Friday, 30 December 2011

Lesley Hazleton: On reading the Koran

My Journey to Islam: Dr Muhammed As'ad (Michael D. Berdine)

Dr. Muhammad As‘ad (Michael Berdine)
Director of Cambridge Muslim College

It might have started with the adhan, the call to prayer, that always fascinated that five-year-old boy, and then led him to accept Islam after a long trip across time and place.

It was a spiritual odyssey of over thirty years that took me from my Irish-Catholic-American roots through agnosticism and New Age metaphysics to Islam. It was only in Islam where I found the answers to all my questions and the peace which I had been seeking for a lifetime. It was also in Islam where I found solace and sanctuary, friendships and brotherhood, a new life, a spiritual home and Allah in the fall of 1992.

In 1990, at the age of forty-five, I returned to graduate school at the University of Arizona to begin my studies for a Ph.D. in Modern British Empire History and Near Eastern Studies. This was the realization of a dream I'd had since obtaining my M.A. in British and European history twenty-one years earlier. At that time, in 1969, I had passed up pursuing a Ph.D. program at Brown University to raise a family and take some time off from school. It was at the University of Arizona through my studies of Middle East and India that I once again came in contact with Islam.

From the time I was three until eighteen, my father's position as an executive with the California-Texas Oil Company (Caltex) took our family to live and travel all over the world. Our first overseas assignment in 1949, when I was three, was in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, where my parents, brother and I lived for five-and-a-half years. From there we moved to London for a short time before moving to India in 1956. Once in India, because there was no American schooling available locally, my parents sent me to Kodaikanal, an American Protestant missionary boarding school 600 miles to the south, where I attended school from the 5th to 10th grades. As one of the few Catholics at Kodaikanal International School, I learned much about Christianity -- my own Catholicism -- included, which began a lifelong interest in the subject as well as religion in general. However, my Catholic father became more concerned about my “Protestant” education and, mid-way through 10th grade, transferred me to an American international Catholic boy’s school in Rome, Italy. So, it was from Notre Dame International School in Rome that I graduated from high school two-and-a-half years later in June 1963.

Rome was a fascinating place to learn more about my religion, especially after the “negative” perceptions I’d received about Catholicism from some of my Protestant classmates at the missionary school. It was also a time of historic changes in the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council, some of which I was able to witness in person, or learn about from the Catholic prelates who came and spoke at the school. On my own, I also got to meet a cardinal, some bishops and archbishops attending the Council and had a papal audience with the charismatic and very dynamic ecumenical Pope John XXIII. (Ten years earlier, my parents, brother and I had had a private audience with Pope Pius XII and spoken directly with the Pope at his summer retreat at Castello Gondolfo.) By the time I left Rome, I was thoroughly entranced with my Catholic faith and planning on becoming a priest.

Meanwhile, because of my father’s executive position with Caltex Oil Company -- both in India and in Germany, where my parents moved in 1962 -- when at home or during vacations I met a number of important government, business and political leaders from all cultural backgrounds who were frequent guests in our home.

However, as I look back, it was as a five-year-old in Bahrain and later as a young man in India, where the sight of Muslims at prayer and the muezzin’s call to prayer made the most lasting impression of all my overseas experiences. Just hearing the adhan excited me. It made me feel good inside (as it still does today) and, no matter what I was doing, I always paused to listen whenever I heard it. Little did I know at the time that the adhan would later become such an important part of my life.

Still, it took some time for this to sink in. It was only after moving back to the States, going to college and grad school, raising a family and having a twenty-year business career, when I returned to graduate school and once again became acquainted with Islam. This time, however, it was in an academic setting and through books and class lectures. Once “hooked” on Islam, I eagerly and voraciously read anything and everything I could get my hands on in English on the subject. I bought and devoured all the books I could find. Many were written by western Islamic scholars, themselves converts to Islam like Muhammad Asad, Martin Lings, Victor Danner, and Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall. The fact that there were Western converts to Islam of this caliber further piqued my interest and curiosity. After much reading and study, I sensed a strong, growing affinity with Islam and a complete and total agreement with all its teachings in everything I read.

