towards only studying the physical sciences to the neglect of what makes us human, which is humanity, is poetry, it’s literature, as well as philosophy and theology, so these things are absent now.
Michael: Just a couple of seconds left. Do you think there’s a possibility that out of all of this, North Americans - people like me who know nothing about Islam or the Qur’an - can come to some understanding. Is that too dreamy-eyed?
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: I don’t think it is too dreamy-eyed and I think it’s an absolute necessity, Michael, I don’t think we have a choice anymore. We have to break down these barriers. We have to understand each other. I think we need to do a lot of introspection, I think the Muslim world needs to do a lot of introspection and I think we need to look at what it is, we can’t keep blaming. I think if I look from a secular perspective -I heard the earlier commentator - from a secular point of view I agree with him, I think there’s a lot of injustice in the Muslim world, etc. etc. but on the other hand I think the Muslim world really has to stop blaming the West for its problems. I just think it’s the easy way out, it’s not a Qur’anic world-view. The Qur’anic world-view is always to ask ourselves why is this happening to us? And I think that’s for us as Americans to ask, we need to ask those questions as well. But in the Muslim world, we all need to really look in the mirror. I think the American people need to look in the mirror. We need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves have we done anything that warrants this type of hate? I don’t think anything can justify what happened at all. Neither in a religious or a secular ideology because it’s just a blatant disregard for human life and property but I really think that the Muslims need to become introspective and I think the West needs to understand. I would recommend for you and for listeners, The Essential Qur’an – I’m not paid to do this or anything – but Thomas Cleary translated and wrote. It’s published by Harpers. It’s a brilliant introduction to Islam and I think people really do need to find out about what the core teachings are. I think most Western people are going to be really surprised at how close the core values of Islam are to the core values of the West. And I came out of – my father was a humanities professor – I came out of the enlightenment tradition and I still believe in the best of the enlightenment tradition and I think that Islam confirms and enhances that tradition and really doesn’t detract from it.