The Remaining Months as a Quranic Ramadhan Prep

Yet another Ramadhan has passed, and yet another less than satisfactory ending. Eid ul Fitr on the first day of the month of Syawal in the Hijri Calendar is supposed to be a celebration of a ‘return to fitra’, a state of natural being in the order of the universe, the purposeful existence in the eyes of the Creator, a rebirth of sorts. Instead, a sense of restlessness took its place; vocational challenges, coupled with sub-optimal health and peppered with some navel gazing made up the ingredients of this deflatingly served dish.

Why was this so? Approximately seven sun-rotations ago, the mutawwif who guided my family’s conditionally compulsory Meccan pilgrimage had remarked that the whole Hajj experience was intended as a training ground for the times that came after. It made sense at the time, for the rigours and experience of Hajj is not quickly forgotten and would serve well months after leaving the Holy Land. I had inadvertently applied this logic to the month of Ramadhan as well; it seemed entirely reasonable that the ‘training ground’ rationale was equally applicable here. Having just experienced my forty-ninth cycle in my lifetime, I have come to the conclusion that it was just the opposite: the rest of the year was, in fact, preparation for the momentous month.

There were several reasons: firstly, the cyclical nature of the twelve months meant that we would repeatedly be, God willing, facing Ramadhan again and again. It is as if we are at a sports training facility practising for an annual event. Secondly, the cyclical nature also infers that there should be improvements in the future cycles. As is often the case, one often leaves the rigours of Ramadhan far behind in the other months, typically reverting to type, lending gravitas to the observable phenomenon of ‘Ramadhan Muslims’. This is due to the fact that the ‘training’ and ‘tournament’ is not planned to be cumulative but rather a turn of the hamster wheel. Thirdly, within Ramadhan is probably the most important night of all nights, the Night of a Thousand Nights, better known as ‘Lailatul Qadr’. This mysteriously placed night (where there are signs given, but only God knows for sure) contained within the last ten days of Ramadhan promises multifold rewards for those who seek and experience it. This phenomenon breaks down the “training-tournament” analogy, but implies an attitudinal concept instead: to achieve the full rewards in Ramadhan, it is not enough only to be a Competitor, but one also needs to be an active Seeker.

Taking this strand of thinking further, perhaps only the Restless Seeker stands a chance of fully experiencing the Nectars of Ramadhan. Many yearn for the ecstasy of having maximised one’s Ramadhan but piercing that veil would probably require an intertwined tapestry of ponderance and prayers, whose exposition is far beyond the capacity and capability of this writer. Perhaps a more achievable aim would be to explore one important strand of that lofty goal with a preparation of an oft-practised but maybe un-maximised action: that of Quranic Recitation.

One of the names for Ramadhan is Shahr ul Quran, the month of Quran. Not only was the first verse of the Quran (Surah al-Alaq, the 96th) revealed during this month, but also reciting the whole Quran is highly recommended and is common practice among Muslims. In this regard, I have insofar failed miserably at achieving this. Often when I finally get around to reading it, it is slowed down by looking at the meaning and trying to ascertain the message. Therein lies the heart of the problem; I could never seem to grasp the Quran as a whole, and therefore fail to contextualise what I am reading. For one trained as an architect who designs buildings and townships with complex relationships that need to function as a whole (and add to that a penchant for phenomenology), and now as a management consultant who constructs strategies for transformation programmes for companies and systems that need to run in tandem, the Quran is but a black box of seemingly incoherent parts. 

The search for a Gestalt-conception of the Quran has been a personal pre-occupation for many years. I have been searching through many English translations of the Quran, as well as books about the Book especially concerning thematics and conceptual frameworks. The former had taken me through from the de facto Yusuf Ali translation (I much prefer ‘ye olde’ version with a poem to introduce every surah), to the dogmatic Mawdudi, the poetic Sayyid Qutb, the new standard bearer Mohsin Khan and ending with the fascinating Muhammad Asad. For the latter, Muhammad al-Ghazali et al helped with thematics, M.M. Al-Azami with the history, Shetha Al-Dargazeli with the names of Surahs, and many others with specific interpretations of different Surahs, as well as Naisaburi’s exposition of why certain Surahs were revealed. Furthermore, the works of two of my favourite Sheikhs, Ustaz Nouman Ali Khan and Shaikh Yasir Qadhi (these two often through videos) were copiously referred. However, the real breakthrough happened in the last five years, starting with my discovery of Amin Ahsan Islahi ‘Tadabbur-i-Qur’an’ and Muntasir Mir’s study of his approach, further elaborated in Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa’s ‘Divine Speech’. It was from that last book that I found earlier though recent works of Raymond Farrin (the discoverer of the Ring Theory in the Quran sometimes seen in videos) and Neal Robinson, both currently under study.

It is my hope to synthesise the knowledge from these and other sources into a holistic conceptual framework of the Quran, using Farrin’s Ring Theory as a point of trajectory. The primary objective remains as lending meaning to Quranic Recitation during the next Ramadhan, God willing. Gestalt and Visual Communication approaches will also be integrated, devices that make up much of my training and current way of thinking. Honestly, it is really for my own convenience and comprehension, but I hope it works for you too.

The next post will introduce some structural mechanics of the Quran, including how the Surahs may be grouped (we shall discuss approaches by different scholars), as well as the Ring Theory. Stay tuned.

