FROM FRAMES TO THE FAMILIAR: Concerning Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (Abdullah Ali)

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“Salaam alaykum:

I am sorry my interview has generated so much ill-will in our community. My request for those defending me is to recognize the mistake in the insensitivity of my response. Here is an article written by my friend and colleague, Dr. Abdullah Ali, a young, highly talented, and brilliant scholar of Islamic law and tradition. We have known each other for many years. Again, for those who find difficult to bear criticisms of those they love among their teachers, please note that I accept as valid Shaykh Abdullah’s criticisms and request that no one reacts to them negatively in my defense; they are from someone I love deeply and who I know loves me deeply. Please read, as there is much food for thought”
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf on “From Frames to the Familiar:Concerning Shaykh Hamza Yusuf & RIS 2016″

In this powerful and insightful essay, Shaykh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali provides his reflections on the recent controversy with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf at the RIS Convention and what we can learn from this as we move forward.

“From Frames to The Familiar: Concerning Shaykh Hamza Yusuf & RIS 2016″ by Dr Abdullah Ali

If you find yourself wounded at sea, there is a high probability sharks will attack you. That’s how I would describe many of the antagonists who assailed Shaykh Hamza Yusuf after his recent gaffe at RIS 2016. Besides a few sincere and objective critics, I saw many seizing the opportunity to avenge old vendettas, and many commoners who felt the world just needed to know their misinformed opinion of the man.

On the other hand, many of his diehard advocates were like moths drawn to a flame; justifying his every word, with one person even posting fox (faux) news statistics about black-on-black crime. I’ve always felt that most people tend toward extremes, and only the minority are blessed with the gift of balance. Observing responses over the past few days has only deepened my conviction. I pray that some good will come from this fiasco.

To be completely fair, the outrage was well-founded and in some ways well-deserved. This is because, as others have observed, Shaykh Hamza was irresponsible during his interview with Mehdi Hasan. Many know the Shaykh to be highly opinionated, dogmatic, tone deaf, and compulsive in his reaction to things that disgust him. As a result, he has rubbed many the wrong way over the years. But, these same traits contribute to his charismatic charm, especially since most people want to follow the lead of someone who is confident, intelligent, and speaks with a clear vision of what he wants and what he believes the community needs.

Those traits aside, characterizing him as a bigot, a racist, or white supremacist are grotesque in my view. A racist is someone who believes in his inherent superiority over another and/or supports systemic gratuitous entitlements for those like himself and the disenfranchisement of others. I cannot speak for others, but in the 18 years that I’ve known and worked with him, I cannot say that I have ever experienced or noticed any gesture which could be classified as racist. I’ve heard people call him arrogant, out of touch, and elitist. But, never have I heard anyone say that he’s a racist until this past weekend’s incident.

As for the allegation of him being a white supremacist, this is even more ridiculous. Would a white supremacist employ a majority of non-whites, among whom are blacks? Would a white supremacist “marry” a Mexican woman and father 5 children with her? Would a white supremacist defer to Arab and African teachers, constantly praise and speak of their exemplary intelligence? A white supremacist is not only a racist. He also believes that his “race” is naturally superior to others in every way (beauty, strength, intelligence, civilization), and is therefore worthy of maintaining the highest cultural and sociopolitical capital and hegemony.

Of course, the reason I can be so confident about this is that I can genuinely say that I “know” the man, not merely as a “sage on a stage.” I know him as sincere and passionate for good, a champion of normative Islam, a morally conservative person with a brilliant mind, a passion for reading, spiritually disciplined, and an indelible appetite for knowing and understanding more. I acknowledge, however, the reasons that it is difficult for others to grant him the benefit of the doubt. I believe that this results from similar factors which make it hard for people who don’t know Muslims to trust them to be peaceful or just “normal.” This results from the negative “framing” in media and film.  Our employment of social media is, similarly, inadequate at helping us gain a more intimate familiarity with those with whom we develop a virtual relationship. It skews our view and perception of personalities, especially.

I realized after the RIS fiasco and the subsequent firestorm his comments caused that it would be highly unlikely before the Shaykh begins to publicly express what he really was trying to say. Rather than making this another critical post on Shaykh Hamza, I thought it would be more useful to highlight some important issues I believe were lost in the scuffle.


What Did He Actually Do?

 In my view, Shaykh Hamza’s problems did not necessarily result from what he said. Rather, his problems were largely caused by what he did not say. During the interview, Mehdi Hasan asked some pointed questions, but instead of answering those questions directly, Shaykh Hamza attempted to steer the interview by answering things he thought were more important. Of course, many observers, especially many blacks, failed to see his larger point, which was that we should not unduly alienate any potential allies. Those allies include many white conservatives and even the policemen imprisoned by their fear of blacks and Latinos who may eventually make national headlines for shooting an unarmed minority. Due to this, he came off as dismissive, evasive, and “out of touch” with “reality.” His failure to simply affirm the need to champion black suffering in light of police brutality before moving on to make his point painted him as insensitive. No! It did much worse. It made him sound like a number of the white nativists who are being courted by the Trump administration and have been nominated for cabinet positions. This gaffe was a serious blight on his reputation. It hurt many blacks who did not have the privilege to see beyond the emotional outrage, especially once the internet was set ablaze by condemnations from a number of Muslim critics. While Shaykh Hamza may actually hold opinions that are perceived as reinforcing anti-black stereotypes, his opinions and motives for saying what he said are much more nuanced than the average person might consider.