During the summer of 1992, I read A.J. Arberry's The Koran: Interpreted, Danner’s The Islamic Tradition: An Introduction, Lings' deeply moving and absorbing Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources while away from home studying Intensive Arabic at summer school at the University of Washington. In my Arabic class, I got to know an Irish-French-Canadian woman classmate who was a convert to Islam (and a former Catholic like me). I also got to know better a Pakistani-American Muslim, whom I'd met earlier that year at a conference at UCLA, where we both gave papers. Throughout the summer I talked with both of them about Islam and what it was like to be a Muslim. Soon it became apparent to all of us that my beliefs were the same as those taught by the Prophet (peace be upon him) and Islam. However, when gently asked why I didn't become a Muslim, I had no answer. At the time, I was just intellectually content to have found a faith with which I could agree 100%. Moreover, as an historian I was most impressed with the fact that the authenticity of the Qur’an could be verified (two of the original Qur’ans from the time of Caliph ‘Uthman still exist), as could the teachings and traditions of the Prophet (PBUH). This was quite the opposite of Christianity, as I’d learned to my surprise over many years of study. Despite all this, I still gave little thought to becoming a Muslim myself.

At the end of the summer, my UCLA friend suggested I read Muhammad Asad's The Road to Mecca and get a copy of his translation and commentary of the Holy Qur’an. Asad was an Austrian-Polish Jew (Leopold Weiss) who converted to Islam and became a close friend of Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa`ud, founder of Sa`udi Arabia, in the 1920s. Among his many other activities over the years, including being a student and the close friend of Pakistan’s Sir Muhammad Iqbal, Asad became a renowned Arabic and Qur’anic scholar. However, it was reading Arberry’s translation of the Holy Qur’an that summer and realizing no man could have written it that did it for me. I finished reading Asad’s Road to Mecca in mid-October, just before attending the Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Portland, Oregon, where I was to give a paper.

As it turned out, the meeting became a reunion of sorts for me with my summer school friends, as both the Canadian Muslimah and my Muslim friend from UCLA were also giving papers at the same conference. Almost as soon as we ran into each other at a bookstore in Portland near the conference site, the Muslimah asked me pointblank, “When are you going to become a Muslim?” I could only respond that I guessed I already was one in my heart and mind. Without a pause, she suggested that I make shahadah right then and there. I hemmed and hawed, but could find no reason not to do so. So, right then and there, in the "new arrivals" section of Powell's Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, with another Canadian Muslimah as a witness, I made my shahadah. Not long afterwards, I left the bookstore and walked to my room at a nearby dorm. I was in a state of euphoria and incredible joy, feeling as if I was walking two feet above the ground. Later, when I saw my friend from UCLA and told him what had happened, and showed him the Qur’an I'd received from our Muslimah friend, he was overjoyed, hugged me warmly and welcomed me to Islam as his brother.

Two weeks later, on November 13, I once again recited the shahadah at Jumu‘ah prayers at the Islamic Center of Tucson. This time it was in front of several hundred people, after which I found myself at the front of a receiving line, where I was welcomed into the Islamic community with hugs and kisses from about 40 Muslim brothers in the most moving forty-five minutes of my life. It was an experience that still lives with me.

Attributing some of the final steps towards Islam to Muhammad Asad’s book, I decided to take his name as my Muslim name. Since he was a convert to Islam like me, I felt his name would also be a good name for me and, hopefully, I would become a good Muslim and scholar like him. However, once back at the University of Arizona, both my Arabic and Islamic history professors to whom I told my story suggested I change my name to Muhammad As‘ad, “The Happiest Muhammad” in Arabic. This name seemed to them (and to me) to more accurately reflect the change in my personality and over-all attitude since accepting Islam.

In the ten years since, my life has been a series of joys and efforts for Islam. While no one else in my family has yet become a Muslim, there is now sympathy and understanding where before there was none and -- in sha’ Allah -- one day other family members will come to Islam. My wife in particular has been most supportive. Since then, I have become active in outreach and da‘wah for the Islamic Center of Tucson, where I am on the Executive Committee and responsible for media and public relations. Beginning early 1993, I have become a frequent speaker about Islam in schools, churches, synagogues and community centers in the area and elsewhere. I also spent the summers of 1994 and 1995 in Damascus, Syria, where I studied Islam and Arabic in an Islamic Call College. Since 1996, I’ve taught classes in Islam and introduced courses in Islamic Civilization and Middle East History at Pima Community College in Tucson. During this time also, while working on my Ph.D. in History at the University of Arizona, I received a second M.A. in 1997 (in Near Eastern Studies) at the University of Arizona. In March of 2001, I went on Hajj.