Advertisements

Facing an Artistic Mid-Life Crisis Part III: The Art Awakens

It has been four months since Part II, where there was a flurry in accumulation of tools, books and some steps in actually drawing. I tried to draw whenever I could, whenever the opportunity arises, and this usually happens at meal times (while waiting for food), meetings (especially when someone else is presenting) or just snippets in-between times. I remember learning art history in sixth form at Portora, the story where a Edgar Degas asked Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres advice about becoming a better artist, and he famously said, “Draw lines, young man, many, many lines – it is in this way that you will become a good artist”. And draw many, many lines I did, in my Typo “Draw Something Everyday” sketchbook.

I started to like using the Faber Castell Pitt Artists Pen Size XS as it suited my brownian meandering sketching style, sometimes combining it with the grey shades as below:

drmadskeyslara

bojanroofflowers

I also went through a spell of drawing people, with a focus on my kids (and a portrait of the VC during the long hours of convo sesat in there somehow). The XS pen tend to favour organic drawings rather than objects, and the shadow lines/etchings work rather well with the fine strokes.

dariahafiqhadigames

dariahncatabangndariahsakina

While waiting for meals, I am currently going through a cups and teapot phase at the moment, whilst testing out brush-pen shading against line-shadows:

cup1tekoteatime

cup2cup3

Had also wanted to fulfill a life-long ambition of drawing comics but never really got started. So 3 months ago I made a feeble attempt at a start, bringing to life an old idea on a title called “Johan Dol“. More explained at the link, even started a whole wordpress site for it, but yet to update.

So thus is the final part of my artisitc journey revival, will update more on this through other relevant posts inshaaAllah.

Be well.

 

Of Snakes and Ladders, and Dance

There was a time when kids used to spend their free time playing board games. Sometimes it was a whole family affair; at other times it was when friends came over on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It even used to be part of one’s repertoire of packed time-fillers when the family traveled. Games ranged from the four-cornered Ludo (didn’t everyone have their own favourite colours to start from?) to the strategic Battleship (particularly enjoyed the battery-operated version, complete with missile launch and explosion sounds) to the whodunits like Cluedo, and the empire-building Monopoly. I must say that the most complex board game I have ever played (once) was Poleconomy, a Monopoly-like game that swapped companies for properties and had a parallel political and capitalist actions. There was one particular game though which more often than not introduced kids to the whole concept of board games; it was none other than Snake and Ladders.

For many, Snakes and Ladders was probably the first board game they ever played, and one that most never say no too. Its simple mechanics would encourage anyone to start, and the gameplay gave a relatively equal chance for anyone to win. In addition, one could easily acquire it at the nearest mamak sundry or magazine shop. Many would have moved on to other more complex games, without knowing the rich background of this up and down game. I had earlier thought of the game as a good summary of one’s journey of faith without realising that the game itself was borne out of a spiritual context.

Reportedly Snakes and Ladders was born out of India, together with its dice-based siblings called  Gyan chauper and pachisi (present-day Ludo and Parcheesi). It was known as  Moksha Patam in ancient India and was associated with the Hindu and Jain philosophy which contrasts destiny and desire. The ladders represented positive virtues such as generosity, faith and humility, contrasted by those such as theft, anger and murder, symbolised by the snake. Salvation (Moksha) was achieved by doing good, whereas evil results in a rebirth to lower forms of life (and having to start at the lower rungs).

It may not be too far a stretch to bring this analogy to one’s spiritual progression in Islam. While the board game, normally in grids of 8×8, 9×9 or more often than not 10×10, is usually viewed in two dimensions, I had always imagined the game to be much more complex continuous three-dimensioned environment. This was due to the fact that if one were transported from square number 47 from the head of a snake to its tail at number 24 for a second time or after several ups and down, surely one was probably wiser and had a higher spiritual level than when one went through square number 24 for the first time.

The other aspect that would underline one’s attitude to life was how one moves from one square to another. Do you treat it like a sprint, front-loading all your good deeds but potentially burn out and change? Do you take a slow stroll, promising yourself that piety should be reserved for a later age once you have maxed-out your partying in the squares that you occupy right now? Do you take your time, studying the significance of the squares before you, and how it should impact your current and future squares? Or do you dance to and fro, treating all squares as your destined playground, moving to a beat resonant with all that is created, and therefore potentially also the rhythm of your Creator?

Another interesting analogy is also the dice. Without going into the whole fatalism and choice debate, and taking it into a more rudimentary level, how you throw is often a determinant in how the dice lands. Is the chance factor just the universe colluding (or itself having no other chance) to make what the Creator had pre-determined happen? Or does it even matter, for in the end we are accountable to how we react to the choices that are put before us, which may be understood as the real test. Did the Creator not say that whom He loves the most, would be the most tested?

Maybe it is because I am way into my fourth decade on this earth, and speedily approaching my fifth. I try to oscillate between the third and fourth way mentioned above – to study, and to dance. What is ecstasy without grounding, but a fleeting moment whose meaning dissipates with the wind? What is knowledge, if it does not permeate through one’s being, and where knowledge begins and being end is no longer defined, and in fact longer matters?

Is there any other way to live?

 

dance

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.

DSC00671

Facing an Artistic Mid-Life Crisis Part II

So I had decided to fulfill a life-long ambition to draw comics. I haven’t drawn a line for years, and hardly remember whether I could. The last time I really drew was at my ‘A’ Levels era, under the tutelage of the late Douglas Hutton, both my art teacher as well as squash coach. Here’s some things I produced at the time:

terence

Ok, these were probably some of the best work I did at the time. On the left is the Terence Trent D’arby’s debut album cover, “Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby” done with the ubiquitous orange and black pen called the Biro. Must’ve taken me some 4 hours to do, undertaken on a rather cold winter night in my room at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen in 1989.

