In December, at the Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) convention in Toronto, everyone’s favorite white Muslim rock star, Hamza Yusuf, got himself into a bit of trouble in the community for comments he made regarding race, specifically African-Americans. The Hamza Yusuf dust up for me is an example of everything that is wrong with the so-called mainstream Muslim subculture in the US. He said some stupid things, got called out on it, then went on stage again and said some more stupid things, and all over the world, his followers were quick to blindly follow him. One could not fail to notice that almost all of those defending him, and attacking those who were calling him out, were NOT BLACK, and that all of those who wrote articles defending him & attacking his challengers have a stake in the monetization of the deen.
For me, it brought to mind a lot of the social disharmony that plagues the Muslim community and puts paid to its claims about justice between people. 2016 saw the Pulse shooting and the shitty, nearly non-existent Muslim response. It saw Muslims fabricate several hate crimes after the election, and it ended with Arab, White and South Asian Muslims attempting to put African-American Muslims “back in their place” when they dared to criticize a great white sheikh.
One of the biggest claims Muslim daiyees make about the deen is that Islam is anti-racist and that people of different races and ethnicities are all equal in Islam. While there are certainly some hadith and other things that support that claim, there are also hadith that are used to elevate Arabs and others who claim descent from the Quraysh over all other people, and hadith that have been used to say that people of African descent are inferior or worthy of mockery. For every non-Black person below defending Hamza Yusuf and calling the (largely) Black Americans who challenged him “snakes,” “Islamists,” “sick,” “blind,” “stupid,” and “ignorant,” there is the Desi or Arab liquor store owner who calls Black people “abeed.” There is the Desi or Arab “leader” in the community who dismisses all Black Muslims as “Farrakhanis” or “Salafis,” and considers their Islam to be false or incomplete.
I cannot help but notice that in all of the controversy at the time, or in the months that have followed, never did Hamza Yusuf ask people not malign and name-call those who challenged his statements.
The introduction of social media has amplified Black American Muslim (and other) voices in a way that we’ve not heard yet. Malcolm X and others were, yes, famous and infamous in the 1960s, but it was because the establishment media judged them outrageous and dangerous. With social media, we are, to a large extent, able to exercise a great deal more control over our message and where it goes. I grew up in a time when Black Muslims were dismissed by the Muslim establishment as “crazy Salafis” or “Farrakhanis.” The reality that there was a Muslim history in this country going way back before the Mother Mosque and it’s immigrant founders, all the way back to ships that came from Africa, was not something we were taught. We did not hear about the contributions of people of African descent to Islamic scholarship and civilizations.
(I would add that an unspoken antagonism towards African-Americans does seem to exist in the ex-Muslim world as well, but I’m not about that today. Getting into the issues of the ex-Muslim world is a whole ‘nother thing.)
Observing this largely from the sidelines as a cultural Muslim, it seems to me that the Muslim establishment, the CAIR, ISNA, Zaytuna, Maghrib, etc. leaders aren’t entirely happy with the way that social media has equalized communication. If any Muslim can voice her or his opinions and questions, and openly challenge and question any Muslim leader publicly, it poses a threat to the structure of leadership that exists. I personally find it satisfying, vindicating, and amusing to see Yasir Qadhi, Hamza Yusuf and the rest of them stumble through this new society where the people they expect to pay them hundreds or thousands of dollars to teach them how to attain paradise are now openly questioning and challenging them.
We’ve been told that we can’t know our own deen without the shaykhs and imams and the conventions and the seminars. We’ve been taught we can’t challenge or question, and so what the Muslim communities have seen is a mass exodus of people from the deen to atheism, Buddhism, cultural Islam, and anything else. I don’t know how it might have been different for me if I had experienced the rendering of my iman in an atmosphere where people openly question, where women openly challenge the rules and restrictions that have been placed on us, and where African-American Muslim history and thought challenges the not-so-subtle racism of the community.
I used to revere Hamza Yusuf in the way that one reveres someone who has taught them so much, introduced them to new ideas. I respected him in the way that religious Muslims are taught to respect people of learning – that is, to afford him a near infallibility, and to believe that criticism of “the scholars” is taboo and sinful. After all, they are inheritors of the prophets, and the prophets were completely without sin, so… it all makes one wonder who, exactly, decided that the scholarly establishment should be treated with such unquestioning obedience.
When my eyes opened to the reality of tawhid and iman, they also opened to the reality of the very human, very flawed men who call themselves our leaders, and who call up on us to listen to them and support them. But I cannot help but be angry and frustrated with them still, for failing the community as they continue to do, whether the conversation is race, gender, extremism or some other aspect of social justice. Hamza Yusuf didn’t stop being a man who exists as a white person in a society with a white establishment. He didn’t stop being a man in a society that privileges men and their opinions and experiences. Saying the shahada didn’t take his whiteness away, it didn’t take away a lifetime of everything that white people are afforded by default, whether they want it or not, in terms of things like credibility. It doesn’t make Hamza Yusuf evil to say that he has white privilege, regardless of the fact that he’s Muslim.
The Hamza Yusuf RIS blowup, for me, once again highlighted the hypocrisy of the religious Muslims, who fancy themselves the mainstream, but who are actually the minority of US Muslims. If Hamza Yusuf had made similar remarks about Palestinians, he would have been run out of town and probably never invited to speak at a large Muslim convention again. People would have pilloried him on social media. But because his remarks were made at the expense of Black people, because they showed his ignorance of Black realities, and because African-American Muslims dared to call upon him to recognize this and acknowledge not just the pain that comments like his cause within the community but to recognize that he made them in the context of several hundred years of similar blithe comments about Black Americans, well, now people are going too far. At least the people in this community never disappoint, as evidenced by the very small sample of tweets above.