UAE: From student to honoured guest

Aisha Tariq / 11 August 2012

Renowned American scholar Shaikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson returns to the country where he studied Islam over 30 years ago, reaching out to Muslims with words of wisdom and guidance.

DURING HIS public appearances in Abu Dhabi, Shaikh Hamza Yusuf always seemed to be moving in the center of a crowd. At gatherings, both large and small, a perpetual knot of people encircled him as he left his speaking engagements, hoping to thank him for his scholarship or perhaps request another piece of it.

The renowned American scholar of Islamic studies was in the capital last weekend as a guest of the President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, under the “programme of scholars” organised by the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments.

Over three decades ago, the young convert Hamza Yusuf Hanson journeyed to the UAE in search of institutions and scholars that could guide him down his chosen path of Islam.  Now he returns to what he calls “my second country” as a respected and sought-after scholar in his own right.

Delivering the Friday sermon at Abu Dhabi’s Masjid Maryam bint Sultan last weekend, Shaikh Hamza recalled how Shaikh Zayed’s leadership over the still young nation impacted his own early years as a Muslim. “This country was blessed, in my personal experience as well, because Shaikh Zayed understood the responsibility [of guidance],” he said. “During that time there was a dearth of scholars, so Shaikh Zayed brought scholars from all over the Muslim world — some of the best scholars at the time, and many of them came here fleeing persecution from other places. Shaikh Zayed opened the door for these people to come into this country.”

The spiritual wealth that Shaikh Zayed gathered together in the UAE in turn drew seekers like Hamza Yusuf, who came to train under these eminent scholars. Although he initially stayed at the Al Ain institute where he was studying, his desire to avoid distractions led him to the living quarters of a local mosque where he spent two years as a muezzin [caller to prayers] and another two years as an Imam [leader of worship]. He lived four years without air conditioning and became fluent in Arabic, truly earning his claim to his adopted country.

But it is Shaikh Hamza’s English scholarship in Islamic studies that has captured the attention of audiences around the world. After a decade of studying and traveling throughout the Middle East and Africa, he returned to his native United States and in 1996 founded Zaytuna Institute, offering “classical” knowledge of Islam through English publications, lectures and audiovisual materials. Three years ago he cofounded the California-based Zaytuna College, which aspires to be the Western world’s first accredited institution teaching Islamic disciplines. Through his work, Shaikh Hamza strives to give Westerners and English speakers worldwide access to the traditional study methods and Islamic sciences he himself learned in Arabic.

“Shaikh Hamza is someone who is trying to make Islam very relevant to the modern world,” says Yusuf, a British national who serves as Imam at Masjid Maryam, one of two mosques in Abu Dhabi where Friday services are delivered in English.

“I think having someone like Shaikh Hamza was a blessing for the community here, particularly because of his own background having spent time in the UAE — which has a diverse, expat community whose first language of communication is English — but also because of the combination of his aptitudes, since he has studied the traditional Islamic subjects. He is someone who has tried to see the relevance and application it has to many of the issues that Muslims are facing today.”

Although a newspaper notice had appeared announcing Shaikh Hamza’s lecture at Abu Dhabi National Theatre last weekend, Masjid Maryam’s Friday congregation was pleasantly surprised to find the world-famous speaker delivering their weekly sermon on the same day. Congregants listened with rapt attention as he addressed the subject of leadership, relating an anecdote he personally heard from a cousin and traveling companion of Shaikh Zayed.

“[Shaikh Zayed] was in a European city for two weeks and he used to go to a coffee house every day. The birds would come and he would feed them bread. And every day the birds would come and there would be more of them than before. He said they must be telling each other there was bread here,” said Shaikh Hamza, as a quiet laugh rippled through the congregation.

He continued, “By the end of the two weeks, there were all these birds waiting for him in the coffee house. He told his cousin, ‘tomorrow they’re all going to come and we won’t be here. Go ask the man who owns this place how much it would cost to feed them for a year till we come back next time.’” Shaikh Hamza’s ability to couch a message of morality in simple yet memorable stories helps explain his pull over wide audiences.

“I just love hearing him speak because he’s a storyteller and I find it’s easier sometimes for people to relate to what you’re saying when you infuse your lecture with stories,” says an American who works at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus and has been following Shaikh Hamza’s work for many years. “I could listen to him for hours because of that [and] there’s something very familiar about him.”

After the Friday sermon, the congregation quickly spread word to the wider community that Shaikh Hamza would be giving a speech later that evening at the National Theater. In spite of a long day of fasting and the late hour — the lecture began well after conclusion of tarawih [Ramadan night prayers] — hundreds showed up to hear Shaikh Hamza’s talk on, most fittingly, “the weapon of the tongue”.

“Tell me about an action that if I do it, it will cause me to enter paradise and it will prevent me from entering the hellfire,” Shaikh Hamza quoted, beginning his speech with a question once put to Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) by one of his companions. He went on to discuss the Prophet’s detailed response, covering what are popularly known as the “five pillars of Islam” — the belief in one God and Mohammad’s prophecy, prayer, fasting, alms-giving and pilgrimage to Makkah.

Shaikh Hamza then related the Prophet’s question back to his companion: “Can I tell you how you acquire all of that?” His audience listened intently for the end of a story of which they, in some real sense, are also a part. Shaikh Hamza took his own tongue between the tips of finger, mimicking the Prophet’s action to his companions, before recalling his admonition: “Guard your tongue”.

As someone whose speech holds mass appeal, Shaikh Hamza is well-placed to address the power of words. On the promise of hearing something useful and inspirational, husband and wife Ekhman and Aida drove down from Dubai when they heard from an Abu Dhabi-based friend that Shaikh Hamza was in town. The Malaysian couple used to attend a mosque in Australia whose Imam had studied under Shaikh Hamza, and they could not pass up the opportunity to hear him in person.

“The way he puts things together, the teachings from the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) put in the context of this world, helps people understand what they need to do,” says Ekhman.

What Shaikh Hamza once came seeking in the UAE, he now gives back to the faithful all over the world.