For our cover story this month, Staff Writer Ethar El-Katatney profiled three prominent modern Islamic thinkers. For her story on Amr Khaled, see below. For the profile on Washington-born convert Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, see here. For the profile of Egypt”s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, see here.
Amr Khaled: A Religious Rock Star
Amr Khaled”s message to a global audience of young Muslims is modern, moderate and, most importantly, popular. The superstar televangelist plays a unique role in twenty-first century Islamic dialogue. Meet the man behind the message.
LAST YEAR, I went on a 21-day youth camp in England led by Amr Khaled. We camped in forests, dormed at a college and attended lectures and training sessions. I washed dishes, slept in a room as big as my closet and got by on three hours of sleep a night.
I also got to know Amr Khaled, the man dubbed as a “rock star for the Arab world” by Time magazine, which recently chose him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. This is no ordinary rock star, though: This one slept in tents just like we did, ate the same food we ate, and was available 24/7 if any us wanted to talk.
This instantly recognizable media celebrity — loved by many, hated by others — is a very down to earth and simple person.
Shooting to fame in the 1990s, the Alexandrian-born activist, preacher, televangelist — call him what you will — is nothing short of a human dynamo. His simple, heartfelt and easily accessible approach to daa”wa (literally “calling people to Islam,” an Arabic expression that incorporates aspects of both preaching and proselytizing) has won him the love of Muslims.
Although he turned 40 only in September, Amr Khaled is a household name in the Middle East. His lectures are followed by millions from all four corners of the world, and yet he”s the first to tell you that he”s just a man trying to do what”s best for everyone.
Khaled”s smile is reassuring, but don”t be fooled into thinking that just because he”s an easygoing man, he”s not deadly serious about what he does. Behind that smile is a workaholic who puts months and months of meticulous preparation into his shows. He rehearses, holds five-hour focus groups with youth to discuss his episodes, and repeats filming of entire episodes if he doesn”t feel they”re 100 percent perfect.
By his own admission, he is not a scholar. What he does claim is that he tries to practice what he preaches, that Islam is a way of life and not just prayers five times a day. He”s a busy man, but still finds time to sit and eat grilled chicken and figs with his family. He balances his life. It seems too good to be true, but he manages to do it.
In search of how, I spent a day with Khaled on the North Coast late this past summer, visiting him while he relaxed at a friend”s villa on the Mediterranean, looking to reach the man behind the global phenomena.
A day in the life of Amr Khaled
On arrival at the villa, I was immediately swallowed up by Khaled”s large, boisterous family. His mother greets me as I enter and his wife attempts to hug me while her one-year-old son, Omar, squirms on her shoulder. The house is full of guests, and I can see at least six children of all ages swimming in the pool, shouting and generally doing what children do.
Sitting on the patio overlooking the pool amidst the laughter of children and chatter of adults is Khaled, in Adidas pants and his signature Lacoste polo shirt. He greets me with a huge smile, motioning for me to join him at the table, on the edge of which a pile of books teeters. Textbooks, notebooks, pens, printouts and handwritten notes cover the surface. Two mobile phones flash incessantly.
A quick glance at their screens tells me that Khaled has 45 missed calls. He catches me looking and smiles. “I get an average of 200 calls a day and 120 messages,” he says.
I pull out my voice recorder, pen and notepad, but just as I”m about to press record, Khaled”s wife tells him that his guests have arrived. He smiles apologetically and asks if I could postpone the interview for a while.
Three hours later, we start.
I ask Khaled to describe a normal day in his life. “I am a nocturnal person,” he begins. “Saheer [one who enjoys staying up at night]. My work revolves around reading and preparation [for an upcoming program].” His most productive period, he tells me, begins at midnight and ends at five o”clock in the morning, after the fajr (morning) prayer. He sits in his living room with his books, and turns on any sports channel that looks interesting, then turns the volume down and sets to work.
“All I eat [during that time are] some slices of pizza and I have a soft drink,” he says. “Sometimes, three continuous hours can pass by. Three continuous hours and I don”t notice. The time was 1am, and suddenly I look at the clock and it”s 4am and I”ve written 17 pages. This is my regular workday.”
By fajr time, Khaled will head to the mosque across from his house in Mohandiseen for prayer.
“I cross the street in exactly two minutes, but I come back from the mosque to my house in 40 or 50 minutes,” he says with a smile. “It”s hard. I”m tired after my work session and I want to eat and sleep, but when someone comes and tells you, “I came from far away to say hello and ask you a question,” I can”t say no.”
Sometimes after fajr, Khaled will go to the Shooting Club nearby to jog 12-15 laps before heading home for a shower and sleeping until noon.
As soon as he wakes up, he checks his phone. “Sometimes it”s people telling me they are saying hello, sometimes they ask me to perform du”aa [a prayerful request to God] for them, and sometimes they tell me their problems,” he explains. “It”s a nice period. I sit absorbed and I answer the messages. This is how I connect with people. This is what helps me talk [on TV], because I am involved with youth, I am not isolated from them and just get up to tell them a couple of words of advice and morals. I live with them.”
Perhaps this is the reason Khaled has become so popular — audiences have found someone who truly listens — to their concerns.
“I don”t know how I found myself here,” he says with a shrug. “When I remember my childhood, my teenage years and my studies, I was a very normal kid. I was always average at school. I never got excellent or very good grades, I never failed. I see myself as someone who doesn”t have a lot of things to distinguish himself by, but that God put me in this position and I play this role. What I have is that I believe in my message. I am not in the box of religious scholars or the box of media stars.”
It is the fact that Khaled does not declare himself in either “box” that riles his critics, who have touted their disagreement from television stations, newspapers and magazines since Khaled began appearing on TV screens. If he”s not a scholar, they maintain, then he has no right to discuss religion. He lacks any religious credentials — he graduated from Cairo University with a degree in accounting, they frequently point out. He does not dress or talk like a scholar — no long, flowing galabeyyas, just suits or Lacoste polos. Consistently suspicious of his motives, the media has at almost every turn branded Khaled an attention-seeking, media-adoring phony who only became popular by a twist of fate.
“I hate the media,” Khaled tells me with a laugh, citing an endless list of what he terms baseless accusations that have been leveled at him: That he works for the American or British government, that he”s on their payroll, and so forth. As for being a scholar, he repeatedly states that he isn”t one, that he never gives fatwas (religious verdicts), and is only involved in daa”wa and in driving a renaissance of the Muslim ummah (community).
So if he”s not what they think he is, how does he really see himself?
“It”s a difficult question. I”ll tell you what I hope I see myself as, not how I really do. I hope that I can see myself as a kind person, who loves people a lot and loves to make people happy. I hope to not be living for myself. I am very happy when I see a smile on other people”s faces.”
