By Fuseina Mohamad
Reflections of a student from the Bayyinah Dream Program
“Ustadh Nouman, about this speech, how long should it be? Mine is four minutes.”
Ustadh shook his head and leaned on the pool cue. “No. Three minutes, max.”
“Three minutes, Fuseina. Three minutes. ”
I’d been giving Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan grief for the past ten months and hoped to get away with one last request. Three minutes may seem long for a graduation speech but how does one summarize ten life-changing months in three fleeting minutes?
I turned to leave with this question in my head. The familiar sound of pool balls cracking against each other echoed in my thoughts as the game I had interrupted resumed.
I am a first-generation Ghanaian-American who spent most of my life in Saudi Arabia and Ghana before moving back to the United States 11 years ago. During the course of my stay in the States first as a college student then as an employee at a Fortune 500 company, I somehow became distant from the Qur’an. The little Arabic I had learnt as a second language had faded from my memory.
Alhamdulillah (praise be to God) I faced a personal challenge that forced me to acknowledge that my heart was quickly accumulating layers of dust. I desperately needed a light, and I resolved to find one.
Allah subahanahu wa ta’ala (Glorified is He) says in the Qur’an:
وَيَزِيدُ اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ اهْتَدَوْا هُدًى ۗ وَالْبَاقِيَاتُ الصَّالِحَاتُ خَيْرٌ عِندَ رَبِّكَ ثَوَابًا وَخَيْرٌ مَّرَدًّا
“And Allah increases those who were guided, in guidance, and the enduring good deeds are better to your Lord for reward and better for recourse.” (19:76)
I see the proof of His promise in my journey to Bayyinah. The path that led me here spanned about 3 years.
In my search for knowledge, I became addicted to Islamic conferences, seminars and lectures, hungry for any understanding of Allah’s conversation with me in His Book. Imam Siraj Wahhaj became a favorite speaker of mine. His grandfatherly personality coupled with his real talk penetrated my conscience. Despite working a full time job while obtaining a Master’s degree, I would often drop everything to attend his lectures.
It was during one such conference that I was taught the importance of the Arabic language. Before Imam Siraj spoke another Imam was invited to the podium. I sighed. It was close to midnight on a Sunday. I faced a two and a half hour drive home and work at 7 the next morning. “Please,” I prayed silently, “hurry up.”
He didn’t, alhamdulillah.
The Imam’s captivating words shook me. He spoke of the challenges of post-modernity in the American society and demanded that Muslims raise the bar for seeking knowledge in America. As a convert, he had memorized the Qur’an and spoke Arabic with enviable fluency.
“Who IS that?” I whispered to my friend as the Imam took his seat.
“That’s Imam Suhaib Webb,” she responded. “He’s a convert. I think he’s studying at Al Azhar. ”
I was floored. A convert, hafidh (one who has memorized the Qur’an) and student at one of Islam’s oldest and most prestigious universities?
“What’s your excuse?” I scolded myself. A deep sense of guilt and urgency struck me. I wanted to understand the Qur’an and its key had just been handed to me. But where could I learn Arabic in America?
A few months later the answer presented itself at another conference. Again Imam Siraj was scheduled to speak, but was unable to attend due to health reasons. I stayed anyway, hoping to benefit from the other scholars and speakers.
I accidentally wandered into a youth session. I felt it rude to leave when the speech started, so I remained, trapped in a crowd of teenagers. I had never heard of the brother speaking, but his speech was good. His approach was friendly and open. “Good advice for kids,” I thought. “Who is this guy?”
The conference program answered with his name: Nouman Ali Khan from the Bayyinah Institute.
I watched a couple of the brother’s YouTube lectures and decided that he seemed to know what he was talking about. I signed up for Bayyinah’s Divine Speech Seminar the next month.
Divine speech is not a class. It’s a journey to and through the beauty, depth and power of Allah’s Book.1 The book that Br. Nouman shared with us that weekend was a book I’d never read before.
As the class came to a close I found myself in tears, grateful that Allah (swt) had allowed me to discover His Book. I swore that I wouldn’t lose it and prayed, “Allah, just let me understand this Book. I just want to understand these words.”