Finally, in August 2001 I was awarded my Ph.D. in History and, since August 2002, I have been a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso. At UTEP, I teach Middle Eastern and Islamic History, as well as World History

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Book Review: Madrasah Life By Shaykh Dr Akram Nadwi

Madrasha Life is a unique book by the erudite scholar, Shaykh Dr Akram Nadwi which shatters the negative myths of the madrasah system that is increasingly prevalent in the Western world. The book unearths a day in the life of a madrasah student who is in the fadilah course (Masters Level) at the celebrated Nadwat al-Ulama in Lucknow, India. This distinguished school is celebrated for its emphasis on Arabic, Persian, Urdu languages and literatures as well as managing to successfully blend the traditional sacred sciences with the secular. Thus, it is not surprising that the book is glittered with quotations from esteemed poets from Labid to Ghalib.

This book reveals for the reader the daily activities a master’s student undergoes in a classical Islamic education system. Readers are introduced to a group of young master’s students and their educational and social life. The reader discovers the student’s curricula they study, their social antics, the recreational games they play, the conversations and disagreements in detail to the food they eat. Readers will be surprised to see that western and traditional Islamic students are very much similar, they love and dislike grammar, they tease one another, some are proactive and while others just down right lazy. This book beautifully reveals the level of intellectual curiosity of students, their favorite subjects, teachers and social life.

I was very surprised when reading the book because as a masters student myself in an eminent Western university. I know first-hand the level of intellectual capacity my fellow student’s possess. Yet the intellectual level of traditional masters students at Nadwah compared to my university is far greater. The author shows how students are well versed and competent in discussing and critiquing the works of Plato, Aristotle, Satre as well as Ibn Tamiyyah and Bukhari. One can see that that the students at Nadwah have a passion for knowledge and learning that is rarely found in a western master’s education. No wonder that the students at Nadwah are extremely hardworking and intelligent.

I have not come across an institute in the Western World that requires mastery of three different languages, a clear comprehension of different sciences as well as a four year degree, just to be considered as a candidate to enter a Master’s Program. The social and educational interactions dismiss the Western notion that madrasahs are platforms of extremisms, where young brain dead individuals are brainwashed into ideals of extremism. This is far from the truth as acknowledged by Major General Sir Sleeman who argues that traditional Islamic madrasahs are akin to a classical Western education. Moreover their tuition fees are much cheaper too.

“He who holds an office worth twenty rupees a month commonly gives his son an education equal to that of a prime minister. They learn through the medium of the Arabic and Persian languages, what young men in our colleges through those of Greek and Latin- that is, grammar, rhetoric and logic. After his seven years of Study, the young Muhammadan binds his turban upon a head almost as well filled with the things which appertain to these branches of knowledge as the young man raw from Oxford; he will talk as fluently about Socrates and Aristotle, Plato and Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna”

What I really love about this book is the reader can clearly see the relationship of a traditional Islamic teacher and their student. You can see the traditional Islamic students have a respect for their teachers that many western students cannot fathom. Traditional students do not see their teachers as just mere teachers. But as loving fathers.They take their students gently by their hands ensuring a mastery of the subject. Students do not just inherit the knowledge attained, but an Ijazah and sometimes their teacher’s spiritual states. A Ijazah is a certification to teach the subject which ensures that the student becomes part of the Isnad, a scholarly lineage of teachers that goes back to the Prophet PBUH through his Companions, a later venerable Shaykh, or the author of a specific book. This way knowledge is not just taught and merely given away but protected. Each student who requires an ijazah must have mastery of the particular subject, this ensures that academic standards do not drop.

Although teachers are greatly respected, the book conveys the critical thinking of the madrasah system. Opinions are cross examined and criticized in a respectful academic manner. Readers should understand that traditional educations colleges like Nadwah do not result in inflexibility of the mind, obstinate opinions and a monolith world view. Students do not just accept their knowledge blindly.They are taught to challenge their teachers. They critically examine their knowledge and question them. Students are taught to understand the chain of thought of scholars, this result in often questioning a scholar in one science, while admiring him in another. By embarking on research projects and dissertations this also leads to critical thinking. The contribution of Madrasah Life by Shaykh Dr Nadwi is witty and a very fun read while still unearthing the milieu of traditional Islamic schools and their traditions.

Madrasah Life, By Mohammed Akram Nadwi, Published by Turath Publishing,(2007)

Monday, 12 December 2011

The story of Praise

One night a man was crying Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with praising,
until a cynic said, “So!
I’ve heard you calling our, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.

“Why did you stop praising?” “Because
I’ve never heard anything back.”

“This longing you express
is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Prophet of God

by Rafey Habib

Prophet of God, I am
Steeped in the things
Of sin, and wrong:
Unworthy to stand
Beside you,
Or even to sing in
Your praise.