Creating Space for Dialogue

 One target of Shaykh Hamza’s critique is the leftist thinking which has overtaken the discourse of a number of Muslim activists. Even though the Islamic tradition largely privileges appeals to reason (logos) and credibility (ethos), rhetorically these activists, like their liberal allies, often prefer the emotional appeal (pathos) to actual dialogue. In other words, there is the tendency of these leftists (though not exclusively) to force a sort of uniformity of thought on a number of topics. That would not be so serious had it not been for the fact that this entails the requirement that one believe in the “realness” of white supremacy, white privilege, and structural racism. That Shaykh Hamza “may” not see these as forgone facts should not serve as justification to malign him. This is not to say, of course, that he cannot be criticized. He is not beyond critique. But, there is a difference between a personal attack where labels, like “racist” and “white supremacist” are used, and simply saying, “Our Shaykh made a mistake.” The Qur’an forbids casting aspersions on one another, especially by using offensive titles (Q 49: 11). And the Prophet Muhammad did not condemn Abu Dharr al-Ghifari to permanent “black-hater-ness” after he berated Bilal through mention of his mother’s black skin.

Perhaps, institutional racism and exposing white supremacy are not areas of major concern for Shaykh Hamza. Or maybe he hasn’t found arguments positing such ideas to be particularly persuasive. Whatever his position may be on the topics, what everyone needs to understand is that true and profound understanding of any given position results from study, dialogue, and persuasion, not compulsion. One could easily offer Shaykh Hamza a book or two in hopes to win him over to one’s understanding. But, the public crucifixion he has been subjected to over the past few days are not as productive as many may think they are. Who wins if a scholar of his caliber is torn to shreds?

If the appropriate atmosphere does not exist for honest dialogue, mutual understanding is an unachievable goal. If white people attempting to understand the pain of blacks and how they may be contributing to that pain attend a discussion about racism only to encounter disparagement, why would any of them be interested in a dialogue about race? It is only when it is made clear that the reward for honesty is patience and gratitude that people open up and make themselves vulnerable. If they know that they will be castigated for their honesty, they will shut themselves up never allowing for themselves to ever truly challenge their biases. Admitting that one is afraid of black people is not in itself a racist idea. There would definitely be great outrage at such an admission. But, maybe, the person simply does not know why she is afraid, and is seeking help from others to understand why she feels that way, and is looking for a remedy for the problem. None of that is possible, however, if we insist that the person not be allowed to speak honestly because it “might” be viewed as insensitive. This is not to deny the existence of implicit bias against blacks informed by varying societal factors. Bias does not always translate into malicious intent. The contention is simply that this bias is not “innate” to whites or others. An interview on a stage before thousands of onlookers may not be the appropriate time to be so honest. What I am speaking about is when the forum is right, and the protocols of dialogue have been set.

In addition, if support for black suffrage against police brutality means to buy into an anti-police culture of “f-the-police” or the promotion of indiscriminate violence against them, Shaykh Hamza or any one of us for that matter has every right to hesitate when asked the question about throwing his support behind BLM (Black Lives Matter). But since BLM neither supports nor promotes violence against police, this shows that he was ill-informed and put in a very compromised position when Mehdi decided to interview him on this topic. If he had known that everyone who supports the Black Lives Matter “movement” does not necessarily support the Black Lives Matter “organization,” he would have had less reason for concern about certain principles of the organization which do not harmonize with Islamic mores. From this vantage point, Mehdi Hasan may have to bear partial responsibility, since he inappropriately assumed that Shaykh Hamza was the right or best person to speak about such matters. Taking this into account, one can perceive that Shaykh Hamza’s refusal to endorse BLM was his way of insulating the community from compromising their morality by buying into popular trends wholesale. A major concern of his was that by unnecessarily alienating potential allies among police, the police may develop a no-compromise attitude as well, which will ultimately lead to disastrous strife in black communities. And there is no doubt that the police would win.

Can a White Man Be Proud of His People?  

 Another area of concern related to Muslim activists is the push for cultural Marxist egalitarianism. It is not that one should be opposed to equal opportunity for all members of society. It is just that Islam promotes meritocracy rather than “sameness” and “equal representation” for the sake of equal “representation.” According to this cultural paradigm, it is “good” to celebrate and take pride in what is unique about one’s own culture. This seems the case, at least, for any person who is not “white.” White people, on the other hand, due to their historical domination of others are forbidden from publicly expressing pride about European civilizational contributions lest they be declared a racist or white supremacist.  This concern is shared by nativists like Richard Spencer. But Spencer, however, regurgitates the pseudoscientific racist assumptions of the 19th century French aristocrat Arthur De Gobineau who pioneered the Aryan master race theory. Those blinkered notions aside, what legitimate wrong could be claimed about a white man or woman feeling pride about the achievements of their ancestors if it does not result in cultural domination?

