Ramadan with a Celebrity Sheikh – No Groupie

Alhamdulillah. I have been humbled by Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan this Ramadan, after reluctantly watching his Tafsir (exegesis) videos on Surah al Baqarah. For years I have been unable to appreciate why many people revere his teaching because I had failed to be impressed by his videos which I sampled, nor attain insight. Celebrity Sheikhs get a different treatment from me. So I tried to assess his teachings by disregarding his celebrity status, which leads me to being cynically critical, which collateralize any learning. Some of his more popular videos cannot be considered classes because they were usually speeches, but I judged him based on that too.

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The bulk of the flaws I notice are in his examples and analogies, especially because I was informed that those are supposed to be his strengths; in addition to his relaxed language. Other flaws I couldn’t notice were probably beyond my scope of knowledge. He was alright, but not insightful enough for me, but perhaps for some people; so I moved on. I have since adjusted to keep my eyes on the prize, that is the main points, and not to sweat the small stuff i.e. examples and analogies. This Ramadan, I caught him in his element, which is Tafsir emphasizing linguistic analysis (Lughah, Nahw, Ishtiqaaq, balagha i.e. Lexicography, Syntax, Etymology, Rhetoric). Hats off to him, and may God be pleased with him.

The title of the videos is called Ramadan Exclusive Surah al Baqarah; at least that is what you should search for on Youtube. Content wise, it is quite rich, covering no more than 2 verses in some sessions which typically last an hour. It seems he surveys works on Tafsirs, then presents the most convincing opinions to him. Some of the big shots he references are Tabari (of course), Imam Razi, Ibn Ashur, Farahi, and Islahi (whose Tadabburi Qur’an is still only available in Urdu). Just their names should make your mind salivate. He wanders into biblical sources, to Seerah, to recent statistics, to other parts of the Qur’an, to extra-biblical sources, to academic sources, to video games with no sense of boundaries, in order to drive his points. All the while, he is anchored in Arabic linguistics.

It is narrated that Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, the renowned theologian and exegete, was walking among huge crowds celebrating him while an old woman looked on confused. She asked, who is that? They told her: “He is Imam al-Razi, and he has 100 proofs of God’s existence.” She asked again, laughing, “But why would he need those, unless he had 1000 doubts?!” The Imam was impressed by her remark and used to pray thereafter: “O Allah, grant me faith like that of the old woman!” – Well Known

The first time I committed some scholarly respect to Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan was when I read his response to a controversy raised by some Youtube Salafi’s because of a statement he made at a speech; that people should downplay their obsessions with Aqeedah and connect more with the Qur’an instead. That sure hurt Salafi pride, because what is a Salafi without cramming your Tauhid Al Rububiyya/Uluhiyya/Asma-wal-Sifat?! My respect then was similar to what I have for Dr Yasir Qadhi, because they both appear to have been at one point staunch Salafi-breeds, then they transcended labels, leaving the containers but with a lot more content. Now that I have some insight into Ustadh Nouman’s understanding of the Qur’an, I can appreciate his response better. More than anything, his Tafsir is loaded with theological content, discussed so casually, but profoundly, that it may miss the attention of a trained theologian. Ustadh Nouman is the guy in between Imam Razi (a sophisticated theologian) and the simple Old-woman with basic true beliefs that Imam Razi envies. For instance Ustadh Nouman discusses: the potentially controversial prostration of the Angels to Adam, like that which the brothers of Yusuf did to Yusuf (AS); offers a refreshing understanding of the verse (Q2:61) often read as salvation to Jew, Christians and Sabeans, even while holding the belief that salvation is not exclusive to Muslims; etc. Some of these appear to be opinions he arrived at rather than read from some author. It is through this Qur’an theology that he transcended the Salafi Aqeedah, I suppose, by understanding it more profoundly.

Without sound effects of thriller movies, the videos are full of twists. How many Tafsir sessions do you know that try to empathize with Satan (Iblis). Ustadh Nouman manages to get you into the shoes of Iblis, similar to the biblical account of fallen angels, or those who hail Satan as Lucifer (the light bearer), so that one begins to feel they would act the same in Satan’s shoe. Then Ustadh Nouman rescues you from that shoe of ignorance and arrogance into the bigger picture, as if reflecting an accusatory mirror, so that one humbles themselves before God. Similarly he succeeds in getting one to empathize with the Hypocrites of Madina, especially those who signed up for Islam simply because it was fashionable or pragmatic, and then realize it is demanding much from them. In a similar vein to that of Iblis, one is made to appreciate their error.

