As I sit here in Cairo Airport waiting for my friend on the (delayed) Egyptair flight from Istanbul (that’s a 100% record for me so far!), a strange sense of nostalgia overcomes me… has it really been 6 months already?
It feels strange that it has been so long. Subconsciously, Egypt has become my new home as its ways of life have become the norm. £1 for a cup of coffee seems a rip off; one hour car journeys the city seems short; rain is now picture worthy. I even correctly anticipated the delay of my friend’s flight before coming to the airport, bringing my laptop with me to fill the time! It’s odd because I never would have foreseen this. This week marks my 4th month out here in Egypt and a miracle has happened – I don’t want to go back to the UK!
I never thought I could survive moving to Cairo. I thought I was too ‘British’ to survive the dirty streets, regular delays and lack of organisation that plagues this country. On top of that, I was always hoping the situation in Syria would improve to allow me to move over there, requesting a multi-entry visa before I even got here. But the biggest factor of all was knowing I would miss all my family and friends whilst being out here for so long. It’s hard only being able to see your first nephew grow up and get up to all his mischief over skype. It’s hard knowing your family are having a wonderful eid breakfast after community salah whilst you’re eating cheap Egyptian cereal from a bowl. Its hards not being involved in all the amazing projects and activities we used to do in ISoc and the other charities I’m involved in…
Going abroad to study is full of sacrifices, so it’s important to constantly refer back to the thing that brought you back here in the first place; getting closer to your Creator though studying.
This post has been a long time coming taking over 2 months to write, but not without reason. Firstly, it’s easy for me to say how much I enjoy and benefit from being out here studying the deen especially at the beginning. However, this doesn’t give an honest reflection of the long term nature of what you hope to achieve and it is very hard to judge how effective your time has been out here. I purposely left this post till the last weeks of my stay so I can give a true reality of what it is like to study out here.
Secondly, I have always believed that the reason for coming to a country like this shouldn’t be to study, it should be get closer to your Lord through it and other forms of worship. There is no doubt that studying serves that purpose greatly, but so often I see students out here to learn Qur’an and Arabic but fail to pray Fajr in the mosque or the sunnahs before and after each fard. Moreoever, Egypt is no different to other countries. On the same strees you will find an abundance of saints and devils who can guide or misguide you as your please. If you seek guidance, there is an unreal amount to learn just from sitting in the company of these men of God which no lesson can ever teach you; the experiential reality of what truth faith can give to a person. My hope was to live some of that before talking about any of the studies.
Finally, I wanted to make sure this post was the opus diem of all posts, complete with videos of classes and photos of every detail. I wanted to recreate its reality in the west, to give perspective to those who dream of coming out here as I did. I wanted to do it the Ghannam way!
A slight disclaimer; I tend to always have a positive outlook when I write stuff even for the bad stuff. Although this means that my review may not be as objective as other people’s, I personally believe it’s a far better angle to look at things from! Much of life depends on the perspective you look at events from; if you see the good in everything, you’ll have a lot more fun and joy in life! Sheikh Hamza Yusuf put this beautifully in his book ‘The prayer of the oppressed’ where he was looking at the verse;
He described the verse as an outlook on the perspective of a person; by realising all things come from our Creator, we will see that in His infinite knowledge and mercy that he only wants good for his servants regardless of how it seems to us in the immediate term. But if we fail to see this and instead only see the ‘evil’ of the calamity, it is merely our inability to realise what is going on. I realised this most from my beloved teacher here in Cairo who, upon suffering from a serious heart condition, could only thank Allah for giving him such a reminder to bring him closer to his creator. Please make dua’ for his health!
So, after a long introduction, here we go… Ive tried to make it as comprehensive as possible so apologies for the length. Enjoy!
For me, fajr is the most important part of the day for a student. Many Muslims casually miss praying fajr on time and in congregation – whether at home or in the mosque – and many more miss praying it at its right time altogether. As a seeker of sacred knowledge, your efforts are fruitless if you are unwilling to fix these bad habits. The sole purpose in coming to learn is to get closer to your creator, so what good is it if you disobey His requests to meet you in the mosques five times a day?
Because of this, the timing of Qur’an classes after fajr is a perfect match; the sacred knowledge of the Qur’an should only be blessed to those willing to make the effort to seek it. Egypt is famous for having reciters on every street corner, many of whom hold free classes after fajr salah to those students willing to make the sacrifice. Close to where I live is a large mosque which holds such classes each morning. The Imam is a Palestinian man with the most wonderful voice, capable of moving and shaking the congregation behind him. Each Salah he reads a page of the Qur’an hoping to work through it all with his congregation. The mosque is typically packed with over 200 people despite being 5am in the morning, filled with people from different corners of the world. The most beautiful thing is the Imam makes a genuine effort to get to know his congregation, walking round and greeting people after salah to such an extent that he will recognise a new face to the mosque.
