Tuesday, 13 October 2009
O you who believe! Let not your wealth nor your children distract you from remembrance of Allah. Those who do so, they are the losers. (63:9)
This verse in the Qur'an is an invitation for humanity to make a relatively small effort in this world, in return for the eternal reward of the hereafter. It is a call to save ourselves from becoming fixated on our wealth and on providing our children with the latest gadget and games, which ultimately are mere distractions from our remembrance of the creator.
But humans are short-termist; we think primarily of our pleasures now rather than the harmony and serenity of the world to come. Chapter 102 of the Qur'an says that we are distracted by competing in worldly increase, until we finally end up in our graves where we will be questioned about our excesses.
Does this mean that it is wrong to own things? Of course not, as money and offspring can be positive things in the life of a believer, and we do of course have basic needs which need to be met. But we must remember that the pleasures of consumption are quickly gone, while lasting benefit comes only from using our wealth to uphold the rights of others; namely the orphan, the traveller, and the needy. Wealth is thus truly ours only once it has been given away.
Those who are genuinely distracted by worldly increase, and who make it an end in and of itself rather than as a means towards something better are in effect guilty of a form of idolatry. Ours is an age that has made idols of the great banks and finance houses, driven to frenzy by competition amongst billionaires who are kept awake at night by the thought that a rival might make a business deal more quickly than them. A banker who can asset strip companies and throw its employees out onto the street is someone who is in the grip of an obsession that has thrown him beyond of the normal frontiers of humanity.
Neo-classical economics has traditionally focused on four things: land, labour, capital and money, the first three of which are finite, while the fourth, money, is theoretically infinite, and is therefore where human greed has been particularly focussed. Thus arose a system where someone could, with approval, set up a bank with only £1, and then lend £100 using property and other assets promised by others as security.
The lender now has £100 including interest, which they earned by just sitting there and doing nothing. On the basis of this £100, they can then lend £1000, and on and on, until the cancerous growth lubricated by greed becomes so huge that it leads to a fundamental breakdown in the system. Such a system based on usury, with interest as the bizarre "price of money" which itself becomes a commodity, was once prohibited by all faiths. People had a simple and natural intuition that the commoditisation of a measurement of value would open the door to trading in unreal assets, and ultimately to a model of finance that would destroy natural restraints and even, potentially, the planet.
In the classical Islamic system, by contrast, money is the substance of either gold or silver. With a tangible and finite asset being the only measure of value, there is a great deal more certainty about the value of assets and the price of money. This basic wisdom was though not just a theoretical ideal; it succeeded. Muslim society at its height was mercantile, and it was successful. Never was money assigned its own value and never was it seen as an end in and of itself.
Since the abolition of the gold standard however, theoretical limits on the price of money were removed. Last year's meltdown, whose final consequences were unguessable, was a sign of the inbuilt dangers of a usurious world. Humans are naturally short-termist but in times of crisis we must take stock. As with the related environmental crisis, now is the time to be smarter and more self-restrained. The believer is in any case allergic to the mad amassing of wealth, since he or she expects true happiness and peace only in the remembering of God and in the next world.
Now is the time to think seriously about finding an economic system to replace the one whose dangers have just been revealed. Upon the conquest of Mecca, a verse of the Qur'an was revealed commanding people to give up what remained of their interest-based transactions, upon which a new system based on the value of gold and silver was initiated.
Those who relied so heavily on the old system would of course have been unable to understand a system without banking charges, but not only was such a system created but a successful civilisation was created using these ideas.
Last year we peered into the abyss; now we must apply self-restraint and wisdom, before complete catastrophe ensues.
Monday, 12 October 2009
Thursday, 8 October 2009
1 – Work through an English-Arabic textbook, or two, and learn the vocabulary and grammar systematically.
The majority of people tend to start either with a basic classical Nahw text (like al-Ajrumiyyah) or a modern Arabic textbook for teaching Arabic to foreigners (e.g. al-Kitab al-Asasi or The Medina University course). My experience of learning Arabic and seeing how much progress people who have taken various different routes to the language have made, has demonstrated to me beyond doubt that both of these approaches are grossly deficient.
