As younger men, Michael Sugich and Hamza Yusuf—friends for forty years—both had vivid experiences that reminded them of their own mortality. Here, they reflect upon the openings that prompt individuals to transform their lives, what they witnessed of the Islamic world of the 1980s, and the central place that recurring reminders about death occupy in the Islamic tradition—every single page of the Qur’an, remarks Hamza Yusuf, “has the scent of death on it.” Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Hamza Yusuf: Bismillāh. I’m fortunate today to be here with a brother—older brother—who’s very dear to my heart: Sidi Haroon Sugich. To contextualize this, I became Muslim in 1977, and I actually took my shahādah with my brother, Haroon. I had read the Qur’an, and I was very interested in Islam, but he was really the person who said to me, “Do you want to become Muslim?” I said, “Yes.” And now we’re looking back over forty years. You were a young man, and I was a slightly younger man, and now we’re old and gray, and it’s really been an interesting journey. I thought maybe we could talk about how you came into this extraordinary faith and then brought so many other people to it, including me.
Michael Sugich: I’ve written about this in a book called Hearts Turn. Among other people’s stories that I retell, I have a section on my own story, where it’s probably more eloquently told. Basically, I was in the arts. I was an actor and a singer, and that’s what I thought I was going to do for the rest of my life. In fact, the theater was a kind of religion to me. I saw it in that light, but when I got into the professional world, after having spent all my youth in the theater and performing and thinking that was my destiny, I was confronted with show business, which is something very different from the art of anything; the business side of it is awful. I was immediately repelled, and that was a shock. I went through a period of trying to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life, and I became ambivalent about the art of acting, for example, because I felt that I had to invoke emotions that were contrary to what is healthy. All the great parts—I wanted to play Iago in Othello, or Macbeth—they’re great parts, but to do that, you have to dredge up hatred, and envy, and all these other negative emotions. I started to have a problem with that.
Then I had a number of opportunities that were scorched by circumstances. I was on the verge of being in a big movie, but I got sick. I was so sick that I lost the ability to sing, which was what I was focused on at that point. For those six months I was stuck with myself for the first time in my life. That was very difficult because my mind was out of control, churning along while I was sitting in bed trying to get over this mysterious infection. Anyway, the accumulation of a lot of different experiences led me to a point where I felt that I had to really gain some wisdom and understand myself. I picked up a book by a Japanese actor named Sessue Hayakawa, who won an Academy Award for his work in The Bridge on the River Kwai. He played the brutal—
MS: Yes—commandant of the prison. The book’s title was Zen Showed Me the Way. He was also a very successful painter and artist. He said that all of his success came from Zen. That appealed to me because I had always thought of spirituality as being for misfits, yogis, and fakers. I was very intrigued. At the same time, my cousin, who was an omnivorous reader, was reading books on Sufism—everything that was available, because he was in the book business. He said I should read these books, too. So I started to read books on Sufism, but I discovered that they were limited. But the books drove me to look further.
I became obsessed with Sufism and got involved with Sufi groups. I knew that Sufism had something to do with Islam, but the connection wasn’t clear to me. I thought, “Well, Islam is there somewhere, but Sufism is different than Islam.” I finally met a group of Sufi Muslims in Berkeley, and they explained that you cannot be a Sufi without being a Muslim. They showed me the prayer. Prior to that, I’d only seen one person make salat. But when I saw a group of people praying in a line, led by an imam, and listened to the litany or wird that was recited, I said, “This is it. This makes sense.” I didn’t understand anything about Islam when I became a Muslim; it was completely intuitive and instinctive.
HY: One of the things that I feel really fortunate about is that you introduced me to this world of people that we don’t really see. They’re often hidden, and you have to seek them out because they’re not people that go seeking followers. They’re minding their own business, but at the same time, they’re available to those who want access to them. You and I both have lamented the fact that so many of these people have disappeared in our lifetime without being replaced. There will always be the people of God, but the type of purity that many of these people grew up in was extraordinary.
For example, I was in Algeria back in the early ’80s, and we went to this place, Blida. We stayed with some people, one of whom was a really interesting scholar; I was learning Arabic at the time. We went into the town and passed by a cafe, and the person I had traveled with said, “Can we get a coffee?” These two really devout Algerian Muslims said, “Of course.” We sat down and had coffee in this cafe. When we finished and left, one of the Algerians said that was the first time he’d ever been in a cafe, because, for them, that was where the wastrels spend their time. It was a real shock for me, but those type of people were quite common in the Muslim world.
MS: When we were in Fez, there’s a place—I know you know this place, right next to the Qarawiyyīn—
HY: The almond milk.
