Hamza Yusuf, Jonathan Brown, Yahya Rhodus | Value of Liberal Arts Education | ADAMS Center

As the Friday evening rush hour set in around the DC beltway, I and hundreds of other Muslims battled through traffic, which more than doubled my travel time to get to the ADAMS Center mosque in Virginia. I arrived before the event and helped a parent carry in some boxes of Girl Scout cookies before making my way toward the gymnasium/multipurpose event room.

Before I even took off my shoes, I met an old acquaintance who said that the room was full and that we might as well make our way upstairs to the overflow space in the musalla. For a moment I considered trying to squeeze my way in but instead reluctantly decided to go upstairs knowing that the experience would be inferior. And it was, although, I give the organizers props for trying.

A television monitor, a bit on the small side, had been setup with close circuit feed to the program downstairs in the gym. The camera appeared as if it were placed on the furthest possible wall at the highest possible angle so we couldn’t really make out any of the main speakers. Some extra speakers had been brought in to amplify the sound so at least we were able to hear if not see.

Dr. Jonathan Brown, a hadith scholar at Georgetown University, opened by highlighting some of the pitfalls he sees in many western universities, which he described as having “sterile” and “amoral” environments. In such settings, moral thinking based in religion is often seen as an impediment to progress and enlightenment. According to Brown, most academics are afraid to weigh in on the political and moral issues of the day fearing a backlash or being accused of trying to “force” their personal convictions on others.

For a Muslim student raised in environment of black-and-white morality and where a spirit of inquisitiveness is not encouraged, a college environment, which does not nurture their faith can lead them to question everything they believe or had been taught to believe. According to Dr. Brown, this is one reason many colleges began as religious institutions that had a strong moral framework.

Dr. Brown hopes that the Muslim community can pool its resources to create more institutions like Zaytuna College that can build up and pass on wisdom for future generations of American Muslims. Through these institutions, the Muslim community can show the rest of society the values contained within the Islamic tradition.

Yahya Rhodus began his talk by translating some lines of poetry: “Make knowledge an excuse and don’t make other things an excuse for knowledge. And know for certain that knowledge and worship are the means of felicity and salvation. And that is what will remain for you in the next world so purify and cling to that.”

Today, many young Muslims feel at a loss spiritually and are not sure how to respond effectively to the changing circumstances we find ourselves in. Rhodus emphasized that having a holistic knowledge of the religion is key to navigating our situation as American Muslims. Knowledge can help the believer understand the context of generalized Prophetic principles, which remain constant, in light of the underlying changing circumstances of today.

Hamza Yusuf praised the ADAMS Center as a model American Muslim community but cautioned the audience not to become complacent by mentioning a narration from Abdullah Ibn Umar: When a believer is praised, he works harder, because he knows it [the praise] is always more than he deserves but when a hypocrite is praised he become lazy because he is pleased that people think good things about him.

Yusuf then reminded the audience that the religion of Islam is based on knowledge. The revelation of Quran began with the word Iqra, which means to read or recite and that this knowledge is a gift given from Allah. Knowledge can raise a people and communities in ranks but only if we remain humble.

In some narrations of the famous hadith “Seeking knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim,” Yusuf explained that some scholars added the words “wal muslima” so that everyone would know that learning is obligatory for both men and women.

In another tradition, a man came to the Prophet (peace and blessing of Allah be upon him) and said, “I have a chest complaint.” The Prophet put his hand on the man’s chest and said, “You have a heart problem. Go and visit Harith al-Kindi because he is a doctor.” Ibn Khaldun, the great historian, commented on this hadith by saying, “The Prophet didn’t come to teach us medicine but to give us the principles of health.” And one benefit of a good liberal arts education is to provide the student with the tools to enable her to think critically.

For Yusuf, it is a tragedy that most Muslims cannot tell you what Surah Baqarah, the second and longest chapter of the Quran is about even though they’ve read it dozens of times. He said that Muslim community does not need more translations of the Quran but is in dire need of a new thematic tafsir or explanation of Quran. Perhaps, this can be the task of western students grounded in both the liberal arts and Islamic sciences.

