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.


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 and 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.