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.
Nita Bhatkar Chogle caught up with Ustadh Noman during his whirlwind visit to the Middle East, especially for The Times Kuwait, to 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, meeting him in person, I was pleasantly surprised. 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 has often been referred to as a youth icon so it was only natural for our opening conversation to be around this. How does it make him feel to receive such adulation? “One of the central things I would like to promote is how dignifying Islam is and how you don’t have to be famous, well known or wealthy to be dignified. Every human being is dignified. I see myself as just another Muslim among other Muslims.”
Continuing on the topic of widespread adulation he says, “For someone who knows little about me to be impressed by me means very little. What means a lot more for me is that my children are impressed; my wife is impressed, my parents are impressed, my siblings and my best friends are impressed. They are the true mirrors of who I am. Just as the mirror doesn’t lie to you, the criticism and the praise of true friends and family is genuine.” explains Ustadh Nouman.
While he appreciates people watching his YouTube videos and loving them, that praise doesn’t affect him. Simply because appreciating what he says is not the same as appreciating him. They are two different things.
“I am trying to do research and present in the best way I can the most beautiful book in human history so if people appreciate it that’s not a surprise.” he explains and goes on to summarize “The bottom line to me is that Allah gives certain advantages to people not because they are preferred in the sight of Allah but because rather to see how they will use these advantages to their full potential to do good. Fame is a means not an end. Knowledge itself is a means not an end.”
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 where he was often made fun of since he couldn’t speak Urdu. However, once in school there he was introduced to Islam and to praying. He also learnt Urdu.
After this short stint in Pakistan, his father was 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 years old, he experienced the Persian Gulf War and went back to Pakistan before his father got transferred again to the US. He went to a public high school in New York and was the subject of ridicule due to his lack of English speaking skills. “I was almost mute for the first six months till I learnt English.” said Ustadh Nouman.
Ustadh Nouman loved the back and forth travelling and owes his flair for languages to it. A little know fact that we learnt was that he even spoke fluent Spanish at one point, when he worked in a Spanish neighborhood and learnt the language in high school as well. By the time he graduated high school he was fluent in both English and Spanish.
He was in his second year of college when his father was transferred back to Pakistan again but 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.
“And it was a crazy journey with full time college and working 40 hours a week. My day would start at 5 am. I would take a subway and bus to work where I spent the full day, go to college and finish by 6 or 7 pm and then take the train to the masjid (mosque). After studying for 3 - 4 hours, I would take the train and bus back home at 11 pm,” he says.
Schedules that would make anyone give up the additional optional Arabic studies, I think aloud. And Ustadh Nouman patiently responds, “I knew myself. I was in New York City and there are plenty of bad and stupid things to do there. Especially if you are not living with your parents. And I knew that I am not an angel so the only way to save myself was to keep myself busy. I kept myself insanely busy. I had 18 hour days between work, school, studying Arabic and barely eating.”
He narrates a funny anecdote about his first teaching experience. His Arabic teacher made him teach a class of four students a few basics of the language. What he realized during the class was that all four students were Arabic experts who had been studying Arabic for over ten years. His teacher, seeing his potential as an Arabic teacher had asked them to test his skills in action! Of course, he came through with flying colors.
On the personal front, Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan is a father of six children with the eldest aged 15 and has an interesting story to share about his marriage. He knew his now wife as a colleague at an Islamic Sunday school where they both taught. A well-meaning mutual friend told his now mother-in-law about him being a prospective groom for her daughter. They spoke on the phone and he and his mother-in-law became good friends he says. Following a six month exchange of emails (his wife was very strict about purdah), they both agreed to get married. A long engagement period ensued where they communicated only through emails with his father-in-law being blind copied on the insistence of his wife! Strangely enough they got married at a time when he was jobless – not at all an ideal scenario on the marriage scene.
When it comes to his children and future plans, he insists he wants them to do whatever they want. Each of his children is different from the other and each has their only skill set. Emad, his son is a Math whiz who can do complex problems in his head, while his eldest Husna an artist with a good knack of Arabic, and is also learning photography. His other daughter is into athletics and is a part of the soccer club. She also had great memory and can memorize a full page from the Quran in just 15 minutes.
Ustad Nouman adds, “I don’t believe in over formal education. I believe the world and the economy is shifting and the way we think of education also needs to shift. What are you good at and what do you want to do. You have to combine those two things. If you can do that you can have a happy meaningful and successful life. If you make a lot of money but are miserable it doesn’t work. Of course religious education is something else, but it’s not a career. It’s something that empowers what you are going to do. They are the essential nutrients; you need them no matter what you do in life.”
