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FROM THE INTERVIEW WITH HAMZA YUSUF HANSON
INTERVIEWER: Could you shed some light on Muhammad's first experience of revelation?
HAMZA YUSUF: The year is 620. Muhammad is 40 years old. Socially, the culture he lives in is very troublesome for him. He's bothered by the idolatry too. He has a natural disinclination towards superstition, towards animism. He's troubled, and he needs to get away. He goes to a mountain in the desert outside the town. He is meditating in a cave at the top of the mountain. He's eating very lightly and he's meditating. And at this point what occurs is concerned with objects of worship, of devotion. Here is somebody who believes in one God.
But now, he's being told that that one God is communicating with him. We move into a new realm now, a troublesome realm, I think, for every human being. One of the fundamental crises of religion is this question: Is my object of devotion, indeed, a transcendent reality or is this some kind of modification of my human consciousness. Is this experience really true?
Now every religious tradition has an event, an experience that is the defining experience of that tradition. If we look at the Mosaic tradition, we have Moses receiving a law from God. This is real, this is carved in stone. He's coming down from the mountains with tablets. And these tablets have been written by the hand of God. And he's giving them to his people. We have Jesus, peace be upon him, who comes to tell people, "I'm speaking with God." We have the Buddha under the Bodhi tree who's now awakening. He is having his realization. This is ultimately the crux of every religious tradition: this experience that is transcendent, that moves beyond this phenomenal world into another realm.
This is at the essence of the prophetic tradition, the idea that there is communication that transcends this reality. It's interpenetrating. It's coming into this real from another realm. And this is the essential claim of the Prophet Muhammad. This is what he is telling the world. He is saying, I am in a long line of people who have spoken with God.
Now, this experience of speaking with God is not a direct experience, because god is infinite. This speaking with God is through mediation. A messenger comes between the one sending the message and the one receiving the message. This is the angel. This is the angelic realm. And Muhammad enters into this realm. The entire horizon, according to tradition, is filled with this being.
Now, first of all the angel squeezes him, which is very interesting. He squeezes him three times, and the Prophet Muhammad believes his sides are going to be crushed. In the more mystical tradition of Islam this has been interpreted as a process of being emptied out. The self, the ego, has to be completely emptied, before it can become a vessel for divine revelation. It's a preparation, then, for the revelation to come. And then, the revelation comes. IQRA: Read.
This is the first revelation. It's a double entendre. In the Arabic language IQRA means both 'recite' and 'read'. It's a nuanced word. Muhammad mistakes it. He says, I don't know how to read. Meaning, I'm unlettered. I don't know how to read. Again, in this booming voice, the angel says, Read! This very profound experience is literally going to the depths of his being.
Read! And what he really being told is, This is not the type of reading that you think it is. And Muhammad says again, I don't know how to read. A third time it comes. And then it begins. This is the beginning of the revelation: Read in the name of your Lord! This is the experience.
Now, when this first happens, there is a sense of …What's happening to me! He is afraid. This experience is happening- and what does it mean? Here is somebody who's gone looking for something, looking for this transcendent reality, and this transcendent reality is now replying. It's very difficult for us to imagine what this experience must've been like. But it happened. This is not somebody who's telling lies. Fair-minded people who have looked at the story have dismissed the idea that this is somebody who was out to fool people. The question becomes the question of religion: Is this a valid transcendent experience or is this something else that's happening? This is where faith comes into play.
What the Islamic tradition emphasizes in this story is that this experience is valid and that it is not something new. Muhammad is not claiming to be independent of prior traditions. He is saying that he is part of an ongoing story, there is this phenomenon called prophecy, and there are human beings who emerge from amongst other human beings with a special capacity-to be a receptacle, to actually receive a message that is coming from beyond this mundane experience of the world.
One way to understand this might be to look at it in terms of, say, the early Albert Einstein. At that stage in Einstein's life we see a man with an understanding that we do not share. He is seeing things in the world that we are not seeing. When he looks at the world he is seeing mathematical phenomena and he is describing it. And there are only a handful of people on the planet that can begin to understand what he is talking about. But those people, pretty soon, are able to split atoms. They are soon doing things that indicate that the knowledge they have is indeed something real. It's not a false knowledge, it's a real knowledge.
What the Prophet Muhammad is doing at this stage is also something very real. He has a special gift. It's not mathematics. It's not poetry either. Poetry is another gift.
INTERVIEWER: Some Westerners, some non-Muslims, say they can't grasp the Qur'an. Would you speak about that?
HAMZA YUSUF: There is a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, which is attributed also to Ali. He says that human beings are asleep. And when they die they wake up. So, there is this notion that human beings go through life as sleepwalkers, as people who are really not waking up to their own potential- to this power that resides within us.
And that power is rooted in language. In English we, we define the human being in logic as a rational animal. The way the Arabs say that is, 'a speaking animal.' Instead of 'rational' they use the word that means 'speaking.' There is the idea that at the root of language is our rational nature.
