“Shortly after World War II, a French reporter asked expatriate Richard Wright his opinion about the ‘Negro problem’ in the United States. The author replied ‘There isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a white problem’.” From The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and
the “White” Problem in American Studies by George Lipsitz
Admittedly the title for this essay is a bit stilted but when I was asked to pen a response to not only RISGate but to the numerous responses to it, academic and otherwise, I struggled to find a succinct way of describing the problem. My struggle was rooted in that the majority of responses were ensconced in character apologies in defense of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (hereafter referred to as SHY). The best I could come up with, without focusing exclusively on the errors of SHY, was to highlight where much of the battle was taking place: That for one to possess a quality inferred that it must be defining, totalizing and static. What I will attempt to do here is to show how a person can indeed possess a quality (be it a positive or a negative one) and have it not be the total sum of that person’s existence and humanity. However, this endeavor can only succeed if we first concede that not all criticism is synonymous with character assassination.
Let us begin straightaway with the charge leveled at SHY of being a racist. In a recent article defending SHY from the charge of racism, we find several different characteristics conjoined into one apology:
“characterizing [SHY] as a bigot, a racist, or white supremacist are grotesque in my view”.
Let us unpack this statement. Are these qualities, a bigot, a racist and a white supremacist, the same? To say that all three are “grotesque” suggests that all three characteristics are essentially synonyms of one another; a charge of one would be equal to a charge of all three—thus he argues that none of the three qualities could be something SHY possesses—and thus any one of these three would be an unjustified accusation. I, however, would argue that they’re not all the same.
To the first term, “bigot”, is defined as a person who “is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion.”
To the accusation of white supremacy, let us also examine its definition: “One who believes on an inherent level that whiteness and all of its expressions and accomplishments is not only superior to non-whites but vis-a-vie that superiority, deserves to be vaulted over all non-whites in every aspect even at the cost of brutality”.
And finally to the charge of racism: “a person who comes to pre-rational conclusions as to inherent qualities a group of people may possess because one member of the community appears to possess those qualities”.
So we must cross examine the statements of SHY and see if they bare out any intolerance, etc. In this instance I would be partially persuaded to exonerate the shaykh from the charge of bigotry, though one could argue hints of it are present in his interview, as confirmed in another article which quoted SHY as saying,
“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!”
While beyond the scope of this one article here, a worthwhile read which sheds light on the topics of race, language, and hegemony (of which bigotry is a subfield of her study) and how they collide is Dohra Ahmad’s, Rotten English.
As to the charge of white supremacy, public reason (a institution given more over to emotional conclusions than thoughtful reflection) would hasten to exonerate SHY due to the common—and misplaced—understanding that white supremacy must always be equated with violence and intent. Due to such groups as the KKK, whose overt and repugnant acts of violence against blacks for example, white supremacy has been falsely entrenched only in violence. This is not to say that white supremacy cannot result in acts of violence, as was just cited, but that it needn’t always be so. If we allow ourselves a more nuanced definition of white supremacy—white privilege being a subcategory of it—then we can move beyond the repugnant, coarse, and limiting definition of white supremacy to one which allows us to tease it out of its hiding place. As the scholar of Black Studies, George Lipsitz, writes concerning the legacy of whiteness and racism in America, “whiteness is everywhere in American culture, but it is very hard to see”.
I would further Lipsitz’s argument in that not only is whiteness and white supremacy (its non-violent expressions) difficult to see but is equally difficult to see in others especially when those “others” are people of esteem and sound reputation. As I will make my case, demonstrations of white privilege are separate and distinct from the conscious intentions to commit acts in the name of white privilege.
Turning now to the charge of racism, I believe this claim can be sustained if we are willing to rearrange some of the mental furniture in our heads. I am not unaware of how many will be outraged by this assertion but let me first stake my claims.
All of the three qualities above: bigot, white supremacist, and racist, are qualities a person may possess. And like any quality, good or bad, I believe (as can be substantiated through Islamic scripture at least) no quality is either totally defining or static. To help make this more clear let us look at a positive quality first. If a person possesses courage or gentleness, while such qualities would be perceived as positive, they could under certain situations, be suppressed or countermanded. A brave person could act cowardly, a gentle person could behave harshly. My point being is that even if a person were to have an episode of being cowardly (or racist) it would not come to totally define that person as a coward (or a racist). However, if their cowardly (or racist) actions resulted in property damage, the loss of life—in the case of SHY, giving sanction the unjust legal practices aimed specifically at Blackamericans—such an incident could not be simply dismissed by pushing it off on such things as fatigue or even “human error”. Regardless of the other positive qualities that that person possesses and has demonstrated he or she would have to own up to the damage (property, psychological, or otherwise) or loss of life those actions incurred.
