Islam


I’d like to share these beautiful islamic aperiodic patterns with you, created using software researched and developed by two Argentinian brothers (Luis Fernando and Julian Eduardo Molina Abaca) with software / scientific backgrounds.

See more of their research here and here.

You can read more about these patterns and some ongoing scientific research (relating to quasicrystals) at physicsworld.com (requires free registration).

Recently a young Indian CEO died, possibly from lack of sleep, and it caused a lot of comment on a discussion forum that I read regularly (Hacker News). Although this forum is primarily for IT guys, this story generated a lot of interest because these guys, like so many of us, are very interested in maximizing their day, making the most of the time they have. Carpe Diem and all that. Hence they are very interested in techniques to minimise the amount of sleep required, and the possible side effects thereof.
This phenomena of trying to squeeze in as much as possible into the day manifests itself in many areas. Among parents in the UK there is a culture of trying to give your child exposure to so many activities – swimming, language lessons, maths tuition, horse riding – and the parents spend all their free time shuttling their kids from one place to another.
I myself suffer from this same problem of feeling that I don’t get enough done in the day, that too much is neglected. However, is this not the result of having the wrong priorities? As a muslim the most important thing is to do the right thing, not to do as many things as possible, many of which (frankly) have little benefit in this world, and none at all in the next. If we could just slow down and do a few good things well, that would be so much better for us.

This is a khutba I delivered:

Brothers and sisters we have been born into a society very unlike the societies that our parents, grandparents and older generations were born into.

Science has advanced far beyond what our grandparents could have envisioned and the combination of cheap and instant global communication together with cheap international travel has led to the development of a global monoculture. This monoculture is formed within the most powerful group of all, usually called by its blanket name the West.

This monoculture brings with it a worldview which has the invisible attraction that draws those that would like to have power (or at least, not be weak) towards those that have power.

However, to those that think, this worldview is unattractive. If fact it is often ugly. Even those who promote its views and ethics confess that they invented the ethics themselves. The intellectual cadre within them even promote the belief that those ethics ‘evolved’ for the material benefit of those holding the views. The intellectuals make no claim to have a real set of ethics that all should follow, although the governments send their armies out around the world with the excuse of correcting the morals of the owners of the resources the army are laying claim to.

We are here today because, thank God, we have found and united on a divinely sourced worldview which we all recognise as being the straight path. How did we recognise this worldview of ours, Islam, as divine? Each of us has had our own path to that realisation, but for all of us a pillar (whether realised or not) of our belief is the miracle of the Qur’aan.

The qur’aan was revealed to the prophet Muhammad (SAW) 1400 years ago over a period of 23 years. Its message was so powerful, beautiful and transforming that when the messenger Muhammad told his companions that it was delivered to him by the angel Gabriel, they had no doubt that he was telling the truth. The continued miracle of the revelation of the message of the Qur’aan and the wonderful character and uprightness of its prophet inspired his companions to propagate this divine message.

This message was so evidently divine in origin, inspiring and beautiful that it was treasured and followed by the companions of the prophet, and then their subsequent generations. This amazing message spread across land and sea at astonishing speed to Morocco in the West and China in the East, and spread its light also through the ages across 1400 years. If we estimate 27 years as the average generation gap then this is over 50 generations. From the earliest days of the revelations it was recognised that the message must be preserved exactly as the angel Gabriel delivered it and to this day we have the written Qur’aan exactly as it was written then. The hearts of over a billion people have been illuminated by this divine message.

Amongst the first few ayas revealed to the prophet Muhammad SAW were those ayas from surat al`Alaq:

<<Proclaim! (or read!) in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created>>

<<Created man, out of a clot of congealed blood>>

<<Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful>>

<<He Who taught by the pen>>

<<Taught man that which he knew not.>>

This beautiful message said that Allah teaches by the pen what we do not know – and amazingly Allah is still teaching us with this message 1400 years later. 1400 years and 50 generations have passed, we live thousands of miles away from the place of revelation, societal structure has changed tremendously and yet every single verse of the 6200 verses in the Qur’aan still fully apply to and transform our lives. This is surely one of the greatest miracles of the Qur’aan.

