its all you

A while ago I attended a class at a masjid in which the sisters sat on a balcony overlooking the brothers’ area, and that has a microphone system set up so that everyone could hear.  A few minutes into the class a group of sisters came in with a number of children and starting having Quran lessons.  The noise they made effectively drowned out the voice of the shaykh, and I spent the majority of the class struggling to hear what I could from the lesson, and giving meaningful glances to the group to keep their voices down.

 

It was so frustrating to be there, ready to learn, with my book open, looking at the teacher and seeing him speak, knowing he was sharing beneficial knowledge with everyone, but not being able to access it because of the noise around me. 

 

It made me think about how often we must be in this same situation in terms of the spiritual realm… missed opportunities for knowledge, enlightenment, or remembrance due to inner static, distractions and noise… from sins, heedlessness, carelessness…  and we walk away from gatherings of knowledge wondering why we don’t feel any different.

 

I read an interesting phrase in my Mustalah book the other day, that knowledge is “fi butoon al kutub wa sudoor al ulema” (lit. in the stomachs of books and the chests of the scholars).  The last thing in this world I want to be is a book, just digesting information that I’m learning and storing it up like caloric intake, and without feeling.  I want it to be in my chest, my heart, pumping in my blood, felt like a human being.  But how can it be, if it’s drowned out by things that are already present there?

 

Ibn ‘Ataa’Illah said in his Hikam:

 

Rubamaa waradat ‘alayka al-anwaar

Fa wajadat il-qalbu mahshuwan bil-aathaar

Fartahalat min haythu nazalat

 

“Perhaps illuminations (ma’rifah…) passed by you and found your qalb (heart) filled, buried, occupied with vestiges of creation.  So it took off from whence it had come.”

 

Imam Shaf’ii said,

 

My knowledge is with me, and wherever I turn it follows me,

For my heart is its vessel, and not a ‘chest’ stored at home.

(Written June 2007)

 

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Published in: on January 30, 2009 at 5:34 am  Comments (8)  

A True Talib ul-‘Ilm [Student of Sacred Knowledge]

A story from the book “Safahaat min Sabr al-Ulama” [Glimpses of the Perseverance of the Scholars] by Sh. Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah:

…And here [we will mention] another account from among the most extraordinary of narratives, which occurred with an Andalusian scholar when he traveled from al-Andalus to the East. He traveled this great distance walking on his two legs [without the help of a horse or camel on which to ride] in order to meet with an imam from among the [great] imams and to acquire knowledge from him. When he arrived there he found that the imam had been put under house arrest and banned from teaching the people. In spite of this, by utilizing some secretive and artful means, the Andalusian scholar was able to learn from him… And history is replete with such strange and interesting occurrences…

….His name was Abu Abd ar-Rahman Baqiyy bin Makhlad Al-Andalusi al-Hafidh. He was born in the year 201 [after the Hijra] and passed away in the year 276, may Allah have mercy on him. He traveled to Baghdad by foot when he was about twenty years of age, and his deepest and most heart-felt desire was to meet with Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal and to study with him.

It is reported that he said:

“When I came close to Baghdad, the news reached me of the difficult trials that had encircled Ahmad bin Hanbal, and that meeting and communicating with him had been made prohibited. I was greatly grieved by this news. I lodged where I was, and the first thing I did after renting out a room for myself was go to the great masjid [of Baghdad]. I wanted to sit in the lessons there and hear what was being studied therein.

I came across a noble gathering for knowledge [at the masjid], in which a man was teaching about narrators of the hadith, elucidating upon the weaknesses of some narrators and the strength of others. I asked someone sitting next to me, ‘Who is that?’ and he replied, ‘That is Yahya bin Ma’een.’

I saw that a place had opened up [in the gathering] close to the teacher, so I moved to fill it and said to him, ‘Ya Aba Zakariyya, may Allah have mercy on you. [I am a] stranger [among you], whose home is in a far distant place. I have some questions, so do not disdain me.’ He said to me, ‘Speak.’ So I asked him about some of the narrators of ahadith I had met, and he praised some of them for their excellence, and warned about the weaknesses in others. I asked him a question about Hisham bin Ammar, and I had asked and gained a lot of knowledge from him […] when the people of the gathering called out, ‘That’s enough for you, may Allah have mercy on you! Others have questions too!’

