and Foreign Policy Conference Call with Hamza Yusuf
Islamic Education in America
Hamza Yusuf, Founder and Chairman of the Board, Zaytuna Institute
Irina A. Faskianos, Vice President, National Program & Outreach, eane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies
Council on Foreign Relations
Full Transcript can be found here: http://www.cfr.org/publication/14289/religion_and_foreign_policy_conference_call_with_hamza_yusuf.html
IRINA A. FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. Our goal, as many of you know, is to provide a non-partisan forum for discussion on issues at the nexus of religion and foreign policy. We are pleased to kick off our 2007-2008 series today with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. He is the founder and Chairman of the Board of the Zaytuna Institute and he will lead the discussion on Islamic Education in America. As you all saw from his bio, he has been recognized as one of the West’s most influential Islamic scholars and recognized Muslim leaders in both the Western and Arab world. He is the author of several books, numerous essays, op-eds and a host of a widely watched Arab television programs. He was the first American lecturer to teach at the Morocco’s prestigious and oldest university and has also translated several classical Arabic traditional texts and poems into modern English. Shaykh Hamza, thank you so much for being with us today.
HAMZA YUSUF: All right, thank you for having me.
IRINA A. FASKIANOS: It’s wonderful. I thought we could start by having you give us an overview of the work that you are doing at the Zaytuna Institute-- as people on the call know, Zaytuna is one of the only globally recognized of a handful of Islamic teaching institutions in the United States-- and talk about the role that you’ve played in providing an Islamic education and the role that you’re playing on educating and training in this country, so over to you.
HAMZA YUSUF: Right. First of all, just thank you very much and thanks everybody who joined in. Hope this is a fruitful conversation.
Basically the Zaytuna Institute was founded eleven years ago and it was founded out of a vacuum that I and others perceived in the United States, and that is a real stark absence of traditional seminaries or training institutions that would produce teachers and people that were capable as serving as Imams in communities. In the United States, one of the things that is, I think, really starkly apparent for anybody that knows the Muslim aims, is that many of our mosques actually have Imams and Friday preachers, the person called (inaudible). People that actually have very little or no training at all, many of them are trained in engineering and other sciences, and obviously have a strong commitment and are autodidacts, but a lot of the religious preaching that goes on, in my own experience, and many, many Muslims, is really not up to the level that one would expect from a religion as globally recognized as Islam.
So the idea was really to create a seminary here in the United States that would produce indigenous Imams and teachers. My own experience as a convert, when I embraced Islam and became quite fervent, I wanted to study the religion and study primary sources. My only option really at the time was to go overseas. And even the overseas conditions were not really, I think, very conducive to somebody who was just new in the religion. So I ended up in the United Arab Emirates. I was at an Islamic institute there and then I was in Saudi Arabia for over a year studying with private scholars, although I was offered a scholarship to Medina University there. And then I went to North and West Africa and spent about ten years abroad, and then came back and I continued studies with teachers from abroad because I think that’s the nature of the Islamic teaching.
So coming back here and founding this, I think it’s evolved in our own understanding of what’s needed. And partly what we recognize is that Imams that are more fluent with the discourse in the West, with the very specific conditions that Muslims find themselves in in the West. My primary teacher right now who is Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, who’s a professor of Islamic law in Jeddah, but also recognized globally as really one of the foremost Usuli or constitutional jurisprudence scholars, he’s written a book recently called The Jurisprudence of Minorities and he has addressed this situation that has really not been addressed by many scholars, and certainly not at the level that he has, of just recognizing that we do have unique conditions.
And so it’s been very important for me to really, what I’d like to do right now quickly before we go into the conversation with others, is just to give you just a quick overview. There’s a book written by Franz Rosenthal, he’s a brilliant historian of Islam. He wrote a book called Knowledge Triumphant: the Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam. And one of the things that he says in there-- it’s published by Brill and it’s really a fascinating book-- but one of the things he says in there is that the Islamic civilization was a civilization probably more than any other historically that really was centered around knowledge, the ideal of knowledge. And so you have many great teaching institutions that emerged in the Muslim land. If you go on any search for the oldest university in the world you’ll find it was the Karaouine in Fez, which was established in the seventh century, sorry in the ninth century, 853, and precedes the great teaching universities of Europe by over one-hundred years.