The Qur’aan was revealed in Arabic for the obvious reason that it be understood by the society within which it was revealed. Also, and not by coincidence, it is the language best suited to carry the weight of this mighty message, and indeed the burden on the language is heavy:

<<If We had sent down this Qur’an upon a mountain, you would have seen it humbled and coming apart from fear of Allah. And these examples We present to the people that perhaps they will give thought.>>

One of the beautiful facets of classical Arabic ( اللغة الفصحى) is how it carries the concepts expressed in the Qur’aan and how it helps the one who contemplates its meaning to approach what it is intended to say.

We wanted to protect your rights so that you could take that burka off.

So first of all we killed your husband. Still, you didn’t take the burka off and you didn’t even say thank you.

So then we killed your father. Still, you didn’t take the burka off and you didn’t even say thank you.

So then we killed your brothers. Still, you didn’t take the burka off and you didn’t even say thank you.

So then we killed your sons. Still, you didn’t take the burka off and you didn’t even say thank you.

When will you thank us for giving you your rights!

I had to give a khutba at short notice, so I wrote this by piecing together some good pieces on the internet, and adding some insights of my own:

Part I

The importance of patience

In the last ayat of surat-alAsr Allah tells us the importance of encouraging each other to patience.

Being patient is one of the most important attributes of a muslim. Allah mentions it in the quran more than 90 times and has said that the patient gain a great reward, for instance, Allah says in surat Hud:

“Except those who are patient and do good, they shall have forgiveness and a great reward.”

Other ayats relating to patience:

Consider surat alBaqara ayats 152 – 157:

“Therefore remember Me, I will remember you, and be thankful to Me, and do not be ungrateful to Me.”

“O you who believe! seek assistance through patience and prayer; surely Allah is with the patient.”

(What does it mean when Allah is with you – ‘whoever has gained Allah, what has he lost, and whoever has lost Allah, what has he gained’)

“And do not speak of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead; nay, (they are) alive, but you do not perceive.”

(This was revealed about those Muslims who were killed at Badr. They were fourteen in total: eight from the Helpers and six from the Migrants.)

“And We will most certainly try you with somewhat of fear and hunger and loss of property and lives and fruits; and give good news to the patient,”

“Who, when a misfortune befalls them, say: Surely we are Allah’s and to Him we shall surely return.”

Now Allah tells us of the great reward for patience:  Those are they on whom are blessings and mercy from their Lord, and those are the followers of the right course.

Also the great reward for the patient is mentioned is surat azzumar:

“Say: O my servants who believe! be careful of (your duty to) your Lord; for those who do good in this world is good, and Allah’s earth is spacious; only the patient will be paid back their reward in full without measure.”

Making du`aa in times of difficulty

There are many du`aa found in the qur’aan. Later in surat alBaqara, ayat 286, Allh teaches us a beautiful du`aa that we can make in times of difficulty:

“Allah does not impose upon any soul a duty but to the extent of its ability; for it is (the benefit of) what it has earned and upon it (the evil of) what it has wrought: Our Lord! do not punish us if we forget or make a mistake; Our Lord! do not lay on us a burden as Thou didst lay on those before us, Our Lord do not impose upon us that which we have not the strength to bear; and pardon us and grant us protection and have mercy on us, Thou art our Patron, so help us against the unbelieving people.”

Types of patience

There are 3 general types of patience:

The first type of patience is when a person works constantly to fulfill obligations and to do righteous deeds.

The second type of patience is when a person abstains from prohibited acts and from evil. Abstaining from prohibited acts requires a great struggle against one’s desires, and takes much patience in refraining from the evil influences of Shayaateen among man and Shayaateen among jinn. Therefore, Allah (S.W.T.) will give great rewards on the Day of Judgment to those who patiently abstained from evil. The Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) told us about the people who will receive a special reward: “Seven are (the persons) whom Allah would give protection with His shade on the day when there would be no shade but His shade (i.e., on the Day of Judgment) and among them: a youth who grew up with the worship of Allah, …a man whom an extremely beautiful woman seduces (for illicit relation), but he rejected this offer by saying: I fear Allah….” {Imams Bukhari and Muslim} Prophet Yusuf (S.A.W.) is another example of a person who abstained patiently from the evil lure of the wife of a nobleman of Egypt. Prophet Yusuf chose incarceration for several years rather than committing an evil act.