Finally, as I was standing up [to leave], I said, “Can you inform me about one other person: What about Ahmad bin Hanbal?”

Yahya ibn Ma’een looked at me astounded, and said, ‘Can such as us judge a person like Ahmad bin Hanbal! He is the Imam of the Muslims, the best among them and the most honorable of them.”

I left the masjid and asked to be directed to the home of Imam Ahmad. I knocked on his door, and he answered it. I said, “Ya Aba Abdillah, I am a stranger from a far distant place, and this is my first time entering upon this land. I am a student of hadith and one who is bound to the Sunnah. I made this journey only to meet you.”

He said, “Enter from the alleyway to the side, and let no eye fall upon you.”

He then said to me, “Where is your home?” I said, “The distant west.” He asked, “Africa?’ I said, “Further than that. I would have to travel across the sea to get from my home to Africa. It is al-Andalus.”

He said, “Your home is indeed a great distance from here. And there is nothing more beloved to me than to help someone like you attain what you are seeking, but for that I am being tried with this difficulty, which you may already be aware of…”

I replied, “Indeed the reached me as I was approaching the city and coming towards you… Ya Aba Abdillah, this is my first time in this land, and I am unknown to its people. If you allow me, I will come to you each day in the garb of a beggar, and I will speak the way that they speak, and you can come to the door. If you narrate to me only one hadith each day [in this way], it would suffice me.”

He agreed, on the condition that I did not attend the gatherings of knowledge and did not meet with the [local] scholars of hadith [so that I would remain unknown among the people].

So I would carry a walking stick in my hand and wrap an old rag around my head, and I would hide my papers and writing instruments in my sleeve, and I would go to his door and call out, “[Give in charity] for the reward of Allah, may Allah have mercy on you!” as the other beggars there used to do. He would come out and close the door behind him, and narrate to me two ahadith or three or sometimes more, until I had collected about three hundred ahadith in this way.

I remained constant in doing this until the ruler who was trying Imam Ahmad died, and in his place came someone who adhered to the madhab of the Sunnah. Imam Ahmad then returned to his teaching and his name became renowned, and he became honored and loved among the people. His rank was elevated, and many people flocked to him to study.

He would always remember my perseverance in seeking to learn from him. When I would attend his lessons he would make room for me to sit close to him, and he would say to the other students, ‘This is someone who has earned the title of Talib ul-‘Ilm!’ and he would tell them my story. He would narrate hadith to me, and I would recite them to him.

One day I became ill, and I was absent from his classes for some time. He asked [the other students] about me and when he heard that I was ill he rose immediately to visit me, and the students followed. I was laying down in the room which I rented, a [cheap] woolen blanket beneath me, a thin cloth covering me, my books near my head [so that I could study laying down].

The lodging literally shook with the sound of many people [entering], and I heard them say ‘That’s him over there…’ […] The lodge-keeper rushed to me, saying ‘Ya Abd ar-Rahman, Abu Abdullah Ahmad bin Hanbal, Imam of the Muslims, has come to visit you!’

The Imam entered my room and sat at my bedside, and the lodging filled up with his students. It wasn’t large enough to fit all of them and a group of them had to remain standing, all of them with pens in hand. Imam Ahmad said to me, “Ya Abd ar-Rahman, have glad tidings of reward from Allah. In days of health we often fail to reflect upon illness, and in days of illness we don’t remember our health. I ask that Allah raise you to good health and wellbeing, and may He touch you with His right hand in healing.” And I saw every pen in the room moving to write down his words.

He left. The workers of my lodge were very kind to me after that, and were constantly in my service, one of them bringing me a mat to lay on, another bringing a good blanket and wholesome food for me to eat. They treated me better than family because such a righteous person came to visit me…”

He passed away in the year 276 [after Hijra] in al-Andalus. May Allah have mercy on him.

[…] His student Abu Abdul Malik Ahmad bin Muhammad al-Qurtubi said of him: ‘Baqiyy bin Makhlad was tall, strong, and had tough endurance in walking. I never saw him on a ride, ever. He was humble and unpretentious, and would always attend the funeral prayer.’

How excellent was his patience and his passion for sacred knowledge, and how beautiful his struggle to attain and collect it!

Published in: on November 25, 2007 at 4:29 pm  Comments (14)  

ties that bind

I know of a bond that connects soul to soul, in a way much deeper than familiarity or blood.

