Islam, the Road to Submission, the Path to Peace
An interview with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf by Window on Islam
To listen to an audio version of this program, please click here 
Faisal Ahmad: I’m Faisal Ahmad and this is Window on Islam.  On today’s program we’ll explore the origins of Islam as a community, what were it’s founding principles and teachings that lead to its blossoming as a great world civilization, and what do these ideals mean to us as a society today.  We’ll explore Islam through the words of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a prominent Muslim scholar and educator.  Shaykh Hamza was born in Wala Wala, Washington and began to study religious traditions at a young age leading to his discovery of Islam.  Thereafter, he traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and North Africa where he became fluent in the Arabic language and began his studies in the traditional Islamic sciences under some of the most eminent Muslim scholars of our age.  In 1996, he founded the Zaytuna Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to the revival of traditional Islamic sciences.  He currently serves as the director of the Zaytuna Institute.  Assalamu’alaikum [peace be upon you] and welcome to the program. How are you, Shaykh Hamza?
  Shaykh Hamza: Walikum Asalam [peace be upon you too]. Fine, thanks.
  Faisal Ahmad: Thank you very much for joining us.  I know it’s probably a very busy time for you.  I was just talking to my wife before the program and Wala Wala, Washington seems like a very interesting place.  In Urdu, the word ‘wala’ actually is appended to someone’s name to mean that he comes from a certain region, like we have ‘Singapurwala’ and we have ‘Mozawala’ in India.  So I guess you would be ‘Wala Wala Wala’ in India.  Just to begin the program today, I think the topic is something really quite large.  Perhaps you can start off our audience by answering a simple question about Islam.  I think probably a lot of Americans are unfamiliar with this faith that has so much impacted their world and their world-view.  So could you tell us a bit about the title of today’s program, Islam the Path to Submission, the Path to Peace.  I think the words ‘submission’ and ‘peace’ appear to be somewhat contradictory in the minds of many.  Could you explain how in Islam they are related?

Shaykh Hamza: Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem. The Arabic term ‘Islam’ means to submit or to surrender and the root meaning, salima is to be whole and it’s a cognate of the Hebrew word shalom, which is related to the same idea.  Shalom in Hebrew means wholeness.  The idea of peace is a wholeness and the idea of being in a state of submission is being part of a whole.  Because what happens when we are out of sync?  For instance, we feel pain and suffering in our body is when one part of our body is no longer working with the whole and so we experience pain and trouble.  We also have the idea of conflict when one part is out of sync with the whole; or several parts within a whole are out of sync as well, just as you can have multiple illnesses in a body.

You can also have multiple aspects of a society that are out of sync.  If we look at the world around us, if we look at the natural world, what’s most notable about it is order.  There is order in the world and people can deny it but any casual observer over a period of time can see it.  For instance, on March 21st we entered into spring, which is a season that comes every year.  There is a cosmic event that occurs when our planet reaches a certain point in its orbit around the sun, and because of the tilt of our planet in relation to the sun.  We have these four seasons as we move around the sun and there is an order so that trees know when to give fruit.  They don’t give fruit in the wintertime in the north.  They give fruit, I’m literally looking at a fig tree right now, and the figs are green on it, and by September they are going to be ready to be picked and that state that the tree is in is a state of submission to the natural order.  And so that’s why it’s in a peaceful state; it is not conflicted in itself nor is it conflicted with the environment around it and if I come and I chop down the tree, then obviously, I’m changing the state that that tree was in and if I do it for no reason, then it’s really a criminal act against nature.

Submission is about really getting in sync and if you look at children; children from early on, if they are allowed to progress naturally without a lot of interruptions, they know exactly what to do.  They are in a state of submission in that they’re following a natural order and pattern, just as when we were in the wombs of our mothers all our cells knew what to do.  They knew…the liver knew to become a liver and the heart knew to become a heart and our circulation knows how to circulate.  Our body knows to stay within a homeostatic balance and keeps our internal temperature, irrespective of what the external temperature is, at around 98.6 ºF.  When we get sick there is a disruption in that order and so in the same way we can see this order and disruptions in this order.  Also in our associations in our communities, in our societies, if children are treated in certain ways it has certain effects on their behaviour and on their attitudes.  If they’re belittled and held in contempt as children, they respond with certain pathologies that are actually in many ways quite discernible and recognizable for people that are trained in those types of observation.