The third type of patience is when a person practices patience during times of hardship without complaints. One must not complain because Allah (S.W.T.) predestines their hardship. This is the fruit of believing in predestination. Predestination is one of the pillars of faith. (fa akhbirnii `anil-iimaan: qaala: an tu’mina billaahi wa malaa’ikatihi wa kutubihi wa rusulihi wal-yami l-aakhir wa tu’mina bi qadari khairihi wa sharrihi)

Part II

Delay gratification to increase the reward

Patience is about taking the long term view – the intelligent persons approach.

There have even been scientific studies that demonstrate that even in this dunya there are benefits to practising patience and being prepared to wait for an increased reward. One example was reported by the BBC:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/606/A47688178:

A study that was done in the 1960’s by Standford University psychology researcher Michael Mischel. His study demonstrated how important self-discipline is to success.

The study began with a group of children 4 years old. He optionally offered them one marshmallow immediately, but instead if they could wait for him to return later, they could have two marshmallows instead. He left for approximately 20 minutes. His theory? The children that could wait would demonstrate they had the ability to delay gratification and control impulse, both significant and important traits for attaining wealth and being financially successful. As you would expect, some children took one marshmallow, and other children decided to wait and received two later.

Fourteen years later, the simple study demonstrated the significant differences between the two groups of children. The children who delayed gratification and waited until Dr. Mischel’s return were more positive, persistent when faced with life difficulties, more self motivated and were able to delay immediate gratification in order to pursue their longer term goals.

The children who chose 1 marshmallow didn’t fare as well. They were more indecisive, mistrustful of others, less self confident and often more troubled in general. They were more obviously unable to delay immediate gratification.

Comparing the SAT scores of the 1 marshmallow students to the 2 marshmallow students showed that students that chose 1 marshmallow scored an average of 210 points lower (range is 600 – 2400 – AL) than the 2 marshmallow students. Why? 2 marshmallow students are able to sacrifice immediate activity in the interest of more focused study time for a longer term benefit. The one marshmallow students were far more impulsive resulting in higher distraction and less focus on their school work. They fell for the old “Hey let’s go out, you can always study later“.

Lack of impulse control has proven to result in less successful marriages, low job satisfaction, bad health, overall frustration in life. All of these result in something that has significant negative impact on being wealthy: low income.

Car loans etc.

It is very clear in Islam that interest is to be totally avoided, so be patient and wait until you can buy the car with cash.

How to practice patience

Patience can be learnt, and it grows and builds upon each smaller act of patience. Try to slow down a little, don’t expect everything to be done really quickly.  Anas ibn Maalik related that the prophet said:

التأني من الله العجلة من الشيطان

Acting slowly, biding one’s time is from Allah – haste is from Shaytan.

I talked about when you have patience Allah is with you. What happens to those who do not pay due attention to Allah?:

<<And he whose sight is dim to the remembrance of the Beneficent, We assign unto him a shaytaan who becometh his comrade;>>

surat azzukhruf:36

that is, they will find themselves in the company of a shaytaan.  What that means is that they will experience whispers suggesting wrong thoughts, that they be disobedient to Allah by committing sins. Therefore it is very helpful to maintain patience we should regularly remember Allah, be that through adhkaar, ihsaan – being aware that Allah is watching you as explained by Gibril as, reading the quran. When we remember Allah we are helped to be patient when bad things are happening to us.

The prophet’s advice for dealing with anger:

Hadith – Sahih Bukhari 8.136,

Two men abused each other in front of the Prophet while we were sitting with him. One of the two abused his companion furiously and his face became red. The Prophet said, “I know a word (sentence) the saying of which will cause him to relax if this man says it. Only if he said, ‘I seek refuge with Allah from Satan, the outcast.’ ” So they said to that (furious) man, “Don’t you hear what the Prophet is saying?” He said, “I am not mad.”