Each weekday morning, I pray fajr at that mosque and read Qur’an to the Imam after. Given the short length of my stay here, I have asked not to read to him from memorisation as that would restrict how much I could get through each morning with him. Instead, I have asked if I could recite directly from the Qur’an in order for him to correct my recitation for each passage. This is then recorded such that I re-listen to it at home and correct any mistakes which I made that day to improve the next day. Initially I was the only one in the mosque who would recite to him, but as the months have gone by, more people have requested to do the same and have begun attending classes.
· The Qur’an is the most sacred knowledge to learn and it will bring great blessing to the rest of your studies
· Being so common, you can often find local place which teaches for free
· The atmosphere of the mosque after Fajr is wonderfully serene and the congregation are wonderful
· It is usually free (as opposed to private classes outside)
· You can get to know other brothers and locals better which can help build that community spirit to us foreigners
· Its good training for the soul to sacrifice the warmth of the bed to go and study
· Its also a good way to ensure you pray fajr at the mosque
· You end up memorising new parts of the Qur’an through the class.
· As it is open for anyone to join, you can often find yourself waiting for others to finish before you or your time restricted by other
· Adjusting your sleeping pattern can be difficult to get used to and effect your other studies initially
· Realistically, being after fajr might mean you will miss by over sleeping etc
· Though there is scope to take lessons from a book, it is restricted as to how much you can do because of time restrictions and often ends up you just reading Qur’an to the Imam
The vast majority of my education was spent at the Sibawayh Center, a language and religious studies institute dedicated to foreign students coming from abroad. Its director, Ustadh Sayed Fathy, is a learned and humble man who has done an excellent job at providing top class education to students at the institute. In one of our conversations, I learned that he had won the Azhar International Qur’an competition back in 1995, something he so casually brushed aside deeming himself insignificant in comparison to the age old university.
My studies at Sibawayh consisted of both Arabic and Islamic Studies modules. I am a slightly different case in that I could already speak and understand Arabic fluently (be it the Syrian dialect). My main focus was to enhance my reading skills through learning Arabic grammar and applying it, something I had done very little of before. Sibawayh provides an excellent standard of teachers trained in teaching foreign students for every level of education. Though it is more expensive than other institutes, the productivity of learning is far higher than other newly established places giving you much more value for time and money. What I enjoyed most at the institute was how flexible they were to my needs, speeding through the basic stuff I already knew in order to get to the new stuff I needed. I ended up studying:
All my classes were 1to1. I took two classes of 2.5hours each (5hours in total) for 5 days a week. I couldn’t be happier with my time at Sibawayh. Like everything there is always going to be faults, but the overall package is excellent and has been highly recommended by people before me. They are always open to suggestions to improve and change things to suit people’s needs and Ustadh Sayed tries to ensure professionalism in his staff. I once raised the issue of fixing prayer times such that people could prepare for them beforehand and not waste time when they come in. The next day it was implemented as a rule in the institute.
Most importantly though is that you really feel you get value for money and time as they know exactly what they are doing when it comes to teaching. The teaching is excellent and the people at the institute were like my family during my time here. Just trust Ustadh Sayed’s judgements when it comes to what to study and give constant feedback of how you think it’s all going!
This is a video I made for the institute. This gives you an idea of what Sibawayh is like to study and gives you samples of different lessons at the institute. Be sure to click on the videos at the end to get a flavour of what the teaching is like at Sibawayh!
· Your studies are not dependant on any one individual meaning if something was to go wrong with the teacher, its far easier to find a backup option.
· An institute will guarantee a certain level of experience and structure in the learning. I benefited from this greatly as the teacher adapted the material to suit the level I was at.
· Unlike private teaching, the institute will have access to a library of books which the teacher can use when teaching. My teacher would very often pull out a book outside from what we were studying for me to read up on an issue.
· An institute provides a social atmosphere on top of just a teacher. For new Arabic speakers, this gives you the chance to engaged and speaking in Arabic as they actively make an effort to get you speaking. Moreover, many of the friends I have met here have been through Sibawayh and the teachers are really cool to chill with, in and out of class!
· The institutes genuinely care for their students as you can approach them with any help you may need and they would be happy to assist you.
