Friday, January 25, 2013

Lessons in Learning

Learning is a natural ability that all humans as well as animals are endowed with. This capacity to process, remember, deduce, understand, record, summarize, conclude from and articulate large quantities of information is particularly developed in humans. It is what distinguishes them as ashraful makhluqaat (most honorable of Creation). The end result of learning is the acquisition of wisdom, i.e. the ability to perceive holistic patterns, trends, principles and inferences in the knowledge that has been accumulated. An analogy of this in computer science might be that of a data warehouse in which knowledge (data) is stored and wisdom might be the conclusions drawn by mining that data in various ways. If done properly data mining can result in the analyst seeing the whole picture made by the interconnection of the various events that have been recorded in the data warehouse. It is this capability which leads to the development of the firasa (Islamic intuition) of a Muslim and ultimately the ennoblement of his character and refinement of his manners.

It is the latter part of learning that one finds so much lacking in today's globalized society. We have huge quantities of data, but we often are unable to make sense of it all and arrange it in our perspective of reality. In short, we have knowledge but no wisdom. So what are various ways a conscientious Muslim can develop his perception of reality in today's world?

The first thing to realize is that learning is a never ending process. Curiosity and the inclination of learning have been bestowed in all humanity. They just need to be nurtured in the right environment for the full realization in an individual. The ultimate reward in Jannah will not be the tasting of delicious food and accompaniment of perfect spouses but to see the "Face" of Allah (SWT). I remember in graduate school in NJ, I read an obituary of a Professor of Mathematics in the university newspaper. He was reported as saying that after death he wanted to see all the proofs of the mathematical problems that he had struggled with all his life. I might be wrong, but I deduce seeing the "Face" of Allah, among other things, to be able to see the complete wisdom and cause of all things which one experienced in life. Thus learning should be a lifetime endeavor cultivated for ultimately a spiritual goal which is the best of reward in the aakhira.

Today, students tend to learn to get their degrees and faculty tends to teach to secure their tenure and support their research. To get real benefit from education, students should learn to learn for the sake of the aakhira, rather than the sake of the GPA or even a job offer.

Another aspect of modern learning is that it is disconnected and divided into different subjects for the sake of classifying knowledge. A serious student should realize this and not limit himself to only one subject of specialization. A human, especially a follower of Muhammad (SWAS), experiences many roles and situations in life in fulfilling the obligations he needs to carry out. This balance which is a hallmark of Muslims, encourages them to constantly explore and learn new subjects as they crop up in their lives. Today we find professors who do not feel obligated to influence the morality of their students, psychiatrics who have little insight into the spiritual dimensions of the soul, engineers who do not understand the social aspects of the buildings they construct, etc. It seems that professionals who earn a degree shut themselves off to other streams of learning that would help them realize their full potential if they continue in the path of learning. Thus humility is an essential prerequisite for a life of learning.

For university study, I was advised to keep changing my alma mater for every degree program. This diversity of approaches to learning enhances a person's ability to look at the same thing from different angles. I believe one should bring the same type of attitude to all learning. Thus one should learn to tolerate people of different backgrounds and methodologies. One should adopt a perspective which one feels is right, but this does not mean one associates with only people who share one's own school of thought. By studying other people, one develops an appreciation of where they are coming from, even though one may not always agree with them. Today, this flexibility is greatly lacking in Muslims. They are divided and unwilling to tolerate each other. So those who follow specific schools of fiqh do not associate with those who consider hadith more important, or those who celebrate the Maulid, do not learn from those who do not, etc. By adopting such an attitude, Muslims are restricting their sources of useful knowledge. Not only should they be open to learn from other Muslims but they should be open to learn from non-Muslims as well. The nature of knowledge is universal, and thus useful principles that do not conflict with Islam should be picked up from various sources. I recommend studying the value system and good habits of people who have contributed to their societies. I have found (auto) biographies especially useful. Try studying the lives of people like Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Carnegie to gain an insight into their thinking.

