Prominent American Muslim Scholar Shaykh Hamza Yusuf has encountered yet another controversy in the past few weeks, after a video begun to be widely shared in which Yusuf critiques the Syrian revolution in a manner many considered to be a derisive tone.
The video shows a clip from a 2016 Islamic retreat trip in Turkey called ‘rihla’, in which Yusuf is seen as saying;.
“Do you know … the slogan of the Syrian revolution? ‘The Syrian people will not be humiliated’. That was their slogan. They were all shouting it in the streets. Now, all these poor innocent people are begging non-Muslims to let them into their country. They are fleeing across the ocean in boats.”. He also asks “how’s that revolution looking for you?”, The apparent mocking tone of this drew the ire of many:
There's so much to unpack in Hamza Yusuf's video as he laughs at our million deaths, 12 million refugees and hundreds of thousands of detainees. But let's start with the place: Turkey. (And correct me if I'm wrong, but the video states Samsun, Turkey).
— Razan Saffour (@RazanSpeaks) September 10, 2019
Hamza Yusuf’s position on Syria has been questionable for some years now, but his invocation of من أهان سلطان أهانه الله to mock Syrian refugees who demanded freedom from humiliation by the Assad regime is really one of the grossest things I’ve seen.
— Maryam Saleh مريم صالح (@MaryamSaleh) September 10, 2019
Yusuf has since apologised in a 10-minute-long statement released last Friday. He said it “was odious” to think that he would ever mock Syrians impacted by the war, asking for forgiveness “from anybody who misconstrued that and took offence to that [my comments] because that would never be my intention”. He also said that in making these comments he “went into an area that I really regret”, he mentioned he was especially troubled by the title of the clip that had been shared that he was “mocking victims…of one of the most unjust things we have seen in our lifetime”.
Other commentators have indeed chosen to reflect on what Yusuf the deeper sentiments meant behind his clumsy comments on Syria—the political approach Yusuf takes to how to deal with tyrannical rulers. In the video he suggests that he is “no fan of the rulers” but that there is a “wisdom of why those people were in those places,” because of the stabilising force they bring as Muslims are not ready yet to govern themselves.
Several Muslim scholars have challenged his approach. Shadee El-Masry, an American Muslim Scholar, dismisses the idea that tyrants are stabilising forces; “When he scares everyone back into their homes, it’s silencing, not stability.” He also suggested that the spiritual growth that Yusuf suggests must come first before political engagement may more likely come from a “pious struggle than we do by sitting at home making dhikr [remembrances of God]”. He also suggests that in the current context, suggesting that the negative consequences of the Arab Spring is evidence of the lack of wisdom in challenging tyrants is short-sighted because first attempts are rarely successful, and that several practical reasons may be the problem rather than essentially the right idea of taking down an oppressive ruler.
Other scholars have also challenged the idea that the maintenance of the status quo, and thereby stability, is the straightforward consensus in mainstream Sunni tradition. Shaykh Yasir Qadhi explains that while mainstream Sunnism did “preach a non-violent, generic obedience to the legitimate Caliph (as long as no sin was commanded)”, there were also dissenting voices. Furthermore, he stresses that in “preaching an outward obedience to a tyrannical ruler, scholars were NEVER asking the public to emotionally and spiritually side with a tyrant over a pious opponent,“ that even if there is a wisdom to not creating a civil war, “our hearts and sympathies” lie with the oppressed and not the tyrannical; and continuing to add that “No scholar should EVER appear to side with a tyrant or endorse emotional and theological subservience to one – that is simply not what our tradition teaches.”
Usaama al-Azami, Lecturer in Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, writing in MuslimMatters.org, also argues that Yusuf’s contention that the Islamic tradition has uniformly called for rendering obedience is “inaccurate”, contending that the Islamic tradition actually provides a number of ways in which one can oppose oppressive governments; “ranging from the more quietist—opposing them only in one’s heart—to the more activist—opposing them through armed rebellion”, in which the majority of later scholars have fallen within these two opinions, and that ”the principle of vocally resisting tyranny has always remained at the heart of the Islamic tradition contrary to the contentions of Shaykh Hamza.”