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!

Ever tried to learn a language, get fit, or write a book? Spent a considerable amount on a linguaphone course or gym membership? You felt a high when you spent the money and thought that you were halfway to your goal, only to find that a month or two later you’re no nearer to success than you were at first – except your wallet is now much lighter?

Well, you’re not alone.

Other similar projects that I’ve seen can include inventing new designs for some embedded computer hardware such as an Arduino, or developing a web site and purchasing the server before writing any content.

What was your project?

Here’s a neat explanation of why there can never be a single algorithm that can compress all files, even if only by one bit each.

  1. Take the set of all files of 10 bits length. There are 1024 files. Call this Set 1024.
  2. Now take the set of all files of 9 bits length. It is one half the size of the previous set, with 512 files. Call this Set 512.
  3. Let’s take a compression algorithm and compress all the files in Set 1024. Each output file must be found in Set 512, as it is by definition compressed and of 9 bits or less.
  4. But note, that’s a mapping of a set of 1024 files to a set of 512 files. There must be at least one output file in Set 512 which is mapped from two or more input files in Set 1024. Call this File A. So, when we decompress File A from Set 512, which of the files in Set 1024 that it is mapped from should it return?

Edit:

There’s a wrinkle here that I didn’t appreciate when I first wrote this. I should have used the word string rather than file. The problem with using files is that in many cases the same compressed output can be stored differently, by using different length files. E.g. the output 000100101 could be stored as a 9 bit file, or 8 bit file, or 7 or 6 bit file! So the output set, when using files, has a total space of 2 + 4 + 8 + 16 + 32 + 64 + 128 + 256 + 512 = 1022, rather than 512. However, the basic explanation still holds, because 1022 < 1024, so some output files must map back to more than one input file.

For my web site arabicreader.net I need to dynamically create pdf files that contain the users arabic vocabulary that they wish to revise.

This was done using python and some libraries that I created some time ago to output unicode arabic to postscript. I dynamically create the postscript file (postscript is a language of its own and it’s well worth spending a few hours reading the official developers documentation from Adobe) and then convert it to pdf using ps2pdf. I instruct ps2pdf to embed the font ( an old free type1 arabic font) so that the pdf is readable by anyone even if they do not have that font available.

The code to convert unicode arabic to postscript involves shaping the arabic (getting the correct glyph for a character according to the characters before and after it) and creating an encoding that maps the glyphs in the font to the character codes that I output. It also calculates the length of the resulting shaped text so that it can be placed, right-to-left and aligned to the right, at the correct x,y coordinate.

Also, because learners of arabic need to learn the tashkeel, the algorithm also places the harakaat nicely above and below the glyphs according to the size of the glyph. Without this the harakaat tend to overlay the glyph and are unreadable. I do this by stripping the harakaat out of the word before outputing it, and then adding each harakat in a second sweep, taking into account the dimensions of the glyph it is over.

I will be releasing the code as open-source but it’s not yet published. Contact me if you need it now and I’ll email it to you.

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 ;-).

I use Ubuntu on my desktop so I was keen to get it running on my C750. Here’s how:

1) Follow the instructions given in ZaurusUbuntu as far as logging in as root. Before launching startx:

2) killall tskeys

3) Reconfigure the touchscreen as per OE Forum thread

4) edit .xinitrc and remove the xrandr line

5) date -u 021913202008 and hwclock –systohc as per these instructions

6) startx should now work

Then, for wifi I am trying to use an AMBICOM WL1100C.

1) I enabled dhcp by changing /etc/passwd/dhcp to 0:0 (ie root) as per this thread

However, I can’t get it working on zunbuntu yet, on Angstrom I had to mess around with:
iwpriv wlan0 reset 0 and/or iwpriv wlan0 reset 2
while attempting to connect with the GPE connection manager (which then worked).