Let us be frank, the charge of racism, in general in the West and in particular in America, is perhaps only slightly less devastating than that of pedophilia. The transatlantic slave trade (TSL) has left an enduring scar on the psychology of the American public and perhaps even the world. Therefore when one invokes racism as a charge it is leveled at the core of a person with all of the collective brutality that the TSL inflicted on Africans, Native Americans and their descendants, amongst others. And while none of this is capable of being denied we must remember an important principle: qualities are neither totally defining nor static, meaning that even if we were to label SHY a racist, its implications would be (a) this is not totally defining of who he is as a man, a Muslim, a spiritual leader, etc., and (b) neither is this quality, were he to possess it, fixed. If we allow ourselves to re-conceive the nature of qualities we possess, good and bad, then not only can we have a more nuanced and honest understanding of who we are, we can also better deal with the consequences of any such actions, particularly negative ones. As I will make my case later in this article, this will apply to good and bad qualities.
So let us return to the charge of racism leveled against SHY and explore as to whether it can be sustained or not.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf means a great deal to many people. This undoubtedly is why there has been such committed resistance to him being labeled a racist. His accomplishments as well as his character have been attested to by many. However, neither a person’s accomplishments nor character are a sufficient means of defense when one has committed significant errors (in public no less). By significant I am referring not only to the substance of SHY’s statements but also to the stage (pun intended) upon which they were uttered. Nor can the proverbial office which he holds, as one of the most recognized and authoritative figures of Islam in the West, be ignored in terms of the amplifying power his station gave his statements. Add to that his privileged position as a white male (that this is not of his own choosing is irrelevant to the topic at hand) brings into stark relief the consequences of his actions and statements.
The very reason why the defense of SHY was so intense against the charge of racism is not because it couldn’t be true but because if SHY were racist its implication is that he must exhibit racist tendencies all the time if the accusation is to hold water. Returning to the totally defining/static rubric, many of us believe a person to be defined by the qualities they possess totally. This explains why, again to reference the article above, the defense of SHY is as thus:
“I cannot speak for others, but in the 18 years that I’ve known and worked with him, I cannot say that I have ever experienced or noticed any gesture which could be classified as racist”.
This defense of SHY is not only due to personal relationships many have with him but because according to lay-understandings of racism it would require SHY to be a racist in all times and in all places; thus the defense of, “I have ever experienced or noticed any gesture which could be classified as racist (as a side note, many others, myself included, have had contradictory interactions with SHY that would question the exclusivity of these person claims). The problem at hand here is the binary that we make of the quality of racism. We make it a one or a zero: it’s either totally all encompassing or not applicable at all. However, when we compare the quality of racism to other qualities (as above in discussing courage or gentleness) we have no problem conceding the fact that qualities other than racism are not totally defining: a person can be brave and cowardly; generous and stingy. Why the cosmic exception for racism? I believe this understanding has more to do with emotional attachment to SHY than anything else.
Another aspect of quality-possession I would like to articulate is that many, if not all, of the qualities we possess are situational or what I would like to term, symptomatic. Many of us have experienced witnessing people we can vouch for in terms of their kindness, generosity, or egalitarian spirit, act in ways which contradict those observations. All jokes aside, ask any married couple if they consider their spouse to be kind, gentle, and generous; without a doubt they can also substantiate instances in which their spouse demonstrated symptomatically, the opposite. Recently at a masjid in Southern California, an older member of the community, who is highly esteemed for his piety, made open reference to my wife, who is phenotypically black, “not looking like the people of Jannah (Paradise)”. My indignation at his statement was immediately met with testaments to his character, his faith, etc. While I have no means of contradicting testimonies of previous acts of kindness and egalitarian spirit, clearly the man possessed or harbored such racist conclusions about black folks in general (and my wife in particular). That he never expressed them publicly before is not a sufficient means of exonerating him (a) from the inanity of his statements and (b) that such qualities were something new to him; clearly he possessed them from before. To return to my definition of symptomatic, something in our interaction combined with the presence of my un-blonde wife produced a symptomatic reaction of racism.
