The following is a retelling of an incident that happened in Singapore, circa August, 2003.
Everything felt different. The sites and sounds were different. The smells were different. People looked different. They dressed different, they talked different. I had an embarrassing time conversing with them, for their English was mutilated almost to a point of incomprehension.
This was Singapore. Yet among the chaos of contrast and novelty, there were glimmers of familiarity. An extremely helpful Malay Singaporean senior, and some supremely brilliant young Pakistani gentlemen, one of whom was from Sharjah; a common background at last!
So they told me a man came to Singapore. A scholar of particular eminence. It was but the second week of classes, and all the freshmen (except myself) were giddy from orientation and other such activities I chose not to partake in. I had nothing to do and was perfectly healthy, so I was game.
Rashid, a friend of my heart who hailed from Sharjah, gave me his wireless SBS transit card, which I still haven't returned. Him and Babar, a Lahore'i Pakistani senior, an astoundingly hospitable and friendly chap for whom I have only the utmost respect and praises, accompanied me. Rather, I accompanied them. We went, us merry band of Mawzlim fundamentalists to a talk at a place called Darul Arqam, somewhere in the depths of Singapore.
Darul Arqam is a place of shelter and education for Muslim converts in Singapore. It has been praised by Sheikh Nuh Keller himself, as he remarked, to the best of my memory:
"I have the utmost respect for this institution and anyone attached to it, because I can relate personally. When I became a Muslim, there was nothing like this in Los Angeles... and there still isn't."
Steps at the outer entrance lead to a glass door, revealing a grand, wooden entrance hall with a stairway at the centre leading to the second floor. Beyond the stairway were chairs and a projector screen set up at the far end; they had been anticipating a crowd of exceptional numbers. On both sides, fogged glass and wood decorated the walls.
We sat at the bottom of the stairs, us merry band. That lasted for about five minutes when we decided perhaps we could sit on the floor just ahead of the first row, not to disturb anyone else but still garner the best seats in the house. An up-close and impersonal view at a projector screen beaming a saturated, over-contrasted image, with a speaker that shrilled and shrieked.
An emaciated, tall man with a cream-colored shirt confronted us on the projector screen. I was a bit disappointed, since I thought this was going to be a "live" talk. I wanted to see a man, and it seemed I had come all this way to watch television.
He had a small goatee and was wearing a tie, along with a Muslim skull cap. It seemed a rather strange combination at first, but I thought let's give him a listen before judging his sense in fashion.
He spoke with a most refined British accent, but after getting the drift of his talk, his accent was the last thing I could pay attention to.
I have grown weary over the years of frothing-at-the-mouth scholars, their hearts riddled with hatred and bitterness, offering challenges to our "enemies" in all lands across the world, yelling into the microphone as if we were deaf, disrespecting our women and shielding their perversion behind Prophetic candidness by quoting Ahadith pertaining to matters more suited to private discussion, so I wasn't expecting much. I was, at first, reluctant to come at all, but something in me told me that I had nothing to do, so I might as well go.
My heart did not betray me that day. This man in his strange combination of skull cap, goatee and tie began speaking in Arabic. He quoted beautiful verses from the Qur'an, first in Arabic and then their on-the-spot translation. This man was learned; he knew what he was talking about, although he was clearly a white Englishman. But then he spoke Farsi. My ears shot up. He spoke of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi as insightful and intelligent. He spoke of love and of unity with the Divine. He spoke of a world I had long since forgotten, a world of both good and evil, but one of beauty and affection, amidst the sorrow and pain.
The talk ended, and my eyes were radiating with noor, such was the insight he offered. A young man with a thick Singaporean accent went on to mutilate/summarize the talk, and offer people a chance for Q&A.
"Thank you Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad..."
"What?" I said to myself. "That was Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad? The Abdul Hakim Murad? They have a videotape of him here?!"
I told Rashid that I knew of this man. I had read his writings for years now. But disctracted, Rashid lead me away. He wanted to get a better view. One of the wooden panels on the walls opened up to a very small hallway with an elevated recording studio, and then what seemed like an auditorium through a door on the right. I thought to myself, "Yet another projector, but they probably had better speakers than we did."
Rashid went in, but I stayed in the small hallway, choosing not to venture into the small auditorium, which sounded like it was packed. Someone asked a question, and Sheikh Murad answered satisfactorily, no doubt. By this point, I had totally forgotten the contents and subject matter of his talk and was trying to come to grips with the fact that the man I had been listening to for the last hour was Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, of Cambridge University!
Just as I began to realise what had just happened, I heard Rashid on the loudspeaker. "What?" I told myself. I peered into the auditorium, and there sitting on a table, a bottle of mineral water and a glass in front of him, sat Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, in the flesh, Rashid at the microphone, asking a really good question, no doubt.
I wouldn't know, of course, because I immediately withdrew, such was my astonishment. Biting my knuckles and suppressing a great yawp of childish fervor, I focused on coming to grips with the fact that I was almost in the same room with Sheikh Murad. Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad! I was breathing the same air he was breathing! By God in Heaven, what fate!
Fan-boy excitement coursed through me and I marveled at the experience while trying to come to grips with the facts that confronted me. "So this is what it's like to be in the presence of a celebrity!"
Viciously, I suppressed myself. "What are you doing, you pubescent fool! This is a Sheikh, not a movie star!" I stood there, in the small hallway with the adjacent recording centre, gasping for breath. I dared not look back into that auditorium and feast on the view that would be Sheikh Murad in the flesh. I did so a few times, however, while biting down on my knuckles after I withdrew, to control the fresh flow of energy that coursed through me.
He exited the auditorium into the entrance hall where we watched the video broadcast, and a bunch of Malay youth, trained in the refineries of Sufi reverence, shook and kissed his hand. I stood from a distance, shaking my friend Rashid at regular intervals when the reality of the situation dawned on me anew for the umpteenth time. He irked me to go and meet him, and offer my Salaam. But I did not, for I saw he was surrounded from every direction. I would give this brilliant man some respite from my fan fervor, which might well overwhelm all my senses of propriety should I stand in his presence, or perhaps cause my legs to give way.
Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, whose articles I read over and over for their genius, whose URLs I passed to friends and family, whose wisdom and linguistic prowess I couldn't aspire to if I studied ten lifetimes! I was in the same building as him! It took me the entirety of the bus ride back to campus to come to terms with what had just unfolded.
Skull cap, goatee and tie indeed. Sheikh Murad can wear whatever he likes!
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