Nouman Ali Khan, well known Islamic scholar and teacher was in Kuwait for the first time to present a lecture at the Masjid Al Kabir organized by the Indian Muslim Association. Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan as he is referred to is renowned for his strong command of Arabic, deep understanding of the Holy Quran and engaging lectures. He is also the CEO and founder of Bayyinah Institute in the US.
In this exclusive interview with The Times, we find out more about the man, his mission and his unique method of outreach through modern media.
I must say, I was a bit apprehensive meeting Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan in person. Having watched his lectures, read his interviews and blogs, and having felt the general buzz about him made him seem quite larger than life. I was secretly prepared to meet an intimidating, overbearing individual who would probably not even be open to answering all my questions. However, I was in for a pleasant surprise. Not only was Ustadh Nouman extremely warm, friendly and good natured, he was also just as eloquent in personal conversation as in his speeches and equally humorous. It was indeed a pleasure and an honor to have this short and insightful exchange with him.
Ustadh Nouman was born in Germany and spent the formative part of his childhood in former East Berlin. Belonging to a middle class Pakistani family, he did not know what it was to be Muslim till he was almost six. While in Germany, he went to a Catholic kindergarten, spoke only German and celebrated Easter and Christmas.
At the age of six, he went to Pakistan for half a year. His father was then transferred to Saudi Arabia where Ustadh Nouman went to the Pakistan Embassy School in Riyadh. This is where he started learning about the religion and praying regularly because it was enforced there.
At 13, he experienced the Persian Gulf War and went back to Pakistan before his father got transferred again to the US. He was in his second year of college when his father was transferred back again to Pakistan. This time Ustadh Nouman decided to stay on and finish his education. And this was the turning point in his life. He happened to meet a fascinating Arabic teacher who was willing to teach him the language and that is where his religious journey actually started.
What is Ustadh Noman’s overarching message to Muslim youth and all Muslims in general?
For Muslims all around the world he has several messages, mainly driven by thoughts about what is happening currently in the Muslim world and particularly about religious discourse. These drive his messaging.
Ustad Noman says, “I feel that the conversation about Islam is skewed – that’s what I personally feel. There are good scholars, good resources and good books but overwhelmingly what is being heard in the Ummah (community) about Islam is skewed. How is it skewed? On the one hand it is a literal reading of the text without any due diligence. So you don’t look at history, the context and or even look the depth of the language itself. It is a very surface level translation with no depth and then drastic conclusions are made without diving into this depth. That then presents a very ugly picture of Islam that is itself a disservice to Islam. So Islam is being disserved in some cases by people who are quoting it. That is one problem.”
The other problem he says are people who call themselves traditional. While he says there are many who are incredible, there are also a good number of them unfortunately, who do not represent the depth, breadth, vastness or sophistication of the tradition itself. Also people who call themselves traditional are not even open to discussions or conversation and don’t have any idea of the history.
“So between people who take things literally and people who pretend to be traditional the average Muslim is caught - who do you listen to? The literalist who makes it sound crazy or to the traditionalist who makes it sound close minded. It’s not thought provoking.” highlights Ustadh Nouman. When you look at the spectrum, due to the lack of intelligent discourse on Islam, you feel maybe this is all Islam has to offer, and this he feels eventually turns people off religion all together.
So what is the solution? “To me, we have to reclaim the text, reclaim the tradition and present it intelligently. This needs to happen. I think studying Islam is important but how you study it, what thought process you have and having a lot of knowledge is glorified. Anyone who has a lot of knowledge is perceived to understand Islam better. I don’t agree with that. Having lot of knowledge is the same as having a lot of information. Having information, processing information and using information are three different things. Just because someone has a lot of information doesn’t say much about their ability to process it properly. Processing is like an intellectual thing. You have to engage what you know and really think about it.”
There is a lot of emphasis on the collection of data but no emphasis on processing, he feels. And that is often the case with Islamic studies. You have people that are memorizing what people have previously said but there is no discussion on why they said it.
Ustad Nouman firmly believes that students of Islam should be encouraged to ask questions unlike the trend of not questioning the teacher as is common practice in religious schools. He quotes the Arabic saying “In al sualu nisf al alm” which means, asking questions is half of knowledge.
And that is my cue to quiz him on Bayyinah Institute that operates with a mission to enrich individuals, families and institutions by making Arabic and Qur’anic studies accessible to the world. “Bayyinah is a continual though process. What I thought when we started is not what I am thinking now.” explains Ustad Nouman.
His primary objective with Bayyinah was to do something he loved as a career and to do something that served the community. “I don’t want to do this because I want to make money. I want to do something because I love. If I make a living for my family on the way well and good but I really want to do what I love.” he explains.
Ustad Nouman mentions how the Quran came and defeated poetry at a time when poetry; was the ultimate form of entertainment. This meant it was more artistic than poetry. So to influence people you need to reach out to them through something that they find entertaining he feels. “You cannot beat entertainment, you have to co-opt it,” he highlights.
Having said that he also emphasizes on serious education and believes it should co-exist. However, he feels that if we continue to engage people in a way that they need to make the least efforts, they will actually show an interest on their own and when you continue to make them more and more curious, they will add an equal amount of effort and will eventually want to learn seriously.
It’s important to start with entertainment and then go for education versus going for education directly. “So we need to bring the Quran’s guidance to the entertainment industry and that is my hope. As Bayyinah grows, our subscription base will grow then we will be able to invest in this more.” he says.
Ustadh Nouman also believes strongly in the integrity of Muslims, going as far as an option for free subscriptions for people that cannot afford to pay to watch Bayyinah TV. He wants people to benefit from it and for those that can pay, he knows they will. And that he says is what he means by socially responsible and spiritually responsible entrepreneurship.
Through the Bayyinah Institute Ustadh Nouman has been successful in reaching more than a few million people and the numbers are growing steadily. His goal now is to reach 100 million people in the next three years. “Inshallah” he adds.
Nita Bhatkar Chogle
Special to The Times Kuwait