Clearly the problem at hand is this pre-rational tendency for us to essentialize and totalize the qualities people possess and to see them as static and unchanging. This is why the public has been incensed at the charge of racism against SHY. The irony of this can be found in statements SHY made in his interview with Mehdi Hasan, that “ignorance is not essential to the human being”. Why the outrage, from the public and SHY himself, if such qualities are truly not “essential” to people? Returning to the question, if, however, we allow ourselves to see that even someone of SHY’s stature, piety, knowledge, etc., can still be susceptible to societal diseases, racism being just one of many, then we allow for the indignity of his statements to be addressed directly versus sweeping them under the rug. I believe this had much to do with why it took SHY several “tries” at formulating an apology because he himself (as can be attested to in Imam Zaid Shakir’s article) believed that in order for him to be a racist it meant an all-or-nothing-at-all enterprise: either SHY conceived of himself as totally racist or totally not racist. In that he (and the greater public) chose the latter is emblematic in how the structural elements of the Muslim community—in how it aids and abets white privilege—were ignored largely in the bulk of the responses to the incident.
In fact, viewed from another angle, much of the defense of SHY can be seen as further proof of how we look at quality-possession in our community. Through their undying love of SHY many were unable to see or empathize with the outrage in the black community because they believed the good qualities which SHY undoubtedly possesses, are also totalizing and static. That for SHY to be good meant that he was incapable of not acting good at any time. In my opinion this serves neither the public’s nor SHY’s best interests. Shaykh Hamza is a human, as many asserted, and like all humans, SHY errs, as is confirmed in the statement of the Prophet:
كُلُّ بَنِي آدَمَ خَطَّاءٌ, وَخَيْرُ اَلْخَطَّائِينَ اَلتَّوَّابُونَ
“All of the children of Adam err. And the best of those who err are those frequent in repentance.” Recorded by al-Tirmidhi
If we allow our leaders, spiritual and otherwise, to be human, then perhaps when they trip or stumble, they will only stub their toes, proverbially. I believe much of the outrage and brouhaha was precisely due to unrealistic expectations and projections that the Muslim public foists upon those in leadership positions, SHY doubly so. So when they do err, or fall, it is as if they are plummeting from the Heavens themselves.
Before concluding my thoughts on quality-possession, I would like to couch them in an incident from the Revelatory Period. In a famous exchange between Abu Dharr al-Ghifari and Bilal, a manumitted slave of Abyssinian descent, Abu Dharr (who was a close companion of the Prophet) made derogatory racist statements about Bilal’s mother, to which the Prophet responded:
يَا أَبَا ذَرٍّ أَعَيَّرْتَهُ بِأُمِّهِ إِنَّكَ امْرُؤٌ فِيكَ جَاهِلِيَّةٌ
“Abu Dharr!, did you insult [Bilal] by slandering his mother [i.e., ‘you son of a black woman!’]? You still have qualities of ignorance (Jahiliyyah) in you!” Recorded by al-Bukhari’s chapter on Faith (Kitab al-Iman)
Amongst the many takeaways here is not simply the Prophet reproaching Abu Dharr for his racist comments (this is significance though in terms of Islam’s authoritative stance against racism) but that he classified them as a quality in Abu Dharr. Abu Dharr’s statements could not be projected onto abstractions or explained away (through fatigue, for instance) but simply had to be owned up to in that the negative quality was something he possessed. This allowed for the Prophet to admonish Abu Dharr in a straight-forward capacity that left no chance of misunderstanding both the significance of his actions as well as to who was to blame. But equally important was that by the Prophet articulating Abu Dharr’s error as a quality, it empowered Abu Dharr to not only repent for his actions but to strive to remove them from him. In other words, according to the Prophet’s statement, racism was not a static or fixed quality but was mutable and capable of being changed. In fact, there are prophetic traditions confirming as much about Abu Dharr:
انْتَهَى إِلَى الرَّبَذَةِ وَقَدْ أُقِيمَتِ الصَّلاَةُ فَإِذَا عَبْدٌ يَؤُمُّهُمْ فَقِيلَ هَذَا أَبُو ذَرٍّ . فَذَهَبَ يَتَأَخَّرُ فَقَالَ أَبُو ذَرٍّ أَوْصَانِي خَلِيلِي صلى الله عليه وسلم أَنْ أَسْمَعَ وَأُطِيعَ وَإِنْ كَانَ عَبْدًا حَبَشِيًّا مُجَدَّعَ الأَطْرَافِ
“[Abu Dharr] arrived at al-Rabadhah when the prayer had already commenced. A slave was leading them in prayer and it was said, ‘This is Abu Dharr,’ so the slave started to relinquish leading the prayer to Abu Dharr but he replied, ‘My close friend (i.e., the Prophet ﷺ) told me to listen and obey, even if the one leading the prayer was an Ethiopian slave with amputated limbs.” Recorded in the Sunan of Ibn Majah
Similarly, the Prophet attests to Abu Dharr’s character:
مَا أَظَلَّتِ الْخَضْرَاءُ وَلاَ أَقَلَّتِ الْغَبْرَاءُ أَصْدَقَ مِنْ أَبِي ذَرٍّ
“There is no one more truthful, that the sky has shaded and the earth has carried, than Abu Dharr.” Recorded in al-Tirmidhi
My point to mentioning a few of these testimonies shows that Abu Dharr’s error did not come to define him, least of all in the sight of the Prophet! His racism was a quality inside him; something he possessed, therefore something he was capable of overcoming and changing. It also demonstrates, in the account above when it came time to lead prayer, that Abu Dharr took concrete steps to disinvest himself from structural racist practices by allowing the Abyssinian slave to lead prayer. As I will address below, this is a major step that needs to be taken beyond simply stating, “I’m sorry I offended you.”
Nonetheless, there was reconciliation for what Abu Dharr did; owning up to it unapologetically and without appeals to his good character or previous accomplishments, all the while allowing Abu Dharr to learn, repent and grow from his mistake. If we wish our leaders to be capable of the same it is imperative we examine this prophetic model. It is for this reason I have no difficulty in charging SHY (taken into consideration with my own personal interactions with the shaykh) as a racist because according to Islam, racism, just like other positive and negative qualities, is not an immutable quality nor is it a static (permanent) and totally defining one. I also firmly believe it is the only way for leaders to be held accountable (myself included), for us to grow, and to address the structural elements in our community, and in particular interest to this incident, those which prize and esteem white privilege.
So what can be learned from these events? I firmly believe that when Allah causes a stir in His Ummah there is something to be gained from it. Indeed, given SHY’s status and stature in our community as one of its most esteemed leaders I find it to be no coincidence that he would be the vessel through which we would be taught a profound lesson. That lesson, for me, is the power and seduction of labeling. Racist, liberal, feminist. All of these are labels which have been tossed around like so many grenades lately, inflicting wounds much in the same way their real life counterparts would. This is not to say that there are not valid critiques of liberalism or feminism: I would be hypocritical for not stating that I do in fact have many objections to these philosophies, especially when they are taken to the absurdity of requiring me to express my Islam only through their limiting prisms. But all too often I have seen those who, in the name of “defending the faith”, totalize another person because they espoused or seemed to espouse liberal or feminist tendencies, for example. Rare is the individual whose humanity can be completely summed up because they privilege feminism, for example. And more importantly even if a person does espouse such philosophies it does not mean that he or she must, or always will, harbor them and most importantly, that it necessarily removes them from Islam. We must be cautious as to how closely to fire we hold each others feet on matters that do not explicitly relate to theological matters. To be clear, I am not advocating for a kind of relativism: I have and will continue to argue against, for example, liberalism, in particular, in that I feel it is an attempt to compete with Revelation. However, that a person possesses certain liberal qualities does not automatically mean that they have forfeited their value in the sight of God, or in the case of Muslims, a place in the Ummah of Muhammad.