So you know, submission to me is, I mean, we have this thing called Islam which has become a world religion and it identifies a category of people.  But my understanding of Islam is that it’s much deeper than that.  It’s really a state of being. It’s not a sociological identity.  It’s a state of being and that’s why the Quran says:  Aslama man fis samaa waate wal ard.  That everything in the heavens and earth is in that state of submission. That it is a state the trees are in, the sun is in, the moon is in and the human beings, because we have been given free will, we have this ability to be outside of that state.  If you look, for instance, at these videos that are kind of emerging out of Iraq of Iraqi soldiers killing people, putting dynamite onto people and blowing them up and then laughing.  You know, I don’t care whether those people identify themselves as Muslims or not, as sociological category, they aren’t in a state of submission to divine order.  They’re deeply sick human beings, and part of the problem and one of the real barriers for people to understand Islam or to have any attraction to it is that the Muslims themselves become the greatest barrier between Islam and the people.

Faisal Ahmad: So, in a sense, Islam with respect to the human experience is eliminating or removing those barriers that prevent us from harmonizing with the divine will, the cosmic order that exists within the human experience.

Shaykh Hamza: Right. I mean that’s it, and all these traditions, the Chinese spoke about it, they call it The Way, being in The Way, the way of nature and the ancients were very clear about that and modern man, you know, I mean one of the hallmarks of modernity is how out of sync we are.

Faisal Ahmad: I guess probably the question to ask next would be, how does one learn the way to eliminate these barriers and to better understand the true cosmic harmony that exists?

Shaykh Hamza: For Muslims--who have already accepted through birth or through studies or some other means the idea that there is a single conscious intelligent force behind the universe that’s guiding the universe and that has declared itself to the universe--for people that accept that, we say:  Laa Illaha Illalah.  There is nothing worthy of worship except this one true Reality, which in Arabic happens to be called Allah.  In Judeo-Christian terms it’s generally called God, but I think that there is a lot of problems with all these names now because when we say these names, concepts come to mind.  And our understanding of Allah is that no concept is allowed to come to mind; that is the meaning of the name of Allah in Arabic can only be understood using negations…that which it is not.  And that is why the formula of Islam begins with a negation, Laa Illaha…[there is nothing worthy of worship] and then you affirm illa Allah [except God]. Now that does not mean that we believe that God is not knowable at all, no; there is epiphany in the world.  There’s divine manifestations and it’s in the order.  It’s in the mercy of the rain; it’s in the beauty of children; they’re everywhere.  These Divine attributes are coming into the world in manifestation so that we have analogies to understand God.

A good example of that is once the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was with a group of his companions and there was a woman who was nursing her child.  And the Prophet Muhammad said:  “Do you think this woman would throw her child into the fire?” and they all said: “No”.  And he said:  Well, God’s mercy is greater to His servants than that woman’s to her child.  So he was showing analogously how we understand the mercy of God. You see it’s understood through examples in the world, so in that way God can be known through attributes, but not essentially.  We can’t know the essential nature of God other than that there is nothing like it.  So for people that have accepted that, then next is to come into a type of harmony with the world and the way that is done primarily is by synchronizing with the sun, because all living things on the planet have a deep relationship with the sun and to light.  Even a fish in the depths of the ocean living in deep darkness still has a relationship with the sun and this is one of the reasons why human beings have mistakenly worshipped the sun in the past.

We know that the sunflower actually moves with the sun throughout the day, and you can see this in many flowers.  If you study biology, photosynthesis is the secret of life and it’s when the rays of the sun enter into a living cell and from that this extraordinary event occurs.  So the prayer is aligned with the sun.  We pray at the first dawn and then when the sun moves across the meridian and then when the shadow reaches its length and then when the sun goes down and then when the last light of the sun moves out of the sky.  During those five times, prayers are synchronized with the movement of the sun.  That is one of the most important means of synchronizing with the natural world, by actually partaking in probably the single most significant event in the solar system, at least for us on this earth.  We are witnessing this extraordinary movement of the sun everyday.

