س van A: “Mom’s spaghetti”. The Once-Atheist, Eminem-quoting, Scholar of Islam and Arabic.

.بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Shaykh س is a teacher of Classical Reading and Rhetoric in the Arabic language. Vocationally, he is also an Imām and counsellor, and has previously served as Muslim chaplain for three leading London universities. [In a class, a student of his asked him if he wouldn’t mind sharing what drew him to Islam in the first place, since he’d told us that he’d come to the Deen at age eighteen].

Born into a Dutch family of atheists, Shaykh س has a ‘van’ surname [‘of’ in Dutch, i.e. from the family… ‘Von‘ in German. ‘De’, ‘di’ or ‘da’ in certain other European languages]. س had found himself disillusioned with atheistic ways of thinking, and embraced Islam at the age of eighteen.

Allah guides whom He wills. And He knows best those who are the [rightly] guided.”

Qur’an (28:56)

When س had been twelve years old, his mother, who had initially been an atheist too, had gone on a business trip to Dubai. And upon her return, something about her was rather different:

She had accepted Islam. But: what with the atheistic worldview being very closely aligned with materialism, Mrs. van A’s mentions of such things as Jannah and Jahannam (Heaven and Hell) and Angels and such had led to her being branded as… ‘crazy’. س had become somewhat afraid of her. [Those aforementioned unseen things: in Islam, they are collectively known as ‘Al-Ghayb’ (الغيب). The things that are beyond our current capacity, to see and thus, perhaps, to fully comprehend.]

‘Unstable’, believing in Angels; ‘unfit’ to raise her own child. The Dutch state had gotten involved, and had separated س from his mother for six years.

[Can you imagine what a trial this must have been, for Shaykh س and his mother? It reminded me of the story of Musa’s (Moses’) mother, may peace be upon him and her: when his mother had to place him in that box and upon the river, according to the Qur’an, she ached so much emotionally that her heart felt emptied [Qur’an, (28:10)].

But Allah made for her a way, to reconnect with her beloved son: she had been enlisted as a wet-nurse for Musa (AS), at the Pharoah’s residence.]

One day, at the age of eighteen, س had been out partying, as Dutch teenagers who are atheists might do: with his hair in dreadlocks, and with a nose-ring on his nose. But even in spite of his surroundings, on this particular evening, as the English expression goes: something just… clicked.

“My heart was [made] open.”

Allah, the Creator, the One who guides, had opened this young man’s heart to Islam. س did not consider his mother to be ‘crazy’ anymore: he now understood where she had been coming from, and remembered some of the things she had taught him, regarding the Deen.

Later, while س had been talking to his mother, she had asked her son when this moment of acceptance, in his heart, had come about. And Subhaan Allah: the evening prior to this profound turning-point moment in س’s life: his mother had been begging to her Creator, on her knees, for her son to be brought to Islam.

A mother’s Du’a (calling upon Allah) is not rejected.

Sincere prayers come true, even when things seem near-impossible. Trust that Allah will make for you a way.

Shaykh س’s passion for learning more about his religion led him to places like parts of Africa (where he had memorised the Qur’an, Maa Shaa Allah, Allah hummabārik) and to Belgium, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, for the purpose of learning. He also studied Theology at the Sorbonne (University of Paris), and received a doctorate in Education.

Shaykh س very much loves the Arabic language:

Towards the start of his Islamic journey, س had resolved to not read about Islam in any other language but the Arabic one. So he got to work: he would read, even while walking, sometimes, and would constantly refer back to an Arabic dictionary. Memorising vocabulary: at one point, Shaykh س held a job at a call-centre, and would do his job, taking calls, and then go right back into learning Arabic vocabulary, intermittently.

How lucky we are. We know that if Allah had sent the Qur’an down upon a mountain, it would have crumbled in humility and awe of its Creator:

If We had sent down this Qur’ān upon a mountain, you would have seen it humbled and splitting from fear of Allah.

And these examples We present to the people that perhaps they will give thought.

Qur’an (59:21)

So look how lucky we are: look at what we have. We have these intellects, and these Divinely-gifted capacities for language and for comprehension. It is, undoubtedly, a weighty responsibility too.

Arabic is a divinely-chosen language. Its sister languages are the other Semitic ones: Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew… And Arabic is the language that had been chosen, intentionally, to hold and to convey the weight of the Qur’an: it is a uniquely strong, vast, and deep language.

Moreover, as Ustaadh س taught us, Arabic is a paradisiacal language: in Jannah, In Shaa Allah, we will all speak and understand eloquent Arabic. There, Allah will speak to us, and we will understand, clearly.

The Qur’an, as س reminds us, is a linguistic miracle. There is so much to learn, but even the small snippets of things we, bit by bit, come to understand of it: awe-inspiring, and

heart-affecting.

