March 30, 2013

Some observations on the Michael Muhammad Knight versus Hamza Yusuf articles

Recently Michael Muhammad Knight published two provocative pieces on Vice critiquing Hamza Yusuf as a white convert and a spiritual salesman.

Here is the first one. It's called "The Problem with White Converts" and features a huge picture of Hamza Yusuf.
Here is the second one. It's called "Michael Muhammad Knight vs. Hamza Yusuf." It has a picture of Knight with a cape on, about to get in the wrestling ring with Yusuf.

Perhaps most readers outside the US have not even heard of Michael Muhammad Knight, so the context will seem unfamiliar. If that is the case, I recommend skipping the articles altogether. There are likely better uses of your time. But if you are American, what MMK is saying is important and true, although problematic.

Here are my cursory observations on the two articles:

1. MMK is not know for having good manners, or rather I should say, since I don't know him personally, he is not known for conforming to the rhetorical and performative aspects that Muslim scholars and the larger Muslim community understand as good manners. That means he says things in a bald-faced way, which makes some Muslims uncomfortable and means they are more likely to write him off.

2. To imply, as MMK does in the above articles, that Yusuf is some kind of huckster who is spouting rhetoric he does not believe is disrespectful, and wrong. Not just morally wrong (in the sense of implying that Yusuf is not sincere), but unverifiably wrong. Whether or not another person believes as he/she says is not a matter for idle speculation on the internet. Hamza Yusuf deserves more respect, not because he is Hamza Yusuf, but because it is neither good manners nor good argumentation to imply that someone is insincere. MMK ought to know as much, given how many times he has likely been dismissed, attacked, called insincere, etc.

3. White converts using Islam to authenticate and thereby de-privilege and "de-whiten" themselves is a real phenomenon. It is not altogether a bad thing. There are ways of moving through these spaces with integrity, and avoid becoming a slogan spouting, cartoonish parody. An analogy might be drawn to William Wimsatt's famous essay in Bomb The Suburbs "We Use Words Like Mackadocious", in that the attempt to shed white skin privilege by becoming Muslim often mirrors similar attempts by white kids trying to be down with hip-hop culture. There is an elaborate "hyper-performativity" of Muslim-ness (thank you Mahdi Tourage!) that mirrors the hyper-performativity of blackness in its relentless search for authenticity. I think Hamza Yusuf is a poor example of this, however. MMK could have done some more research, or perhaps even offered up himself as an example (actually he has in his books), before targeting Yusuf in this article.

4. The racial rhetoric of the "white convert", and the use of Hamza Yusuf as an example obscure an important point MMK is making, which is:
   The "classical Islamic tradition" is being packaged and sold as a product in the US, and it is product that cannot begin to fulfill the expectations people have of it. Notice that Hamza Yusuf and others who study abroad rarely speak on the debates going on over interpretation in the places they studied. Take Mauritania for example: I have yet to hear Hamza Yusuf give an opinion on how the Maliki fiqh scholars dealt with slavery in that country. It was instructive to hear an Mauritanian activist talk about other activists who burned books of Maliki fiqh, because of Mauritanian fiqh scholars complicity and intransigence with regards to the issue of slavery! These Mauritanian activists symbolically enacted their belief that the "classical Islamic tradition" did not have the resources to "do what was necessary" in Mauritania. Whether or not they were correct, it is instructive that there is a deep and divisive debate within the classical Islamic tradition that touches on issues of basic human rights. The packaging of the tradition hides the dimensions of these debates from Hamza Yusuf's audiences.

5. Lastly, a major issue which prevents MMK's point from really getting a hearing is that, by and large, lay people do not see their religion as religious studies scholars see it. Religious studies scholars tend to see religions as historically shifting sets of discourses and practices without an essence that is constantly debated and constantly undergoing change. But everyday people prefer their religion as an ideal that humans need to realize through obedience. It is something to be lived and practiced as a route to perfection. Historicization is seen as a threat to faith, an undermining of metaphysical certitudes. One hears, for example, in conversations among Muslim Americans, "Islam is perfect, but I am not." The attraction of an ideal is very strong in human history and human thought, and the logic of the historian (or even the anti-historical, anti-essentialism of Nietzche or the Tao) is cold comfort to those attracted by this idealism.

Inshallah, I am developing some further thoughts on the idea of tradition, empirical certitude, faith, belief, law, practice and the text, which will elaborate in more detail some things I have been thinking of in relation to the issue MMK raised. I hope to post it soon.


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