After plenty of stops and a late start, we were officially on the road. For the boys, it was a mostly sleepy car ride.
Somewhere deep in VA, after being pulled over by a highway cop for speeding, we kept up the legal speed, feeling a bit anxious about possibly not making it in time for Jumu’ah (although we were travellers, we all wanted to check out the Jumu’ah khutbah at the Muslim Community of Knoxville). Our GPS estimated our arrival time as 3:00, but as it turned out, we didn’t have the right address locked into the system. After the adjustment, our ETA was determined as 1:00pm. Alhamdulillah!
The khutbah by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah was excellent. I was not sure what to think at first, as I had never heard Dr. Umar speak, but as he delved into the subject matter, I was fixed upon Dr. Umar’s words. He cited a Hadith Qudsi and started to speak about the importance of having a good opinion of God and of each other. He spoke about the Sunnah of being optimistic and greeting others with a genuine good smile and pleasant spirit. He spoke about the magnificence of Lady Khadijah (ra) as she comforted our beloved Prophet (saw) after the first revelation, having such a high opinion of him. I can’t recall everything else, but I sure wouldn’t mind a copy of the recording.
As we headed up into the mountains after a brief lunch break after Jumu’ah, we made our last phone calls and sent our last texts. Back to the basics for a few days, masha’Allah. It would be different but welcome.
As Dr. Umar duly stated at one point, there was something about the environment which made the retreat really special and impactful. Perhaps it was the predominance of nature, starkly contrasting our normal urban or suburban surroundings, but he also gave us a bit of history behind the location—the fact that this was where the mighty Cherokee natives had once treaded, and that, according to oral history that he has heard straight from the source, there have always been Muslims in their numbers.
It was nice to see that there was a well-organized schedule with two tracks set up, an adult program and a youth program, which would run concurrently (and sometimes include both youth and adults). The adult program was more intensive and focused on learning, while the youth had learning but also more time for recreation and physical activity. It seemed to work very well, as several of the youth, once realizing all that the facility offered, were looking forward to swimming, basketball, etc. (Br. Noman did an outstanding job at keeping things in order. Br. Irfan Shuttari did a great job working with our group as well. They all loved his great smile. May Allah reward those brothers for being so ready to facilitate things for us.)
Special Highlights: The Youth
With our group of young brothers from the same area, some of whom were not well-acquainted each other before the trip, a unique bond developed as they were taken from their familiar realm–where certain antagonisms might have lingered–into an unfamiliar environment. As ambassadors of DC’s inner-city, held together by common experiences, terminologies, and all kinds of other local quirks, not only did their internal cohesion develop–with petty hostilities being quickly squashed—but their relationships with others outside of their group also flourished. This because they were placed in an environment where their identity as Muslims was foremost in importance, before any other form of identification. Islam brought everyone together, from the folks in Tennessee to those from California, and others from Chicago, to our group from DC. The youth came to be known as “those DC brothers,” unique in certain ways but still woven easily into the circle of brotherhood and compassion that was shared and promoted by all the attendees. It was nice to see the connections being made between the youth. They spoke some universal youth language where, in one of my observations, they exchanged stories about slang, style, music, etc. and how each of these was approached differently in their respective towns and cities, yet they accepted each others’ differences with ease and brotherliness. In a word, it was awesome.
I sat in on a few of the youth sessions taught by br. Sa’ad Quadri—a wonderful brother and excellent teacher, masha’Allah—and was pleased to see our youth eager to raise their hands and answer questions. There is a look that I know from the youth, when they are focused. It is the look of the attentive student. They hang on to every word and absorb whatever is being presented; it is as if you can see them digesting the information. I saw that look on them at least once each day while we were there, masha’Allah.
Although we made time at night to go over one thing each of us learned, there were several times where the youth did their thinking out loud and made declarations and resolutions without being prompted. “I’m gonna stop fornicating,” one stated spontaneously as we rode home. “I’m gonna try to stop smoking [marijuana] and drinking,” another stated.
Here are some other notables and quotables:
- “When I took my shahadah, I felt like my iman was really high. But then after a while, it seemed like it got low. But right now, it’s back up again.” – Leo
- After a period of silence and quiet contemplation, one of our youth, Giovanni, suddenly stated, “I want to study to be an Islamic scholar.” Although many of our youth have said the same at some time in some form or another, this time, it was stated by one of our youth who stands out for a few reasons. After a few conversations with him, it is plain to see that he’s been blessed with intelligence and an inquisitive mind. Also, he remains focused when his mind is set on something. There was many a time during the trip when he beat the others to congregational salah, lectures, etc., simply because his mind was set on it.