The legendary Biro

coverdaleThe second sketch which had survived the rigours of time was a pencil sketch of the then lead singer of Whitesnake, David Coverdale. Incidentally, I did go watch a Whitesnake concert some years later with him singing live.

This sketch also took ages, especially getting his hair right! Used quite a range of Derwent pencils too, and although I did spray-fix the drawing it still had a couple of smudges.

Ok, so those drawings were done over 27 years ago when I was drawing regularly. During my time as an architecture student at Catz in Cambridge I mostly did collages and isometrics, and cut-away sections which did not really involve drawing skills. So in order to restart my drawing fingers some quarter of a decade later, I did what any sane retired artist would do – I went shopping!

First, the tools. I wanted to start to learn how to do inking, which is the fundamental transitioning skills to turn penciled drawings into recognisable comics – inking. Inking was something that I had always feared, as many a fine pencil outline of mine had been summarily annihilated by my feeble inept attempts at inking them. So between chance encounters of the Faber Castell booth at the New Wing of One Utama, the expansive Art Friend on the upper echelons of the Curve, Damansara and a quick dash visit to Bangsar’s C-Zip Lee, I had procured the following items:

Faber Castell 4 Pitt Artist Pen – Manga Black Set

The set comprises felt nibs in sizes XS (very thin, good for detailing), S (best for drawing), F (good for outlines and emphasis) and B (brush nib which I have never used before and wanted to try). The featured image at the top of this post are depict the four pens and their line weights. I also purchased a Rotring Clutch pencil with a built-in sharpener (at the top of the cap).

For the paper I chose:

Daler Rowney Jumbo Heavyweight Cartridge Pad  -220g/m2

This was to be my testing paper – heavy enough to take watercolours and other medium. So immediately upon purchasing these, I did a Batman sketch whilst waiting for dessert at Franco’s, the Curve. The outlines looked OK until I tried inking – yikes!

batmansketchbatmaninked

Now I really knew I had a problem with inking. But before even looking into inking in detail, I knew I had to start drawing regularly, just to loosen my artistic muscles. I also needed to develop my own drawing style if I wanted to get some level of consistency. Then I remembered that during on of my visits to Nu Sentral, I had picked up a drawing journal called “Draw Something Everyday” at a cool shop called Typo. Now that would be a way to start, methinks.

It was really an A5 sized hardcover journal with various backgrounds intended to inspire putting ink (or pencil) to paper. I thought this would be a good trajectory to take, so the following sketches were produced:

nordic car finger gym bag car wash mak

While those sketches were being produced, I thought I would expand my repertoire of tools, just to go beyond the black pens. In particular, I had wanted to test brush pens to see their effect. There was, of course, another major factor that would influence what I buy – I was colour blind. So I would rather stick to earthen tones and greys, and I did find the following sets meeting my criteria:

So I had more tools at my disposal, but needed more guidance. In order to ensure I do not stray from the original intent of producing comics, I was looking for books that would help me sketch better, and ink better. God’s grace certainly shone through that day when I was rummaging through MPH at One Utama and came across 2 books that fit both criteria. The first being James Hobb’s “Sketch your World: Essential Techniques for Drawing on Location”, a guide that looks at various techniques and methods for drawing on-the-go, an imperative skill that I need to acquire if I were ever to rediscover and further develop my drawing chops. It even intersperses the chapters with profiles of featured artists, delving a little deeper on their particular methods. Heartily recommended, this book got a 4.5 stars rating on Amazon, and 5/5 at Barnes & Noble!

cbaThe other delightful find was John Paul Lowe’s “Foundations in Comic Book Art”. While not strictly a ‘how-to’ book nor is it a history of sequential art, this book manages to find an amazing balance of method and meaning, whilst using his own artwork as well as those from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) where he has been teaching for over 20 years. Whilst the composition and construction of objects may seem a tad overblown (although useful or those really starting with basics), his exposition on inking (hurray!) is extensive and instructive for a neophyte like moi. Touche! interestingly, this book also received the same ratings as the above!

Thus is the restart of my journey in rekindling old passions. I hope that my sharing may inspire you to explore your own artistic inclinations, and may it bring you the fulfillment that I am starting to experience. After all, according to a great artist,

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.

Pablo Picasso

Facing an Artistic Mid-Life Crisis Part I

Bookshops have always instilled a sense of wistfulness and adventure every time anyone steps into one. It is almost impossible to pass by a bookshop without stopping, if only to browse, to look, to linger. One could even sense one’s IQ almost increasing by just being there. I am sure my Fitbit Charge HR records increased palpitations wrapped around serenity in the vicinity of tomes.

Art shops are different. One can not help feeling a sense of creative surge, a sense of endless possibilities waiting to be unleashed. Pencils, pens and paintbrushes seem to wobble as soon as eager hands get within touching distance, almost as if one had entered Ollivander’s Wand Shop in Diagon Alley, where each art instrument aches and shivers in anticipation of being within its destined master’s possession. Discernment in the feel of the trade tools, and the weight and surface of the designated paper (not unlike thread-count of bed sheets) is personal. If bookshops made one feel more intellectual, art shops made one regard oneself as infinitely creative.

