Times of Youth: We are honestly privileged to have this wonderful opportunity to know you today. Please tell us a little bit about your journey to being such a noted Islam preacher.
Thanks to you guys for giving me a chance to share some things with you. My journey is one I couldn’t possibly have planned. A lot of people around the world follow my work and I’m humbled by the appreciation and prayers I get but to be honest I didn’t imagine ending up in this position. I think there are a few elements to my journey. First of all, God’s will. He brings to prominence whoever He wills. There are so many more talented, knowledgeable and dynamic people out there that the world doesn’t know and I certainly chalk that up to divine decree. Secondly, I don’t come from a formal religious background nor do I have formal religious training. As a matter of fact, much of my early adult life was spent as far away from religion as one can imagine. As a result when I speak about the faith, I speak from a perspective not of someone talking down to people who are struggling with faith but rather as one of them. I don’t speak any differently among friends and family as I do on stage. Its not a persona. Its just me and I think that resonates with a lot of people. Thirdly, I make a distinction between my studies and my teaching. When I study religion, I may be navigating advanced scholarly texts but when I’m talking about it, I feel compelled to speak in language that is as far from academic as possible. I always try to keep in mind that there is someone sitting in the audience that has absolutely zero background in religious education and they should be able to benefit from what I have to say. As a result I feel that my audience is also very unique. Though a lot of serious students and devout Muslims also follow my work, there is a very sizable contingency of Muslims and non-Muslims who don’t even identify themselves as religiously practicing that regularly tune in to my content.
Times of Youth: How would you describe your work to someone who has never known about it?
I am on a mission. I’d like to show the whole world that the Qur’an is an remarkably beautiful book with counsel, wisdom, guidance and wonder that any curious human being would come to appreciate. I’m not looking to convert people to Islam or make them follow my understanding of religion. All I want is to share the amazing discoveries I continue to make about this book without which I feel, that just like my former self, so many will just miss out on so much of what the Qur’an has to offer.
Times of Youth: What was the prime factor which compelled your choice of expertizing in Arabic and later becoming a full time preacher at a comparatively younger age?
My college education was in computer information systems. I’m no genius but I am somewhat mathematically inclined. I enjoyed working in the technology industry and dabbled into the creative and graphics design industry in my early career as well. By 3rd year of college I was a design director at a technology firm in New York City. It is around that time that I became curious about Arabic because I felt disengaged when trying to figure the Qur’an out in translation. When I first started learning Arabic, I was shocked to see how mathematical and systematic this ancient language was. It was literally permutations and algebraic formulae that make up the core structure of Arabic. I was hooked. I studied it earlier on as a ‘science’ and as my knowledge of it evolved, I began to appreciate it as an ‘art’. What kept me motivated to pursue Arabic studies was one single thing; every bit I learned was unlocking something new about the Qur’an for me and every one of those steps blew me away.
About becoming a full time ‘preacher’ I want to say a few quick things. I never sought that as a career path. There are people who want to be preachers and get famous and don’t get there and get frustrated either with themselves or the audience that won’t give them their due. I was not looking for a large audience. I used to teach Arabic and share my discoveries and learnings from the Qur’an as a passion with small groups. Word spread on its own. Demand started coming from all over the United States for me to teach purely through word of mouth. I realized quickly that my passion is being validated by the acknowledgement of elders, scholars and communities at large. So I decided to make a conscious career move. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life but I’m extremely grateful for it. I’m grateful to my Lord and to the people whose encouragement and validation gave me the strength to take this leap and leave my corporate career behind.
Times of Youth: Who or what has been your biggest inspiration and strength to embark on this journey of spreading God’s Word?
I’m a bit of a loner. My greatest companion has been this divine Book. My addiction became the look on peoples faces when they learn some awesome new thing about God’s Word that they never knew before. That look reminds me of the look on my own face in my own journey. I relive it every time I teach. I love learning as much as I love teaching. I find so much meaning in both.
Times of Youth: ‘Bayyinah’ being your brainchild, could you tell us why this name, elaborate on the idea of its formation and its current endeavors?
The word ‘Bayyinah’ is an Arabic adjective describing something distinct from others, self-evident, and crystal clear. This is what the Qur’an is to me. It is also a fitting description of the language of the Qur’an. It also happens to be one of the descriptions of the Qur’an in the Qur’an itself. I love the name!
I’ll turn the long story into a super short one. I wanted to teach and learn Arabic and the Qur’an for the rest of my life. I knew I was made for this as I had test driven short courses and classes and the feedback was overwhelmingly pushing me in this direction. Now given my tech, business and creative background I had to create a mechanism that would allow me to do what I love while still being able to put food on the table for my family. This is where this whole thing started. Now, ‘Bayyinah’ is far beyond that original aspiration. It is a constantly growing organization of more than fifty full time employees working in eight fantastic departments and much more than an organization it is a movement. It is a vehicle by which we (not I) hope to revolutionize how the Qur’an is talked about in the world, to redefine how Arabic education is conducted and then by extension how Islam, its history, its current place in the world and its future are discussed. We hope to create the world’s most influential, meaningful and productive platform for healthy and honest discourse on Islam and Muslims. Ambitious, I know, but I can see it insha Allah.
Times of Youth: Islam, today, despite of being the fastest growing religion as per recent statistics of several countries, is still one of the most despised religions in the world. What, according to you, is the core cause behind this skewed perspective and ‘Islamophobia’?
Lots of reasons. It certainly is a complex problem with multiple dimensions and working to eradicate it can feel like swimming against the tide. But I do think significant gains can be made. I do believe much of the ‘Islamophobia’ machinery is simply a money making industry and like any other industry, it needs to keep demand for its products and services high. In its case, it does so by constant fear mongering.
