Hamza Yusuf & The Sultan: Misreadings of History to Justify Obedience to Tyrants

As an Ummah we are in a strange situation today. Our social media is dominated by either endless stream of tragedies. Or teeth grinding controversy.

Over the last week a video of Hamza Yusuf that was recorded back in 2016 went viral. Provoking rage and condemnations from Muslims and spurring on his ardent followers to defend their beloved Shaykh who has been involved in a string of controversies.

Amidst all the emotionally driven polemics there have been several academic responses attempting to highlight the problems with Hamza Yusuf’s arguments and his central praxis. (1)

While Hamza Yusuf does not state it outright, his idea of political activism is giving dawah to tyrants with the expectation being they will change and become more Islamic, like some Turco-Mongol rulers. This view rooted in his idea that Kings(any King) are divinely appointed and rebellion against them incites fitnah and bloodshed. He has an explicit preference of tyrannical order over any kind of anarchy. What complicates this issue is the fact that this view is seemingly rooted in the classical Sunni scholarly consensus.

The issue is a bit more complex. While one can find most Ulema of the Salaf to be not in favor of armed revolts, Abu Hanifa was noted to have supported revolts against the Umayyads. (2)

Did Abu Hanifa really go against his contemporaries? Is his opinion an anomaly?

This discrepancy exists due to a lot of reasons. However, the key factor for the Ulema of the Ahlus Sunnah to become more wary of armed revolts was due to a series of tragedies that happened during the course of the consolidation of the Ummayad rule. Such as the rebellion lead by Ibn Al-Ash’ath where many scholars perished. (3)

This discussion is a complex matter which we hope to address at a later time.

For now we will focus on an essential point that is being missed in these conversations which we tried to address in our last article. (4)

We will attempt to expand on that in this article by focusing on two issues.

  1. The idea of political quietism.
  2. The context of the scholarly fatwas against rebellion.

In response to terror movements like AQ or ISIS, scholars have attempted to endear themselves to the West (and their proxies) by instituting a systematic normalization of the idea that we are in the Makkan phase and we should be law-abiding citizens perpetually. This line of argument is used to justify Hamza Yusuf’s controversial statements and his involvement in state sponsored programs. (5)

When one looks at these developments with a fresh and unbiased perspective after reading the Seerah, the arguments made by Hamza Yusuf and his followers will seem preposterous. And this so called fiqh of minorities is rather contentious to say the least.

Muslims in Makkah were actively calling upon the Polytheists to become Muslims and establish Dar Al Islam.

Muhammad(ﷺ) did not talk about how we should refrain from giving dawah because it might incite fitnah.

Neither did Isa(عليه السلام) when the Romans were cracking down on his followers.

Muhammad(ﷺ) did not hold interfaith dialogues with the Quraysh.

Ibrahim(عليه السلام) did the same with the Mushriks of his time.

Muhammad(ﷺ) did not say the Quraysh are a tolerant nation or a paragon of human values while they oppressed Muslims.

Neither did Musa (عليه السلام) endorse the Firaun when he was oppressing the Jews.

It’s one thing to decontextualize these fatwas and attempt an ad-hoc justification of certain positions such getting involved in state sponsored programs.

It’s another thing entirely when one looks at these fatwas within context.

Classical scholars lived under rulers who implemented the Shariah. At least that is our understanding from the readings of the texts we have at hand today.

Ibn Taymiyyah’s fatwas which are used by Salafi Jihadists specifically apply to Mongolian rulers who purported the Islamic faith but didn’t really practice or implement Islam. (6)(7) (8)

Similarly in Abu Hanifa’s case many Ummayad policies were not just questionable but outright oppressive. It is also likely that Abu Hanifa’s views were influenced the Tābi’een scholars who were more in favor of dethroning tyrants.

By the time Abu Hanifa’s students gained prominence the Abbasid “Revolution” had come to pass and Islamic rule was relatively stable. Additionally with the tragedies that had happened in the years prior, scholars were more inclined to discourage armed revolts. And even so, while scholars actively discouraged armed rebellions they also were quite wary about their involvement with the ruling class. It was only during the Ottoman Era when scholars started actively involving themselves in the state bureaucracy which subsequently had it’s fair share of issues. (9)

And  in spite of this “consensus” there were many rebellions in the Muslim lands throughout history often sanctioned by fatwas from the Ulema.