We are interrupted by Khaled”s five-year-old son Ali, who gets out of the pool, wraps himself in his Finding Nemo bathrobe and comes to talk to his father. Khaled sits him on his lap and tells me how he has to find time every day to connect with his sons.
“This is usually the time between the maghreb [sunset] and “aisha [dusk] prayers. When my elder son comes back from school there is a beautiful interlude. Time to play football! We play in the house. And wrestling. Women don”t understand the secret of the attraction of boys to fathers in wrestling. But this is a part of building a relationship. Then I take him to football or swimming practice. I take him myself to practice, and I stay there. Not a lot of fathers do that, but I”m very happy to do so because I travel a lot. One of the nice things I do whenever I”m in Egypt is read him a goodnight story. Sometimes I tell him the story of a companion [of the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH], and sometimes I start making up stories. I am very careful to be there for him because I am an important factor in his life.”
Does the public attention make it difficult for him to go out with his family? “Sometimes,” Khaled replies. “Once, I remember we were playing football at the Shooting Club, just me and him. Every once in a while people came to say hello. He cried. It”s pressure on him and my family, but I have to respect people and appreciate them. We do our best to balance our lives.”
And what of Khaled”s relationship with his own parents?
“I try with them, I do try,” he explains. “I can”t tell you that I am perfect. Every day I tell myself I don”t exert as much effort as I should. I do lots of things, I visit them, I take their opinion, I talk to them every day, I buy them things. Most importantly, I consult my father on things I”ve already made a decision on, so he”ll feel that I”m his son. He has to feel that his son cares what he thinks.”
Khaled believes so strongly in the importance of the family unit that he created a whole show about the family called “Paradise in Our Homes,” which is airing this Ramadan. The daily episodes talk about dysfunctional families, how to strengthen relationships between spouses, parents and children, and siblings. The show also tackles parenting challenges, such as how to discuss important issues with your children, how to interact with them, befriend them, and deal with their sex- or drug-related problems.
After hearing all about his hectic day, I still ask about what Khaled likes to do in his free time.
“Football. And many different sports. Racquetball, squash, tennis, anything with a ball, I”m with you. Sports, sports, and watching sports. But playing sports is more fun. Going out with youth. Going out with my son. My [elder] son is my hobby. When I”m in England, I go to Arsenal matches and I take my son to them.”
And how does his life differ when he”s on holiday? “There”s one thing in my life on holiday that is very important: [observing] the beauty of nature and Allah”s creation. The sea, the sunrise, the sunset. Football. Remembrance of Allah on the beach. Ping pong. Chess.”
After the day is over, as I am soon to witness, his family and any guests gather around the outside patio to discuss religion, selecting a topic and getting everyone”s insights. All this while a little girl plays with a toy car, zooming around the chairs and singing.
Khaled tells me that he uses his holiday to interact with youth, whom he meets whenever he”s out or on the beach.
“We have a football match and a religious lecture. When we start talking, they think that the first thing I”m going to talk about is prayer. They”re surprised when they find out that the first thing I ask them is: What are you planning for your future? How many books do you read? What distinguishes you from other youth your age in college? Do you work in the summer? So this is number one. The result is that they begin to listen.
“You then go into number two: What does your relationship with Allah look like? Then we go to number three. What does your relationship with your parents look like? Then number four is the football match. So the relationship is a nice one. The spiritual dimension is there, the future dimension is there, the intellectual dimension is there, and the sports dimension is there. We end up becoming friends.”
He pauses and then says contemplatively, “I am satisfied and content with my life. I am able to bring together worshipping my God, living with a message in my life, and being happy.”
Satisfying, perhaps, but hardly making for a relaxed holiday. He stops the interview several times to sit with guests or answer the phone. Khaled is a consummate multitasker who still manages to enjoy the finer things in life, from Japanese food to Lacoste sportswear and Arsenal football matches. He”s the perfect host, who gets up himself to offer me a drink; a good father, who goes swimming with his son; and a good Muslim, who reminds everyone that it”s time for “asr (afternoon) prayer, and for everyone to pray in congregation, down to the three-year-old children.
And his life in Ramadan? Khaled smiles at the mention of Ramadan.
“I”ll tell you something very strange — all the major events in my life happened in Ramadan. The beginning of my getting into religion was in Ramadan, while I was in high school. The beginning of sending my message to people on satellite channels was in Ramadan. Even my leaving Egypt was in Ramadan.
“In Ramadan, I love family gatherings. The gathering of the family over food, an outing, over laughter believe me, a family gathering even over laughter is very important. The beauty of the night. Just like in the summer we admire the beauty of nature, in Ramadan we admire the beauty of the night: staying up late and worshipping Allah. One of the beautiful things in Ramadan is that my wife and I pray the nightly prayers together.”
So does he pray all night? “No. I am a normal person. I pray five prayers, most in the mosque, [and] sometimes I gather my family and we pray in congregation or in the office.”
Khaled left Egypt in late 2002, but continued his preaching outside and settled in England for a number of years. When I inquire about Ramadan in England, Khaled tells me that the only Ramadan he has ever spent abroad was the year he left Egypt, and recounts how difficult it was to go from all the lectures and filming to being isolated.
“It was harsh. The year before I was praying with 40,000 at the Hosary [Mosque in Sixth of October City],” he smiles sadly. “The year I left Egypt, I was praying all alone in my room.”
While living in Birmingham, much of Khaled”s work targeted Muslims in Europe, advising them how to live their lives in non-Muslim countries. Khaled is working on obtaining his PhD from the University of Wales. His thesis is titled “Islam and Coexistence with the Other,” and tackles the question: “Are Muslims in Britain able to coexist with the British community, and is the British community ready to accept Muslims?”
In fact, Khaled”s self-proclaimed resala, or message in life, is the renaissance of the Muslim ummah through this notion of coexistence.
“[With the help of others] I want to revitalize this area of the world. This is where the idea of coexistence comes in, because you cannot create a renaissance without partners who will take your hand. Help from inside our countries and outside our countries, Muslims and non Muslims, Arabs and Westerners, multinationals and businesses founded by Arab businessmen. I believe this is coexistence.”
His message to Muslims living in the West is not “Shape up!” as it is to the Arab world, but rather a call not to live in isolation, showing them how to integrate without assimilating or diluting their own cultures and identities.
“The biggest problem of Muslims abroad is positive contribution to the Western community while remaining proud of Islam. We want to establish balance. You will find some Muslims in the Western community who are able to coexist very well. Then there are others who completely reject their country and religion, or those who preserve their religion very, very well and are isolated from the community.
“As for the Muslims in our countries, the important issue is unemployment.” He stresses the need for the private sector”s help in aiding the government to alleviate unemployment, which he believes results in deviations in both thoughts and behavior.
