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On Mount Nur

On Mount Nur

Issue 1 Sept / Oct 2003

Over fourteen hundred years ago, on the rugged mountain of light on the rim of Makkah, the Prophet Muhammad used to retreat to the cave of Hira during the month of Ramadan. In utter seclusion, he would devote himself to meditation and spiritual pursuit. This profound spiritual sanctuary eventually culminated in the revelations of the Qur’an: ‘Read in the name of thy Sustainer, Who has created, Created man out of a clot of congealed blood! Read! For thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One, Who has taught man the use of the Pen, taught man that which he knew not.’ Surah 96, verse 1-5

Here was the first revelation brought to the Prophet by the angel Gabriel, initiating the message that has enlightened humanity. Now, amidst the dizzying temporal swoon of the 21st century, we seek an imaginary journey with a Muslim personality to Mount Nur. There, alone, unveiled from the excesses of material existence, they contemplate the eternal divine message of Islam and share with us personal and spiritual experiences and aspirations that have been quintessential to their life as a Muslim.

Shaykh Haytham Tamim is the founder of Utrujj, an educational foundation. He speaks to Li Jia about being on Mount Nur.

 “For me, to be cast onto this landscape and to enact this retreat is the spiritual food for the soul, the link with Allah (S). It is the most fruitful life, the real life. There are two kinds of seclusion, the external one and the internal one. The first relates to places and people, particularly during Ramadan where the isolation from normal activities intensifies the link with God. It is a time for self-evaluation, accounting good and bad deeds, resulting in a spiritual purification that should extend to the rest of the year. The internal seclusion is not related to place but to the heart and its intentions. The two kinds of seclusions are inextricably linked but very few people attain internal seclusion where one is physically with others, but the soul is ‘in seclusion with Allah (S)’.

 There is a hadith about ihsan: ‘Worship Allah (S) as though you can see Him, and while you see Him not yet truly He sees you. (Bukhari, Muslim)

 The real life is to live with God and realise that our every prayer and deeds, children and wealth are submitted to serve God.  My striving in life is to pursue knowledge. Indeed, my favourite verse from the Qur’an is the first revelation (quoted at the beginning of this piece.) This verse emphasises that the key to accessing knowledge is through reading and it is not a coincidence it is the first verse. I have based my life upon seeking knowledge and I am heartened by this command from God indicating that it is an obligation. To me, this verse symbolises the fact that Islam is based on knowledge. So, every kind of knowledge is required, because it should guide us to God.

 I was born in Beirut and went to school and began university there but when it came to the decisive moment in my career choice, I suppose I rejected the more popular route of medicine, and decided to study Islam from the traditional scholars in Damascus. I was taught through traditional manuscripts  nd many rare books that have long gathered cob-webs in the great libraries of the Islamic world. My studies lasted 16 years, during which time I learnt Shariah and achieved accreditation (ijaaza) in Recitation, Interpretation and Sciences of the Qur'an, Hadith and Fiqh from the scholars of Sham, Medina and Indo-Pak. In ‘seclusion’ with various scholars, I have had the good fortune to receive their love, wisdom and etiquette, as well as their knowledge. Their special language of behaviour spoke volumes even when they were silent.

 I have a special affection for these masters, especially Mulla Abdul Aleem Az-Zanki. He was a great scholar: humble, sincere, devoted, spiritual and patient. He dedicated all his life to knowledge - to studying and teaching. It was one of God’s favours upon me to meet and study with this deeply spiritual man. He had spent 40 years studying with his teacher - Shaykh Mulla Mahmoud Qarah-Qouy. When I met him he was in his eighties, and he dedicated his time and his knowledge to our group of four students. We had two or three lessons every day, one after dhuhr prayer (noon), one after asr prayer (afternoon), and one after maghrib prayer (sunset), sometimes seven days a week in the mosque.

 Nothing would stop him from teaching us; in the cold of winter or the heat of summer, even illness would not prevent him from this task. He would invite us to his home to study even while he was terribly ill and in bed. Sometimes he would be unable to read due to his illness and one of us would read and the Shaykh would provide a commentary. When we said to him, “We will leave you to rest,” he would respond, “This is my rest. I forget my pains in teaching, and I hope that I will die whilst I am teaching.” He treated his knowledge as a trust and was eager to fulfil his trust.

 After teaching for over 12 years and lecturing in Comparative Fiqh, Hadith and Seerah at the Islamic University of Beirut and the Azhar Lubnan Academy, Lebanon, I have finally settled in England. A few years ago, I had a dream that I was teaching Hanafi fiqh in English, but I spoke very few words of English and was certainly not ready to deliver lectures in that language. I thought nothing of this until later when I had another vision that said, “You will go to London.” I was puzzled because I was in the middle of exams, and anyway it was notoriously difficult to get a visa for England. The vision revisited me and said, “You will go to London after your exams.” A few months later, I decided on a whim to visit a friend in London, and went along to get a visa with very low expectations. But to my utter amazement I was granted one immediately. Amidst the astonishment of all my friends, I departed for London with my wife and baby.

 When I arrived in England I was approached by many organisations to deliver lectures, but always in Arabic. After six months, the student organisation FOSIS suggested that I should give a course of comparative fiqh in English. I decided to take up the challenge and set out to translate a whole course from Arabic to English. After a few weeks of sleepless nights, it was time to present the classes. Suddenly, I realised that though I knew the course well enough in Arabic, but when it came to the English I did not even know how to pronounce some of the words. As I walked into my first class, all I could do was to plead to God to create an opening for me and untie my tongue. To my great surprise, the words slowly flowed out and the lecture was much appreciated. Indeed, God is omnipotent, and He will facilitate those He wishes. From such anxious beginnings, I gradually became known in the English speaking community and finally set up Utrujj in 2001. The Prophet Muhammad (s) mentioned: “The believer who recites the Qur’an and applies it is like the utrujja (a citrus fruit), whose smell is fragrant and taste is sweet.” (narrated byBukhari)

 This is a truly profound and inspirational hadith. So when I chose the name ‘Utrujj’ for my teaching foundation, I felt that it encapsulated everything a Muslim personality should be. It is not enough just to believe in Islam or even pursue Islamic knowledge, but those beliefs and knowledge must be put into action. I think that I would have gone a little way towards fulfilling my trust from Allah (S) if Utrujj could equip people with the sacred knowledge of Islam, whilst simultaneously helping them to live Islam in their daily lives. Your personalityshould, God-willing, come to personify this sacred knowledge and be witnessed by those around you when they smell the sweet fragrance of your good speech and taste the sweetness of your exemplary actions. When we ponder upon the profound wisdom of the Prophet’s (s) saying, I am reminded that the real path to spirituality is knowledge. In an age of ignorance, it is only with understanding and application of that knowledge, can we hope to live in a society where we are mutually immersed in the beautiful scent and taste of each others sweet personalities.

 As we leave Shaykh Haytham to his contemplation on Mount Nur, where the scent of the Prophet’s (s) own sweet personality seems to still linger, we take with us a haunting piece of Arabic poetry:

“A people will die but their knowledge will revive their memory, and ignorance makes a living people dead.”


words: Li Jia

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