So these great teaching institutions produced extraordinary scholars and you had what the Catholics would call a Magisteria, which in a sense protected the religion, because you had qualified scholars that were coming out of these institutions like Al-Azhar in Egypt and Mustansiriya in Bagdad, in Iraq; the (inaudible), which was in what’s now Central Asia, and also in Bagdad and other places, Bahria in Damascus. You have these great teaching institutions and they produce scholars that had a recognized level of expertise in their various fields. And these became the great preservers and teachers of Islam. In the Colonial period a lot of these institutions were seen as areas of resistance and so there was quite a move to harness them, and you actually, the Usafia in Morocco was closed down and the Karaouine was changed quite radically. The same occurred -- Lord Cromer working with Mohammad Abdul in Egypt instituted some pretty serious changes in Al-Azhar and the Mustansiriya really becomes an Arabic college. It’s still being used in Baghdad.
So you really have a crisis in the twentieth century of knowledge in Islam. The, probably the areas where you don’t find this as much is Turkey and Iran, where you have the Shia scholarship has maintained the Madrassas largely due to the fact that they have independent funding sources because of what they call (inaudible), a certain tithing that merchants have to pay in Iran. And in Turkey, because the Ottoman system was really quite extraordinary, and so they’ve maintained quite a high level of scholarship within Turkey, and they tend to be state Imams that preserve the state religion, even though it’s a secular state, religion still is very much controlled by the state. The only other place that you’ll find that is in Morocco.
Now in the United States, we have obviously an immense immigration that occurs during the 1960s after the 1965, the Immigration Act, and you got a lot of Muslims coming in to these countries from various places, many of them to study engineering and medicine with the hope of going back home and having a kind of technology transfer. Well a lot of these people ended up staying and their children have been born and raised here. And so we find now that there’s probably between six and ten million American Muslims today, and yet we don’t have any serious teaching institutions, despite the fact that we have over two-thousand mosques in the country. We, there are some, what are called Darul Uloom that are based on the Indian model from Deoband that do provide a certain level of scholarship. But the scholarship tends to be very provincial and limited in its scope, and certainly is unable in many ways to address a lot of the very sophisticated problems that our community is facing as a minority community and a religious community that has many, many similarities to the Jewish tradition. And I think a lot of the things that the Jewish community suffered in this country are now being replicated within the Muslim community. And so you actually find if people know the Jewish model, it’s actually a more useful model, as far as I’m concerned, than the RAND model, because if you look at the RAND model and how it classifies Muslims in the West, it tends to use the kind of cold-war Soviet categorization of certain types of ideologs in Marxist traditions, so you kind of box people into what type of Marxist they were. And that’s, I don’t think a helpful in Islam, because you’ll find that when RAND categorizes the Muslims into these certain categories, you actually end up being quite limited. And I think many Muslims will find themselves in more than one of those categories and in the different areas, or subject matter that they talk about.
So in this country, I think you’ll find that the majority of Muslims would probably go under what is, would be called in Judaism a conservative branch of Judaism. It’s not entirely orthodox, but it’s certainly not a reformed type of Judaism, which is far more liberal or reconstructionist, which now you have a reconstructionist Islam that’s beginning to emerge in what’s been called the Progressive Muslim Movement, which sees Islam more than a religious phenomenon but a civilizational phenomenon, and this really is not a problem being a cultural Muslim as opposed to being a religious Muslim. And there certainly are many, many cultural Muslims.
So in, you know, our attempt really is to try to provide an Islam that is compatible with the West. I think less politicized, which does not mean that I and others that I’m associated with don’t have strong political views, but we don’t want to see the religion become a vehicle of, a political vehicle for Middle Eastern politics or something like that, which it often has been made into, unfortunately, because of immigrants bringing Middle Eastern baggage and other baggage.
And then finally, just the reason why I feel this is extremely important is because there are many, many problems that will occur, that have already occurred, and will continue to occur as a result of this lack of sound Islamic institutions in the West, in the United States and Canada, and certainly in Europe, that’s, but one of the big problems that we have is, I think many people have noticed, and it’s September 11th, so we’re probably thinking about this today more than other days, but some of the people that have been involved in extremism are coming out of the convert community. Ibrahim (inaudible) is an example of that recently in Germany. Some German converts were arrested because of alleged plots and also now the spokesperson in English for al-Qaeda is actually a convert from, a Jewish American convert, from Southern California. American (inaudible) John Walker Lynn is also another one.