The American Muslim community is still a young community. It has many things to learn yet, including that religion is not an unconscious or automatic inoculation against the vicissitudes of racism, or for any other socially contractible disease, for that matter. In fact, racism has been able to fester and grow in one of the most religious nations on the face of the earth; a fact that should never escape our notice. Christianity has not only aided and assisted racism in America, but many of its well-intending practitioners remain ignorant and blind of its existence. I say this not in the spirit of polemics but as observable fact. My great concern now is that Muslims, in their quest to find relief in a hostile land, will, in return for loyalty and a place of belongingness, replicate this most vile of American STD’s (socially-transmitted diseases): racism. In fact the Prophet warns of this in this famous narration:
لَتَتَّبِعُنَّ سَنَنَ الَّذِينَ مِنْ قَبْلِكُمْ شِبْرًا بِشِبْرٍ وَذِرَاعًا بِذِرَاعٍ حَتَّى لَوْ دَخَلُوا فِي جُحْرِ ضَبٍّ لاَتَّبَعْتُمُوهُمْ قُلْنَا يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ آلْيَهُودَ وَالنَّصَارَى قَالَ فَمَنْ
“You would tread the same path as was trodden by those before you inch by inch, span by span, so much so that if they had entered into a lizard hole, you’d follow right behind them.” The Companions of the Prophet replied, “Allah’s Messenger, do you mean Jews and Christians as ‘those before you’?” To which he replied, “Who else?” Recorded in Sahih Muslim
The task of addressing racism will be made doubly hard in that the vast majority of our religious scholars, SHY being no different, do not backgrounds in critical race theory (CRT) or race studies. This is what makes the Medhi Hasan interview all the more absurd: asking a white male, whose background/specialization is in religious and spiritual studies, to address such topics as police brutality, the viability of Muslims (conservatively one-third of whom in America are black!) engaging in BLM, to the quality and state of the American penal/legal/justice system as it relates to blacks!, turning to the ultimate absurdity: “The United States is probably, at least in terms of terms of its laws, one of the least racist societies in the world”. The problem with SHY’s statement here is not only its insensitivity towards the history, the plight, and the struggle of non-whites, particularly blacks, but that it’s also factually wrong as new research in the field of comparative international law indicates. What was it that not only misinformed SHY as to the factual nature of the topic, but that imbued him with a sense of entitlement and qualification to speak to topics he obviously is not qualified to do so? I believe the shaykh arrived at this conclusion not solely of his own making. As I addressed in a previous video, the Muslim community itself, comprised of a majority of non-white and non-black Muslims, esteems, privileges, and aids in this mediocrity of specialization that informs Muslim leaders to feel that they can, and must, speak to all topics, regardless of qualifications. In light of this, we must take to heart that reproductions of racist behavior are not always systematically linked to intent. Even social justice and anti-racist activists can run the risk of reproducing contexts of racial oppression.
Which brings me to what are the steps our community in general, and SHY in particular, can do to combat white supremacy and its subset of white privilege. My first suggestion is that white supremacy, white privilege, and racism, cannot solely be combated through admitting one’s missteps; it must be disinvested from. Returning to what I feel is an opportunity for our community to learn and grow, I see this as a prime opportunity for SHY to call for a conference on race, hosted by his illustrious Zaytuna College. What more powerful message could be sent, to the Muslim community, to Blackamericans, and to America and the world, than one of its most prominent leaders taking concrete steps towards tackling the issue versus disavowing oneself of its existence? If the success of Muslims in America is to be measured, one metric would certainly be on how we do not replicate her ills, lock, stock, and barrel, especially not one of her most enduring sicknesses.
In closing, let us remember that the Qur’an’s message itself rests on the capacity for change. The Prophet is described therein as, “a clear warner”. What good would a warning be if qualities (disbelief, sexual immorality, infanticide, etc.) were immutable? In such a drastic light the Qur’an could rightfully be dismissed as nothing other than, “tales of the Ancients” (Qur’an 68: 15) if the suggestive nature of the Qur’anic message was not one of hope, change, and empowerment through the mutability of negative qualities and attributes.
My advocacy here is admittedly personal. Two years ago I accepted a position as imam in the Muslim community. I realize now more than ever we need a fundamental shift in the way in which leadership is viewed and views itself. When I see someone like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf on stage, making such a gross error, part of me sees myself: It is inevitable that I too, will err. What is need now though is a system by which leaders are encouraged to own up to their mistakes: To admit that we have something to learn versus apologizing, not for having done something wrong, but for offending someone. All too often we undermine that process for honest self-accountability when one’s humanity is at stake. Apologizing for offending one particular group is in essence an acknowledgement that one is not sorry for the substance of one’s misdeeds but that one was caught offending them. In other words, “I’m sorry you were offended,” not, “I’m sorry for what I did”.
I pray these words can help spark a new dialog on what it means to err in our community. Alexander Pope, the 18th-century English poet, was on to something: “To err is human”. But Islamic tradition also has a take on being human in that it also means to be responsible (per the hadith, “kullukum ra’in, wa kullukum mas’ul”). May Allah guide us, forgive us and make us amongst those whom He is happy with. Amin.