Story Of How I Nearly Died

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Hamza Yusuf

Channel: Hamza Yusuf

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Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is an American presidential adviser on Islam, and a man who's established himself as a leading spokesman on Muslim Christian relations in the wake of the September the 11th attacks, but 42 years ago, he was born plain Mark Hansen, son of American middle class academic parents in the state of Washington. Although there were some Christian influences on his early life, especially from the Greek Orthodox Church, they weren't profound. And Hamza Yusuf describes the person he was then as an ordinary sports obsessed teenager, with no particular interest in religion. But like the people whose stories we'll be hearing over the next four weeks, his outlook changed forever

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following a close encounter with death. It was a car crash, which altered the course of his life, prompting first the conversion to Islam, then a deep interest in Islamic scholarship, which persists to this day. But he could have foreseen none of this. on that fateful day, when disaster struck the 17 year old all American boy,

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I was with a group of friends, and we were out partying, and a friend of mine was driving a car at a very high speed and lost control of it. And we crashed into a brick wall, and actually destroyed the wall. Really, for all intents and purposes, I should have been killed in that accident. fact, the police officer did not understand how I survived. And I've actually had this kind of inkling of a suspicion that I didn't survive everything that happened after it was almost like, maybe trying to work out what happened in that moment. It was a very powerful experience. Did you have a split second of clarity I had, I had a split second, have more than just clarity, I had a split second

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that turned into a lifetime. I had one of those classic saw my entire life flashed before my eyes, time suddenly expanded, and I wasn't in the car anymore, I was somewhere else. And then suddenly, it was over. And I don't remember anything other than glass shattering, and did the life that you saw flashing before you leave you disappointed or wanting more? What was it was the experience? I think initially I was in shock. It was very traumatic experience. And I actually was in shock. And I think it took me about six months to come out of that shock. It was like just a very powerful wake up call. And during those six months, it began just an exploration of, of what would have happened had

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I died? Where would have I gone? Was I ready to go there? Because I did have a deep sense of that there was something on the other side. Now denominationally, you were baptized into a Greek Orthodox background? Was it to the spiritual traditions of Eastern Christianity that you looked? No, I think by that time, I'd gone to Catholic schools. And by that time, I was really looking for some other things. I think I had a lot of trouble with the organized arrangement of both Catholicism and orthodoxy. I've come to appreciate it more, oddly enough, later on. What point were you beginning to be drawn towards Islam after the accident? I think Islam was the last, if I had a list of religions,

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or a list of philosophies, Islam would have been at that time at the bottom of the list. I think for a number of reasons. I think Western people tend to think of Islam as an aberration. So I think what happened, I saw a book by Martin lings, called the book of certainty. And I really liked the title. I didn't know it had anything to do with Islam. But I just, that was kind of what I was really looking for. I was looking for some certainty about things. And I got that book. And there was a lot of quotations from the Quran. And it was I realized, I've never never read the Koran. So I picked up a Koran at a bookstore. And I started reading that, and that got me very interested. And then

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shortly after that, I actually met some Muslims. And after the accident, what kind of frame of mind were you in, which made you more receptive to the Quran, into the Bible? So

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I actually was struck by a lot of similarities. I've never felt that in embracing Islam, I was abandoned in Christianity, I've never felt that I really felt that it was just kind of a next step. And I think the truths of the Bible are as valid for me today as they were when I was growing up a Christian, and having survived a brush with death, did you find that there was a greater urgency now to your life? I've felt that almost every day in my life since that time, and I think that was just a gift. I had a professor of religious studies, Ken Kramer, who wants said in a class, there's a point in your life where every cell of your body realizes its mortality. He said for him. It

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happened when he was about 28. And that happened to me

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When I was 17, and I think everybody does have that experience, where suddenly we realize that we're not going to be here forever. Most young people don't have that experience. I think it's almost an alien experience. And that's why young people go to war because they think they're coming back. So you had the accident, you had the aftershock, the period of reflection, then the conversion? How did life change after that? Initially, I think it was a radical change, because the Muslims I became Muslim with were very, very committed Muslims. And so it was a very, I would say, radical change. I think that I had a classic conversion experience, which after I've read several books on it in my

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30s, I understand it in a different light than say, when I was 17. But I think I had a classic conversion experience, and it was quite radical. Paul, on the road to Damascus, do you think that you needed that shock to project you into the world of Islam? Or would you have arrived there anyway, eventually? That's a really hard question to answer. I think at the time, I needed the shock. But I've seen Muslims converts have come,

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I met somebody that just liked Afghani food. You know, he got interested in Islam, because he used to go to a restaurant that he liked. And the Sufi is have a saying that there are as many paths to God as are our souls of people. But the shock, the crash, near death experience, change your philosophical out, Yes, very much. I think if you come to terms with mortality in a really deep way, Heidegger, the German philosopher had this idea of a, you know, a being unto death, that really, life is really about embracing death, he felt the only really genuine human authentic thing that a human being can do is die. He felt that everything else was really determined by their culture and