“The second problem,” he outlines, “is that, unfortunately we as Arabs don”t add anything to the world. We must produce to be respected, to respect each other.”
That”s why Khaled has become an advocate of what he calls faith-based development in the Arab and Muslim worlds. His show, Sonaa El-Hayah (Life Makers), which aired from 2004 to 2005, focused on developing communities. The episodes inspired hundreds of thousands of youth across the world to contribute to their communities. Projects in agriculture, small industries, education, healthcare and other fields were started and many continue to prosper.
In 2003, Khaled established the Right Start Foundation (rightstart.org.uk), a non-profit foundation registered as a UK charity. The organization, headquartered in Britain with branches in Egypt, aims to build bridges between Muslim youth and projects in the West that could serve youth in Arab countries.
Khaled”s shows, what pulled him into the spotlight, are watched by millions across the globe. His audio lectures are sold in countries all over the world, and his books have been translated into many languages. He has written several articles for newspapers and magazines, and has been featured in many newspapers and magazines, most notably the New York Times Magazine and Time.
His website, amrkhaled.net, is currently ranked number 1,402 on web ranking service Alexa”s list of the world”s most popular websites, coming in even higher than the website for US phenomenon Oprah Winfrey, which ranks number 5,113.
In Egypt, the site is the thirty-seventh most visited website, with a full 41 percent of its users Egyptian. So with the skyrocketing audience who visit the site or tune in to his shows, does he think Egyptians are becoming more religious?
“For Egyptians, religion is part of their nature, and it runs deep, from the time of the Pharaohs. Someone might not be all that religious, but listens to someone wronging the Prophet and suddenly turns into this beast rising to the Prophet”s defense.”
“But,” Khaled continues, “at the same time we want religion to be on all levels. We don”t want superficialities. We want religiosity to result from good behavior. People focus on superficial aspects because it”s easy. We have two contradicting outlooks: The person who is good in worshipping, but bad in manners, and the person who”s good in manners, but bad in worshipping. Can”t we have both?”
Practicing what he preaches, Khaled believes he has managed to achieve balance in his own life. “At the end,” he concludes, “the nicest thing is to balance your relationship with your God, to have a message to fulfill in your life, and to be happy. I feel that iman [faith] adds to me. It adds mental happiness and stability. I am not [at odds] with myself — I am content.”
So content that he rests on his laurels? “If I am alive in 10 years, then I see myself in the same place — as long as I am contributing to a renaissance in this area of the world.”
Who is he?
Amr Mohamed Helmi Khaled was born in Alexandria to an upper middle class family. He studied at Cairo University, graduating with a degree in accounting in 1988. Two years later, he gave his first unplanned religious lecture during a relative”s birthday party at the Shooting Club in Dokki. The audience was so impressed that he became a regular lecturer at the club”s mosque, and soon began lecturing in the homes of the upper class throughout the capital.
His popularity soared, and eventually he had to move to Al-Hosary mosque in Sixth of October, which accommodated up to 40,000 people. A lightning rod for critics of the nation”s growing religiosity, Khaled ran afoul of several powerful decision makers who resented his influence and he elected to leave the country for several years in 2002, first going to Beirut, then settling in England. He has only recently returned to Egypt to live full time.
Khaled”s preaching style was novel when he first appeared on the scene. He is a charismatic, confident, dynamic speaker, who speaks in colloquial Arabic and is very appealing to youth. His Western garb and the energetic delivery of his lectures, accompanied by his passionate supplications, made him instantly stand out from his more monotonous, turban-clad, harshly bearded scholarly counterparts.
He is also —as his critics and supporters both agree — very influential. His supporters love his influence, and thousands of women put on the hijab (veil) after he praised it. His critics, on the other hand, have derided him as a “pied piper” who has too much influence over youth. The fact that Khaled shuns all labels and refuses to define what exactly he is — political activist, preacher, etc — makes him all the more worrisome to them.
Khaled is clear about one thing: He hopes to convince his followers that faith is the key to a moral, scientific, cultural and economic renaissance in the region. His first call was for a return to spirituality, then for a move toward faith-based development. Throughout, he preaches the benefits of hard work, good works and impeccable manners, urging youth to transform their lives and their communities.
His most popular shows include Life Makers, On the Path of the Beloved [Muhammad PBUH], In Your Name [Allah] We Live, and A Call for Coexistence. et
Ali Gomaa: The People”s Mufti Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the nation”s most visible and media-friendly mufti ever, speaks out on dialogue between the Peoples of the Book, fatwas and why it is that journalists always seem to ask him the same questions
I”VE MET THE mufti before, but always in a secondary capacity, and never had I been the sole object of the undivided attention of a man known to be scarily intelligent and blunt, with a short attention span for fools.
Our interview was scheduled for noon, and at 11:30 on the dot I was at Dar Al-Ifta, the nation”s —and, by extension, Sunni Islam”s —highest body for the interpretation of religious law. I was shepherded into a very small side office where the photographer and I struck up a conversation with the two men. An hour later we were still there, having progressed from drinking tea to a debate about the nature of preaching and what makes a sheikh a good sheikh.
We were interrupted by Dr. Ibrahim Negm, the mufti”s spokesman and media advisor, telling us that it was time to go in. And although I had been speaking with him by phone for weeks to arrange this interview, it was only when I saw him that I realized why his name was so familiar: I had attended a four-day workshop Negm gave about Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH) to a packed audience of hundreds a couple of months ago. I had been too intimidated to approach him afterwards. A scholar in his own right, and he was the mufti”s media advisor? My trepidation mounted.
Hurrying along to the mufti”s office, Negm apologized for the delay, explaining that the mufti”s interview with Al-Arabiya, the satellite television channel, had run over. Cameras, cables and crew were still milling around the office as we walked in, the fully made-up presenter still arguing energetically with the mufti. He”d reply and she”d ask another question, which he”d answer wearily. He caught sight of us and said, in reference to her questions, “What can I do, yaani?” with a twinkle in his eye, and motioned for me to sit down.
East and West
Ali Gomaa has proven himself to be one of the most explicitly anti-extremist clerics in mainstream Sunni Islam. An outspoken critic of extremist ideologies and a leading advocate of moderation, he is a strong believer in dialogue who travels around the world on da”wah (preaching, or outreach) missions. He spends a considerable amount of time in London —a hotbed of European extremism — which he”s been visiting for the past three years.
The mufti believes Muslims in Western countries should aim to be productive members of society and shouldn”t isolate themselves. Isolation, after all, leads to miscommunication on both sides.