Faisal Ahmad: I think a lot of us can really identify with that recognition of the cosmic harmony in the world.But could you elaborate on the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the early companions and how they served as a realistic model; how they maintained the values and implemented they way to come into this submission with God’s will in the world?

Shaykh Hamza: Well it was easier for them in that they were already deeply connected with nature.  That’s the nature of aboriginal people. That’s why the closer people are to an aboriginal state, generally the closer they are to what’s called in the Quran fitra, the inherent nature of human beings. The more distant we get from that, not only the more out of sync, but the more unhealthy we get.  Because there is an effect on the soul and even on the body.  If you look at that early period, they lived with animals.  People are so divorced from that …people drink milk without even reflecting on the fact that it comes from animals.  The Quran asks people to reflect on milk and where it came from and how it’s made and the miracle of milk itself.  The same is true with travelling in natural environments like the desert.  It’s an extraordinary thing.  A lot of people who live in cities become so divorced from natural experiences.  They don’t even see the stars and a lot of what the Quran is telling you to do is just look up in the heavens:

Wa samaae wa taariq.  Wa najme idhaa howa.  Wa shamshi wa duhaha. Wa laile idhaa sajja.  All these verses—By the night when it envelops.  By the sun in it’s brilliant morning light.  By the star when it descends. Was samaae zaa til buruj…and We have ornamented the heavens with constellations, all of these verses in the Quran are telling people to connect and to look around yo, to look at the order and reflect on it. For the early community that was much easier then it is for modern people that are glued to artificial lights as opposed to celestial lights. The lights of their computer screen and television and mediated reality, so that the more divorced they are the sicker they’re feelin, and thus you have widespread depression and widespread self-loathing.  You have all of these disorders and sicknesses that are beginning to reach, well they are epidemic.  Well established epidemics that have to do with people being so divorced from reality and from truth and beauty and gratitude.

One of the things about the ancients, even the idolaters,is that they had a deep sense of gratitude. The Greek tradition was filled with gratitude, with an awareness of how extraordinary the world was. If we just consider our eyes and the miracle of sight and the ability to see the world in all of these extraordinary colors…because of what modern people would call extraordinary coincidences.  Whereas, we would say no, there is intention behind all of this.  The fact that men are bi-pedal, that they walk on two feet, unlike other animals.  We’ve been dignified that we walk upright, that we are straight.  The fact that we have been given hands.  I mean, hands, just the fact that you have an opposable thumb and the ability to grasp with it, to write with it; the fact that we have language, unlike animals that we can record our history.  Lions cannot record their history.  We can record our history.  We know where we came from and how we got here, which is also guidance for the future, if we were willing to look at it.

So just being aware of all of this extraordinary capacity that human beings have been given amongst creatures and then feeling gratitude.  There is two ways that you respond to people that benefit you.  That noble people respond by feeling indebted and wanting to repay the debt and vile and contemptible people actually feel resentment.  If you help a vile or contemptible person, he will actually resent you and actually want to do you harm.  Our relationship with our Creator should be one of a sense of deep gratitude, a sense of wanted to benefit and serve the order, whereas contemptible people feel angry and resentful.

Faisal Ahmad: So in a sense the reason that we look to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as the exemplar, as well as the early community, is that they were able to actualize this internal co-harmonization with the order of the world around us and they perfected that.

Shaykh Hamza: Well the Prophet, salallahu alaihe wa salam, peace be upon him, was in perfect order.  And that’s why he never found fault in anything, because all he did was witness acts of God in the world.  He couldn’t even hate his enemies, because he saw them as part of this divine order.

Faisal Ahmad: Could you say he was a perfect mirror that reflected the divine attributes absolutely perfectly into the world?  Or that the early community were able to fully embody the essential divine qualities?

