The views expressed here are those of the author.
It is all over the news. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, once described as a “firebrand imam” who boldly criticized tyranny, has changed his vision for human society, sold out, and decided to support despotism. His decision to work for the UAE as a peace advisor when they are contributing to the war in Yemen is put forth as the primary example of this, where instead of standing up to tyranny, he is offering himself and all his legitimacy as a scholar to support their regime by representing them.
And now this. He has agreed to be on a council on human rights run by a regime in Washington, D.C. that undeniably has violated human rights, most notably in the case of immigrants and the horrific concentration camps where they have put children in cages under tinfoil blankets.
Muslims all over the planet are in a fit. How can he have sold out like this?
We’ll Just Pray for Him.
Okay. Let’s breathe. Imam Zaid Shakir, a co-founder with Yusuf of Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim college in the U.S. and a close associate of his, issued a statement on Facebook.
He starts out, “Let Us Pray for Sheikh Hamza.” Ameen, Ameen.
And goes on:
“The appointment of Sheikh Hamza Yusuf to the United States State Department’s ‘Commission on Unalienable Human Rights’ has spawned something of an online controversy. Without getting into the political implications of the issue, let me say that like many people I do not agree with everything Sheikh Hamza may say or do, and I am sure he would say the same concerning me. That does not mean he is no longer my Muslim brother, and that all of the rights accruing to brothers and sisters in Islam are somehow stripped away from him.
Despite disagreements, one should continue to entertain a good opinion of one’s brother, trust and respect his knowledge (if like Sheikh Hamza, he is of the people of knowledge), extend sincere advice to him and most importantly to pray for him.
So I encourage my brothers and sisters to join me in praying that Sheikh Hamza is protected from the evil of men and jinn. I pray that he is able to give honest, Islamically-informed advice to those who seek it, and that they heed it. I pray that he is blessed with wise and judicious counsel from those he may consult. I pray that Allah guides his tongue when he speaks and grants him the courage, honesty and integrity to never swerve from speaking the truth, even in the face of tyrants.”
“My nasiha (advice) would be that if he finds that the position he has assumed does not allow him to be open, honest, and effective in the advice he offers, that he resigns with his dignity and honor intact.” —Imam Zaid Shakir
The status continues, “May Allah bless Sheikh Hamza and reward him greatly for the service he has rendered to the Muslim community over many long decades. Over the span of that time many who condemn him today saluted him yesterday. May Allah bless us all to see eye-to-eye tomorrow.”
“And remember the Grace of Allah upon you when you were enemies and He bound your hearts together, so that you became – by His Grace – brothers…” Qur’an 3:103
I basically agree with this statement that we must pray for Yusuf. Back to the wonderful old Mahalia Jackson song, where we can roll on as a community until we get to the preacher, and then we all need to pray for him. Why? Because as a leader goes, so goes the community.
If you look at the Old Testament, for example, you can see description after description of the Jewish people being led by corrupt leaders, and the entire history of the people of Israel changing based on the behavior of the kings being good or bad. With good kings, there is peace and security; with bad kings there is war and destruction (See 1 Kings 15 for examples in Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, and Baasha, the son of Ahijah). Given that our scholars are our modern day leaders, it is relevant how they behave, and if they show good judgment, because if we believe scripture, it is going to deeply affect all of our fates as an ummah.
But, prayer aside, how can we understand this decision? To me, the objection seems to be that he is contributing to the demise of us all by collaborating with the forces of corruption, burning incense to idols, and all that. But is there any way he could be leading us to peace and victory?
Sheikh Hamza’s Decision and the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah
Well, in my opinion, there are a variety of ways to look at this to support his decision. One is through the lens of the Qur’an, notably the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. While this does not necessarily redeem the decision to work with the UAE leaders, it certainly could explain his decision to work with the Trump administration.
We mostly know the story. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, had approached Mecca with a small group of 1400 believers, and the Meccans had decided to forbid him from entering Mecca. The Prophet (PBUH) made a treaty with them that many of the believers considered to be a bad decision, including Umar, may Allah be pleased with him.
The terms seemed to favor the Meccans to the believers. However, this treaty led to the quick victory of the Muslims. The Qur’an talks of this incident in Surah Fath.
Similarly, Yusuf might be seen as giving Trump too much play with this decision, but he is arguably opening the door to a better opinion of our community as in favor of human rights and freedom, and not marginal radicals; people who support freedom, democracy and peace, not extremists, but patriotic and middle of the road.
Consciousness Raising, Utopia, and Advice to Rulers
On the level of political philosophy, there is another angle to consider. He is aiming at consciousness raising: the famous process of “conscientization,” that horrifically deviant and rebellious concept — according to totalitarian epistemic — that all people should be taught to think critically, morally, and lovingly about the world, and thereby transform the world.
Yusuf has come out against Utopia in the Zaytuna College journal Renovatio and said, “The Left has mutated into a pseudo-mystical religious movement, with hordes of young people ‘feeling the Bern’ of a revived sixties idealism, all chasing a progressive utopia where everything will be paid for; where injustice, war, racism, sexism, and poverty will be eradicated; and where each person will be free from the torment of hearing or watching anything they find unpleasant or offensive.”
He has repeatedly also lambasted utopian thinking as a warped materialistic Marxist concept, and also talked about the problems of utopian thinking in other terms. Basically, he has stated that the concept that there is a utopia on earth is totally flawed because we, as Muslims, believe this world is flawed and therefore there can be no ideal world here. This suggests we must resign ourselves to this idea, and just do our best and look for the utopia of heaven. Basically, this idea concludes that there is no utopia here, this place is corrupt, and we must focus on heaven.