Forged by Divine decree. Duly registered as apportioned Rizq.

The Teacher and the Student meet somewhere before time, and they are eternally connected.

A teacher of religion opens whole worlds to his pupil: the secrets of this life, the spiritual realm, the Divine and the self. Perfection and imperfection.

He is visionary, he is powerful. He is the guide, and you are the lost traveler.

If he is true, he will lead you to Paradise, step by careful step.

‘Empty your cup.’

Come blank, empty, open, so that you can receive.

You must take humility as your cloak.

But what of ties that strangle?

You believe that if you submit to him and his Way, you are guided.

You will no longer be lost.

The path to Allah is clear.  It is at his feet.

He will take you by the hand to safe shores.

His love for you is overwhelming. So he will shape you, mind and soul, and purge you of your evils.

Soul, did you not think, when you laid your whole being in his gentle hands: What if he missteps?

Is he not formed by his experiences, by the ties that bind him?

This deen is wide. Why do you narrow it?

You must craft your cup from the firm clay of knowledge, and bake it to solidity in the heat of courage, deep thinking, and dependence on Allah alone.

And engrave on its side, in a delicate script, the following words:

Beauty lies in intelligent, mindful devotion.

Every love has an adab.

Even dervishes must have ijaaza before they spin.

I am no feather in the wind, nor an unmoulded being.

I am an empty cup, with a solid base and a structured rim,

Firm against passion. Shaped for sacred words.

I fill with good, whatever its source, and pour out wrong.

Sidi Ahmed Zarruq (of the 9th century Hijri) said: There are no more perfect teachers. We benefit from the good in people, and we leave the rest.

Published in: on July 11, 2007 at 9:31 pm  Comments (5)  

Sh. Habib on Women and Scholarship

I watched an excellent program the other day with Sh. Habib Ali Jifri on the important role women have to play in Islamic scholarship, and the great need we have today for women to study and become teachers, scholars, writers, to give fatawa, etc.

One thing that I find very beautiful in our tradition, but something that is often overlooked, is the critical role women have played in developing our scholarship from the very beginning and for centuries thereafter. It was only when the Muslim world began to degenerate in many different areas, politically, economically, as well as intellectually that we find a disengagement of women from the scholarly arena. (Interestingly enough, some historians cite the influence of Christian thought on the Muslim world as one of the reasons for this reversal of roles for women.)

Here are some points the shaykh said on the program (hafidhahu Allah) that I found very interesting:

— We have Sayyidah ‘Aisha (radhi Allah anhaa), as one of the first examples of a Muslim woman who was a scholar and a faqih, a woman who gave fatawa (religious rulings) and basically had her own madhhab (school of law). Many of the Ummahaat al-Mu’mineen and others of the sahabiyaat (women from the generation of the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wasalam) were teachers and narrated hadith, and in the following generations we find many, many women scholars. Some of the greatest male scholars that we know of had women teachers. Imam Shafa’ii for example, had a woman as one of his primary teachers, Sayyidah Nafeesa bint al-Hasan. Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, the Ameer al-Mu’mineen in Hadith, had among his teachers sixteen or seventeen women, all of whom had reached the level of Muhadith. There was a woman scholar (didn’t catch her name which was mentioned on the program) who resided in Damascus, and it is reported that students from many different countries would flock to her to study, crowding outside her door on Mount Qasiyoun. There were women who had majalis of ‘ilm at Jamia’ Umawiyy (the Omayyad Mosque) here in Damascus, and men and women would gather to attend and reap the benefits of their knowledge. He gave many, many examples, but unfortunately I did not take notes during the program so I don’t remember all the names and exact details. (sorry)

— Women especially shined in the field of Hadith in Islamic history, and he had a print-out of some women that related hadith, the number of hadith that they related and the number of their students. A number of these women were from the Ummahaat al-Mu’mineen, such as ‘Aisha, Juwayriyyah and Umm Salamah (radhi Allahu anhunn). He made the point that these women, being mothers of the believers, had some restrictions (relating to the ayaat in the Quran that talk about speaking from ‘waraa’ al-hijaab’ and so forth) and yet we still find them contributing to the knowledge. His point was basically that if there were any women who would have stepped back from studying and teaching because of the restrictions of hijab or aadaab, it would be these women, and yet we find them playing such a vibrant role in teaching.

