Response to Umar Lee on Shaikh Hamza Yusuf

Umar Lee has posted an exposé of what he calls “Rand Institute Muslims” or RIMs as they supposedly exist in 21st-century America. Their characteristics, according to him, are “detachment from the Islamic Revival”, supporting Palestinian causes based on the writings of Noam Chomsky rather than of Muslim scholars and activists, Anglicising and Westernising Islam, but above all, a demasculinised, upper-class mentality with a tendency towards a hippie-ish form of Sufism. He concludes by accusing Shaikh Hamza Yusuf of representing all ten of these characteristics and being the “RIM in chief for America”. I have shied away from “debating” Umar over his ramblings about “masculinity” the last couple of years, but when I see these same attitudes paired with slander of scholars, I cannot continue to keep quiet.

So, I intend to take his claims point by point.

1 - Detachment from The Islamic Revival

Part of the RIM line of thinking is to invent an Islam that is completely detached from politics. Instead of looking at those Muslim leaders, such as Imam Hasan al-Banna, who saw the modern world , colonialism and Western domination and developed a system based on Islamic principals to reform Muslim societies based on the principals of the Sunnah, and admiring them, RIMS call this “Islamist Modernism” as they sit in non-Muslim countries in their affluence.

The historic role of many Muslim organizations in America has been to raise money for and support groups in Muslim countries seeking to reform their societies based on the principals of al-Islam. RIMS reject this. They want no part of helping any Islamic Movement and even slander those engaged in the revival. Simultaneously they are at peace with many corrupt Muslim regimes and are joined at the hip in fighting the Islamic Movement which they both seek to destroy. They cede the public and political life of Muslim societies to secular forces and opt to relegate the role of Islam to the home and family life.

In America RIMS use their position to claim the role of good harmless upper-class Western Muslims who have no affinity for, or attachment to, those misguided Third World Muslim movements trying to establish Sharia and remove tyrants. While the Islamic Revival is working in the trenches of Muslim societies to reform; RIMS prefer to sit in circles and make dhikr and make duah that one day a miracle will occur and everything will change. Those RIMS in America sit in coffee shops using language strange to Muslims, but well-known to grad students of liberal arts colleges, to distance themselves from the dirty masses in the revival.

It is a well-known fact that the Muslims most willing to slander those who participate in Islamic movements are the pro-Saudi wing of the “salafi” sect, not the Sufis around Hamza Yusuf. The former are notorious for discouraging their followers from participating in any political movement or activity whatsoever, especially when it is aimed at unseating rulers (especially their pet rulers) in the Muslim world, and for claiming that we were commanded to establish “tawheed”, not an Islamic state. They also recruit (at least in the UK) from the ghettoes as much as from the universities, although they had a stranglehold on certain university Islamic Societies in the UK in the late 1990s. In the UK, at least, Islamo-political groups have had no trouble over the years recruiting in major universities, including the major University of London colleges (these being the most prestigious colleges that most state school students bother hoping to go to), and it is a fact that they borrowed from European ideologies, including fascism, and that their English rhetoric is full of engineer-speak which would have been unknown to any classical scholar.

I do not defend anyone who white-washes a known tyrant (e.g. the “Sufis” who posted apologia for Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, and claimed his elections were free and fair when they were in fact a sham), but I have heard Shaikh Hamza on tape saying some definitely uncomplimentary things about various Arab rulers, comparing them to dogs, as in his tape Hajj: Journey to the House of God (I will not mention any rulers’ names, for obvious reasons). He mentions the practice of allowing “dignitaries” into the Ka’ba, and this is what follows (I heard this tape several years ago and this may not be word-for-word correct, but this is the gist of what he said):

I don’t know what sort of dignity these people have, because many of them are just thugs who got to power by killing people and kicking people’s heads in. It would be more apt to call a dog a dignitary … [and that’s not very apt] because a dog is just acting out its dogginess, and you can’t blame a dog for being a dog, but you can blame a human being for acting like something less than an animal.