Br. Nouman leaned on the edge of the table and waited for silence. “I want to tell you guys about the Dream program…” He explained the idea: a 10-month Arabic immersion program in Texas, focusing on Qur’anic Arabic and understanding the Qur’an. SubhanAllah (Glory to God)—the power of du’a` (supplication)! “I’m going to do that,” I resolved.
Because I had two years of school left I was unable to join the first batch of Dream students. Alhamdulillah this was a blessing because I needed the time to plan. The next two years were spent saving, budgeting, memorizing Qur’an and pursuing local Islamic and Arabic classes. I reasoned that if was going to Dream I had to be prepared.
Living the Dream
The Bayyinah Dream sisters’ first party was held the Saturday before classes started. After a summer of emailing each other, finding housing, and figuring out roommates, we felt it would be good to put faces to names before serious work began on Monday.
Most of us came from outside Texas: California, Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio, Maryland and New York. For us, Irving was a different world. Over homemade rice, cookies, and summer fruit salad we marveled at the sheer size of the local masjid (mosque), commented on the Texas drought, and complained about the Texas heat. We peppered our TAs, students of the first Dream batch, with questions about the program and the teachers, especially Ustadh Nouman. Though they answered our questions every answer was suffixed with “…but you guys will find out on Monday.”
The Dream curriculum and schedule is ambitious for a 10-month program: four days of full-time class with a test every Friday, Saturdays off, followed by Sunday Qur’an Day.
The Dream program provides a solid foundation in Arabic grammar (nahwu), morphology (sarf), grammatical analysis (irab), and then continues with conversation, reading, studying and memorizing Arabic expressions, and other specialized topics such as tafseer (exegesis of Qur’an), media Arabic, hadith (narrations of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ) studies, balaagha (rhetoric), seerah (biography of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ), tajweed (proper recitation of Qur’an) and towards the end, a little fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).
But what’s impossible to capture in an essay is the love that we found at Dream. We didn’t have a campus, we had a home. We weren’t classmates, we were brothers and sisters.
When the going got tough, we would encourage each other, tutor each other, and feed each other. We planned lunch hour potlucks to celebrate class milestones, student accomplishments, birthdays, or just because. Future Dream students, especially sisters, should be warned of the Bayyinah 15.
Weekends were booked with horseback riding, shopping, kayaking, and road trips. We attended events, lectures, and classes at the local masaajid, especially the Islamic Center of Irving. The Irving Muslim community is one of the most welcoming communities I have lived in. The Muslims in Irving embraced us; their families became our families and their homes, our homes.
Don’t get me wrong; we studied hard as well. Study groups remained on campus after class to prepare readings for the next day. Class breaks would find groups of students reviewing Qur’an or quizzing each other for an upcoming test. The Islamic Center library and musallah (prayer area) were often occupied by Dream students. Late-night study groups gathered often for cookies and chai.
In class, our teachers established the same balance. They worked us hard and when the class seemed stressed or tired Ustadh Nouman would share a Qur’an gem with us or let us watch Kung Fu Panda in Arabic. Module endings were commemorated with lunch from Fadi’s or barbecues at Grapevine Lake.
As a class we bonded and we showed our teachers love the best way we knew how. We played pranks on Ustadh Nouman, baked a truck-shaped cake for Sheikh Abdul Nasir Janga and hounded Imam Zia in his office and on Facebook. Our teachers were our mentors and advisors. They pushed us to succeed, patiently putting up with the grief we would inevitably give them.
I particularly remember one tafseer class where I felt extreme sympathy for Ustadh Nouman. He was substituting for Imam Zia, our regular tafseer instructor. A few minutes into the class a silent panic settled over the students. We were supposed to read two pages of tafseer each day in preparation for class discussion, but at Ustadh ‘s rate we would quickly exceed our page limit before the class ended.
“We need to slow him down,” I said urgently to my partner in crime. She nodded and the whispered directive spread throughout the class. Brothers and sisters are separated by a barrier, so either a text message got sent to the brothers or they came to the same conclusion on their own. Soon I raise my hand.
“Ustadh, I have a question, if you don’t mind. Why is this word used in this ayah (verse) instead of a similar word?”
