More than 800 people filled Battell Chapel Wednesday evening to hear prominent Muslim scholar Shaykh Hamza Yusuf discuss his religion’s path to a meaningful existence.
Yusuf, whom The New Yorker has called “perhaps the most influential Islamic scholar in the Western world,” came to Yale to speak in the most recent installment of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture’s Life Worth Living speaker series. Many attendees traveled significant distances to hear his thoughts, and several said they had been following him for years.
Citing the first line in the Quran, Yusuf said he believes the acquisition of knowledge is the center of the Islamic tradition.
“For me, living a good life is trying to learn this knowledge of my tradition, which says that the real purpose of our existence here is to come to know God,” Yusuf said. “Not in the way the angels come to know God, which is immediately, but to know God through difficulty, through hardship, through suffering and through that, the soul is expanded.”
Born in Washington as Mark Hanson, Yusuf was raised Greek Orthodox before a near-death experience at age 17 led him to reconsider his faith. The fear of death motivates much of religious belief overall, Yusuf said. He converted to Islam and moved to England and then the United Arab Emirates to study Arabic and classic Islamic disciplines, such as Quranic recitation, law and theology.
Upon his return to the United States, Yusuf co-founded Zaytuna College in Northern California, the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the U.S.
Yale Center for Faith and Culture Founder Miroslav Volf told the News that the Life Worth Living program aims to draw from a variety of different perspectives.
“We always want conversations with representatives of a variety of great traditions — religious and secular — in order to stimulate questions of what gives a life value,” Volf said.
Mujtaba Wani ’17, a Life Worth Living Student Fellow, suggested Yusuf as a potential speaker last semester. Every year, Wani told the News, the program invites one well-known speaker from a different faith. When program director Matthew Croasmun asked Wani for names of individuals who could speak about Islam, Wani said, Yusuf was first on the list.
“I basically pitched it as, ‘You’ll never get him, but here’s the big name,’” Wani said. “But it has manifested.”
Indeed, Yusuf’s reputation attracted attendees from around New England. Maryam Mehmood, 34, who traveled from Boston to attend the talk, said she has followed Yusuf for the past 17 years.
“Growing up, I was listening to him all the time,” Mehmood told the News before the talk. “He was the only Muslim scholar at that time who made sense to me because he was trying to not reject the world, but make sense of it and tell you how to deal with it.”
Yusuf opened his lecture with a recitation from the Quran and a rumination on the holy book. Acknowledging the difficulty of studying a non-linear text, Yusuf dispelled the idea of its “superficial randomness” and argued that readers can find significant value if they explore it with sufficient depth.
He then discussed the idea of the nature of man, drawing comparisons between the Grecian concept of the tripartite soul and the Muslim conception of the soul. According to the Quran, he said, the human condition is that of an individual who can acquire knowledge but be overcome with emotion and overwhelmed by appetite. Controlling the two desires of hunger and lust, according to the Quranic narrative, is done by acquiring knowledge of God.
Following the talk, Yusuf and Volf engaged in a dialogue that included topics ranging from the “entertainment-oriented” thinking of modern society, to the tranquility found in the five daily prayers dictated by Islam, to what the major faiths can learn from one another.
Yusuf said that Islam can help other traditions overcome racism in modern society, due to the Muslim sense of “brotherhood,” or the idea that one Muslim would never refuse friendship on the grounds of someone’s difference in race. What is important, he said, is to think of morality and people in terms of “adverbs and verbs,” not “nouns and adjectives.” To see an individual as a “black man” is to think in terms of nouns, whereas to understand someone’s actions and motivations is to see that person through “adverbs,” he said.
“Not for nothing [was it] important for us early on … to invite a Muslim guest,” Croasmun said. “This is … a rich and important tradition. It is also, sadly, of course, in the West, often deeply misunderstood, so to be able to hear from a potentially misunderstood voice and to have a genial but also honest conversation [is important]. [Volf and Yusuf] were willing to disagree with each other, but also willing to be friendly.”
After the talk, attendees interviewed spoke highly of both the content and presentation of Yusuf’s talk. Several Muslim Yale students said elements of Yusuf’s speech were highly relatable, adding that he vocalized things Muslims were thinking in a frank and compelling way.
Yusuf will remain on campus for a Pierson Tea that will take place at 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon in the Pierson House.