Dr. Muhammad Al Ninowy, the Syrian-born American Islamic scholar, shares his philosophy of Unconditional Compassion as he learns about the legacy of peace-loving Muslim Kerala. By Mujeeb Jaihoon. (Dec 04 2015. Photos by Abdul Wahab)
Hate Looting the Limelight
The whole world is marketplace. And everyone, big or small, has one commodity or other to trade with rest of the human fraternity. And not every merchandise sells at the same pace. Each product sells differently in different time and place. And it is often the market forces which determine the sellability of the stock. It takes extraordinary courage and wits to trade in ‘unsellable’ products during difficult times.
Today we are constantly bombarded by all things Hate and Intolerance. In person and group, hate and intolerance is cast and broadcast 24/7 across the world in word and deed. Hatemongers are ‘looting’ the limelight giving very little or no room for love and tolerance.
A few devoted souls are however doing all they can to keep the candle of hope burning amidst this cyclone of animosity among the children of Adam. They choose to converse in smiles even as they confront the flames of violence. They tell the beads of love and dignity, while not ignoring wisdom and virtue, when addressing their beloved creation of Almighty. They tread the path of patience and sacrifice and their hearts are tuned and turned to the Beloved of God.
For several years, I had eagerly yearned… and recently I earned the golden opportunity to meet and greet such a daring soul of incredible knowledge and love.
Friday! The favorite day of the Faithful when his heart is fragrant with the love of Beloved Father of Fatima. It was an energetic morning at Malabar. I raced to the residence of the soft-spoken Sayyid of Panakkad. And a group of children queued at the entrance to cheer the imminent Sheikh.
And the children waited…
The 10-year olds, enrolled for Quran memorization course, waited with their innocent head and heart; adjusting their geometrically embroidered caps while quietly repeating the verses from the book of the Most Merciful. They too were eager to welcome the Sheikh leading the caravan of love whose ancestors trace to the city of Ninowa, a city close to Kerbala in Iraq.
Kerbala! That city whose mention increases the heartbeat of the believer. Kerbala! A thorn that bleeds lovers’ hearts for a moment. A dark chapter which we wish were not recorded in the books of history. A wound whose pain will ache till the Last Day. A nightmare which will haunt every sweet sleep.
The Ahl Bait (descendants of the Holy Prophet led by his grandson Hussein), the protagonists of Kerbala who fought against tyranny and falsehood, are the symbols of patience, benevolence and sacrifice. They set their eyes not on the throne of this momentary world, but to adorn the crown of paradise beside their Forefather.
Sheikh Sayyid Al Ninowy, born in Aleppo to Ahl Bait family of Iraq descent, is currently an American citizen. He is actively involved in Islamic educational activities and is widely known for his peaceful initiatives across the world.
And the children waited…
They too, like me, were eager to see the man who was related to three great civilizations. Iraq, Syria and the United States- three happening hotpots on the present map of global politics.
The Sheikh was on his way after attending an interfaith conference the previous day in Kerala. He had reminded the participants in the meet that the Prophet always stood for communal harmony in the society. He assured that there were many whose hearts are inclined in compassion towards the religion of Peace. ‘Ar-Rahman, among the 99 names of God, stands for unconditional compassion’.
And the children waited…
Eager to witness the meeting of the Hussaini Kerbala-descent Sayyid with his Kerala cousins who were connected to him through a sublime and supreme fraternity which is today spread throughout the world.
Here comes the Sheikh
And then the children waited no more… for, the Sheikh arrived in the full light of reality without the slightest cloud of uncertainty. The Ninowy Sayyid was accompanied by two young energetic Keralite youths who had been giving company to the Sayyid ever since he arrived on the land.
One of the children caught my hand and told me he’d listened to the Sheikh for past few years and was excited to meet him in person. ‘Today is your chance’, replied I.
Welcome to Khairulla
I descended to the car porch and held the hand of the American scholar. “Welcome. Welcome Sheikh to Khairulla.” The Sayyid smiled at me as if he’d known me for some time.
The American Sheikh, who was a former professor of Anatomy and Physiology at the University of Georgia, was welcomed by the ‘children of Quran’ with a bouquet of roses. Sheikh Ninowy is not the only American Islamic preacher to hail from the medical field. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, popularly known as the rock star of traditional Islam, also pursued a medical profession before Islamic scholarship won his heart.
The Sheikh was seated at the living room of the Panakkad Sayyid, who had studied law at the Aligarh University. I too got an opportunity to sit beside the two Sayyids with medical and legal academics.
One by one, the Sheikh was introduced to each member of the group. He was friendly with all and patiently listened to their talk. He enquired about the status of Islamic education in Kerala and was impressed with the results.
A Mantra of and for Light
On the source of Islamic knowledge, the American Professor-Sheikh contended that only the Quran and Sunnah were infallible. For all dust settled if the Prophet had given his verdict on a specific topic.
