A Thorn in the Meadow: My Journey to the Hawza
In 2011, the year before I embarked on my journey to the Islamic Seminary in Lebanon, a friend of mine convinced me to join him at the mosque for a Quran reading lesson. I had attended Arabic school as a young child but had barely written a word in years and the highlights of my reading were poor attempts at sounding out the Arabic letters running across the ticker on Al-Jazeera news. “I can’t read,” I told him. I really didn’t want to embarrass myself, but he kept pleading with me until I accepted.
We made our way to the mosque, and as we entered and approached the classroom I couldn’t help but feel we were out of place. At the table sat a group of ten to twelve year old children, surprised at the entrance of two new students double their age. We sat with them and took part in the class. The children and I were on a similar level of reading capability and that’s being generous to myself. I ended up tumbling over my words whilst trying to read the Quran amongst them as I’d catch their cheeky smiles. Full beard, almost the same age as the teacher, yet I sat with them and made my mistakes with them as I read. Slowly, I began to enjoy the experience and I’ve often referred back to this memory since.
A year later, my friend and I both left London for Lebanon together. At first, the hawza (Islamic seminary) wouldn’t take us as they didn’t have any classes for foreigners, but after some persistent persuasion and the help of the students we were accepted – with conditions. I would live in the hawza with the students but would not be part of any of the formal classes due to the fact that – well – I wouldn’t understand them. I tried joining an Arabic Grammar lesson once, and felt like I had joined a Chinese conversation class. The students of the seminary themselves would teach us based around their own times and schedules. Whether these lessons took place at three or eight in the morning, or five in the evening, was irrelevant, we had to revolve our schedules around theirs, and that’s what we did. We began from scratch and every morning our teacher would sit with us and struggle as our lack of understanding would at most times make things difficult. But we studied. And we grew. What seems simple to me now was so difficult for me to grasp back then. In Arabic grammar, words end up with one of four symbols at the end of them called harakat. My life was so revolved around trying to learn the grammatical rules of Arabic that I would actually have dreams of these harakat as living beings jumping up and down around me. After eight months of this, we felt it was finally time to join the official classes.
The pace was much faster and keeping up with the native speaking Arabs was an ever growing difficult task. What would take a normal student twenty minutes to study would take me about an hour. I’d often tell myself that it will come, that this is just a stepping stone, that it won’t be this way for too long. Frustratingly, it lasted a lot longer than I had expected. As the months went by, I began to feel more and more overwhelmed. Pressure from family and friends to return home was increasing. “Come back,” they’d say, “There is work here for you, get a job, start a family, it’s been long enough. We miss you. Come back.” As much as I missed all my loved ones too, I’d do my best to ignore the thoughts of leaving, but the days where I would barely understand what was happening in the classes for hours on end didn’t help. Much of this period of time was spent on my knees. The reason I had embarked on this journey in the first place was because I wanted God, I wanted to know how to find Him, but I began to question whether this was the way. I felt so weak, and after a year and a half of trying, doubts began to creep in. Is this really not working?
During those nights I’d stay up late in the library, usually accompanied by only one other student – an African brother who refused to sleep anywhere other than on his desk, using the book he was reading as his pillow case – literally. “You Lebanese are soft,” he once said to me in his cheerfully deep voice without me having provoked him in anyway, “If you put me on a mountain, I’ll study. If you put me in the snow, I’ll study. As I walk, I study.” He wasn’t kidding. He literally lived in the library. He would tell me about the family he left behind. He used to be a teacher back in Cameroon, but he left his wife and children for the time being to pursue these sacred studies for the betterment of his self, family, and community.
Listening to the varying stories of the sacrifices of so many brothers at the hawza would always humble me. I would scavenge for any piece of inspiration to keep me going and thankfully God would place it around me in abundance. There was a a very special case of a young man named Mahdi, who was my classmate. Mahdi would need one of us to walk him to the classroom everyday because he was blind. He would record our lessons and play them back to himself when he wanted to revise (study). During our Quran class, he had his own special Quran that he would read in braille. I would wonder how he did it. Where does he get all that strength from? Truly Allah (swt) is the Almighty. In overcoming almost impossible conditions, Mahdi was an inspiration to us all on a daily basis.
Here I was, a much younger student without a wife and children waiting for me at home, and I had eyes that worked, yet my personal suffering was veiling me from truly taking in the blessing I was living in. The loneliness was overwhelming in itself, not to mention the crushing times when I just could not comprehend my studies, and trying to persevere through it all was draining me. The sound of my voice became a lot rarer to hear, for others as well as myself. There is a certain feeling that grows in your upper chest when that happens, just beneath your throat. If I had to describe it I’d call it a heavy silence growing within. It seemed almost like a fact to me, if you wanted to be here studying, you had to sacrifice. The question became, “Could I keep up with my own sacrifices?” Racking my brain trying not to fall behind the classes and native students whilst my language was so weak was crushing my confidence. It was then that someone mentioned something to me… they told me that Allamah Tabatabai, one of the hawza’s greatest students and teachers, one of the most renowned thinkers of the past century, also had a language problem. I was told he repeated his Arabic grammar course four times. “Really?! Allamah?” I thought to myself. The thought stuck with me.
On the way to my dorm room a few nights later, I noticed a new poster was hanging on the corridor wall. Every month a new poster is put up with advice from previous scholars for inspiration for the students. This time it was Allamah Tabatabai’s advice and it was about the very same topic. It finally hit me, and in the words of Kung Fu Panda’s Master Oogway: “There are no coincidences.”