MS: —the almond milk shop. We would all go and have an almond milk. There was this faqir from Fez; he looked really scary. He was very tall and had scars on his face, and he looked like somebody that would mug you at midnight, but he was actually someone who made sure people weren’t being cheated in the markets. I don’t think he got paid for it or anything; he just would do that. He had that sort of moral authority. Plus, he was physically very strong.
Anyway, we had been doing dhikr someplace, and I slipped off with a friend to have an almond milk. We were sitting on the second floor, looking out in the street, enjoying our almond milk, when suddenly this faqir passed by, and he looked up at us and frowned. Then he bounded up the stairs and said, “What are you doing here? Get out!” He pulled us out. The last thing he said to us was, “Don't you ever go back there again, ever,” and I never did.
HY: Amazing. Subĥānallāh. We really did see something, a world that you just don’t see anymore. One of the things that concerns me about young people today is that they’re being robbed of their imaginations. That gets to the internal world; to some of our great scholastics and the really profound Muslim scholars, khayāl was very important: the ability to imagine, to conceptualize things that we only have access to through the imagination. The Qur’an presents the other world in these incredibly visually stimulating images that demand imagination. But even imagination would never suffice because the Prophet ﷺ said the afterlife is what no eye has seen, no ear has heard; it could never occur to the human being. Any descriptions are all approximations.
One of the really tragic aspects for a lot of people is that they’re deprived of great literature and poetry. When I was young, poetry was really important to me, but I find many young people just don’t like it. I think it’s very difficult for them to access because poetry works on these extraordinary conceits that demand a kind of inwardness.
MS: Yes, we now have creative expressions that are almost always linked to how much money people can make. Everything has become a formula. So even if someone reads poetry, it isn’t necessarily great poetry. Are there popular poets now?
HY: Rūmī is very popular. Poetry has fallen on hard times, and songwriting along with it, which is where lyrical poetry went. In the past, you had Tin Pan Alley, for example, where professional songwriters got together and often wrote really clever songs. Somebody like Cole Porter.
MS: Yes, or Irving Berlin.
HY: Yes, they were incredibly clever people, but at a certain point the performers realized they could make more money if they wrote their own lyrics, so lyrics went down the drain because what the performers wrote was meaningless—but because they wrote them, they got the royalties for them.
MS: This has happened in politics as well. People monetize their public service now by becoming lobbyists. The current economic environment militates against having an inner life, and it has affected the way we live.
HY: Well, there is a way out, I think. The Qur’an says that if you turn away from God’s remembrance, you will have a constricted life. A lot of people don’t realize that much of what’s happening to us is a result of a deep forgetfulness of the Creator. The Qur’an says that the earth, despite its vastness, becomes a constricted place. Some people came to Ibrāhīm b. Adham and said, “You know the meat has skyrocketed, so make a du¢ā’ that Allah will bring the price down.” He said, “No. You yourselves bring it down.” They looked at him and said, “How do we do that?” He said, “Stop eating it.” Which is basically the mystic economics of supply and demand. You want the price to go down? Stop eating the meat.
People don’t realize how much power God has given them. I mean, it’s majāz or metaphorical, but we have been given these great gifts to change our world, not necessarily the world. Everybody wants to change the world, but nobody wants to change their world.
MS: We need to remind each other of that reality because when we recognize that everything is from God, we relax. Shaykh al-Darqāwī said that nothing brings psychic and satanic suggestions faster than anxiety about provision.
HY: Fear of provision. In the Purification of the Heart, that is one of the diseases of the heart.
HY: The fear. And then the Qur’an says that shayţān promises you poverty. That’s one of Iblīs’s great strategies. The Qur’an says, “Human beings are created in a state of anxiety” (70:19) As in, we come into the world in a state of anxiety. Then, “When evil comes to them they are upset, when good comes to them they withhold except for the people of prayer” (70:20–22). What a lot of people don’t understand about the Islamic tradition is that in the same way that you have physical laws working in the world, like the law of cause and effect and the law of entropy, you also have metaphysical laws.
When my sons were little, I used to throw them up in the air, and they loved it, but right when they got to the point where they stopped in midair and were going to start coming down, they’d panic because they didn’t know what was happening, but then they came back into my arms and they were laughing again. Every time I would do it, the same thing would happen. To me, that is dunyā: panicking is forgetting that you’re in good hands.
