Greetings of Peace (al salamu 'alaykum)! I pray you are well! This past Saturday in the introduction to the Book of Illuminations halaqa, I asked one of our Research Fellows, Rami Koujah, to talk about his recent extended post on X from 6 September 2023 (formerly known as Twitter, but since I like saying Twitter more than X, I will use Twitter) in response to Hamza Yusuf's article titled, "Cultural Devolution: How the New Victimhood Culture Rejects Human Dignity and Divinity," which was published in Zaytuna College's journal, Renovatio. It is a consequential piece only because it was written by the President of Zaytuna College, which hails itself as the first accredited Muslim seminary offering BA and MA degrees in Berkeley, California.
Those who follow our work know that we have been critical of Hamza Yusuf in this space. Shaykh regularly critiques the Zaytuna version of Islam and the positions they take (and don't take). I, myself, have previously critiqued Hamza Yusuf's engagement with Jordan Peterson here, and shared the aftermath of my critique here. Is it personal? Yes and no. It is not personal to Hamza Yusuf, the person, as our collective paths have only crossed a handful of times. While he certainly knows Shaykh, I don't believe he knows me personally and I have never met him. But it is personal because of who and what Hamza Yusuf represents and the influence he wields, which directly affects me as a Muslim, Muslims at large, and the perception of Muslims generally. In that sense, everything he does - and everything we do for that matter - matters because it represents "knowledge" in Islam, what the promise of Islam holds for those that commit to the faith and want to delve deeper into the tradition. We know from our tradition that scholars are the inheritors of the prophets, and that the pursuit of knowledge is the highest form of worship. So, people who present themselves as learned Muslims become de facto examples of enlightenment, elevation, and closeness to God, and to the outsider, representatives of the best that the Islamic conception of faith, religion, and God has to offer.
For the future of Islam in this country and what is being taught to young Muslim minds, Zaytuna by definition plays a singular role. There are no other degree-granting Muslim seminaries in America, certainly not with the same impressive appearance, physical presence, or financial backing as Zaytuna. For young Muslims who want to study from within the Islamic tradition while in America, Zaytuna appears the logical, if not only choice. And in my mind, in this Islamophobic age, when a young Muslim today cares enough about Islam and being Muslim that they don't worry what it will look like to have graduated from a Muslim seminary, that takes guts and spirit. These kids are our future, and deserve our best education.
For all of these reasons, I was especially alarmed and troubled after seeing Rami's post on Twitter, which began "1) Hamza Yusuf: an ideologue for caste...". Rami's Tweet was excellent. Sharp, learned, incisive, as it should be, as he is "PhDing @Princeton" as his Twitter Bio states. I wanted to draw attention to Rami's Tweet because I find it incredibly hopeful when young scholars like Rami engage the "Muslim establishment" by critiquing thought-leaders like Hamza Yusuf on the academic playing field - and call foul when it is so warranted. Rami is himself pursuing the path of academia in the field of Islamic law with degrees from UCLA, Oxford, Stanford Law, and now Princeton.
Great! I thought. Academics speak a different language and know how to speak to one another. In his Tweet, Rami made references to people who have "basic literacy in social theory," the "rule of law," and the history of the Catholic Church, all things which I know very little about. I assumed I wouldn't fully understand everything being said in the article. But then I got curious. I got the feeling I should read the article. After all, if I am going to say something about it, I should read it, right?
So, I decided to invest the time in reading through Hamza Yusuf (HY)'s article (estimated 26 minute read time). I skimmed it, then read it backwards in parts, then from start to finish more closely, and then annotated it for the arguments it was presenting, developing, and building upon. As I always preface, I am not an academic or a scholar. I say this to be transparent about my own qualifications and also to limit my own accountability before God. I am not speaking on anyone's behalf or as an expert. I do however, consider myself an educated layperson with the same accountability as all others who have been given the gift of intellect and are expected by God to use it. And, as some have asked me to acknowledge, while I am not a scholar, I have spent the better part of my adult life as a student of the Shaykh and have had the great blessing of reading and editing the vast majority of his writing and scholarship, which has been a privileged education in and of itself. So, I am not unfamiliar with challenging, academic writing, although it is not my forte or interest, aside from the writing of Khaled Abou El Fadl, of course, which is not easy. :)
I must say, HY's article was a difficult read for a number of reasons, the least of which had to do with the substance presented, but more so with the weaving of the sometimes ridiculous arguments obstructed by what felt like a lot of intentionally convoluted filler. By the time I finished my partial ingestion of what was being sold in the piece, I had forgotten what Rami had written in his long post. When I read Rami's Tweet again, I was immediately struck by how well Rami truly deconstructed HY's article - succinctly, eloquently, and with finesse (see below).