What is Ustadh Noman’s overarching message to Muslim youth and all Muslims in general?
To this he quotes an Ayah (verse) from Surah Al Baqarah, “Allah does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear.” (Quran 2:286)
He explains it saying, “One of the meanings of this Ayah is that Allah did not burden any single person except with their own potential. There are many different meanings of this Ayah but one of them is that my big burden in life is my own potential. What it means is (that) Allah’s rules are easy, that is not a load. The real load in my life is - am I living up to my potential?”
And this is what he would like to communicate to the Muslim youth. He drives them to live their full potential and not settle for mediocrity. “Ask yourself did you honestly make the most of your day? Did you honestly say what you wanted to say in the best way that you could have said it? I don’t expect perfection. I know I am not perfect. But what I expect is a constant desire for improvement.
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 at 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. There are many who are incredible he says, but 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.
Raised without a heavy dose of religion in a middle class Pakistani family, he considers himself to be in the middle, a moderate.
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 the 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.
On the creation of Adam, even the Angels who never disobey Allah, asked a question and didn’t get into trouble, explains Ustad Nouman. “If angels can ask a question why can’t I ask my teacher? This is a sign of intellectual stagnation. If you don’t ask question and remove your doubts and if you are not satisfied you should be able to say it. I am not convinced. I need more. If you don’t do that you don’t reach real faith. That’s my message – learn you religion. Learn your faith but learn it with an open mind. Ask questions. Learn to ask questions. Learn to create the discourse if it’s not around you.”
So what is his mission? “I want to influence change at a very high level. I want to be able through my research team myself I want to pick up top talent in the world. I don’t want to just give lectures. I want to make files documentaries, movies cartoons talk shows. Where is the Muslim John Stewart? I want to make one. I want to beat Oprah at her game because that is where influence lies.” explains Ustad Nouman.
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.
How Bayyinah started is a very interesting story. Ustad Noman studied computer information technology and got an offer to work as a design director for a technology company in New Jersey when he was in his senior year of college. He took the job but soon after suffered the effects of the dot com crash. Being one of the newcomers, he was one of the first to be laid off. He continued to be jobless for about six months. Interestingly this was the same period in which he got married to his long time fiancé on the insistence of her parents which was quite unusual!
After he lost his job he also lost interest in the tech industry. The constant need to be updated with the latest technologies was a full time effort and he wasn’t keen on constantly reinventing himself to just get a paycheck at the end of the month. He wanted something more.
His experience teaching Arabic was something he really enjoyed and he decided to experiment with an Arabic class in his community. Starting with 30 – 40 people in the local Masjid, his student numbers increased to about 100 in a few months and soon people started requesting out of town classes.
That is when he used his tech background to put a website together. Surprisingly enough, with no Google and no advertising people still found him! And he started going from one community to another presenting his lectures and teaching Arabic. He could have kept going but he realized that this needed to be institutionalized properly. And that is how Bayyinah was born.
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.
“We need to have socially, morally, ethically, spiritually and responsible entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship can transform the world. Institutions should not exist because they want to make money. They should exist because they want to effect change. Making money is easy. You have to aim a lot bigger than making money.” he underlines.
Bayyinah’s goal now is to influence this entire generation of people across the globe on how they think about the Quran. And Ustadh Nouman wants to influence the attitudes of the Muslims and non Muslims and their attitudes towards the Quran.
“I think it is a dire need for Muslims because it is corrupt attitudes that are causing the loss of lives. This book if properly understood can save lives and if misunderstood can cost lives.” he says.
“The Quran has a powerful message and its fluid enough that we can affect it across this media. Right now we have a primitive understanding of Islamic media. For us right now Islamic media is a TV station where a Sheikh is sitting there explaining a Hadith or Ayah. That is not Islamic media. Islamic media is not some cute looking graphic that says Eid Mubarak. Islamic media is when you have mainstream film and mainstream entertainment documentary that even non-Muslims are watching. That has Islamic messaging in it and they don’t even know that they are getting Islamic principles out of this and this can be done. Not only that it can it be done, it must be done.” explains Ustad Nouman.
Ustad Nouman mentions how the Quran came and defeated poetry at a time when poetry was the ultimate form of entertainment, which meant it, was the 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 Quran’s guidance to the entertainment industry and that is my hope. As Bayyinah grows our subscription base grows then we will be able to invest in this stuff.” 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.
|Dr. R. Raashed||Posted on : January 03, 2016 2:50 am|