And while speaking on the Holy Book, in came the 10 year old ‘children of Quran’, modest and in earnest, to shake hands with the Sheikh and seek his dua. Child by child he greeted them all and asked their name. Among them was the child of the host Sayyid too. And when their ‘honey-line’ ended, he gave them so magnificent and so beneficial a gift, they could preserve it all their lives. “اللهم صل على سيِدنا محمد النور وآله”. A mantra of light and love upon the Beloved to recite, if possible 1000 times, to enable easier memorization of Book of God. The Beloved Prophet is full of light and the more you recite prayers on him, the more light enters your hearts, promised the Sheikh. And he granted the ijazah, tradition in Sufi circles to grant permission for repeating a dua, for everyone present there. He repeated the prayer ten times along with the students and adults gathered there. Perhaps for reasons of modesty he did not mention in the assembly that the Sheikh too was a hafiz (committed entire Quran to memory), trained under the guidance of his father while in Syria.
The Sheikh went on further to say that Arabic learning is very important for the Community. He gave a thumbs-up mention of the modern approach in the Arabic syllabus taught in the capital city of Abu Dhabi which is currently followed in the institute run by the Sheikh and co. The 8-level intuitive series is superior to any other syllabus taught in other parts of Muslim world, including Saudi Arabia.
Just as he mentioned about the Emirates, I abruptly interrupted him to inform that the mueddin of the Sheikh Zayed Masjid is from Kerala. He could not believe his ears and praised the Almighty.
The Fatimi Fraternity
As I referred to his constant mention of the centrality of the Ahl Bait in his sermons, he replied with a smile, ‘Why not? It is granted by Allah and his Messenger’. I then told him in a tone neither free from pride nor humility that Kerala Muslims has enjoyed the leadership of Ahl Bait since past few centuries. The ‘Fatimi Fraternity’ has been beacons for the Community in their spiritual emancipation, educational upliftment, anti-colonial struggle and the rise to modern Kerala’s democratic presence with a modest voice across the power corridors. I presented to him the copies of my books, The Cool Breeze From Hind – a spiritual travelogue on the advent of Islam in Kerala- and Meem is for Mercy – poems dedicated to the Holy Prophet. He accepted them both duas for the author.
Idli, Pathiri & Steam Cakes
The discussion was interrupted by the call of the breakfast table, a very happening occasion in traditional Malabar. ‘Dishes in Kerala revolve around rice and coconut’, the oxygen-crops of Kerala economy, at least till recent times. The Sheikh looked amazed at the extensive dishes ranging from putt and idli – rice steam cakes, pathiri (the rice-based bread of Kerala equivalent for North Indian what-made chapatti), barbecued banana and variety of curries of veg and non-veg flavors.
The Sheikh only had a little bite from a dish or two. He rather chose to have spoonful of the pomegranates, a fruit, according to Quran, to be among the menu of the inmates of the Paradise.
During the discussion on the eating table, he asked about the language of Kerala and was amazed when told of the variety of dialects, just as the recipes, in different parts of the land.
Harmony with Hindus
‘Interesting thing in Kerala is the Hindu-Muslim relationship which is very good’, exclaimed the Sheikh. It is partly owing to the harmonious manner in which the Faith made its entry to the land, explained I. ‘And the present political leadership under the Ahl Bait ensures it continues the same way’.
‘True. We don’t kill people to believe’ answered the Sheikh.
Zooming on Focus
The Sheikh believes the current issues facing the Muslim world would only increase but the Community need to focus on core areas such as education to resurrect the thousand year tradition and rejuvenate the beautiful aspects of Islam. And this tradition-revolution requires the contributions from productive media persons, film makers and other artists, not just the clergy alone.
He was happy to learn about the da’wa activities in Kerala wherein propagators invite general public in bus stands and parks to the fold of Faith without disrupting the peace and harmony in society.
He was also introduced to a young Sayyid who had recently completed his studies from the International Islamic university of Malaysia.
All throughout the discussion, the Sheikh always spoke clearly, focusing on one thing at a time.
According to him, ‘We should learn to unlock ourselves to understand the powerful love, mercy, kindness and all immortal qualities of Allah’ which could be achieved by internalizing the Asmaaul Husna (the 99 names of God). Benevolence, as per Sheikh Ninowy, cannot be confined. ‘There exists different faith system like Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism. Even atheism is a system of faith. It seems religion is responsible for war, destruction, growing agony, violence and so on. But religion was never the cause of anything. Thousands of years ago firaun used faith to mobilize people. Terrorist always used religion that violates its sacredness’.
Ihsan also implies we treat everyone in a way that we wish ourselves to be treated. Ihsan or unconditional Compassion should also ensure ‘our youth are provided with accurate information about the religion and is not misleading. One should learn to accept religious diversity. What makes human beings beautiful is diversified social fabric. And if we lose that it becomes pretty boring.’