In relation to the practice of putting pictures of Presidents on walls, he chastised citizens of a certain country for not having the courage to say, “it’s not halaal to keep a picture and it’s not halaal to keep a dog, so why would it be halaal to keep a picture of a dog?”. If he is “at peace” with some of these leaders, it may have a lot to do with keeping routes open for students to go and study in the Muslim world, since that, not at al-Maghrib or Zaytuna or even at any Indian-run Darul-Uloom, is where most of the scholars are, and we need scholars as much as, if not more than, we need fundraisers and activists.

2 - The Way They Support Palestine

The only international political issue you will hear RIMS speak on (besides maybe Dafur or opposition to so-called honor killings and female genital mutilation) is Palestine. This is because they can speak on behalf of Palestine without using the language of the Islamic Movement. In their advocacy for Palestine they do not quote many actual Palestinians or the likes of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi or Sheikh Safir al-Hawali. Instead they will quote non-Muslims (often atheists who are hostile to any religion) such as Noam Chomsky and John Esposito. They will also never verbally support an Islamic group, such as Hamas, who are fighting for liberation based on the principals of Islam. In this they are ceding the political argument to secular forces in Palestine and here in the West they are just making an alliance with, and using the arguments of, the secular left.

This may not be true in America, but in this country, any pro-Palestine demo is likely to contain movement Islamists, often with barely concealed links to Hamas such as Azzam Tamimi, and secular and otherwise non-Muslim pro-Palestine activists. The demonstration itself will contain a mixture of Muslims - perhaps the majority - and others, prominently including Marxists.

3 - Getting them to Condemn Homosexuality is Like Pulling Teeth

You will find that RIMS in the West will go at great pains to avoid condemning homosexuality and will often go all the way to the border of saying it is OK in Islam. Many say they support gay rights because Muslims are also an unpopular group in search of tolerance from the society. This is their position in 2009, as many are shy to let their positive views towards homosexuality be known, but we will see how shy they will be in ten or twenty years.

Explicitly pro-gay “Muslims” are one particular circus (the so-called Al-Fatiha Foundation and a few associated organisations like IMAAN) and they and their arguments have been widely rejected. There may be some modernists who have these views, but in relation to Hamza Yusuf, this statement is simply false. If you want to know what Shaikh Hamza says about the matter, you might read this (on what appears to be a pro-gay site):

Traditional Muslim scholars don’t accept alternative interpretations to the Quoran. Hamza Yusuf, a Muslim scholar at the Bay Area’s Zaytuna Institute, condemns those who try to find new meaning in the holy text.

“If one considers it acceptable in Islam [to be gay], then he or she is not considered to be a Muslim by consensus of the scholars,” Yusuf said. “On this I know no debate whatsoever.”

In many western countries, the battle against homosexuality has been lost. In the UK, “civil partnerships” are now law and a registrar has been dismissed for refusing to register them; a hotelier can be prosecuted for refusing to hire a double room to a gay couple. Whether this is the case in California I don’t know (I’m sure it isn’t everywhere in the USA), but Muslims have often found themselves on the same side as the gay lobby because the two groups have most of the same enemies, or to put it another way, the conservative Christians who are anti-gay hate Muslims as much, if not more. Both groups have links to the Labour party in the UK (although perhaps the gay vote has gone more to the Liberal Democrats more recently) and to the Democrats in the USA, and Umar himself wrote that he voted Democratic in 2000, when the mainstream Islamic groups told Muslims to vote for GW Bush. So a public condemnation of homosexuality might serve little practical purpose in such an environment; if you want him to condemn it, I suggest asking him privately. I am sure most Muslims do not want to hear rants about homosexuality from imams anyway; it is not healthy to think too much about what other people do in their beds, be it lawful or unlawful.

4 - Rewriting Islam to Comply with Feminism

As RIMS seek their guidance on social issues from academia and the modern world they are forced to reinterpret the traditional understandings of gender relations in Islam. In doing this they highlight anything in the Quran and Sunnah they can find that is seen as kind towards women and downplay, or completely throw out, anything that is contrary to the norms of the modern Western world which favors historical Muslim patriarchy.

This may be true of some modernist “Muslims” in the USA. However, Shaikh Hamza has explicitly condemned one well-known Moroccan feminist, Fatima Mernissi, for leading many sisters astray, and if he really was openly distorting Islam to comply with the demands of feminism, many of which - even at the more liberal end, never mind the radicals - are diametrically opposed to Islam, he would not get the appreciation of thousands of Muslims who have no truck with feminism, and even the scholars would eventually disassociate themselves from him.

