Michael Muhammad Knight vs. Hamza Yusuf
Mar 19 2013
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to spend a lot of time thinking about Hamza Yusuf. In a recent academic article, Mahdi Tourage places Hamza Yusuf and myself at opposite ends on the spectrum of white male converts: Yusuf represented the shining white superstar of American Islam, and I was the undesirable asshole. This is cool by me, because Tourage also aligns me with my convert hero, Amina Wadud. Meanwhile, I was reading about Alexander Russell Webb and saw some parallels between the elitism of this 19th-century white male convert and Yusuf’s own thought. Since my column last week used an image of Yusuf, people have been asking me how I really felt about him. So here goes.
Hamza Yusuf sells products. This itself is not bad. I also sell products. Sometimes Yusuf offers products that I want to buy, and sometimes not. Yusuf’s most popular product is this thing called the “classical Islamic tradition.” He markets the classical Islamic tradition as something timeless (hence the “classical” and “tradition” part) and also transcendent (“Islamic”), but it’s at least partly his own creation. He decides what ingredients to include, which ones to leave out, and how to package and market it. He has an audience, and the audience wants its classical Islamic tradition a certain way, so he tweeks the product to match their desires. The man has a brand, and any brand has to evolve alongside its consumer base. Again, this itself is not bad.
For an example of how Yusuf presents the product, consider his discussion of al-Busiri, the 13th-century poet who composed "Qasidat al-Burda," one of the most important devotional works in the Islamic heritage. Some historical uses of al-Busiri’s poem would fall outside the zone of orthodoxy for many of Yusuf’s consumers. Therefore, in his discussion of the Burda’s cultural significance, Yusuf makes no mention of the popular belief in the Burda as a supernaturally charged text with real healing power. He doesn’t mention people incorporating verses of the Burda in amulets and talismans, or composing imitations with hopes that the Prophet will personally reward them. This is where we can see the big irony of Yusuf’s product: though Yusuf presents spiritless, degenerate modernity as the crisis and a revival of “classical Islamic tradition” as the answer, his consumers live in the modern world, so he has to edit the tradition for their modern tastes. To paraphrase anthropologist Talal Asad, when we imagine the past, our present is always in the center. As a thoroughly modern product, Hamza Yusuf’s “classical Islamic tradition” can never be everything that it promises.
In his commentary on the Burda, Yusuf does admit, “There are no doubt aspects of this poem that may trouble moderns.” One such aspect is the desire for spiritual highs, which Yusuf says has been replaced in our modern age with drugs. “We forget that bygone peoples possessed a purity alien to modern man,” he writes. “Their ecstasy was not a drug but a spiritual state of intoxication.” I’m sorry, but this claim is nonhistorical and unsupportable, and the “purity” is complete fiction. There were plenty of Muslims in al-Busiri’s world smoking hashish, even contextualizing drug use as an Islamic spiritual practice. For an alternative assessment of premodern purity, just read the vicious polemics against popular religion by Ibn Taymiyya, whose lifespan overlapped with that of al-Busiri. According to Ibn Taymiyya, the Muslim world of his own time was overrun with charlatan magicians, antinomian hashish addicts masquerading as Sufis, corrupt scholars, and ignorant masses, having strayed hopelessly from the pure and pristine Islam of still earlier generations.
Yusuf’s commentary makes a distinction between “peoples of the past,” who had “deep love and reverence for the spirit,” and our ugly modern world, which suffers from afflictions such as “lewd clothes” and “vapid entertainment.” Here, he draws on the assumption that public space in Muslim-majority societies had always been desexualized, with all women entirely covered. He either forgets or ignores premodern Muslim contexts in which marketplaces were filled with naked women who were on display as slaves for sale. By purchasing women’s bodies, in accordance with “classical Islamic tradition,” men obtained legally sanctioned sexual access to them. In this spiritually advanced past, “slave rape” was unthinkable as a concept, because the slave’s right of consent was unthinkable (the same goes for marital rape). While it can be problematic to compare our standards of justice and equality to those of another historical setting, let’s just say that if we look closely, Yusuf’s spiritual tradition vs. degenerate modernity binary is a little more complicated than he wants it to be.
Whenever we speak of a lost “golden age,” we have to smooth over the rough spots, erasing the golden age’s diversity and internal contradictions, and also the ways in which the golden age doesn’t automatically live up to our assumptions. To think about premodern Muslims with any complexity undermines the central narrative of Yusuf’s brand. What Yusuf sells is a vision of premodern Muslims as inherently superior to you, with troublesome bits having been edited out. This vision comes with an implied promise that Yusuf, having mastered the classical Islamic tradition while sitting at the feet of its qualified heirs, can help you to reach these premodern levels of purity. That’s just basic capitalism: he creates a problem and then markets himself as the solution.
When reading Yusuf’s commentary, I often suspect that this man is way too knowledgeable to believe in half the things that he’s saying. He wants us to buy a fantasy and believe in it, but this is what any brand wants. The most powerful brands succeed in making their fantasies part of your identity. You buy the brand, you embody the brand, and the brand becomes you. When people buy into Hamza Yusuf’s brand, they remake themselves as a particular kind of Muslim. I’m not trying to say that this is a terrible brand. There are certainly less attractive brands available. Sometimes I can check my critical reading skills at the door and let Yusuf carry me into his fantasy. Even if parts of the fantasy are made up, I can do real work with them.
Yes, Hamza Yusuf is a white convert. This helps his brand because his classical Islamic tradition can be presented as entirely a textual tradition, free of cultural blemish, and universal in its appeal. I am also a white convert. White privilege helps my brand too, because it’s easier to sell black supremacist expressions of Islam when you have a white face. That’s one of the more popular products in my store.
I’ve grown to respect Hamza Yusuf, in part because I’m a mark for good Adab, and he taught me something about the Prophet’s sublime example. I met Yusuf a couple of years ago at an academic conference. He was willing to shake my hand, which I appreciate because a decade earlier, I had earned some notoriety for “stink-palming” American Muslim celebrities. We had a short but pleasant conversation, and he wished me well. Over the years, I’ve written some harsh things about him. In one of my products, Osama Van Halen, I actually depict Yusuf as a shape-shifting djinn, and I’m pretty sure that he knows about this. For the things that I’ve written about him, he would have every right and reason to shun me. But Yusuf showed kindness, and I took a lesson from our encounter. Additionally, I have had similar experiences with numerous Muslims who have been touched by his work. In their conduct, they make for powerful testimonials to the value of his product. If his consumers live out the brand like that, sometimes I’ll buy what Hamza Yusuf’s selling.
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