I still remember my first encounter with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. I was an 18yr old newly-minted convert attending a Nawawi Foundation event in Chicago. Initially unsure of what to expect, I sat spellbound; absorbed in an absolutely riveting lecture. In addition to his deep erudition, which somehow blended quotations from Rāghib al-Isfahānī, Neil Postman, and Bob Dylan, I found the stream-of-consciousness style with which he effortlessly moved through his talking points artistically inspiring. It was like listening to the virtuosity of Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie but then he hit a sour note. Discussing the cultural decadence of America—which I later learned was a favorite topic of his—he preached: “what happened to us? We were once a people of eloquence and brilliant rhetoric. Many of our young people can barely form cogent sentences now. The other day I was attempting to engage one in conversation and he looked at me and responded, [insert: oafish shoulder shrug and incomprehensible gibberish]. And I said ‘What!’ I don’t know what you’re saying, young man! I don’t speak hip hop!”
I was appalled. As Dr. Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer states in Muslim Cool, not only was hip hop the soundtrack of my life and the cultural preserve of my generation, it was also one of the first places I encountered the “knowledge of self” that ultimately led to my conversion. Moreover, far from the unintelligible grunts of simpletons, I was sure the lyrical dexterity and masterful sequencing displayed by Black Thought on Concerto of the Desperado could top anything Keats had ever written. Needless to say, I mentally checked-out for the remainder of the lecture and hastily exited after he concluded. A few weeks later, a friend and I were talking about the lecture. We agreed that it was superb with the exception of the Shaykh’s gaffe concerning hip hop. My friend then told me that after the lecture someone approached Shaykh Hamza and said, “As a white man you should be careful not to say anything that could be interpreted as undermining the intelligence or cultural achievements of black folks.” “Huh!?” After he figured out the man was referring to the hip hop comment, Shaykh Hamza, continued, “I would never. Actually, the young man I referred to in the story was white.”
Over time, Shaykh Hamza has become a consistent source of inspiration and guidance for me. Nevertheless, his statement at the Nawawi lecture and the subsequent surprised, misdirected response illustrated a great sincerity but also a painful oblivion to the context of race, power, privilege, and subjugation in which he in particular speaks. And while my personal experience with the Shaykh leaves me with no doubt that he would never intentionally downplay the need for police accountability in black communities by pathologizing black people, his recent comments at RIS and the clarification that followed appear to be a reiteration of that same blind-spot.
Unsurprisingly, the response of the community was immediate, varied and sometimes unthinking. Some people were quick to point to Shaykh Hamza’s good intentions, and others countered by analyzing the racist impact of his statements. Some used the occasion to grind the axe of their already finely-honed anti-clericalism while others completely exculpated the actions of the Shaykh.
The critique that resonated with me focused on the person of Shaykh Hamza. His lack of awareness of the connotation given his words by the ontological fact of whiteness is what makes this appear insensitive. More pointedly, although there are things we know about Shaykh Hamza’s upbringing, family-life, piety, religious affiliation, linguistic fluency, customary dress, politics, etc. that distance him from White folks that typically cite black pathology to discredit the movement to affirm the value of black life, he-is-still-white.
For people of deeply held ideals and inspired ideas (correct or incorrect) to accept that our positionality—even if it’s undesired—within certain contexts of power, privilege, and subjugation might limit when and what we can express of our views is a jihad that requires constant vigilance. Ever since the day I saw a male religious scholar decline a question about hijab in order to disrupt a culture of male religious obsession with policing the bodies of women, I’ve understood this principle. As with all principles, I’m sure we practice this with varying levels of success. However, I am confident that with humility, restraint, and the loving reminders of our brothers and sisters, we can attain this level of sensitivity. And Allah knows best.
“The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those – Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.” [9:71]
The incongruity of a White American Muslim scholar speaking to a mostly non-black audience and responding to a question about solidarity with the movement to assert the dignity of black life by mentioning social maladies within the black community without mentioning the corresponding systemic and structural racism that helps to produce and sustain those maladies, should not be lost on anyone. With deference to Shaykh Hamza, I recognize that someone who doesn’t have experience or ḥusn adh-dhann of him could reasonably see his comments as having an uncomfortable semblance with the notion of black pathology. Black pathology is the idea that black people are inherently incapable of thinking and behaving correctly and it is often used to explain away systemic racism. In other words, it’s not that bank redlining and intentionally racist public-housing redistricting policies keep economically depressed black communities confined to areas without jobs, they’re just lazy. It’s not that extremely punitive sentencing for low-level, non-violent drug offenders have wreaked havoc on black men, it’s just sexual irresponsibility that has led to the dissolution of the black family.
To be sure, both sacred and modern history show that the least effective way of agitating an oppressor is to suggest that the plight of the oppressed is wholly or partly their own fault. Moses and Aaron (upon them be peace) address Pharaoh by saying:
“Indeed, we are Messengers from your Lord, so send with us the Children of Israel and do not torment them… ” [20:47]
At no point do they mention to Pharaoh that the oppression and enslavement of the Children of Israel could be the result of their disobeying the Prophets who were sent to them and killing them. The same can be said of our Prophet (sallahu alayhi wa sallam). He took the influential members of the Hāshim and ‘Abd ash-Shams clans to task for their treatment of the poor without mentioning the behavior of the poor. In our own time, many advocating on behalf of the survivors of sexual violence have noted that the most effective way of getting predators to assume full responsibility for their behavior is instituting a zero-tolerance policy about mentioning the conduct and/or (im)modesty of the survivor in connection with the attack.