5 - A Hatred of Masculinity

As one teacher and friend of mine stated they seek an Islam “without testicular fortitude”. The Sunnah and history of Islam is rewritten and the likes of Khald Ibn Waleed (r.a.) are downplayed and the Prophet (s.a.s.) and the Sahabah are made to be non-violent hippies who sat around gawking at butterflies all day. Northing could be further from the truth. The Prophet {s.a.s.) was a warrior and many of the Sahabah that he loved were straight-up killers. Others were robbers (robbing the caravans of the kufar). Others took women and young girls as the booty of war. Islam spread through jihad and was sustained by the sword of very masculine men. Romantically, the fairy tale “fluffy” version of love that is the norm today was also strange to the Sahabah and in the history of Islam, outside of Rumi (who many if not most consider to be a deviant) there is very little in terms of a history of romance being glorified by learned religious men. There is love in Islam, and a love between man and women, but it is something entirely different then what we have come to understand it in the West.

This is where it starts to get seriously offensive, and I do not just mean to me personally. The Sahabah were not “straight-up killers” but men who fought in battles and killed when it was necessary and lawful to do so, and not otherwise. This is the same as men throughout history: both my grandfathers served in World War II, and if they did not kill personally, they assisted others in doing so, and after the war was over and they were discharged, they killed no more. A “straight-up killer” is a criminal, not a warrior, and there are hadeeth in which we are told not to draw weapons on other Muslims and in which Sahabah were reprimanded for killing people presumed to be hypocrites. The only Muslims at that time who carried out caravan raids were the group who were prevented from migrating to Madinah by the treaty of Hudaybiyyah; this was a tribulation the Meccans brought on themselves by demanding to be able to hold Muslims in Makkah. They raided Meccan caravans and nobody else’s, and as soon as the Meccans relieved the Muslims of that part of the treaty, they migrated to Madinah and stopped raiding caravans.

As for Rumi, nobody except modern, ignorant sectarians consider him a deviant. You will find his Mathnawi quoted liberally in books by Deobandis, for example (you can find a translation into English of a Deobandi commentary on the Mathnawi, entitled something like Ma’arif-e-Masnavi), and they are certainly not pacifists or hippies. It is also a known fact that, while the rule of Islam was spread initially by the sword of jihad, the conversion of people to Islam was because of other factors, including the justice they observed from the conquerors and the work of Sufis, and the latter was particularly true in India and the Far East.

6 - An Upper Class Mentality

The vast majority, I will say almost all, RIMS come from at least a middle-class background. A big percentage are wealthy. Vey few are working-class. The reason for this is that the RIM message of peace with the modern world, liberal social views, a detachment from politics, pacifism, a love of kafir philosophers, and feminization, is not something that is going to appeal to the working-class or fly in the hood of people of any color.

RIMS are living the good life in the West and have a lot of dunya. They want to protect their position so they don’t want to rock the boat as the society is working well for them. Most have never been to a ghetto or working-class masjid and don’t have a clue as to how the other half feels. Many others, look down upon less affluent Muslims without fancy degrees, and see themselves as the elite class of the Muslim community. Any masculine form of Islam is seen as something for the poor and ignorant masses. American Salafis are barely even recognized as Muslims by RIMS.

The problem with this is that, to have a balanced community, we need Muslims of every class and this includes university-educated middle-class people. Our community is not complete with just small merchants and drivers (and I’m a driver myself). One of the biggest problems we have as a community in the West is the legacy of over-emphasising da’wah to people in the urban ghetto since the mid-20th century, which has led to an influx of people from criminal backgrounds and chaotic family situations, some of whom have been loath to leave their baggage behind, and to the acrimonious sectarianism of the late-1990s “salafi inquisition”. While the “low-hanging fruit” were picked in the ghetto, nothing much was done about the middle classes and people in the country - with the result that Islam has remained an urban minority religion and that not a single village exists in the UK where the practice of Islam is normal; there may be some in the USA. Quite apart from the fact that these people grow and raise our food, Islam will not have “arrived” in the UK or USA until we can say “this part of the country is Muslim”.

