As he turned the corner of the street a Maroon colored Geely pulled up in front of its destination. The student made sure to stay away from the car because it wasn’t farfetched for a car to be inattentive and accidentally clip an equally inattentive pedestrian. As he got closer he saw the distinctive beard of his shaykh, a young looking graduate of the Arabic Language and Jurisprudence college whose young appearance fooled many who hadn’t the opportunity to learn from the archaic knowledge that sat in his chest, ready to be taught at a moments notice.
The shaykh got out of his taxi and shared smiles with the student, a student who he had just told to make sure he was on time. Oxfords and sandals hit the ground side by side as they walked together to the building next door.
“Is Abdullah here?” The shaykh asked.
“I don’t know Shaykh. God willing he is as I don’t have a key.”
“I have one, all praises to God. There is no problem.” As they ascended the stairs the jingle of the shaykh’s keys in his pocket grew louder up until the shaykh reached into his pocket to unlock the door.
“In the name of God the Most Merciful and the Most Beneficent. May God’s peace and blessings be upon you.” Their voices unified as they made their way into a large room to the side and laid down their bags.
Shadows hid in the corner of the room and rested on the furniture. The student turned towards the shaykh, “Would you like me to turn on the light?”
“Ah,” It was an affirmative.
The two ceiling fans that the students had just raised money to install lit up the room. The dark wooden floor seating with plush seats were empty of students as class wouldn’t start for another hour.
“Do you need anything, any water? Tea? Do you need to purify yourself?” The shaykh eluded to the sacred ritual of purification that Muslims undergo prior to praying, but also prior to other actions of worship.
“No, by the grace of God I am good. I did before I left home.” He followed the shaykh and sat at his feet as the shaykh took a seat on the plush seating.
“So how are you? Why did you not come to the make up exam?” His face still warm, still inviting, still filled with love.
“I didn’t feel like I should bother. I had already done so poorly on the first exam and I felt there would be no point in a retake. I barely had time to study either.”
The Shaykh’s head shook from left to right. “No, that is not right. Why did you not come when I told you to come, at least we could sit and talk.”
“I had felt so bad after the test that I didn’t want to go anywhere.”
“This is also incorrect. You should come even if you felt bad, I am here to help you.” He resettled himself on the couch and directed his gaze strongly at the student. “If you knew of a person who needed to go Alexandria and they had no idea how to get there, so they sat and thought about how to get there. They thought, and thought and thought but they never went outside and asked anyone, they never used a map, and instead they just sat and thought and thought about it. Would that person ever arrive at their destination?
The student smirked, “of course not.”
“This person would need to eventually get up and go and ask someone, buy a map, ask someone about the different modes of transportation to get to Upper Egypt and then go. If they thought about it for the rest of their lives but never got up and did anything then they would never get anywhere would they?”
The student nodded in affirmation, he understood where the shaykh was going with this. This man who kept thinking and thinking but never seeking guidance was an allusion to himself. He would need to seek guidance.
“What if I told you I want to learn English and I came to you and asked for your help because you are better than I am in this. You then recommended to me some books, but then after I looked at them I told you that these books were not good and I would go elsewhere. You would think me a fool, especially since I can’t even read the titles.” The shaykh chuckled. “Listen to me and pay attention. You are here because you want to learn and because one day you will want to teach, but there are people who have done this before you. There are people who have walked this path. And so if they tell you to walk a certain path and to avoid another you should listen. Your job is to listen and obey, I am not saying that you are not free and that you are a slave to your shaykhs, of course you are free. This is not about worship this is about learning. You can choose to do as you wish, but if there are those around you with knowledge of the path then who are you to differ with them.”
The shaykh chose his words like a chess master laying his foundation.
“It is not easy but you must realize that if I for example tell you to use such and such book, or to study with such and such shaykh then ultimately that will be of benefit to you. Why? Because just like you can teach me English I am your predecessor in the language of Arabic and in the study of Jurisprudence. I have walked the path. Not to mention, did you know I failed my first year of Azhar?”
The student smiled not out of delight but because he had just heard this from another friend who had used the same example to cheer him up. “Yes, I was told last night.”
