Sheikh Hamza Yusuf: Love Even Those Who Revile You
By Sheikh Hamza Yusuf
An Interview with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf by Nazim Baksh
Q: The convenient response to those who revile your religion is to return the favor. The more virtuous position however is to forgive. Forgiveness as you know, while less in virtue when compared to love, nevertheless, can result in love. Love, by definition, does not require forgiveness. What many Muslims today seem to forget is that ours is a religion of love and our Prophet, peace be upon him, was the Habib, the Beloved. How did love, the defining virtue of our community, come to be replaced by an urge to redress wrongs, to punish instead of to forgive?
A: It is the result of Muslims seeing themselves as victims. Victimization is a defeatist mentality. It’s the mentality of the powerless. The word victim is from the Latin “victima” which carries with it the idea of the one who suffers injury, loss, or death due to a voluntary undertaking. In other words, victims of one’s own actions.
Muslims never really had a mentality of victimization. From a metaphysical perspective, which is always the first and primary perspective of a Muslim, there can be no victims. We believe that all suffering has a redemptive value.
Q: If the tendency among Muslims is to view themselves as victims which appears to me as a fall from grace, what virtue must we then cultivate to dispense with this mental and physical state that we now find ourselves in?
A: The virtue of patience is missing. Patience is the first virtue after tawba or repentance. Early Muslim scholars considered patience as the first maqam or station in the realm of virtues that a person entered into.
Patience in Islam means patience in the midst of adversity. A person should be patient in what has harmed or afflicted him. Patience means that you don’t lose your comportment or your composure. If you look at the life of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, you will never ever find him losing his composure. Patience was a hallmark of his character. He was ‘the unperturbed one’ which is one of the meanings of halim: wa kaana ahlaman-naas. He was the most unperturbed of humanity. Nothing phased him either inwardly or outwardly because he was with Allah in all his states.
Q: Patience is a beautiful virtue … the cry of Prophet Yaqub …. “fa sabran jamil.” Patience, it appears, is not an isolated virtue but rather it is connected to a network of virtues. Should Muslims focus on this virtue at the expense of the other virtues?
A: The traditional virtues of a human being were four and Qadi Ibn Al-Arabi considered them to be the foundational virtues or the ummahatul fadaa’il of all of humanity. They are: prudence, courage, temperance, and justice.
Prudence, or rather practical wisdom, and courage, are defining qualities of the Prophet. He, peace be upon him, said that God loves courage even in the killing of a harmful snake.
Temperance is the ability to control oneself. Incontinence, the hallmark of intemperance, is said to occur when a person is unable to control himself. In modern medicine it is used for someone who can’t control his urine or feces. But not so long ago the word incontinence meant a person who was unable to control his temper, appetite or sexual desire. Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates one’s appetite in accordance with prudence. In early Muslim scholarship on Islamic ethics, justice was considered impossible without the virtues of prudence, courage and temperance.
Generosity as a virtue is derived from courage because a generous person is required to be courageous in the face of poverty. Similarly, humility is a derivative from temperance because the humble person will often restrain the urge to brag and be a show-off because he or she sees their talents and achievements as a gift from Allah and not from themselves. Patience as a virtue is attached to the virtue of courage because the patient person has the courage to endure difficulties. So “hilim” (from which you get “halim”), often translated as for-bearance or meekness if you wish, is frowned upon in our society. Yet it is the virtue we require to stem the powerful emotion of anger. Unrestrained anger often leads to rage and rage can lead to violence in its various shades.
Our predecessors were known for having an incredible degree of patience while an increasing number of us are marked with an extreme degree of anger, resentment, hate, rancor and rage. These are negative emotions which present themselves as roadblocks to living a virtuous life.
A patient human being will endure tribulations, trials, difficulties, hardships, if confronted with them. The patient person will not be depressed or distraught and whatever confronts him will certainly not lead to a loss of comportment.
Allah says in the Qur’an: “Isbiru.” “Have patience and enjoin each other to patience.”
The beauty of patience is that “innallaha ma’assabirin” Allah is with the patient ones. If God is on your side you will always be victorious. Allah says in the Qur’an “Ista”inu bi-sabiri was-salat.”” Isti”aana is a reflexive of the Arabic verb “aana” which is “to help oneself.” Allah is telling us to help ourselves with patience and prayer.
This is amazing because the Prophet, peace be upon him, said “if you take help, take help from God alone.” And so in the Qur’an, Allah says: “ista inu hi-sabiri was-salaat”. This means taking help from patience and prayer because that is the means by which Allah has given you to take help from Him alone.
How is it then that a person sees himself as a victim when all calamities, difficulties and trials, are ultimately tests from Allah. This does nor mean the world is free of aggression and that victims have suddenly vanished. What I”m talking about is a person”s psychology in dealing with hardships.
The sacred law has two perspectives when looking at acts of aggression that are committed by one party against another. When it is viewed by those in authority the imperative is to seek justice. However, from the perspective of the wronged, it is not to seek justice bur instead to forgive.