For example, according to the Qur’an, Allah had taught Ādam (AS) – our father, the first human being – “the names: all of them[Qur’an, (2:31)]. The names of things:

The capacity, and indeed the drive, to learn things (beginning with language) is in our very DNA. A scholarly opinion regarding the above Verse is that Allah taught the first human being all things knowable: the knowledge of all the things in the Universe, perhaps, from mathematics to poetry… incorporated into the mind of Ādam (AS). And we have, perhaps, inherited of this vast and comprehensive primary knowledge, whatever we, individually, have inherited of it.

Or: this Āyah could simply be referring to the fact that Allah ennobled this creation of His, the human being, with the capacity for naming things: language. And language, the ability to name things, is fundamental to our abilities to understand, and to think, and discuss. Subhaan Allah.

Language. And its inextricableness, from Knowledge and from Power.

The first word that Allah had revealed, in His Qur’an (note that Qur’an literally means Recitation) had been:

“Read.” [Surah Iqra, Qur’an (96:1).

Below, underlinings are my own…]

Read, in the name of your Lord, who created.

Created humans from a clinging clot.

Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous,

Who taught by the pen

Taught humanity what they knew not.

No! [But] indeed, man transgresses

once they think they are self-sufficient.

Shaykh س, in this, our first lesson with him, gave us some background information on classical Arabic. Before the dawn of Islam upon the Arabs of the time: in Arabia, it had been commonplace for each tribe to have a specialist horseback-rider, an archer, a soothsayer, and, perhaps most importantly

a poet.

Language, eloquence, the ability to come up with beautiful lines of poetry, and especially on the spot: a mark of pride and honour, for those Arabs. In fact, tribes would compete with one another, enlisting their best poets to challenge other tribes’ poets in what we could perhaps say had been something like earlier examples of rap battles.

[In this lesson, Ustaadh س had casually made reference to some Eminem lyrics (“mom’s spaghetti”), and also to 50 Cent and Ertrugrul. He explains that Muhammad (SAW) had sometimes used expressions from pre-Islamic Arab poetry, in order to speak to the people, and to convey certain points. The idea is: you have to consider your audience, and how best to reach them. In the Arabic language, the concept of effectively using language to reach a target purpose/audience is known as ‘Al-Balaagha’ (البلاغة).]

In those aforementioned Arabic ‘rap battles’, then, standards had been high: poets could not, for example, repeat a word/expression. And the ultimate winner would bear the honour of his tribe becoming ‘The Tribe of Poets’ for a year, and thus being perceived as being beautiful, strong, and eloquent people. [Fighting by the sword, you will find, is one thing. Fighting by the pen:]

One example of a classical-Arab-poetry expression (and they had typically written love poetry, quite often) had been something along the lines of:

“I wanted to kiss the blade of the sword [that had been piercing through me].

For the sunlight that had reflected off of it:

Had only reminded me of your radiance.”

[Piercingly beautiful, no? And it probably sounds even better in Arabic.]

And so: when the Qur’an had eventually descended upon these Arabs, its phenomenal literary nature (what with it being a linguistic miracle) astounded them. Muhammad (SAW), to whom Allah had revealed His words, had been unlettered, i.e: unable to read or write. But these words that he had been reciting: breath-taking, to these pre-Islamic poets, and quite unlike anything they had ever heard before.

Shaykh س analogised this — Muhammad (SAW) seemingly ‘coming out of nowhere’ and seamlessly beating the expert Arab poets at their own game — to a kid (perhaps, since Muhammad (SAW) had been unlettered: a kid who could barely walk) challenging the likes of Lebron James to a game of basketball, and then winning.

Closer to the literary point: like a little Year One student, barely knowing how to spell very many disyllabic words yet, suddenly writing sonnets in class, which are better than Shakespeare’s.

The Arabs of that time and place: some of them accepted Islam. Some accused Muhammad (SAW) of being a madman. Or a poet. Or a sorcerer. But he (SAW) had been a Messenger, brought to mankind with a weighty Message.

Pre-Islamic Arabia is typically known as the time of ‘jahiliyya’, or, ignorance. And, once Allah makes His Way known to you, and opens your heart to it: the change tends to be quite noticeable. From an abundance of vices, pride, shamelessness, meaningless thrill-seeking and more. To however Islam has changed you.

Many of us Muslims can recall a time of jahiliyya in our own lives, and it is important to be patient and merciful with those individuals who, perhaps, are not quite ‘here’ yet. [Even if they spend their evenings at discos, sporting nose-rings and dreads, and calling themselves atheists. Allah can make a way.]

It is also important for we Muslims who have embraced Islam to not get complacent. Allah has given us this gift; He can also take it away. He can replace us with people who are better than us, at representing His Way.