- There was a moment during one of the “Nightly Reflections” sessions that, by itself, made the whole retreat experience worth it. Br. Sa’ad Quadri, in his very engaging style, was telling the youth about certain details of Paradise and the great sacrifices made by pious people in our history. At some point during the talk, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see Wadi with a smile and a thumbs up.
- Another one of our youth, Abdul-Jabbar, always a connoisseur of good times, simply had a great time. Jabbar can be extremely playful but cloaked underneath all of that is a real love for Islam, demonstrated by his consistency, his incessant questions when something is on his mind, and his ability to hold onto and popularize things Islamic (lectures, nasheeds, etc.), even when they are unheard of or unpopular. He was amped about being far away from home, all the way in Tennessee, having new experiences. “They love us down here,” he said at one point. “They’re gonna remember us as ‘those DC brothas’. We comin’ back next year?”
- “I want to study under Shaykh Yahya.” This was stated at least 3 times by Nasir, who has gone on to post lectures of Shaykh Yahya on his Facebook account. At age 19, Nasir has seen a lot of violence and hardship in his life. He’s bright and has clear leadership potential, easily navigating through different groups of people. If he overcomes some of his current battles and actually commits himself to studying Islam, he could be a great asset in uplifting others who are struggling through circumstances in the inner-city.
- During the retreat, there circulated the prospect of having a basketball game, potentially featuring some of the shuyukh and the youth. I’m not sure how it got started, but somehow it came after discovering that Shaykh Yahya Rhodus was once an accomplished basketball player. The youth got it in their minds that they’d be playing “the scholars”. The scholars were fortunately spared (just kidding)—the game never materialized due to a rain on Sunday during the intended time.
- “Can I get seconds?” This question issued from several mouths numerous times throughout the trip. The food was delicious and wholesome. Made even better by its zabihah-ness.
Highlights for Me
I personally benefited greatly from the whole experience. There were several moments in which I felt genuinely inspired. I don’t think I can even do justice in words. What I saw in the retreat was the great potential of the Muslim community:
- How iman, islam, and ihsan can come together in a concrete way; a way that inspires and moves.
- Great scholarship—scholarship sincerely focused on getting closer to Allah (swt)—radiates this closeness and propels others to follow suit.
- Muslims can actually get along with excellent manners and good character learned from the example of our beloved Prophet (saw). Muslims can actually avoid arguments!
- An environment of great scholarship, friendly Muslims, and nature can heal a suffering/ distracted heart and motivate one to be better and aspire to greater heights of one’s potential.
- I can see the coming emergence of great scholarship, both male and female, in this country. This scholarship, with Allah’s (swt) help and guidance, will transform individual lives and bring communities into harmony with His will. They will be relevant and they will fit naturally into the tapestry of this land.
The Shuyukh: A Few Observations
The shuyukh were outstanding. What stood out to me the most about them was their shining character. They had not only great ‘ilm, but great adab as well. And their outward manners seemed only to reflect a great inward state.
Shaykh Faraz Rabbani seems to be very learned in fiqh and the spiritual path, and has an exquisite ability to frame and market ideas and break down big concepts into digestible bits that can stick easily in your mind (and in your notes). He also seems very humble and someone who you wouldn’t mind sharing your problems with, who you could trust to provide sound advice. Although he was not able to make it due to circumstances beyond his control (i.e., the authorities), I benefited much from his recorded lectures which were made specifically for the retreat attendees after discovering that he would be unable to be present.
Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah had a way of painting a picture with his words and then bringing you into the picture. I found him very inspiring. I listened very intently to his story of how, as a student in the 1960s seeking justice and Truth through revolutionary ideologies, he was strongly impacted by the Autobiography of Malcolm X (a book and a personage I’m very fond of), which moved him to embrace Islam as he saw the connection between “God” and “Allah” and realized them to be one and the same. Dr. Umar’s talks spring from a deep well of knowledge and wisdom. He knows what he’s saying and how to say it, and he feels what he says. He gave some very engaging talks on Aqidah and the importance of being strongly rooted in our beliefs, and his talks on spirituality were absolutely penetrating. As a plus, his lectures were often decorated with intriguing references to the histories of peoples, languages, and lands.
Shaykh Yahya Rhodus connected with our group on the first night. He had a very calm and kind demeanor which easily accepted our youth and he was very interested in them and their struggles. He joined us for lunch one day and was very generous with his time. Sitting in on a few of his lectures, I liked how he could draw, through his learning, reading, and experiences, connections of great relevance and insightfulness. I was also drawn to his concern for social ills and his urging fellow Muslims to start bridging gaps within our Ummah to serve those who are underserved. This resonated very well with me. The youth and I were blessed to see him in a recent visit to a masjid in VA.
