Inaugural Lecture: Hamza Yusuf

The Canon Lecture Series

What Makes a Book Great

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On September 12, President Hamza Yusuf delivered the inaugural lecture for the Zaytuna Canon Lecture Series to students, faculty, and other guests assembled in Sophia Hall at the Zaytuna College undergraduate campus in Berkeley. Here are some excerpts, slightly edited for clarity, from his address: 


The hallmark of great literature, according to poet Ezra Pound, is that it is “news that stays news.” A great book or work of art is both timeless and timely. It speaks to every time because of the universal truths embedded in the particular circumstance out of which it arose. For example, Rumi, a poet of great depth and knowledge of the heart, speaks to us from Konya centuries ago yet in words that signify truths as relevant for us today as for those who were present when he uttered them. People all over the world are drawn to him because of the impact he has on the human heart—even in translation. The beauty of his words has penetrated hearts over the span of 800 years. He tells us: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world; today I am wise, so I want to change myself.”

There is a chapter in the Qur’an entitled “The Poets” (Al-Shu’ara) that indicates the momentous nature of poetry in the lives of humans. Great books and works of art must also be the finest examples of the quality of language; they must be highly readable and be intended for a general readership. Any educated person should be able to penetrate their meanings. Another quality of such a work is that it deals with the most important subject of life on earth—what Mortimer Adler calls “great ideas.” The writer has something significant to say about the human condition. In works such as Imam al-Ghazali’s Ihya ‘Ulum Al-Din, we find that the author grapples with all the major themes of life on earth. He begins with knowledge and ends with the book of death—all within forty books. Forty is a sacred number in the Qur’an. He does it in a way that makes his book as relevant today as it was when it was written. He displays a stunning ability to present his ideas in a flawless form that dazzles readers with its beauty and substance. One mistake in judging a great book is thinking it is a repository of truth and that is what makes it great. Many of the greatest works of our species have egregious mistakes—sometimes they are flawed by faulty logic, sometimes by not having the requisite knowledge of our time, as we find in the great science works of the past, such as that of Ptolemy—but these works nonetheless have continued relevance. No human work rises to such a height of perfection as to be devoid of any flaw. The Qur’an says, “Had this been from other than God, you would have found much contradiction in it.”

One of the greatest benefits to reading the great works of the past is an acquired immunity against the follies of the present. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village. The person who knows the past has lived in many times and therefore, to some degree, is immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and microphone of his own age. – Hamza Yusuf

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The Canon Lecture Series offers a forum for our faculty members to demonstrate why canonical texts have enjoyed the status conferred on them by our scholarly tradition and earned their place in the Zaytuna College curriculum. The Series aims to address the history of a text and its abridgments, its place in the order of learning, its architecture and composition, the debates and commentaries it generated, as well as how its author engages in salient issues of the discipline.