· Some institutes can bring scholars in from Al-Azhar to teach you subjects you wish to study
· Studying at an institute is almost certainly going to be more expensive, varying from place to place. Speaking for Sibawayh, teaching was around £10EGP/hour (around £1GBP/hour) higher than other places. However, the quality of teaching that they offered more than compensated this. A friend later joined the institute having studied 4 months at a lesser known place nearby. His own testimony was that he learnt more in 1 month than he did in 4 over there. Though this may not be the case everywhere, it usually is a key consideration!
· The institute setup can at times make the whole educational experience seem more like a business than seeking knowledge! Not much to say about this other than take it in your stride and realise they have to make a living somehow!
· Timings are structured around the institute and not just you. This may become a problem when several salah times fall under your class time which can eat up into your studies
· Though the social side is an excellent feature, sometimes it can go over the top when breaks role over for too long because of an on-going conversation.
· Like most Egyptians, Egyptian Arabic is usually preferred to classical outside the classroom which is a pain for any foreigners attempting to make sense of it
There is no doubt that one of the most beneficial things you can take are private classes with a reputable scholar who can guide you both spiritually and academically. This is of course one of the riskier options as religious education depends so much on the person who I teaching you, relying them to give the balanced truth as opposed to his reflection of it. Moreover, in order to truly benefit you must be willing to open your mind, hear what is being taught and reflect upon it afterwards. Sadly, few people know how to be students any more as they follow things blindly without the effort to understand by questioning and discussing.
Because of this, it is important that you constantly pray to Allah for guidance and remain sincere in that intention. Like the great companion Salman Al-Farisi, you will meet those who will take advantage of you and those who will guide and nurture you. If you remain sincere and steadfast in seeking the truth, Allah will guide you to find the right path just as Salman (ra) came to find the messenger ﷺ in Madinah.
I have been fortunate to study with a scholar who has taught me what true scholarship is. His generosity and knowledge emanate from his face as he understands people like no other. It is rare to meet people like this in this age, but when you do, you will realise this – it is knowledge and love of the creator and his messenger ﷺ which truly adorns man.
“Do not think we adorn the messenger (saw) through our praise for him. It is his remembrance which adorns the very words we sing in his praise!”
Twice a week, I travel a 1hr:15min journey across central Cairo to study under the sheikh. Though our classes are on Islamic Creed (Aqeeda), we often branch out into different topics and relate things to the modern world. His grasp and understanding of key issues has been enlightening and enhanced my own way of thought. But what is most amazing is his invitation to question and debate. Coming to Cairo was a quest to seek the truth and learn of different people’s thoughts and beliefs. My belief is that ‘truth’ is something which is logical and rational which can withstand debate and discussion within a religious discourse. I have tried to remain as open a book as possible, so finding someone who is willing to discuss and reply to questions I have was exactly what I was seeking.
Sadly, many Muslims are afraid to question and reason why they believe what they believe. People attribute themselves to sects and groups without ever willing to entertain any other perspective. This approach may work out fine in the Muslim world where exposure to different thoughts and beliefs are not so wide spread and the onslaught from atheists and anti-theists is not so prevalent. But for Muslims in the West, we face a barrage of news and media attacking our beliefs (‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins), moral values (inter-gender relationships) and practices (the hijab and burkha) almost every day. If we do not teach our youth the rationale and logic behind their faith, how can we expect them to withstand this onslaught when it inevitably comes to them?
In truth, trying to describe the effect a righteous scholar has on someone is beyond the capacity of words. It is metaphysical, something even the senses cannot comprehend. It is a joy that must be felt and experienced, and when tasted can never be let go. In the words of an Arab poet;
If the Kings knew of the pleasure we were in [through worshipping God], they would have waged war upon us to taste it.
His company alone will remind you of God; a serenity combined with a subtle sense of joy, overwhelmed with the realisation of God’s love for us whilst inevitably remembering the ingratitude we have shown in return. When he looks at you, his discerning eyes pierce the depths of your soul and pluck out the problems your thinking of. Many a time I sat there thinking of a question or problem I had to suddenly he raises the issue randomly in class, answering with an ease which settles the nerves and brings comfort to the heart.
But it’s more than that. The very fact that I was made to think of those problems in his presence dazzles me the most. It is rare to find a man whose company will cause you to remember your own faults and seek repentance from God. In his company you feel the presence of God; a man who lives his worship and acts his words. His sincerity exudes before he has even said a word, clear that these are things he has battled and conquered within himself well before daring to utter them upon others. Never would he dream of seeking any worldly benefit from what he does for his sights gaze only upon the divine, but when offered a gift he will accept it only to keep with the tradition of our beloved Messenger ﷺ.
