Hamza Yusuf was not famous just for being White

Black and white picture of Hamza Yusuf, a middle-aged White man wearing a white turban on his head, with a white shirt with no tie, and a dark-coloured jacket over it. He is standing against a wall decorated with small tiles.
Hamza Yusuf

In the aftermath of the Hamza Yusuf Syria controversy (see previous entry), a Medium post by Umar Lee, once a fixture on the Muslim blogging scene of the 2000s, has been circulated on social media with many claiming that it is a work of great insight or some such thing. The post has some useful observations on the state of the Muslim community in the USA and in particular the white convert element, but in regard to Hamza Yusuf it reflects the hostility towards him that we saw in his previous writings, including a piece ten years ago (on his old Muslim blog, most of it since deleted) on so-called Rand Institute Muslims of which he called Hamza Yusuf the most prominent. Lee claims in his article that Hamza Yusuf’s fame and status comes from his skin colour, which I dispute.

He claims:

Hamza Yusuf is in the position he’s in because he’s white and he is far from alone. In city after city there are white Muslims on the boards of mosques, occupying key roles within local CAIR chapters, and generally overrepresented in leadership roles. In nearly all of these instances there are better qualified Muslims of color to occupy these positions who’ve been passed over. While many people point to the (South Asian in particular) inferiority -complex in my estimation this overrepresentation is due to other factors. The first being that white Muslims, particularly those that haven’t changed their names, make for good PR props (particularly in the post-911 era where Muslims are obsessed with “reframing the narrative”). The second factor is that white Muslims also make for good props in the machiavellian schemes of Ikhwani political organizations and protests.

Hamza Yusuf converted in 1977 at a time when there were few white converts in America. I have met some from that era for sure including those handful that were in the Dar al Islam: but there’s no doubt a young Mark Hanson was a novelty. What followed was a well-funded and orchestrated rise by various benefactors who wanted to see his white face as the face of Islam in America.

I’m 42 years old, and converted to Islam in 1998, so I caught the tail end of the pre-9/11 era. Any Muslim who is a young adult now would have been born around the time I took the shahada; they would have no memory of the time before 9/11 and would have been around 10 years old or even younger when Barack Obama was elected. Hamza Yusuf being white helped, but it was not the only or even most significant reason why he was widely respected, why people would travel hundreds of miles to attend a conference headlined by him at a big convention centre, and why tapes of his speeches sold very well in Islamic shops in every English-speaking country. Indeed, there were other American preachers at this time, including some African-American ones, who were also very popular on the same circuit and whose tapes sold through the same shops, such as Abdullah Hakim Quick, Muhammad Sharif and Zaid Shakir. As I recall, people of every ethnicity listened to all the speakers; people gained inspiration from stories about Muslim achievements, personalities, reform movements etc everywhere, including Africa. People in the West were introduced to some of the major scholars in the Muslim world through encounters with these western scholars, which was part of their intention.

What made Hamza Yusuf popular, including in countries where being white was nothing like the asset in the Muslim community that it was in the USA, was the quality of his output. He offered a vigorous critique of the modern western media and educational systems and extolled the virtues of the classical Islamic education which was where all the major Islamic scholars learned what they knew, and attacked the modernist response which was to blame Islamic education for the conquest of the Muslim world. He also published books, including translations of classical texts which were of good quality and beautifully presented. Some might find his fondness for connection-drawing to be too close to conspiracy theory for comfort, but he did foster an interest in and a love of knowledge in Islam. In the UK, many young people were looking for an alternative to the very divided religious culture which had come over from South Asia which was heavily based on the Urdu language which many young people did not speak (especially if their parents did not do so either) as well as to the aggressive “Salafi da’wah” which dominated many university Islamic societies at that time. Contrary to Umar Lee’s claim that “it’s unreasonable to believe a converted Catholic from Michigan could advise Punjabi families better than a fellow Punjabi”, many Punjabis here (as well as other South Asians) looked to scholars like him for guidance in preference to scholars of their own background. What has come to be known as the neo-traditional movement filled those gaps. A lot of the intellectual heavy lifting in refuting the claims of the ‘salafis’ was done by Nuh Ha Mim Keller and Abdul-Hakim Murad, but Hamza Yusuf made the world of Islamic knowledge look exciting to many young people back then.

That does not mean he, or any of the others mentioned, is above criticism today, but many of those who criticised him for his remarks about Syria last week, or about other issues arising out of the Arab Spring, are people who would have been in those coach parties back in the 90s and early 2000s and did not go to just see any “white shaikh”, they went to see someone who inspired them and made the deen and religious knowledge accessible. He was not a nobody who was elevated to a prominence he did not deserve because of his colour, even if such people existed in the US Muslim scene (they certainly did not here); he was a scholar who earned his position through his teachings and his service to the community.

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