And if you turn away, He will replace you with another people; then they will not be the likes of you.

Qur’an (47:38)

In terms of aspects of ‘Jahiliyya’ times: generally, we can simply accept from things whatever is, or can be, good, while rejecting and forbidding whatever is not so. So, from… the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise, for example: one can quote the stuff about family, while leaving behind the… car-thievery and all the rest.

Prior to this Islamic scholar (س) coming to Islam, his knowledge and conception of Islam and Muslims had come, in large part, from global-political news coverage. But oftentimes, certain (however powerful/famous they may be) individuals who may claim to be operating under Islamic directives do not provide good examples of what Islam is, and how Muslims should be. Oftentimes, it takes direct, personal relationships with individual practising Muslims, in order to get a real sense of what Islam (submission to Allah Alone) looks like.

In our religion, we have this concept of the company that one surrounds oneself with being able to affect us very deeply: being around good company can have an effect akin to being in a perfume shop. [Have you ever spent time at Lush, and then come out smelling kind of (bath-) bomb?] The nice scents rub off on you, and you leave smelling similarly. And, in the same but opposite way:

Being in the presence of things that smell very bad (like a blacksmith’s workshop. Or, in more contemporary terms, perhaps: I just asked my little brother for an example of a place that smells really bad. He said, immediately: “Your room.” But let’s say fish market instead.) will leave you smelling terrible too. So be careful with whom you are associating with; whom your friends are; how much time you are spending with whom. People change people. [Ref: yes, ‘Girl Meets World’].

When you choose the right workplaces for yourself; the right friends; the right spouse, and so on: goodness will be encouraged. Real good friends will not mock or belittle your efforts, to pray, or to observe modesty, or to learn your Deen and become a better Muslim; instead, they will want the genuine best for you, and thus enjoin you towards goodness. And beware: some, in religious terms, may be the opposites of well-wishers for you, and your soul may come to feel somewhat stifled in their midst, unfortunately.

For a while now, I have sometimes found myself thinking: which Muslims do I want to take from, in terms of knowledge, and manners? Which Muslims seem the most true, in terms of comprehensively practising Islam?

I think: those whom Muhammad (SAW) himself would have found himself wanting to sit with: in the company of. The man who smelt like musk.

I got the sense that this Arabic teacher of mine would have been someone whom Muhammad (SAW) would have wanted to sit with. Muhammad (SAW) was gentle, and is reported to have said that:

“Verily, gentleness is not in anything but that it beautifies it, and it is not removed from anything but that it disgraces it.”

He (SAW) had been a most beautiful man. Mercy to the worlds; he smiled more than anyone. A real follower of Muhammad (SAW), a Muslim, is distinguishable by his love for Allah, and by his manners, humility, patience, mercy, and gentleness.

Shaykh س refers to his (male) students as ‘Habībī’ (‘my love’, in Arabic). [Someone had been struggling with much of the lesson, and Ustaadh س said that he did not want for his student to leave his class sad. So he said, “come, Habībī”, and explained everything again for him, concisely].

And when someone asked Ustaadh if he could ask him a question, س’s immediate response:

“You can ask three.

س tends to repeat the phrase ‘Bārak Allahu feekum’ quite often, in his classes, which is a little prayer that means, ‘may the blessings of Allah be upon you’.

He spoke about the political history of ‘Modern’ Arabic, in terms of how European linguistic constructions have been added, over time. [Words hold power].

Under Western colonial regimes in various regions across the world, the people had actively been prevented from speaking, and even from studying, their own languages and linguistic sciences. They could only study and speak the colonisers’.

The French language, for instance, is still held in such high esteem in Morocco; English is uniquely revered in the Indian subcontinent. And, overall, while Arabic had functioned as a language of unity in the Muslim world, it is now fractured and fragmented, and there are ‘Moroccan dialects’ and ‘Egyptian’ ones, and all the rest.

There were newfound excuses, too, that pure, classical (i.e. Fus’ha) Arabic was now outdated: simply ‘unable to encompass new technology’, and such. But we, the Muslims, will not let this beautiful language die, In Shaa Allah.

Someone asked Shaykh س something along the lines of: is the Qur’an a universal book?

And, well, it’s not necessarily ‘for Arabs‘. We can learn about the contents of this book, and the more we learn, and appreciate, and ask Allah for help and guidance: the more we are returned with. Even if we start off as being, seemingly, the furthest things away from Arabic-speaking bedouins, upon the God-fearing path.

Shaykh س ended one of his lessons with a most beautiful Du’a. Something like:

“May your best day upon this Earth be the day that you die. May Allah make your experience in this world like fasting, whereby the Life after this one is your Eid.”

Āmeen.

Now, something beautiful for you to perhaps listen to, In Shaa Allah :

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