At the age of 17, he embraced Islam. He later moved to the Middle East to get a better footing in his reverted faith. He spent almost a decade in countries like UAE, Saudi Arabia for learning Arabic language, the lingua franca of Muslims.
He had first came to UAE in 1980. He expressed his delight at the architectural charm of the University and called it an extraordinary work of art in the Arab world.
Attacks: Everyone’s invited
The speaker entered straight into the topic referring to the tragedy that had fallen upon the Americans like never before. He reminded that America was no more insulated from attacks as opposed to the belief held so far which made Americans indifferent to the happenings around the world. Extreme acts have a reason behind them, not just because the enemies hate them or their way of life.
Globalization: Nothing new for Muslims
Although the topic for his speech was related to the very recent incidents, Hamza Yousuf gave a detailed account into the history of Islam’s advent into the North Americas. He also spoke about the impact of changes like globalization. ‘For Muslims concerned, it is noting new. They have had trade penetration among different countries of the world. We have Chinese goods coming to Arabian Peninsula through the silk route.
The trade that went on in North Africa? The tea that people drink in Africa which the Arabs called “Shaay” and Urdu speaking people call “Chaay”. Tea was exported from China all the way to Morocco.
“We know that when Vasco De Gama [the bloodthirsty Portuguese conqueror] arrived in Calicut, India, he upset the balance that existed between Yemeni traders and Indian merchants. The Europeans wanted to grab the trade so that they could eliminate the middlemen. That sowed the seeds of conflicts.
Arabs and Hair Diplomacy
“The Arabs in their tradition have a diplomacy called Sha’ratahul Muawiyya. They know the delicate nature of religions between religions and how that balance can be upset. The term comes from the hair of Muawiyya. It comes from the statement by that ‘if there existed between him and another man a hair and if that was all left in their relationship, if he pulls I would loosen up and if he would loosen up I would pull? in other words, I would do everything to keep that relationship.’ The foundation of all society is the close cooperation between human beings. If they don’t work together, then we get to a condition that is intolerable. And that what we see around the world is that the living conditions of people are getting intolerable.
The Palestinian Conflict
Hamza Yousuf also referred to the Palestinian problem showing its ‘intolerant nature’ on both the parties of the conflict. The essence of Islamic teachings, he said, is removing conflict between people. Muslims, according to the Quran, is commanded not only to tolerate, but protect other religious groups. And this is, in any ways, unique in religious history.
Palestine belongs to the Arabs as England belongs to the English : Mahatma Gandhi
West’s harassment of Jews
With regards to the history of intolerance in the West, he said “In European history, the Christians had difficulty in tolerating other opinions. In the Christian tradition, there was a difficult problem that no citizen of the state could have a different opinion other than the official faith of the state. This created serious consequences for people. There were periods when Jewish merchants were made to run naked across the towns of Europe. And they were laughed at and stoned by European Christians. An now you can imagine what it is to live in centuries like this and the mental anguish that would cause’
But who paid the price?
However, the speakers gave no hint to the West’s clever game of installing a ‘Jewish state’ in the Arab world as repentance for their own misdeeds against the Jewish community. It also remains to be told that the Arabs in Palestine today are suffering the same trauma under the hands of Zionist atrocities. And the irony is that the Arabs are paying the price for the past misdeeds of Europeans. [Jaihoon]
Tolerance: West learnt from Islam
Elaborating further on religious intolerance, the US scholar also talked about the wars that resulted in Europe and later developments like Reformation. A very interesting European historian, Hobbes, wrote a book in which he attempts to deal with the problem of intolerance. His idea came from a friend who was an expert on Ottoman administrative practices. Historical records prove this that ottomans succeeded in allowing the different faith to flourish within the ottoman state under the concept of millet.
This is not to say that were no problems. But more often than not it is a tolerable one than in any other part of the world. The writer was very impressed with this system. In ottoman state, the Jews and Christians were allowed to have their own courts which dealt with their own problems.
Tolerance at Madina
And this comes from a verse in Quran that the ‘People of the Book’ are asked to implement their own laws. We know that during the time of Prophet Muhammad , the Jews approached him for solving a conflict. He asked them to bring their book, the Torah, and asked what it said. Abdullah bin Salam (ra), who was a Jewish scholar before conversion to Islam, explained it and the judgment was made accordingly.
The Enlightenment behind USA
“The idea developed by Hobbes was further developed by John Locke, in the era of Enlightenment, in which religion’s influence on state was removed and rather the ‘secular’ honors the ‘sacred’ to flourish in society but does not allow the latter to corrupt the former through its dogma. And out of this idea is formed the United Sates of America.”
The speaker has attempted to bridge the gap between Islamic doctrines of tolerance and the philosophy behind the formation of state of America. He said that Thomas Jefferson, one of the important founding fathers of US, believed that on the basis of the state should be religious morality and that the constitution is only as good as ethical teachings. He said that ‘I prefer my teaching my children ‘Mohammedanism ‘ or Confucianism than they have no religion at all.
The Church in Philadelphia
He pointed out an historic example of tolerance when he talked about Benjamin Franklin who built an unusual church which should be free from any special cult and that everyone in Philadelphia has a right to say about anything moral for the society. In his opening address, he said “if the mufti of Constantinople was sent by the Ottoman to preach Mohammedanism saws to USA, then this pulpit would be available for such a purpose.
Mr. Yousuf also made a marked difference between the conditions of religious tolerance in Americas as opposed to the intolerance of Europe.
