Imam Zaid Shakir was born in Berkeley, California to a family descended from African, Irish and Native American roots. As a young man, many of his experiences, as well as his unrelenting desire for social change and economic justice, led him to accept Islam in 1977. Imam Zaid actively participated in his New Haven, Connecticut Muslim community, followed by several years of studying abroad to expand on his understanding of Islam. Soon after his return, Imam Zaid joined Shaykh Hamza Yusuf at the Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, California, where he has been an integral part of the post-911 Muslim community. Apart from teaching full-time at the Zaytuna Institute, actively engaging as a Panelist on The Washington Post’s On Faith weblog, Imam Zaid has also authored several books, and ardently participates in the Muslim and Interfaith community of the Bay Area.
InFocus: What was a major turning point in your life that caused you to look into Islam?
Imam Zaid: There were several. One was dislocating my shoulder my senior year in a football game. That injury – which became a nagging injury – really ended my football career. My goal in life was to play football, so when that [the injury] happened, it started me on a path to begin looking beyond athletics and to begin looking at the more serious aspects of life.
Shortly thereafter, there was a party that I went to in a housing project (Mt. Pleasant in Britain, Connecticut). After the party… I was walking home through this project and this little Puerto Rican girl came out and ran out on that frigid night – and she was yelling, “Why doesn’t anyone love me? Why doesn’t anyone love me?” That really echoed in my mind and I was thinking, “Why should a little girl (9 or 10 years old) reach a point in her life so young that she perceives no one loves her, that no one cares about her?” So when that happened, it really deepened my examination of life. I think that was one of the real turning points that placed me on a path that eventually culminated in my examining Islam.
The more immediate circumstances were the fact that I had rejected Christianity and I started studying various philosophies, ideologies and religions. I wanted to know the truth. I read about various Eastern religions: Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, this-ism, that-ism. During this process I eventually got involved into transcendental meditation, which was somewhat popular at that time. Stevie Wonder – someone I enjoyed listening to at that time – mentioned transcendental meditation. I think in his album “Inner Visions,” he says something like: “transcendental meditation speaks of inner preservation; transcendental meditation gives you peace of mind.” So, I said [to myself] “I’m gonna check out this transcendental meditation thing.” So I got into that and it was really good and spiritually soothing, but I was looking for a way to address the issues that had led that little girl to such desperation – social issues – and try and find a way in the path to make changes in that regard.
I then found the Eastern religions and Eastern spiritualities somewhat selfish – in the sense that I was benefiting. I was feeling good; and I was meditating. But I wasn’t doing anything for anyone else. At that time when I really began to question things, I was still into meditation: the efficacy of the Eastern religion phenomenon, in terms of its ability to help effect change at a communal level. At that point, in the spring of 1977, I got a book on Islam called “Islam in Focus.” When I read that book, all of my questions were answered. I eventually became a Muslim after a few months of examining Islamic teachings, and Alhamdulillah (all thanks to Allah), I never looked back or examined anything else. I had found the water so I took a nice, hardy drink. I also found there was meditation in Islam – dhikr – so I was able to maintain that aspect of spiritual growth.
IF: Please tell me about your experience studying in Syria. What motivated you to go abroad?
IZ: Alhamdulillah, I was motivated to go to Syria and teach because in the winter of 1987/88 I had finished my graduate studies and got a job in the Hamden, Connecticut Welfare Department. We [the Muslim community] started a little mosque, Masjid al-Islam, and we were very active in the community. We were active in the anti-drug work; community organization; local after-school programs; and we had a food program operating out of the masjid, which distributed surplus food to members of the community.
Alhamdulillah, we were helping a lot of people and we had a whole lot of people constantly accepting Islam. However, I gradually realized that my life was headed to working, in the full capacity, for the Islamic community. I realized that if that was going to be the case, I had to improve my knowledge of the religion because the matter is very serious. I’m making decisions that essentially, indirectly or directly, are determining people to go to heaven or hell. That’s a very weighty matter, so it would be incumbent on me to deepen my knowledge of religion. That culminated in my going to Syria. The reason [for choosing] Syria was that when I was teaching, one of my students was from Syria and after realizing my wish to study abroad, he actually arranged for me to go to Syria. He was going to set me up with various shuyookh and get me into one of the schools so I could get a residency permit. I also realized the cost of living in Syria, as compared to other cities, was very low. So, Allah had decreed that that was the place I would go.
IF: You met and studied with many great scholars, who were they and what did they teach?
