During a conversation before a full audience in Battell Chapel on April 6, Yale professor and Christian theologian Miroslav Volf asked Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf what Christians and other non-Muslims would do well to learn from Islamic tradition.
Yusuf answered that one of the most significant concepts they might learn is the Muslim idea of "brotherhood" — the belief that all people are from the same human family.
"One thing that is deeply troubling for me is that there is so much [racial] tension," Yusuf said, adding that racial tensions in the United States have become so fierce that, when hearing that a police officer shot an African-American person, some people automatically assume the action was justified while others assume it was not. He described this reaction as one that is based on "nouns and adjectives": police officer, African-American, white, and black.
"Real morality," Yusuf told his audience, "has to be rooted in verbs and adverbs — to get out of looking at people as 'other' than you." He added that in the United States, some people speak of Arabs in a way that would be "completely unacceptable" if they were talking about any other group of people.
"The Prophet said God does not look at your bodies or your forms; he looks at your hearts and your actions," continued Yusuf. "To me, you could replace that by saying, 'He doesn't look at your adjectives or your nouns; he looks at your verbs and your adverbs.'"
Yusuf, considered one of the most influential Islamic scholars in the Western world, is the president and co-founder of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college in the United States. He took part in a conversation with Volf as part of the Life Worth Living Program's series of public talks examining the question: What is a life worth living? The Islamic scholar gave an address titled "A Muslim Vision of the Good Life" before talking with Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and the founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. The center developed the Life Worth Living Program to revive discussion and reflection of the question of what makes a good life. Volf is also a co-teacher of the undergraduate humanities course "Life Worth Living," and took part in a conversation with New York Times columnist David Brooks earlier this semester examining that topic.
In his address, Yusuf periodically read from verses of the Koran to illustrate some of the principal tenets of Islamic tradition— which holds, he told his audience, that acquiring knowledge is the most important activity human beings can undertake to control the baser elements of human nature, among them lust and anger.
In many Muslim countries, he said, families' most prized possessions have often been their personal libraries.
"Prophet Mohammed said to be a scholar, to be a student of knowledge, a helper of the two, or be a lover of those [people]," Yusuf said.
In his own life, Yusuf acknowledged, some of the "most beautiful human beings" he has ever encountered were those who are uneducated, but who are believers of Islam who have shown great hospitality. He shared a story about how he was part of a group that was stranded in the middle of the Saharan Desert in West Africa, when a Bedouin sheep herder came to assist. After serving the group a meal, the herder stayed up all night holding up the travelers' tent so it didn't collapse on them in the wind.
"What I see is that some people are facilitated to learn — their circumstances are ripe for that — and other people are deprived of that," Yusuf said. "So the people who have the gift of learning should actively be engaged in trying to spread that gift to other people because learning, in the true sense of the word, is not learning for a degree or learning to become somebody of stature or of wealth, but learning for the sake of God in our tradition."
Yusuf told the audience that in today's world, it is a challenge to practice any religious tradition, including Islam.
"There are lot of things in tradition that [others] see as odious, they see them as hateful or they see them as discriminating. And I think a lot of tradition is problematic. ... We have to debate these things. Trying to understand our traditions in the world we are living in is very difficult. It is a very confusing world. We've lost a lot of the things that have enabled us in the past to be much more human."
He emphasized the Muslim belief, illustrated in the Koran, that humans learn compassion through their own suffering and adversity, saying, "Empathy is one of the most important qualities" in his religious tradition.
"This is our challenge," he told his audience. "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 ... to know God through difficulty, through hardship, through suffering. And in coming to know God, the soul is expanded."
Yusuf said one "fundamental sin" in Islamic tradition is acedia, which he described as distractibility and boredom, a type of "spiritual sloth."
"It's a spiritual sickness and it has affected our civilization to a profound degree," Yusuf said. "We're constantly trying to distract ourselves with drugs, sex, money, with the pursuit of fame and the pursuit of power."
Yusuf, who converted to Islam as a teenager after a near-death experience, added, "One of the signs of the impoverished state of our community is that somebody like me actually represents the tradition [publicly]."
As a Muslim, he said that he is especially bothered when he hears others describe ISIS as "medieval," explaining: "I've spent a lot of time with medieval scholars, and I know for a fact that they have nothing to do with these people [ISIS]. And in fact, if those people were actually reading [the work of such scholars], they would not be doing what they are doing." Likewise, he said that he knows of no medieval scholar in the world who would ever justify suicide bombers, saying that they and their defenders are "without any understanding of the philosophical ethics" of Islam.
During his conversation with Volf, Yusuf said that one of "the most powerful motifs" in Islamic tradition is the assumption of personal responsibility and the practice of self-examination, rather than blaming or judging others for wrong behavior. In Islamic tradition, he said, "to have knowledge of God, first and foremost one has to know the self, because we have been made in a metaphysical image of the reality."
Volf noted in the conversation that 50 years ago, Time magazine had a cover story titled "Is God Dead?" He asked that question of Yusuf.
"If we look at [God] as a concept, [he's] certainly dead in a lot of people's minds," Yusuf answered. "But if somebody says its not raining and it's raining, it doesn't mean it's not raining. The Koran says to the atheists: Let's wait it out."
He later continued, "I think God has some sympathy [for atheists]. The only people who remember God as much as believers are atheists. They take God seriously, and that's such a compliment. For atheists, the idea of God is so great that they can't believe in him. In some ways, it's like unrequited love." He added that there has never been an atheist he has met who hasn't brought up the topic of God within the first few minutes of conversation.
Yusuf's visit was also sponsored co-sponsored by Yale Divinity School, the Yale Chaplain's Office, the Yale Muslim Student Association, the Yale Youth Ministry Institute, the William H. Pitt Foundation, and the John Templeton Foundation.