The Ulema and the Price of Conviction

To much outrage, Hamza Yusuf, the prominent and controversial scholar, has recently decided to join US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s new human rights commission to examine what is ‘inalienable’ about human rights. Even if it is conceded that what the 10-member panel has been commissioned to study is important, vitriol has been directed at Hamza Yusuf for lending his credibility to the Trump administration, characterized by some as the ‘most Islamophobic administration in American history.‘ The reality is that such advisory committees are weak with little real power. it is highly unlikely that Hamza Yusuf would be directly advising the President, or even the Secretary of State for that matter. But even if he did, I am struggling to understand why that would be negative and on closer inspection we find that many of the criticisms are superficial and dissolve on closer examination.

Working with Power; a Precarious Balance

There are good arguments as to why Muslims, as a vulnerable minority, should pursue the ability to shape and execute policy to advance their community’s interest, or less ideally, to alleviate as much hostility as they can. Accordingly, we should be suspicious of a new brand of virtue signaling activism unwilling to get its fingernails dirty; for whilst purity may lie in protests outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the unpleasant reality is that influence and power reside in it. Part of politics isabout forming coalitions and developing good relations with everyone who sits at the tables of power, especially if you have profound differences with them. As the saying goes; if you are not at table, you are on the menu

“There are of course limits to how much compromise one can make, and we should not ignore the precarious balancing act between mitigating the harm of a hostile authority and the harm of legitimizing corruption and tyranny.”

Now admittedly this argument is often too quickly made and perhaps also too quickly dismissed. There are of course limits to how much compromise one can make, and we should not ignore the precarious balancing act between mitigating the harm of a hostile authority and the harm of legitimizing corruption and tyranny. Less abstractly, there is a high possibility that a Muslim scholar will be used as a fig leaf to hide the fact that the Trump administration is willing to appeal to the most odious elements of its base, and this must be also balanced against the value of advising a Secretary of State with established links to open Islamophobes.

Yet that is a judgment call that overlooks any other benefits that Hamza Yusuf may have seen in joining the commission, perhaps creating a network of allies in areas of shared concerns whether in the US or abroad. While some may find it surprising there may even be great value in the project in and of itself. In either case, to present Shaykh Hamza’s decision to join the Commission as a blatant act of betrayal is a selective reading that obscures the complexity that such judgements involve.

“…there is a high possibility that a Muslim scholar will be used as a fig leaf to hide the fact that the Trump administration is willing to appeal to the most odious elements of its base, and this must be also balanced against the value of advising a Secretary of State with established links to open Islamophobes. Yet that is a judgment call that overlooks any other benefits that Hamza Yusuf may have seen in joining the commission,…”

If Muslims are persuaded of the need to engage with the political system of their residence, then in a country that has primarily a two-party system, it would be an act of colossal short-sightedness for the Muslim community to attach itself to one party over the other. While it may not be obvious now, President Trump will depart and the GOP will remain, and while it is true that the GOP has become more hostile towards Muslims, we need to recognize that the notion that the GOP is intrinsically anti-Muslim is only an expression of currentideology rather than a notion inherent to the GOP. In reality, the Republican Party base is formed largely of Christian churches and communities, many of whom share with Muslims beliefs on common interests and conservative social-ethical norms. So if we find ourselves friendless once Trump leaves office, having folded ourselves into a chapter of the Democratic Party and consigned the Republican Party as inherently anti-Muslim, then it will be a reflection of our complete lack of political realism and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Agreeing with Everything

Furthermore, why assume that by working with one part of the administration one agrees with the entire administration? It’s mind-boggling how often we are presented with arguments that infer that just because Hamza Yusuf agreed to join the State Department commission on human rights, this amounts to him agreeing with the Trump administration’s border policy, its policy on Israel, or even more bizarrely that it makes someone a ‘white supremacist’? Apart from frankly shoddy reasoning, such a logic should be applied consistently; does it then mean that Muslims who joined and advised Obama administration supported its border policy, its unchecked use of military drones and extra-judicial killing, the Obama administration’s support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen or its support of the military ouster of the late Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president or that this proves all these Muslim advisers were in fact avid progressives?

But, so the reply goes, isn’t it obvious that President Trump is uniquely anti-Muslim? After all, he instituted the Muslim-ban designated Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and regularly spews ill-disguised Islamophobic comments. Yet, such a statement betrays an astonishing historical ignorance.

“But, so the reply goes, isn’t it obvious that President Trump is uniquely anti-Muslim? After all, he instituted the Muslim-ban designated Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and regularly spews ill-disguised Islamophobic comments. Yet, such a statement betrays an astonishing historical ignorance.”

The Role of Ulama in Politics

It conveniently forgets the fact that scholars have always mediated amongst the ruling class since the beginning of Islamic history, whether they were considered oppressive or not. Given the sheer number of scholars that have worked with sultans, caliphs, warlords even colonial empires over fourteen centuries, it makes no sense to say that every one of them were collaborators, and such a statement does not reflect the moral dilemmas they were in. While it is certainly true that rulers did try to squeeze scholars in pursuit of their agendas, this does not preclude scholars having their own agendas in turn, attempting to do the best for their communities in constrained circumstances. So whilst it is hard to deny that whenever scholarships dabbles in politics they ‘dirty their hands’, and lose some of their moral authority, let’s not forget that there has always been a sizeable number who held their noses and got on with formulating, advising and implementing the law, as judges, bureaucrats and state functionaries. This is as true now as it has been since the time of the famous student of Abu Hanifa,  Abu Yusuf, the first Judge of All Judges, or Supreme Judge, to the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid.