Just as diversity of thought leads to beneficial learning, diversity of experience contributes to it too. A person who has lived, studied, worked and contributed to various societies of the world, can understand the world and the principles of reality much better than one who has lived in one place and only read books. The same goes for learning languages which provide dimensions to muti-faceted paradigms of reality. The best language to learn is Arabic for it gives the learner access to the thought patterns of the Prophet (SWAS) and his Companions (RA) -- something that is invaluable to a Muslim. One should constantly learn from the experiences of others as well. Listening to a scholar who understands modernity and constantly travels the globe gives us a better perception of reality than one who does not. Good documentaries are particularly beneficial sources of learning. They give important insights and can increase eeman. The study of history provides us an opportunity to learn principles that work in the phenomenon in life independent of time and the prevalent factors that we are accustomed to in our lives. Thus history provides us valuable avenues of learning. My personal opinion is that a person learns faster and with deeper insights and perceptions if he spent some time away from his family and community, as this experience gives him independence of thought. One should regularly take out some time of the day to reflect on his day and contemplate about his past to better understand the principles at work in his life. Stopping watching television has helped me in this respect.

To make use of the diversity of thought and experiences one must have the correct framework to incorporate this knowledge. That comes from the Quran. I grew up not understanding the Quran, so my solution for it was to purchase a set of audio cassettes of the whole Quran. There was something special about this set, in that the qari first recited the Quranic verse in Arabic. This was followed by its translation in English. Then this was repeated for the next verse ... and so on.This format helped me to be impacted by the actual miraculous recitation of the Quran in Arabic while also understanding its meaning in English. I used to listen to these tapes during all the time my ears were free, e.g. while driving, eating, changing, doing chores, cooking, before dozing off, etc. Soon I found it coloring my mind and soul with the right perspective of things. I did this for an extended period of time and found that I became familiar with Quran Arabic vocabulary, the style of the Quran and the gist of its message all unconsciously without much effort on my part. Later I learnt Arabic and now I do not rely on a translation, alhamdulillah.

Learning is not much of any use if it is not implemented. The best method of learning is to do projects based on what one learns. By doing so knowledge becomes etched in one's personality giving the learner personal lessons into the subject. The most beneficial actions are those based on the Sunnah which one should try to implement in one's life as much as possible. It is often after implementing the Sunnah that one gains insight about the wisdom in it. Thus one should seek to implement it whether one understands it or not; whether one feels comfortable with it or not. The Sunnah allows us to act in the proper pattern that the Quranic framework of thought entails.The best way to consolidate knowledge is to try to live it and teach it to others.

We should approach learning with the proper intention, neither limiting us to one subject, nor perspective of one school, nor experience of one place or time while using the right framework to make sense of everything. By implementing knowledge properly and teaching it to others we can hope to benefit from it in this life where it gives us an inner understanding of different experiences and the aakhira where the secrets of all the mysteries of this life may be revealed to us, insha Allah.

Allahhumma alamtana ma anfaana wa anfaana ma alamtana wa zindna ilma.

O Allah! Teach us what benefits us, and benefit us from what you teach us and increase us in knowledge.

Ameen Ya Rabbil Alaameen

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Prophet's (SWAS) Artifacts

Yesterday I was given the honor to see the Prophet's (SWAS) artifacts and that of his Companions in a private collection of a UAE national family in Abu Dhabi. This public event was not advertised by the Khizalji family who are the owners of the collection, as crowd control would have been impossible. Knowledge of it spread strictly by word of mouth. The Khizaljis are direct descendants of Anas Ibn Malik (RA) and these artifacts have been transferred over generations of ancestors to the present owner.The father of the present owner was the Head of Abu Dhabi Awqf at one tine.

The exhibition was arranged in the giant grounds of their giant villa located in the backstreets of Bateen area of Abu Dhabi. After entering their gate, men and women enter two separate entrances of a giant framed  white tent, which has a separation running down its middle. There are professionally hired guards who help the public along. Photography and videos are not allowed. In the main portion of the waiting area of the tent there are serpentine rows of chairs in the same configuration as the queses for rides in an amusement park. There is air conditioning and chandelier lightening in the tent. At the front of the area there is a stage and seats for possibly a VIP ceremony. At the stage they use a giant bukhoor to burn incense and perfume which wafts over the waiting public. Also located in the front are speakers of a sound system that constantly plays rendition of poetry in praise of the Prophet (SWAS) in Arabic without music. Behind the stage is located that part of the tent which contains the artifact displays. They allow about a dozen people in the display area at a time -- 5 sequential batches from the brothers and then 5 sequential batches from the sisters. Then they alternate.

