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A voice from America

Hamza YusufMuslims have to stop the blame game and face up to responsibilities, says American Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf to Muhammad Yusuf

Hamza Yusuf Hanson is arguably the West's most influential Islamic scholar today. A wraith-like figure, at 42 he's been there, done that. He accepted the Call of Islam at age 17.

While his peers were living the good life in America, he felt the need to train in Islam under the best scholars. His search took him to the UAE, Algeria, Morocco, Mali and Mauritania, among other places. He is now settled in California, where he runs the Zaytuna Institute, with the aim of spreading the light and wisdom of prophetic truths.

He was in Dubai recently to deliver a lecture as part of the series being held during the Dubai International Holy Qur'an Award ceremonies. "The Shaikh," as he is popularly known, has the knack of walking with kings and not losing the common touch. He can also talk to crowds and keep his virtue.

He is living under enormous strain, though it doesn't tell. He has taken upon himself the task of explaining to the uncomprehending West and the angry East about the happenings of September 11. In the process, he admits to having been called names from both sides. "It is a test from Allah (SWT)," he sighs. He uses medical metaphors to argue his case. Or present his ijtihad (interpretation). "Muslims are like the battered wife who blames the husband. Just as an abused wife points a finger at the abusive husband, Muslims blame the West for all that's happening to them. But at some point, you have to take responsibility and get out of an abusive relationship," he says.

According to Hamza, the Islamic world has a pathological relationship with the West. It is one of co-dependence, with a love-hate aspect to it. The medical condition of the Muslims has a long history. "Their immune system was already weak when the colonial cold came. The body was ready to receive the virus." And now it is sick but not prepared to get out of it.

"Muslims only complain about the illness," Hamza laments. "They should actually try to take vitamins, look for a doctor or discover the cure." It is ridiculous to keep on blaming another person for the infection.

"The solution is that you have to boost your own immune system. First, you have to admit that you were susceptible. Then, one has to get rid of the deep denial mode one is in."

"However, there is no going back to pure Islam," he cautions. "Islam has had a long journey of over 1,400 years. On the way, it has collected a lot of baggage. The past will be interpreted through individual filters, leading to confusion."

He says that Muslims often have the romantic view that "Islamdom was a wonderful place 200 years ago." And that things would have been hunky-dory if the West had not come. "But it wasn't that fine," he warns.

There has never been a perfect Muslim except Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Nor can there be social engineering through a perfect Islamic state. These are utopianisms, complete fantasies. "There have been problems right from the start," Hamza notes. "It is the human condition."

Part of the problem is that "religious people" have alienated the common people. They have made Islam into "some type of a puritan religion." Besides, many Muslims fall into pride and disdain people who are not practising Islam at their level. They also look on non-Muslims with contempt, a dangerous habit. "Islam is a gift!" Hamza exclaims. "As with a gift, you feel gratitude. You lose self-righteousness, since you feel you didn't deserve the gift."

"We have to ask why it is that Muslims have lost their ethical character," he says. "Why there is so much corruption in the Islamic world. For this, you have to be sincere." As Hamza warms up, his spectacles gleam. His intellectual intensity is undeniable. Born in the USA and having lived in the Muslim world for eleven years (he was at the Islamic Institute in Al Ain, UAE, during 1980-84), he has perhaps imbibed the best of both worlds. 

His language, delivered in a slow drawl, can flit between the Bible and Qur'an, taking in Shakespeare, Rousseau, Tirmidhi and Ghazali at one go. Even James Bond is not beyond him. "Do you know that sometimes bin Laden appears like the character in Dr No with the cat in a cave?" he asks. Is the present conflict in Afghanistan then one of "Caveman versus Superman?"

"It appears to me that the West has no real goal in Afghanistan except for a possible pipeline for oil reserves in Tajikstan. It seems the matter has more to do with oil than waging war on a primitive religious community," he retorts. "Nothing wonderful is going to happen there after Taliban. I would rather help people in the refugee camps," he adds.

So he is not definitely a Muslim Uncle Tom. Indeed, he has a long track record of criticising what is wrong with the West.

"Most Muslims tend to have better health than most Western people, given that their world view is deeply influenced by their religion," he says. "If you live with Western people, what you find is that many of them don't really have an idea of what goes on outside their countries. They are being globalised, centralised and corporatised without their consent. They have serious social problems. We have to understand that they too have problems like family breakdown, depression and high crime rates. I contend that a lot of Muslims live better lives than them."

But for all that, the West is powerful. Both because of itself and because of the sunan (law) of Allah (SWT). "In the US, people get up at 5 am and work till 7 pm. They work very hard. And you wonder why they are powerful?"

Hamza says that a staffer in a US corporation cannot get away with what most Muslims can in their own countries. "In Muslim-run offices, the routine is more often than not to read the newspapers, have tea, engage in gossip and conspiracy theories," he says sarcastically. "The work ethic there is not as strong as in the West." According to Hamza, one of the reasons the Almighty created the world is to cultivate it. "If Muslims don't do this, He will make others do it," he says. "Muslims produce nothing today. They only consume. And often it is the worst qualities of the West." The panacea lies in changing their condition. Otherwise, there will be no change. "Guidance is always there; there is nobody to take it," Hamza notes.

"It is Allah who empowers and disempowers," he continues. "It is He Who elevates and abases. Not the West, not anyone else." But He also gives and takes away. Nobody can escape this sunan. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before Western dominance comes to an end.

He believes that the attacks of 9/11 are consistent with the modus operandi of "certain Muslim groups." There is danger in thinking otherwise. "The danger in conspiracy theories," he says, "is that it is all total conjecture. Each individual will try to find his own pattern."

It is obvious that this Hamza is not the Hamza of old. That Hamza was given to making apocalyptic remarks about the West. "You know," he says placatingly, "I think I grew up in an enlightened household. My mom was an activist in civil rights and the anti-war movement. I grew up with a sense of social struggle and social justice. I guess when I came to the Muslim world I internalised a lot of the attitudes in currency there as I am empathatic by nature. But as time's gone on, it's been increasingly clear that it is not advantageous for Muslims to be in the blaming mode.

"If you have to be the Caliph, you have to take responsibility. If you blame others, you don't have the prerequisites for sovereignty." Each individual is thus sovereign and has to take responsibility for his actions. Hamza notes that American President Harry Truman had a plaque on his desk which said "The buck stops here."

"The Shaikh" has been scarred by his responsibilities. Living in the Sahara while pursuing knowledge, he contracted hepatitis and amoebic dysentery and a host of other illnesses. He lived for long years away from his family (he is married with four children). Though he now is relatively well settled, he says he knows the power of sacrifice.

The Zaytuna Institute is one way in which he tries to make Muslims live up to their responsibilities. "The Westernisation of Muslim schools is one reason for the confusion," he says. "People are not academically inclined anymore. The best intellects go to other schools, with the encouragement of parents and society. Islamic studies is not seen as prestigious. But the way such schools were once developed enabled a person to work in the Islamic grid. I am trying to create ways of blending the modern and traditional."

He rises for another appointment. "I try not to put a spin on the Muslim world. People in the West know what a spin is. They'll say 'gimme a break!' if I try to do that. I call a spade a spade. As Imam Ghazali said, "Know a man by the truth and not the truth by a man." Blaming the West doesn't empower. Blame is disempowering.

"The caravan is now being led by the West. We can either be part of it, lead it or be the dogs barking at it. We don't have a choice anymore."
q

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