In an emerging pattern which reveals modern Muslim scholarship shifting rapidly towards the west, Nouman Ali Khan is the latest candidate to endorse the trend.
Nouman Ali Khan is a lecturer who is extremely popular among young Muslims not only in USA but around the world. Over the last decade, he has forged his name through his informative and emotive speeches.
It wasn’t an easy road for Nouman Ali Khan. Unlike many who tread the path of religious scholarship, he did not have a religious pedigree. It was his life experiences, self determination and thirst for knowledge that helped him hone his craft.
Nouman Ali Khan was the born to a Pakistani diplomat working in East Berlin, Germany. His father’s service for Pakistan foreign office meant flocking to pastures new every now and then. A brief spell in Saudi Arabia followed his stay in Germany. Nouman’s family later got stationed to USA. When Nouman reached the age of 14, his family moved to Pakistan while he stayed back in the US to complete his higher studies. It is perhaps his upbringing in different countries and exposure to multi-cultural environments that aided his understanding and widened his appeal.
Next he found himself as an average American teenager, who according to his own words “behaved and lived like all teenagers in the US lived” and was far removed from religion. It was in his later teens after he joined a college that he befriended a person who rekindled the religious zeal in him. His friend brought about the change without active proselytization.
Mr. Khan mentions that the urge to become a practicing Muslim led him to re-learn the basics of Islam. He had to relearn Salat (the daily prayer) which he had not practiced for a while. He then joined a religious society in his campus where his religious thought and practice was further consolidated. However, just like with most Islamic campus groups in the US, he become part of the “Aqeeda Brigade”. It should be noted that teenage idealism mixes well with a divisive ideologies. And so just like his peers, through the tools that discouraged plurality, he became judgmental of anyone who practiced their Islam even slightly different from his own.
This led him to be dismissive, differentiating and hypercritical. He however was quick to realize the flaw in his own approach.
It was a Ramadan night in a New York mosque, that set him on the trajectory on which he is still today. That night the after the end “traweeh” prayers, the portion of the Quran read during the prayers was to be explained by a scholar from Pakistan, Maulana Abdus Samii. It was during the scholar’s lecture that Khan realized what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to learn and explain the Quran.
He went to the speaker and asked him how he could do the same i.e. explain the Quran in a manner he had just heard. The Maulana (scholar) directed him to learn Arabic, which he did, starting 1999.
Nouman Ali Khan’s formal education in linguistics aided his understanding of the Quran. Today most Muslims don’t speak or understand the Arabic language. They turn to translations for understanding the meaning of the sacred text. Many a times the meaning is lost in translation and if not, the subtle messages get shrouded. The tone of the Quran and not only the meaning is essential for its understanding and comprehension. Initially Khan turned to books with commentary on verses (Tafseer books), to understand the Quran. He read Tafseer books both in Urdu and English. He felt that his limited knowledge in Arabic is proving a hindrance for the deeper understanding and hence he decided to learn classical Arabic comprehensively.
Like a linguist who is trained in focusing on nuances, Nouman Ali Khan was able to home in on the deeper meanings of the Quranic verses.
His craft however operates on two levels. Firstly, he manages to make his audience receptive. He has learned how to open up the hearts and minds of his listeners. His second quality is that he manages to unravel and communicate quranic gems to the audience in an efficient manner.
It should be noted that over time different aspects of the Quran have been used, to fortify its sacredness. During the time of its revelation, it was revealed to a culture that basked in the glory of the complexity of their language. The language of the quran was found miraculous by even the biggest Arab linguists of that time.
During the ages when philosophy became the dominant force, a multitude of Islamic scholars from from Ghazali to Mohammad Iqbal, brought forward the Quranic philosophy to confront Plato-ism to Nietzsche-ism. Today, the finesse of nuances is getting lost as polarization has increased between the various sects among Muslims. Nouman Ali Khan is a breath of fresh air, as he drives his messages from the core, that no sect/group in the muslim community can dispute.
Nouman Ali Khan touches subjects that others tend to avoid. This includes difficult taboos in the Muslim community (Drugs, Pre-marital sex etc). He uses metaphors that everyone can relate to and more importantly has a sense of humour. His own use of language in the contemporary idiom breaks down the most complex of ideas into byte-size and digestible concepts.
He has stories and real life examples to share that are part of everyones reality. Nouman’s gift is making the connections between religious teachings with our everyday experiences. His is not just a gift of gab but a skill that is mastered by metronomic contemplation.
“I dont give lectures” he says, “I just talk”.
His own Creed (Aqeeda)
Unfortunately there is a sickness in the modern Muslim mindset. People tend to seek allegiances of individuals so that they could dismiss or condemn them without hearing what they have to say. The same scrutiny is faced by Nouman Ali Khan and many people are inquisitive if not skeptical about his aqeeda (Creed).
He has learnt from Tafseer –ibn Qaseer, Muariful Quran , Tadabirul Quran and many others sources. Therefore, he hasn’t restricted his learning from books/teachers of a particular source or sect.
Today he stands undoubtedly as one of the most influential Muslims of our times.
He setup the Bayyanah Institute in 2005. It has two purposes:
1. To develop a curriculum for Arabic language to a standard that will help Muslims to learn Quran.
2. Muslims are disconnected from the Quran and his institute will help them to reconnect going beyond just removing the language barrier.
It is almost 100 years from the time Sheikh -ul – Hind, Maulana Mahmood ul Hassan found himself incarcerated in Burma for his revolt against British Raj. During his imprisonment, he thought long and hard on the reasons for the demise of the Muslim community. He was able to boil down the reasons to just one root factor. That one factor was the disconnect from the Quran. Mahmood ul Hassan passed away in 1920 and ever since there have been numerous efforts to revive and repair this disconnected. All these efforts did not find as much footing as they have since the arrival of Nouman Ali Khan. Such is his significance. His boyish looks may defy the physical appearance of a Scholar but his ilk and craft place him in that very category.
There has been extremely high degree of criticism on Nouman Ali Khan. Most of it borders on derogation. He has been mocked for his Amish appearance and called an “innovator” by the Neo-Wahabis. In light of these baseless claims, only the serious and relevant criticism have been discussed here in.
Nouman Ali Khan has been criticized by some quarters for only using Quran as a source in his teaching. He has been called a rejecter of hadeeth. A term quranist/ quraniyoon is often used for him by his critics in this regard. This claim has been dismissed Nouman Ali Khan himself. He has quoted hadeeth many times in his lectures but the large body of hadith and it science is not his forte. He explains that he only holds “Ijazaat” (permission) to narrate a small number of hadeeth because he has not mastered all of them.
The second criticism that he faces is that he hasn’t formally received religious education from the known seminaries like Al-Azhar. Therefore many noted people have questioned the depth of his knowledge and his credibility to speak on Islam. They have argued that Mr Khan is nothing but promoting “pop-Islam” using channels like Youtube to only further his popularity. This criticism is debunked by the fact that many of his followers are people who are educated, hold professional degrees and some even in Islamic theology.
“You compare yourself with your-own self from past. That is the only one worth comparing” advises Nouman Ali Khan to budding students trying to follow his footsteps.
Please find here the link to his interview in Urdu