“The Muslim in Western countries,” he tells us after his TV interviewer finally left us, “faces a distorted perception of Islam in Western mentality, where there is a predisposition to rejecting hearing anything about Islam because of historical accumulation, media campaigns and the actions of some Muslims who unwittingly do things without thinking of the repercussions of their actions that result in confirming this distorted image or further distorting it.”
The solution, he explains, is to “fix the image that Westerners have of Islam by having the patience to endure their impatience and building bridges with them.” Dialogue, he asserts, is a very important tool. “It”s pros are that each side can start to understand the other, to dissolve many of the barriers, and can correct their images of the other. But,” he cautions, “the problem is when each side tries to dominate and maneuver the dialogue in an attempt to control the other. That”s when the dialogue loses its meaning.”
Is it realistic to expect the West”s image of Muslims to change in our lifetimes? “Insh”Allah,” he says. “Insh”Allah they will progress. There are examples of Muslims whose contribution to Western civilization is clear. Some of them have been awarded the Nobel Prize, others are making great contributions to research. The Muslim ummah (community) needs to rise one more time and they have the ability to do so. They just need to contribute to human civilization.”
But is it really that simple? Does the Muslim ummah have the ability to stick to its roots and preserve its identity, let alone properly represent itself to the West? Muslims in general, I tell the mufti, have lost sight of some of the most basic aspects of their religion, including the Arabic language, which is needed to properly understand it. It”s true, I think, even in Arabic-speaking countries, which struggle to present Islam to their Western counterparts. Public morals and manners have deteriorated, sexual harassment is rampant on our streets.
“The enchantment with the English language,” he answers me, “is because it managed to invade the whole world. Its people have exerted a great deal of effort to simplify and distribute it, reaching and teaching it to the majority of people until it became the number-one language in the world. I do not lean toward the idea of a cultural collapse as much as the fact that this is simply a characteristic of the time we live in.”
As for the deterioration of manners, he puts it down to the fact that the rhythm of life has become faster. Changes in communication technology, transportation and the population boom all factor here, he says, “so the average person has become more distracted in gaining his daily bread or performing his daily activities. Also,” he adds, “Muslims in most Arab countries suffer from illiteracy, unemployment.”
He is unruffled, perfectly serene as he says this. I ask him, with all these problems just in Muslim Arab countries, with Western and Asian Muslims having their own set of problems, how can he believe that the ummah will rise again? Is there even such a thing as a Muslim ummah anymore?
He gives me that impenetrable stare again, the one where you have no idea what he”s thinking. It could be “What an idiot.” If I”m lucky, it”s, “That”s an interesting question.” Unlike other sheikhs, Gomaa does not stare at the ground while talking to a woman, but maintains direct eye contact to the extent that I was the one to look away from his piercing gaze.
“From the political side,” he begins, “it may be hard in the near future for the Muslim ummah to unite. But on the realistic side, other unified entities do exist, such as the European Union. There are common markets. There are common defense entities. Other international organizations like the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
“Hope is there, because from the intellectual and realistic side, the Muslim ummah is one ummah. It”s so clear in the Hajj, when from 120 countries over 3 million people come to one arena. Their cooperation proves the unity of this ummah. It underscores the intellectual and religious continuity of the ummah.”
If often seems the mufti gets the same questions from interviewer after interviewer, newspaper, online or television. It”s like some form of never-changing crop rotation cycle, but instead of wheat-maize-oats, it”s hijab-interest-apostates. Why does he think people focus on these — not exactly superficial, but certainly “surface” — aspects of Islam?
“The importance placed on these things differs according to who you are,” he smiles. “For example, scholars care very much about updating [according to the time we live in] and not about the problem of hijab and banks. This is evidenced in, for example, the very big list [of topics] that the Islamic Fiqh Academy of the Organization of the Islamic Conference based in Jeddah has [to discuss]. They and many others focus on the political, social and intellectual fields.”
So why don”t scholars spend more time discussing these many issues in public? “Because the media choose some things around which to create a new reality,” he explains. “That leads some people to care about these issues, not about those that might have more meaning. Other issues do not, therefore, become intriguing to normal life.”
Islamic scholars discussed thousands and thousands of issues throughout the twentieth century, he tells us. But of the tons of papers and books they churn out, the media only picks up on the handful of opinions handed down on controversial issues. And, of course, on the opinions and fatwas of those on or beyond the margins of respectability.
(A fatwa is a religious ruling based on Islamic law and should be issued by a competent, educated scholar. Dar Al-Ifta literally issues hundreds of thousands of them each year.)
“For Al-Ahram [the leading Arabic-language daily] I have written more than 120 articles about 120 topics ranging from coexistence to bridges between civilizations to pluralism in the political system,” he says. “Not one of them has been [properly] discussed by the media.”
Indeed, Gomaa went so far last year as to use his Ahram column to caustically rebuke “our fellow Egyptian journalists” for being preoccupied “with their attempts to misconstrue religious questions to [manufacture] controversial issues for the dailies.”
The media, he says, only focuses on that which is sensational and sure to cause an outcry. Case in point: the recent media uproar over a fatwa handed down by Sheikh Ezzat Attiya. Yes, that one, the breastfeeding fatwa that somehow declared that a woman can breastfeed her male colleague five times to circumvent the Islamic ban on a man and woman being alone at work.
Although Gomaa himself is no stranger to eccentric fatwas — he has declared hymen-restoration surgery legitimate in cases other than rape and has studied the supposed practice of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) drinking the Prophet”s urine — the mufti has said that oddball fatwas such as the one on breastfeeding are a not-unexpected outgrowth of an undisciplined system.
Indeed, the system has lost so much credibility that the verb “beyifty” has entered Egyptian slang. Literally meaning “giving a fatwa,” it is now used to refer to someone who is pontificating about a subject about which he actually knows nothing.
In the days after the breastfeeding fatwa made headlines in Egypt and around the world, Gomaa suspended Attiya and referred him to Al-Azhar”s disciplinary committee. The next week, he called on scholars at a conference in Kuwait to embrace the establishment of an international council to issue uniform, coherent fatwas for the faithful around the globe. He has since tabled another proposal to Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mohammed Sayed Tantawi to create an Egyptian body to monitor the fatwas issued by the “tele-imams” — as Gomaa calls them —who issue opinions online and on satellite television.
“This kind of proposal has come from the ummah itself because this is an age in which freedom of expression has to be respected,” the mufti recently told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, the prominent pan-Arab daily. “There is not one party that is capable of abiding by such control and therefore it has to be approved by everyone and efforts have to be made to create a public opinion and a prevailing culture that embraces the presence of such a tool to control fatwas.”