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their society. But the death was uniquely your own experience. Nobody could teach you how to die, that it was really something that you would do on your own. And I think that for me, there was something of that there of recognizing the power of death, and the presence of death. And ultimately, I think the reason that we still have religion, the reason we still have philosophy, and the reason we have science is because they deal with these big issues. These are the issues that we're all confronted with an I think what the world is, you know, the vanity fair of the world is that we use the world really, as a way of just in a sense, constantly engaging ourselves in the

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world so that we're really not looking at these big questions, but they're always looming on the horizon. And when a death occurs in the family, when we get sick, if an accident happens, that's when the the issues reemerge. But I think there's a lot of attempt in human beings to deflect these really big questions. What about life, though? Did the Quran enhance the hearing? Very much. And I think my experience with you know, what, what is called a near death experience, I think enhanced my life, my wife and I have an interesting relationship in that I've always felt and really indicated that to her that we don't know if we're gonna get through this day. It's a gift when you're really

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aware of that. Because I think the immediacy of life, the preciousness of the moment becomes much more real. And I think that's been a real blessing about that of having that. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about death, not in a morbid way. It's not a morbid thought, to me, it's more of, I'm here, I'm breathing, I need to enjoy this. And it really helps me keep a perspective on September 11, for instance, which was very traumatic for a lot of people that evening, I went out I'm amateur astronomer, and I just looked up at the skies and saw the moon right where it should have been saw this Summer Triangle, Vega, these constellations that are out there, and just they

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were right where they were supposed to be. And it kind of reminded me everything's in place in the universe, that we can't get too caught up with our little madness down here. Because there's a lot of order out there. And sometimes these non essential disorders, the mental formations can really trap us and get us caught up. I mean, if you had to compare, probably contrast the person you were before the accident, and the man you are now what would you say? I would say an adjective I hear a lot is intense. There's an intensity and, and I think that that that has something to do with that with my, the experiences that I've had in life. It's not just from that experience, and my father is

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somebody who's lived in the world of ideas and taking life seriously and led a contemplative life. My mother was a social activist. So my background in growing up, but also in these experiences has just made me really very intensely engaged with life. I feel that I

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have engaged life haven't spent a lot of time watching TV or summer reruns. Did any of the old Mark Hanson survive? Or was the crash? a full stop? No, no, I think very much. So I don't think we can get away from some really essential aspects to our personalities. And for me life is, it's cutting away at the coal to get to that diamond. I think that we're all born with that essential jewel essence that we all contain. I think every human being has it. And I think that, that we have an opportunity here while we're here to work on ourselves. And I see life as an evolution as a growth and as a cutting away at that carbon around the diamond. Have you ever wondered why, in fact, you

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were spared when so many people in car accidents are really not? Yeah, I've thought about that a lot. I think that

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it's a second chance, I think it's a gift, I see it as a gift. And I've tried to honor that gift as much as possible by making my life count by making my life be worthwhile by trying to contribute be more productive, somebody who is out there, trying to be a light in the darkness, and to link up with other lights, you know, because I think there's a lot of good people out there doing a lot of great things. And those are the people that I'd rather be with. I mean, in the end, do you think it was all an accident? Or can you see a reason behind it?

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I think it would be a real delusional state for me to try to read the mind of God. I'm not, I hope deluded enough to believe in that type of, you know, I'm a chosen one or something like that. I would not say that in any way. I think we're all chosen by the mere fact of our existence. And I think that some of us might have a greater awareness of that than others. But it certainly doesn't make them any more chosen, it might make them a little more conscious of that. So I feel in a sense that that is probably for me. What that accident was is waking up to the chosen aspect of life. All of us have a mission that we wake up to, and I feel I woke up to my personal mission. And that's a

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great gift. And I hope that everybody would wake up because I think everybody's here for a reason. The street sweeper has as much right to be here as the Prime Minister. And that's the beauty of life on Earth. Obviously, all the people in this series, I've encountered death and then escaped it equally. Obviously, they won't go on escaping it indefinitely. When you meet death for real, how will you face? You know, I once saw a little girl. It was after a mudslide in Peru. You might have seen this, it was broadcasted all over the world. They work 24 hours to get her she was trapped in a grade. And they were trying to get her out of this mudslide. She was I think about eight or nine

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years old, and her parents were there, and they couldn't get her out, took her 25 she was totally exhausted. And finally the chain snapped and she literally sunk into this mud on live television. And as she was sinking into the mud, she smiled and waved goodbye. And what I got from that is the submission of children. One of the things about children that really strikes me as if you work in a in a hospital or go to a cancer ward. Children are never angry that they have cancer. They don't get angry that it happened to them. Whereas adults tend to they get angry, why Why me? Why am I suffering? I think children have this acceptance of the decree so to speak, that Providence has a

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hand in these things. And my hope is that that I would meet my death like that, of just accepting this is it's time to go now.