Forgiveness, “afwa”, pardon, is nor a quality of authority. A court is not set up to forgive. It’s the plaintiff that’s required to forgive if there is going to be any forgiveness at all. Forgiveness will not come from the Qadi or the judge. The court is set up to give justice but Islam cautions us not to go there in the first place because “by the standard which you judge so too shall you be judged.” That’s the point. If you want justice, if you want God, the Supreme Judge of all affairs, to be just to others on your behalf, then you should know that your Lord will use the same standard with you.
Nobody on the “Day of Arafat” will pray: “Oh God, be just with me.” Instead you will hear them crying: “O Allah, forgive me, have mercy on me, have compassion on me, overlook my wrongs.” Yet, these same people are not willing to forgive, have compassion and mercy on other creatures of God.
Q: Imam Al-Ghazali argued that for these virtues to be effective they had to be in harmony. Otherwise, they said, virtues would quickly degenerate into vices. Do you think that these virtues exist today among Muslims but that they are out of balance? For example, the Arabs in the time of the Prophet had courage, but without justice it was bravado. Prudence without justice is merely shrewdness. Do you think that Muslims are clamoring for justice but have subsumed the virtues of temperance and prudence?
A: Yes. Muslims want courage and justice but they don’t want temperance and prudence. The four virtues relate to the four humors in the body. Physical sickness is related to spiritual sickness and when these four are out of balance, spiritual and moral sickness occurs. So when courage is the sole virtue, you no longer have prudence. You are acting courageously but imprudently and it’s no longer courage but impetuousness. It appears as courage but it is not. A person who is morally incapable of controlling his appetite has incontinence and thus he cannot be prudent nor courageous because part of courage is to constrain oneself when it is appropriate. Imam A1-Ghazali says that courage is a mean between impetuousness and cowardice.
The interesting point to note about the four virtues is that you either take them all or you don’t take them at all. It’s a packaged deal. There is a strong argument among moral ethicists that justice is the result of the first three being in perfect balance.
Q: You have painted a very interesting landscape in terms of Muslim behavior in the contemporary period but we are seeing evidence of resentment among some Muslims today which is very strange indeed. I am wondering how this might be related to a sense of victimization?
A: Of course it is. Look for example at the word injury. It comes from injuria, a Latin word that means unjust. So if I perceive my condition as unjust it is contrary to the message of the Qur’an. Whatever circumstances we find ourselves in we hold ourselves as responsible. It gets tricky to navigate especially when it comes to the oppressor and the oppressed.
The Prophet, peace be upon him, along with the early Muslim community, spent 13 years purifying themselves in Makkah. These were years of oppression and thus serious self-purification accompanied by an ethic of non-violence, forbearance, meekness, and humility. They were then given permission to migrate and to defend themselves. At this point they were not a people out to get vengeance and they were certainly not filled with resentment because they saw everything as coming from God. I’m not talking about being pleased with injustice because that’s prohibited. At the same time we accept the world our Lord has put us into and we see everything as being here purposefully, not without purpose, whether we understand it or not.
The modern Christian fundamentalists always talk about Islam as a religion devoid of love. It’s a very common motif in these religious fundamentalist books that attack Islam. They say “our religion is the religion of love and Islam is the religion of hate, animosity, and resentment.” Unfortunately, many Muslims have adopted it as their religion, but that doesn’t mean resentment has anything to do with Islam.
Love (mahaba) is the highest religious virtue in Islam. Imam Ghazali said that it is the highest maqam or spiritual station. It is so because trust, zhud (doing without), fear, and hope are stations of this world and so long as you are in this world these stations are relevant, but once you die they can no longer serve you. Love is eternal because love is the reason you were created. You were created to adore God. That’s why in Latin the word adore which is used for worship in English is also a word for love, adoration. You were created to worship God, in other words, to love Him because you can’t truly adore something or worship something that you don’t love. If you are worshipping out of fear, like Imam A1-Ghazali says, it’s not the highest level of worship, but its lowest.
Q: A vast number of young Muslims today who have the energy to run Down the road of hate do so thinking that it is a display of their Iman. What do you say to help them understand that hating wrongs has to be balanced with the virtues of mercy, justice, forgiveness, generosity, etc.
A: The challenge is to get your object of hate right and hate it for the right reason. In other words, there are things that we should hate for the sake of God. Oppression is something that you should hate. It’s not haram to hate the oppressor, but don’t hate them to the degree that it prevents you from being just because that is closer to Taqwa (awe of Allah). The higher position is to forgive for the sake of God. God gives you two choices — the high road or the low road — both of them will get you to paradise.
We should strive for the highest. Anger is a useful emotion. God created anger in order that we could act and respond to circumstances that need to be changed. Indignation is a beautiful word. Righteous indignation is a good quality and even though it is misused in modern English it’s actually a good thing. It means to be angry for the right reasons and then it is to be angry to the right degree because Allah says, “Do not let the loathing of a people prevent you from being just.”
This article originally apeared in Q News Magazine (2004)