The work of the body, he explained to them, would be to “check for violations of Shariah and the opinions of the Sunni and Muslim consensus and for any violation of Shariah sources. If it finds errors, it would try to advise those who made the mistakes to rectify the situation. The question of authority and the judicial power to punish offenders needs to be debated by legislators,” he says, “which requires discussion on a larger scale rather than by clerics alone in order to avoid the misunderstanding that these clerics want authority for themselves.”
Meanwhile, the telegenic mufti says his colleagues in the media need to do more to dampen the flames of controversy. Journalists, he says, must stop “commenting on the fatwas in ignorance and making them the talk of the world.”
Fatwas, the mufti believes, are serious tools that only the very qualified should be permitted to use, saying in a recent lecture in London that “Fatwas represent a bridge between the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence and the contemporary world in which we live. They are the link between the past and the present, the absolute and the relative, the theoretical and the practical. For this reason, it takes more than just knowledge of Islamic law to issue a fatwa.”
But inappropriate fatwas do more than harm the image of Islam abroad by, say, talking about breastfeeding one”s grown colleagues. As Gomaa well knows, ill-informed opinions can also stoke the embers of radicalism, playing on cultural and religious differences and the misunderstandings of history to drive extremist ideologies forward.
“When each and every person”s unqualified opinion is considered a fatwa,” the mufti continued in his lecture, “we lose a tool that is of the utmost importance for reigning in extremism and preserving the flexibility and balance of Islamic law.”
To help prevent the faithful — in Egypt, at least — from turning to unqualified “scholars,” the mufti has created a website and a Dar Al-Ifta hotline callers can dial free of charge to speak with one of 12 muftis, who together issue more than 1,000 fatwas a day.
That”s more than six times the average number issued in a day last century.
A Day in the Life of
The Grand Mufti”s job is to oversee Dar Al-Ifta, and I confess I had no idea what exactly it entailed. So I ask him what his normal day is like. He seems amused by the question and answers in a drawn out tone usually reserved for talking to children:
“I wake up at fajr, and I pray it. I sit, and I read my wird [litany of daily devotions, usually involving recitation of the Qur"an and supplications arranged in a particular order] until shuruq [sunrise]. Do you know what a wird is or not?”
It”s official. He thinks I”m an idiot.
“After the shuruq yesha”sha” keda [Egyptian play on the word shorouq, meaning when the sun has completely risen]” he continues blithely, “I start studying books and reviewing problems of Fiqh. I record the things I want to record or write my articles. I investigate books and maybe take some notes from them. Then I take my medicine and breakfast and go to work.”
A packed day even before it began. At Dar Al-Ifta by around 9am, Gomaa then works at his desk until noon. “The work,” he explains “includes meetings and conferences and lectures, answering questions, answering letters that reach the Dar, and so on.”
The day I came, he had been filming for over an hour with Al-Arabiya. When he wrapped our interview, he headed off to a number of meetings, then to another television interview. He went home for a scant few hours before setting off to the Conrad Cairo Hotel for the three-hour-long launch of Misr El-Kheir.
Misr El-Kheir is a new charity organization — independent of Dar Al-Ifta — on whose board of trustees the mufti sits. It collects zakat (the alms amounting to 2.5 percent of their wealth that each Muslim must give annually)from the faithful, who are able to deposit it straight into Misr El-Kheir”s bank account. The organization, which hopes to collect LE 5 billion in one year, supports activities in five areas, including health, education, scientific research, arts and sports, and social solidarity.
(The account number, the Mufti will later tell us, is “meya meya,” a play on the fact that the number is 100100, which is the Egyptian saying for something that is very good.)
The mufti arrives an hour before he is scheduled to speak, and mingles and listens to others at his table while munching on petit fours. He bounds up the steps when it was his turn to speak and is on his feet at the podium for over an hour extolling the virtues of the new organization. He”s an excellent public speaker, a fact that has helped make him loved by the public, and peppers his talks with anecdotes and jokes. He tells the audience, for example, that the new account registration number is 555 “to prevent hasad [the evil eye, since many believe the number five will keep away the evil eye].”
“I”m sorry if I”ve gone on for too long” he concludes. “I”m a preacher and a teacher, you see, so I like to talk a lot.” Next up was a Q & A session. While I was winding down, tired from following him across Cairo today, the mufti is as sharp as he was in our morning interview. Every question gets a detailed answer, nothing is rushed. The event wraps up around 10pm and all the faithful head home.
All, that is, except for Ali Gomaa, who heads over to sound stage at El-Beit Beitak, the hit Channel 2 evening talkshow, to offer a few sound bits. He”s mobbed with questions afterward and takes them in one by one before, finally, slipping back into a black Mercedes to head home.
Gone are the days when a scholar could pass his time in his home or the mosque, fingering his prayer beads and teaching 10 or 20 students at most. In our globalized world, the mufti needs to be a scholar, a dynamic public speaker, a writer and a TV presenter to be successful. And although his work hours are technically 9 to 5, Ali Gomaa”s are a 24-hour-a-day burden.
Gomaa is an extremely memorable person, which helps explain how he has turned what was a position hitherto ignored by most Egyptians into a bully pulpit from which to exhort the faithful to go forth and do better in life and in faith. Our mufti can be a charming, eccentric, blunt, funny, grandfatherly type — and deadly serious when needs be. Nothing ruffles his feathers: He can sidestep questions with alacrity and is cool under attack.
His critics, as much as they dislike him or his fatwas, respect him greatly and can never deny that his opinions are founded on solid research, and that his arguments are properly formulated.
During his tenure, Gomaa has transformed Dar Al-Ifta”s public face with a call center and a website available in Arabic, English, French, and German. While publishing 10 books, he has also started training teachers and is in the process of developing an e-learning website so people can be trained in ifta” (the giving of fatwas) around the world.
He”s changed Dar Al-Ifta, but how has Dar Al-Ifta changed him? He smiles, then offers one of his classic jokes, quoting an old Egyptian song: “I am as I am, and you are the one who changes.”
Okay, fine, but where does he see himself in 10 years? “If I am alive, then [may] Allah grant us success, and the future is in the hands of Allah.”
Who is Ali Gomaa?
Ali Gomaa Mohamad Abdel-Wahab, 55, the trilingual Grand Mufti of Dar Al-Ifta, was appointed by President Hosni Mubarak in 2003. The country”s most senior interpreter and administrator of Islamic law, he is second only to the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, making him one of the highest-ranking clerics in the Sunni Muslim world.
Born in Beni Suef, he is married and has three daughters. “One lives in America,” he tells me, “one is with [me] at home, and one lives near [me].” He has five grandchildren — three boys and two girls — who “just started school today” he tells me with a smile.