My engagement with this article brought me back to my initial reaction to Hamza Yusuf's discussion with Jordan Peterson on "What We Can All Learn From Islam and The Quran." In a nutshell, where is God in this discussion? And why are Qur'anic ethics not front and center, or at the foundation of what you are arguing? To me, the natural conclusion of Islamic learning as we have seen in the Project Illumine tafsir and now in The Book of Illuminations is that for the committed seeker, the ultimate goal is to draw closer to the Divine in everything we do and are. To get there, we must know God through the act of cleansing ourselves to produce and receive light, to attempt to become vehicles of light so that we can be worthy of Light.
But this is far from any of the premises of this article. HY begins by introducing three (problematic) concepts: honor cultures, dignity cultures, and victimhood cultures, and argues that by "examining these three distinctive cultures and their relationship to the rule of law can help us determine how well they promote the common good and human flourishing -- and for Muslims, how well they align with Qur'anic teachings." Let's take a huge step back. Perhaps the most obvious question is, why should Muslims care if our Qur'anic teachings align with the hypothesis of these two social scientists? It is the equivalent of asking if God's grand ethical vision for promoting common good and human flourishing can adequately fit under the umbrella of a few human-defined concepts intersecting with the concept of rule of law. Faulty premises, a bad framework, and gross oversimplifications colored with racist assertions - and we are barely on page 2 of the article.
Small details reveal a lot. For example, in arguing that different cultures vary in their approaches to teaching their children right and wrong, HY lets slip that he believes that cultures where people are predominantly more religious, ie. they teach their children that there are consequences to immorality, are less humanistic than modern secular societies because modern secular societies abide by the rule of law. Really?
Here is an overview of how the article's arguments go: First, there was honor culture (primitive, tribal). Then there is dignity culture (West, civilized, abides by "rule of law"). Honor culture evolves for the better in direct proportion to its acceptance of "rule of law." Europe and America successfully became dignity cultures save for some pockets that still remain honor subcultures (Black cultures). "The Catholic Church heralded the rise of dignity cultures in the West." In modern dignity cultures, everyone has dignity and people respect "rule of law" so thoroughly that "...people generally avoid slights, insults, and altercations, which enables civility to reign in society; should a slight occur, an educated person tends to feign ignorance of the offender's intent or simply excuses it as an insignificant, and thus inconsequential, breach of decorum..." Really?
Then HY introduces the concept of victimhood culture, which has roots in honor culture and is now on an aberrant rise in the U.S. It shows little regard for dignity culture. Apparently, victimhood culture arises because people find their worth and dignity in their victimhood, never mind what HY waives away as "perceived injustices and harms." "The more one feels one has been wronged, the more worth one possesses. The perceived offender loses moral status while the victim's moral status gets raised..." HY asserts. From here, the arguments get more and more murky and absurd, even devolving into a bizarre defense of "white cisgender heterosexual males [who] tend to be perceived as the primary oppressor group," who could benefit from HY's critiques of victimhood culture. Never mind the Qur'anic concepts of Truth, Injustice, Rights, and Ethics. In HY's world, the greatest threat is "...upending the normative center of the dignity culture," or in other words, seeing past his superimposed labels of dehumanization, his broad and cartoonish stereotypes of human beings, his conflation of unrelated issues, his gross exaggeration of others, and the wholesale disregard for real injustice in our world. HY spends pages proving the historical roots of victimhood culture only so he can throw everything including the kitchen sink at it. Victimhood culture is the root cause, the reason, the evil sustenance, the strategy, and the agenda. It took me a lot longer than 26 minutes to work my way through the gratuitous twist and turns of the piece and follow the arguments through its stretches of logic and reason. Was it worth it? Yes and no. Yes, so I could legitimately speak from experience in reading the piece first-hand. No, because it was terrible.
In fact, this article reminds me a lot of a new book I am currently reading by Naomi Klein called Doppleganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, where she has followed her real-life doppleganger, Naomi Wolf, into the Mirror World, dominated by conspiracy theories and right-wing narratives of people like Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and their ilk. Truth is mixed in with lies until reality is no longer apparent. So far, it is a great book and explains a lot about what has happened in our world. Check out this very cool trailer:
I'm not sure why HY's article came across our radar so long after it came out, but the fact that no one has posted a comment on this article since its publication on November 22, 2022 is curious. Has no one read it? Has everyone who has read it agree with it? Or do they not know enough yet to have an opinion?
