INTERVIEW WITH SHAYKH HAMZA YUSUF
Jazak-Allah khair for taking time out of your busy schedule to spend some of it with us. You returned from the Hajj recently, and you have been previously haven’t you?
What was different this time around as opposed to other times - or is each time different in itself?
I think the Hajj tends to reflect the state of the Ummah. That’s one of the things about the Hajj is that you get to see the Ummah. It’s a microcosm of the Ummah’s condition. And I think what you see on Hajj is that the Ummah is not in good condition. What you see is that there is good in the Ummah, but the state, the overall state is not a good state and I think that’s very reflective in the Hajj. One of the things that is very obvious is that there is, in a sense, a loss of what’s called "Ithar," which is "deference to others." One of the essential characteristics of the Muslims is this idea of deference and adab and if you lose adab in the Haram, you certainly won’t have adab in the place where you’re coming from. And so what happens is that you have people who forget partly where they are. Some of the outward manifestations of that are a lot of people smoking, publicly, in the Haram, a lot of intermingling between men and women in ways that are inappropriate.
Also a total lack of concern for the cleanliness of the place - garbage is everywhere. I mean, already garbage as a phenomenon, it’s a modern phenomenon. Humans have always produced waste products, but consumer waste products are very different from classical waste products that were by-and-large, biodegradable - things that would go back to the earth. And here you’re dealing with a lot of plastics and things that are not ... they’re ugly. And there’s just a lot of garbage, and what I think that is indicative of, the fact that the Muslims throw things around, is that there is an assumption that somebody else is going to pick it up. And so really what that’s telling us is that nobody is taking personal responsibility, and I think that is by-and-large a real crisis in the Muslim Ummah as a whole, that people, individual Muslims are not taking personal responsibility for the condition of the Ummah, they’re expecting that somebody else is going to take care of the problems, somebody else is going to take care of our troubles, and this has led to a type of apathy, and so I think that’s all reflective in the behavior. At the throwing at the stones, I mean that’s ... I mean, the people that I went with, we all threw our stones without harming anybody, without any pushing and shoving, and we went in and out. But we did it because we were consciously doing that, whereas there’s a lot of people there that, they just don’t care about other people, they’re pushing people to get their ... to get in and do what they have to do, and they harm other people doing it. You can see this also around the Black Stone, you see it around the Tawwaf, and the trouble is is that by honoring other Muslims, Allah honors you, and by disparaging other Muslims, you only in the end, Allah says, "Ya Ayohan naas, Inna Baghiakum `a la Anfusikum" – "O mankind, your harm of other people is only against ourselves." And so by harming other people, what we’re really doing is harming ourselves, and I think that’s what’s happening in the Muslim Ummah, and that’s why we have this type of oppression in the Muslim Ummah towards one another, which manifests in the corruption within government organizations, the corruption within the private sector.
So are you saying that during the time you’ve been going back to the Hajj, things have gotten worse - you’ve perceived deterioration or improvement?
No, I don’t think so - I don’t think that ... I don’t want to paint a completely bleak ... but one has to be realistic as well. For me personally, despite all of that, there are extraordinary things that take place, and it is still ... I mean the real task of every pilgrim is to, in spite of all these overwhelming circumstances, to experience the Hajj as a spiritual journey. I mean, that is a task. Something that probably earlier, in earlier time, it was easier. Now there’s a struggle.
Why do you think Muslims have lost their tradition of mutual love and courtesy amongst each other, why do you think there has been that decline?
Because there is a breakdown in the whole concept of what an Ummah is. I mean this is the idea of "Divide and Conquer." It’s taken some time to achieve, but there has been a breakdown in nationalities, there’s now artificially created nationalities and borders that divide us, and those nationalities and borders have taken a life of their own, and so what happens is that people begin to view themselves as Egyptians, as Algerians, etc. and not as Muslims, not as one Ummah and Allah says that, "You are one Ummah and I am your Lord." You have one Lord, one Ummah and one Prophet. We have in our Ummah all of the ingredients that no other communities have, not even the homogeneity of countries, don’t have the ingredients of unity outside of their countries. In other words, the Japanese, they do have a type of solidarity based on their "Japanese-ness," but outside of that, outside of a bloodline, as a people and a language link, they don’t have anything to unite them. Whereas with the Muslims, we have within our tradition all of the ingredients to unite the most diverse people and it’s extraordinary, there’s nothing else similar to it at all in history or in the world right now.