Unlike many who aspire to high religious office, Gomaa did not start out studying at the feet of scholars. Instead, he earned a BA in commerce from Ain Shams University in 1973. At Ain Shams, he began to memorize the Qur”an and, eventually, to study hadith and delve deeper into Islamic studies. Although he had not gone through the Al-Azhar high school curriculum, he memorized all of its basic texts during his freshman year when he enrolled at Al-Azhar University in 1976. He earned his BA from Al-Azhar three years later before going on to earn an MA in 1985 and a PhD in Shariah and law in 1988 from the same school.
He became a professor of Usul Al-Fiqh (the four canons of Islamic jurisprudence) at the Faculty of Islamic and Arabic Studies, publishing over 25 books during his tenure there.
Later, in 1998, he began teaching open classes at Al-Azhar Mosque six days a week, from sunrise until noon, reviving the centuries-old tradition of the Islamic halaqa (circle) in 1998 because, he told an interviewer, “I want people to continue in the tradition of knowledge, reading the classical texts the way they were written, not the way people want to understand them.”
At the same time, he was the khatib (orator) at Sultan Hassan Mosque, in the shadow of the Citadel, where he delivered the Friday sermon and followed prayers with a lesson and a Q&A session. He still gives the sermon there on alternate weekends to this very day.
In short: Before becoming mufti and, more recently, a media celebrity, Gomaa was well-known by a select few, and his tapes sold in modest numbers, but by no means was his name instantly recognized by the masses.
His current status as a household name stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, Ahmed El-Tayyeb, whose name elicits little more than “Who?” from most people.
Prior to his appointment, Gomaa dressed in normal clothes, walked around with a bare head, and spoke colloquial Arabic. Today, he dresses in a perfectly pressed navy kaftan (a man”s cotton or silk cloak buttoned down the front, with full sleeves) with a white galabeyya (traditional white male garment) underneath it, and speaks mainly in classical Arabic, albeit in a form that is more easily understood and punctuated with colloquialisms. The image of the traditional scholar is perfected with his red and white Azhari cap, white socks and sensible shoes.
The one thing he didn”t change about his outward appearance is that which makes him a favorite of the Egyptian public: His demeanor. That, along with his character and engaging personality, is what makes him the “People”s Mufti.”
He is widely traveled and a liberal voice by Azhar standards: open minded and progressive, believing that women have the right to become judges and even heads of state and leaders of nations.
He believes in religious cooperation and is a firm advocate of dialogue and coexistence.
But perhaps the thing that made him so well known is the fact the he is no media recluse. A strong public speaker, he is far from the image of the scholar secluded in a mosque reading the Qur”an with people timidly asking his advice.
Indeed, Gomaa”s is a familiar face to those who watch broadcast and satellite television. A frequent guest on talkshows, he also writes a weekly column for Al-Ahram, the nation”s largest daily and appears every Tuesday on El-Beit Beitak, state-run Channel 2″s hit evening talkshow. Far from focusing on narrow or obscure topics, the mufti revels in tackling the hot-button topics of the day.
Gomaa”s media vision doesn”t stop with the Arab world: Gomaa has invited foreign religious leaders to Al-Azhar and has appeared in leading non-Muslim media outlets such s the Washington Post to promote interfaith dialogue.
A mufti who doesn”t know the concerns of the world in which he lives, Gomaa once said, is as a man “moving along a dark path with no light in his hand.” et
IF AMR KHALED IS the rock star of the Arab world, then 47 year old Hamza Yusuf is the Elvis Presley of Western Muslims.
He then traveled all over the Muslim world for more than 10 years, visiting and living in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco. He mastered the Arabic language and earned the title of sheikh — far surpassing the qualifications needed to be defined as an Islamic scholar —by studying with top scholars throughout the region before returning to the United States, where he earned degrees in healthcare and religious studies.
In 1996, Yusuf co-founded the Zaytuna Institute (www.zaytuna.org), an internationally renowned non-profit educational group based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Its goal is to help revive the tradition of sound Islamic teaching while becoming a first-class educational institution to rival top-rated universities in both the Western and Muslim worlds. He currently serves as chairman of the Board of Directors, editor-in-chief of Zaytuna”s journal Seasons, a teacher amongst many other distinguished scholars and is working toward publishing the Zaytuna Curriculum Series.
Yusuf is an outspoken advocate of better understanding between the Muslim world and the West. He has given countless talks in all four corners of the globe and has lectured at universities in the US, the United Kingdom and Canada. He also hosted three seasons of “Rihla [Journeys] with Sheikh Hamza” on the popular Arabic-language MBC satellite channel, has translated a number of traditional Arabic texts into English and authored books of his own. Recordings of his lectures have sold thousands of copies.
He is one of the most learned and versatile scholars of our time whose balanced approach appeals to all Muslims, from the moderate to the liberal. In short, his popularity is undeniable and well justified.
Hamza Yusuf as a Person
This brief biography of Hamza Yusuf was everything I knew of him before leaving for a three-week teaching program for Muslim youth in Saudi Arabia this past summer at which he was one of the primary teachers. My first glimpse of him instantly told me that this man was not someone to take lightly. His eyes bespoke of an above-average intelligence, and his concentration never wavered once during the lectures he gave us every day.
Yusuf was a scholar, certainly, but little can prepare you for the breadth of his knowledge: In addition to being an expert in Qur”anic sciences, he is a master of Hadith (Prophetic sayings), Arabic grammar, morphology, literature , jurisprudence, philosophy, ethics, spirituality, history and astronomy. In other words, the man can converse about nearly any topic under the sun.
From Van Allen”s electromagnetic belts, myelinated sheaths and quantum theory to the Circle of Dante, Maslow”s Hierarchy of Needs and Utilitarianism, it seemed like there was nothing he didn”t know. Far from scholars who only quote the Qur”an and Hadith, Yusuf quoted people from all times, cultures and spheres of society — George Bernard Shaw, Marcus Aurelius, Rumi, Confucius and Shakespeare —and all from a seemingly photographic memory.
His lectures are peppered with contemporary references, and he injects humor into material that would be otherwise very dense.
But a great teacher definitely requires an attentive audience. In the middle of a lecture that came after a very long day, Yusuf told the story of how his father attended a lecture by Robert Frost, the poet, who came into the hall and shouted at a freshman who was slouched to “Sit up!” The boy sat up and paid attention, concentrating throughout the lecture. It was Yusuf”s subtle way of telling us to pay attention in class — and to look like we were, too.
That wasn”t the only time during the course or in our later interview that Yusuf referred to his parents. He quoted his scholarly father often and in order to illustrate to us how Muslims should lead by example, he talked about his activist mother, who sent his sister to an all black school before integration, and had them doing recycling in the 1960s.
“My mother was never a talker or gave speeches,” he says. “She just did what she believed in. She lived her ideals and they had a big impact on me.”