Sacred vs. Secular: What is, What is not…
Passing on to the present times, he maintained that some modern Muslims do not understand the delicate balance between sacred and secular. “And this has resulted in what is called the desire for theocracy- the rule of God. Nowhere has been a Muslim ruler in history who said that Islam is a theocracy. We do not believe that God is ruling on the earth.”
Caliph Omar’s example
The best example for this is in a letter sent by Umar (ra), the second caliph of Islam, to his governor Abu Musa al Ashari. He concluded the letter with “haadha ma araa’a Allahu Umar- This is what Allah has shown Umar. Immediately Umar asked to erase it and instead write ‘Haadha ma ra’ahu Umar- This is what Umar has opined.’ In other words he did not claim the inspiration from Almighty. His views could be influenced by his personal judgments. That is what he taught his governor and us. A human being judges not on the authority of God, but by Ijtihad.
Dr. Allama Iqbal says about this topic- [Added by Jaihoon]
“In Islam it is the same reality which appears as the Church looked at from one point of view and the state from another. It is not true to say that the Church and State are two sides or facets of the same things. Islam is a single unanalyzable reality, which is one or the other as your point of view varies. The point is extremely far-reaching and a full elucidation of it will involve us in a highly philosophical discussion. Suffice is to say that this ancient mistake arose out of the bifurcation of the unity of man into two distinct and separate realities which somehow a point of contact but which are in essence opposed to each other?. The essence of Tawhid as a working idea is ‘equality, solidarity and freedom’. The site, fro the Islamic standpoint, is an endeavor to transform these ideal principles into space-time forces, an aspiration to realize them in a definite human organization. It is in this sense alone that the state in Islam is a theocracy, NOT in the sense that it is headed by a representative of God on earth who can always screen his despotic will behind his supposed infallibility?The ultimate reality, according to Quran, is spiritual and its life consists in its temporal activity. The spirit finds its opportunities in the natural, the material, the secular. All that is secular is therefore sacred in the roots of its being. (Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, pg 154)
Islam’s influence on America
About the cross-cultural influence, he said “Islam has influenced America in ways that are only about to emerge. The jury system actually comes out of Maliki school of thought (one among the four schools of Islamic Jurisprudence). The influence of Islam on Renaissance and Europe is also much although it has not been studied in depth. This university can do much in form of research in that field. Only such an effort will pave the way for a world of mutual understanding and not of conflict. The Quran is asking its adherents for such a condition. ‘If the people you are fighting with wants to open up (for peace), then you may do so’.
The greatest influence of Islam on Indian history
Islam’s coming to America: Interesting characters
The speaker then shifted his focus to the advent of Islam in America dating back to around 500 years. According to a respected historian’s research, 20 per cent of black slaves brought to America from Africa were Muslims. There are actually Musaahaf (Quranic texts) preserved in American museums that were written by slaves from memory. Another slave also wrote from memory a treatise by Al Qairuwani on Islamic law.
The story behind JaiHInd : 3000 year-old Indo-Arab relationship
Another slave who later become rich was known to have walked about in the streets of Georgetown reciting Quran. And everybody loved him.
Sulayman bin Ayyub, another extraordinary character, was actually a slave trader, who during a slave deal with some Europeans, was himself bought by them. He was taken to US and he was so upset about this, that he started praying sitting there. One of the Unitarian Christians saw this man and was so impressed by his ability to disprove the Trinity that was against the logic of man. The Unitarian took him along and went about touring different places where the Muslim slave spoke on behalf of the Unitarian Christians disapproving the Trinity. In those days many were Unitarians including Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers.
These types of stories will enable the Americans to see Islam in a different light. And that it is a part of the American soil. It is also historically significant that the first country to recognize America was Morocco. This was a time when Morocco was a powerful country in geo-political terms.
Therefore we need to have a historical perspective to understand the problems faced today. The Muslims have their own problems like the west.
Islam: The law for humanity
He also made a comparative study of the laws of Islam and west and found the ‘utilitarian’ element present as common denominator in both. He also discussed the different vices found in western society like alcoholism, scandals, and illegitimate pregnancy.
He also quoted a statement of Sheikh Tantawi, the renowned Egyptian cleric, who said that ‘Islam sanctions the traffic laws’. And so you need to say ‘Astaghfirullah’ when you cross a red signal.
The American philosophy is based on the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. For a Muslim, the happiness is ‘Aakhira’- the hereafter. The Muslims should have a right to pursue the happiness of afterlife not through suicide bombings but building an Islamic society to enhance understanding about their civic duties and general state of well being.
What West can learn from Islam
Arnold Toyanbee says in ‘Civilization under Trial’ that West can learn two things from Islam-
One is ‘Brotherhood’. Although there are ethnic differences among us, We Muslims do not have ‘KLU KLUX KLAN’ among us. I never met a racist Muslim who calls a Black Muslim a niggard.
The second thing he mentioned was ‘elimination of intoxicants’.
Wanted: Muslims’ self-examination
After answering a couple of questions from the audience, the scholar concluded the speech by emphasizing the need for self-examination among Muslims. When we do Dawah, we are inviting others to our home. But how can you invite a guest to a broken home? You have to clean up the place first!
Note: This is an summarized version of the speech delivered at American University of Sharjah on 25th Nov 2001. The text is based on the author’s understanding and interpretation of the speech. A few extra comments and links have been added by the author which is not part of the original speech. The views expressed by the speaker is his