Although in the past few weeks all of the feelings above were sparked by a visit to Art Friend at the Curve, Mutiara Damansara, the origin of that ignition was an event that happened at St. John’s Primary (1) 40 years ago. Towards the end of every school year students were normally required to fill in a card, updating general information about themselves. There was a field, though, that was probably the most subjective thing anyone would ever ask you throughout your entire life, which more often than not morphs into different forms and elicit different answers, depending on the stage of one’s life. The field, or word, was ambition.

I was in Standard One after all, and therefore the pressure to be a doctor, lawyer or accountant did not suffocate my answer as yet, unlike an SPM-bound 17 year old hormone-maxed student. At 7, most would be guileless, where the imperative would be what one would get for one’s next birthday, or what’s showing on the telly later. The answer would even be expected to be inconsequential, as it would probably change if the same question were to be asked next week, not even next year. So with aplomb, and a total lack of commitment (or maybe even full, hard to tell right now), my seven year-old self answered what made sense at that time. The answer was two straightforward words: comic artist.

In the mid-seventies, comics in Malaysia were sold at newsagents and mamak grocery shops, often affixed to a suspended cotton or nylon rope with a wooden or stainless steel peg perched way above a 7-year old’s head. Sometimes it would get delivered to the home by the newspaper delivery guy, often wearing and off-centre motorcycle helmet aboard a kapchai, expertly throwing rubber-band-bound bundles of pre-ordered newspapers with unflinching accuracy into rain-safe nooks in close proximity to the front door. The world of Dandy and Beano, or the diminutive war or silat comics, were standard fare at the time. Occasionally, one would get a glimpse of a broadsheet Conan issue, and much later a 2000 AD, amidst SHOOT magazines and newspapers. What had really caught my fancy, though, and stayed as an effective bribe for me to go to the dentist, was American superhero comics.

The American superhero comics, mainly from DC and Marvel, were of approximately the same dimensions today as they were 40 years ago. The white box at the bottom left or right, which today indicates whether the comic was obtained from normal retail channels or specialty shops, was filled with bar codes as it was from the former. There were no dedicated comic shops at the time till maybe the late 80’s or early 90’s. The form felt comfortable to a 7 year old, or even a 47 year old today. X-Men, Superman, Aquaman and the Avengers ruled the roost. Hardcover Annuals were coveted and sometimes gleefully received as birthday presents.

Among the attractions of the American superhero comics was its temporal continuity, and one would await the next issue with bated breath only to be satisfied (and again tensely awaiting) a month or two later. They were also a tool for me to further learn English vocabulary; one particular episode of the Avengers, where the Vision was saved by another less-memorable character, I had learnt phrase “to be in one’s debt”, uttered by the former to the latter. Had to go to my father to get an explanation of that one, and the meaning stuck hard in my mind, especially when accompanied with the visual reinforcement.

But it was that reinforcement, wonderfully visual, that stayed with me the most. Whilst distinct panels contained the artwork, the panels did not stay uniform, contextually reforming like a storytelling ether-chameleon, where words and art danced to depict a story whose pace was half in control of the producer, and the other half by the reader. While the composition of views of bodies and surroundings uncovers the narrative(s), it was the inking and colouring that lent it emotion and motion, superiority and/or utmost insignificance. Jack Kirby and Neal Adams led the way for me, to be joined by later giants as John Romita Jr, Brian Bolland and the ambidextrous writer-artist combination of the brooding world of Frank Miller, the delightful yet scary world of Bone by Jeff Smith or the insane multi-media stylistics of Bill Sienkiwicz and later Dave McKean. These artists, and who had every right to be called Artists, made my world. At the time, for a time.

Fast forward 40 years. I am in my 10th job, having experienced various fairly diverse industries, yet none close to what my 7 year old self had opined. During a conversation with my second-born, when talking about ‘ambition when one grows up’ (have I even grown up?), he further quizzed me on why I have not fulfilled my ambition. When I thought about it, I then asked myself, why not indeed?

Part II deals with what comes next.

(This blog post, minus these bracketed words, is eerily 1000 words exactly, again.)

Face, empty space

Face, empty space

Treading the Path of the Heifer’s Gaze, this Ramadhan

“Will they not then earnestly seek to understand the Quran, or are there locks upon their hearts?”

Surah Muhammad, 47:24

“It is ironic indeed that the Quran that places so much emphasis on pondering and serious study of its contents in order to gain any real benefit, is also perhaps the only book that is read without any serious thought or attention to its message or substance. Ordinarily, when studying a book, most people would first prepare themselves mentally. In the case of the Quran they usually close their minds the moment they open it up to read”

Introduction, “Pondering over the Quran”, Amin Ahsan Islahi

So yet another Ramadhan approaches, and I echo the thanks of many Muslims that we are alive to greet another of the blessed month. The zeal with which many greet this time of the Islamic calendar year is often great, but undoubtedly for many this does not quite last. Once work and family pressures pile, it is all to easy to slip back into the normal routine, albeit with different meal times.

I am not here to offer a formula to avoid the aforementioned. One only needs to peruse one’s Facebook and subscribed Youtube channels to access countless pieces of advice by the Masyaikhs and friends (usually reposts of the Masyaikhs) alike, much of which are of great use if followed. I can almost hear the countless covers of the Quran being opened (um, just dust it off first, ok?) and pages turned, so many eager to finally finish a full reading by month end. My personal efforts throughout my life have been rather mixed, more often than not significantly short of initial targets. Being a realist, then why not set lower targets, I thought to myself. Why not indeed.