Yusuf has five children, all boys, and all very well behaved. At a surprise birthday party for his wife at an all-women gathering, they all trooped in to give their salams [greetings] before leaving to ride bicycles. His oldest, Sheikh, who can”t be older than 10, sits through several 90-minute lectures without a peep. Yusuf invites him up once to sit next to him and to tell us all a riddle that he made up. He then took his son by the hand to get ice cream when class ended.
Yusuf is also a man who is not ashamed to show how much he loves his religion and its messenger. He tears up often when talking about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and got choked up when we visited sacred sites in Medina while telling us the story of the place we were visiting.
“Remember,” he tells us, “we visit the places not because of them, but because of the Beloved. He was here.”
The World Today
As a man who straddles two cultures, Yusuf offers potent insights into the challenges facing the ummah (the global Muslim community) today.
Although he rails at what he sees as an increasingly self-centered world in which people do only those things that are in their best interests, he also complains that “Muslims blame destiny for their own ineptitude.” Destiny, he explains, can only be blamed once you have done everything in your power to get what you want. “The bird,” he elaborated “leaves the nest every morning. It doesn”t wait for the worms to come to it, but trusts that once it goes out, Allah will provide it with worms.” Fatalism, he concludes, is a sickness that we must cure in ourselves.
That”s why Yusuf urges Muslim countries and communities to start working for themselves instead of depending on others. “Look at the hotel we”re staying in. It”s a Swiss hotel. The water is Swiss. The cutlery is Swiss. They want to benefit their country. This is mercantilism.” He goes on to quote the caliph “Ali ibn Abi Talib, who said that: “There is no benefit in people who eat that which they do not plant and wear that which they do not weave.”
“Cultures,” he adds, “no longer have common collective desires or sense of homogeneity.” Even something as simple as coffee: There used to be two primary brands of coffee, but now coffee is individualized to “hot, ginger, foam free, double sugar, 2 percent milk coffee” — to satisfy your nafs (base self) as much as you can. This further compounds the problem of people being self-serving, of wanting only to please themselves — and not doing what”s for the good of the community.
It”s another hallmark of what Yusuf calls the “iPod culture,” which he says is causing people to lose their ability to be silent and to contemplate the world. “People are divorced from the natural world,” he says. “No one sees stars anymore. We”ve become divorced from the sense of the sacred and divine.”
In essence, we”ve lost the ability to contemplate that which is bigger than us, to feel that there is more to the world than our individual existence.
Biggest Problemsand Opportunities
So all of that is problematic, true, but what are the greatest problems Muslims around the world now face?
“The greatest problem is materialism,” says Yusuf.. “When the Prophet foretold of the deplorable state of the ummah towards the end of time, and informed us that the previous civilizations that he identified as the Jewish and Christian communities — now what we broadly call the West — would conquer Muslim lands and devour their wealth, the companions asked what is wrong with us that we should find ourselves in such a state. Is it because we are few in number, they wanted to know. Is it from paucity?
“No,” the Prophet replied, “You are multitudes, but you are like flotsam without any substance. Awe will be removed from your enemies” hearts and great weakness will enter yours.”
“What is the weakness?” they asked.
“Love of the world [materialism], and fear of death [lack of sacrifice],” he replied.””
This, Yusuf believes, is one of the worst diseases of the heart. “Our preachers today,” he explains, “focus on political causes too often to the neglect of spiritual causes. The Prophet”s companions asked what was wrong with them, not why others were able to do that to them. This is because they were students of his school of empowerment that enabled them to look to themselves. The Prophet, as was his wont, took them to the subtle realm of real causation, not apparent cause. That is the realm of the heart. Weakness lies in the state of our hearts. They are filled with the love of this world and have a disdain for sacrifice, which only comes when one sees that there are things beyond this world worthy of sacrifice.
“A second major problem,” he continues, “is the increasing secularity of society. Religion is being marginalized and the secularists in the Arab world are clamoring for a clear separation of religion and politics. The reality of the matter is they are and have been separate in most Muslim states for some time. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, entirely secular regimes — and often ones that are quite belligerent towards Muslim piety and practice — run most Muslim lands.”
The last major problem he identifies is “the increasing politicization of Islam.” Islam, he believes, is now considered a vehicle for resistance to the unjust states that currently rule the Muslim lands.
“The problem with this,” he stresses, “is that many Arabs now see Islam as a political movement that will solve their often-excruciating social and economic problems. That is simply false and a dangerous utopian assumption that has no tangible examples from history, with the exception of the prophetic period and what immediately followed.”
Yusuf has an interesting explanation of a Qur”anic verse commonly used to justify why it is that Muslim rule is best. “[In the verse] “You were the best community brought forth for humanity, you command to good, forbid vice and believe in God,” the past tense is used. “You were.” And according to Ibn “Abbass and Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, as related by Imam Tahir bin Ashur in his commentary, it meant the first community and did not apply to later communities. This is really the only logical reading of the verse given the moral depravity of the current Muslim community.”
How, then should these problems be tackled? Is there a way forward for the legions of Muslims looking to better their circumstances?
“Youth,” he answers. “Most Western countries have low or negative birthrates. They are not even replicating their populations in America, which is doing better than Europe. Europe is literally a dying society. Japan also is graying, and these cultures have a crisis of family. In America, for the first time ever, a dominant civilization has more people living out of wedlock than in. The family is in crisis in the West. While the family is dysfunctional in the Muslim world, it is far more intact as a system than in the West.”
“Because family is [in the Muslim World] strong and extended family is strong, birth rates are high,” he continues. “This is partly due to poverty, but not, in my estimation, entirely — Muslims still genuinely love children and having children is still very important in Muslim lands. In the West, there is a subtle and sometimes not so subtle anti-children environment. Many people put off having children to pursue careers and then, in their late thirties, have one child, maybe two. The youth of the Muslim world can be the single most powerful potential force — if they are properly educated and directed. Unfortunately, that is a big “if”.”
Is he optimistic about the future of Islam? “We are obliged to be optimists by our religion,” he says. “The Prophet said, “If the end of time comes upon you and you are planting a tree, if you are able to, finish planting it.” He who plants a tree, plants hope. Things look very bleak from one window; from another, they look stunningly bright. It keeps us balanced to look out of both from time to time.”
America and Muslims
There are few issues on which Yusuf is as often queried by non-Muslims as relations between Islam in the West, as he himself is among the first to acknowledge.
“I was once asked, “Do Muslims want to take over the world?” Yusuf recalls. “The answer is, “No, they”re just reacting to the West taking over the world”.”
