This interview of Imam Hamza Yusuf was conducted in Calgary, Alberta during Islamic Awareness Week organized by the Muslim Students' Association (MSA) of the University of Calgary. The interviewer was Sr. Randa Hammadieh. It was compiled by Sr. Randa and Br. Ibrahim Danial.
RANDA HAMMADIEH: In your travels in the Muslim
world, what cultural practices did you notice that struck you as being different from
those of the West?
HAMZA YUSUF: In the West, there is a strong separation between young and old. In Muslim tradition, on the other hand, youth continues until the age of 40. This is the idea of "shababiya." In the Western civilization, the idea of adolescence is purely a social construct. The generation gap in the States isn't necessarily universal to all cultures although the US is doing a good job of exporting their monoculture all over the world. This happens because people are being exposed to the television and movies of the dominant culture. So you will see US cultural phenomena now all over the world.
RH: What are your thoughts on Muslim youth and public education of today?
HY: I think modern school is a negative experience. I believe you can learn more out of school than in it. There is now a universal education system, whether you are in an Arab country, China or somewhere else. This universal education is only going to vary according to the political atmosphere of the given country. For example, in Iraq, the indoctrination is probably more obvious whereas in the US it is just more subtle. School is an artificial construct to socialize individuals into a group identity. The whole idea of a "school of fish" is that everyone swims together whereas traditional Islamic education was completely individualized. What it did was give people all those tools (in the West called "liberal arts") such as grammar, rhetoric, and logic, through which people could actually think and use their brains.
In public high schools, you are not given tools, you are given information and data. In fact, a metaphor that is used in education today is that you're basically a hard drive that needs to be written with a given software. You will then fulfill whatever are the social needs of the society. Schooling today is designed only to matriculate people into the logic of the system itself. Then people end up in meaningless jobs doing meaningless work, and never really think about what type of society they're contributing to.
RH: If there was one thing in your travels in the Muslim world that left a distinctive impression upon you, what would it be?
HY: What a horrific condition the Muslim countries are in! The Muslim world is now like a rape victim. Colonization was like the raping trauma, and the Muslim world has never been able to get up and go on with life. The defeat of the Muslim world in its entirety by European powers, who for centuries were seen as backward and barbaric, has had really devastating effects.
Now in the Muslim world, Muslims seem to dress in pale imitation of Western people. Some look like caricatures of Western people. This is indicative of the state of some Muslims who aren't very inspiring anymore. The whole world once looked up to the Muslims as models.
RH: What do you say to Muslims who seem to glorify the past when they were at their peak?
HY: This is all pathetic nostalgia for returning to the glory of the past and its romanticism. The past has nothing to do with us. That was them. We are a whole other people. It's not our past, it was their present. Now it's over. That's why the Quran has this concept of letting go of your fathers, and not being proud of your fathers because they are not you! You have to create your own future. Don't be like an old war veteran. However, it is important to have some historical continuity because the Qur'an says "Look at the people who went before" as the way of learning lessons.
One thing that is wrong with some modern Muslim mentality is the idea of "if we do what they did, we will be glorious." Someone asked me, "How can we get an empire back?" There is this idea that Islam is all about glory. No! It's like you exercise to maintain your health, but the exercise is not your goal. It's just the means to achieve your goal. In the same way that if you seek the contentment of Allah, one of the side effects of that is that Allah elevates you and gives you "tamkeen," but that is not the goal. It's just a side effect.
Now you don't hear people talk about Allah very much, just about Islam. The Quran says, "To your Lord is your goal." The path of coming to know God results in victory because of your struggling for truth. One of the things about sincerely struggling for truth is that Allah gives you victory by the nature of the struggle. It follows that by the nature of the struggle itself, you gain worldly success. You see, worldly success has nothing to do with the intentions. Because if those are your intentions, then you will never gain worldly success. In fact, Allah will give the "kafiroon" success over you. If the people of truth are not seeking truth, but instead the benefits of truth (merely the side effects), then they will never achieve them.
RH: Then how should Muslims look at life?
HY: Life is mundane. Life is praying, getting up for Fajr and day-to-day chores. All this "glory" some aspire to is just an abstract in the mind. And the reality of it is even the kings of the past had to get up in the morning and go through daily routines. Life is by its nature perfunctory and Islam is just to harmonize it, put it into perspective, and make its goals dignified goals, instead of low, worldly goals.
RH: Now that you are residing in the US you must have had some exposure to the technological hegemony occurring. How do you view this in the light of Islam?
HY: Modern technology is just an example of when people's goals are totally distorted. Modern technology arose out of very strong corporate interests in creating the massification of society where everybody needs a TV or a stereo. This doesn't mean that Islam is against technology. Technology, by its nature, is everything that humans produce. And by our nature we do make things. Islamic technology would be very humane. To serve people as opposed to the opposite.
