pt 1. About Abu Nour
Abu Nour is a center for religious learning for Syrians and for foreigners. The entire neighborhood surrounding it, called Rukn ad-Deen, is filled with students from every part of the world. Abu Nour is a masjid at heart, but it is also a highschool and a Shari’ah college, and it offers a number of prepatory programs for foreigners who wish to master Arabic and study the Islamic sciences. They also run an orphanage and programs for the poor, widows, etc. and they have over a thousand workers in their various programs and branches.
Abu Nour is the product of the late grand mufti of Syria named Shaykh Ahmad Kuftaro, who was himself the son of a shaykh. The fact that he was able to establish Abu Nour at a time when the Syrian government was so suppressive of religious expression (under the regime of Hafez al-Asad) is a feat in itself; and there are people who take issue with the fact that Sh. Kuftaro chose to work *with* the government, instead of using his non-involvement as a statement of disapproval, which most of the ulema in Syria did during that same era. Even until today, the administration of Abu Nour is always trying to balance between good relations with the government and its goals as a religious institution.
This and the fact that the late shaykh met with the Pope (John Paul II) in 2001 are the two most controversial things about the shaykh’s life. (Why meeting the pope and taking him around Damascus would be a big deal I still don’t quite understand… in light of the present pope’s stance towards Muslims I think it was a positive thing… but perhaps it was considered a compromising stance by those in the Mid-east.)
Abu Nour is actually very big on inter-faith and dialogue, both religiously and politically, and this was one of the foundational teachings of the shaykh’s life. You’ll often find Abu Nour hosting guests, representatives of different countries or from different religious institutions, Christian, Jewish, Shia, etc. and giving them a platform to speak to the people. The Jum’uah khutbahs are often focused on the idea that as Muslims “all of us are in the same trench” and that we need to move beyond labels and work together, and that we need to develop relationships with others to become strong. The message is good, but it can actually get a bit repetitive and frustrating if you are looking for something more substantial or scholarly.
Sh. Kuftaro was and is loved by the Syrians. His janaza was prayed over by hundreds of thousands of people (he passed away just a few years ago) and he is presently buried on the ground floor of Abu Nour. His photo is everywhere, in every classroom of the institute, and sold on the steps out front. The teachers are all his former students or people who were greatly inspired by him and his message. He definitely accomplished something great in building Abu Nour. In these days, when the avenues to learning Islam are increasingly being blocked, Syria is one of the few places left for people to study in the Muslim world and this is due in large part to Sh. Kuftaro’s efforts. May Allah accept his life’s work, and that of all the ulema, and forgive them for any mistakes or missteps they may have made, ameen.
pt 2: the Dawraat
After studying at the U. of Damascus I did about four levels in the Dawraat of Abu Nour. The Dawraat are a series of two month courses on the Arabic language; three hours a day, with an hour and a half or grammar and an hour and a half of reading. I think each course is around 7000SP ($140) and the program goes from Level 1 to Level 6 or sometimes 7 or 8, if enough students are interested.
The strength of the Dawraat program is in their excellent grammar (nahu and sarf). Strong grammar is important for someone who wants to understand the Quran or classical texts. They use a series of booklets made by an amazing teacher at Abu Nour, Aanisa Huda, that go from very basic ideas to quite complex (ending with some of the material found at the end of Qatr an-Nada, like tanaazu’ and ishtighaal). The ideas are summarized and presented with simple explanation, examples, and exercises. The grammar teachers in the Dawraat are all very good, but Aanisa Huda is just awesome, and probably the best teacher I’ve had in my time here in Syria. For the reading classes they use al-Kitab al-Asaasiy for the first two levels and then switch to a series from Saudi. The reading classes are good, but not at the same level as the grammar.
They teach in a traditional way with a lot of lecture from the teacher and a lot of emphasis on memorization. When I started in the program I happened to be in a class with a big group of Turkish sisters and it was just crazy how quickly they memorized everything… they could read the assigned story twice and then be able to recite it like it was al-fatiha! You’ll start to see that there’s a big difference in the learning style we grew up with in the West and the rest of the world. This is where your self-initiative has to kick in and you need to use your creativity to make the material more digestible for yourself, by making study guides, charts, etc. Also there is really no emphasis on conversation, so that’s something that you have to get from outside the program, like with a private tutor.
The students are from a range of countries and backgrounds, including large numbers from Turkey, Daghistan, Malaysia, and Somalia along with a handful of Westerners. The vast majority are Muslim, though you may find one or two non-Muslims in the program wanting to get a feel for learning in an Islamic institute. I remember on my first day in the Dawraat an Italian girl in the class decided to take the shahada. The whole class was in an uproar. The teacher and a lot of the girls in the class were crying when they witnessed it… for many of them, who grew up in Muslim countries, it was their first time seeing someone embrace Islam. The teacher sent everyone out to buy some sweets or a small gift for her, and we had an on-the-spot party, which was really nice.
I also remember that I was fasting that day, and when someone offered me some cake, I couldn’t figure out how to say ‘I’m fasting’ in Arabic! Man, I thought to myself, I know how to say parliament in Arabic, but not how to say I’m fasting! I must have been studying in the wrong place… 😛
Another thing about the Dawraat program is that it’s extremely laid back (you can start in the middle of the term, be absent for days, etc), the classes are huge (especially in the beginning levels) and they are slow. It definitely has its imperfections, but like everything else, the best thing to do is just focus on the positives and make the most out of your experience there.
All the teachers and the administrators in the program are really nice, and they’re young, in their 20s and early 30s, so in a lot of ways they were like older sisters to me. They would organize trips for the students to different places, have ‘daff parties’, and other things that helped make it fun and I really felt a sense of sisterhood there. Looking back I can say that I enjoyed my time studying in the program, and I benefited a lot, alhamdulillah.
btw I’m speaking solely from my experience on the sisters side of the program, so I can’t really say much about the teachers or quality of classes on the brother’s side since they are pretty independent of each other. (but they do use the same books and materials).