But Barbie dolls to Big Macs and military bases aren”t the only means by which the West is influencing the ummah. In the years since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, it has become vogue in the West — and among many Westernized Muslim scholars — to argue that the time has come for a reformation in Islam. In other words, for Islam to be “updated” to bring it into synch with the modern world.
“Islam does not need reforming as God formed it, according to our belief,” Yusuf asserts. “But it does need renewal and reinterpretation, without a doubt. There are many things that need to be revisited.
“The problem is that we no longer have qualified people to do the revisiting,” he continues. “Most of the so-called scholars are rejects from the school system. Their grades were so low they couldn”t get into other schools and got stuck in Shariah. This is a fact of the Muslim world. Thank God there are some who come from families of scholars and, despite trends against Islamic studies, they desired and were encouraged to pursue them. Most, however, are poorly trained and not capable of doing the reassessment of the tradition that can help bring in some fresh air in to a rather musty madrassah [Islamic school].”
Yusuf hopes that youth with potential, the best and brightest, will go on to study sacred knowledge, but admits that “They have to learn the tradition before they can reassess it, and that alone is a vast enterprise that takes years of disciplined and serious training and most people have neither the patience nor the aptitude to complete such a momentous task.”
He then delivers a biting judgment over many of the scholars of our time, who do not have the patience or aptitude he mentioned, resulting in “half-baked, week-end muftis calling for ijtihaad [deduction of rulings from primary Islamic sources] after looking its meaning up on Google.”
What we need, he stresses, are “classically trained captains who can navigate the current waters, [captains who are] conversant with the modern navigating equipment, but who are also thoroughly trained in star navigation. Indeed, because the modern tools breakdown and are not foolproof, the stars must always be the basis upon which they navigate. Even modern pilots must learn the stars so if their equipment breaks down they are not lost.”
Yusuf perfectly articulated the most troubling problem for Muslims who want to learn about their religion: the lack of well qualified scholars. In Saudi Arabia, he had added that scholars, who get their knowledge from other, well-known and respected scholars, are the ones to trust. “But it”s because [people] don”t,” he said, that results in ridiculous fatwas [religious verdicts],” citing the now infamous Egyptian breastfeeding fatwa, while smiling and shaking his head.
Scholars are also important to non-Muslims, as they frequently serve as the most high-profile emissaries of Islam in the West.
“Malcolm X, in the chapter on Hajj in his autobiography, mentions that the Arabs are in dire need of public relations,” begins Yusuf. “That particularly struck me because although he said that in 1964, it seems we have learned nothing since then. Part of the problem is that if Muslims have a minute to say anything on a news station or a talkshow, they use it to convey their grievances. When I look at the seerah [Islamic history] and the Prophet”s meetings with the people who were persecuting him, he always used it as an opportunity to tell them about Islam and what it could do for them, how it could help them. He never used such opportunities as platforms for voicing his grievances. Even with God he asked for their forgiveness.”
I ask if he feels he has a responsibility to correct the impressions — and misinformation — left behind by such “scholars.” He answers: “This is something converts in the West have been doing since Alexander Russell Webb back in the nineteenth century. It goes with the territory and we should not shy away from it. It is both an Islamic thing to do but also a very humanitarian thing as well.”
He adds that there are also many non-Muslims in America who wind up defending Islam and Muslims, including the author Karen Armstrong, Georgetown professor John Esposito (who directs the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding) and the businessman and philanthropist George Russell.
Converts live under a veil of suspicion in the West, and even among many Muslims; they are often seen as too extreme, too zealous to fit in. One of the reasons Hamza Yusuf has such a strong following in the West is because he is neither —indeed, he”s the textbook image of the well-balanced convert.
“Converts to Islam are an important source of renewal,” Yusuf explains. “They bring into a faith new blood, energy and insights. Many of the greatest Muslims in the history of Islam were either converts or children of converts, including first and foremost the companions of the Prophet and some of the best scholars of Islam such as Imam al-Bukhari and Abu Hanifah.”
“There are different types of converts,” Yusuf continues. “Most enter into Islam as zealots and need reining in to a certain degree. Conversion is a powerful experience and one can lose one”s bearings quite easily and slip into extremist forms of Islam — not necessarily violent ones but rather doctrinal.  There are also lukewarm converts who sometimes become Muslim for less than the right reasons, such as marriage. We should still welcome and encourage such people and recognize they existed even at the time of the Prophet.”
As for how he himself experienced conversion? “In my early days of conversion I had very low tolerance for lukewarm Muslims. They made me angry. I have since recognized that they are like I was when I was a Christian. The faith was something I inherited and grew up with and not something that was my own, a discovery of great import.”
Other converts, particularly those from non-Arab countries, try to adopt cultures other than their own. “I was one of them, so it is hard for me to blame them,” Yusuf says honestly. I was reminded of something he had said in one of his lectures about converts changing their names to Arab or Arab-sounding names. He had advised converts to keep their names. “It”s wrong to change it,” he had said, “because it”s the right of the father to name you. I forced my father to call me Hamza. I was ignorant. He named me after his university teacher.”
Why, I wonder, do converts try and adopt another culture? “[Because] when one becomes Muslim in the West,” Yusuf answers, “there is a divorce that takes place from one”s own culture. This is natural because Islam is a powerful, all-encompassing reality that challenges core beliefs and attitudes of the modern consumer culture that relishes and glorifies the seven deadly sins.”
“But,” he clarifies, “divorce does not have to be the War of the Roses, where the two never talk to each other and can”t sit down and be human together or recognize the common ground they have. We need to “indigenize” Islam, to use Dr. Abdal Hakim Jackson”s term. We need to make Islam something that is Western and not alien to the West, but this will take time.”.
Hamza Yusuf is one of a kind. To feel his true power as a scholar, though, one has to be in his presence. The sheikh who advised George W. Bush on what to do following 9/11 will sit with you and talk to you. He”s a strong speaker, and people leave his lectures a lot more introspective and a little transformed. What does he think sets him apart from other scholars?
“My being a Western student of Islam enables me a certain vantage point from which I can see certain things that some people who grew up in the traditional Muslim world might not see as clearly,” he says. “I am [also] grateful to have a reasonably strong background in the Western canon of literature and tradition that has afforded me tools and ways of viewing things that give a different perspective.”
Yusuf is in the process of trying to build a serious seminary in the West, writing articles and books, including his next project in the Zaytuna Curriculum series. Following that, he has a handful of film projects lined up and is working on the translation of the Seven Odes of pre-Islamic Arabia.
“Life,” he says, “is very short in its length, and I hope to finish a few things with the time that remains.” et .
*Ethar El-Katatney is a reporter at Egypt Today and Business Today Egypt magazines, and a graduate of the American University in Cairo. This article was published in October”s issue of Egypt Today and is available at her blog etharelkatatney.blogspot.com
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