“My own formative years in Islam often featured Hamza Yusuf’s fiery lectures denouncing, amongst other things, the oppression that Muslims faced by their own governments. Now in a surprising volte de face, we see Hamza Yusuf lending his hard-earnt credibility to precisely the very regimes that explicitly thwart the will of their people.”

Yet I do not think this gets to the nub of the matter. This is not about the GOP, or even Trump – this is about Hamza Yusuf. This is the latest in a long line of controversial acts, and whilst I am open to a careful scrutiny of the human-rights industry, and can forgive someone for misspeaking, I am deeply troubled by what seems to be a conscious decision to associate oneself with some highly dubious Middle Eastern regimes. My own formative years in Islam often featured Hamza Yusuf’s fiery lectures denouncing, amongst other things, the oppression that Muslims faced by their own governments. Now in a surprising volte de face, we see Hamza Yusuf lending his hard-earnt credibility to precisely the very regimes that explicitly thwart the will of their people. To have one of the most preeminent, eloquent, erudite, and sincere scholars seemingly turn his back on his own commitment to justice seems bewildering.

Bound only to their Conscience

However what is more troubling still is the hastiness with which we accuse scholars and intellectuals of bad faith, of internalized Islamophobia, or hypocrisy, just because we are unable to agree with their judgment. People are of course welcome to disagree with Shaykh Hamza, to protest or even boycott him if they so wish, but I find it disturbing that if they don’t agree with a scholar, they rush to accuse the scholar of no longer holding the wider interests of Muslims to heart, forgetting all the years of hard work and all the efforts they personally sacrificed to build a community, just for some teenage ragamuffin keyboard warriors to jump in with ‘Another proof that he is a hypocrite!’ I can’t help but wonder if this is a reflection of the wider infantilization of the political discourse that is taking place, and speaks to a profound intellectual immaturity within the Muslim community in the West.

“However what is more troubling still is the hastiness with which we accuse scholars and intellectuals of bad faith, of internalized Islamophobia, or hypocrisy, just because we are unable to agree with their judgment. People are of course welcome to disagree with Shaykh Hamza, to protest or even boycott him if they so wish, but I find it disturbing that if they don’t agree with a scholar, they rush to accuse the scholar of no longer holding the wider interests of Muslims to heart, forgetting all the years of hard work and all the efforts they personally sacrificed to build a community,…”

Lest we forget, the intellectual and scholar ought to be bound only to her conscience. Yet the only way for that to happen is to create an encouraging atmosphere for independent voices to emerge. And given the sad state of Muslim world, one of our main priorities in the West must be to build a healthy and intellectually vibrant Muslim community filled with diverse point of views. It would be troubling and counterproductive if the Muslim community begins to resemble a mob that prizes the independence of their scholars only when it agrees with popular sentiments, and hounds them when they speak – just as independently – with what may be unpopular.

However if it is true that we should encourage our scholars to think independently, then it is also true that the Muslim community must not stake its communal welfare on the scholarly judgment of a few. If, as has been established, the ‘ulema has a twin role, to represent and mediate on behalf of the Muslim community to the governing classes, and also to be true to their own judgment and conscience, then there may inevitably be a tension between these two roles. In some cases, the members of the community may argue that these are not merely in tension but in conflict. It is a communal imperative then to encourage more voices, both from scholars and intellectuals, and from community representatives to reduce the potential costs of one person’s fallible judgment harming the entire community. In other words, if the community wants to treat Hamza Yusuf as one scholar amongst many, then the community’s reliance on a select few scholars must be lessened, allowing us to be indifferent to whom Hamza Yusuf chooses to associate with.

“So let me be clear here: I am not saying that we should not criticize, nor that we should not hold people to account; let us recognize that ulema who are prepared to take controversial decisions will invite controversy and criticism when they do so. Yet the lessons here are many; it is not only that no scholar is above criticism, but that scholars are only bound to their own conscience, and in turn we must be wary of excessive reliance on the judgment of the few.”

So let me be clear here: I am not saying that we should not criticize, nor that we should not hold people to account; let us recognize that ulema who are prepared to take controversial decisions will invite controversy and criticism when they do so. Yet the lessons here are many; it is not only that no scholar is above criticism, but that scholars are only bound to their own conscience, and in turn we must be wary of excessive reliance on the judgment of the few. If we truly want to build an intellectually vibrant community, then we will not only have to insist on the right to criticize our scholars, but must also learn to allow scholars to hold fast to their convictions without accusing them of selling out.

 

Faheem A. Hussain is an educationalist and a PhD candidate in Politics at Royal Holloway University of London pursuing philosophical research in liberalism and multiculturalism. He has a BA (Hons.) in Arabic and Islamic studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, a PGCE in Religious Studies from Roehampton University, and an MA in philosophy from Heythrop College, University of London. Some of his writings can be found at Some Thoughts and occasionally on twitter @FaheemAMHussain.