Hamza Yusuf is arguably the west’s most influential Islamic scholar. Many Muslims find his views hard to stomach, but he is advising the White House on the current crisis, and today he will be talking to religious leaders in the UK. Jack O’Sullivan meets him.
A few days ago, for reasons that remain rather unclear, the FBI decided to pay a call on the home of Hamza Yusuf. “He isn’t home,” said his wife. “He’s with the president.” The FBI agents did not seem to believe her; they called the White House to check. “He’s got 100% security clearance,” said the voice at the other end. The FBI agents did not return.
Yusuf, an Islamic teacher, was indeed with the president. At the meeting, he advised Bush that the military term Operation Infinite Justice was blasphemous to Muslims. The president listened. He said he was sorry that the Pentagon, which chose the title, had no theologians on staff. The name was changed.
Then, after joining in with God Save America, Yusuf stood outside the White House and delivered an unequivocal message, which even Margaret Thatcher could not fault. “Islam was hijacked on that September 11 2001, on that plane as an innocent victim,” he said.
Imam Hamza Yusuf, who runs an Islamic institute in California, is fast becoming a world figure as Islam’s most able theological critic of the suicide hijacking. This afternoon he will address British religious leaders at the House of Lords on the subject.
His speech will upset many Muslim radicals here. A charismatic and popular speaker, Yusuf openly declares his belief that Islam is in a mess. He wants Muslims to return to their “true faith”, stripped of violence, intolerance and hatred. Nor does he pay much deference to the states in which many Muslims live. When we meet, he declares: “Many people in the west do not realise how oppressive some Muslim states are – both for men and for women. This is a cultural issue, not an Islamic one. I would rather live as a Muslim in the west than in most of the Muslim countries, because I think the way Muslims are allowed to live in the west is closer to the Muslim way. A lot of Muslim immigrants feel the same way, which is why they are here.”
His rise to prominence is even more extraordinary given his unusual background. Hamza Yusuf, 42, started life as Mark Hanson, son of two US academics, only converting at 17. Thirty years ago, he seemed destined not for Islamic scholarship, but for the Greek Orthodox priesthood. Then, a near-death experience in a car accident and reading the Koran diverted him towards Mecca.
But he cannot be easily dismissed as a western patsy, a “collaborator”, as his opponents have already dubbed him, or as Bush’s “pet Muslim”. Trained for more than a decade by the best Islamic scholars in the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Morocco and Mauretania, Yusuf’s learning commands considerable respect, particularly with the English-speaking elites of traditionally Muslim states. Although he calls on Muslims to see what is good in western society, he has a long track record of criticising western decadence, injustice and impoverished spirituality.
“He confronts what it is to be young, British and Muslim,” says Fuad Nahdi, publisher of Q-News, the Muslim monthly magazine. “He shows there is life beyond beards, scarves and halal meat. He inspires confidence that you can build Islam in the west from all the local ingredients. You do not have to include political or theo logical burdens from traditional parts of the Muslim world.”
Grainy videos of his sermons sell in their thousands and hint that he is not cut from the same cloth as teachers from the Indian sub-continent or Arabia. His goatee beard is almost fashionable. Sporting a turban plus an American accent, he is curiously familiar. Could he be that singer from the Monkees, I wonder momentarily. However, in the flesh, his angular features, intellectual intensity and learned, didactic style recall another American icon: Malcolm X.
Yusuf has just arrived in Britain from Rome. Shaking my hand, he buzzes with excitement after attending an inter-faith procession for peace. “It was the feast of St Francis of Assisi,” he says. “It was such an ironic choice. Did you know St Francis persuaded the Pope to let Christians make a pilgrimage to Assisi instead of going on the crusades?”
We sit cross-legged on rugs on the floor of a suburban Buckinghamshire house. It is home to his old friends, white British converts to Islam. It is October but tea, delicious dried mangoes and dates are served in a room hot enough for a desert nomad.
The imam quickly turns to the World Trade Centre attack – an act of “mass murder, pure and simple”. Suicide, he says, is haram, prohibited by the Koran, as is the killing of innocent civilians. He quotes Koranic texts demonstrating that the suicide bombers do not qualify as martyrs. He even finds a verse outlawing flag-burning.
“Many Muslims seem to be in deep denial about what has happened,” he says. “They are coming up with different conspiracy theories and don’t entertain the real possibility that it was indeed Muslims who did this. Yet we do have people within our ranks who have reached that level of hatred and misguidance.”
Indeed, he sympathises with Margaret Thatcher’s statement that British Muslims have not been loud enough in condemnation. “There may be some truth in it,” he says. “Some Muslims tried to explain what has happened. But if you say you condemn something and then try to explain the background, it can mistakenly sound like a justification, as though this is their comeuppance.”
His hard-line attitude to extremists in Britain would be unsayable for any mainstream politician keen to retain any respectability. “I would say to them that if they are going to rant and rave about the west, they should emigrate to a Muslim country. The good will of these countries to immigrants must be recognised by Muslims.”
It is as though he has gone through a second, possibly more radical conversion than the first from Christianity. He regrets speeches he himself has made in the past, peppered as they were with the occasional angry statements about Jews and America that are a staple of much Muslim oratory. Days before the September 11 killings, he made a speech warning that “a great, great tribulation was coming” to America. He is sorry for saying that now.
“September 11 was a wake-up call to me,” he says. “I don’t want to contribute to the hate in any shape or form. I now regret in the past being silent about what I have heard in the Islamic discourse and being part of that with my own anger.”
His great concern is that Muslim thinking has sunk into theological shallowness that allows violent fundamentalists to fill the vacuum. Colonialism and successor powers, he contends, dismantled the great Islamic learning institutions, leaving a poverty of great scholarship.
“We Muslims have lost theologically sound understanding of our teaching,” he says. “We are living through a reformation, but without any theologians to guide us through it. Islam has been hijacked by a discourse of anger and the rhetoric of rage. We have lost our bearings because we have lost our theology.”
He has been examining the backgrounds of the extremists. The consistent feature, he says, is that they have been educated in the sciences rather than the humanities. “So they see things in very simplistic, black-and-white terms. They don’t understand the subtleties of the human soul that you get, for example, from poetry. Take the Iliad, for example. It is the ultimate text on war, yet you never know whether Homer is really on the side of the Greeks or the Trojans. It helps you understand the moral ambiguities of war.”
Yusuf’s language has a rare cultural fluency shifting easily between the Bible and the Koran, taking in, within a few breaths, Shakespeare, Thoreau, John Locke, Rousseau, Jesse James, Dirty Harry and even, at one point, the memoirs of General George Paton: “Did you realise,” he asks, “that Paton wrote in his diary on his first day in Morocco, ‘Just finished the Koran. A good book. Makes interesting reading.’ ”
We finish our tea. Another convert, Yusuf Islam, formerly the singer Cat Stevens, is waiting to speak to the new arrival. I suggest to Yusuf that life could get a lot tougher now he has broken ranks. “I will get a lot of flak from Muslim countries, because times are so emotional they are losing the ability to reason things through.”
What about physical danger? “Yes, I think there is a real risk from ignorant people who have no respect for divergent opinions. There are Muslim fascists who are intellectually bankrupt. The only way they can argue is to eliminate the voices they don’t agree with.”
© Courtesy of The Guardian