This is (roughly) what I did to install my Web 2.0 internet site ArabicReader on a virtual server (VPS) running Ubuntu:

create a new user without root rights to run the servers (subversion, postgres, python/cherrypy)

python 2.5 was already installed

apt-get install simplejson

apt-get install language-pack-en

apt-get install build-essential (C++, make etc)

install traits3 (from ETS)

apt-get install postgres

tasksel install lamp (Apache 2.2, MySQL, PHP 5)

apt-get install phpbb

apt-get install subversion

import into subversion my python code and pgsql database backup

checkout from subversion into a user directory

import the pgsql database

set up the apache proxy to route services to python (cherrypy)

update my dns records to point to the new IP address

change unix_socket_directory in postgresql.conf to /tmp so that I can run as my user – pg_dump then needs -h /tmp as parameters

All in all it only took a day.

Since then:

install mod_rewrite so that site root (/) maps to the default page (arabic_reader.html)
install mod_deflate which considerably cuts down on net traffic

configure postfix, using /etc/aliases, to redirect incoming site mail to my gmail account

Edit Mar/2016:

change postfix configuration to cope with gmail rejecting IPv6 emails

Edit Dec/2008:

Switch to smf away from phpbb

Start using sqlalchemy to make unit testing the database areas easier (using in-memory SQLite databases)

Start using python-cheetah to provide a server-generated search page

apt-get install sqlalchemy
apt-get install pycurl

Edit Jan/2010:
Install gv and ps2pdf
Install relevant type1 fonts for ghostscript (generate Fontmap and add to a gs font/resource dir)

Many years ago, before the internet took off, I was subscribed to a conferencing system called cix. In the ‘Islam’ debating area it was claimed that there must be some element of moon worship in Islam because the Islamic calendar is lunar.

Although it is ludicrous to say that muslims worship the moon, you still hear of some people claiming it to be the case.

Well I don’t have time today, Tuesday, to properly comment on this so tomorrow, on Woden’s day, or perhaps on Thor’s day, I’ll make my views clear. I should have finished by Sun-day or Moon-day. Certainly by when the Earth completes its orbit around the sun and the year therefore comes to an end, I should have a good reply to these claims.

The finished article will make clear to all those Woden, Thor, Sun and Moon worshipping Christians out there, that using the rhythms of astronomical objects for governing the calendar does not necessarily involve their worship.

I’ve always had a love of physics and mathematics. In 1983 I won a scholarship to read physics at Trinity College, Oxford, and graduated in 1986 (I tell you this not to brag but to demonstrate my comments are not out of ignorance). It seems like a lifetime ago. Since then I have worked entirely in the field of IT but have kept up my interest in physics and also have read widely in the field of human development, the history of science, and other subjects that you will find in the pop science section of good bookshops.

As an agnostic at the time (in terms of both religion and hard-core atheists)  I took what is well established from these books and left the hand-waving for what it was.  In some subjects there is much to learn,  in others and with some particular authors, there is far too much hand-waving for someone used to the scientific rigours of physics. Evolutionary psychology and language development seem to be subjects that are polluted with far too much hand-waving combined with a paucity of evidence.

Some time later I became a muslim (that’s a story for another day) and now,  still keeping an eye on the pop science section, I engage in debate at work in these subjects. Why, I ask my colleagues at work, do you care about people’s actions? Richard Dawkins, who seems to be the main protagonist in terms of driving my colleagues’ lines of thought, says that ‘there is no such thing as good and evil’, and yet he claims that raising a child in a religion is ‘child-abuse’. Surely, I ask them, these propositions are contradictory? In a world where good and evil do not exist,  is it really meaningful to accuse anyone of any sin at all?

I asked one colleague where he thought his morals derived from. After a couple of weeks he said that they had evolved, which seems to be a common opinion for protagonists of his persuasion.  So, I said, they have developed through a random process in a random world in the strata of self-organising complex systems called animals and human beings. Surely this means that your morals have no underlying authority; there is no, as Dawkins says, real good or evil?

Hence these worldviews are often not self-consistent, a basic flaw in any proposed theory. For many atheists of Dawkins’ ilk seem to be offended by muslims and our beliefs. And yet, if they really believed their own theories, they would not have any feelings that one system of morals was ultimately, in the great scheme of things, ‘superior’ to any other.