Bi ismillahir rahmanir raheem
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf on TV, Truth, and Technomania
June issue of "The Message" Magazine
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
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
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
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
is now like a rape victim. Colonization was like the raping trauma, and
Muslim world has never been able to get up and go on with lifeof 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
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
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
RH: What are your thoughts on the teenage phenomenon and its significance
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
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
thare 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.
Rasul Allah (sallah llahu alaihi wa sallam) said: "Whoever knows himself, knows his Lord" and whoever knows his Lord has been given His gnosis and nearness.