“Yes but did you know that I didn’t fail one exam, I failed the entire year, I had to repeat it.”
“Yes I heard shaykh.”
“You must understand something, do you see that Bukhoor over there? Pass it to me.”
The student turned around and looked at the golden device where hot coal was placed into and then perfumed wood was laid on top in order to create a beautiful odor.
“Pass it to me.” The shaykh repeated.
The student grabbed the box of unopened wood and passed it to the shaykh. The shaykh opened the container and took out a small piece of wood and placed it on the table in front of them.
“Is this a little or a lot?”
“It is a little.”
He then took out another piece and placed it on top. “What about now?”
“It is still a little.” His smile widened and his understanding of what was happening did.
The shaykh then turned the entire container over and hundreds of small pieces of wood fell onto the table and onto the ground. “This is how knowledge is. You have lofty aspirations as you should, but what you need to understand is that knowledge takes time. You have not even been here a year as of yet. You are like the first piece I laid down, maybe even less. You will take piece by piece. You will attend Theology, Jurisprudence, Language, Rhetoric, Logic and you will take piece by piece. After one year, two years, three years you will maybe not realize but you will slowly start to become like this.” He pointed towards the mound of sweet smelling wood. “It takes time to be a person of knowledge, and you must be patient with that process. There are people that were like you but after 10 years they become great people of knowledge.”
“Good. So you will have your makeup exam on Thursday an hour before we start class and you will then complete the module with me. You will also start the grammar with me this upcoming week.”
“But I will not understand shaykh. The issue is that even though I can understand and converse with you now, when you are teaching in a class you will be speaking much faster and not only that but the students are all much better than me in language and so I will feel shy to ask questions.”
“This is a problem. Why will you feel shy? Do you know what the most beloved man to have lived said about this? He said, May God elevate His rank and send peace upon Him and cause us to receive his intercession. ‘Two people will not learn, the arrogant one and the …..”
“The shy one.” They said in unison. The student knew this narration well as he had mentioned it many times in his mother tongue when he taught classes. It was almost amusing that it was now being mentioned to describe himself.
“You must not be shy! This is a problem. Praise God you are not an arrogant person but this problem of shyness when it comes to learning must go away. If you do not understand something you tell me that you do not understand. I do not care if you ask me 5 times, or 10 times, or 20. I will explain it to you every time. Did you hear me? I will not feel bothered no matter how many times I have to explain it..”
“I understand but I don’t want the other students to feel bothered.”
“You listen to me! You will not ever leave my class not understanding something unless that is what you want. You will tell me that you do not understand, even if it takes me 100 times of explanations, I will explain it until you understand. Do you know why? Because this is what my teachers did for me and that is what I will do for you. When I studied grammar I was in class with my sister. My sister was much better than me in grammar. I would sit next to her and sometimes feel this shyness too, but I pushed myself to ask until I became better than her, or at least equal to her.” They both laughed.
“Saying ‘I don’t understand.’ is the greatest of statements. It is so good and so powerful. Do you know why I don’t mind that you tell me this statement even 100 times?”
The student straightened his back, his eyes attentive.
“First, because every time you say it I will try my best to help you understand. When I do that I do it with the intention that God will forgive me my sins. I have many sins and if I can at least get them equal then God willing I will be better off.” The student smiled. “The second reason is because maybe other students are shy and when you push yourself to ask the question maybe you will be a source of guidance for them. Maybe they understood only 50% of the material but then you said that you do not understand. After I explain it again they end up understanding 100% of it. Do you understand? Saying that you do not understand is great, I want to hear you say it and to never stop. There is so much benefit in saying that you do not understand.”
“I understand shaykh.”
“All praises be to God. You are a good student, and you will be a person of knowledge, but you must be patient. You will make it through God willing.”
“God is the Greatest!” The megaphones of the Mosque began the call to prayer and the shaykh repeated after the caller, “God is the Greatest.” Their conversation was complete but the lesson would be an ongoing one, it would sit with the student for a lifetime. The student was visited by an angel, and his heart washed, and he would go on to fulfill his mission, God willing.
And this is a story for those who believe.