A few days ago, I had updated my Facebook status, which reads “Salam all, hope you all have a wonderful and reflective month of Ramadhan – Rediscover your purpose. Realign your compass. Refresh your target of the ultimate destination. May your journey be blessed and fruitful. Ramadhan Mubarak”. Reflect, rediscover, realign, refresh – not too shabby as goals. Now how could I achieve all that while making it achievable? The answer that came to me is to look in the direction of Bovines. Really.

The link between the month of Ramadhan and the Quran is unmistakable. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was visited by the angel Jibreel on the 17th night of Ramadhan, upon which he received the first ever Revelation in the form of the first five verses of Surah Al-Alaq (The Clot 96:1-5). However, the Quran we have today was not arranged in chronological order;  the Prophet (peace be upon him) arranged the verses as they were revealed through divine guidance. The closest I have come to comprehending the order was covered by my earlier post here.

In that post, it was the approach of the main text that was discussed, Amin Ahsan Islahi’s “Tadabbur-e-Quran” (Pondering over the Quran), that in order to understand the nazm of ‘coherence’ of the Quran, the author had attempted to address the longest Surah in the Quran first and foremost, as it represents the most complex structure of all surahs. This is of course Surah Al-Baqarah (The Heifer, thus my bovine referral), the second surah in the Quran which contains 286 ayat. As today is the third day of Ramadhan, those of you who target to complete the full recitation of the Quran would most probably have completed this surah already, and have moved on to others. My target this year is to read and appreciate the overall meaning of this surah, inshaaAllah.

For those who are interested, I will be giving a talk entitled “Treading the Path of the Heifer’s Gaze: The first Five Ayat of Surah Al-Baqarah” in two week’s time at 3-4pm on 3rd July at UNIEC Inspire, Level 9, UNITAR Kelana Jaya Campus.

heifer

THE ACCIDENTAL EDUCATOR: The Making of an Educational Transformer

I had not planned to be an educator. Sure, Mak had been a teacher all her life, and Bapak’s first job, albeit for 2 weeks, was as a teacher too. One who educates, me? The architect way back in 1997 only had his job and his betrothed as his world, with nary even a fluttering thought of a didactic persuasion.

Handling 13 concurrently running on-the-ground projects was no walk in the park. The then-heady early to mid-nineties had caused a proliferation of projects, spawning offshoots faster than a rabbit on the blue pill. Doing a project meeting almost every other day, and starting design work only after 6.30pm when the phone calls died down finally took a toll on this normally rather resilient self. A request to the then-bro-in-law cum boss resulted in acquiesence to a simple proposal: 2 half days a week off with a prorated pay cut, so that I could teach. Mindset switch / constructive distraction needed, I argued – yet I will retain the same workload. Brain needed to function via external stimuli.

I had heard of an opening for lecturing at LimKokWing School of Architecture. After all, Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, the greats – they all taught, so why not me? Not that I considered myself anywhere near the icons of the built environment – it just sounded like a sexy thing to do, intellectually. Heck, I could finally dust off the reams of notes of Colin St. John Wilson, dive back into the vernacular leanings of Aalto and Scharing, even throw in some Heidegger to boot! Sounds like a fun frolic of intellectual … err, exercise.

Joining a group of 6 lecturers teaching Architectural Theory to a class of over 300 students was excrutiatingly daunting, till one observed that there was a cunning system at play. A subject was picked and expanded by a selected SME, and one-by-one the other lecturers gave their 5 cents, creating the rather substantialised chain of opinions on the subject for the group of sensory-enthused learners. Design studio proved more of a challenge, as personalised tutorials for project development was the order of the day, but up the to challenge was I. It was like… a calling.

The ’97 financial crisis put paid to my architectural ambitions as projects stuttered and stalled. Having educational neurons tingled, I dived headlong into becoming a full-time contract lecturer (with 32-hour teaching load as a norm), taking on teaching Infini-D 3D software and Web Design and HTML Programming to Electronic Design and Multimedia (EDM) pioneer batch at LimKokWing. There was even time to teach 3D to Product Design students, as well as Web Design in the Business School, where the latter resulted in my most current claim-to-fame: having taught and tutored Maya Karin on web design using the now-defunct Claris HomePage application, though only for about 3 weeks as a temporary lecturer – but hey, who’s complaining!

It was with a fellow lecturer, the effervescent David Chan, (and later to be joined by the cool-headed Chung Tack Soon) that I co-founded and nurtured a dot com through highs (RM5 mil investment from New Zealand) and lows (the dot com bubble burst the company after 4 years). Taking refuge as a Design lecturer for Alpha students at MultiMedia University (MMU) in Cyberjaya, I had also embarked on starting a PhD; that was, until Petronas’ fledgling management and IT consulting company beckoned me with none other than eLearning, a project which combined my Internet technology background (derived during my dot com days) with education. They paid three times too as much so I was off in a jiffy!

Four years in the electronic education space was followed by a short stint with a start-up venture capitalist, with my most tangible contribution being setting up Tun’s bakery (and production kitchen) in Langkawi with an ex-colleague. It was not the skills in procurement of pastry and bread-making equipment that landed my next position in the national strategic investment company, but rather (or so I would like to think) the rather quirky journey of educator and educational instituion establisher that led my to actualising the Malaysian Directors Academy, or MINDA within the GLC Transformation Programme. Instructional Design knowledge and the various setting up of business garnered during the e1000 and iPerintis days greatly assisted the journey of MINDA’s conception, together with my minuscule yet able team.