— The interviewer asked Sh. Habib about women teaching men, something that may be considered odd or even wrong in the Muslim world today. Sh. Habib said that there needs to be a conveyance of knowledge taking place and we should not confine men and women from benefiting from each other, as long as it is based on a relationship of proper adab between teacher and student. When it comes to more basic and fundamental things, which can be taught by a number of different people, the norm should be that women teach women and men teach men. However, he said especially when we are talking about a higher level of knowledge a person should not be prevented from learning from someone because of their gender.

— On the print-out we saw a listing of some women narrators of hadith and the numbers of their students. Consistently, all of the women had more male students than female, and some even had only male students. Sh. Habib said that many people ask the question ‘why do the number of male scholars in our history outnumber that of women?’ He said that the answer can be seen from that chart. Its clear that women had the opportunity to teach and that they were esteemed for their knowledge (which is why they had students from both genders); however the number of women who stepped forward to learn were less than those of men.

And here Sh. Habib made a critical point: Women need to step forward and study. Yes, Muslim societies and male scholars and teachers need to encourage women to take on these roles, and there are many things in the Muslim community that need to be remedied in this regard, but YOU as a woman are not incapable… you are strong and you need not wait for someone to tell you that this is what you should be doing. You need to step forward, just as those women did before us.

He mentioned a modern day example from Syria, that a group of women approached Sh. Nur ad-Din ‘Itr and requested that he teach them, and this really started a movement of women in Syria who are studying and memorizing hadith. There are something like ten women now who have memorized the Six Sound Books in their entirety, with all of their isnaad! He said that he hadn’t even heard of this before, among men or women in our time. Also in Syria tens of women have memorized Bukhari, hundred have memorized Riyadh as-Saliheen…. Sh. Habib said that memorization is not necessarily the focus, but that this is a beautiful example of what can happen when women are passionate and are energized to study and take it upon themselves to seek out knowledge.

I was really moved by the shaykh’s talk, may Allah ennoble and bless him.

I hope that women out there really take this message to heart. Sometimes we are told in subtle or overt ways that in order to use our intellects in a meaningful way we need to ‘reinterpret’ Islam and have a more ‘progressive’ understanding of what our deen is about (read: change it), as if it is something intrisically oppressive of women; and on the other hand we may be told in different ways that our role is confined entirely to domestic tasks.

While the truth is something else, and we just need to go back to the roots of our religion to find it. We are the inheritors of a tradition of women poets, scholars, teachers… who were ennobled and empowered by this deen to share sacred knowledge with others. I ask Allah to make us people who walk in their footsteps, treading a road shaded by angels’ wings and that easens the one to Paradise. May Allah make us people who reflect and study and learn, and who are beautified with knowledge, and share it with others in the best of ways.

wAllahu a’lam. This is what I remember and understood in summary from the interview, and they are not the exact words of the shaykh.

wasalaamu alaykum wa rahmatullah.

PS: Here is an interesting article from the NY Times about a brother’s research into the large number of female Muslim scholars in history: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/25/magazine/25wwlnEssay.t.html?ex=1329973200&en=618404334b10ecf0&ei=5124&partner=digg&exprod=digg

Published in: on June 10, 2007 at 10:11 am  Comments (5)  

Study Experience 3: Mahad at-Ta’heeli (at Abu Nour)

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,

wasalaamu alaykum.

Published in: on May 26, 2007 at 1:43 pm  Comments (30)  

Study Experience 2: Abu Nour (The Dawraat)

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).

w’Allahu a’lam.

Published in: on May 22, 2007 at 1:42 pm  Comments (29)  

Study Experience 1: The University of Damascus (Jami’a Dimashq)

The University of Damascus has a number of campuses in different parts of the city, and its program for foreigners seeking to learn Arabic is situated on their Liberal Arts campus in Mezzeh (one of the city’s wealthier areas). They offer a series of eight one-month courses on Arabic for beginners. When I attended the program about a year and a half ago, the fee was 10,000SP a month (about $200), but I believe the price has increased to somewhere between $300-350 (which is extremely expensive according to Syrian standards.) They’ve also recently added ‘Aamiya classes (colloquial Arabic) to their program.