Hadith – Sunan of Abu Dawood,

AbuWa’il al-Qass said: We entered upon Urwah ibn Muhammad ibn as-Sa’di. A man spoke to him and made him angry. So he stood and performed ablution; he then returned and performed ablution, and said: My father told me on the authority of my grandfather Atiyyah who reported the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) as saying: Anger comes from the devil, the devil was created of fire, and fire is extinguished only with water; so when one of you becomes angry, he should perform ablution.

Hadith – Sunan of Abu Dawood,

The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) said to us: When one of you becomes angry while standing, he should sit down. If the anger leaves him, well and good; otherwise he should lie down.

IBM develop ‘most realistic’ computerised voice

The voice is made even more convincing because it has been programmed to include verbal tics such as “ums”, “ers” and sighs….

So while IBM struggle to make the computer seem more human, humans in call centres are instructed to follow scripted conversations as closely as possible.

I’m wondering, will man race more quickly to be robot, or the robot to be the man?

We need to pay more attention to our heart and souls, the hyper-rational mind is favoured too much.

Imam alGhazali in his book The Revival Of the Religious Sciences إحياء علوم الدّين has a section on the manners of reading/reciting the Qur’aan – آداب تلاوة القرآن .

This is a very brief summary of the main points from the third chapter of that section, The Internal Actions during Recitation –  أعمال الباطن في تلاوة القرآن .

  1. فهم عظمة القرآن و علوّه و فضل الله – Understanding the greatness of the speech of Allah and the favour of Allah in sending the Qur’aan
  2. التعظيم للمتكلم – Appreciating the greatness of the speaker, Allah
    • Whenever we start reciting the Qur’aan we should first bring to mind the greatness of Allah and feel how we should be so careful of how we approach it. Just as not every hand can touch the Qur’aan (ie. without wudu’) so also not every tongue is fit to read the letters of the Qur’aan (sura alwaaqi`ah).
  3. حضور القلب و ترك حديث النفس – Presence of the heart and leaving the talking of the nafs (self)
  4. التدبّر – Contemplation
    • Only think about the Qur’aan and not the sound of the Qur’aan coming from yourself
    • Recite with tarteel so that you have time to concentrate on the meaning
    • Ali said:  لا خير في عبادة لا فقه فيها و لا في قراءة لا تدبّر فيها (there is no good in worship that has no understanding in it, and no good in reading (the Qur’aan) that has no contemplation in it)
    • If you can’t pay sufficient attention in the first reading then read the ayat again, unless you are praying behind an imam
  5. التفهّم – You should investigate the appropriate meanings of the ayats , the descriptions of Allah, the actions of Allah such as the creation, the descriptions of the prophets
  6. التخلّي عن موانع الفهم – Keeping away from the actions which prevent understanding such as
    • Concentrating on the correct recitation of the letters rather than the meaning of the ayas
  7. التخصيص – Understanding that the messages are aimed at yourself
    • Orders
    • Forbiddings
  8. التأثّر – Allow the heart to be affected with the results of his reading
    • Sadness
    • Fear
    • Hope

    Whatever level your understanding reaches, the overriding emotion should be خشية fear, apprehension. This is because largely when we see an ayat of forgiveness it is followed by conditions, for instance surat Taa Haa<<But indeed, I am the Perpetual Forgiver of whoever repents and believes and does righteousness and then continues in guidance.>>

  9. الترقّي – Progressing – ascend to the level of listening to the speech from Allah and not himself
    • Level 1 is when the slave judges himself to be reading to Allah from in front of Allah and Allah is looking towards him and listening to him. The slave has a state of questioning (سؤال), adulation (تملّق),  pleading (تضرّع) and praying humbly (ابتهال).
    • Level 2 is when the slave feels in his heart as if Allah sees him and he (Allah) is addressing him and saving him with his bounties and favours.
    • Level 3 is when the slave sees in the speech the speaker and in the words the descriptions so he does not look to himself or his recitation or even to the relation between the bounties and the giver of the bounties. Instead he restricts himself and his thoughts to deep concentration on the speaker  (Allah).
  10. التبري – Distancing yourself – when you recite ayats of praise for those who do goods you don’t account yourself amongst them but instead ask Allah to put you amongst them, and likewise when you recite ayats about wrongdoers you associate yourself with them and ask Allah to forgive you.