Classical Nahw texts were written by Arabs (or scholars of the Arabic language) who spoke fluent classical Arabic, for Arabs who spoke fluent classical Arabic, as a means to analyse the language. It was never intended that texts like al-Ajrumiyyah would be used to teach foreigners Arabic! This is clear from even a cursory look at the way the books present the information – the focus is entirely on abstart theorising of grammatical categories, rather than practical usage.
As for al-Kitab al-Asasi etc., quite apart from the several errors in these books, they were written for use by modern Arabic teachers, who can’t speak the languages of their internationally diverse students. Using them, when one has recourse to much more accurate, much more systematically laid out and much more complete grammars of the Arabic language written in one’s own mother tongue, is I believe a terribly inefficient way to start.
I would suggest Haywood and Nahmad – the grammar covered is to a good level and is systematically presented. You should aim to get through at least the first 35 chapters, which means memorising the vocabulary and being able to do the excercises in your head. Note that this may require you to do the exercises and go over the grammar a number of times (e.g. six, seven or even more). In particular, you should understand and memorise the weak verb tables (e.g. (i) doubled verbs – you should know the difference in verb conjugation between verbs on the patterns radda yaruddu, farra yafirru andmalla yamallu, (ii) defective verbs – you should know the difference in verb conjugation between verbs on the patterns nasiya yansaa, da’aa yad’u andramaa yarmee). As a second textbook, Teach Yourself Arabic, Tritton (published around 1950, not the modern textbook) is very useful – it will reinforce the rules you learn from Haywood and Nahmad, as well as provide extra vocabulary and useful phrases.
2 – After about Chapter 23 of Haywood and Nahmad, you should be able to start reading (with some difficulty at first, and with the help of a dictionary) stories for children in Arabic.
In particular, Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi has a number of books in this genre, such as Qisas al-Nabiyyeen and al-Qira’at al-Rashidah; both series are written especially for foreigners learning Arabic by someone who was an expert of the language. As your reading becomes more fluent, and once you’ve completed up to about Chapter 30, you should start reading as much modern and classical authors as you can. Try various authors – it’s vital at this stage not to pick someone who’s style one finds too difficult, as that can be off putting. It’s important also to vary what you read – it’ll help maintain interest and increase your vocabulary.
Three authors deserve special mention, namely Ramadan Buti, Yusuf Qaradawi and Mohammad al-Ghazali – all have a lot of literature on a fairly wide range of subjects, and, though one might not necessary agree with all of the ideas expressed in their works, as the topics they address are contemporary and interesting, it will certainly help your Arabic. If you want to read something more classical at this stage, then both Abu Hamed al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyya should be considered, as they both have a very readable and relatively easy style (except of course in their more technical works, like Ghazali’s al-Mustasfa, his work on Usul al-Fiqh, which should be avoided). May I suggest something like ‘Minhaj al-Abidin’ by al-Ghazali as a starting point? In addition, any small monographs you find on subjects of interest to you would be useful at this stage.
It is imperative, when reading, to take down and memorise the useful vocabulary you come across (i.e. vocabulary that will help you express yourself and converse at a high level with other students and, later your teachers – too high a focus on concrete vocabulary items, such as the names of various vegetables, flowers, will at this stage be a hinderance). Keep the vocabulary sheets for the different books you read separate – this will help you, later on, to indentify the preferred style of different authors, as well as notice mistakes in the lexical usage of modern authors (e.g. many authors like to use the verb tasaa’ala to mean ‘to wonder’, wheras, in fact, it has no such meaning in classical Arabic, and is an entirely modern, and therefore, stricly speaking, incorrect use).
3 – At some point (but not before you’ve learn’t Arabic!) you will have to start working through an Arabic grammar book –
Probably something like ‘al-Durus al-Naywiyyah’, three books in a single volume, which will introduce you to the grammatical terminology used by the Arabic grammarians, as well as introduce you to the science of I’rab (parsing sentences, which the beginner should not concern himself with, despite what any well-meaning Arabic teacher would have you believe!). I suggest that you do books one and two well – memorise all the information and be able to parse the example sentences without difficulty. I strongly advise against studying anything classical at this stage (e.g. ‘Qatr al-Nada’) – it will be far too detailed, and it’s unlikely that you’ll derive significant benefit. At a more advanced stage, as far as advanced Arabic-English grammars go, you should consider ‘Wright’s Grammar’ and ‘A Grammar of Classical Arabic’ (Fischer).