I started attending classes there just a few days after we arrived in Damascus, and I was quite shocked by the Syrians I saw and also by my European classmates. (The majority of the students in the Arabic program were Westerners, on scholarships or their junior year abroad). I thought that we were coming to a traditional, ancient, religious land… but Jami’a Dimashq is not exactly where you see that. The Liberal Arts campus is apparently known for being “modern” and somewhat of a fashion hub in the city. (Some of my friends say it’s very ‘90210’ :)) Many of the girls don’t wear hijab, and of those who did, I’d never seen so many different and fashionable ways of wearing it, some conforming to religious guidelines, and some not. (I think that most of the time in the U.S. if a woman chooses to wear hijab it’s solely with the desire to follow the Islamic ruling on the matter, and there aren’t really any social or cultural factors involved… but in Muslim countries it’s more complex than that and may even relate to fashion, reputation or family status, etc.) It seemed that the new trend at the time I arrived was for girls to wear skirts to the knees, boots that reached mid-calf, and show about six inches of leg in between which I found so strange to see on a hijabi. Lots of makeup and extremely fitted clothing (even for teachers and those working in administration) were also in. (but there were girls who were able to fuse western fashion elements and proper hijab which was cool, like chic monteaus, long denim skirts and jackets, flowy dresses and skirts, etc.)

The young men were not much different with slicked back hair, designer-labeled shirts, and narrow jeans or leather pants (!). Basically it was a typical picture of upper-class Arab youth, their dress and their manners largely guided by the images they saw on satellite, from American films, the Arabic music industry, European fashion, etc.

Having European classmates was also something new for me. The Italians totally fulfilled my pre-conceived stereotypes of wearing beautiful clothes and passionately smoking cigarette after cigarette during the breaks. (Europeans must not have the same “No Smoking” laws we do in the U.S. I don’t know how they would survive, because they all seem to be so addicted.) Along with the Italians there were also students from Germany, Norway, France, the U.K., a handful from the U.S., and a few from other European countries.

You could tell the breakup of the students by our answers to the teacher’s question, “Where do you live?” About 95% of the students would answer, “Bab Tuma” (the traditionally Christian quarter of the city, and where most foreigners live because it’s a more ‘liberal’ part of town) and the rest of us would say “Rukn an-Deen” (the ‘students of deen’ area, where the Shariah College Abou Nour is located).

Most of the non-Muslim students were people who were interested in Islam and Muslim culture, and were open-minded, so it was nice if the opportunity arose to answer their questions or talk to them about Islam. (Whenever I met people like that I would always feel guilty about our lack of good quality da’wah programs and projects in the West… there are a lot of good people out there who, if they came to understand Islam, would embrace it or at least have an enlightened, positive opinion about it.) I also met a few Muslims who were studying with the intent of doing some really effectual and meaningful things in the world (changing foreign policy, Middle Eastern-Western relations, etc) which was awesome.

A big positive was that it was a pretty professional program with good, qualified teachers. We would study for four hours a day, grammar and reading, and there was a lot of emphasis on conversation. Their style of teaching was modern, in the sense that the relationship between teacher and student was relaxed, there was a lot of student participation, use of worksheets, and creative approaches to learning etc.

The negatives are: its price, which is at least twice as much as any of the other programs available in Damascus (possibly excluding the French Institute) and is not worth that much in my opinion, when there are other programs available. The program’s quality has declined in the last few years, according to people I’ve spoken to who had attended it back in its “good old days”, when classes were two months long. Since the classes are now monthly there’s a large turn-over rate and often students are not at the same level so there’s repetition of material.

In addition, studying there was a largely non-spiritual experience for me, and I think for most Muslims it would be the same. It’s understandable, I think, when you consider the environment and the objectives of most of the other students (which are usually not related to religion). The administration also seems to pride itself in being a secular institute, without really making any amenities for their Muslim students, like not providing a place to pray (we prayed in an empty classroom) and having mid-term exams the morning after the 27th night of Ramadan. Any religious expression is kept completely to the personal realm, so it’s just like studying in the U.S. in this regard.

These things come together to make the program one that is not really conducive to studying a sacred language for a sacred purpose. Also, much of what is taught is not relevant to someone seeking to learn Arabic to understand the Quran or read classical texts. For example, their vocabulary focuses on modern words related to business and government, and their recently added ‘Aaamiya classes are more beneficial for those studying culture and not classical religious works.

I remember one day when I was hanging out outside my classroom, a British girl, who had been studying Arabic at a posh university in England, said to me, “Did you know that there’s another school here in Damascus that all the poor Somalians go to to study Arabic?”

