Modern Lessons from an Ancient Faith

Islamic scholar Shaykh Hamza Yusuf warns that religious teachings can be dangerously misappropriated.

When he met with President George W. Bush at the White House in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf famously declared that “Islam has been hijacked” by an ideology of rage. That’s an alarm that Yusuf, an Islamic scholar whose charismatic and accessible style has earned him an international following, continues to sound nearly a decade later. He delivered the annual al-Ghazali Lecture on February 19 to an overflow audience—including many members of the local Muslim community in Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel. (Attendees shut out of the chapel watched the lecture on screens in Schaible Science Center and the Chapel basement) “Islam is in crisis,” he said, but added, along with the crisis came an opportunity to “recapture the tradition” of the faith.

Addressing both ancient theological debates and pressing contemporary issues in the same nearly conversational tones, Yusuf reminded his audience that religious teachings can be dangerously misappropriated. “Whether it’s a president or a man in a cave, when people believe they’ve been sanctioned by God, they can do the most misguided things,’ he said. “Religion is like nuclear power. It’s clean, it has the power to illuminate, but it also has toxic by-products.”

It’s a problem, Yusuf said, not just in the Muslim world, but in religious communities everywhere. The waning influence of religious scholarship in an increasingly secular world has left believers unprepared to deal with teachings “without the interface of an enlightened scholarly class.” And when believers misread and misapply religious teachings, “religion becomes the problem, not the solution to the problem.”

As Modern as an IPod

Yusuf’s own career would seem to belie any concerns about the irrelevance of scholarship. His California-accented analyses of Islam and its place in the modern world have made him a highly sought-after lecturer, especially among young Muslims, and attracted critiques from those who don’t share his inclusive approach. The British newspaper the Guardian called him “one of the West’s most influential Muslim scholars.” Jordan’s Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre placed him on its list of the top 50 most influential Muslims in the world. The magazine Egypt Today described him as a kind of theological rock star, “the Elvis Presley of western Muslims.”

“He has the talent for showing how this ancient religion is as modern as an iPod,” says Paul Parker, professor and Baltzer Distinguished Chair in religious studies at Elmhurst. “He brings a modern sensibility, but also a critical eye for the problems of modernity, the wars, the pollution. And he can probably draw more English-speaking Muslims than anyone on the face of the Earth.”

His personal story is as remarkable as his success. Born Mark Hanson in Washington state in 1960, he was raised in the Orthodox Christian tradition in California and converted to Islam while still a teen. He spent a decade studying in north Africa and the Middle East—where he says his personal background attracted both special treatment and a fair amount of suspicion–before returning to California. There in 1996, he co-founded Zaytuna Institute, an Islamic school devoted to classical scholarship. He is working now to establish what would be the United State’s first accredited Islamic college.

His lecture combined his characteristic calls for interfaith understanding with trenchant commentary on religion’s place in an ever more secular world. He drew laughs when he recounted attending his children’s martial arts lessons and learning that every child participating received a medal. He understood the impulse to build self-esteem, he said, but wondered what happened to the idea of rewarding merit.  Has celebrating the self become paramount? “Religion is about mastering and overcoming the self, but we live in an age that glorifies the self,” he said.

In an interview before the lecture, Yusuf said that American Muslims are still claiming their place in the larger society.

“Every group that has come here has had to struggle to get to the table. Muslims are not only latecomers, but in some ways so alien,” he said. But he pointed to the ubiquity of Muslim physicians as an example of how Muslims figure in the everyday lives of so many Americans. “I think of Dave Letterman’s story about how he went to his doctor and his doctor told him to face Mecca and cough. And everyone got the joke, which shows just how ubiquitous Muslim physicians are. People put their lives in the hands of these physicians every day and nobody thinks of whether they’re infidels.”

Yusuf began his lecture by praising the 11th-century Islamic theologian Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali, for whom the College’s annual Islamic lecture is named, as “a universal writer, whose words written in the 11th century still resonate for us in the 21st.”

And as he closed, he pointed out how peculiar it was that he should be delivering the lecture: “An Orthodox Californian can convert to Islam, travel to the Muslim world to study, come back, and lecture at a college founded by devout Christians in a lecture series named for Imam al-Ghazali. Only in America.”

by Andrew Santella


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