In fact, to make sure the physical and psychic death being visited upon black communities in America is given absolutely no quarter for justification, many activists will only countenance the mention of black moral agency when incidentally or secondarily connected to the community. White supremacy and racism are the primary and principle cause of the maladies affecting the community. This is represented in the idea of centering structural racism. For example, take the following response to the Shaykh Hamza controversy from the Strugglinghijabi tumblr:
“All that was required was a sincere apology, an admission of insensitivity, an acknowledgment of the fact that you don’t have the understanding or cultural sensibilities to speak to such issues.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, you crawled deeper into the cave of black pathology by saying the breakdown of the black family is the greatest issue facing black Americans, not racism. I must ask, how on earth can any person with any bit of black history under their belt discuss the tearing apart of black families, which is a real thing, WITHOUT centering the structural racism that was put in place specifically to do just that? There is no clear picture of one without the other.
Otherwise, you end up sending the message that black men and women are being incarcerated at alarming rates just because. That’s black pathology. You end up sending the message that black people are killed and mistreated (by others and themselves) just because. More black pathology. You end up sending the message that black people tend to be less financially stable just because. Another statement powered by black pathology. This type of thinking attaches itself to existing ideologies of racism and supports them as they grow, further blotting out black humanity. Ergo, it is a very big deal…”
Again, the strong warning against falling into black pathology when addressing the oppressor is absolutely advisable for at least two reasons:
“And [recall] when We took your covenant, [saying], “Do not shed each other’s blood or evict one another from your homes.” Then you acknowledged [this] while you were witnessing.
Then, you are those [same ones who are] killing one another and evicting a party of your people from their homes, cooperating against them in sin and aggression. And if they come to you as captives, you ransom them, although their eviction was forbidden to you. So do you believe in part of the Scripture and disbelieve in part? Then what is the recompense for you that do that except disgrace in worldly life; and on the Day of Resurrection they will be sent back to the severest of punishment. And Allah is not unaware of what you do.” [2:84-85]
So as not to be misunderstood, I state emphatically: This is no analogy between the black on black violence mentioned by Shaykh Hamza and the Israelite on Israelite violence cited in the verse. Nor is this a definitive statement that the oppression of black people is a manifestation of God disgracing us. Ma’ādh Allah. However, the verse does make it clear that worldly disgrace—like eternal chastisement—can be a possible outcome of sin and iniquity. Thus, in addition to the full accountability we bring to bear against the externalized evil of our oppressor, Qurānic pedagogy dictates that people experiencing disgrace also turn toward interiorized evil. Perhaps they will find that they are suffering as Ayyūb (upon him be peace) suffered; purely as a result of God’s desire to test and purify them. Nonetheless, the Qurānic pedagogy dictates that the inward turn be taken.
In fact, in contradistinction to fashionable modes of activism, the Qur’ānic paradigm always confronts the existence of corruption and evil as opportunities for introspection and repentance.
Understandably, given what we know of White America’s vicious tendency to explain away structural racism by way of pathologizing black people, many people—even black Muslims!—will regard the Qurānic pedagogy as too susceptible to co-optation by Muslims who would seek to do the same thing. Indeed, the slipperiness of this slope is almost enough to completely abandon the discourse of a Black American turn toward interiorized evil. However, my counterpoise is this: If we center white racism when addressing the oppression and subjugation of black people without a complementary discourse in which we center God and the moral agency of black people, we give away all of our self-determination. For if the primary cause of my subjugation is only the pernicious evil of white racism, then the primary source of my redemption can only be the repudiation of that racism. Lamentably, that would mean accepting that the cause of my redemption will be White America’s tawba and not my own. As a self-determining, free black man I can’t face that.
In summary, Shaykh Hamza’s commenting on black on black violence and the breakdown of the black family in connection with the value of black life and police brutality is unacceptable. Someone must explain to my Shaykh that the fact of white privilege precludes the possibility of his being able to make such comments with any integrity. However, as a fellow Muslim public intellectual, I’m also watching the assumptions of secular liberalism surreptitiously displace the world view of the Qurān and Way of Muhammad (sallahu alayhi wa sallam). And that really worries me. I meet young Muslims at college campuses who have acquired that distinctly Marxist focus on external evil in connection with oppression with no complementary Ghazalian focus on the connection of interiorized evil to oppression. I meet young Muslims who proudly display their commitment to pluralism by saying things like, “Muhammad is the last and final Messenger of God but that’s just my personal opinion,” and then can entertain no difference of opinion on issues of race, gender, and sexual identity. Does it get any more superficial than that? So I understand the intervention Shaykh Hamza was attempting to make but as a White American man steeped in generations of black genocide he may not be able to do it.
Conversely, Minister Malcolm X could address the power structure by saying: “What do you call an educated negro with a B.A. or an M.A. or a PhD? You call him a nigger…” to show that there is no merit, education, or respectability that black people can attain to avert the negative consequences of white racism. He could also tell a group of young initiates at Harlem’s Temple no. 7: “What we’re doing here is cleaning ourselves up and getting on God’s side so that God can be on our side.” Black people rise up.