In the words of my dear friend and fellow classmate:
“People need to know about what we feel in our classes; the excitement of being there, the utter confusion of concepts and then the relief when Shaykh explains the issue as if it was ABC! The adab (character) that he has and that he encourages us to adopt… I’m sure you can express this much better than me, and it is important you do. For this will inspire others to seek out these men of Allah and take to their company.“
My time with the sheikh has been sadly shorter than I would have liked due to his ill health. Shortly after Eid, he was diagnosed with a heart condition which has meant he cannot teach for as long as he would like, forced to rest in between lessons. Teaching has always been his genuine passion, visibly joyful when explaining difficult concepts or answering a challenging question in class. I know it hurts him the most to not be able to teach as muct as he would like. Please pray for his good health. Ameen.
· The biggest benefit is that you can move at the pace you wish and work at the level you wish. As these are private 1to1 classes, it all depends on your work
· You have the freedom to ask questions and discuss the topic in depth
· If you have the right teacher, their presence will have a profound impact on your soul.
· Your teacher can be a source of reference for all the other questions you have outside of class. Very often I would ask on issues unrelated to the topic to seek his advice on the issues
· It is rare to find a teacher who will not accept money. However, even if they don’t ask, I always feel it good etiquette to give them money regardless. This is nearly always cheaper than studying through an institute.
· Some teachers may agree to travel to you which could save you considerable time
· Finding someone independently can make it much harder to ensure the good quality of the teacher as institutes have much longer. Having a bad teacher may be detrimental to your education or make things extremely unproductive
· There is no social space to interact with other students unless more than one of you take the class together (which I would advise!)
· The classes are entirely dependent on the teacher’s availability. If they fall ill, you end up having no classes
· Its often difficult to access top scholars as beginners whilst some institutes have links with fairly learned people willing to teach
· Studying alone can mean you only end up looking at things from one angle. If you share a teacher with someone else, you can exchange notes and discuss the content of the class afterwards.
· You have to give money directly to the teacher which can take away from the spirit of the learning. Dealing through the medium of an institute can be useful that way
One of the great benefits of Cairo is the wide availability of public classes which people can choose to attend. These cover nearly every topic at different levels of depth and understanding aiming to cater for the wide variety of people which live in the city, and the teachers are all of an extremely high calibre ranging from the Grand Mufti of Egypt to visiting scholars from other countries (such as Habib Umar and Sheikh Noor Al-Deen ‘Itr).
However, there is a downside. As these classes aim to draw in the public, very often you find the teacher speaking in colloquial Egyptian Arabic rather than classical Arabic. This is particularly ironic when the vast majority of the attendees always seem to be Malaysian and Indonesian students whose grasp of the Egyptian dialect is lacking (though they always turn out in numbers masha’Allah!) There are exceptions to this, but most of the local mosques will teach in the ‘language of the people’ in hope of reaching out to the Egyptian locals. However, things are beginning to change as Al-Azhar is beginning to revive itself, requesting all its teachers to speak in classical Arabic in their classes at the University. Perhaps this will spread to other mosques…
During my time here, I have sadly only been able to attend a handful of the public classes largely because I have had to stay and get through my other studies beforehand. This was a conscious choice I made, choosing to focus on a few classes and doing them well rather than spreading myself too thinly and not benefiting overall. Others have chosen to do things differently using the classes at Al-Azhar as their main source of knowledge and perhaps supplementing them with a few classes on the side. The table below gives a summary of the various points on the issue.
This video was taken at a private gathering at a villa of one of a famous person in Cairo. Habib Umar was invited to speak at the mawlid. The event was also filmed by MBC (thought I havent been able to locate the footage yet)
A weekly class after jumu’ah at Masjid Al-Rifa’i. It begins with dhikr led by the sheikh followed by a lesson in Hadith.
· It is the classical way of learning, right at the feet of the scholars in the great halls of the past!
· You will be learning at the hand of the greatest scholars of our day in some of the world’s oldest and most prestigious institutes.
· You will not only gain knowledge of the text you study but also the spiritual essence of Islam which goes beyond the book. You will benefit from the presence of the teacher and the observation of his character and demeanour. It is difficult to describe what this is. But when you sit with a true person of God, you will know exactly what I mean!
· The greatest worry when studying sacred knowledge is who you take it from. By studying with the great scholars of the age old Al-Azhar, you can rest assured that they will be people of guidance
· The blessing and forgiveness which comes with the gathering, described by the messenger ﷺ as gardens of paradise
· Save a massive amount of money this way as all these classes are free.