IZ: When I arrived there, I immediately started lessons with one of the great scholars, Shaykh Mustafa Turkmani. He was a student in fiqh and Islamic Sciences of the great Damascene scholar, Shaykh Hassan Habannaka. Anyone from Syria familiar with the Islamic scene there knows that Shaykh Habannaka was considered one of the greatest scholars of Syria during his lifetime. Shaykh Habannaka was a student of Shaykh Muhammad al-Hashimi in tasawwuf, and also the great Rifa’i Shaykh, Abdul Basit.
I was also able to study with one of the sons of the great Syrian scholar Saleem Hammami, who was the khateeb of Jami’ al-Manjaq for almost 30 years. Very briefly, I was also able to attend the lessons of Shaykh Abdul-Rahman ash-Shaghouri before he fell ill – the lessons of whom I was able to benefit from tremendously. [I was also able to attend] the public lessons of Shaykh Ramadan al-Bouti. At the Abu Nour Islamic College I was able to study with various other prominent scholars. However, most of my student days were spent studying with Shaykh Mustafa Turkmani. We read a very wide variety of books throughout a number of lessons. Alhamdulillah, it was an enriching time and there were obstacles to be covered, but Allah is most Merciful.
IF: How did you meet Shaykh Hamza Yusuf? Please share with us your experience with regards to teaching at Zaytuna Institute and being a part of the Bay area community.
IZ: I first met Shaykh Hamza in 1993 at one of the Muslim pow-wows he and a few other people had orchestrated in New Mexico to bring Muslims of various approaches together for a week-long camp. I didn’t have a deep acquaintance with him, but I met him again at a MAYA (Muslim Arab Youth Association) conference in Detroit, where we were both speaking. We shared a panel in an English speaking session (the program being primarily in Arabic) and I got to chat with him briefly. When I was studying in Syria, I was invited to a couple of the Zaytuna conferences. I would come back and forth from Syria and would meet him. Then I started teaching at some of the Deen Intensives, primarily the ones that were held in New Mexico, and then one that was held in Calgary, where I got to spend more time with Shaykh Hamza.
Most of this time I was still in Syria, going back and forth. However, during the Calgary Deen Intensive, I was in New Haven, Connecticut. I returned to Masjid al-Islam, but a lot of changes had taken place over the years of my absence. It was becoming very hard to readjust to certain things. The community had essentially split up. We had a beautiful community, characterized by a lot of unity. But that had really declined during my absence and there were a lot of factors that lead to me searching for another venue to assist Islam. That’s actually what started me to consider coming to Zaytuna, and at the time I understood the post-911 demands had pulled Shaykh Hamza away and there was really a need for someone to be on the ground there.
I had actually made a commitment to the Islamic Association of North Texas and at the last minute I changed my mind, and instead came to Zaytuna. I moved here in the summer of 2003. Alhamdulillah, it is a wonderful community here in the Bay area; a lot of very wonderful, dynamic and talented brothers and sisters: May Allah bless everyone.
IF: The Zaytuna Institute has moved its academic office to Berkeley. What are its new goals and what do you hope to be teaching in the future?
IZ: Hopefully, inshaAllah, we plan to be working more closely to UC Berkeley, and to offer a program that integrates traditional Islam with the contemporary Western paradigms of study and methodology to try and bring about a dynamic fusion and synthesis between the two. That’s our objective and we have started a curriculum that is based on those objectives. We’re also excited to be offering a summer intensive Arabic program on the UC Berkeley Campus. We pray that Allah ta’ala gives us tawfeeq in that regard.
IF: What are your thoughts on indigenous and immigrant Muslims living in America?
IZ: There’s definitely a stark divide between the indigenous and immigrant Muslims in the United States. An illustration of that is Islamic conferences: if you look at the ISNA, ICNA or MAS conferences, you will notice that the number of African-American participants varies from 1 to 2 percent. That’s it. For example, you look at a CAIR fundraiser where you’re getting about 1 to 2 percent of African-Americans show up. [Yet, they] make up about 35% of the Muslim community. The reason for that is that the issues that are being dealt with, talked about and advocated, are not relevant to the lives of the average, indigenous Muslim, primarily African-Americans, but increasingly Latino, and even white converts.
On the other hand, if you look at the major African-American conferences, such as MANA (Muslim Alliance of North America), or if you even stretch the definition (of Islam in America) a little and you look at the Louis Farrakhan conferences, you see that 99 to 100 perecent of the participants are African-American, with some Latino Muslims, and virtually no immigrants, Again, because there’s very little relevance in those particular conferences, in terms of the agendas being pursued, for immigrant Muslims. Then you have a few joint efforts between the two groups, such as IMAN (Inner-city Muslim Action Network) led by Rami Nashashibi in Chicago, where immigrant and indigenous Muslims are working together to try and bring resources – both human and material – of the collective community to bear on addressing problems and issues of concern for the wider community.