What America would like to do is they would like to unite the world based on shared "values," because I don’t like that word, based on these shared values of "consumerism," "gratuitous consumption," of "pleasure" and the world is created basically for play and entertainment and as a pastime, and music and dancing and basically bestial lower-self behavior and this is what they’re spreading all over the world. So everybody will look the same, in their jeans and their Nike shoes, and everybody will listen to the same sugared pop music, and everybody will eat the same hamburger, french fries and milkshakes and everybody will have the same banal perspectives on the world. So this type of unity which is based on reducing the human being to an automaton, who has no volition of its own and who simply sleepwalks through life without any sense of identity, awareness or tradition. This is the unity they’re hoping to achieve with this idea of some kind of "One World." Maybe with some New Age spirituality thrown in there because people do tend to have some spiritual needs, so we can throw in some New Age ... it’s all "one" in any case, right? So take a little dabble from this religion and that religion, and we can all be Buddhists, and then you can just meditate, or something like that, or they’ll, I’m sure, be providing soon enough, "Spiritual Television."
Have you read the book by James Redfield, it’ s very appropriate to what you’re talking about, "The Celestine Prophecy?"
I actually have read that. I think that’s exactly what I’m talking about. It’s this kind of New Age religion that’s being promoted - which is dajjalic in its nature because it’s looking at certain spiritual truths and it’s distorting them. Iblis is the mimicker, right, I mean Allah says that His throne is on water, so Iblis made his throne on water. Iblis is the great mimicker; he’s the mocker. And so the pseudo-religion always will mimic true religion, and unfortunately when you don’t have people that have the ability to discern and distinguish between truth and falsehood, then they spend their life being misled and groping in darkness.
Do you think the intellectual decline in our Ummah can in any way be related to the decline in the Arabic language and its importance?
That’s a very strong element in the whole overall decline. Out of the several hundred languages in the world, there are only a handful of languages that are considered civilizational and Arabic is certainly one of them.
Right now, the language of power and dominance and of discourse at whatever level - whether commercial, philosophical or scientific - is English. And the power elite in the West are certainly capable of articulating in the English language. Whereas in the Arab world, you would be hard pressed to find people capable of articulating verbally - using the Arabic language as a vehicle for discussion and serious thought - unless they had been well-trained. More can actually write and part of that is because the Arabic language is so deeply rooted in Classical Islamic knowledge.
English has a worldview, and now you find in the Arab world, people who have English as their second language - usually their higher education will now be in English. Every language contains within it the roots of the worldview of the people that produced it - so by taking on the English language, one is taking on a Western worldview, and you can’t avoid it. By abandoning the Arabic language what people are doing in fact is abandoning the worldview that the Qur’an provides. Also, the Muslims had a deep sense of the linguistic power and the actual underlying expression of reality embedded in the language. The language of the Qur’an is the language of truth, and therefore the one who learns it and is deeply into it will ultimately be confronted with reality through the expression of the Arabic language.
Why do you think so many pieces of good Islamic literature are being written by non-Muslims - e.g. George Makdisi’s "Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian World?"
Partly because the West is the dominant power elite, and the dominant powers always have intellectual apparatus to maintain their power - part of the apparatus, what it will do is it will enable and facilitate research and facilitate intellectuals to explore/pursue ideas and thoughts ultimately for the benefit of the power elite. But what will come out of that often is that people who do have inherent brilliance are able to have the time and the freedom to think deeply about matters. This is the whole system of endowments in the West - if you look at most of these people who do these things, they’ll often have a paragraph of gratitude towards some fellowship that was given to them, which gave them 2 or 3 years to do the research they needed to do. What happened in the Muslim world is that because there is no power (the Muslim world has in fact become of secondary importance) most Muslim governments are in no way interested in pursuing intellectuals - in fact, quite the opposite. They want to prevent them from thinking, they don’t want them to think. The fact that the West does allow these intellectuals to pursue things is in no way indicative of some desire for truth.
That is a very important note.
Right. Sometimes, truth is a by-product of it, because in order for them to fulfil what they want to fulfil, they allow an expressive control of their intellectuals - but because of the nature of the mechanism, it will in the end, only serve the power elite.
Someone remarked that "sitting before a teacher who passes you knowledge is like taking a photograph - in that by the light, the image of what is in front of you is implanted in your heart. This is education." Please comment - why can’t we receive education from reading books?