The metaphysical laws that the Qur’an has provided us—like “Whoever is God conscious, Allah will give him a way out and will provide for him from resources unexpected” (65:2–3)—are as true or truer than any physical law. If you have taqwā, Allah will always provide a way out for you, and He will provide for you from where you don’t know it’s coming. We’re old enough to have seen the truth of that again and again and again. It’s interesting because the word panic comes from the Greek god Pan.
Pan was a demonic force, and he would shout and create such fear in the hearts of those who heard him. According to Greek mythology, if he didn’t like an army and wanted the other one to defeat it, he would create all this fear in them, and that’s where panic comes from. Then Milton gave us Pandæmonium, the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost.
MS: A great word. I love that.
HY: Yes. Where all the demons reside. Also, this idea of epidemic—even though pan in the word pandemic means “all”—like it’s everywhere—it’s very interesting that the Greek root meaning fear is in there, too. James Tyler, the great nineteenth-century homeopathic physician, worked during many epidemics. He noted that when people were in service for the sake of God without fear, they were immune to illness. But whenever fear came into the hearts of doctors or nurses, they would succumb. He really believed that fear was a great source of illness.
MS: Well, there’s a story from one of the old texts about a traveler walking along the road who met the angel of death. He asked the angel of death, “Where are you headed?” He said, “To such and such a city, because there’s a plague there. I’ve been ordered to take one thousand souls.” On the traveler’s way back from wherever he went, he encountered the angel of death again. He said, “I just heard that five thousand people died in the plague, but you told me you were ordered to take only one thousand souls.” He said, “Yes. I took one thousand souls, and the other four thousand died out of fear.”
HY: It is to my point exactly. I remember hearing a really amazing interview of Bob Dylan. The interviewer asked him, “Why are you out here doing this? Is it about the applause?” Dylan said, “No, it’s never been about the applause. I toured for a couple years just to booing”—because when he went electric, his fans all booed him. Some of the guys in the band left because they couldn’t take the booing. Then the interviewer said, “Well, the applause, you must like that much better?” Dylan paused and then said, “Well, let’s put it this way. It’s more comfortable.” I just thought, needing that applause prevents a lot of people from being free in whatever they do.
MS: Exactly. I was thinking about what you were saying about the fear of death. I was with Dr. Mostafa al-Badawi—
HY: Right, a great man.
MS: Yes, a great man and a psychiatrist. I asked him, “What is the principal cause of mental illness? Have you observed any common thread in various forms of mental illness?” What he said took me by surprise, but it was the most obvious thing. He said, “It’s the fear of death.” I thought, “Oh, that makes sense,” because that’s the only thing we know is going to happen to us for certain. We absolutely know that. It’s completely insane to reject it, to not deal with it. But we live in a culture where people don’t want to think about it.
HY: Complete denial. Years ago, I was taken into the throne room by Baroness Uddin in England, and there was an amazing clock that was about two hundred years old that was a gift from the French king. Over the clock was the Grim Reaper.
They call these memento mori, reminders of death. In Western tradition, they used to have pictures that they would put up. They would have a skeleton with an hourglass over a man dancing. “Little do you know, this could be your last dance.” Or on the sundials, they would have things like Carpe diem, seize the day: In one of these hours, you will be seized. They would literally write that in Latin. It was a morbid understanding that time is limited. I’ve felt it most of my life because what brought me to Islam—and really, to any seriousness about life—was an intense car accident. At seventeen, I could have left the world. I recognized the precariousness of life, that it’s incredibly fleeting and we’re all grasping at straws because we have no guarantee.
The Prophet ﷺ said to wake up in the morning not thinking you’ll reach the evening and go to sleep at night not thinking that you’ll see the morning. Imam al-Nawawī put that śaĥīĥ hadith in his collection of forty hadith. That is an incredible reminder of the presence of death. I was asked to write the essay in The Study Qur’an on death; I initially excused myself because it was a very daunting task, to say the least. The editor insisted, saying, “No, you have to do this.” It took me a long time, but one of the things that I realized in reading the Qur’an—and I’ve read it from different perspectives; for example, I’ve read it thinking about family; I’ve read it thinking about poverty—is that when I read it thinking about death, every single page has the scent of death on it.
MS: Yes, every single page.
HY: Every single page. I realized that the three suras that people are encouraged to read every day—which are Yāsīn, Wāqi¢ah, and Mulk—are death meditations from beginning to end. If you read Yāsīn, you will see it’s a death meditation. If you read Wāqi¢ah, it’s a death meditation. If you read Mulk, it’s a death meditation. It really struck me just how important that is.