Actually, this is an ancient Christian heresy as well, part of gnostic thought, where the Creator was considered to be evil and that this world was evil. We all should, according to these thinkers, aim endlessly towards an Original Light and Source that predates the Creator to escape the fallen and corrupt flesh and world. This heresy was rejected for a variety of reasons, one of which being it reflects a bad opinion of the Creator.
Personally, I am convinced that indeed this opinion of creation being hopelessly flawed reflects a bad opinion of God. And respectfully, the reason that I can see why Yusuf has decided to take the course of action that he has embarked on is that, in a fundamental way, he has hope that the world does potentially have a future that is brighter than our current state. I think, if his actions can be defended, it’s in that he is hoping to work with the powers that be in an attempt to influence them for a more just and better course of action; to engage in dialogue with them and thereby raise their consciousness. After all, he is an educator.
Yusuf’s action, in a sense, is also a praxis of teleopoesis towards utopia. Yes, on one level he is working with corrupt and vile regimes that are incredibly unpleasant and offensive. But he is, with his actions, potentially envisioning a utopia where there is a better world and sees himself as needing to engage with the powers that are currently in control.
I would like to believe that he is not, of course, just blindly cosigning the war in Yemen, or concentration camps at the border. He is envisioning a world where there is truth and justice, and has, on some level, a good opinion of the possibilities of the world. Otherwise, he would lead us all into a cave to hide and sleep, in the universities probably, where we could meditate on metaphysics and wait for people to be in control who would agree with us.
Utopia and the Prophets
Continuing on the topic of utopia is the argument that ultimately all the prophets called towards a utopian vision. They all exhorted towards an ideal society and an ideal human person.
Musa (RAA) would never have confronted the Pharoah if he had not had a vision of somewhere better to which the Israelites could escape. Without the vision of the Land of Milk and Honey, the Israelites would have just stayed in Egypt, and if the people had stopped grumbling, they would not have had to live on bread and quail for 40 years in the desert.
Noah (RAA) tried to get his people to reform as well. All the prophets, in fact, came to warn us away from bad behavior and corruption, and lead us towards a more perfect society and way of being in community and being human, a better way of being. So maybe Yusuf is informing his decision on this tradition, and trying to exhort these leaders to better behavior with a vision of a better world.
What Does Dr. Martin Luther King Have to Do With Praying for Preachers?
Now, I’m not saying anything blasphemous about Yusuf being perfect, and may Allah and the believers forgive me for my mistakes and put blessings in my writing. But the call to a better world, a utopia, is something that all of us should work for, in my opinion. There is a serious limit to what we can expect of one human being. Yusuf has been named by many as one of the most influential Muslims on the planet and that puts him in the position of leading basically two billion people if we take his position too seriously. There’s no way he’s qualified to be the one head Imam and Sheikh and idealogue for us as Muslims. We shouldn’t expect him to be, and we shouldn’t expect that to be possible or feasible with today’s world of constant surveillance and instant mass communication at today’s level. It’s not fair, and more importantly it’s not effective. So, yes, we can critique him or support him, and ultimately we all owe it each other as human beings to give each other a break; to give each other the benefit of the doubt. But, my opinion about the firestorm of criticism that erupted is that we can’t wait for our leaders to lead us. We have power in our own hands and need to take that power to create the change we want to see.
Back to the topic of utopia: it is what made Martin Luther King, Jr. so great, in that he could envision a world where true racial harmony existed. Why do people love Dr. King so much? He gave us hope. He spoke of a world that was more just and more perfect.
In his last speech, he talked a lot about the Promised Land, about how he had a vision for where we were headed that was good and wholesome. He said he had faith that we would get there, and I do too. He talked about certain things that were necessary to get to the Promised Land where all people had justice and freedom. One of those things was unity.
He said, “Now what does all this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula of doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.”
We can’t wait for Yusuf, or any visionary, to reach political leaders with a good example and teachings of mercy and justice. We have to take action as people in our everyday lives, right now, in every way we can.
But, he did not end there. Dr. King gave us a clear and coherent plan for how this unity was going to get us out of the clutches of slavery to freedom: economic leverage. It is a simple thought. Let’s just refuse to participate in oppression. Let’s leave in peace. Let’s practice Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Let’s resist with our individual and collective power. We started this process over and over (Civil Rights Movement and Occupy, among many other movements) and we have a lot of momentum and power.
Dr. King said of this plan, “We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles; we don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, ‘God sent us by here to say to you that you’re not treating His children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment where God’s children are concerned. Now if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.'”
We can’t wait for Yusuf, or any visionary, to reach political leaders with a good example and teachings of mercy and justice. We have to take action as people in our everyday lives, right now, in every way we can. We can hope for our leaders, we can pray for our leaders, we can exhort our leaders, but, ultimately, we need every single person (who can) to be the leaders of the leaderless movement that the diffuse nature of Empire requires.
We need to not sit around being victims of leaders, or anyone or anything. We need not allow other people outside circumstances to disempower us. We need to speak with our lives, our words, our deeds, our unity, and our economic power with a vision for a Promised Land of justice and freedom, of rights and peace for all.
Hold fast together to the cable of Allah and be not divided. Remember the blessing that Allah bestowed upon you: you were once enemies then He brought your hearts together, so that through His blessing you became brothers. You stood on the brink of a pit of fire and He delivered you from it. Thus Allah makes His signs clear to you that you may be guided to the right way. (3:103)
Obey Allah and His Messenger (peace be upon him) and do not quarrel among yourselves lest you lose heart and your momentum disappear. And be steadfast. Allah is with the steadfast. (8:46)