While the sort of Muslims he refers to may exist - the sort who lapped up the Muslim WakeUp propaganda a few years ago probably fit his description pretty well - Umar is wrong, yet again, to pin Shaikh Hamza or his followers to it. Many of them are struggling in isolation in various parts of the provincial USA, bringing up families on low income and so on, and particularly struggling to bring their children up Islamically (this has come up from time to time on the blogs I read, and it is a particular concern of mine here in London, not that I have any children at present). They do not all live in California and spend their time putting the world to rights over $4 lattes.

The RIM message, even if they tried, would never succeed with the working-class and the poor. Because our experience in this society is different and we do not live in comfort and we are seeking to change the conditions here and not make peace with them and we are on the offensive and not the defensive.

Do some middle-class people not undertake work to help improve conditions for the poor? Not all, but Umar’s stereotypical academic is more likely to than a mainstream American suburban middle-class person, who buys a house a long-way from where the “great unwashed” live and locks the doors three times. Umar has not much to say about them, however.

7 - Using English Instead of Arabic

The Sunnah becomes the Prophetic Tradition. Shariah become Sacred Law, Allah becomes God, etc. RIM converts usually keep their non-Muslim names (especially if they are white). The more Western and white Islam can be made by RIMS the better (although this is a futile effort).

There is no need to take an Arabic name, or indeed any new name unless one’s existing name is offensive to Islam, for example, the name of an idol or an anti-Islamic Arabic Christian name like Abdul-Maseeh. Most of the Sahaba did not take new names, and non-Arabic names are common in parts of the world where Arabic is not spoken; Arabic naming customs are rare outside the Arabic-speaking world, in fact, other than among converts and “salafis” in the West. The rest of what he refers to here is not unlawful or offensive, particularly when explaining Islam to non-Muslims, and those scholars who use these terms in writing (e.g. Shaikh Nuh Keller in the Reliance of the Traveller) use the Arabic words otherwise.

8 - Bordering on the Worship of the Creation

Polar bears, global warming and sodomy are the greatest political causes of this young generation. As not to seem dated RIMS stretch Muslim texts to come close as they can to the environmentalists.

Global warming, and its human causes, i.e. emissions from factories, power stations and transport, is accepted by the vast majority of the world’s scientists and its impact, although slow to develop, is likely to be enormous and mostly detrimental, particularly in Muslim countries. Never mind polar bears; it is likely to cause worsening droughts in countries on the fringes of deserts (e.g. north and west Africa) and floods in places like Bangladesh, which has a population of well over 100 million and most of them are Muslim. All this so that Americans and Europeans can maintain their taste for cheap luxury and easy, fast travel. This should actually be a higher priority for Muslims than it actually is, given all that poor Muslims have to lose from it, but then, Muslims would have to change their habits like everyone else. It is not even close to worship of the creation; without disputing that things happen by the will of Allah ta’ala, the scientists all tell us that if you raise the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by burning too much too quickly, all the while cutting down acre after acre of forest to raise soya to feed cattle for fast food, the world will get warmer and the consequences will be destructions and impoverishment.

9 - Elevation of Their Leaders and Scholars

RIMS are seen as favorable by the West and the enemies of Islam because their leaders can change the religion. When you make taqleed you have a barrier between you and the Quran and Sunnah. You need the leader you have an allegiance to in order to understand matters. If that leader, who may be a scholar and may even be a descendent of the Prophet (s.a.s.), is in the pocket of the corrupt Muslim regimes or is a sellout to the enemies of Islam then you have to sell out with him and we see this with corrupt muftis throughout the Muslim World.

Not true. Taqleed means following qualified scholarship, not just any “Zaid or Amr”, and when an individual scholar gives an answer to a fiqh question which is too lenient or too strict, people will notice and warn against following that ruling (many of Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s rulings from Al-Halaal w’al-Haraam fi’l-Islaam have been refuted, and we all saw what happened when Shaikh Hamza himself made some controversial statements about the rewards in Paradise after 9/11). Nobody follows a contemporary scholar in this way; they follow a madhhab, often in the form of a reference text from a pre-modern scholar (e.g. al-Maqaasid by Imam Nawawi for the Shafi’is, and al-Risaala by Ibn Abi Zaid al-Qairawaani for the Malikiks), and will mostly seek and follow the relied-upon position in that school, not a variant position from a modern scholar. Corrupt muftis tend to be discredited and distrusted among the people, and anyone who has travelled to Egypt and mentioned the names of prominent muftis to any local practising Muslim over a coffee will find this out quickly.