Shaykh Hamza: Yeah, that sounds fine.  I feel that the secret of that first community was that they had the Prophet, salallahu alaihe wa salam, as an example directly.  The proof of the power of that example is that he transformed the community from, on one level, a barbaric society that had horrible qualities.  Like every barbaric society they also had extraordinary qualities. You know, you can’t just demonize the jahaliyah Arabs, the Pre-Islamic Arabs.  They did have extraordinary qualities in the same way that a lot of modern people do. You can see this in our society, that alongside the barbarity and the darkness, there are also extraordinary qualities.

The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, took a people that had these terrible tendencies and qualities--burying their baby girls alive out of a sense of shame and a fear of scandal, the exploitation of poor and weak people, they were really Nietzcheian in their views.  They felt that the world was about power and if you are able to assert your will on the world then that was what noble people did.  They had this idea of nobility as being the capacity to assert one’s will on the world, but with that obviously comes responsibilities.  They looked at weak people as unworthy and contemptible and so they forced their will on them without a lot of restraint or remorse.  The Prophet, salallahu alaihe wa salam, took these people and within twenty three years had really transformed them.  One of the proofs of that power and that transformation is that after he dies, it only holds together for about twelve years.  Then it began to come apart and within thirty years, it is almost completely pulled apart, with civil wars and calamities, which actually is in a sense a proof of what he did more than a detraction.  Some Orientalists have looked at that as a contradiction, but in fact, I see it as a proof of who he was and what he did, peace be upon him.

By 661, when the Umayyad dynasty begins, within a few short years it’s become a pretty despotic situation.  Perhaps less so than today because despotism now has technological means that it did not have at that time.  There was a lot more freedom even in pre-modern despotic societies simply because the state apparatus was not anywhere near as capable as it is today of controlling people.   You have periods throughout Islam in history where you do have extraordinary rulers and extraordinary societies.  I think if people had a chance to really look at and read the descriptions of some of these Muslim societies, they’d find in many ways they were much healthier and freer than many of the societies that we have today.  And that doesn’t ignore the fact that there was a lot of terrible aspects as well.

Faisal Ahmad: We’re just about out of time, I was wondering if we could ask one last question. How is it that we can actually follow in the footsteps of the early Muslims and yet avoid the mistakes that you just mentioned that many of the Umayyads and the later generations fell into? How can we really recapture that original spirit that the people around the Prophet, peace be upon him, had?

Shaykh Hamza: Well, I think that in Islam there is an individual aspect.  There is MY Islam, as an individual trying to implement in my life the ideals of Islam and using my life as an opportunity to improve my state of submission and that takes a lifetime of work. Each day of our life is an opportunity to improve our state and to improve our understanding of the world and it’s not easy.  It takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of thought and it also usually takes the company of good people that will help one.  It takes brutal honesty as well, of looking at ourselves and trying to get closer to these ideals.  The Quran is very clear in that it says:  You have in the Messenger of God, an excellent example.  And so learning about his life, how he was the most forbearing of people, he was the most clement of people; he was the most forgiving of people.

He constantly smiled…that it was his nature, to smile. If you look out there just smiling is something that could really help to alleviate things.  People that smile all the time now are seen almost as fools.  Something is wrong with them.  There is just so much ingratitude.  I think that gratitude and just being filled with a state of gratitude is something that all of us should be working on.  The Quran says that the devil said that he will come to all of humanity from in front of them and behind them, to the right of them and to the left of them, and then he said you will not find very many grateful ones amongst them.  Gratitude was really what he was trying to remove from Bani Adam or the children of Adam.  Gratitude according to Ibn Ata’allah is the quickest way to really being in a healthy state.

On this idea of really feeling grateful and reflecting, recently there was a beautiful study done at Davis by a social scientist on gratitude in which they took people over long periods of time who tended to be depressed, and negative people, and they would have them start their day by actually going over those things that they had reason to be grateful for.  Over time their mental states changed drastically.  It’s a very interesting study because it was done with a very strong control group in a traditional social science setting using their methodology.