PART OF IT IS THE IDEA OF TRANSMISSION. Anybody who has studied with a teacher will know the answers to that question and anybody who hasn’t won’t. It’s the difference between hearing about something and experiencing it. OUR TRADITION IS A TRADITION OF TRANSMISSION. OUR PROPHET (SAW) WAS TAUGHT BY AN ANGEL - THAT ANGEL WAS TAUGHT BY RABB-UL-IZZA - THE LORD OF POWER. And the Qur’an says, "Over everyone who possesses knowledge is someone who has more knowledge." When Musa (as) was asked if there was anyone more knowledgeable on the earth than he was, he replied "No." But Allah then sent him to study with Al-Khidr, who the majority of scholars say wasn’t even a prophet, so here’s a prophet being sent to a non-prophet and it was a reminder to Musa (as) that one can never assume that there is not someone that they can learn from. Part of the modern crisis in the Muslim Ummah is we have auto-didactic scholars - the damage that they have caused is, I think, extraordinary, and one of the signs of the end of time is a Hadith in which the Prophet (saw) said knowledge would be taken from a "Saghir" which means "a little one." Ibn Abd ul-Barr, the great Andalusian commentator on Hadith, wrote that what this Hadith means is that the chain would be broken towards the end of time - PEOPLE WHO HAD NOT TAKEN THEIR KNOWLEDGE FROM THE PREVIOUS GENERATION WILL BEGIN TO TRANSMIT KNOWLEDGE, AND THAT KNOWLEDGE WILL BE THEIR OWN OPINION AND NOT TRANSMITTED KNOWLEDGE. And from the Muslim perspective, truth is not something that needs to be discovered – it’s something that needs to be learned. In the Western understanding, truth is something that needs to be discovered, truth has not been given to man – it’s something that man needs to discover for himself. In the 20th Century, although that meta-narrative is disappearing, i.e., the post-modern phenomenon is in a sense a capitulation to the idea that there is no truth - and if there is truth, it is not with a "T" but with a "t" - meaning, "your truth may not be my truth." What the post-modernist thesis is to say that, really what we have is not some grand narrative of the search of truth, but rather meta-narratives or small narratives of the truth, that each one is as equally true as the other which is ultimately saying that nothing is true. Because once you say everything is true, what you’re really saying is nothing is true. If I say it’s wrong to kill and somebody says, well that statement has no meaning because what is "wrong"? – what’s your definition of wrong? And because wrong cannot be technically defined within the dominant discourse of the 20th Century, therefore it has no meaning. Whereas, if I say, "It is wrong," and "wrong" is "that which Allah has made prohibited," I am laughed out of the auditorium because what I’m saying is that "truth has been revealed by God" - that is no longer an accepted premise for the modern social discourse. So we can’t talk of morality - all we can talk of is legislation, and legislation is what the latest vogue is - should we have the death penalty or shouldn’t we ? ... it becomes a debate, and there’s nothing in stone so to speak. Like "Thou shalt not kill" - it becomes "should we kill or shouldn’t we? Well, let’s take a vote." Truth becomes a democratic process, and that is very alien to the Islamic tradition. So the idea that truth is something which is transmitted from generation to generation is no longer acceptable within the dominant social discourse. AND FOR THE MUSLIMS THAT HAS BEEN THE TRUTH BECAUSE THE PROPHET (SAW) SAID THAT THIS KNOWLEDGE - I.E. THE TRUTH/REVELATION WILL BE CARRIED IN EACH GENERATION BY UPRIGHT PEOPLE AND TRANSMITTED TO THE FOLLOWING GENERATION. SO MUSLIMS HAVE ALWAYS SEEN THAT KNOWLEDGE IS A TRANSMISSION, FROM THE BREASTS OF THOSE WHO KNOW TO THE HEARTS OF THOSE WHO DON'T KNOW.
Many sisters wish to travel to Muslim countries to learn the Deen from those who know, but they are concerned about the issue of travelling without a Mahram.
First of all, living in the non-Muslim lands - it is accepted in Shariah that if a women makes hijrah from the land of the non-Muslim to the land of the Muslims, she doesn’t need a Mahram - that’s a well known principle in Islamic jurisprudence. The way I view it is I think that a woman is safer without a Mahram in the land of the Muslims than she is with a Mahram in the land of the non-Muslims.
To what extent can a female, married or unmarried, affiliate herself with a shaykh whilst keeping within the boundaries of the Shariah?
Women traditionally studied with teachers, it just has to be done with adab. There’s obviously more limitations on the female, the Qur’an says the male is not like the female. It’s obviously better and more preferred if a woman learns from a female shaykh, and there used to be a considerable number of them in the Muslim Ummah. There isn’t anymore and it is even quite unusual now to find a male teacher who is of any high caliber, but to find a female is an anomaly in the Muslim world right now.
With regards to the Shariah, why do you think that the rules regulating trade/industry/business transactions have almost been abandoned by the Muslims?