So, one of the dangers with conversion is conversion is an extremely powerful experience, which I can personally attest to. And Gandhi once noted about Mohammed (inaudible), an Englishman who became Muslim, he said he was that rare breed of man who was capable of adopting a new religion without becoming a fanatic. So unfortunately it’s quite common for people who have strong conversion experiences to enter with a lot of zeal. And because of that, they’re susceptible at that period in their life to whatever ideas they happen to be exposed to at the time, believing them to be the sound ideas or principles of this new adopted religion.
And the other very serious concern is in the prison population, because many of the people that adopt Islam within the prisons are coming from dysfunctional homes and already had criminal tendencies, and if they come into Islam and are exposed to an extreme form of Islam, which is very, very possible, [the German convert to Islam] being a good example of that, then I think it’s potentially extremely dangerous. So if we don’t have really well trained scholars in the United States that can argue a sound orthodox and moderate Islam that preaches coexistence and also is able to be adaptive to the needs of modern society. I think that if we don’t do that, it’s going to really be a major problem, I think, for a burgeoning population in the West. So I’ll leave it at that.
IRINA A. FASKIANOS: Terrific. That was a wonderful overview. [Operator], let’s open it up for questions and comments. And we really would like, encourage, both, so please do not be shy. And over to you [Operator].
OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.
QUESTIONER A: Good afternoon to everyone. I think I first should thank you, the organization, and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, who have started a discussion on this very important and timely subject. I, being a student of psychology and education for almost fifty years of my life, went to teachers college at Columbia University. I have come to realize, and I’m from India, some of the issues that have been raised in the introduction by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. I think they can be viewed, to begin with, in a more objective fashion and then we can talk about the possible ways in which this subject needs to be discussed to begin with, and see how people will respond to some of the issues that are going to be raised during these discussions.
Islam, as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf pointed out by referring to an author, has advocated knowledge as an extremely important means of empowering human beings and human society from the very beginning. It has never restricted itself only to the revelation. The revelation, in fact, guides Muslims as to how they need to become active seekers in a natural setting. That’s one way, clearly, that why in the very beginning stages of Islam, from the time of the prophet (inaudible), we see an explosion of Muslim scholars from all over the known area of the Muslim, you know, community of that time. Unfortunately, as societies go through the process of rising and falling, the Islamic culture and Islamic civilization started to fall. And then people just, you know, for their own understanding, preferred to be successful here and in the hereafter, they probably have to make sure that they observe the five pillars, you know, and they do certain social and other activities in a certain way, and the rest were left to the politicians and other people to determine the society of, you know, later teachers in Islamic history.
And the fact that Islam was a major factor in the struggles for freedom should be recognized very clearly by everyone. Islam was, in fact, the mainspring of many political indigenous movements throughout the Western world and it still inspires people to make sure that their government implements a system of justice and fairness that’s consistent with Islamic values. So at every stage since the independent movements in the Muslim world, we see Islam playing a very important role. And even as we see the wars that are taking place, whether it’s in the Middle East or in Africa, Islam is a source of inspiration for quite a few people.
So it’s very important for the [Council on Foreign Relations] to recognize that it’s not going to be in the best interest of the policymakers in this country to label those kinds of agencies from working in the Muslim community (inaudible) as dangerous. In fact, they should understand that there is a very important factor that needs to be recognized as not only consistent, but compatible with the basic values of democracy: equality, freedom, liberty.
Unfortunately our foreign policy has been viewed as supporting rulers and governments that are more determined to suppress freedom and liberty and the struggle for justice and fairness. So at this moment, while we are talking about Islamic education in America, we also have to recognize that the younger generation especially, and from within the older generation, a great number of people do recognize that Islam does have very clear values in terms of fairness, in terms of justice, in terms of liberty, that are very consistent with the democratic values, and they need to be incorporated within the Islamic education model in such a way that the traditional model automatically becomes irrelevant for the Muslim generations that are going to grow within the United States. And I personally feel that the best integrated model of Islamic education will not only become a model that will be emulated by the Muslim societies around the world, it will also present, as a model, for a secular setting like within the United States, in which justice, fairness, equality, liberty, which are the guiding principles of the Western society and also that of Islam, can very well be integrated.
IRINA A. FASKIANOS: Okay, we have many people on the call, if we…
QUESTIONER A: I’ll leave it there. I thank you very much for this opportunity.
IRINA A. FASKIANOS: Thank you.
QUESTIONER B: Yes, hi. I’m very pleased to have a chance to hear you talk, Mr. Yusuf. My field is European politics, and as you know, European governments have been very directly involved in trying to address some of the