Prophet of my heart, my
Verse is beneath you, my
Only skill, bequeathed by
Birth, perturbed dreams
Of your nights and days.

How can I come near
The cloak that wraps you,
When fear dries my throat,
When I know Who spoke
In your hearing.

How can I read, or
Understand, when I live
At the edge of His commands,
When my sins need
To feel Him forgive?

Where will I find help;
Where will I know the
Good in Self; where
Will I not be alone, if not
In the places you
Have known?

If I stand, arrayed,
Against my own desire,
For fame, prestige, wealth,
Will your shield defend
My faith, against the fire,
Against my own, lower, self?

If I come stumbling,
Across desert and
Grey seas; if I humbly call
Across the sands, will you
Reach for my hand?

Prophet of God,
Do not turn away from me;
Stay... say a prayer for me:
Unworthy to sing
In His praise.

Prophet of my heart,
My lonely art, companion
Of my unworthy
Nights and days.

Al Ameen

(by an admirer of Islam, J.P. [a good chance that this is John Yehya-en-Nasr Parkinson])

Who is this who comes from Hira?
Not in stately pomp or pride,
But a great free son of Nature,
Lion-souled and eagle-eyed?

Who is this before whose presence
Idols tumble to the sod,
As he cries out "Allah[u] Akbar,"
No! There is no God but God?

Wandering o'er the solemn desert
He has wondered, like a child,
Not as yet too proud to wonder,
At the Sun and Star, and Wild.

Oh thou Moon! Who made thy brightness?
Stars, who hung you there on high?
Answer! so my soul may worship --
I must worship, or I die.

Then there fell the brooding silence
That precedes the thunder roll,
And the old Arabian whirlwind
Called another Arab soul.

He has stood and seen Mount Hira
To the awful Presence nod,
He has heard from cloud and lightning --
No, there is no God but God.

Call you this man an "Imposter"?
He was called "The Faithful," when
A boy he wandered o'er the desert,
By the wild-eyed Arab men.

He was always called "The Faithful":
Truth he knew was Allah's breath;
But the Lie went darkly gnashing
Through the corridors of Death.

He was fierce! -- Yes, fierce at falsehood:
Fierce at hideous bits of wood
Which the Koreish taught the people
Made the sun and solitude.

But his heart was also gentle,
And affection's graceful palm,
Waving in his tropic spirit,
To the weary brought a balm.

"Precepts?" -- "Have on each compassion,"
"Lead the stranger to your door,"
"In your dealings keep up justice,"
"Give a tenth unto the poor."

Yet ambitious? Yes, ambitious,
While he heard the strong and sweet
Aiden voices sing, to trample
Conquered Hell beneath his feet.

Islam? Yes, "submit to Heaven."
Prophet? To the World thou art;
What are Prophets but the Trumpets
Blown by God to stir the heart?

And the great heart of the desert
Stirred unto the solemn strain,
Rolling from the Mount of Hira,
Over Error's troubled plain.

And two hundred dusky millions
Honour still "El Ameen's" rod,
Daily chanting "Allah[u] Akbar,"
Know -- there is no God but God.

Call him, then, no more "Imposter!"
Mecca is the choral Gate,
Where till Zion's moon shall take them
Nations in the Morning wait.

(Islamic Review, November 1915, pp.584-5.)

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Hymn on the Capture of Mecca

By Amherst D. Tyssen

Ye gates, unfold; strong walls, fall down;
Bow minaret and dome!
The seer, who fled with life proscribed,
Returns as conqueror home.

Ten thousand followers swell his train,
All armed with sword and shield;
His foes have found their forces melt,
And now must humbly yield.

No blood he sheds, no fine exacts,
No prince to prison sends;
Forgives, forgets all injuries past,
Treats enemies as friends.

Oh, hence may we a lesson learn
Sweet tempers to display,
And ne'er resent the varied wrongs
We suffer day by day.

Tho' others call our faith a sin,
And motives bad impute;
May we no angry word reply,
But rest in patience mute.

So shall they see that in our hearts
God's spirit truly lives;
And honour with unfeigned respect
The gentle grace it gives. Courtesy of Sidi Yahya Birt

Hymn on the Welcome to Medina

By Amherst D. Tyssen

The governors of Yathreb
They laid their maces down,
They made the Meccan exile
The ruler of their town;
To him they came for judgment
In each disputed cause;
They offered him their tribute,
They bade him frame their laws.