Under this regime of “sameness,” Shaykh Hamza Yusuf becomes nothing more than just a white guy by the name Mark Hanson. Because of white supremacy it can be argued that the respect and attention he receives has very little to do with his scholarship, hard work, and charisma. Rather, he is famous just because he’s a “white man.” This is the epitome of injustice (zulm), since Shaykh Hamza’s respect is well-deserved, not merely because of his whiteness. This is not to deny that his being white does add a kind of “turbo” charge to his talents, just as blackness often serves as a turbo “brake” in certain communities. The charge of white privilege, however, could more appropriately be made about the deference shown toward many other white Muslims, especially by the “immigrant” classes. Non-whites can be the most committed to white supremacy. Would the chatter about Shaykh Hamza’s comments be this loud had he not been white? I think not. Rather, it is because of the value that the “white” voice and “white” opinions are given which make the comments so hurtful.

The Courage to Understand

 Islam is an iconoclastic religion of a radical monotheism. It not only forbids the worship of physical idols and matter, but also the worship of abstract entities including one’s lusts. According to a sound tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, “Among those given the most severe punishment by God on the Resurrection Day are the image makers (musawwirun).” The image maker or “framer” of things created by God is involved in a very dangerous craft. The image maker is dangerous because he possesses the ability to assign meaning to the person being represented by the image which can falsely represent reality.

The image maker or framer (musawwir) is able to transfer or recreate the image (surah) of a person, and produce a lasting impression (tasawwur) in the mind of the observer until it forms what we refer to today as a “stereotype” (surah namatiyah). Logicians say, “The judgment you make about a thing results from the way it is initially grasped” (al-hukm ‘ala al-shay’ far’ ‘an al-tasawwur). And when we grasp things incorrectly, we can assign to it the wrong value for better or for worse. The initial grasp or impression (tawawwur) is formed at a distance from the thing being grasped until greater familiarity/acquaintance (ta’arruf) is achieved either corroborating one’s assumptions or proving their falsity.

This is true for both concepts and concrete realities. Because of this, the Qur’an prescribes for shortening the perceived distance between cultures the pursuit of understanding and direct acquaintance. The Qur’an says, “O humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and female, and have made you into peoples and tribes to achieve knowledge (and acquaintance) with of one another (li ta’arafu)” (Q 49:13).

Not knowing a person, like Shaykh Hamza, his personality and sociopolitical views can pose a great challenge to grasping a perspective or at least the intent behind that perspective when word choice is poor. I believe this is what happened on December 23, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. It was a major gaffe. However, occasional misspoken words should not be the sole reason to silence the person. And, just because we find a person’s perspective highly objectionable should not lead us to consider his/her views to be void of value in other areas. I do believe that many people have legitimate grievances with Shaykh Hamza. But, we need to be certain to ensure that those grievances do not become political in nature.

It was not merely black sensibilities that Shaykh Hamza offended that night. He also offended Dr. Yasir Qadhi and those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. I have chosen to focus on the first set of sensibilities, since most of the internet chatter related to it. He did apologize to Dr. Yasir Qadhi and clarified that he had no desire to see harm come to members of the Muslim Brotherhood. I believe the MB comment will be the most serious to overcome, precisely because the initial statement provides plenty of fodder for Islamophobes who see the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and constantly use that claim to cast aspersions on numerous national organizations once associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Jama’ati Islami. One must remember that it is only recently that being affiliated with either organization has stopped being en vogue.

During a certain era, our government’s policy was to encourage Islamist membership as a way of subverting secularist regimes they found odious. Beyond BLM and Yasir Qadhi, Shaykh Hamza will need to take a more decisive position about the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Does his desire not to alienate potential allies not include moderates who are formerly or even still affiliated with the two aforementioned groups? Or will he allow for it to be said that he is too partial and selective in his choice of people he does not wish to alienate?


Dr. Abdullah bin Hamid Ali

He holds a Ph.D. in Cultural and Historical Studies in Religion (2016) and an M.A. in Ethics and Social Theory (2012) from the Graduate Theological Union. He  obtained his B.A. (ijaza ‘ulya) in Islamic Law (Shariah) from the prestigious Al-Qarawiyin University of Fes, Morocco in 2001. He served as full time Islamic chaplain at the State Correctional Institute of Chester, PA from 2002-2007, and is the founding director of the Lamppost Education Initiative. He currently serves as an Associate Professor of Islamic law and Prophetic Tradition at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California. His research interests include the interconnection between law and identity formation, comparative Islamic law, and Islam’s role in the modern world.
Click HERE to see more articles, videos, and more from Dr. Abdullah Ali

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