What followed, whilst still serving in Khazanah, was a barrage of other educational expeditions: while MINDA was targeted to Enhance Board Effectiveness (and thus teaching mainly rather aged gentlemen, with the occasional presence of the fairer gender board member, which is just about as downstream as you can get, save for the talqin-readers), setting up the Trust School Programme went further upstream pioneering true Public-Private Partnership in enhancing educational outcomes for adopted schools, whilst giving some rather bare assistance to the two founding young ‘uns who started “Teach for Malaysia”. A spattering of other education-related projects included a feasibility study for the Ministry of Finance on the setting-up of an ASEAN Business School (I had recommended maximising current resources, concurred by the ebullient Dr. Nung), exploring potentials of MMU and UNITEN, both being investments by Khazanah-related GLCs, as well as contributing to the setting up of a Business-Approach turned Institute (Fahmy, you were part of this exercise, unbeknownst to both of us at the time, albeit on opposite sides).

Fifteen years after my first educational foray, a Malaysian Governmental Private Equity firm beckoned. The objective was to look at a potential PPP in Teacher’s Training. After not quite taking flight, the focus shifted to managing current investments and acquiring additional higher education institutions, which paved my way to UNITAR. Slightly after the middle of next month, it would have been three years for me at the Leading Innovative Social Science University.

Looking back, the colourful meandering path that had been taken was almost a cumulative education preparatory journey in itself. The Rearchitecting Journey of UNITAR has been ongoing for the past 3 years, although by no means complete. Mayhap this little piece gives you a glimpse of the journey of this Accidental Educator.

(This post had appeared earlier on the author’s Facebook Notes, though rather substantially edited and added. A little piece of trivia – this post, minus this last bracketed comment, counts exactly 1000 words.)

IMG_20141127_092836

25 Revisited

In 2009 there was this thing on Facebook where you’re supposed to post 25 things about yourself, and tag 25 more friends. I hardly participate in any of these but I thought, why not? This was written in 2009, and might be a good way to (re)introduce myself, albeit with some updates:

1. There are 33 letters in my full name, and that excludes spaces (but includes ‘bin’). Filling in forms was a nightmare, where more often than not I had to add boxes. Can’t imagine the additional energy my parents used to register me. It was my uncle who named me, to whom, really, I am eternally grateful for giving me a good name. Oh, and in exams, I was almost always the last 5 people to receive papers (and that much less reading time! Explains my marks somewhat…). Anyone who sits at the back of the class in exams please give me a holler, yo.

2. Arabs tend to react with a gasp to my main name, ‘Sai-fud-deen’. Being known as the ‘Sword of Faith’ (had made me reflect often. Even found a book whose title was my name whilst doing my thesis – the treatise of Islamic symbolism of water (by Nasr of Burckhardt) was a particularly diaphanous moment – and hence this blog is entitled “Sword of Gnosis”.

3. I am colour-blind. And no, I am not amused by the next reaction by most, which is ‘Hey, tell me, what colour is this?’ That’s like telling someone who had just been amputated knee-up to attempt a moon walk. That said, when people don’t know, they usually come to me for colour advise and walk away somewhat satisfied. My heart goes out to my gene-passers, who are/were also fellow sufferers, Mak, and her dad, arwah Tok Man, who managed to be an MP and doctor. So there.

4. By now you’re probably thinking ‘Oh God! Why can’t he just do a simple LIST!’ I do appreciate simplicity, as it is often a result of a palimpsest of attempts to get it right. Try designing something simple that works, and you’ll find producing something complex that does not quite work is a lot easier. This is especially true when I was teaching at the architectural studio in university, something which I may be resuming soon.

5. I have approximately 163 first cousins. To my knowledge only other Malaysians and Africans have topped me so far. Dropped the jaws of my Irish friends, who had on average about 3. I think I know most of them, though I live by the fear of accidentally running one over every time I drive. Remember the Agent Smiths in Matrix 3? I see cousins that way.

6. My great grandfather (from my father’s side) walked from Kota Bharu to Kuala Kangsar, and apparently married 4 along the way, which could go some way to explain that I am related to almost everybody I meet. He did become the first Mufti of Perak, although his great grandson has some ways to go. Same guru with Tok Kenali, and apparently about 9-levels removed from the founder of the Naqshbandi, as a researcher once pointed out. Me, I’m just still trying to figure out the stuff I recite during solat. Like I said, some ways to go.

7. I drank a glass of kerosene once, somehow mistaking it for water. Does not say a lot for my olfactory system. Must have been about 5, and was living with grandparents at Batu 8 1/2, Labu. They had to pump it out, but that part I remember not. Must have passed out.

8. I remember living in Labu vividly, where my moyang often had to ask us to raise our feet when sitting at the rattan chairs. To get them out of the way of the snakes passing by. Somewhat of a highway for the serpents, that house. Also witnessed my late maternal grandfather shoot a cobra as it was poised to strike. Nerves of steel, he had. I also remember the beca rides, sending my sisters to school. I was not in school yet, and was reportedly prone to running naked around the mangosteen tree to avoid having to wear clothes. Fortunately, I grew out of that phase. I think.