“During my younger days studying Arabic grammar, I didn’t find within myself a love for working diligently in my studies. I spent four years of my life reading what I did not understand, however I suddenly transformed after I was encompassed by the care of God. I then found myself to be serious, understanding, driven by an inner pulse to reach perfection. From this time to the last days of my studies which lasted around seventeen years, I never fell into lethargy in the pursuit of knowledge. I even forgot the hardships as well as the pleasures of life, and I left everything except for the people of knowledge, restricting myself to the bare minimum, accepting only the important aspects of life, spending the rest of my time in reading and research.
I spent the nights reading until the rise of the sun, especially in the spring and summer seasons. When I was faced with an intellectual problem, I strove to find the answer through all possible angles, to the point that when I sat in a lesson I had already understood beforehand what was to be taught by the teacher, so that I never fell into misunderstanding.” – Allamah Tabatabai
As I read his words, a rising energy swelled up within me. It began to sink in that Allamah Tabatabai, writer of Tafseer Al-Mizan (a famous exegesis of the Quran), took his Arabic grammar course four times before he fully succeeded in attaining its knowledge. It gave me solace to know that someone like him faced the same problem of frustration in the pursuit of knowledge and that he managed to break through it with sincere persistence. I didn’t know what I was going to do, I still felt so weak, but I knew I couldn’t stop. No matter what happened, no matter what my situation was, I just had to persist. No matter what pain, no matter what silence, no matter what loneliness, however long it took, I just had to persist.
At my breaking point I met a man who changed my life. His name was Sheikh Hisham Hammoud. He had been in Lebanon for three years after a twenty year stay in Qom and had started up a hawza in the South of Lebanon which was gaining great recognition. On the day I went to meet him, surrounded by the green grass and blue skies of the country, everything changed. He spoke to me of all I wanted to hear and that he would be there throughout it all to make sure his students reap the rewards of their studies. I was so taken aback by his approach, his care, and love. I saw nothing in him but Islam. I immediately knew I had found my place. This was it. And I knew I had finally found the guide I had been so desperately yearning for. It was him.
The transfer to the village life was swift. The hawza was placed on a 15 minute uphill walk from the closest town, not many cars or people would come by. The sky seemed ever more expansive than it was in the city, and the stars shone brightly at night like guiding lanterns. I could feel the spiritual atmosphere within the confines of the seminary from my very first night as a magical, somewhat mystical breeze flowed through the air. For the first time in my life, I was in a place where I didn’t know anyone. In the previous hawza, I at least had my friend who had come with me from London, but here, everything was new. Sheikh Hisham would sit with me every night to go through my program, way of studies, what I needed to do and how I needed to do it. I would want to work harder just to show him that he wasn’t wasting his time on me. His care spurred me on. As time went on, progress began to flow. I couldn’t explain it to you if I tried. I didn’t want to sleep anymore, I just wanted to read. Arabic grammar began to make so much more sense, and law, theology, logic, it all clicked.
Every time the Sheikh would walk by me, I’d gaze at him. When talking to me, I’d feel him looking into my soul. I had always prayed for a mentor and I felt I had finally found him. All the pain I had to go through to reach this point now made sense to me, and it would more so every time he spoke to me. Especially when he would talk about what we desire in life–that anything we truly seek through God with a sincere heart, we will achieve in due time. He would say these words and I would think of how desperately I prayed for a guide and how he came into my life.
I am nearing the end of my third year in Lebanon now, and through it all I cannot help but realize that despite feeling that loneliness for much of it, I haven’t been alone at all. The Beloved has always been here with me, without whom I would have given up a long time ago. All praise is due to Him, the One, the Almighty.
Truly, thinking back at it, it never ceases to astound me. I often bring up where I am from as I never want to forget it. I’m from Tottenham and I’d lived there all my life. If you haven’t heard of it, think back to the London riots of 2011. That began in Tottenham, right up my street. I was surrounded by drugs and violence since I was a child, school couldn’t protect us from that. Many of the people I grew up with ended up in prison one time or another. When I ponder upon it and realize that I was taken from a place like that, surrounded by all I was surrounded by, and then placed in this mosque I now live in, surrounded by men of knowledge and sincere hearts of prayer and tears, I cannot help but think of how Sheikh Hisham’s words ring so true.
And so I’d think if we are to just desire Him, to truly desire God, what would keep us away from Him? And how many of us truly desire Him? And how much are we willing to “let go,” in order to “let God”?
I have yet to taste the true hardship of what our scholars of the past had to endure on this path, compared to them my experience is nothing but child’s play. They sacrificed their lives as living martyrs in order to guide us to the path of divine truth and eternal happiness, and even beyond the grave they inspire wandering souls to try and reach salvation. They had hope in each one of us, that we may carry on the message of this religion and way of life no matter where we are, what we work as and what our situation may be. We each have a role. May we forever be inspired by their sacrifices, and may Allah (swt) raise us with the people who know Him.
“Everyone has tasted the sweet and bitter of life in terms of his own experience. I, in my turn, have found myself in varied environments faced with all kinds of hardships. Especially since I have spent most of my life as an orphan, or a foreigner, or far from friends, or without means, or in other difficulties. I always sensed however, that an invisible hand has delivered me from every terrible danger and that a mysterious influence has guided me through a thousand obstacles towards the goal. Though I be a thorn, and though there be a flower to grace the meadow, I grow by the hand that nurtures me.” – Allamah Tabatabai