The Muslim Moderator

When Sheik Hamza Yusuf was summoned to the White House after the World Trade Center attack, he brought President George W. Bush two books. The first was a Qur'an, bristling with Post-It notes marking key verses. The second was "Thunder in the Sky," a book on the art of war by a first-century Chinese Taoist.

These two gifts--Islam's holy book and a tract on the humanistic use of power--suggest the two poles orienting the California-based Islamic scholar. He speaks to Americans as a Muslim, and to Muslims abroad as a member of that most powerful tribe on earth: Americans. Since September 11, the 43-year-old Muslim convert has taken up a post at the cultural crossroads between the Islamic world and the United States. Among young Western progressive Muslims, he's fast becoming the most prominent Islamic cleric of his generation. His speeches at home draw standing-room-only crowds. Moreover, says Fuad Nahdi, publisher of the British Muslim periodical Q News, "he can fill a hall anywhere in the Muslim world."

Born Mark Hanson, the son of California intellectuals, Yusuf was baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church and raised on a '70s diet of surfing and spiritual eclecticism. At 18, having narrowly survived a car crash, he started reading intently about Islamic spirituality. Over the next 10 years, he studied classical Islamic law and theology in Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco. Today he is as comfortable speaking Arabic on Al-Jazeera as he is expounding on American TV. His dazzling dexterity with Qur'anic knowledge and thinkers from Aristophanes to Mark Twain has made him a great popularizer of the faith.

Until the 1990s, American Muslim immigrants tended to follow intellectuals from the Old World; they put their hearts into political struggles back in Egypt or Kashmir or Palestine. Yusuf is among a clutch of Muslim intellectuals stressing American concerns. After September 11 he was quick to condemn the terrorists, not as a humanist but as a Muslim scholar. Under Muslim law, he pointed out, any Muslim with a U.S. passport or green card had signed a treaty, effectively, to obey American laws, making support for acts of violence on American soil unIslamic.

It's not just Muslims who are listening to him. During his White House visit, Yusuf told Bush that the original name for the Afghan war, Operation Infinite Justice, would offend Muslims. Justice being one of Allah's attributes, the title suggested the Americans were like God. "[Bush] was shocked," Yusuf recalled in a late-September sermon. The name was later changed to Operation Enduring Freedom. As a professor at the Zaytuna Institute, his San Francisco Bay Area madrasa, he has stressed a classical Islam, one stripped of the cultural baggage and prejudices that have crept in over the centuries. He wants Westerners to reform their relationship with the Islamic world, and Muslims to reform their own society. "Hamza and other Muslims have realized they need to address the theology of hate that exists among Islam," notes Georgetown professor John Esposito, author of "Unholy War." "They've had to fast-track their own reformist thinking."

It's a crucial but uncomfortable position. "I get a lot of flak, because people want to get into a Manichaean world view," Yusuf admits. Some Muslims consider Yusuf a Western stooge. At the same time, Western reporters have dug up strident speeches from his past, including an uncomfortably prescient address on Sept. 9, in which he said that America had "a great tribulation" coming to it. He has since said he regretted the speech.

In the months following the World Trade Center tragedy, he's been critical of the Bush administration's Afghan war and Washington's seeming inability to listen to Muslim criticisms of its foreign policy. At the same time, he's been baldly critical of Muslims, particularly those who peddle the politics of hate and corrupt Muslim regimes. "The Muslim world is a mess," he says. "Muslims know this, and it's soothing to say that it's a mess because of the West. That's partly true, but the West doesn't bear all the responsibility." That's a sober and evenhanded perspective. When an ex-surfer from the Bay Area can become a Muslim authority, it's a sign that the West is now part of the Muslim world, too.

The Muslim Moderator | News