10 - They Sound Like Hippies When They Talk and Engage in Bizarre Acts

If they are talking all day and using spiritual language and do not seem to be making any sense to anyone not on a hallucinogenic drug they are probably a RIM. Also, if they sit in circles to venerate the Prophet (s.a.s.) or go to graves to venerate so-called saints, and use homoerotic poems while doing both, then you know they are RIMS.

The poems are not homoerotic at all; there is an awful lot about the physical beauty and purity of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) in the hadeeth literature (not that this is the only subject of those poems), which no doubt was appreciated more by the male Sahaba than the women who lived in Madinah then (radhi Allahu ‘anhum), since many of the women were in purdah and might have seen the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) rarely if at all. It is a huge slander to impute such motives to poems written by Islamic scholars, since this is what all of the genuine Sufis were - one would have expected someone to object if they found the content inappropriate. It is important to note that men in the Muslim world have much more physical contact with each other than we do here in the West, where two men who are seen hugging or holding hands in public might be accused of being gay lovers. Gatherings to offer blessings, known as salawaat, on the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) have been common in the Muslim world for centuries, long before anyone in the west thought it might be a good idea to promote this in order to discourage extremism.

This is not a refutation of all Sufis. There are many Sufis in the West who are not RIMS and there are many Sufi leaders critical of this way of thinking and behaving. However, amongst the Muslim upper-class, second-generation immigrant Muslims, and white converts, RIMS are plentiful. I know I will loose some friends when I say this, but I feel I must say this because I fear Allah and love the Muslims, so it must be said. Hamza Yusuf represents all ten of these points and is the RIM in chief for America. If the enemies of Islam could get the entire ummah to follow him and his likes they would do it and for all for the reasons I have stated above.

In my experience, there is no gulf between Shaikh Hamza, Shaikh Nuh and their associates and followers and the traditional Islamic scholars from the Subcontinent and their followers. In the days of the Youth Tarbiyyah Conference in England, for example, you will have found plenty of Shaikh Nuh’s students and others who had been on the Deen Intensives and the like. I have met white convert “Sufis” who have a low opinion of immigrant Muslims and their British descendents, but apart from the Murabitun who are a specific group (and not all white), they are a very small minority here. Most converts with a low opinion of ethnic Muslims are “salafis” whose hardline sectarian attitudes give them a reason to despise other Muslims who they believe look down on them. I would have thought that the enemies of Islam would have been rubbing their hands with glee at the sight of Muslims falling out with each other because one would not disassociate themselves from another Muslim who was “off the manhaj”.

Umar also significantly misunderstands what the 2003 RAND report, Civil Democratic Islam (PDF), was all about. While it did advocate supporting traditionalists “enough to keep them viable against the fundamentalists (if and wherever those are our choices) and to prevent a closer alliance between these two groups” (p.47, PDF p.63), its main support was for modernists, as you can see on page 48 of the report (PDF page 64):

Some additional, more-direct activities will be necessary to support this overall approach, such as the following: - Help break the fundamentalist and traditionalist monopoly on defining, explaining, and interpreting Islam. - Identify appropriate modernist scholars to manage a Web site that answers questions related to daily conduct and offers modernist Islamic legal opinions. - Encourage modernist scholars to write textbooks and develop curricula. - Publish introductory books at subsidized rates to make them as available as the tractates of fundamentalist authors. - Use popular regional media, such as radio, to introduce the thoughts and practices of modernist Muslims to broaden the international view of what Islam means and can mean.

This hardly qualifies Shaikh Hamza to be the “RIM in chief for America”, since he has long nailed his colours to the traditionalist mast and opposed modernism. They believe in supporting traditionalists as a mere side-show to keep the devout happy, and if Shaikh Hamza is accused of being the dupe of that strategy, despite the fact that it has been published openly, then his accusers had better find evidence of that support, in terms of funding or other material support, and put up or shut up (and I do not mean the occasional speaking engagement, but rather consistent support over a long period).