This is the content of a khutba about سورة العصر (the chapter in the Qur’aan called surat al`ASr).

  • students here are from the more intelligent of their generation
  • in 2010 the quran is the foundation of our deen
  • also fundamental to our deen is the 5 times salat during which we recite quran in arabic
  • the combination of the above puts an onus on us to understand as much as we can from what we recite
  • Allah does not burden a soul with more than it can bear. Each of you need to assess what level of understanding you should be aiming to achieve. <<But those who believe and work righteousness,- no burden do We place on any soul, but that which it can bear,- they will be Companions of the Garden, therein to dwell (for ever) >> surat ul a`raaf 7:42

With that in mind and with the encouragement of the Messenger of God Muhammad صلّى الله عليه و سلّم (peace and blessings be upon him) we should memorise what we can of the Qur’aan and try our best to understand it. The صحابة (companions of the prophet) used not to memorize further Qur’aan until they had put into action the last ten ayas that they had learnt. From that we can deduce that we should concentrate on memorising and understanding the short suras so as to make sure we are focusing on the most urgent elements of the message that Allah has sent to us. Today I am going to explain the meaning of a small sura to you and help you to focus on the key arabic words so that when you recite it in your prayers ( صلاة) you can be aware of and attend to its meaning.

This sura is سورة العصر and there are six key words that we should memorise the meaning of:

  • عَصْر      (`ASr) Time
  • خُسْر      (khusr) Loss
  • ءامنوا    (aamanuu) Believed (from إيمان Eemaan, faith)
  • صالحات    (SaaliHaat) Good deeds
  • حَقّ     (Haqq) Truth, Right, Reality
  • صَبْر    (Sabr) Patience

<<By time>>

The word `ASr has multiple meanings amongst them:

  • time
  • epoch/ages
  • the declining day
  • the afternoon prayer which is called `ASr

Brothers and sisters we often hear talk of the scientific miracles of the Qur’aan but I think we overlook much greater miracles than these. I’ve already mentioned how the Qur’aan has emanated its light across the entire globe and 50 generations of people. We overlook the amazing miracle that anything exists at all! How is the universe sustained from nano-second to nano-second, and from aeon to aeon. How is it that we, our exact persons, came into existence? Why were our souls picked to live on this Earth out of the infinite possibilities? Surely the natural state in the absence of God is nothingness. Because everyone takes these phenomena for granted we overlook how extraordinary they are.

Time itself is amazing. Without time there would be no cause and effect. Without time the concept of knowing the past but not knowing the future would not exist. There would be no memories and no plans. The Qur’aan makes reference to the creation, the beginning of time, and the end of time. Also the creation of mankind on this Earth and yawm alqiyaama (يوم القيامة) the end of mankind on this Earth. Allah describes our own personal paths through time, from birth to death. Allah سبحانه و تعالى tells us that He is the not only the Creator (الخالق )but also the Beginning and the End (الأوّل و الأخر ).

Time acts as a veil (حجاب, Hijaab) between ourselves and our destinies. We often look to the heavens as a veil between us and Allah, but what about the subatomic world and its subatomic nature? These all act as veils between us and the reality of Allah, الحقّ alHaqq.

In this ayat Allah is swearing an oath as to the strength and verity of the message he is about to give us. He swears By Time, the message the follows is true and of utmost importance. So what is this message? There is a warning and also good news.

<<Indeed, mankind is in loss>>

Allah emphasises that in the absence of other actions man is at a loss. He is making a metaphor that on judgement day our good and bad deeds will be weighed up just as an accountant weighs up profit and loss. The key word to memorise here is khusr خُسْر meaning ‘loss’.

<<…… and those who reject the Signs of Allah,- it is they who will be in loss >>

Signs of Allah means here not just the verses of the Qur’aan but all those natural phenomena that we can witness and contemplate both in the universe around us and within ourselves. Allah commands us in the Qur’aan to think and to contemplate.