While many Muslims would claim the genealogy of Islam was through Judaism (Musa AS) and Christianity (Isa AS), many despise Jews in a racist sense, justified by Qur’an’s reference to their ancestors. The same Muslims would also proudly say they don’t believe in original sins, as in Christianity. This may have been amplified by recent international affairs of Palestine and Israel, though an un-empathetic reading of the Qur’an could also lead to similar attitudes. The videos remind Muslims today that the Jews in the Qur’an are actually Muslims; like an earlier generation of Sahaba. We are reminded that Ya Bani Isra’il is a honorific address, rather than a prelude to accusation and curses. By cross-referencing incidents that are mentioned in passing in the Qur’an, with more detailed accounts from biblical (and extra-biblical) sources, it appears the Qur’an conceals some of the wrongs of the historic Jews. Therefore the Qur’an which has been accused of being anti-Semitic, may be pro-Semitic compared to the biblical sources.

Taking the empathy with the Jews further, the entire story of the Jews in the Qur’an is not presented as history lessons, but as commentary on Muslims today. Muslims today look down on non-Muslims because they feel they are saved, like the historic Jews. Muslims today kill their scholars which they don’t agree with, like the historic Jews killed their prophets. Some Muslims mix-up their religion with others and superstitions, like the Egyptian Jews mixed up their religion with their neighbor’s (Canaanites) belief in cows (which led to the molding of the golden calf). Muslims make so much noise about matters of the mind (e.g. Fiqh discussions/arguments) and ignore matters of the heart (e.g. Fiqh applications and relationship with Qur’an). There are many other examples.

Also valuable is Ustadh Nouman’s experience as a teacher. You can’t really buy experience. Over the years, Ustadh Nouman has had several inquiries thrown his way which are valuable because many people would have similar issues. Of course not all the questions were sincere but we can benefit from the sincere ones, especially if we have been indoctrinated not to ask certain “blasphemous” questions. He has had to come up with convincing answers over the years, which may not necessarily be convincing to you, but worth listening. Why did God inform the angels about creation of man when He seemed to have already decided to do so with or without their input. Why did God allow for the interaction between Iblis and Adam when He seemed to have planned they would both end up on earth. Why did God ask the Jews to accept His guidance while terrifying them with “mountain above them” (Q2:63), since their answers may not be sincere.

Then there is the creativity that goes into his understanding. Many undervalue the role creativity plays in problem solving, including the problem of guidance for Mankind. Ustadh Nouman displays such bridled creativity. Creativity allows us to understand a thing differently, which leads to new insights. Call it Ilham, but like Elizabeth Gilbert, I call it creativity.

Generally speaking, I find writing to be richer in content, depth and insight than videos. Videos also have a way of devouring our time in exchange for an idea that can fit in two sentences, so I may not be able to afford the time for Ustadh Nouman’s classes but there is certainly a lot to learn. It is all pedagogical preference. I recommend it. I should mention that having a bit of Arabic would allow you pick up some Arabic lessons in addition.

We have all had those moments when we feel the Qur’an is talking to us, but I had Tafsir talk to me. The reluctance I had approaching these videos was mainly because my cynical  criticism of the “Celebrity Sheikh” which was a barrier to learning. This is in no way saying I know half the stuff he knows, which is perhaps why I fixate on the few things I know, which I felt he wasn’t presenting well in his examples. With only 10% of your knowledge, I believe I can criticize your talks, and with 20%, I can even make parodies on Youtube, plus memes. Why do you think critics rule social media?! I still find some of his analogies and examples either an over simplification, or not the most appropriate for his points. However, his points manage to come across. Many times, his points are quite enlightening. There is much to learn from Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan.

Another important outcome of watching these videos is that it has re-ignited the courage in me to resuscitate a project I had been working on, but left fallow for 3 years now. It is called Qur’an Hacking (aka Qur’an Haqqing). In summary, this entails outputting primarily eisegetical, but also exegetical, reflections on the Qur’an using the tools of literary theory, fine art, performance arts and other paradigms of expression. I shall follow up with more information soon InShaAllah. For now it suffice to say that Ustadh Nouman was exhibiting a number Qur’an Haqqing skills very well.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Ramadan with a Celebrity Sheikh – No Groupie

  1. Ummi

    Nice piece, enlightening…

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