Times of Youth: Keeping in view this scenario of the world, what in your opinion can be done to bring about a change in this preconditioned mindset?
I think most people are looking for honest and unbiased information. Its our responsibility to make such information accessible to everyone. Secondly, any phobia against a people or a faith, ‘Islamophobia’ being no exception, can only thrive when communities live in isolation. Its easy to dehumanize people you don’t know or you’ve never truly interacted with. At a local level, everyone can do their part in dispelling ‘Islamophobia’ simply by being a good neighbour, an engaged citizen and a productive member of society.
Times of Youth: What would you say to those feminists who still think Islam oppresses women by keeping them behind a veil or mandating headscarf and denying fair educational opportunities?
First of all, let’s not label people who have a different view than ourselves. Second of all, Islam keeping women behind a veil is a pretty gross misrepresentation, but a far greater untruth is the allegation that Islam denies women fair educational opportunities. The Islamic code of dress is a source of pride and dignity for tens of millions of women around the world who wear it entirely by choice every day. I’d like to recommend your readers to check out a book about the historical role of female scholarship in Muslim civilization called ‘Al-Muhaddithaat’ by Dr. Akram Nadawi. I think people will be surprised to find out what an active role women played throughout Islamic history in virtually every sphere of society and how the modern discourse on Islam’s treatment of women tends to present an incredibly skewed view. Ironically, this skewed view isn’t just held by non-Muslims but even many Muslims. History is so easily forgotten and when that happens, people tend to lose sight of their own value system.
Times of Youth: When all the Muslims follow one and the same Holy Qur’an, then why are there so many sectoral rifts and different schools of thought among Muslims?
This, I believe is an oversimplification. Muslims follow the same Qur’an only means that they as a whole regard it as divine. The degree to which the teachings of the book itself influences their world view varies drastically. Many of the varying schools of thought in Islam are distinguished from one another in their interpretation of Islamic law and the principles each of those schools uses to arrive at those interpretations. These have historically been accepted as part of the larger fabric of Islam and the differences, which at least among the scholars have always been civil and did not come at the expense of mutual respect. Yet another set of differences are theological and philosophical where things tend to get far more contentious obviously because metaphysics (the realm of the unseen) is discourse about the faith itself so naturally any disagreements here are going to be the source of great tension. That has historically been the case. The Qur’an has always been the same, but just like no two people read one book and walk away with the same exact impression, there have always been and always will be varying interpretations of the sacred text of Islam and if we are to be fair, that will be true of all texts. That to me isn’t the problem. The problem is when one isn’t willing to reconsider their interpretation in light of stronger evidence. Or when one has already made up their mind that their reading of the text is the right reading and there is no need to consider the others point of view. As far as I’m concerned, difference of opinion is part of what makes us human. It will always exist. I will find something convincing and you will find something else more convincing. You and I both have a right to our convictions and shouldn’t be persecuted or hated for them. We can certainly be questioned or criticized in regards to them in light of more substantial evidence. That is the nature of the quest for truth. Muslims and really all human beings, must embrace the reality of passionate yet compassionate disagreement.
Times of Youth: A lot of conspiracy theories with appealing proofs are being propagated over the internet regarding ‘Free Masons’ and the ‘Illuminati’ cult. Your comments?
I’m too busy studying something that gives me fulfillment and meaning that I simply don’t have the motivation, time or energy to pursue that sort of stuff.
Times of Youth: How do you think the Islamic philosophy and way of life is applicable in today’s modern times?
Its simplicity, its beauty and the peace and harmony it brings to a person’s life is timeless. It is no less relevant today than it was when it first came. To understand how it is relevant, simply ask yourself what is it at its core anyway? The Islamic message is of belief in one God who commissioned each human being with a powerful spiritual element, the soul and a magnificent intellectual element, the mind. Using both of these, this human being doesn’t just find his way to God but to a lifestyle that brings about balance and harmony in his own life and those around him. It is a message of internalizing peace and sharing it with others. It is a message of compassion, justice, love, mercy, service to God and inspired by that, service to humanity. Isn’t that a dire need in modern times?
Times of Youth: Tell us the first word that comes to your mind for the following-
God: Constant Companion
Youth: Put it to work while you have it
Love: Makes you do things you would never have done otherwise
World: belongs to you if you belong to God.
Afterlife: inevitable, so get ready!
Times of Youth: In the light of your knowledge, if you were given a power to abolish one thing/act in the world forever, what would you choose for it to be?
I don’t have much knowledge, but I’d vote for the eradication of preconceived judgment.
Times of Youth: Taking lesson from holy books, how do we remove bitterness from the hearts of all humankind which they have wielded for one another?
That’s a deep one! Bitterness towards others is a result of unresolved internal moral, spiritual and psychological struggles. I think better self-awareness would go a long way.
Times of Youth: In your opinion, what are the main areas that need special attention for Muslims of all nations at this moment with respect to the war situation in order to bring peace?
I think we need to tone down sectarian rhetoric which is blown out of proportion, not only out of genuine religious fervor, but as part of larger political games in geo-politics. Whether another person belongs to my school of thought or not or even my religion or not, he or she is still a human being and still deserves dignity and respect. All human life is sacred.
Times of Youth: If you could give one piece of advice to all humans worldwide irrespective of religion, what would that be?
We share this planet and its resources. Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews, people of all of faiths and people of no faith at all, none of these are going to disappear. We better learn to respect one another despite our differing world views otherwise we are doing an injustice, not just to each other, but to the world we are going to leave behind for our children and their children. We live in an age of unprecedented global connectivity and communication. Lets use these tools to break barriers, and not to build them; to eliminate hate and not empower it.
Times of Youth: Do tell us how can admirers contact you to share their appreciation/feedback/suggestions.
I can be reached at [email protected] Thanks guys.