Regardless, the Maqasid of discouraging armed revolts lies in the desire to maintain unity and strength against external enemies.

This doesn’t just apply to the Sultan’s subjects but the Sultan himself as well.

Scholars always advised the rulers to have a reconciliatory approach towards rebels. Muhammad Hasan Al Shabayni has a detailed treatise on the treatment of rebels. (10)

And it was adopted by many Sultans and Amirs of the Muslim provinces for the most part. Sultans would often try to reconcile with rebels by giving them rights and appointing them in government posts.

The deeper problem in our discourses today is the conflation of armed revolts with Revolutions.

Revolutions can be non-violent. The majority of the revolts in Muslim Emirates throughout history were not revolutionary in the truest sense. And what Muhammad(ﷺ) lead in Makkah can arguably be described as a revolution.

The intrigues, coups and revolts in Islamic history were not geared towards systematic change as much securing rights from an existing system.

Mamluks and Janissaries had notoriously lead many of these rebellions and coups. But they never sought to change the established order. Rather the aim was restoration of what was perceived to be an ideal Islamic order. Their respective orders were abolished by reformist Sultans who sought to modernize their along European lines during which many Muslims were ruthlessly slaughtered. The modern pattern of state crackdown on dissidents i.e. the pathological Madhkalism and dehumanization of rebels, can be traced to these events. The centralization and increasing dominance of the state institutions in many ways were more revolutionary than the armed revolts themselves. The elimination of the Mamluks and Janissary orders is widely celebrated for the dissolution of stagnant and outdated “institutions”. However, we tend to overlook how much dominance the state institution was  establishing in the hearts and minds of people to the point where slaughter of Muslims(or Non-Muslims) is not only overlooked, but celebrated. (11) (12)

Many Muslim commentators today don’t realize the fact the abolition and subsequent massacre of the Mamluks and the Janissaries played a major role in the Europeanization i.e. Colonization of Muslim societies.  As did their debt driven attempts to “modernize” which was mostly military expenditure and palace building. Not unlike the Gulf Rulers today.

And as fate would have it, these dynasties did not last long.

Taking Hamza Yusuf’s point about Allah humiliating people, it is probably because of their cumulative brutality is why neither the progeny of Muhammad Ali Pasha or Mahmud II managed to maintain their rule for long. Abd Al Malik Bin Umayr once said,

“I walked into the court of Ubaid Allah Bin Ziyad and I saw the head of Al Hussein. And not too long after I walked into the court of Mukhtar Al Thaqafi and I saw the head of Ubaid Allah Bin Ziyad and then I remember walking into the court of Musab Ibn Zubayr and I saw the head of Mukhtar Al Thaqafi and then I walked into the court of Abd Al Malik Ibn Marwan and I saw the head of Musab Inb Zubair.” (13)

The tyrant’s dynasty is always cursed for it’s injustice and eventually it faces humiliation for it’s deeds. And it’s probably why the progeny of the once great Mughal and Ottoman dynasties find themselves to be barely relevant in modernity. Something that we think our Ulema should be discussing more often when they give Naseeha to our modern day rulers.

All that aside, Hamza Yusuf’s public speeches and the rhetoric of his followers are always geared towards admonishing Palestinians or Syrians or the Ummah in general for their apparent lack of Imaan or Taqwa. There never has been any focused or targeted critique of Muhammad Bin Zayed and Muhammad Bin Salman and their collective policies to this day. The blame is always on the Muslims because we lack civil society or knowledge of fiqh.

This is not political quietism. This is active involvement in a certain kind of politics. And not the good kind.

And this is where we see the deficiency in our modern Ulema. They have internalized this narrative of victim blaming and have established the perpetual failure to understand the lessons to be taken from the political and strategic decisions made by Muslims as scholarly wisdom.

Theology and Fiqh should not be used analyze why Revolutions failed, at least Theology and Fiqh should not be the central part of our discussions. Analyzing the reasons for failure should be centered on geopolitics and military strategies. Theology and Fiqh should only be used to remind the Muslims of Qadr and to remind them that we cannot be merciless like our enemies.

The Ulema involved in the Syrian Revolution were just as qualified as Hamza Yusuf, if not more. Many Ulema including Hamza Yusuf backed the Syrian Revolution in it’s initial stages. (14)

No one was talking about lack of taqwa of lack of knowledge regarding fiqh at that time.