Ustadh Nouman paused, thought, then patiently answered.
Another hand rose. “Ustadh, there’s a similar ayah in another Surah (chapter of Qur’an) what’s the benefit of this wording here?”
“Ustadh, can it be argued that this sentence structure provides more emphasis than the expected sentence structure?”
“Ustadh, do you mind re-explaining that answer?”
Finally Ustadh Nouman looked at us suspiciously and asked “Do you guys ask Imam Zia this many questions?”
The bell for tafseer class rang soon after and we exchanged guilty grins with each other. We had been taught a wonderful Arabic expression the first week of class:
لا تترد في السؤل فالسؤال نصف العلم
“Do not hesitate in asking questions because questions are half of knowledge.”
We took this to heart and on rare occasions took advantage of it. May Allah forgive us (Everyone say, “Ameen!”). Our teachers were models of kindness and patience and we owe them our deepest gratitude.
We had been taught at the beginning of the year that a student of knowledge trusts his/her teacher and it is that trust that carries the student whose lack of experience and knowledge prevents him/her from understanding the teacher’s grand vision.
When Ustadh Nouman instituted the Arabic-only policy on campus we joked that campus was going to be extremely quiet. At first, it was. We would sneak English comments to each other, abruptly ending conversations when Ustadh Nouman walked by. But he persisted, reminding, encouraging, and threatening us.
“Anyone caught speaking English on campus will be sent home,” he warned.
We still spoke English but when Ustadh entered the room instead of falling silent we found ourselves quickly switching to Arabic. Eventually our halting Arabic exchanges evolved into entire conversations.
I personally believe that Ustadh was secretly proud of us when we would whine in Arabic for less homework, earlier breaks, and postponed tests. He would refuse to compromise, refuting our suggestions, thus forcing our pleas to become more creative, more eloquent, and more convincing. I remember once we attempted to persuade the Ustadh to cancel an Arabic class in lieu of Sunday Qur’an Day.
“No!” he staunchly refused, “I want you guys to learn some Arabic.”
“Ustadh,” one of the sisters responded, “there’s no better Arabic than the Qur’an!”
“Nice try,” Ustadh laughed. “But we’re still doing Arabic. We’ll do Qur’an on Sunday.”
The Qur’an came alive on Sundays. The Arabic concepts that I struggled to grasp during the week shone like diamonds on every page, treasures whose value I finally understood.
More importantly for the first time, I heard the Qur’an as conversation. During the week we studied the Qur’an, drowning in the grammar, sentence structure, and the tafseer with its varying points of view. On Sundays we surfaced from the depths of the sea of academics to simply appreciate the Qur’an. Sundays reminded me why I had left everything and come to Dream in the first place.2
We visited my favorite surah (chapter), Maryam, on our last Qur’an Day. When we came to ayah 76, I looked back to our first day of class where, overwhelmed by the ambitious curriculum, I’d slowly penned the words of this ayah into the margins of my notebook—reassurance that I could not only survive, but excel, in the next ten months. I returned to Qur’an Day grateful for the reminder of how far I had come and fully aware of how much further I had yet to travel.
When I stepped in front of the microphone on graduation night, the nervousness I expected never materialized. Rather I felt completely comfortable—as if I was speaking to the closest members of my family. For four minutes I spoke in Arabic of our journey together and our upcoming responsibilities to the Ummah (Muslim community). I told inside jokes to remind myself and my brothers and sisters how much grief we had given our teachers and asked Allah (swt) to allow us to reunite in Jannah (Paradise).
My delivery wasn’t perfect by any means. Anything that seems impressive was simply a testament to the unending love and support of my family, classmates, and teachers, and to the extreme mercy and blessings of Allah (swt) who allowed me the opportunity to take this step towards understanding His book. I pray that the Most Merciful allows all of us to draw closer to Him, to drown in the beauty of His words. I pray that every day He allows us to be amazed by the Qur’an, and I pray that on the day when it counts the most He will allow the Qur’an to be a proof for us and not against us.
I’d like to add a note of thanks to all my teachers, especially Ustadh Bashir Ansari who offered corrections and suggestions for the speech.