Muslims who are active in religious circles, especially those in the west are aware of something called ‘Reviving the Islamic Spirit’ (RIS) conference which takes place every year in Toronto Canada. For those who may not be aware, this is an event in which most of the heavy weights from the English-speaking Muslim scholars attend to address an expectant, anticipating and almost salivating audience largely made up of young Muslims. The event is a culmination of Muslim events held throughout the year in the western world so to speak where attendees number in their tens of thousands, some who eagerly wait for this conference all year, attend to listen to speeches, shop in the multitudes of bazaars, enjoy family entertainment and engage on a one on one session with notable scholars in questions and answer style set up shaped on setting of many of the Television chat shows.
However, this year at the annual RIS things got a little uncomfortable. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a man who many would claim shaped the Islamic discourse in the west before the emergence of Yasar Qadi, Shuaib Webb and others is an icon of the muslim community, and rightly so. This is a man who during the swinging 70s chose at the meager age of 17/18 to become Muslim, (a big life choice to make as it is) and then to leave his comfortable western life in America and travel to the Muslim world in order to learn classical Islam, beginning in the United Arab Emirate and finishing his studies in Mauritania. Now not even born muslims who may have had generation of Muslim scholars in their family a will think twice about leaving their shielded life of comfort let alone anything else. This is why it can be safely said, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s struggles are an inspiration and model for many would be future scholars and muslims worldwide. In effect his charisma and influence created the scene for many up coming future scholars/students to do the same, Mustafa Davis, Usama Canon, Suhaib Webb, Yusuf Islam are some of the household names in the muslim world that are now intertwined with traditionally understood and viewed Islam.
At this years RIS many people were appalled on how Shaykh Hamza came across at the conference which caused scholars, the general rubber-neck keyboard warriors, and the public all to comment on his address and what he said. In brief, people were upset (including those from his fanbase) on how he addressed issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement – (a group of supposedly victimized black millennial who formed a movement to protest about racism), police brutality, Political Islam and other issues. People felt the way he carried the message of what he was trying to say about these movements was incorrect, harsh and incoherent with factually grounded on the ground information. This caused a huge furry in the internet-sphere among everyone from controversial laid backed scholars like ImamSuhaib Webb, who are ‘cool’ with muslim women appearing on playboy shoots, to Mr nobody who is trying to win over YouTube views on his channel. This eventually caused Shaykh Hamza to issue an explanation and a semi-clarification of what he meant by what he had said the previous day. It is correct and pleasing to see a scholar, and a notable scholar like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, clarify his stance on issues when things are not clear and make it easy for people to understand better as he is considered the voice of Islam in the west and has a strong influence on many people’s Islam from they way they believe, practice and live by it. It is also appropriate on how people felt about his words, then felt compelled to make a case on what he had said and seek to get a clarification, whether through a Facebook post or otherwise.
However this should be the case with all situations where teachings and practices that divert from authentic teachings of our classical scholars get brought to the attention of the individual. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is one that is not immune from such cases, a deeper more fundamental case that has missed the attention of the muslim world is his views on the ‘Study Quran’ group and the publication they produced a few years back.The publication caused much controversy (and why the publication caused much controversy can be read here), was highly praised by Shaykh Hamza, for a book which apparently seemed to promote the notion of perennialism; the idea that fundamentally all religions are true and that a person can obtain the nearness and salvation to Allah through it. This is a far greater cause for an outcry than any superficial movements – in relation to the afterlife, which should have made a person seek to get a clarification. The life of an American Muslim post 9/11, al Qaeda, ISIS era has greatly savaged traditional Muslims of their confidence of they who are, forcing hijab wearing muslims to consider (if it has not happened already) to remove it altogether in order to appear more western and be able to bat away potential threats or abuse they may face. Scholars like Hamza Yusuf have not done their part to promote resilience in the dwindling amount left in he muslim community. Instead they have contributed to the growing sense of unease promoting ideas which prior 9/11 or emergence of ISIS would have troubled even the least practicing muslim there is; giving room for muslim women to pose for playboy shoots, or incorporating alien ideas like perennialism into Islamic beliefs forming the idea somehow these were essentially classical islamic ideals which the ummah had lost.
I have also found Shaykh hamza yusuf trying to write an Islamic narrative that will please both the Islamaphobes and the orientalist intellectuals of the originality and acceptability of Islam in the western world. A very hard narrative to write considering both these groups, the Islamaphobes and the orientalists have agendas and motives they will fight-to-the-death to promote and establish as the mainstream image of Islam. Hamza Yusuf is a man battling an internal struggle to present what is considered socially acceptable ideas of apparently traditional Islam as opposed to what traditional Islam actually is, a deeply sobering thought and it’s sad see someone who was full of youthful energy and vigor in delivering Islamic lessons, talks and seminars who had a magnetic attraction to those around him or not begin to deflate the way he is.
It begs the question whether Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is doing what he is solely to secure his establishment, the Zaytuna College, from any reputable damage or a tainted image of it being a “fundamentalist Islamic institution in the heart of America”. Now more than ever since the new American president is the drunken fool goaded on by others around him to drive under the influence of alcohol or DUI.