So why did the Syrian Revolution fail?

  • Brute force bombing by the Regime forces, their allies and the American coalition all of whom claimed to fight ISIS.
  • Rebel Infighting fueled by the Salafi Jihadists and ISIS
  • Assassination of capable forward thinking Leaders

This is the shortest summary I can provide you for one of the most brutal, complex and downright depressing events of this Ummah. Right up there with Karbala and the Mongol Massacres. We hope our IDI author Abdullah Moataz will expand on this in a future piece.

Ilm, Taqwa, Imaan, etc are developed through a continuous process. It requires time and patience. But that doesn’t mean that we abandon everything and focus on personal development alone. Rizq comes from Allah. But we don’t just sit in the masjid and make dua, do we? We supplement our Ibadah with material efforts.

So taking all these things into consideration, one will be naturally confused as to how theology or fiqh, as defined by Hamza Yusuf—i.e personal development—fits into this discussion.

The First Fitnah, the Second fitnah, the Abbasid “Revolution”, the Ummayad conquests in Andalus, the eventual loss of Andalus and the establishment of the Ottomans and their eventual dissolution, existence of Civil Societies are merely incidental. They cannot be causes or effects of anything.

If one were to look at the contemporary accounts these societies at the time when Islamic dynasties established themselves, they will realize that those nomadic communities hardly had any hallmarks of an imagined Civil Society.

If anything scholars often accused civil society of engaging in decadence that brought about instability and weaknesses. This is quite clearly illustrated in Ibn Khaldun’s Cycle of Civilizations. (15)

Whether it’s the Andalusian Emirates or the Mughal Sultanate or the Ottoman realms during their twilight, civil society have shown themselves to be willing aiders and abetters of colonial powers.

Omar Mukhtar said during his trial “The people of cities hated me because I brought them bad luck, and I hated them because they did not help the cause of their religion, for which alone I fought”. (16)

It has held true throughout history. Whether it’s the slaughter of Imam Hussain, the Reconquista of Andalus, the Mongol onslaught into Muslim lands, the humiliation of the Mughal dynasty or the brutal assassination of Osman II, Selim III and Abdul Aziz.

And the abolishment of the Ottoman Caliphate itself.

Civil Society have always shown themselves to be weak in times of trial.

And all that aside, Modern Day Syrians and Palestinians are relatively civilized. Hamza Yusuf and his followers may point to the presence of bars and clubs, but anyone who lives in a Muslim Majority country knows that people who go these places are not representatives of the Muslim population at large. Furthermore these secular elitists are often Assad supporters or whatever tyrant is keeping their purses filled.

Some Muslims have appropriated the rhetoric of the Western Ideologues and often say something along the lines of Norway being comparable to the Caliphate of Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz. (17)

But factually speaking, the Western Civil Societies we see today is built on top of colonialism, genocide and brutal civil wars.

Two perfect examples are the English civil wars in the 17th Century and the brutal French Revolution. Not to mention the barbaric colonial campaigns that followed.

Today England and France boast themselves to be among the representatives of modernity and progress. But how did they get to this point? Was their success really established through “civil societies”?

Not really.

Neither of these countries were examples of civil societies and even today their virulent racism, brutality and intolerance often comes to the surface.

The Western World’s path of progress is littered with corpses and pools of blood.


The idea of obedient citizens who abide by law can eliminate oppression is problematic. This has never been the case in history at any point in time.

If the Germans were more disobedient rather than obedient citizens, the massacre of the Jews probably could have been averted. Today, if Indians didn’t let their conscience be drowned the meta-narrative of national integrity or whatever, Kashmiris wouldn’t be in the situation they are in today. Neither would be the Assamese or the other minorities who are increasingly at risk in India today.

And the idea that Syrians and Palestinians are not capable of forming bus lines is not only offensive but reveals deeply prejudiced perceptions of the Eastern World. Further exacerbated by diaspora Muslims who have internalized a lot prejudices against their countries of origin.

Hamza Yusuf might have stated this as a rhetoric. But it is still deeply offensive and reveals his deficiency in understanding politics and also his inability to recognize modern social trends. It is a consistent pattern. (18)

Another thing that gets overlooked by Hamza Yusuf’s followers is consistent attempt at normalizing secularism in Muslim discourses. He has been quite virulent in his opposition to the Caliphate. (19)

It all circles back to the defensive stances that scholars have adopted to distance themselves from ISIS. And honestly, it’s an illustration of the fact that our modern Ulema had lost the war long before it even began.