I just stared at her for a minute and tried to keep a blank face. Finally I asked, “Really? Do you mean Abou Nour?”

She said, “Yeah! I heard that it’s really ghetto, but they’re so cheap, so that’s where they all go…”

This was one of the times that I really felt a deeply intrinsic sense of superiority ingrained in some people from the West. It happened sometimes that I overheard conversations among the Westerners in my class about the Syrians and how silly or strange they found their culture and practices to be, which I felt harkened back to an era of paternalism, “Those silly natives, they just need us to teach them how to be civilized…”

I wanted to tell this girl that I had actually decided to study there for the next term; and that it’s not just poor Somalis that go there, but people from all over the Muslim world, admittedly most of them non-White, and most of them poor relative to Western standards… but I just kept quiet. Maybe I’d fit in better with the ‘poor Somalis’ than the ‘rich Westerners’.

Published in: on May 18, 2007 at 6:26 pm  Comments (21)  

the Reality of the Experience

bismillah. 

as salaamu alaykum, 

(This is the first of a series of posts, insha’Allah, which will talk about studying Arabic & Islam abroad, and about my own experiences studying here in Damascus.  Note that these are simply my reflections, thoughts, and experiences (see the title of the blog above :)) and I’m not claiming any expertise or absolutes here, so please keep that in mind.) 

 

To my dear brother or sister from the West, 

Escaping from the rat-race, the materialism and the emptiness of a fast-food culture, to a traditional land of Islam, exotic and different, steeped in history, where mosques stand firm in every neighborhood, where eman is the lingua franca among the people, and where prophets, scholars, and awliyaa have walked… On a spiritual quest for a pure heart and an enlightened mind, at the feet of scholars, pouring out your old self and drinking up knowledge that will make you new, until its noor fills your heart and soul, emanates through your every cell, and shines on your face… 

It’s a beautiful, noble, and alluring picture, and if this is something you seek then I ask that Allah allow for that desire to be fulfilled, and give you the opportunity to travel and study. 

but dear bro/sis, let me tell you some things that you probably didn’t know about taking that path…. not as someone who is treading it, but as someone who, in living in Shaam, has learned a little bit about it and has seen it up close… 

 

1. this path is a hard one, and you need to give it its due. 

Seeking sacred knowledge is not really fun.  It’s fulfilling, it’s meaningful, it’s beautiful… but it’s hard work, commitment, discipline, seriousness, and it takes a sharp mind and intelligence too.  Just like you don’t appreciate your mom’s tireless efforts in raising you until you yourself become a parent, you don’t realize how much respect and honor our scholars deserve until you try to seek out this path.  The first lesson you will learn is one of humility.  But don’t belittle that lesson, because it’s one many others have not yet mastered. 

For example: Imam Zaid Shakir is a well known American scholar who studied here in Shaam.  My husband was told a little bit about his schedule from a few brothers who knew him in his time here, which included teaching, going to the university full time, private lessons, memorizing Quran, and riding his bike to different durus in different parts of the city.  And this is along with taking care of and spending time with his family.   

Now, comparing his schedule to mine… 

3:00pm: Study.    

3:30pm: Check my Email.    

4:00pm: Study.    

4:15pm: Pepsi Break. 

… and you will see why some people come back truly learned and some don’t 🙂 

 

 

2. this path takes time to traverse. 

You can’t go to Syria, Egypt, or Saudi for two or three years and come back a scholar.  This deen is so vast, and there is just so much to learn.  Think about someone you would consider a scholar or an expert in the field of history, or engineering, or medicine, and then consider how many years it took them to achieve that state.  In the same way it takes years to reach a level of scholarship in Islam. 

 Western Muslims tend to come to places like Shaam for six months, or a year, or two, and then return home, with some of them thinking that they are now qualified to join the arena of Islamic scholarly discourse in the West… and this is a mistake.  I would argue that a person like this is actually more harmful to us as a developing community in the West than someone who hasn’t studied at all.  Being deluded into thinking that you’re knowledgeable is much more dangerous than someone who admits that they don’t know, and steps back from forming opinions and calling people to them. 

In this state (of studying for just a few years but without reaching a level of expertise), you’re like a half baked cake; you haven’t really reached a state of completion, so that people can eat and benefit from you, but you’ve already been set in the mold… so it may be difficult to become something else, and you might think that you’re a cake :).   