As a final reminder, Hamza Yusuf exhorted the audience to move beyond sectarianism, which he says is prohibited in the Quran. And that it should be sufficient for us if a person says the declaration of faith and believes in the obligatory that we consider them as a brother or sister. A verse in the Quran reminds us that every group is happy with what they have but as Yusuf notes, while we hope we are on the truth we should have the humility to know that we could be wrong.

One final lesson: Since I was among the first people to head up to the overflow area, I was able to get a seat on the comfy floor sofa, which I relinquished when we got up to offer the evening prayer. After the prayer, I returned to find someone else sitting in the place where I had been sitting and for a second I felt a twinge of annoyance as if she had taken “my seat.”

But then I quickly remembered, it was never my seat to begin with and I had no more right to it than she did. All things belong to Allah and are bestowed on us as gifts so I smiled at her, said I didn’t mind when she offered to return the seat to me, and took a seat on the floor.


  1. Thanks for sharing a summary of speeches by these scholars. Its definitely a reminder for every muslim to seek knowledge and be a firm on his fundamentals to face the challenges to his identity

  2. I have to disagree with what Brown said (mind you, I know him and am really surprised to hear him say that…especially given the scholarship he does!). I’m a Muslim professor of Islamic Studies. I teach from an entirely secular perspective. The vast majority of my students are Muslim. They *are* challenged by my class. But as I make it clear in the beginning of each course: Secular studies of Islam deepened and strengthened my faith. If one has a faith that is unwilling to consider different perspectives, unwilling to ask critical questions, well that is a pretty weak faith. I was never afraid of what I would find out because if the Qur’an is the Truth and Muhammad is the embodiment of that Truth, then whatever I find out about the political, intellectual, and spiritual history of my religion cannot change that fact. I tell them they will find out that many of their religious teachers treat them like babies. They assume that young Muslims cannot hear the complex history of the civil wars, the exclusion of women from the Prophet’s mosque after only 50 years, the political and social influences on the development of law and theology, all of that, and keep a strong faith. But I believe that challenge is the healthiest possible thing for their faith.

    I consistently get very high evaluations and personal thanks from Muslim students for giving the means to mature, return to faith, or realize that even though they are different than what they are told a “good Muslim” to be, there is a place for them in Islam. My favorite moment this past year was a young salafi, with flood pants and all, came up after the class on the Sunni Shia Split (or Why The Shia Might Feel They Got Robbed) and told me he had not believed that Shia were Muslim prior to this class. Or maybe it was the the deeply faithful student who came out to me. Or maybe…. One conservative student asked me after we covered the civil wars why her teachers would never tell her that. I replied, ~I don’t know. You are going to find out. If you don’t have the analytical and historical training to know how to understand your own history, the very thing they are afraid of–you losing your faith–is far more likely to happen.~

    They count on students remaining isolated and never being challenged, even from within Islam. They don’t even want them to know what many other Muslims think! I feel that if you teach students the mechanism of the law, they are more likely to respect the legal thinking and engage it for their own good. Those teachers just want them to take it as they give it. And Hamza Yusuf is one who wants them to take it as they give it. They’ll teach some diversity within Islam, but they refuse to engage the fulness and complexity of it with the students. They are all about taqlid. Taqlid does not create a person with a strong faith. It creates a person with a fragile faith that cannot bear the challenge of alternative viewpoints because it has never learned how to struggle through these challenges with total trust in God and the Prophet.

    Finally, a good number of Muslim students every year tell me that they are grateful to have a place to think through their doubts and get their questions answered honestly.

    So yeah, Yusuf (and Brown!) are dead wrong in my experience. But it wouldn’t be the first time that I thought Yusuf was dead wrong about something.

  3. Just to make it clear, I meant that *traditional scholars* are typically afraid to teach their younger students about the civil wars (or if they do to clean the story up). More advanced students learn this but they only learn the version held as historical doctrine by their group.

  4. x_x, fascinating reading your comments and experiences. I do believe that learning about the intellectually rigorous framework within Islamic law and its diversity of opinions has strengthened my faith. I’ve had the opportunity to study with teachers that have encouraged me to question and challenge and to intellectually stand on my own two feet as well as those who unintentionally undermine our intellectual curiosity and seem to want us to depend exclusively on them for answers.

    Maybe, one day, I’ll be able to study with you as well.

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