I think that it’s really important for both communities to realize that in numbers, there’s strength. But unity has to be more than a slogan. There has to be relevance in the lives of the constituents of the various Muslim groups, or population. It’s really important for us to sit down and look at the areas of common concern and how we can best share the available resources to impact the lives of the wider Muslim community – regardless of their background – and to begin to address common concerns that are of interest to all of us. That’s going to take the creation of a relevant agenda and visionary leadership. And, at a certain point, we have to recognize that there will always be differences that are going to lead to different emphasis. Therefore, naturally different degrees of relevance for various constituencies [will ensue] within the wider Muslim community.
IF: As a prominent scholar of the Muslim and Interfaith community, what are some of the obstacles, from your perspective, Muslims face in the U.S. as regards to assimilation?
IZ: I think the greatest obstacle Muslims face, in regards to assimilation, is attitude. Most (older) immigrants are coming from a perspective of being colonized by various European powers, or a neo-colonialism perspective of being colonized in the sense of the new globalization, primarily by the U.S. On the one hand, the latter creates a very deep psychological barrier that works against integration. On the other hand, the approaches to Islam that have been very ideological create very stark, analytical and movement-oriented categories that view America as the embodiment of kufr in some instances, and presents a view of Islam that’s very culturally predatory, as opposed to being culturally assimilative, as it was historically. The latter attitude works against assimilation, both in the case of immigrants, who historically have been very insular and have been inclined towards looking back across the seas, to ultimately moving back there on the event of a crisis, such as September 11. However, that’s starting to change with a lot of the younger generation..
In the case of converts, again, you have an oppressed people, generally-speaking, coming into a religion that has, in its recent history, experienced a tremendous degree of oppression. I think a lot of the converts are led to adopt attitudes of hostility towards the United States, in general, [such as taking] a very negative view of the society. As a result, in many instances, rejecting the fact that we’re already assimilated and then rejecting the reality of assimilation; breaking ties with relatives, and even parents; looking at one’s former community as kuffar, or antagonistic non-believers. Those attitudes work against the reality of assimilation.
If you’re a convert, you’re already assimilated; you’re part of a wider American family of non-Muslims; you have relatives that are non-Muslims; you have neighbors and friends that are non-Muslims; the people who you grew up with, before converting, and who have been an integral part of your life, are non-Muslim. So, you’re already assimilated. But, for a lot of us – and I include myself – that reality of assimilation is sometimes rejected and one adopts the integrities and the priorities of the immigrant community, and in many instances, of the most anti-assimilative elements in the immigrant community. I think that’s a huge mistake that we have to begin to address and then correct if we’re going to take advantage of the many opportunities that Allah (SWT) has given us in this society. In my opinion, that’s the greatest barrier to assimilation. Once we can overcome that, we have enough creativity to figure out creative ways of how we can maintain our integrity as a Muslim community, while contributing to maybe even the salvation of the greater American project, not the more narrow American project to what was characterized, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to it, the triplets of racism, militarism and materialism. Certainly that’s one of the great aspects of the greater American project, especially in these days and times, but there’s also another project that argues for equality: respecting people; people advancing based on their merits and not advancing based on their religion, race, ethnicity, or other accidents of birth. That’s why I think it’s very important for us to take advantage of the opportunities we have because those opportunities might not be permanent.
IF: Islam is being actively exploited in the presidential race. What are your views and hopes about the race in general? Do you have anything specific to share with the Muslim community about the presidential candidates?
IZ: I think it’s very important for Muslims to form a political agenda that looks at the interests of the wider Muslim community. Human Rights issues in general, the interest of the poor, oppressed and the downtrodden because those are the people that our religion urges us to be an advocate group for. If we ourselves are rich, wealthy and well-off, it shouldn’t automatically make us people who tend to vote Republican as a lot of immigrant Muslims in this country have done historically, because “we see that as protecting our (narrow) interest:” We see where that got everyone in the 2000 election and the aftermath of that election. It is very important for us to look at the historical values that Islam encourages; and to create a political agenda that reflects those values. Then support the candidate who (mostly) commits himself or herself to advancing that agenda, or punish the candidate who does not by working to make sure that they have a very short political career.
