Gateway to Consciousness: My (Continuous) Journey to Accessing the Arabic Language

I now know why I MUST study Arabic.

Today was the fourth lesson for my wife and I. Ustazah Faezah was very accommodating about me not completing my homework, saying that it was more important to practice verbally, at the very least. Against the backdrop of the other student, my soul mate of 19 years, I was supremely pathetic. Zawjati (my wife) had even done some of the homework on my behalf last week. I had tried numerous excuses to get the lesson postponed, as it was always a rush to revise and get my wajib (homework) done on time. I thought it could wait, but the conversation with our ustazah just after our fourth class totally changed my perception – no more excuses, just do it to the best of our abilities and do not relent – no retreat, no surrender!

My first flirtation with the Arabic language began in 1990 when I was studying architecture in Cambridge. I had to write a thesis for my final year, and after some soul-searching the topic of arrived at was “The Problem with Defining Islamic Architecture”. The previous two-plus years were entrenched in the history and theory of architecture from a primarily western perspective – I wanted to discover my own weltanschauung of architecture, and what better to focus on the more universal Islamic architecture rather than just traditional vernacular Malay architecture (where the latter was also somewhat influenced by the former). Having done some desktop research, I had felt that I should be visiting the actual buildings in the Middle East, whilst at least having some rudimentary grasp of the local language. I had therefore signed up for an Arabic course (probably at the Faculty of Linguistics, I forget which). It was unfortunate that after attending five or six lessons, I started missing the classes as I had to spend more time at the studio to compete lagging design projects. The silver lining was that I did finish my thesis, which in itself was a process of self-discovery, but never did complete one level of Arabic language nor did I go to visit the targeted buildings and regions.

After graduating from Cambridge during an economic downturn in 1991 (72 applications to work in the UK, only one offer subject to them getting projects), I decided to head home to Malaysia where jobs were aplenty. Whilst learning the ropes at Damansara Architect, I undertook to pursue Arabic again, this time by taking night classes at the International Islamic University in Petaling Jaya. Having enrolled in the only class that teaches in English, I tried to absorb as much as I could. Inadvertently, work started getting much busier and I started skipping every other class. I did actually sit for the final exam, but my lecturer as kind enough to not let me know my results, God bless his kind soul!

After that practicum year, I continued on to Part II of Architecture by enrolling in the post-graduate Dip (Arch) in Edinburgh. Those two years were a fairly reflective period in my life, a certain level of maturity setting in after working during the year out. While at Cambridge I was elected as the Vice President of the Cambridge Islamic Society during my second year, in Edinburgh I had a short stint as the President for the Malaysian Islamic Study Group. The yearning to study the Quran became greater, and I began attending numerous usrah (Islamic discussion gatherings) and conferences. I read voraciously to try to understand the Quran more, yet the roadblock was always appreciating the nuances of the Blessed Book through its linguistic medium.

Subsequently back home, the same problem gnawed at me. My motivation to learn Arabic was to really immerse myself in the Quran, to be a better Muslim. I collected and read Yusuf Ali, Pickthall, Thomas Irving, Muhsin Khan, Muhammad Al-Ghazali, all translations that gave one exposure, but rarely piercing the veil of enlightenment. The discovery of Muhammad Asad’s “The Message of the Quran”, written by the grandson of a rabbi who then embraced (in the full sense of the word) Islam and chose to live among the bedouins, experiencing their lives and immersing in the culture and traditions in which the Quran was revealed, brought me a little closer. Having been schooled in concepts and Gestalt theory, finding Ahmad Ahsan Islahi’s “Pondering on the Quran” was a revelation, and was further fulfilled by Nouman Ali Khan’s approach to the Quran. Still, it was not enough.

There was a further dalliance with Arabic when my family organised a weekly class at my Kak Long’s house, conducted by Ustazah Faezah some years ago; work pressures, like study  pressures put paid to that ambition after several months. So just over a month ago, my beloved contacted our ustazah again to arrange for weekend classes, but having to start over from the beginning in order to ensure our fundamentals were strong. No, this time it would be different.

Our ustazah’s little pep-talk after that fourth class would not have hit home as hard if I had not been actively studying Imperialism and Decolonisation. It was Raman Ragunathan, my fourth year thesis supervisor, who had put me on the path by introducing me to Edward Said’s “Culture and Imperialism” and Syed Hossein Al-Attas’ “The Myth of the Lazy Native”, which formed the basis of my study on Abdel Wahid El-Wakeel’s architectural journey from a western education to a traditionalist approach. The work at University Sains Malaysia on “Decolonising Our Universities”, led by Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak coupled with my discovery of Pankaj Mishra’s “From the Ruins of the Empire” further fueled my desire to free myself, and hopefully others, from cultural and mental imperialism which besiege us way past our post-colonial ‘independence’.

Ustazah Faezah, our Yemeni teacher of Arabic Language, underlined the importance of learning Fusha (Classical) Arabic. She surprised us with the fact that many native Arabic speakers do not understand the Quran as they often speak only Colloquial (Ammiya) Arabic, in which there are significant variations in the different nation-states. The colloquialism of Arabic was an effective tool in the pre and post Imperialism Divide and Conquer strategy, not unlike how our previous Imperial governors divided the Malay, Chinese and Indians economically in Malaysia, whose effects we are still battling to this day. How can one embrace the Quran (a phenomenal uniting factor, a major threat to those with imperialistic ambitions, although more from an economic/political perspective these days) if one is linguistically distant from it, bereft of its fine nuances and context? How, when for any one word, there are approximately 90 variations in meaning, depending on context and intonation? How lost are those who superficially quote the Quran without considering its context, especially when seeking to justify their own agenda?

In this light, it is an absolute crime for a Muslim not to study the language of the Quran, if one were to really seek its meaning. So no more excuses, just do it to the best of our abilities and do not relent – no retreat, no surrender!

Ameen.

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