We end this article with these questions.

  1. Why is the Iman and Taqwa of the oppressed that is always scrutinized?
  2. Dictatorships didn’t come to power through civil society. None of the modern States did including United States of America. Why and How is Civil Society a precursor for any Revolution?
  3. Has there been any instance of Hamza Yusuf or any Western Ulema systematically lobbying for the freedom of scholars who are being jailed by the Saudi regime(or any other autocratic regime)?
  4. Are the Ulema who are attending the state sponsored programs really following the Sunnah?
  5. What dividends have these Peace Conferences brought forth other than token charities?
  6. What will learning fiqh and theology do if there is no concerted effort at political change?
  7. Why is Hamza Yusuf’s attempt at normalizing Western(i.e. kufr) Concepts of governance overlooked by his followers?

Works Cited

  1. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf And The Question of Rebellion In The Islamic Tradition available at: https://muslimmatters.org/2019/09/15/shaykh-hamza-yusuf-and-the-question-of-rebellion-in-the-islamic-tradition
  2. Imam Abu Hanifah (d. 148 A.H.) – Regarding Rebellion Against Unjust Rulers available at: https://www.academia.edu/25169471/Imam_Abu_Hanifah_d._148_A.H._Regarding_Rebellion_Against_Unjust_Rulers
  3. The revolt of ‘Abd Al-Rahman Ibn Al-Ash’ath: It’s nature and causes. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20839777
  4. Hamza Yusuf & The Sultan: A Case Study in the Misuse of Prophetic Traditions. Available at: https://www.islamicdiscourseinitiative.com/politics/hamza-yusuf-the-sultan-a-case-study-in-the-misuse-of-prophetic-traditions/
  5. On the Theology of Obedience: An Analysis of Shaykh Bin Bayyah and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s Political Thought. Available at:https://www.themaydan.com/2019/01/theology-obedience-analysis-shaykh-bin-bayyah-shaykh-hamza-yusufs-political-thought/
  6. Jihad and the Mongols available at: https://sites.google.com/site/jhoover363/taymiyyan-studies/jihad-against-the-mongols
  7. Ibn Taymiyyah: His Anti-Mongol epistle post the second campaign of Mahmud Ghazan Khan available at: https://www.academia.edu/36482994/IBN_TAYMIYYAH_HIS_ANTI-MONGOL_EPISTLE_POST_THE_SECOND_CAMPAIGN_OF_MA%E1%B8%A4M%C5%AAD_GH%C4%80Z%C4%80N_KH%C4%80N
  8. The Mongol Invasions of Bilād al-Shām by Ghāzān Khān and Ibn Taymīyah’s Three “Anti-Mongol” Fatwas. Available at: http://mamluk.uchicago.edu/MSR_XI-2_2007-Aigle.pdf
  9. Guardians of Faith in Modern Times: ʻulamaʼ in the Middle East. p.37
  10. The Status of Rebels in Islamic Law. Available at : https://www.icrc.org/en/download/file/14047/irrc-881-tabassum.pdf
  11. Mamluks in the Modern Egyptian Mind: Changing the Memory of the Mamluks, 1919-1952 p.27
  12. Osman’s dream. Pg 359
  13. Karbala: Myths and Reality. Available at: https://youtu.be/FLJXM5W6IQo?t=3477
  14. Profiles of Syrian Sunni Clerics in the Uprising. Available at:https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/51284?lang=en
  15. Ibn Khaldun on Luxury and the Destruction of Civilizations. Available at: https://fountainmagazine.com/2017/issue-117-may-june-2017/ibn-khaldun-on-luxury-and-the-destruction-of-civilizations
  16. Libya:
    The Secret Proceedings in the Italians Trial of Libyan Mujahed Omar al-Mukhtar. Available at: http://www.libyanet.com/omar001.htm
  17. Concept of Islamic State is a fantasy | Sh. Hamza Yusuf Available at: https://youtu.be/BV2biid2SSA?t=192
  18. U.S. Muslim cleric Hamza Yusuf calls Trump ‘a servant of God’ during racist rant against Black Lives Matter. Available at: https://www.rabwah.net/muslim-hamza-yusuf-racist-rant/
  19. Hamza Yusuf: Islam Does not Need a Khilafah. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-acadw1YWU

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