9. Another serpentine moment was in Telok Anson, where we had those hollow-brick walls. Was wondering how a pile of cow-dung (that surprisingly did not emit its odour) got into the living room. Some poking resulted in a cobra’s head hissing back. Jumped onto the table in a single pounce (would have been an Olympic record as I was 4). And this was probably my earliest lucid memory – oh, that and being fed ice-cream by my sister at Kampar.

10. The geographics of my earlier escapades above obscure the fact that I am really a born and bred KL-ian. Came into this world at GHKL (now shortened to HKL), clocking in at 7 3/4 lbs  at approximately 2.00am and was back in KL when I attended Calvary Church Kindergarten. True-bred Johannian from School 1 to SJI (only Fatima Kindergarten attendees and Form-Sixers outrank me!)

11. My wife and I and our three kids used to sleep in the same room. We had 2 queen-sized beds put together with a large single bed. It is not unusual for one to traverse 2 beds in slumber. It is also not unusual for me to find one of my kid’s butt on my face when I wake up. Wouldn’t have had it any other way. Now they all have their own rooms, and one is already doing Foundation in University. All my kids somehow still like our bed and often slump at the edge when my wife and I are there. Old habits, I guess.

12. I used to sleep on an unrolled cotton mattress (tilam kekabu), usually made in Kuala Kangsar by my grand-auntie, who has since passed in her 90’s. Finally got my own space at 16 (there was a curtain put up to demarcate the tv room and the corridor leading to other rooms, making my ‘room’). Finally got my own room at 17. Before that I was a nomad in other rooms.

13. I am usually shipped to Kuala Kangsar or Pantai Remis during school holidays, more often than not by third-class mail train. If it were closer to any festive season, I would normally end up in the cargo section, sitting or lying on the floor. This was probably where I learnt my ‘sleep anywhere, anytime’ skills. Also, memories of putu packed for the journey back to KL, usually lovingly wrapped in my handkerchief by my amazing Opah (Perakkian for grandmother), and I have a craving for it sometimes. Hard to find nowadays.

14. I loved Enniskillen, and I think it loved me back. My first real overseas trip was a brief stop at London before landing in a little town between Belfast and Dublin. I shared a room in lower 6 with my third-cousin from Kelantan, and got a humongous room when I was a prefect in upper sixth. I made some money recording songs from LPs to cassette for other boarders. I headed the photography society, restarted the table-tennis club in a defunct shooting range and even played basketball, table tennis and football for the school. I sucked at rugby, was just not fit enough. Just wished I took up sailing, rather then getting lost in the forests during orienteering (more often because I wanted to take photos rather than race, and the teachers often had to look for me and my cousin, often much to their chagrin).

15. The defining experience at St. John’s Institution was becoming a Councillor Prefect or CP. We first had to be voted in, then pass written tests, undergo a 3-month probation, and finally screening with teachers rep and the prefects. There was an interesting degree of autonomy from the teachers as we were to represent both students and the school. The team-building and training was among the best I have gone through in my life. The imperative word for our behaviour was discretion, something I feel many in the course of their life still fail to grasp.

16. I rediscovered Islam at Enniskillen. I really started learning again at Cambridge and Edinburgh, and I remain very much a student to this day. Before that was really the normal rote-learning at school and some additional classes, but they did form a basis on mainly what to do, but not why to do it. Tawheed was taught but not understood, nor really appreciated.

17. I am quite a Nasi Lemak person. My favourite, due to time (usually before family and I go for our little excursions) and even somewhat ambiance (more to do with the crowd I think) is Nasi Lemak Tanglin near Lake Gardens, followed closely by Nasi Lemak Cikgu at SS6 Kelana Jaya (love the Ayam Goreng, Sambal and Sambal Sotong – although ambiance-wise it was way better as a stall). A consistent third is Le Cucur KLCC Nasi Lemak bungkus. Not quite a connoisseur but I like consistency. Lately Village Park Nasi Lemak has been topping the list.

18. I am still searching for the perfect lontong. Top of my list is Che Nor stall above the Section 14 PJ market one (the old Medan Selera), follwed by a rather obscure stall at the back of the Datuk Keramat market. A Kelantanese corner shop at SS5 used to be good, have not tried it lately. There’s a fancy one in Kampung Baru which seems very popular but a little too hodge-podge for me.

19. I am not quite an internet child (although I can be rather child-like), but have been online consistently since 1995. Used Mosaic 1.0, and clearly remember the PPP redialling and waiting for the connection tone for hardware handshaking, and even bought a version of Netscape Navigator to support the revolution! Was addicted to Webchat where I made many friends, at least 5 of whom I’ve met, and two who got married (but sadly divorced now) actually came to my wedding. Did not like the pace of IRC but loved newsgroups, where I quickly learnt HTML Programming. I was one of the first 8000 users for Jaring, and a beta-tester for TMNet. Even started a dotcom company, which was an amazing experience. I have a rather long failure resume.

20. I am a kind of Islamic Fundamentalist, not an extremist. I believe one should go back to basics, back to the sources, to discover/rediscover what one’s religion is all about. I have much greater respect for those who subscribe, believe in and practice the transcendental, who can then be at ease with the secular. I believe secularism as the root cause for all disorder and injustice. The Enlightenment is a misnomer, in my mind. Religion is a way of life, though many use it to their own perverse end. In the end, from Him we came, and to Him we return. God knows best.