And language is what the Qur'an is about. It's about language. It's about communication. Now, one of the difficult things for Western people, particularly, about the Qur'an is that the Qur'an is not book that begins in Genesis and follows through human history linearly, so that we begin with Adam and Eve and end with the coming of Jesus for the Christians.
The Qur'an is not a linear narration. It's a book that is coming at you from every angle. It is speaking in the first person. Suddenly, it's in the second person, then it's third person. It's speaking about the nature of God. And suddenly it's talking about inheritance laws and what you do when somebody dies. For many Western people it's all over the place. They don't see the structure. So, there is, there is this troubling element. A lot of people, I think, have a difficult time with the Qur'an because of that.
The Qur'an in its own pages describes itself as being similar to the stars at night. And one thing about the stars at night is, if, if you go out and look at the stars, if you're not an astronomer, if you haven't been observing the night sky for a long time, it appears to you to be a jumbled group of lights, of heavenly orbs that really don't have any pattern. But if you begin to look close, and begin to observe it, and begin to really reflect, gradually, this order begins to emerge.
And that is the experience with the Qur'an. The Qur'an initially presents itself as a disorderly array of lights. But as you begin to immerse yourself in this book, a deeper order begins to emerge. Now, this is very different from most literature. If, if you look very closely at literature it begins to deconstruct. Outwardly, there is this superficial coherence, but underlying it as you begin to deconstruct the piece of literature it can start to fall apart. The opposite, I think, is, is in many ways true for the Qur'an. When you look at it outwardly, it seems difficult to follow. But as you begin to penetrate the book it, an extraordinary order begins to emerge.
INTERVIEWER: What challenges do American Muslims and modern people face in emulating Muhammad's example?
HAMZA YUSUF: One of the biggest challenges for Americans and for modern people, in general, is to live a life that has a spiritual connection in the midst of a materialism that is unparalleled in human history. Attempting to live not only an ethical life, but also a life that has spiritual dimensions to it, in a world that is becoming increasingly materialistic is a real challenge.
The Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century was living in a world that was in many ways free and devoid of the distractions that exist in the modern world. We are bombarded daily with messages telling us that our salvation is in consuming, that our joy is in consuming. The religion of consumerism is a real challenge for religious people everywhere.
This is not unique to the Muslims. It really is a challenge for all people who are attempting to live with a spiritually connected inner life alongside their outer life. As the inner world becomes increasingly crowded with the stimuli of the outer world, it becomes harder and harder for people to live on any spiritual path.
INTERVIEWER: What is the significance of Muhammad's Farewell Pilgrimage and of his final sermon?
HAMZA YUSUF: All of Islam in a sense comes together in the pilgrimage. That's why it's one of the five pillars of the religion. It's seen as a culmination of one's life. One goes on the pilgrimage as a completion. And in a sense, once it's completed, it's as if one is ready to die. So it's a preparation for death. And indeed the Prophet made the pilgrimage only a few months before he died. The extraordinary aspect of this pilgrimage is this: here is a man who began his mission as an individual in Mecca, persecuted, with almost no followers, and 23 years later his life is completed in a valley filled with tens of thousands of people who have accepted his message. And there he is, preaching to them his final sermon. And in the speech itself is a summation of the universal teaching he has brought them.
The first thing he tells them is that they will be witnesses of what he says here to those they meet after he is gone. Next, he tells them "your God is one God. "He tells them that they're all from Adam and Eve, that there is no preference of a Black man over a White man or a White man over a Black man, except in his conscientious awareness of his Lord. So here's dealing with racism, one of the fundamental problems of human societies. He reminds them there is no preference of one race over another race. That real preference is an internal awareness of God, an internal, ethical component, that makes one a good human being.
And then he warns people of usury, and says that from this day forward usury is prohibited. Now he's dealing with an economic aspect of their existence, and he's addressing one of the root causes of the economic problems of human society. Next he tells the men: Your women have rights. And he warns his followers: Treat your women well. You must clothe them, feed them, protect them, and honor them. Now he is dealing with the crisis of women's rights, by elevating a woman's status in the world. And then he addresses intercalation, or the manipulation of the calendar- something the Arabs in pre-Islamic Arabia did, and which he warns against, as a form of the manipulation of nature, the manipulation of a system that is divine in a sense- the heavenly orders. In other words, here he is warning his people against manipulating divine order in the world.
At the heart of this universal message, then, he is completing his teaching by warning humanity about very important dangers: the danger of racism, the danger of economic injustice, the danger of the oppression of women, and the danger of the manipulation of nature. This is the summation of his teaching. And, and then he says, I have delivered my message. And he calls upon God to bear witness that he has fulfilled the message that he was given.
He goes back to Medina after the Hajj, and he's ready to meet his Lord. He's ready to meet his creator. And he dies in the arms of his beloved wife, Aisha. And this is a life that is completely fulfilled on every level. He has lived his own message. He has been its greatest proponent and its greatest adherent.