Hamza Yusuf started life as Mark Hanson in Walla Walla, Washington, USA. The son of two US academics of a Catholic and Greek Orthodox background, he seemed destined not for Islamic scholarship, but for Greek Orthodox priesthood until a near-death experience in a car accident, and reading the Quran, diverted his attentions towards Islam.
It was this sudden confrontation with his own mortality that Yusuf has described as being the defining moment that gave " someone who was introspective, perspective." Although, numerous factors interplay in any individual's conversion, it was this vista in particular, that opened up a path of enquiry and reflection that ultimately led to his conversion to Islam in 1977, a few months before his 18th birthday. His brush with death had sparked an intrigue into the afterlife, causing him to study various traditions' views on death. Islam, he found, offered the most detailed account of all.
Furthermore, he found that many of his own values only served to harmonise with Islamic belief. His father, a Humanities Professor and his mother a Berkeley graduate, were fairly active in the civil rights movements enabling a strong awareness of social struggle and justice in the young Mark. "As a westerner, the child of civil rights and anti-war activists, I embraced Islam not in abandonment of my core values, drawn almost entirely from the progressive tradition, but as an affirmation of them."
Simultaneously, the arguments put forward in the Quran drew parallels with many of his own musings. From a young age, he was very much aware of being a product of his environment. The Quran prompted reflection on his perception of life, reality, and religion. Just as his parents were Christian, he had been raised as one, yet the Quran offers many parables of those following the religion of their forefathers without question. The Quran prompted him to look beyond what many take for granted.
After his conversion he left for England where he embarked on private study which was to instill a desire to learn the tradition from its source. It was during this time, in which he was beginning to learn Arabic, that he met Sheikh Abdullah Ali Mahmood of Sharjah who was in England at the time. This meeting was to prove pivotal in Yusuf's life providing him the opportunity to further his studies in the United Arab Emirates.
Yusuf spent some four years in the UAE, where he became a Muadhin (caller to Prayer) and Imam at a local mosque. It was also during this time that he met various West African scholars who kindled an interest in studying traditional Islam as is still being taught in West Africa today. These scholars did much in the way of his personal tuition before his aspirations of studying in West Africa were finally realised.
His journey of reflection, prompted by a fateful car accident, took him to many parts of the Middle East over a ten-year period where he received numerous teaching licenses, or ijazas, from the some of the greatest remaining scholars of traditional Islam. Having travelled to the UAE, Madinah, Algeria, Morocco, and West Africa he eventually returned to the US where he took degrees in nursing and religious studies from Imperial Valley College and San Jose State University, respectively.
He has since travelled to numerous countries around the world giving talks on various topics on Islam, with his video and audio recordings selling by the thousands. His ability to move many to tears, both of laughter and humility, have ensured his popularity with many, but only someone who speaks from the heart will have any lasting impact upon it-and it is in this aspect that he has left his greatest impression. His talks have inspired confidence in many young Muslims disillusioned with the West and further disillusioned by other Muslims insisting on a suffocating interpretation of Islam. He advocates a refreshing tolerance that counteracts the cancerous intolerance crippling the Muslim community, and promotes a sincerity and purification of the heart that will necessarily permeate and purify societies. For those who have attended the short courses, organised by traditional learning institutes in the West, in which he is one of many teachers, it is to bear witness to this possibility. In meeting the teachers of sacred knowledge who have come from all walks of life to teach students living in the West, is to witness the greatness of Islam itself in its inherent ability to dignify and elevate all who embody its teachings regardless of race, rank or background. For Islam truly is an invitation to all mankind.