Muslims do not believe in progress. Progress is completely antithetical to the Islamic doctrine. Muslims believe that human society reached its pinnacle in Medina in the 7th century. This is the best society that has ever existed. The verse which says "Today We have completed your Religion..." made Umar (ra) weep because he realized that nothing is ever completed except that it begins to decrease.
If the goal of life is to establish Deen, then that is the highest progress that humans can achieve and therefore all this modern technological madness is an exteriorization of the human impulse to know. Because we have become such gross materialists, all of our intellectual and spiritual endeavors have been completely centered and focused on the outward, the "Dhahir" and the inside has been completely forgotten. Now there is even a massive interest in how we can preserve this life here, manifested by studies in cryonics, genetic engineering and cloning.
RH: So would you say human beings tend to serve modern technology rather than it serving us?
HY: Yes. Modern technology dehumanizes by its nature, because it is based on massification (a computer in every home). Everyone is reduced to sitting around looking at blinking cathode rays on a screen. There is no human exchange anymore; people just send e-mail. People get nervous if you start talking like this because most Muslims are really embarrassed by the simplicity of the Prophet's (pbuh) life. Many don't want to admit that he lived in a house devoid of furniture; that he sewed his own shoes and collected firewood. The Prophet (pbuh) wasn't interested in improving that aspect of his life.
Improving ones standard of living has become an idol whereas I think Islam lowers your standard of living. You become content with less. When the Prophet's (pbuh) wife put a cushion in his bed he got upset. He consciously lowered his standard of living.
The truth is the whole world can't support a bunch of consumers. Western technology is based on the exploitation of the other 90 percent of the world. All our wonderful technological achievements are based on the rest of the world living in abject poverty. Through enjoying the fruits of Western technology, we are in fact participating in the destruction of indigenous cultures all over the world and the impoverishment of those people.
RH: What are your thoughts on the teenage phenomenon and its significance today?
HY: It's an artificial construct intended to sell rap, $100 basketball shoes and $80 jeans. It's an invention of consumer society that doesn't exist in traditional Islamic or Western cultures. People should be done with school by the time they're 15. In traditional European societies, those who studied had their bachelors by the age of 14 and were teaching at 18 at Cambridge and Oxford. This is documented. Spending 12 years in school is an artificial construct designed to occupy time-space in which the society really doesn't have the ability to allow these people to enter the workforce because it is saturated.
Teenage phenomenon destroys human society. Historically, agrarian-based societies (which the majority of Muslim countries are) view community as absolutely essential for survival, whereas in industrial societies community is a luxury.
A sickness of some Muslims today is that they've gotten into the whole age issue. Much like racism and sexism, it's identifying people with quantitative measurements. We don't know how old many of the sahabi were. It wasn't an obsession. In fact, the Prophet (pbuh) tried to break the jahali concept by putting Osama ibn Zaid as the head of an army when he was only 17. Age in Islam is about having gray hair and not having gray hair. If you don't have gray hair you're called a "shabaab" and you're supposed to respect people with gray hair. If you have gray hair you're called "sheikh" and you're supposed to have mercy and compassion on those who don't have gray hairs. That is a much healthier way of looking at it. In Islamic knowledge, we knew Ibn Malik was considered a sheikh which literally means "old man" when he was 17 years old. Islam doesn't box you into a category. Age is about where you are spiritually, not where you are numerically.
I think that 40 year olds should sit with 18 year olds, and in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, learn from each other. The sahabi had 15 year olds in their Prophet's majlis with 60 year olds. Muslim schools were never segregated by age. "Allah created everything and He guided it in its own specific way and manner."
We are an Ummah of labeling and labels are from Western society. In labels, everything has a name and nothing has a meaning.
RH: Given all your experiences, travels, and years, what do you know for sure about the world?
HY: Well, that there is a lot of truth to Sayidinna Ali saying that "Youth is a type of madness and old age is a type of wisdom." I think that a crisis of the Muslim world is that we have an incredibly young society and the aging people are by and large ignorant, having lost their historical link, and so there hasn't been a lot of guidance from the older generation. Many Muslim youth are confused, but as this generation of Muslims reach maturity, an interesting scenario is going to occur. As the young people in the Islamic movement in the U.S. and Canada move into their forties, there is going to be much growth and guidance for the younger people, inshallah.
We are in a really bad time, but we should see it as a temporal kind of condition. This is not the way it has always been, nor is it the way it will always be, inshallah. I know we just have to be careful as a community in the steps we take. We have to deliberate more than necessary than if we had strong guidance. We are now living in a very exciting time, a time for much potential growth, and I believe that Muslims in Canada and the US will certainly rise to the occasion, inshallah.
End of interview.
Copyright © 1997 The Message, an ICNA Publication.