Abu Nour has two programs for foreigners: the Dawraat classes, which focus on the Arabic language (see my previous post); and Mahad at-Ta’heeli, a three year program that’s a combination of Arabic and Islamic studies, and that takes a person from the “alif ba taa’s” of Arabic to being fully prepared to enter an Arabic college of Shari’ah.
After I finished the Dawraat I took a placement test for Ta’heeli and was placed in their third year, which was what I was hoping. I knew a little bit about the program and had heard that the third year was excellent, and that the books they covered were really beneficial.
Mahad at-Ta’heeli is a whole other world compared to the Dawraat. First of all, it starts at 7:30am. SEVEN THIRTY AM! If you, like me, are someone who loved registering for afternoon and evening classes in college, and kept up a regular stay-up-til-fajr-crash-til-noon regiment through out your student days, you would not be happy about having to wake up at 7:30 in the morning every day. But, I thought to myself, this is a new phase in my life, in which I would be a “student of deen”, and I was really committed to taking my studies seriously, so I was sure that I would never be late.
Of course, I was always late. Alhamdulillah I lived about two blocks from Abu Nour, which helped me so much on those days when I would wake up and gawk at the clock for a few minutes, trying to figure out if it really was 7:15am like it said, and not 6:15am like I was hoping it said. The problem was, one, Mahad at-Ta’heeli is on the fourth floor of the building, so I think I lost a lot of calories climbing stairs two at once to make it to the top on time. Problem number two with Ta’heeli: they lock the doors once class begins. So, if you were late, you ended up having to knock on the doors and hope someone from the idara (principal’s office) would have mercy on you, and try your best ‘puppy locked out in the rain’ face to get in without getting yelled at.
And man, did we get yelled at. Somehow the mudeera (principal) of the program made all of us, most of us in our 20s, married, and some with a number of children, feel like we were school kids again, and about to get detention if we didn’t get our acts together. With time I got to see that the mudeera was actually pretty nice, but she liked to come across as tough, probably because of all the excuses she had to hear from students who were not serious about their studies.
One day in the beginning of the year I was really tired, and during our break time I wanted to get a soda from one of the small shops next to the masjid. I went to the exit door and saw that it was locked. Not thinking twice about it, I went to the mudeera’s office and asked her to open the door. “Open the door?” she said. “For what?”
I was really confused at this point. Wasn’t it our break time? It began to dawn on me that the door wasn’t locked by accident… I explained to her I wanted to get a pepsi, which she found pretty amusing. She poured me a cup of tea from the kettle on the table next to her desk, and sent me back to class. Translation: Being locked out in the mornings also means that you’re locked in during the day. For six hours.
Did I mention that the school day was about six hours long? From 7:30am until 1:15pm. There were times, especially in the beginning, when I would stare longingly out the windows at the sidewalk below, the busy street, and try to feel the sun and the breeze and think occasionally of jumping and making a break for it : ) I don’t think it would have been so bad if it weren’t for our desks. I don’t know where Abu Nour got these stiff wooden benches from, which would have been perfect for a class full of stick people. But for human beings, and for sitting for about five and a half hours a day, they are a bit tough on the back and other body parts, and some sisters would actually bring in sofa cushions to sit on.
Seriously though, you get used to a lot of these things, and they really are minor compared to the benefit that you can attain if you just embrace them. And compared to what the ulema of our past went through to gain just a small amount of knowledge, they are nothing.
The diversity of the students was one of the coolest things about the program. In my class there were students from Malaysia, Somalia, Burkina Faso, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Singapore, Daghistan, Indonesia, Norway, the U.S. (just me), the Philippines, China, and there were other girls in the program from Mauritius, Italy, South Africa, Canada and other places that I never even heard of before! The sisters from Singapore and Malaysia blew me away with their incredible recitation of Quran and their tajweed, the Turkish sisters with their amazing memories, and the Somali sisters with their sharp-wittedness. I met many sisters who really inspired and humbled me. There was one sister who was expecting, but she still came to class consistently up until and even during the week of her due-date, and she sat on those same uncomfortable benches I’ve been talking about without any complaint… and just a few weeks after her delivery she was back, carrying her baby in a little bassinet, and would sit in the back of the class, sometimes nursing her baby on one arm and following along in the book with the other. These are the kind of *strong* women that remind me of my mother’s generation, women of fortitude, resolve, and passion. I want to be like them when I grow up 🙂
Seeing as I didn’t have an ethnic group of my own, I tended to chill with the Somali sisters. I don’t know why, maybe because I could blend in with them a little : ) Through them I came to know that there’s a huge minority population of Somalis living in Damascus, and most of them live in Masakin Barzeh which is like a “little Mogadishu” as one sister put it.