They swore with manly fealty
To serve him e'en to death,
Confessing him their prophet
With life's expiring breath.
Their very lives they perilled,
They laboured and they fought;
For in good truth they deemed him
By God divinely taught.

Lord grant that we, renouncing
All selfishness and pride,
At Thy command may freely
Cast wealth and power aside.
Attentive may we listen
Where'er Thy voice is heard,
And life itself surrender
Obedient to Thy word.

Consistent with Thy precepts
Our journey may we trend,
Stern duty's path pursuing
Unswerving to the end.
Thus we, like Yathreb's heroes,
Shall brave examples be
Of worldly weal discarded
For faithfulness to Thee.

Courtesy of Sidi Yahya Birt

Hymn on Muhammad in the Cave

By Amherst D. Tyssen

The prophet with one faithful friend
In the dark cavern stood,
A thousand foemen scouring round,
All thirsting for his blood.

"Alas, my master," spake the liege,
"Our term of life is sped;
I hear the murd'rous bands approach,
Intent to strike us dead."

"Be not distressed!" in accents firm,
The Prophet's voice replied;
"For God is mightier far than they,
And God is on our side.

"Will He we live, no mortal power
Can take our lives away;
Will He we die, to Him we pass;
No need to feel dismay."

Oh, may we thus through life's rough voyage,
With all its tempests cope;
Make God the Rock whereon we cast
The anchor of our hope.

Come weal: to Him we give the praise;
Come woe: on Him we rest;
E'en death is bliss to hearts assured
Whate'er He sends in best.

Courtesy of Sidi Yahya Birt

The Prophet's Resolution

By Amherst D. Tyssen

The prophet felt a mission
To preach the word of God,
To brave all opposition,
To fear no threatened rod.
Oh, had his foes the power,
To scale the heaven's height,
To pluck from out their bower,
The orbs of day and night.
On right and left hand place them,
To bar his onward way.
Undaunted he would face them,
Nor brook an hour's delay.
Filled with determined boldness,
His steadfast heart would meet,
The moon's pale silv'ry coldness,
The sun's bright scorching heat.
On, till he saw prevailing,
The cause of God on high,
Or felt, with forces failing,
His lot ordained to die.
Oh, may such resolution,
With courage nerve us all
To bear such persecution,
Entailed by Heaven's call

Courtesy of Sidi Yahya Birt

In Praise of the Prophet: A Ghazel

By Shaykh Abdullah Quilliam Bey Effendi (writing as Prof. Haroun Mustapha Leon)

So long as the heart doth pulsate and beat,
So long as the sun bestows light and heat,
So long as the blood thro' our veins doth flow,
So long as the mind in knowledge doth grow,
long as the tongue retains power of speech,
So long as wise men true wisdom do teach,
The praise of God's Prophet,Ahmed theblest,
Shall flow from our lips and spring from our breast.
'Twas Rasul-Allah from darkness of night
Did lead us to Truth, did give to us Light,
Did point out the Path, which follow'd with zest,
Leadeth to Islam and gives Peace and Rest.
Praise be to Allah! 'Twas He who did send
Ahmed Muhammad, our Prophet, our Friend.

(The Islamic Review, 3 (1915), p.286.)

Hymn for the Prophet's Birthday

Hymn for the Prophet's Birthday

By Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam Bey Effendi

The people that in darkness sat
A glorious light have seen;
God's prophet now to them hath come --Muhammad, al-Amin.
For thou the burden did'st remove,
Idolatry's fell rod;
And in the day the idols fell
Before the sword of God.
To bless Arabia and the world
Most surely thou wast raised:
We'll sing thy praises evermore,
Our Mustapha, the praised.
We watch with gentle, fostering care
The seed that thou hast sown;
And trust to hear the world declare
God's prophet as its own.

Coutesy of Sidi Yahya Birt

Monday, 5 December 2011

Poem of the Glorious Morning

Dawn rising from the east is enlivening.
It puts an end to the enveloping silence of the night.
Life manifests itself in every object at dawn.
Birds chirrup, heralding the message of life.
Flowers too, start a new life.
Muslims! Arise and awake from your slumber.
Shine like the sun and seek inspiration from the symbols of life around you.
Obliterate evil.
Your being full of light should put an end to darkness.
Reveal yourself like a flashing light,
unravelling the secrets of the universe.

(Madrasah Life, A student's day at Nadwat al Ulama, Shaykh, Dr, Mohammed Akram Nadwi, Page 11)