Here is a good place to start - Rami's full 12-point Tweet:
1) Hamza Yusuf: an ideologue for caste Where does one begin responding to this pretend intellectualism? For starters, it's easy to miss, because it only gets a brief mention at the beginning Cultural Devolution – Article https://renovatio.zaytuna.edu/article/cultural-devolution#disqus_thread
2) but the entire basis of Yusuf's article is on the book The Rise of Victimhood Culture, a genuine piece of pseudo-social scientific trash through and through. The distinction between "honor" and "dignity" cultures is racist imperialist ideology that would make Huntington proud
3) Europe and America, Yusuf tells us, made the successful transition into dignity cultures, where the rule of law governs disputes. Ignorance of that fact that "rule of law" is a modest improvement to "civilization" might be excused, if you lived under a rock.
4) If you didn't know, rule of law is a favorite of colonial overlords. It's part of the "civilizing" mission, the West's gift to humanity. What makes up the rule of law is irrelevant. If you don't respect it, you're a primitive, a savage, even if the law that rules...
5) perpetuates inhumane levels of violence and callous inequality. Here's the best part. Yusuf writes: "Catholic Church heralded the rise of dignity cultures in the West... The concomitant increase in trade and commerce and the attendant rise of a legal culture that ...
6) protected that trade and commerce facilitated the propagation of dignity cultures..." The Church was insanely rich (owning 20-35% of property) and depended on the labor of peasants. It justified this grotesque inequality with a neat ideology. Yusuf's "dignity."
7) Quite literally, this was the idea that dignity is to know your lot in life, accept it, and know that your status benefits the overall good of society, even if you yourself never get to see any of it. You do benefit in one sense, however: safety and security.
8) And that's what the rule of law is for. Yusuf is utterly blind to law's violence and injustice. Law literally manufactures inequality (see Pistor, "The Code of Capital") and is saturated with racist policies (see Rothstein, "Color of Law"; Alexander, "New Jim Crow).
9) A lengthier response might've been warranted if all this wasn't so blatantly obvious to anyone with even a basic literacy in social theory. Don't let the rosy language, youthful appeals to Elvis and Chris Rock, and pointless etymological forays fool you:
10) Yusuf is an ideologue for caste. Then the fear mongering. "Critical theorists" — doubtless Yusuf hasn't read them — are provoking a "race war," "gender war," itching to "overthrow" the rule of law, and threatening the "destruction of the family."
11) I'm not exaggerating, it's right there in the essay. It's all a nefarious conspiracy: an effort to kill God that "comes in the guise of a social justice movement, wrapped in a warm desire to remove the inequities of the world."
12) Go ahead and pinch yourself. Yes, this is peddled as intellectualism by the PRESIDENT OF A MUSLIM COLLEGE. My sincerest sympathies for their poor, poor students. Whatever the Qur'an or Islam have to say about dignity is set to appear in part 2. Cool. Can't wait.
One last note. HY writes in his piece: "Dignity often eludes us. We know it to be a quality that reflects our worthiness, nobility, grace, character, esteem, and so on, but it remains something we sense rather than something we can clearly define and know, let alone point to. In other words, we know dignity when we see it..." He goes on to provide the etymology for the word and its opposite, and cite to the Qur'an about how God dignified the descendants of Adam. The concrete elucidation of dignity does elude his discussion of it. This is where the absence of God-centeredness in his narrative truly hits me.
To me, God has conveyed the meaning of dignity clearly in the Qur'an, in the Qur'an of Creation, and in the examples of truly pious and learned seekers who emanate God's Light. In my understanding and conviction, dignity is the state of seeking the Light of the Divine, in making the Divine the source of all meaning and purpose; the beginning, the center and the beautiful end. It is trusting and loving God, and seeking after God's love. It is found in living a life of truth and principle. It is seen in humble service. It is felt when one knows what they are doing is right and clean. When they are trying their best, not to be perfect, but to be Godly to the best of their ability. It reflects in the tranquility that arises from all of that. Yes, dignity often eludes us when we elude the Divine. But that is ultimately our choice to make, as the invitation from God is always open. In my mind, dignity and seeking after the Divine is the only choice worth making.
In Peace and Hope,