Feeling that gratitude and thankfulness was the hallmark of traditional societies, even in this country traditionally was rooted in a sense of feeling grateful and feeling the blessings that we’ve been given.  I think that that’s something that Muslims really need to focus on, because if you look out there at all this negative stuff, you will just start feeling miserable and if you forget that in spite of it all there is so much to be grateful for.  If you’re in a wheelchair, you know the fact that you’ve got your hands is reason to be grateful.

Ibn Abbas, the cousin of the Prophet, salallahu alaihe wa salam, and one of his companions, said that any tribulation that you have, if you examine it you will always find that there is reason to feel grateful.  He gave three immediately: that if it was in this world then that alone is reason to feel grateful.  That it wasn’t in the next world because a calamity in the next world is much greater than anything in this world.  That if it was in your worldly affairs, your material affairs, and not in your spiritual affairs then that was reason to be grateful.  And that it could have been worse.  Whatever affliction in this life, it still could have been worse, and that is also reason to be grateful.

Even in the midst of tribulation there is reason to feel grateful. The Quran clearly states: La in sha kar tum la a zee dan na kum…that if you show gratitude that God will increase you in that feeling of gratitude.  In other words, he’ll give you more reasons to feel grateful.  That is a law of cause and effect according to Muslim beliefs.  If you actually display gratitude you will find more and more reasons to feel grateful and if you display ingratitude, conversely you will find more and more reason to feel ungrateful.  That’s the way the universe works.

Faisal Ahmad: Well thank you so much Imam Hamza for sharing your perspectives on the early Muslim community and the ideals that lead them to become a blossoming civilization.  I’d like to thank you so much and be grateful to you for joining us.  Do you have any closing comments for somebody who would like to learn more about the message of Islam here in the West?

Shaykh Hamza: Well, I would just say that anybody who is not a Muslim, I think they have a moral obligation to find out about one-sixth of humanity.  By the year 2005 the UN estimates it will be one-third of humanity.  We have an obligation to know about what large segments of people on this plant believe and think.  That would include finding out about Asian people and their beliefs, and not being so ethnocentric and believing that we are the only people that have a civilization or a culture or a world view.  There are others out there and we have a great deal to learn from them, from all of them.  Islam certainly has an immense contribution already. Historically, it has given the West untold treasures that most people are not aware of, including the actual numbers that we use to calculate.  I think that for intelligent people, they should be out there trying to find out more.  I would certainly recommend some of the decent books that have come out--even The Complete Idiots Guide to Understanding Islam and The Dummies Guide are excellent works that have come out.  Silly names but they are actually very good material.  I looked at both of those books because I wanted to just make sure the information was accurate and I actually benefited from them, and I’ve been studying for 25 years.  They’re good books and they are well organized and they are easily available.  I saw a woman on an airplane the other day reading The Idiot’s Guide to Islam and I asked her, why are you reading this?  She said, well I just feel like there is so much in the news and I really want to understand this better because I feel there is a lot of misunderstanding and lack of communication.  That is the hallmark of intelligent people.  I would call it Intelligent Guide to Islam instead of Idiot’s Guide.  It’s the idiots that don’t bother to actually find out about the world that they live in and what other people think and feel.

Faisal Ahmad: You know, Dawud Wharnsby Ali has song called People of the Boxes and he describes how people try to close themselves up in these boxes and don’t like to open up and see the world.  He says “Faith and flowers whither and die, when they are hidden from the sky”.  I think that it’s really beautiful that a lot of people, through this program and through your efforts, have really opened up to a better understanding of the Islamic tradition.  Thank you again very much Imam Hamza. Jazakallah Khair for your efforts.

Shaykh Hamza: Assalamu’alaikum

Faisal Ahmad: Walikum Assalam wa rahmatullah

Faisal Ahmad: You’re listening to Window on Islam and today’s program we’ve been exploring the origins of Islam as a community; what were its founding principles, how did these teachings lead to the blossoming of Islam into a great world civilization, and what do these ideals mean to us as a society today.

We just had on with us Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, who is a prominent Muslim scholar and educator. He was talking to us about the early Muslim community and the basis of Islam and how we can learn more about the Islamic tradition. Shaykh Hamza currently resides in the Bay area of San Francisco with his wife and five children.

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