21. I have no ambition in my working life. All I wish is to help, and be of good use. I do believe in the notion of stewardship and trust. Without it I believe one does things aimlessly, even though one may be fooled into having meaning in one’s life, where the meaning may change as one’s outlook changes. I feel rather like Scott Bakula’s character in Quantum Leap, sent by the unfathomable into a next mission. Often when I look for jobs, it doesn’t happen. It works only when the jobs look for me. And at the transition, like Quantum Leap’s Dr. Sam Beckett, I too say “Oh boy!” Incidentally, I went to the same school as the real Samuel Beckett, Portora Royal School (at least for my sixth form).

22. I am often perplexed by people who live contradictory lives purposely. At the same time, I have no idea what they go through in their lives and should just give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I myself am far, far from perfect. But sometimes you see things that do not make sense. I addresses it by starting with the question, “Who benefits?” Then, potentially, the truth emerges. But I continuously ask for Divine Guidance.

23. I love buying books, but only recently started to seriously read them. I write so that I can remember what I just learnt, read or discussed – it otherwise vanishes to the nether regions. I am often guilty of Tsundoku, and there seems to be no cure. The piles are getting bigger. Hopefully understanding what I read is getting better. Just bought a wonderful book called “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren. Wish I found it sooner.

24. I sometimes go into ‘Mentat Mode’ when needing to think (in reference to Frank Herbert’s “Dune”). A more thorough reading of the Quran has given me spiritual highs not thought possible before – but only with the permission and grace of the Creator. Was very, very happy to have discovered Amin Ahsan Islahi’s “Tadabbur-i-Quran”, which is really helping me along the journey. In the end, one starts with oneself. I am nothing, only then can I be.

25. You’re still here? Salute – your attention span is remarkable! Peace.

glass

BLOG SHOPPING: In Search of My Braindump Site/s

Peace!

So I had decided that 2015 would be my year of writing, and thought I’d start a little earlier to give myself a little ramp up the runway. This exercise would also be to test various blogging platforms after a hiatus of approximately 5 years as well as for the purposes of potentially integrating blogs at my university (unitar.my). My first and only blog was started in 2004 focusing on Islam in Kuala Lumpur, and then I migrated to using Facebook Notes, mainly to know who actually read my blogs (blogger didn’t provide page views at the time) as well as reaching out to people I already knew. I had also experimented with using WordPress on my own shared hosting, which was mainly used for an event I co-organised, but somehow it didn’t seem too user-friendly (and I didn’t really make the time to properly customise it).

This meant that I had to go Blog Shopping. I wanted to explore the various popular platforms that I had used, and some that I hadn’t. Blogger was a natural place to start, having been my first platform. The first difference was that if you have a Google account, it would take you straight into choosing your Gmail account login after Pyra Labs was acquired by Google in 2003 (dunno when the Google integration was done though, although Google+ integration was late 2011). The Blogger interface, thankfully, remained as simple as I had remembered and I was up and running right away; thus SIKALIPATKU (colloquial Malay for ‘my folding bike’) was born yesterday. I purposely made it a text and picture blog, also in order to test graphics layout formatting capabilities of Blogger, which I found rather wanting (could also be because I hadn’t fully explored it, to be fair – will update more later). Typing in HTML tags directly into both subject and main text areas seem to work fine; however the biggest noticeable difference was its Blogger Stats (yaay!), although many report that Google Analytics is more accurate than the Blogger variant (and both still include author’s visit, although there are workarounds I haven’t got round to investigating). In short, if you want to hop, skip and blog, Blogger’s your answer.

This Sword of Gnosis blog sits on WordPress.com. Now WordPress is somehwat known as the most ‘respectable’ blog site, or even for ‘serious’ bloggers. From a systems perspective, WordPress is even considered to be the most widely used Content Management System or CMS in the world (beating both Joomla and Drupal in this respect). And it certainly has grown up from its early days – even at registration one is given a whole array of purchasable upgrades, including a domain name registration (it offered me wansaifuddin.com which I gladly took as it was unavailable before) as well as increased hosting and e-commerce capabilities (which I did not take). It has options for a classic Dashboard view (which users of yore would be more familiar with), fairly extensive tagging and categorisation options, as well as various encouraging messages when one is drafting a post. I could easily set the timezone for it, whereas I am still searching on how to do the same with Blogger. Definitely the more polished blog system with various customisations, many of which you would need to pay for (professional templates vary in prices). As a mainstay blog, WordPress is my choice.

Nothing quite prepared me for Tumblr. Many had recommended it, and with more than 200 mil users it certainly is one to watch. The registration experience was psychedelically graphic, socially nudging (you had to follow 5 sites before being allowed to complete registration) and the navigational experience is like Twitter, Pinterest and Blogger all rolled into one! A little too early to get a feel of Tumblr, but if you are looking for an edgily immersive experience this might just be right up your alley. I decided to start “tekblaja”, a blog dedicated to Learning Technologies for the University, which is at this moment not up yet (though look out for it folks!). Tumblr has the rep for being one of the most powerful reposting tools for multiple websites, and I shall certainly try those features out.

At this juncture I decided to limit myself to these three tools and know them in much greater depth. The other reason for this is that all three have their own dedicated Mobile App, which I have downloaded to my iPhone 6; at first glance they are certainly a far cry from the mobile blogging tools I tried on my Blackberry a decade ago. More on this when I have run them through some hoops.

So that’s it for my maiden post here; hope this was useful and please come back and check out future posts!

Wan

Come rest with me in the sahde, and let's converse...

Come rest with me in the shade, and let’s converse…