4 – In terms of dictionaries,
For the moment I Imagine Hans Wehr is sufficient – it covers all the usages that you are likely to encounter at the start of your Arabic education, and is very well laid out. It should be noted however that this is, strictly, a modern Arabic dictionary, based on the usage of Arabic in the media and by modern writers. As such, it is replete with errors from a classical Arabic viewpoint, and should not be relied upon by the serious advanced student (although, for the reasons mentioned earlier, he will continue to find it useful). My advice is that once you attain some degree of fluency in you reading, you should use Hans Wehr in conjuction with a dictionary for advanced learners, namely Hava. The latter will give you the classical signification of a term, but the definitions given are sometimes, due to their berevity, not entirely clear, and at other times unwieldy. You should also start using an Arabic-Arabic dictionary as soon as you feel able. I have found ‘al-Mu’jam al-Wasit’ to be the most helpful – it’s published by the Cairo Arabic Language Academy. At a more advanced stage, you should Lane’s Lexicon for Arabic-English dictionaries (an unparrallelled work in 8 volumes), and ‘Mukhtar al-Sihah’ for Arabic-Arabic dictionaries.
Last year I completed the third year of Abi Nur’s 3 year Arabic program for foreigners (Ta’hili); although it has a number of shortcomings, the most patent of which is the ridiculous number of subjects (seventeen!), many of which are of little to no benefit, I would still recommend it to anyone who wants an overview of the Islamic Sciences and what they involve from a traditional perspective. Subjects covered include Hadith (memorising most of Nawawi’s 40 Hadith and reading a modern commentary), Usul al-Hadith (’al-Bayquniyyah’), Fiqh (Shafi’i – ‘al-Fiqh al-Manhaji’, a modern text by three Damascene scholars) Nahw (’Tahdheeb Qatr al-Nada’) and so on. In the second year, one is expected to memorise Juz 29, and in the third year an equivalent of another 2 Juzs from various parts of the Quran (I don’t know about the first year as I went straight into the third year, but I suspect that you have to memorise Juz 30); opting out of any of the subjects is not an option. The main benefit for me was being able to listen, for 6-7 hours every day, to reasonably good Classical Arabic from the teachers.
Abi Nur also does a 6-level program for beginners, with each level lasting 2 months. I’m afraid I don’t have much detail on this program, but I know it is ongoing. Although Level 1 is in theory for complete beginners, you should work through at least some of the steps above before enrolling to really benefit. The focus is solely on Arabic, although one is obliged to attend Tajwid lessons too (there is no Quran memorization).
As with any course, how much the student gets out of these above-mentioned programs is really down to his dedication, intelligence and organization. Students have been known to start speaking very good Arabic after only a few weeks of studying, and others cannot manage it even after a number of years.
The other option is to study privately, i.e. one teacher to a small group of students, usually in the teacher’s house or else in a mosque. Most long term students tend to try combining studies at an institute with private studies. Short term students usually go for one or the other, depending on how much they’ve done before coming to Damascus – really, to study privately with a good teacher, one would need to have a good grasp of spoken Classical Arabic. The advantage over studying at an institute is that one can just focus on the subjects which are to one’s interest, the quality of the teachers is generally higher, and one gains a much better feel for what studying traditionally would involve. However, it isn’t necessarily very easy to find good private teachers; one needs to be fairly well connected with people who’ve been here a while, and even then people are often reluctant to ’share’ their teachers with others. Even once one has started studying, there is every possibility that things like financial or time constraints on the teachers, or even government restrictions (all private teaching has to be approved!), will mean that the lessons are cancelled, meaning that you have to find another teacher.
There is actually a lot more that could be said on these topics, but I think that’ll do for now! I hope it’s of some use.
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.