By the time one reaches to the front seats of the serpentine queue in the waiting area, one starts feeling a special feeling of love by hearing the poetry and smelling the bukhoor. The heart becomes soft to experience what the eyes would withhold momentarily.

There are 4 small freight containers in which the actual artifacts are displayed on tables. You go from the right side of a long table and leave from the left. There are people who explain what the public sees at each container. Almost all the public was South Asian. I could not explain this except maybe by the fact that word just spread to the South Asian community in Abu Dhabi. I tried to change that by informing some of my Arab friends. The presenters all speak Urdu.

The display includes the following: several individual hair of the Prophet (SWAS) from the head as well as the beard, his 5 white hair (he had only 5 white hair, the rest were black), a long lock of his hair, his black wrap which he was wearing during Israa and Mairaaj, a piece of his shirt, his footprint, a sample of the earth from his grave, the hairs of famous Sahaba like Abu Bakar, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Hassan, Hussain, Abdul Qadir Jeelani (RA for all) and their clothing. I also saw the khol container of  Fatimah (RA).

After seeing all these things I had a special feeling so when I prayed, I felt I could related better to those who actually established the original prayer. Tomorrow is the last day of the exhibition which is from 5PM to 10PM.

May Allah (SWT) reward the Khizaljis for their generosity and He (SWT) make us of those who not only respect the belonging of the Prophet (SWAS) and the Companions (RA) but also adopt their perspective and actions in this life. Ameen.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Eloquence -- The Power of Words

Even before the advent of Islam, one of the few things that the Arabs were known for was their eloquence. The isolation in the desert ensured that it stayed unadulterated from other linguistic influences which was not always possible in the towns and cities. It was considered part of a child's education that he grew up in the countryside with the bedouins absorbing the inflections and nuances of the tongue at an early age.

It is the Sunnah of Allah (SWT) that He challenges a people in a field which they consider themselves masters. Hence, He showed the people of Musa (AS) miracles in magic as they were famous for magic. He showed the people of Issa (AS) miracles in medicine as they excelled in medicine of their time. And He challenged the Arabs through the eloquence of the Quran by asking them to produce even a few comparable verses. So many Sahaba (RA) entered Islam just by listening to the richness of Allah's speech, testifying that it cannot be man-made.

It is interesting to note that Allah (SWT) chose language as His everlasting miracle to invite mankind to His deen, as words affect the heart like nothing else. From the ears, the message can reach the heart directly. In an experiment conducted on terminally ill patients, Quranic recitation was played regularly for a period of time on the sound system in a hospital ward resulting in observable improvements in the conditions of the patients' well being.

The science of tajweed, allows Muslims to recite the Quran the same way it was revealed through Archangel Jibreel (AS). It is important to clarify that originally the word "Quran" meant the actual recitation (speech) and not the holy book that many take it to be nowadays. By reciting the Quran with proper tajweed, i.e. falling back on the original pattern of recitation, a Muslim experiences special feelings that go hand in hand with the words he pronounces. This feeling can penetrate the heart of the reciter and the listener (to a somewhat lesser extent), causing truth and wisdom to become part of his inner being. It is one of the ways of increasing one's eeman.

By knowing a thousand or so words one can understand the majority of Quranic vocabulary as the same words are constantly repeated. It is easier for some non-Arabs whose native languages have historically been impacted by Arabic, e.g. Farsi, Turkish, Kurdish, Pushtu, Urdu, Bengali, Bahasa, Somali, Berber, Swahili, Hausa, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Maltese, etc. and thus share a lot of common words. Arabic grammar is one of the most logical language grammars. Learning it is like learning a computer programming language. Once you learn the patterns of the verbs in past, present and imperative form in both active and passive cases, you can recognize new verbs in context, together with their pronouns. All words in Arabic are based on root letters (often 3 letters per word). There are different patterns which use the same root letters to derive multiple words from. Once you know the root letters and the pattern you can conclude the meaning of the word.

Imagine reciting Allah's speech in the way it was revealed while understanding what it means. With a little effort this is an achievable goal for all Muslims. Allah (SWT) has made sure that the language of the Quran is superlative in its eloquence, effect and ease of learning, because He wants to guide humanity to achieve the highest purpose for which man was created.