How the West’s most charismatic Muslim scholar became a United Arab Emirates' ‘peace’ ambassador.
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, dubbed the ‘West’s most influential Islamic scholar’, turns 61 in a couple of weeks. Since his late thirties, this American convert to Islam has been active as arguably the most charismatic Islamic scholar in the English language. He established his reputation in the late 90s as one of the most intellectually sophisticated and anti-establishment Islamic scholarly voices in Europe and North America. At the time, his cassette tapes were all the rage among Western Muslim youth. He would go on to be an important influence on many Western Muslims, myself included, on the path to pursuing traditional Islamic studies.
However, from 2001 onwards, first in response to the tragedy of 9/11, which defined his later career, and in more recent years in response to the Arab revolutions of 2011, Sheikh Hamza’s discourse has gradually transformed, almost beyond recognition.
The Just Cause 90’s
In the 1990s, Sheikh Hamza was a firebrand when it came to excoriating Arab tyrants with spontaneously uttered and rhetorically impressive barbs. One of the most memorable examples of his rhetorical prowess come from a speech in 1996 in which he laments the state of Syria under Hafez al Assad. Sheikh Hamza declared:
"Everywhere you look [in the Muslim world] there are statues and pictures of these tyrants, and the Muslims put up their pictures, out of fear, in their shops. You go to Syria, and if somebody doesn’t have the picture of this traitor in their place, someone will ask: ‘What’s the matter? Don’t you like the Master Leader Hafez al-Assad? Don’t you like him? Is something wrong with you? Where’s the picture?’ [But] he’s too afraid to say: ‘The angels don’t enter a house in which there is a dog or a picture, so what about a picture of a dog!?"
Such condemnations of Arab autocrats were typical of his repertoire in those days, as were generalised condemnations of Western societies. He recognised some of his own excesses in the wake of 9/11, but some would say he overcorrected. Whatever the case may be, since the early 2000s, his criticisms of Middle Eastern autocracy are now rare.
The 'Arab Spring'
Even after the 2011 revolutions in Egypt and Libya, which he expressed support for in blog posts, the tone of his support is measured. In the case of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, he praised and made excuses for the then Egyptian Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, who had declared the protests against Mubarak to be religiously prohibited (haram).
Gomaa subsequently became especially controversial due to his vociferous support for the 2013 Rabaa massacres in Cairo which likely led to more than a thousand deaths, according to Human Rights Watch. HRW called it “one of the world's largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”
While Sheikh Hamza has never publicly commented on the Egyptian coup or the Rabaa massacre that followed, he has defended Ali Gomaa’s standing in the context of that massacre.
One coup attempt he did speak out against, however, was the failed putsch in Turkey in July 2016, after which he wrote a full-throated defence of President Erdogan. Ironically, Sheikh Hamza’s current sponsor, the UAE, supported the coup through its media outlets, if not financially.
In late 2011, Sheikh Hamza appeared on the UAE-based, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya satellite channel in a wide-ranging interview with Turki Aldakhil. The latter would go on to become the channel’s most senior executive. Aldakhil recently became particularly controversial for his op-ed on Al-Arabiya’s website after the gruesome killing and dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi.
In it, he threatened the West and Washington if they dared to challenge the authority of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has since been held responsible for the killing of Khashoggi by the US senate in a unanimous vote.
In the 2011 interview, Sheikh Hamza extols the virtues of the region’s monarchies, a form of government he says he prefers over democracy, and highlights the necessity of remaining loyal to and glorifying one’s rulers even if they are tyrannical. His praise of the UAE is particularly fulsome; and while he does note the importance of the ruler’s responsibilities, his subsequent appointment by the Emirati Foreign Ministry makes such remarks appear almost tokenistic.
On the transformation of a legacy
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf has remarked in the past that his transformations reflect his growth and maturation. Others would beg to differ, arguing that they are signs he has lost his way.
In recent weeks, a friend and colleague of his, Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad, of the Cambridge Muslim College, has cogently argued that the fiercely guarded independence typical of the most respected pre-modern Muslim scholars is now severely compromised by a ‘caesaropapist clericy’, i.e. a clerical class that unquestioningly provides religious backing to secular rulers. Sheikh Abdal Hakim highlights that such ulama now “insist that the [Saudi] state’s boycott of Qatar, for instance, is Islamically mandated”.
This critique could, of course, be applied to Saudi Arabia’s regional geostrategic partner, the UAE, whose caesaropapist clericy, headed up by Sheikh Hamza and his teacher, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, issued similarly unstinting support for the blockade of Qatar in 2017.
This is just one example of the many problematic positions Sheikh Hamza has adopted in recent years. While the aforementioned remarks of Sheikh Abdulhakim were not specifically directed at Sheikh Hamza, they should give him pause.
Similarly, two of his other sympathetic observers, Farah El-Sharif and Mohamed Ghilan, recently cited the guidance of one of Sheikh Hamza’s most beloved scholars from the Islamic tradition, Abu Hamid al Ghazali (d. 505/1111), to illustrate the extent of these transformations:
“Do not associate with princes and sultans and do not even see them, because seeing them and sitting in their company and associating with them is a great evil. But if you are afflicted with this without choosing it, avoid praising them and complimenting them; for God, the Exalted, is angered when the impious and the tyrannical are praised. And whoever has prayed for the lengthening of their lives has indeed loved that God be disobeyed on His earth.”
The above passage was written late in al Ghazali’s short but brilliant career. Early on in his life, he had lent some of his superlative intellectual abilities to the service of the de facto ruler of his time, Nizam al Mulk (d. 485/1092). This passage is from one of the last works he wrote, and may reflect his own ambivalence regarding the period during which he sometimes worked in close quarters with the political authorities.
The legacy of Hamza Yusuf
Sheikh Hamza is at the peak of his public career, and the next ten years or so will likely define his legacy. His transformation is in some ways the opposite of that of the medieval luminary al-Ghazali. While the latter retired from public life in his later career, Sheikh Hamza was highly critical of those in power in his early career, and has so far been effusive in his praise of Arab autocrats in his later career.
However, by late 2018, the UAE’s litany of troubling activities should be too overwhelming to ignore for any self-respecting Islamic scholar to continue acting as their ‘peace’ ambassador.
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf has the opportunity to decide what he wishes his legacy to be. Does he wish to be remembered by later generations as “the West’s most influential Islamic scholar” who used his global reputation to provide cover for the UAE’s spreading corruption on the earth, or does he wish to be remembered as a reformer who gave life to the Islamic sciences and spoke truth to power?
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