All will be at a loss except…

<<Except those who believe and do good, and enjoin on each other truth, and enjoin on each other patience>>

To make a profit for the last day we have to do good deeds and mutually encourage truth and patience. For our Salaat we should focus here on

  • ءامنوا they believe, from the root word إيمان belief. We should have faith which is complete, pure and sincere. It should be
    • declared with the tongue
    • felt with conviction in the heart
    • acted upon
  • صالحات  good deeds. We should do good deeds for the sake of Allah alone. Remember, deeds are accounted for according to our intentions. The companions of the prophet SAW used to run out into the road if they thought someone needed help outside, solely to gain reward with Allah.
  • حَقّ   has multiple meanings, amongst them truth, reality and right (as in one’s rights). It is also one of the names of Allah.We have to mutually encourage each other to the truth, to giving each other his rights/due.
  • صَبْر  patience. It is having patience that separates the men from the boys. We need patience in:
    • fulfilling our daily acts of worship (`ibaada, عبادة)
    • avoiding temptations
    • accepting hardship and afflictions
    • having gratitude for everything (shukr, شكر). The prophet said

How amazing is the affair of the believer. Everything is good for him – and that is for no one but the believer: If good times come his way he is thankful and that is good for him, and if hardship comes his way he is patient and that is good for him.

We should also notice that as the ulema have pointed out to us, even the order of the words carries meaning. First we must believe, and then do good deeds with the good intention of the believer to act for Allah’s sake. We should uphold the truth and our brothers and sisters rights, and should have the patience to put up with the difficulties that standing against the flow and decay brings with it.

So brothers and sisters for those of you who don’t already know it, I strongly encourage you to learn the meanings of these six words and to contemplate their meaning whenever you recite this sura in your Salat. There are many resources available for you to go and learn this in your own time over the course of the next week or so.

As a student and also now a teacher of Arabic I’m always really curious, whenever I meet a fellow student, what techniques did he use to learn Arabic? What books did he read, which teachers did he have, where did he travel to? If he watchs Arabic TV then how much does he understand, and just exactly what level has he reached? How long did it take, did he take any breaks? Did he study full time or part time?

In anticipation of those questions being aimed at me, I’ll do my best to answer you, and to throw in some tips as well.

Where am I now

I can now understand most of the Qur’aan and can explain the grammar for the great majority of the verses, الحمد لله. It took about 3 – 4 years of occasional part-time study all-in-all to reach that point. I can also hold my own in conversational Arabic, a skill I learnt sometime after learning the grammar, by spending a year in Syria. I keep my grammatical knowledge fresh by teaching Arabic at the beginner and intermediate level, and reading the Qur’aan and other Arabic books. I have an occasional conversation in Arabic (maybe once a month), which is far too little.  I concentrate hard on speaking Arabic fully correctly with all the correct inflections/تشكيل, which is something that even most Arabs don’t make the effort to do. I really think that once you’ve learnt the grammar it’s not much harder to speak 100% correctly and it’s largely laziness on the part of the Arabs when they don’t do so.

In terms of grammar I  know about as much as they teach in the first year of an Arabic degree in an Arab country. However, in terms of vocabulary I only know around 2000 – 3000 words. Yes, learning the vocabulary can be difficult. I have been told that to have a conversation, read the newspaper or understand TV in English you need to acquire around 1,500 words. In Arabic you need around 6,000.

How did I get here

I was thinking about embracing Islam and I wanted to verify the translation of the Qur’aan that I was reading (Yusuf Ali), by learning Arabic and reading it for myself. I was hoping to reach that level in a year (how naive I was!). After having decided to learn Arabic I did what I always do when I want to learn something new – I went and bought a couple of books about it. This was around 1998 so it was long before you could do anything on the internet other than buy PC equipment or chew the cud on alt.programming.why-i-hate-spreasheetpro2000. I did my best with Teach Yourself Arabic (I think the Teach Yourself series is pretty good) and managed to gain a rudimentary grasp of the script, which is of course very different to the Latin script used for English. As I later learned, the Arabic script and Latin script actually have a lot in common, but to the beginner they are worlds apart. However, on my own I struggled and could not even get past the most elementary level of ‘how are you?’ etc. It was time to register for a class.

