Hamza Yusuf is one of America's most prominent Muslim voices. He is the co-founder of the Zaytuna College and a popular speaker at American Muslim events across the country.
On December 24, 2016, Yusuf appeared as a star speaker at the Reviving the Islamic Spirit convention in Toronto, an annual Islamic event that draws crowds of thousands. Interviewed by the British Shi'ite journalist, Mehdi Hasan, Yusuf discussed strident anti-Semitism within the Muslim community, and attacked the "plague" of Islamism that has gripped so much of Western Islam.
Hamza Yusuf on Islamism:
Mehdi Hasan: A lot of Islamophobes say they are anti-Islam because it's Islam that's driving the violence they see, it's Islam that's behind ISIS, that terrorists are a product of the religion and then there are Muslims who say it is nothing to do with Islam, nothing to do with Islam. You have said and I quote: 'what we do not need, are more voices that veil the problem with more empty hollow and vacuous arguments that this militancy has little to do with religion. It has everything to do with religion,' you said. What did you mean by that?
Hamza Yusuf: Well I mean, I think that we, our community is in denial about certain aspects within the community and I think that denial, first of all, it prevents people from really hearing you honestly. Because once you say this has nothing to do with Islam, you just lost all of those people out there that you need to reach. That's the first thing. Once you admit that we have a problem, this is something I told the Saudi government immediately after 9/11 I told them you have to admit you have a serious problem and I think, unfortunately...
Mehdi Hasan: How did they take that?
Hamza Yusuf: They didn't they just changed the subject in that meeting, but it's a real problem because denial - it is a river in Egypt - but it is not a river in Egypt, right? So we are in a state of denial about how deep this goes and one of the problems with our religion and the Jewish religion, I can say the same about the Jewish religion, about the premodern Christian religion, all of our premodern religions have real problems in them, in terms of the modern world. And the problem with Islam is because it has one aspect of Islam, is political, these are called al-ahkam as-sultaniya [principles of government]. The political aspect of Islam is very small in any book of Sharia, but it exists like the penal code, we have qanun al-'uqubat [penal code] about these things, but the vast majority of Islam has nothing to do with politics. What's been done to Islam is it's been turned into a political ideology by a certain group within the Muslims and so what's happened, by making it a political ideology and saying it can only be practiced within the framework of a political ideology, is a major problem in our community. And then if you couple that with all of these things in our books that are problematic and you bring those out, what's happening is.. Daesh is a gross perversion but the text that they are basing... it exists.
Mehdi Hasan: So on that note did you say...
Hamza Yusuf: And I totally disagree about Bernard Haykel by the way I mean I think what he did was criminal and presenting Islam as somehow normative Islam
Mehdi Hasan: On the specific note of denial, I just want to pick you up on that because you made a very good note on that you said 'you can't get through to people if you are living in denial especially non-Muslims and you have to call out you said a certain group from within.' You wrote in a very powerful, passionate Facebook post earlier this year, headlined 'The Plague Within', in which you said 'a plague is upon us, a faith-eating plague, an ideological plague, a plague which left unchecked will foment more violence.' What plague were you referring to, because you didn't name the plague anywhere in the post?
Hamza Yusuf: Well, I'm not a scientist, scientists get to name the plague. I don't want to call it Hanson's Disease(?)
Mehdi Hasan: You sound like you are in denial, having told us not to be in denial.
Hamza Yusuf: I am going to talk about it in another talk. It just basically, I have a pyramid, the pyramid is, the base of the pyramid is ossified tradition and tyranny, political tyranny. These two things created reactions, one of the reactions was a puritanical movement that emerged, that basically attempted to purify Islam of all of the degraded elements that had come into it and polluted it and tainted it. That was one, these are puritanical people, they tend to make takfir or anathematize other Muslims, that's one strain, but that's not the whole problem. It's a necessary but not a sufficient condition here. The second strain was the loss of Muslim sovereignty because of the colonialism, and so what you had, what emerged from that political ideology is the al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, which originally started as a reformist movement in Egypt became a political movement and then was actually engaged in political activities to try to get power - the coup which Nasser was involved in actually allied with the Ikhwan in that coup. They later betrayed him and from that broke of Hizb ut-Tahrir and other groups. And Al-Qaeda comes out of that chain. So when these two meet, these puritanical and political ideology meet, you get Daesh.
Mehdi Hasan: And you are willing to say this, other Muslim scholars are not willing to say this.
Hamza Yusuf: Well that's yeah.
Mehdi Hasan: Sheikh Yasir Qadhi responded to your Facebook post, one of many people who responded and he said 'Muslim leaders should rise up and unite, not divide the Muslim ummah and not scapegoat a large segment of the Muslim community.'
Hamza Yusuf: That's funny coming from him, yeah.
Mehdi Hasan: So, you don't accept that criticism?
Hamza Yusuf: Yeah, well I mean, you know, I have always tried to unite Muslims.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay.
Hamza Yusuf: I really have, I've tried to unite Muslims.
Hamza Yusuf on Anti-Semitism:
Hamza Yusuf: We should all be against any ideologies of superiority of one people over another people, it's completely antithetical to our religion. But we have some of the worst racism our own community
Mehdi Hasan: Oh, you beat me to my next question.
Hamza Yusuf: Yeah, we have some of the worst racism in our own community we ... the anti-Jewish rhetoric that you hear in the Islamic community is horrific and one of the things about Sheikh Bin Bayyah, who is an Arab I've never in over 20 years, I have known him I never say a bad word about Jewish people ever. And yet I have heard in our community so many blatant remarks also do you know what it is like to be a Pakistani in a lot of Gulf states or in India or from [inaudible] even worse, you know? Talk about, people talk about white privilege, but what about Arab privilege over non-Arabs in the Middle East. I mean, I just feel like we have so little moral capital pointing our fingers at other people, and it actually makes me a little sick to my stomach when I see all these people rising up about this anti-, you know, anti-white privilege and all these things. Our community is rife with these things and our religion...it is so profound we have to ...
Mehdi Hasan: How do you deal with that?
Hamza Yusuf: By practicing Islam, that would be a good start.
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