Keep this in mind when you think about studying abroad, and have realistic expectations of the time you will need to reach an acceptable level for that which you wish to do. 

(Note: If you want to go abroad for a few months or a year or two with the desire to learn Arabic, to memorize Quran, to get an intro/overview of the Islamic sciences, or just to rejuvenate yourself spiritually in a Muslim land, etc, that’s good, but if you desire to be a “shaykh” or “shaykha”, ie a learned person who can teach others, write scholarly books, etc then that’s just not enough time.) 

 

2. change takes struggle. 

Don’t depend on some magical change that will overtake you once you leave the West and come to a Muslim country.  Spiritual struggles are difficult no matter where you are, and getting rid of long-held, deeply ingrained habits will always be tough.  Don’t use your intention to travel as an excuse to procrastinate in taking care of your soul.  You don’t want to be in the arena of knowledge at some future date and still be wasting time, or being lazy, or doing things you know you shouldn’t be doing.   

These habits or traits may be unattractive parts of your character now, but they will be even uglier in someone who calls himself or herself a student of knowledge.  Start now, this day, this moment in purifying your heart and soul.  This is also a way of showing Allah your sincerity and seriousness in wanting to take up this path.   

 

3.  you may get lost along the way. 

It’s very easy to get caught up in a particular methodology or understanding of Islam when you study abroad, and it’s often difficult to get a more holistic, broad-based understanding of Islam in the Muslim world.  For example, if you study in Syria, you will find a lot of emphasis put on Taqleed, Asha’ri Aqeedah, the Mawlid, etc and defense and promotion of these ideas; while if you studied in Saudi Arabia, you would find quite the opposite.  Often, what happens is that students who study abroad return to the West with this baggage with them, transferring these vitriolic debates to the West and focusing their classes and programs on them, which is actually pretty silly when the average Muslim in the West is having a hard time practicing some of the very basic elements of Islam, such as praying regularly or wearing hijab, and has no idea who Ibn Taymiyyah or Ibn al-Arabi is.  

Nowadays, we have many young Muslims from the West studying overseas, in Saudi, South Africa, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Egypt… and in a few years these students who have studied in such different cultures and with scholars of such different approaches and understanding will return to the West to teach.  Allahu a’lam what will happen at that point; it can either be a time of a really beautiful flourishing of scholarship, a convergence of scholars who have taken the best from these different lands of Islam and brought that to the West for us to benefit from; OR it will be a time of fractioning, division, and argumentation like we’ve never seen.  And I ask Allah to help us and make things easy for us. 

So, what’s important for you as a student studying abroad is to always relate what you are studying back to the context in which you will implement and practice it, ie the West.  If there was ever a time and a place in which we needed people to move beyond these continuously recycled contentious issues, to solving some of our more basic problems and fulfilling some of the urgent needs we have as a community, it’s us and it’s this time.  We are in dire need of doctors, and not judges. 

We need individuals who can move outside of this constant, consuming debate, and work towards constructive change.   

Imam Zaid Shakir says on this issue, in the introduction to his book The Heirs of the Prophets: 

“Unfortunately, in recent years this pardigm [of Sunni scholarship] has been attacked from within… Leveling vicious, largely uncritical polemics against the four juridical schools, Tasawwuf, and the validity of rational proofs and philosophical formulations in creedal matters, these reformers are wittingly or unwittingly threatening the historical unity of Ahl as-Sunnah wal-Jama’aa. 

In many instances, these reformers situate their attacks within the historical context of the Hanbali school, relying on Ibn Taymiyya as their principal referent.  This tendency has led in recent years to what could well be referred to as a neo-traditionalist backlash.  Some defenders of the dominant Sunni paradigm respond to the vicious attacks of the reformers with equal or surpassing venom.  In their zeal, some go as far as to attempt to exclude the Hanbali school from the ranks of Ahl as-Sunnah wal-Jama’aa.  Others, while condemning the reformers who declare the likes of Shaykh Muhyiddin ibn al-Arabi a nonbeliever, themselves declare Ibn Taymiyya to be outside the pale of Islam.  If this polarization continues, our heartland – physically and figuratively – will be torn and divided to such an extent that we will never again be able to attain to the ‘critical mass’ necessary to establish Islam as a dominant socio-political reality.  Individuals blessed with cooler heads must prevail.” 

4. we are in need of creative thinkers. 