· Meet a great number of students and teachers who you can benefit greatly from through their knowledge and company
· Strengthen your Arabic through your studies and have the opportunity to speak in Arabic a lot more
· Unlike an institute (which can feel like a bubble at times!), you will interact with the local people and learn local customs. This can be the most powerful way of learning a new language!
· Classes are nearly always accessible to both males and females.
· Arabic is a pre-requisite!
· Of course the colloquial dialect is the biggest barrier. If you can overcome that, the floodgates of knowledge will be opened up to you!
· As the class is open to anyone, there is very little personal mentoring through the classes. However, if you attend the smaller classes regularly, the teacher will take note of you
· There is no formal examinations to test your knowledge or personal mentoring from the teacher
· It is often difficult to ask questions, particularly in the larger classes.
· Classes may begin late or get cancelled without much notice, especially with the more famous scholars.
· As most of the classes will be in old Cairo, you will have to frequently travel in and out of the city which means endless time wasted on transport.
It’s easy to assume that coming to the Muslim world will automatically give you the thrust to be a better Muslim. The reality is it’s a lot harder to change old habits than people imagine especially when so many of the general public around you seem to do the same; over sleeping for fajr, not praying in congregation in the mosque and so on. People can become so focussed on studying that they lose sight of the greater objective; getting closer to your Creator. Knowledge in itself is useless unless it manifests in your actions and character.
The blessing of Cairo can be felt when you realise just how many saints and scholars who settled here in pursuit of sacred knowledge. A quick visit around some of the most famous mosques in Egypt such as Sayyidah Zainab, Sayyidah Aisha and Sayyidah Nafeesah will bring to light the large number of the family of prophet ﷺ who are buried in this city. On top of that, great scholars like Imam Shafi, Imam Al-Iz ibn Abdusallam and Imam As-Suyuti chose this city to be their home and burial place. May they all be rewarded Jannah Al-Firdaus – Ameen! Visiting the graves of such people may feel slightly strange to those of us from the west (particularly given some of the behaviour of some of the people who go there), but I see nothing but blessing in going and praying for the souls of the people who gave so much to this deen, aspiring to rise to their status and contribute to this world as much as they did.
As well as this, many of the mosques regularly hold Hadith recitations, Mawlids and other such gatherings for the remembrance of Allah. I have sat in the great halls of Al-Azhar to hear hadiths on the on blessings of our Messenger ﷺ be recited by one of the greatest scholars in that science; Imam Usaama Al-Sayed Al-Azhari. I have visited the mosque and grave of Imam Al-Busairi in Alexandria, author of Al-Burdah Al-Shareefah, to join in the recital of his poem. I was honoured to be invited to a private gathering with Habib Umar for a Mawlid and advice from the great scholar. Each of these has an impact on your sould which you cannot simply get from books. Islam is gained from the chests and hearts of men because it is through their companionship that you learn how to live the words you read. This is why our greatest teacher, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, highlighted character as one of the most important purposes of his message was the perfection of good character.
A clip taken from the weekly Ba Alawi Mawlid led by Habib Abdul-Kareem
One of the classes which usually takes place in Al-Atraak in Al-Azhar is replaced with Nasheeds in celebration of the Birth of the Messenger ﷺ
Sheikh Usamah Al-Sayed demonstrating true Islamic character as he helps his teachers in and out of the gathering.
A Mawlid in the great halls of Al-Azhar. It begins with the recitation of Qur’an followed by the recital of various Hadith on the Messenge ﷺ.
A nasheed sung in praise of Imam Hussein, grandson of the messenger ﷺ, beside his grave.
As I enter my last month in Egypt, I look back at my time here with great fondness and look forward to enjoying my last weeks here. Life as a student is not easy and studying abroad is not a magic want of guidance; it is full of trials and tribulations and takes much effort and struggle to get to the goals you wish to achieve. My greatest advice is to start from home. If you are serious about studying, you should start before you even come here. The best students I have met were the ones who put the effort in before they came and then stepped up a gear when they arrived.
On top of that, education should never cease. My prayer is that Allah allows me to continue studying for the rest of my life as I have realised there is an ocean before me waiting to be explored. Never put yourself beyond the age to learn and always be willing to think and reflect on new ideas.
Finally, in the words of Waki’ to his student Imam Al-Shafi, “knowledge is a light, and the light of Allah is not given to a sinner”. There is no doubt that knowledge elevates the rank of people before Allah, but realise it is only a means to an ends and not the end goal itself.
I pray this post has been both useful and encouraging to any student seeking to come here in the future. My intention in writing these blogs was to open the west up to the life of modern student of knowledge. I pray to Allah that he purifies this intention and accepts it as an action for Him alone. Ameen.