In Defense of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and the Personal Reform of Traditional Islam

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

In the West, many Muslims who care about serious scholarship and transformative Islamic knowledge listen to hafid ullah Shaykh Hamza Yusuf with an eager heart and a keen ear.

Inevitably, he has attracted his fair share of detractors over the years – especially from amongst the Salafi Muslims as well as from political Islamists.

This is partly because he, too, has criticized both in turn – as being modernists who lack respect for traditional Islam and its deep wisdom acquired over the centuries. More specifically, I understand Shaykh Hamza’s criticism of the Salafis as being that they are pedantic, overly literalist, and disdainful in varied degrees of virtually all other groups of Muslims – not just the Sufis for whom they hold particular scorn.

He may also feel that many are unduly beholden to Saudi Arabia and/or are inclined to have violent tendencies. As for political Islamists, I think the Shaykh would argue that they pursue a failed leftist party-centric model for revolution, and that the whole notion of an ‘Islamic state’ has no heritage in traditional Islam.

More importantly, the consequences of importing political Islamist ideas in the West has had the inevitable consequence of leading to mistrust and distrust amongst mainstream society. Criticism from these groups has, therefore, come to be expected. In addition, because of the Shaykh’s tremendous appeal and impact generally, it also became common in these circles to try discredit him by calling him anything from a “Sufi innovator” to a “Westernized sell out.”

Why Are Other Muslims Critical of Shaykh Hamza?

On the other hand, there’s a new phenomenon at work within the Muslim community, of Muslims who are condescending about Shaykh Hamza and his followers, allowing them to feel special and a cut above the awam (ordinary folk). From what I see, they appear to be more interested in making links with ongoing social and political campaigns among other minority groups rather than explicitly aligning themselves to any of the traditional Muslim factions.

I see this as the rise of the new “Muslim Activist” – and while this is not necessarily a bad thing, I strenuously object to a recent rise in their criticism and lack of respect for Shaykh Hamza. This can be traced back to Shaykh Hamza’s on-stage interview at the last RIS conference in Toronto (given straight after getting off a long flight from Dubai), where he responded to questions about the Salafi scholar Yasir Qadhi, the political Islamists, and – possibly for the first time in public – he expressed some reservations about the Black Lives Movement (BLM).

As noted, while criticisms of the first two parties was nothing new, his comments about BLM created an immediate furor and tweet storm amongst many in attendance – so much so that Shaykh Hamza felt the need to explain himself on stage again in greater detail the following day.

True, and as he said so himself, Shaykh Hamza had probably been a little too blunt in expressing some of his reservations about BLM, but the intention had always been to get past the sloganeering and political clichés in the hope of reaching a sustainable perspective on how Muslims could usefully work with the movement.

A part of this would have to be the very difficult task of addressing the problems of violence, drugs and the breakup of many black families – and much of the furor seems to have been over this nominally stereotypical characterization of black communities.

Focusing on Personal Reform

But, from what I understood, Shaykh Hamza’s intention was always that these are issues that can and have to be combatted at an individual level – as a jihad of the nafs (self). Whether the fault lies in the undoubted structural racism of white society, or in the historic trauma of slavery, or even whether white society has comparable figures and percentages of violence, drugs and family trauma (which it does) – the point Shaykh Hamza was making (as I see it) is how these practices can be abandoned so that every individual, and then the community as a whole, can at least reach first base in terms of not oppressing themselves and others with devilishly destructive behavior.

Traditional Islam has always been about personal reform – even though this can and will be immediately aided or discouraged by the collective surrounding the individual. Ultimately, our struggle is individual, even as it is always taking place in a collective context. We are all to be judged individually. Even though God’s perfect justice will consider the hand we receive at birth, it is only our personal struggle and our personal reform that will count positively on our scale of deeds.

I believe that those activists who now criticize Shaykh Hamza so vehemently seek to submerge or at least “postpone” the need to address these issues and this individual struggle – all in the name of making links and “strategic alliances” with groups such as BLM.

They appear to have no problem with the fact that BLM is itself desperate to demonstrate its ultra-liberal credentials by being inclusive and uncritical of homosexuality and transgenderism while making no calls of any sort for reforming behavior on the part of its constituency – something that many other Black movements, including the Nation of Islam, have always taken very seriously.

For these activists, however, the populist lure of “struggling in solidarity” with such campaigns proves too great, even if it means damning one of our most venerable scholars at the same time. For Shaykh Hamza, I suspect, campaigns and movements are more to be judged by their content. What does it stand for? How is it going to motivate people towards reform and change? What does it call to and where does it lead?

These issues can never be abandoned by Muslims, whether it’s done in the name of political expediency or genuine empathy towards another disenfranchised minority.

Muslims need to understand that it is possible to both defend a fellow community group unconditionally from political persecution and structural oppression, while simultaneously also offering critical and qualified support for the content of their campaigns, as and where they differ from fundamental Islamic parameters.

They also need to realize that trampling upon venerated scholars such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf in their headlong rush towards others will surely not bring them even one-inch closer to helping those they may be seeking to help, or, indeed, to gaining the pleasure of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Beneficent.

Abu Mariam has a B.A in Religious Studies and Sociology and a Masters in Public Policy.

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