Shaykh Omar Qureshi, a great mind with a very modest and humble demeanor, had those thorough slides that take big concepts and break them down logically into the most essential bits of information. You can’t help but want to jot down the info on each slide. One of his talks were on “Suffering and Divine Wisdom,” which effectively responded to the question—a question with flawed underpinnings—of why suffering and evil are allowed to exist by Allah’s (swt) will. He took an extensive article authored by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller and extracted the main points. Subhan’Allah, you will not believe this, but just last weekend, one of the youth called me and told me that he was asked by someone, “Why does Allah let people do bad things, and if He knows they’ll do them, why does He punish them?”. My notes came to very good use, masha’Allah.
Shaykh AbdulKarim Yahya surprised me. I was not able to sit, in full, in any of his classes, but that’s okay. On the last day, we were blessed with his presence at breakfast. To my surprise, he was very familiar with the realities faced by our youth in the inner-city. He knew the implications that an improper versus proper Islamic understanding could have on the youth. He was quite familiar with the narrow-minded trends that often plague Muslim communities in the inner-city. Asked about the differences of Muslims on certain issues, schools of law and why they should be respected, etc., he provided very satisfying answers with strong points and good examples that sunk in well. All with good character and a genuine interest in the youth, masha’Allah.
Ustadha Zaynab Ansari, with whom I took a class on SunniPath in the past, had a very able mind and spirit by which she could discuss a subject, explain its significance, and humble us in the process. She has a strong and critical mind and is plainly not a blind follower. She is dedicated to crushing some of the false barriers that we have erected between each other, whether based on race, class, flawed thinking, or anything else, and she also knows how to draw from our rich tradition and history to provide social commentary relevant to trends and challenges that surface in modern times. For example, she spoke about how females in Islamic history have often flourished in their circumstances without feeling “limited,” while interestingly enough, in the self-proclaimed land of freedom, women have seriously struggled with feeling (and being) limited.
Shaykh Muhammad Mendes, whose classes I was unfortunately unable to sit in, struck me as a scholar of great kindness with a good understanding of Islam. When I was able to see him–in the gatherings that featured all the scholars–I saw him drawing connections and knowing very well how to provide context and articulate concepts with depth and precision. He also composed an awesome nasheed poem entitled “There is No God Except Allah.
Shaykh Muhammad Alshareef, who I believe is also an imam at a Tennessee masjid, had a very intimate understanding of the Arabic language and a clear love for the Qur’an. He was genuinely passionate and committed to sharing whatever knowledge he has gained so as to benefit others. His talks were often decorated with intriguing stories from scholarly history and tradition, from which he would bring forth strong lessons to reflect on.
The Story of One
One of our youth carried with him a very narrow view about what the correct belief and practice of a Muslim is supposed to look like. This is due to his association with Muslims who promote this narrow approach. In the first day, he almost immediately dismissed some of the participating scholars’ claims to scholarship simply because they had not studied under the few scholars he had been familiarized with and taught to revere. Besides that, unlike what he had been accustomed to, these scholars seemed to not flaunt their knowledge by quoting the Qur’an and ahadith in every other sentence. For him, it was a different picture of scholarship.
Masha’Allah, as the days passed, we had opportunities to sit down with some of the scholars, including Shaykh Yahya Rhodus and Shaykh AbdulKarim Yahya. All of our youth were encouraged to ask whatever questions might be on their minds. Over time, and particularly on our last morning, I think it began to sink in that: 1) we have many knowledgeable scholars to benefit from in our Ummah; 2) these individuals have gone through rigorous training and have a very thorough understanding of the Deen; and 3) their understandings are, in fact, strongly rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah. This particular youth seemed to come away with a wider acceptance of Islamic scholarship and a preparedness to be less harsh when differences come up. A lot of times, whether we agree or disagree, we can find that our fellow believers are drawing from the same fountain.
Headed back to DC, we all jammed to a series of hits from Yusuf Islam’s “I Look, I See”. The boys really gravitated to that album; each of the songs carrying a simple yet very catchy style (several songs had to played twice upon request). We made a few stops for food, Salah, bathroom, and coffee, and hit a little traffic as we got close to home. As we neared home, Nasir stated, “I wish I could do this with y’all every weekend.” Adding further emphasis, and as if to clear any charge of insincerity, he went on, “No lie, I had a good time with y’all this weekend.”
I’d like to end with something that we experienced on our ride home. There’s a photo that we took which I’ve entitled “Endless”. It requires a bit of background. As we rode home, after a number of rounds of “20 questions”, there was a discussion that got started around what one should know about Allah (swt)—His qualities and attributes that should be recognized and remembered. In the midst of the discussion, one of the youth said, “He’s endless.” I responded, “Right. You studied this?” He said, “No,” and pointed out of his window to the scene in the photo.