By Mustafa Martin W. Prior (a student of Islamic Online University (IOU) )
I have been trying to learn Arabic for over 40 years and had many courses. Alhamdulillah, with this course, I really feel like I’m learning due to the structure and guidance the IOU gives.
I was born in England in Poole, Dorset in 1946, but I grew up in Bristol. I was not a good student and disliked school, which on reflection, I believe was due to my awful handwriting. I was more inclined to working with my hands. I made things from wood, repaired cars with my father, and loved walking and rambling in the fields.
On days that my father was pleased with me, my reward was to listen to his short wave radio in the garden shed. I would sit there for hours with my headset listening to the world. If I found a station I liked, I would listen to it even without understanding. Only much later did I realize that it was Quran Radio from Mecca (or Egypt?) that I was hooked onto. I was just 9 years old at that time.
I remember once when I was around 11 or 12, my father had brought some books from the library by the Victorian explorer, Sir Richard Burton. They were about his explorations of Africa and his journey from India via Afghanistan to Hajj in Mecca. All of these books captured my imagination and like young boys do, I fantasized that it was I making these great discoveries and journeys.
Confident that I knew everything that ought to be known, I dropped out of school at the earliest opportunity, which in those days was 14. I then worked in a men’s clothing shop, a coach builder’s factory, a department store and did some repair works too. Frankly speaking, none of this interested me. Then one fine day, I passed by the Royal Navy recruiting office and two weeks later, I was learning how to march!
I went on to study electronics at the Navy School and after a couple of years, I was on board my first ship en route to the United States and Canada. I was then sent to Aden, where apparently, we were not liked very much. It did not take me long to see why. I got on very well with the Yemeni people and used to go out on their fishing boats in my spare time. This was the start of my Sir Richard Burton dream.
From Yemen, I went to Bahrain where I practically did nothing for about a year, except drag a fire cart up and down the small jetty daily to practice fire drills. I guess they figured that I was not very good at electronics. Eventually, I was returned to the UK and put aboard a ship patrolling the English Channel. Due to the rough and appalling English weather, I did not enjoy myself at all.
At this point, I decided to quit the Royal Navy. I had enjoyed it but felt that there was more I could do. Soon after, I took up a job of a store manager selling bed linens and curtains. The saying, “Beggars can’t be choosers” was apt for my situation at that time.
It was during one of those days that I received a telegram from London for an interview. To call it an ‘interview’ would be an overstatement. Let me tell you why. The interviewer, an American ex-colonel, simply informed me that I had to work with a team of American and English people in some rough areas of the world and that I was perfect for the job. Also, I would have to leave to the site of work immediately.
As is my nature, I usually make decisions very quickly, and hence it was no surprise that I promptly agreed to the offer. I was posted in Australia where I was to explore oil off the coast of West Australia along with my companions who I met in Rome. In particular, my role was to set up and look after some electronic equipment for the same purpose. The work also required traveling to Indonesia where I was able to renew my acquaintance with Muslims and I must say that I liked working with them.
I was about 21 at that time. The Western culture of spending hours consuming alcohol did not amuse me at all. It seemed pointless and worthless. Fortunately, after traveling around South East Asia, I was posted in Yemen. At that time, it had recently been opened by a road from Sana’a to Hodeidah on the coast. I made many friends over there and it was in that year I became a Muslim in Singapore, alhamdulillah.
Shortly after that, I went to Egypt and was able to establish my own company in Cairo in the same field. My aim was to create job opportunities for Muslims as I had always found them to be reliable and skilled. I expanded my business to all the countries surrounding the Red Sea including Somalia. I was once again re-living the journeys of Sir Richard Burton.
In 1988, I sold my business and returned to the UK where I set up a company for designing and building computer systems. In the mid 90’s, I dissolved this company and spent time consulting on computer related issues with Kuwait Petroleum in Thailand and England.
Tired of traveling, my wife (who I married in Malaysia) and I finally set up a small Internet cafe in Bournemouth in the late 90’s. This gave me some spare time to spend in the local mosque and familiarize myself with the local Muslim community. However, shortly after the events of 9/11 took place, we were a bit uncomfortable running our cafe as the majority of the visitors were Muslims. It was then that we decided to return to Malaysia.
This may sound strange but one of the things that I missed the most was bread! So much so that I ended up baking it myself using the techniques my grandmother had shown me years before. Shortly afterwards, we set up our bakery which sold only halal products. Finally, I had found my home and was able to settle down. My physical journey was over, but I was still lacking in my spiritual side. All the traveling had made it difficult to study Islam as I would have liked to.
When I look back, I am convinced that my life was guided by Allah . I knew that it was high time that I started studying our deen. I have seen Islam in many guises around the world but the common link I found everywhere was the Arabic language. It was the key I had to gain to unlock the understanding of Islam, to understand the way of life.
Thus, I began my journey to seek knowledge. My poor ‘rapport’ with academics continued here too…until I came across my current teacher. I finally began to understand texts written in Arabic.
Our study method at IOU includes conversing with him thrice a week for an hour. In nearly every lesson, he teaches me some new tidbit about the language. For example, once he asked me how would my cousin introduce himself if s/he came to my home. Of course in English, they would simply say ‘cousin’, but in Arabic, the word used would inform the listener of the person’s exact relation to him, and hence decide if it was appropriate for them to meet or not. I once heard a talk by Nouman Ali Khan on the Arabic word ‘baab’ where he mentioned that the word is not what we call a door but the hole that is closed by it. This and many such minor intricacies of the language were enough to persuade me to learn Arabic.
Islam as practiced in many countries these days is quite similar to the practice of Christianity. We all assemble on Friday, various committee members play a role in performing the prayer and we are all led in dhikr, quite similar to the Sunday meet in Christianity. As a result, I am constantly on the look out to locate mosques that adhere to the Sunnah. I find this very sad as this was one of the reasons that distanced me from Christianity.
It is also sad that we feel the need for grand places of worship rather than small humble buildings which are close to the populated areas enabling the Muslims to attend every prayer. But these days, due to the enormity and glamor of the masajid, huge areas are required for such constructions and hence they need to be located at distances far away from the residential areas.
In short, we are distanced so much from the masajid that we need a car or motorcycle to take us to a prayer. I want to have a one-to-one relationship with Allah. In order to achieve this connection, I must learn Arabic from the original texts. This is the actual journey of my life and insha Allah it will continue. As humans, we cannot stop learning and if we do, we become ignorant and dull. Learning strengthens the mind and improves the faculties. Along with the mind, must come the body and so, I regularly exercise to keep myself fit. This also helps to improve and maintain our mobility so that we can continue to perform our prayer.
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