The post contains accusations which are true of some Muslims in America, but I don’t believe them to be true of Shaikh Hamza, let alone that he is the “chief” of them. There are well-known groups of “Sufis” who pose as cuddly hippies and who then inform on Muslim groups and publically call them extremists and Hamas fronts etc., and yet these are all groups Shaikh Hamza has spoken to at their conventions, when one would have expected him to set up a rival organisation or at least attack them publically if he was on the RAND payroll and regarded them as deviant or extremist. Shaikh Hamza’s form of Sufism is actually pretty conservative; I have sat with them both in England and in Egypt, and their dhikr gatherings don’t involve the hadra that some of the North African Sufi turuq have; it consists of reading and singing poetry and reciting what are sometimes called litanies (in Arabic, rawaatib), including one by Imam Nawawi, and reading from the Qur’an.

Umar’s post frankly seethes with the class resentment of American academia which has been obvious in many of his other posts. Somehow he seems to think all Muslim men should be as “manly” as those he knows in the American inner city, when they are not like that and never have been. In most of the Muslim world you do not need to keep your wits about you, you do not need to avoid looking at people, particularly men, unless you want to get challenged for a fight or even just murdered on the spot; in fact, you are unlikely to get into a fight at all unless you try to rob someone or insult someone’s mother. However run-down they look and however poor the people are, people are polite and civilised. Why should any American Muslim not from the ghetto or a run-down neighbourhood in the “rust belt” aspire to the kind of “manliness” which is a cancer even there? Self-restraint is not a virtue among them. Backing down from confrontation, even when there is no good reason for it, or not taking revenge when you “should”, is called being a “pussy”. (We have this problem in the UK as well.) If the Sahaba had been anything like them, can you imagine their reaction when the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) told them not to kill a whole list of people during the reconquest of Makkah, including anyone who took refuge in this house or that house, despite all that some of those people had done before the Hijra?

The Ummah needs middle-class people. We cannot be a community made up of an under-educated working class mass with a few very super-wealthy people who made their money from oil and occasionally shower a bit of money on everyone else. The West became powerful when it developed an educated, reproducing middle class (before this, only priests and monastics got educated), and from this came professionals and thinkers. Where are we going as a community if we are just the manual workers and small merchants? Downhill all the way. It is a good thing that there are a lot of converts coming out of the universities; the biggest problem is that traditional Islam is under-represented in most of them. They tend to get into dead-end political revival groups (not including the Muslim Brotherhood), many of which have a long history of failure, and other groups which appeal to the juvenile instinct for rebellion.

If Umar had bothered to do a bit of research before posting such a long screed and then naming only one name, his post might have struck a chord, but as it is, it is just a rant against his usual pet hates and ends with the slander of a scholar of Islam who is innocent of most of what he alleges. I do believe there are people in both Britain and America who fit most of his claims - middle-class Sufis who look down on other Muslims, middle-class non-practising Muslims with deviant ideas who look to non-Muslims for support and attack the Muslims, and so on, but I believe he has picked the wrong target, of all the targets that are out there.

In response to Ginny’s post, he has responded with more of the same, and invited people over to his house to (you guessed it) fight over it. I am not sure who he wants to come all the way to St Louis to fight him (not Ginny, I hope), and besides, you cannot win an argument by beating up your opponent. You might shut them up, you might put them in hospital or the morgue, but everyone else will know that you had run out of arguments and resorted to your fists and that you are a no-good bully and a bad loser. I do not care what class you are. Over the years I have managed to have discussions with Muslims (and others) of many classes and races in good and bad parts of London without coming to blows once, and the key is to behave like a decent Muslim, to keep your cool, remember your adab, not to talk about things which are likely to start fights, not to use insulting or coarse language, and not to display open contempt for the other person. I know who my Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) is, and the difference between a prophet and a teacher of Islam; you will be asked also about the things you said and wrote about other people, and slander of scholars is worse than slander of ordinary people other than when it concerns adultery or anything else that could actually lead to harm, and all your “testicular fortitude” will not save you when you have to account for these things.

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