Occasionally Sh. Salah (the general director of Abu Nour) would come in with some diplomatic guests, and show them around the institute, and they would like to show the diversity of the student body so I would frequently be pointed out as the ‘American’. I never felt any hostility from students or teachers for being from the U.S., but everyone pretty much shared the same feelings which one sister expressed to me quite frankly: “America must be a beautiful country, but we don’t like what it’s doing to the rest of the world.”
There were times in class when I felt that a teacher’s statements were too broad, stereotyping all Westerners or Western culture in a certain light, but I felt that in some way it was understandable. Most of the images the Western media pumps out show a culture in which sexuality and violence are glorified, and so people assume that that is our culture. If we want to change our image in the eyes of the world, to be considered a moral people who value and respect others, then our media and our foreign policy have to change drastically.
The vast majority of the students in the program are from poorer countries and are really living the simple student life while they’re here. I remember once casually mentioning to some girls how much we paid for rent for our apt. and saw some jaws drop. When asked where they live a lot of the girls simply say ‘fawq’ (literally, ‘up’ or ‘above’) meaning on the mountain, where the houses are the cheapest and are the most difficult to get to, with no real roads and with tons of stairs. Visiting some of their homes made me feel ashamed for thinking that I was ‘roughing it’. In a lot of these houses the most expensive thing in the place is their collection of books on the deen.
An entire year of studies in the Ta’heeli program costs $250, and in the past it was free. I remember one day the mudeera requested that all of the married students come into her office. When we came in she gave each of us a bag of rice. I wanted to tell her that I didn’t need it and that she should give it to someone more deserving, but at the same time I didn’t want to make anyone who may have really needed it feel embarrassed. Another time she gave everyone a small cash gift, twenty dollars or so, as a type of assistance. I feel that this is one of the best things about Abu Nour… that they seek to make a good quality Islamic education accessible for people who don’t have a lot of money. If anyone out there is looking for a good cause for sadaqa (charity), helping to support these kinds of students of knowledge is definitely one of them.
The Ta’heeli program itself is excellent, as are the majority of the teachers. They come regularly, speak excellent fusha and rarely slip into ‘amiya, and they know the material and how to teach it well. Some of the books that we covered in the program are the following:
— Qatr an-Nada (in Grammar)
— at-Tahleel as-Sarfi (in Morphology)
— al-Balagha al-Waadiha (Rhetoric)
— Al-Arba’een an-Nawawiyyah (Imam Nawawi’s Book of 40 Hadith) with commentary by Dr. al-Bugha
— al-Mandhuma al-Bayquniyyah (in Hadith terminology) with commentary by Sh. Abdullah Sirajudin
— the last two volumes of al-Fiqh al-Manhaji (in Shaf’ii Fiqh)
— An excellent small booklet in Usul al-Fiqh (Principles of Islamic Law), and another in ad-Dirasaat al-Adabiyya (Intro to Arabic Literature).
— We also had classes in Seerah (History of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), Tazkiya (Spirituality), Khitabah (Speech), Fara’idh (Inheritence), Aqeedah (Theology), Quran (memorization and recitation), ‘Urudh (Poetry), Tafseer of Juz’ Tabarak (Exegesis), and Ulum al-Quran (Sciences of the Quran).
The best teachers in my opinion were: Aanisa Huda (the same teacher who made the grammar booklets for the Dawraat) who teaches Nahu, Sarf, and Dirasaat; Aanisa Muna who makes Balagha seem easy!; Aanisa Rufaydha who teaches Seerah from the heart; and Aanisa Zaynab for Fiqh and Usul al-Fiqh.
May Allah increase us in devotion and make us true students and seekers of sacred knowledge,