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Apr 28, 2017

Letter from the Editor

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Hamza Yusuf

Zaytuna College

Hamza Yusuf is a leading proponent of classical learning in Islam and president of Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college in Berkeley, California.

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Letter from the Editor

Why "Renovatio?"


It is an unusual name for a publication, but we chose the Latinate term renovatio, from which we derive our English word “renovation,” as an aspirational title for the ambitious project we have in mind. The prefix re means “again,” and the base word is derived from the Latin novus, “new”: “to make new again, to restore to good condition as if new again, to repair, to reinvigorate, to refresh, revive.”

A derelict house can either be uprooted from its foundations to make way for a whole new edifice or, if the foundation is sound, can be renovated by making use of what is sound and replacing what is not. It is important to understand the cause of the dereliction so that any subsequent restorative efforts won’t be undermined by an unidentified causal factor that, once restoration is complete, simply begins anew its corrosive work, just as etiology is necessary in finding a cure for an illness so that, once treated, it does not return.

One can renovate not only an existing structure but also an idea, culture, religion, or any concrete or conceptual aspect of the world and restore it to a previously robust state.

It is our contention, that, in essence, the foundations of the Abode of Islam are sound, but the house that harbors this civilization has fallen into deep dereliction. It is in need of renovation, not reformation. To try the analogy further, the foundation is solid, but the walls are crumbling, the amenities are in disrepair, the plumbing no longer works, the water has been shut off, and many of the inhabitants are truly suffering. How then do we begin?

First, we must identify the cause of the state of disrepair. Is the situation a result of the natural wear and tear of time, the curvilinear nature of the rise, peak, decay, and fall that has accompanied all civilizations? We must also identify any dilapidators, past or present, complicit in the sorry state of the Abode. All societies have corrupt members who harm the health of others, but if they are small in number, they, and the damage they inflict, can be contained. There comes a point, however, when they overwhelm the social body, making the state of affairs difficult, if not impossible; the culture, then, can no longer serve its purpose as a vehicle for human flourishing. Ironically, reformers who always emerge at these late stages, often with the best of intentions, accelerate the decline and fall because their interventions are rooted in a lack of wisdom and misdiagnosis.

The English historian, Arnold Toynbee, believed that civilizations are always confronted with challenges and that societies either flourish or flounder and ultimately fall based upon whether a “creative minority” crafts the right responses to those challenges. Arguably, the correct responses stem from a sound grasp of the causes of endogenous challenges that always precede the exogenous ones of invasion and occupation; that diagnosis only emerges from perceiving the metaphysical crisis underlying the intellectual, spiritual, political, social, and economic challenges that confront them. Hence, creative minorities must have the time, energy, intelligence, and support of the society to deeply penetrate and fully grasp the nature of the challenges confronting them.

In the case of Islamic civilization, its crisis has been addressed largely in superficial political or socio-economic terms that have always been unsuccessful because they fail to see the metaphysical crisis at the root. Thus, to change our condition, we must first identify today’s metaphysical crisis and, more importantly, the metaphysical foundations that were in place when the Muslims were vibrant and thriving. Then we can begin to renovate and restore them.

We thought it appropriate to launch Renovatio with a focus on the crucial role of metaphysics in understanding the world, its source, and our place in it. The term tajdīd in the Islamic tradition (see the Arabic calligram in our logo), means “to make new again,” of which our Prophet ﷺ said, “In every generation, there will be those who renew the faith.” May we all aspire to be among them, and may we do our part in deepening our faith, refurbishing its rich tradition of understanding revelation through reason, and restoring its rightful place as a source of solace for all people.

The essence of Islam is a triad of faith, action, and being: imānislām, and iĥsān. Each relates to the qualities of truth, goodness, and beauty, which are at the core of every great civilization in human history. Imān (faith) is a commitment to the truth once realized through the intellect, which is the prerequisite of faith; islām (submission to the will of God) is to act according to that faith with good deeds; and, finally iĥsān (beauty) is to be in a state of witnessing beauty and majesty that will be reflected in our words and deeds during our time on earth.

Islam is not a political ideology although politics is an inevitable part of the life of this world, and invariably Islamic tradition engages the political dimension of life. The early Muslims who were sincere in their faith neither saw nor used Islam as a means to worldly power, even though their faith and deeds led to that, nor did they see Islam as a political movement. In fact, with rare exception, the luminaries of the Islamic scholarly tradition shunned politics. Intriguingly, Muslim scholars wrote little about political theory, and most of their works that dealt with politics were ethical treatises advising rulers to act morally. Islamic civilization never produced a Machiavelli.

Many of us who straddle two great civilizations, the Judeo–Christian and Muslim, see a deep crisis in our own Western culture. It is perhaps most obvious in the calamitous environmental situation, but the troubles are in plain sight: our obsessive and deleterious patterns of consumption; our vacuous and violent entertainment industry; our relentless technophilic addictions; our opioid epidemic; our class, race, and gender problems; and countless other ills. These too have metaphysical roots worth examining. Neither of our two civilizations can afford to ignore the crisis of the other, as both have profound impacts on one another. The interdependent nature of our globalized world means we no longer have the luxury of a nostalgic isolationism.

Islam, in its profound legal, spiritual, and cultural glory, faded as it might appear today, has much to offer the Western world as it confronts its own troubles.  For many, Islam appears old and decrepit, evidenced by the dire straits of most Muslim societies that have fallen far from its dynamic and living traditions that they once embodied. But for those steeped in its intellectual and spiritual heritage, Islam is viable and relevant, and contains time-tested guidance and wisdom that can help us navigate contemporary challenges, including those dealing with tensions between science and faith, as well as ethics, justice, and pluralism. Just as Muslim civilization once helped nurture a backward and desperate European civilization out of its malaise, now both civilizations need each other’s help to make well the world again.

We hope, in our own modest attempt with this publication, to be part of the desperately needed “renovation” of our own personal faith, of the tragically derelict Abode that today houses almost a fourth of humanity, and of this marvelous globe that we all share and inhabit as God’s creatures. And though it may look like it is dying, “it’s hardly been born;” for now, it is the best and only one we have.

Hamza Yusuf
Editor-in-Chief, Renovatio
President, Zaytuna College


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