On Girls Education
The girls today are the mothers of the tomorrow’s Ummah. Much care need to be given for them. They have to be provided the best of education. The Community needs lady leaders, speakers and scholars so that they can impart the teachings of Faith to their successors. Female scholars can better deliberate and discuss their issues much better than their male counterparts.
On Social Change
‘Don’t wait for only the old generation to make changes in the society and big organizations to bring revolutions. The Ummah has already lost its time and can’t afford to lose anymore. Only a quick-start can create an intellectual army in future. The world needs Islam for its survival’.
True to the practice of traditional Islam, the American Sheikh prayed for his host and his family. Before he rose from the chair, I admitted that it is only out of respect to the guest that the host Sayyid is not forcing his hospitality. Else, Malabar’s hospitality is a lifetime experience. ‘Kerala is worth visiting only for it’s finger-licking dishes’.
Al Azhar University & Sayyid Shihab
The Sheikh bid farewell to his host to proceed to the residence of the latter’s elder brother, the present supremo of Muslim League, Kerala’s only serious mainstream Muslim political entity with its representation in ruling circles. The elder Sayyid welcomed the Sheikh and honored him with a green shawl.
The Sayyid mentioned about his late brother, Sayyid Muhammadali Shihab, the renowned humanist and sage of Kerala who had completed his education from Al Azhar University in Egypt from where the Shaykh too had graduated.
The Sheikh too is involved in humanitarian activities with Planet Mercy, a voluntary wing of the Madina Institute which is serving the suffering brethren in different places including Syria.
The brief meeting ended with dua and embrace. Despite the humongous crowd of visitors waiting for the host, he walked the American guest to the car.
Abode of Guidance
We escorted the Sheikh to destination next. And within next thirty minutes, we entered through the gates of one the most notable Islamic academic institutions in India known for its exhaustive syllabus while producing some of the finest orators, scholars and researchers in India. This dedicated center of learning has also successfully engineered many other institutions in other parts of the country too.
The Sheikh was gladly received by its light-hearted Vice Chancellor, known for his no-nonsensical scholarship and widely traveled experience. It was immensely informative to listen to top intellectuals, sharing their passionate zeal for developing Islamic scholarship. The Sheikh kept marveling ‘Subhnallah’ as the Vice Chancellor went on mentioning the suburbs in Damascus and Aleppo.
The Shadili Link
The Vice Chancellor also gave him a briefing into the history of Sayyids in Kerala who came from Hadramaut. Also mentioned was the living Shaykh Mohiyuddin, a student of the renowned saint Abdul Qadr Isa who revived the Shadhili Order in the Levant. Co-incidentally the American Professor too has pledged to the same Order of Islamic mysticism.
Tradition in Age of Decadence
The Sheikh, however, was not shy of admitting that a lot need to be done further in closing the gap between Islamic scholars and the youth. While appreciating ‘tradition as an academic contribution of an expert to the Divine Text, it does not escape the infallibility test. But tradition is worthy looking into. Traditional Perseverance is vital in this age of Decadence’.
The Vice Chancellor, who had frequented different parts of the Arab world, also highlighted in fluent Arabic the legacy of Sayyid Alawi, the anti-colonial Sayyids, and his son Sayyid Fadhl who later became a governor in Ottoman Caliphate.
Short & Sweet Sermon
After a while, it was time for the Friday congregational prayer. Although someone offered to go in the car, the Sheikh chose to walk to the masjid in the campus.
Upon the request of the Vice-Chancellor, he delivered a very brief Friday sermon in easy classical Arabic.
The Juma prayer was followed by a short talk again. He reminded the young would-be scholars about the importance and significance of learning and the merit of a scholar over the ignorant. It was notable that the Amercian Sheikh followed the American standard time-keeping, exact and accurate. In fact I was told that the young Indian organizers were gasping to keep up with the efficient Sheikh.
Students thronged to meet, greet and kiss the hands of the world renowned scholar. Every mind at the ‘Abode of Guidance’ were impressed and energized with the electrifying yet gratifying words of the Dr. Professor. He made sure to record his love in the guestbook of the institution and to have an affectionate bite from the native-grown fruits served on the table.
When all was set for the Sheikh to bid farewell, I whispered in his ears with a smile: Don’t miss the Dam Biryani in Hyderabad. ‘No I won’t. I have heard it is really good’.
Finally he left for the blessed mausoleum of Sayyid Alavi Mouladaveel, the 30th grandson of Imam Hussain, situated just minutes away drive from the Islamic University, and recited a fatiha for his salvation.
As the Sheikh’s car began to move, there appeared on my mind-screen one of his oft-quoted saying. ‘What good are you if you are good to only those who are good to you’.
Perhaps no other modern ‘turban-heads’ has so beautifully and aptly crystallized the concept of ‘Ihsan’ in this ‘selfie’ era.
Mujeeb Jaihoon, who hails from the South Indian state of Kerala, has published several books on mystic themes. He serves as director to schools and colleges in Kerala besides playing an advisory role in community based initiatives. He could be reached on Twitter: @mujeebjaihoon