In places like Shaam you can find scholars whose knowledge of the classical texts is incredible, who have mastered many of the sciences of Islamic studies, who can give you a deep connection to the Quran, or help you in your personal tazkiya and tarbiyyah process.  But what may be more difficult for you to find is someone who can help you learn how to translate much of the information you learn into something you can apply when you return to the West.  We are in need of are people who are literate in the culture and needs of the West, and who are also literate in our scholarly tradition, and who can connect between the two. 

 Specializing is also greatly needed.  How much more beneficial would it be if ten people who went overseas to study Islam came back, and one had mastered Arabic syntax and grammar and could teach about the linguistic workings of the Quran in detail; and another had became an expert on the fiqh of minorities and the modern day issues dealing with that;  and another in counseling and pyschology from a spiritual and Islamic perspective; and another in business law, and another in Islamic history,  etc, instead of ten people coming back, all donning the title ‘shaykh’ or ‘shaykha’ but only having covered the introductory texts in each of these areas, and replicating the same activities and institutions we already have in place? 

Before you leave home to begin your studies abroad, be a creative thinker and plan ahead.  Think about what you want to do with the knowledge that you will attain, and how you can use it in a meaningful and effectual way when you return to the West.  Perhaps you need to prepare yourself by doing some studying or research at the university or at home before leaving. 

The Prophet, salAllahu alayhi wa salam, was a creative and visionary thinker.  When Salman al-Faarisi suggested that the Muslim build a trench in defense of the city of Madina, something that the Arabs had never seen or heard of before, the Prophet, salAllahu alayhi wa salam, saw merit in the idea and forged ahead with it.  While they were digging, a miracle of the Prophet, salAllahu alayhi wa salam, was that he foresaw that the lands of Shaam, Persia, and Yemen would be opened to the Muslims.  This was a divinely inspired vision, but it also shows us the beauty in looking ahead, and in contemplating what the results and benefits of your efforts will be. 

5. you will miss home. 

And you will never realize how truly American/Canadian/British/etc you are until you live somewhere else, and you will start to appreciate many things about your home country that never even occurred to you before. 

You will become sick of litter and pollution, disorganization, the rudeness of the common people, the staring problem many men in the Muslim world seem to have, food that is different than what you are accustomed to, cultural narrowness, political suppression, over-strictness and traditionalism in the schooling process, getting ripped off because you are a foreigner, unenforced traffic laws, the obsession of the upper class with everything Western even if it’s something silly or stupid, the nosiness of people, and how straight forward they are in expressing their opinions about you, your dress, or your manner!  

You will miss people who understand you, being able to communicate with more sophistication than an eight year old, and not having to think ten times about the grammar of your sentence before opening your mouth.  You will miss not knowing common etiquettes and customary manners.  And you will of course miss your family and your friends, and many other things about your home.   

Many of us who grew up in the West look to Muslim world with an enchanted eye, dreaming of lands of scholarship and beauty, free of the negatives which Western cultures possess.  We fail to realize that Muslim lands are not what they once were, due to a number of reasons, both political and spiritual.  

My point in mentioning all this is two-fold:  One, Muslim lands are certainly not perfect, and they have their problems and cultural idiosyncrasies and things that will frustrate and sadden you and drive you crazy.   

Two, you can not erase who you are, and where you grew up.  Many of us have hidden away inside of us this strange sort of guilt, that living in the West is not right, or that it’s not really where we belong.  You will, in your travels, see that Allah has put you where you are for a reason. You just have to embrace its good and distance yourself from its evils. 

 

6.  you will find imperfect institutions, teachers, and students. 

Frankly speaking, for the most part, Islamic institutions in the Muslim world are disorganized, and are behind the times in terms of methods of instruction and learning.  What you will often find is that these institutes have not maintained the traditional method of Islamic learning, nor have they attained a state of coherence and organization like the Western institutes they seek to imitate. You cannot depend on a particular institute to make you a scholar, but you have to be active and determined in seeking out knowledge, and finding opportunities to study and learn. 

Having high himmah [strong resolve, determination and passion for what you are doing] will get you a long way. 

 

w’Allahu a’lam.  May Allah forgive us for our missteps and mistakes, increase us, and grant our studies baraka and tawfeeq, 

wasalaamu alaykum wa rahmatullah. 

Published in: on May 11, 2007 at 2:25 pm  Comments (9)