Every night when I was with Murābiţ al-Ĥājj—because I actually slept with him in his tent—every night, he would say these lines from Imam al-Shāfi¢ī, and he would repeat them over and over again: “O, you, who when death comes, there is no repelling and I find myself in a dark grave. Make the meal that you bring me—because you’re a generous host—the forgiveness of my sins.” He would continue repeating them until he went to sleep, and we know sleep is the little death. It was amazing to me that he did death meditation on a regular basis.
MS: When I was fifteen or sixteen, I was a typical American kid. I was interested in girls, and music, and theater, that kind of thing. One night I was going to sleep, and I suddenly experienced this horrifying loss of self. I lost my sense of hearing, seeing, moving, and finally breathing. I was in this abyss, and I said to myself, “If I’m not all of that, who am I?” It was frightening. I wasn’t someone who was reflective. I hadn’t read anything that made any impact on me. I had no trauma in my life, nothing like that, but this just happened. It probably lasted about a minute, but it was as if time stopped. I came out of that incredibly disoriented. I got up. I was so shocked. I got up just to look in the mirror to see if I still existed.
After that, I broached the subject with a girlfriend at the time. I asked her, “You ever thought about dying?” I asked it that way because when I had that experience, I knew for certain I was going to die. That was the first time that realization had come to me. My girlfriend drew a blank. I asked my parents, and I thought they would say, “Yes, we went through that. You’re growing up. You’ll go through things.” But they were baffled; they had no answer, so I felt very alone.
Years later, I read writings of Ramana Maharshi, the Hindu sage. At the age of sixteen, he went through exactly the same thing. The only difference between him and me is that he stayed in the state of constant awareness. I had tried to come to some conclusion about who I was at the time, but I finally gave up. I said, “I can’t.” It was only after I became a Muslim that I began to understand. I think that that’s inherent in our sense of belief, and in the experience of those of us who have actually taken on Islam as a religion. I don’t know a single person who hasn’t had some experience of confronting the prospect of death. For me, it wasn’t physical. It was a metaphorical thing, and it scared the daylights out of me that first time. I took some solace in the fact that it also scared the daylights out of Ramana Maharshi initially. To lose everything that you know, who you think you are, is frightening.
HY: One of the best teachers that I had when I was doing my undergraduate studies was a man named Ken Cramer, a Martin Buber expert. I remember a lecture in which he said that at a point in your life you will come to a profoundly existential awareness of your mortality, and it will be one of the most powerful experiences you will have. For some people, it will come very early. For others, it won’t come until the moment of their death. But, he said, everybody will have it. For me, it was coming out of a head-on collision alive and wondering for about three days whether I was dead or alive. I asked him in class when he had his. He was in an apartment on the East Coast, sitting outside on one of those metal stairs—the fire escape they call it—and he had this realization that he was going to die. He said he felt it in his entire body, and it terrified him.
One of our sons, when he was little, saw a dead bird. He looked at it and said, “What is that?” His mother said, “It’s a bird.” He said, “No. Why is it like that?” She said, “It’s dead.” He said, “Does that happen to all of us?” She said, “Yes.” He started screaming, just terrified. She said, “No. It’s only a transition. God brings us back to life in another place.” He completely calmed down. That, for the atheist and the materialist, is the proof that religion is just wishful thinking. To me, that’s the fiţrah proof.
MS: Right, because you know that you exist beyond the world.
HY: Exactly. It’s a fiţrah proof. See, one of the things people say is that if it was wishful thinking, why would they have invented hell?
MS: Exactly. That’s for the sadists or the masochists.
HY: Then they would say, “Oh, that’s because the people in power wanted to control the people.” Why is it that the prophets were largely powerless people? They began their missions in powerlessness. One of the things that most struck me about the pre-Islamic Arabs is that they didn’t believe in an afterlife.
HY: Yes. They believed that you are immortalized only through poetry. They said, We live and we die, and nothing kills us except time. If you look in Sura al-Ĥajj, it gives two proofs for the afterlife. One of them is the embryonic proof, which I believe is for our time. The other is the agricultural proof, which was for their time. During the time of the Prophet ﷺ, there was no way they could know what was happening in the womb. The agricultural proof is seeing the dead earth come back to life. The rain comes, and what was dead is back to life again.
Alĥamdulillāh. Well, I’m glad we got this opportunity. I often think about those very memorable times that I spent with you, when you taught me a lot of very interesting things. I have a lot of gratitude for that time and for your guidance.
Hamza Yusuf's exploration of Islamic spirituality delves into the psychological diseases and cures of the heart. The causes and practical cures of these diseases are discussed, offering a penetrating glimpse into how Islam deals with spiritual and psychological problems and demostrating how all people can benefit from these teachings.
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