I started evening classes at Hackney Community College located in, you guessed it, Hackney, London. It was one class per week and each class lasted about an hour and a half. In the first term there were about 20 students, some who were planning to take a holiday in Morocco or Tunisia, some who wanted to be flight assistants for Middle-Eastern airlines,  one muslim student wanting to learn Arabic, one elderly Jewish lady who was studying all Aramaic related languages and various others. By the second term there were fewer of us and later in the year there were not enough students to make a third term worthwhile. The teacher’s name was (as I knew it then) Ahmed Babakr, now I know him as Sheikh Babakr. He taught us how to read and write Arabic, together with some simple vocabulary and everyday phrases جزاه الله خيرا و حفظه الله (may God reward him and preserve him).

I of course was unable even to approach the Qur’aan in Arabic at that point, but I knew enough that I wanted to become a muslim and I did so, الحمد لله. From that point I attended weekly circles where I made various good friends, one of whom recommended the Islamic Foundation’s one-week residential course to learn simple Arabic. I was able to attend a couple of days of the course and the main thing I got out of it was my introduction Sheikh Tijani, with whom I went on to learn most of the Arabic grammar that I know now. Later that year Sheikh Tijani came down to East London and taught a 3 week intensive course (including the weekends) in Arabic, concentrating on, as he always does, examples of verses from the Qur’aan coupled with very clear explanations of the grammar, conjugations of the verbs etc. I had decided to take a sabbatical from work (in IT systems development) and attending this course was not a problem – in fact, I loved every minute of it.

It’s very much worth saying at this point how fortunate I was that I had found two such excellent teachers. Both of them have served as probably the best examples of muslims that I have ever met and I don’t consider it a coincidence that I came across them at this stage of my life.

Also, it quickly became clear to me that I loved the language. I really loved attending the classes and learning more about this amazing language. It has a beautiful and rich internal structure and allows for the expression of concise, beautiful and deep ideas. Even to a non-religious person the language almost seems almost to be designed, it is so regular and its patterns so clean.

So, at this point I had a decent grasp of Arabic grammar and morphology (إنّ و أخواتهاو كان و أخواتهاو المفاعيل الخ) but my vocabulary was very poor – perhaps only two hundred words! Nevertheless it was good progress and I had also realised by this time that it was important to at least maintain the Arabic during the quiet periods between courses – don’t let it slip backwards. I achieved this by never leaving it more than a few months before attending another class or course. Over the next two years I was living in Leicester, and I attended Sheikh Tijani’s Saturday morning class pretty much every week. My grammar slowly improved to the point that I could actually teach the class from time to time when the Sheikh was unable to make it. Incidentally, Sheikh Tijani still teaches this course and I recommend it strongly to beginners and intermediate level students. It’s also very worth attending if you plan to teach Arabic.

Around the year 2002, about 4 years after deciding to learn Arabic and having gained a good grasp of the grammar, I got married to a Syrian and went to live in Syria for a year. I registered at the University of Damascus on an Arabic course targeted at non-Arabic speakers. The course is structured in two-month cycles, each cycle consisting of six weeks of tuition and a two week break. There are supposedly 6 levels but only 4 were available when I was there. On arrival at the language centre I took an exam to see at what level I should start. This was a written exam and I did very well in it, so they put me into level 4. However, all the tuition was in pure Arabic and  because I had never learnt conversational Arabic I literally did not understand anything that the teacher said! I went down to level 2 where the grammar was easy and I was able to ‘reverse-engineer’ what he was saying by assessing what was on the board and what he must therefore be teaching. By the end of the six weeks I was understanding about 80% of what he said. By the end of my last term there I understood about 90% of what the teacher was saying.

Since returning to the UK I have studied some Arabic grammar books that are written in Arabic, and having reached this stage of understanding proper Arabic grammar books my level of understanding of the language deepened considerably.  I think the point at which you can read the grammar books of a language in that language is certainly a turning point. However, it is still a long way from mastering the language. A very long way! My conversational skills still leave much to be desired and I need to improve my vocabulary.