In terms of candidates actually running, I think they all leave a lot to be desired, especially those who are described as being more viable such as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Even Ron Paul or John McCain; they all leave something to be desired but we have to look deeply at the issue. A lot of people are attracted to Obama based on what he represents and the message he would send to the world. But the fact is that Obama is only viable as an African-American candidate, because he does not – and realizes he cannot – be an advocate for the poor and downtrodden masses of African-American people because he realized he will be just another Al Sharpton or Jessie Jackson; therefore, unelectable because he’s advocating for the poor, or the downtrodden, or the increasingly disenfranchised masses of poor, urban African-Americans. This is an indictment of the general public here; that the candidate can only be viable as an African-American if he is seen as being acceptable to the white majority – essentially meaning that he champions issues of relevance to them, and neglects his own people. I think that’s a big problem as regards to Obama, in addition to the fact that with such large contributions of corporate interest, it will be difficult for him to return to his activist groups, even if he desired to.
In terms of someone like Ron Paul, a lot of Muslims see his advocacy, for example, for eliminating the income tax as being something that appeals to them. But, that doesn’t help the poor people. They don’t pay the income tax, anyway. When you take away the income tax and you introduce other liberal policies that don’t raise the tax in a significant way, then you just end up with a kind of crisis you have here in California, with massive budget deficits without any sources of new revenue. Some propose national gasoline taxes, or similar taxes. That will affect everyone, including the poor people who don’t pay the income tax now, but then they would. The wealthy people’s taxes will be substantially reduced, so it puts a disproportional burden on the poor. Without new sources of revenue through taxation or other forms of income generation for the state, you have budget crisis that leads to budget cuts. That [at the end] affects the poor again, such as [the current situation] in California, with the cutting of various welfare programs and cutting education, which primarily affects the poor, who have been benefiting from the grants that are made available.
We have to really form our own agenda and possibly look at fielding our own candidates. And, initially, that might just be to educate the general public about the issues. Dennis Kucinich does that through his candidacy, or Ralph Nader in the Green party, where there’s no chance they’re going to win in this winner-take-all political system. However, at least some issues are put out there for the public to discuss, and inshaAllah, with time the public will become keen on resolving some of those issues.
IF: What do you think about the prospects of traditional Islam in the future?
IZ: It’s very important for traditional Islam to be rooted in real tradition, and not in the superficial veneer of traditionalism. For example, we have proliferation of Sufi tariqas, but the deeper lessons of tasawwuf are escaping people as they become arrogant. “My tariqa is better than your tariqa. My Shaykh is better than your Shaykh. I’m better than you because my Shaykh is better than your Shaykh.” Tasawwuf is about humility; and it’s about addressing defective character; it’s about remembering Allah so one can get closer to Allah, not so one can lord himself or herself over other Muslims who aren’t remembering Allah. All of that has nothing to do with traditionalism. It is just using some of the institutions associated with traditionalism to stay on the same ego trip that you were on before you ever got involved with [anything].
I think it’s very important for us to really understand the essence of traditionalism; acknowledging the collective efforts of Muslims as human beings, to apply Islam in a real human context, and not looking at some mythical, ahistorical Islam that’s not affected by history and that’s not defined by the efforts of Muslims in history. That effort is an ongoing project. I think it’s very important, in terms of traditionalism – be that respecting the madhahib, respecting tasawwuf, and other human institutions that human beings understood to be an articulation of the fundamental and foundational teachings of the religion – tjhat these things are means that can constantly be improved on. [They] are amenable to change and alterations that keep us in touch with unchangeable ends to Islam. The latter is what traditionalism is and, I think, if we can concentrate on the ends and not see the means as ends in and of themselves, we’ll be able to benefit from traditionalism. Traditionalism is about benefiting from the wisdom of those who preceded us, and then continuing, as Dr. Umar Farooq Abdullah likes to say, from where they stopped, and not becoming stuck and mired in some of the negative aspects of their work, which is one of the dangers.
The institutions that were prevalent at the time of the four imams–Imam ash-Shafi’, Ahmad, Abu Hanifa, Malik–were not the institutions that were prevalent at the time of Imam Ghazali. And the institutions in the form of their engagement with the world and with reality during the time of, for example, Imam Suyuti, were not the same as those that were prevalent during the times of Imam Ghazali. There was growth, there was change, there was evolution. We have to continue that process.
IF: Do you have any specific advice to American Muslim and Muslims around the world?
IZ: My advice to American Muslims would be to really think deeply on the opportunities that we have here and to take advantage of them, not to squander them with ignorance or short-sighted thinking; to really realize that we have tremendous opportunities in that our community is very wealthy, talented and highly educated. We should take advantage of those realities to try to organize ourselves and galvanize our energy and the potential we have to do something significant for the Muslim and non-Muslim people of the world.
In terms of advice for Muslims of the world, I would just say to look at the fullness of the religion and never lose touch with the heart of the religion, which is purification of the heart. If we have a deep relationship with Allah, it becomes very easy to keep all of the trials and tribulations of the world in perspective, and not to be overwhelmed by them.