In terms of my goals I feel I am not far from reaching them. I understand much of the Qur’aan when I hear it or read it, I understand religious books quite well (I know that vocabulary) and feel that I’m not far off properly understanding e.g. documentaries on TV. Along the way I have of course learnt many other things that have helped me (thank God) to keep my efforts directed properly and for the right reasons. There are many perils in this area for the muslim student who can be tempted to use his meagre knowledge of Arabic to show off, or as an attempt at claiming authority to win arguments that he probably shouldn’t even be entering into.

Which dialect of arabic to learn

The total beginner does not realise but he first needs to decide which dialect of Arabic he wishes to learn. The beginner should know that Arabic falls into two broad categories, spoken Arabic across the Arab world, and ‘classical’ (or its derivative ‘modern standard’) Arabic. Spoken Arabic is very diverse, from Morocco in the West to Iraq in the East. The local dialects, particularly on the periphery of the Arab world, are actually a mix of a number of local languages and Arabic, and then have evolved over the passage of time into what we hear now. Classical Arabic is represented at its pinnacle by the Qur’aan. This feature of classical Arabic gives a permanent reference point to the learner of the language as to the best grammatical forms, and prevents the language from diverging, either over time or geographically. This gives educated Arabs and also muslims worldwide the ability to communicate with each other over thousands of miles and even thousands of years.

All Arabic written material is in classical/standard Arabic. If you want to read Arabic books or newspapers then you’ll need to learn that.

Because I wanted to learn Arabic to understand the Qur’aan, and also now to experience the wealth of Islamic expression, I only desired to learn classical Arabic.

Where to start

For the muslim student there’s only one good answer to that – start by making it your intention to learn Arabic for the sole reason of understanding your role on this Earth better, and not for ‘becoming a sheikh’ or showing off.

For the non-muslim then of course you need consider why you are learning Arabic. Consider if you want to learn conversational or written/classical Arabic.

How long does it take

If you’ve read my account above then you’ll have realised that there’s no answer to that. However, providing that you take it upon yourself never to slip back, and keep making a good intention and slowly pushing forward, then you will reach your goal in the end, God willing.

Learning the vocabulary

When I arrived in Syria I only knew a few hundred words and was bottom of the class. I had a set of 1000 flash cards, from which I learnt 30 words per day for the first month. By the end of that month I was top of the class, entirely due to my better vocabulary. You must be prepared to make the effort and learn the vocabulary. However, to be able to learn 30 words per day you need to be fairly familiar with the feel of the language, which cannot be hurried. Set a reasonable target for yourself according to your level and keep it up. Don’t allow yourself to forget words you’ve already learnt, by keeping a record of the words as you learn them. Always learn singular and plurals at the same time, and also present and past tense of the verbs at the same time.

Benefits

It’s wonderful to  experience the beauty of the Qur’aan direct and firsthand, whether you are reading it yourself or standing behind the imam in tarawih. Savour the beauty of the ayats, understand them more deeply and let them permeate your inner self and have maximum impact in shaping your consciousness and knowledge of God.

Finally

Aim to keep moving forward step by step even if it seems really slow – never go backwards. Attend classes and any courses that you can. Be prepared to repeat the same grammar material a number of times – perhaps even 3 or 4 times for the same material. Concentrate on learning vocabulary even though it can be very boring.

For the muslim student then your intention should be to learn Arabic as an act of worship, not for getting respect from others. This means that you are successful (in that you are getting rewards for your good deeds) from the very moment you make the intention to learn Arabic, and for every letter and word that you read. Keep that in mind. If I’ve just described you then I also fully expect to you to master the language over time – it’s worth it!

I just noticed that with some islamic prayer time applets (but not mine, kprayertime ;-)), they have default location settings that include a non-zero altitude.

For the calculation of prayer times the important figure here is the altitude relative to the local horizon. This influences the time of sunrise (shuruuq, شروق) and sunset (ghuruub, غروب). You should not enter, for instance, the ‘altitude’ of the city you live in, because your local horizon is probably at the same ‘altitude’ as you are.

Unless you know otherwise I recommend that you leave the altitude setting of your prayer time applet to zero.

While on the topic, always check that the times produced by any program that you use correlate closely to the times issued by your local masjid. And if you can then of course looking out the window and seeing the sun set is the best way of knowing when it’s maghrib ;-).

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