I shared this experience of gratitude and blessing of how I came to read the Quran to my daughter and grandchildren on the event of their Bismillah ceremony
It is a hot humid summer afternoon in Karachi, I have returned from school and the marble chip floor of the verandah that leads to the kitchen feels cool on my bare feet.
“you go first when she comes” says my brother. Today neither of us want to read the Quran with Ustaniji ( a respectful name for teacher). Every afternoon after school we learn to read the Quran with a Quran teacher whom we call Ustanijee, who comes to our house punctually on the dot.
I see her on the path leading to our back gate where the mulberry bush bends over laden with fruit to distract the visitor.
She comes in dressed in a nondescript white outfit which has yellowed with many washings, her head covered with a thick mal mal (cotton) dupatta, brought forward almost to the brows such that I can barely see her forehead.
I don’t remember if she was young or old though in the eyes of a six year old she seemed ancient. What I did not know was that she was a poor relative of one of the teachers in my Mothers private school. I do not know if she was a spinster or a widow but she eked out a living by teaching Quran in peoples homes.
We always recited the Quran in the open where everyone could see us, I did not realize that this was a safety precaution for us and for her by my mother, who by placing us in a public place ensured that no misbehavior or slacking off could take place without being observed immediately.
It was hot, my light dupatta felt like a ton of weight and I just wanted to take it off and go dancing around the house on the cool marble, I was six years old and living in the now, but Ustanijee was here and it was time to read the Quran.
I started to read while she held her pencil end above the word I read and like now I made mistakes of zair and zabar, she did not threaten me with the fire of hell but patiently asked me to repeat the whole ayah with the mistake. This made progress very slow. Meanwhile the real reason for the mistakes now that I reflect back on was that I was distracted as I was reading the Urdu meaning in between the lines. When she noted I was doing that she would gently tap my fingers with her pencil to bring my attention to the Arabic words…………and so it went every afternoon. I was fascinated with the few meanings that I had read while reading to her, but never thought of reading the meanings after she left, there were other more fun things to do for a six year old.
One particular day it was blazing hot and humid, but four o clock tea was a firm ritual ordered by my mother. She finished with me but before my brother sat down she said “bring tea” I now realize she must have walked in this heat from the last house where she taught the spoilt brats of rich parents and probably had not eaten lunch. Her rail thin body hidden in the layers of white cotton did not hide her frailty. Her cheekbones stood out in her face like cliffs covered with her smooth tanned skin. For the first time I saw how young she was.
Thus I went on to complete reading the Quran with her. There was no Ameen celebration for me as our personal world fell apart shortly after I completed the Quran.
RAMADAN IN MECCA: Fast forward several years……… my son is dead and my world has turned upside down once again, I turn to the Quran for sanctuary. I am in itikaaf in Ramadan in the Haraam in Mecca.
I am reading the Quran in the Haram. It is after Dhuhr and most women are sleeping, the Haram is tranquil, cool and filled with angels. Today I am wearing a cool lawn shalwaar kameez instead of the oppressively hot polyester black abayas that the Arab women wear.
I feel someones gaze on me, and notice that a woman sitting beside me at an angle is staring it me. I look at her and she is unashamedly staring back as she contemptuously flicks her gaze at my Pakistani attire and at my open Quran with Arabic only. “You can read?” she points to my Quran and stammers in English”
“Na’am” I say meaning “yes” in Arabic one of the few words I know in Arabic conversation. Disbelief is written all over her face. She moves closer to me and says “ok read aloud” For a fleeting second my nafs raises its nasty head ……..”who is she to question my ability to read the Quran?” but I successfully beat it down and say “sure”.
I am at surah maidah and I start reciting in my accent heavily laden with the Pakistani tones but clear enough that wonder dawns in her eyes and rapidly changes to joy and she hugs me and says “Mabrook”. I had not only passed her test of reading the Quran but even more being a miskeen Pakistani having that ability raised me in the eyes of the true Arab within her.
I smiled and silently thanked my mother for never giving me the chance to drop out of Ustanijees classes. The heat, the discomfort, the ustanjis insistence that I read the Arabic and not the Urdu translation with her, her impoverished gentility and her firm stand on her principles all flashed in front of my eyes and from the halls of the Haram I sent her genuine duas.
ISTANBUL: Fast forward to the recent past: I am in Istanbul in Ramadan and studying tajweed. The Dhuhr prayer is over and I decide to stay and pray in the mosque for my tongue to loosen on the alphabets which are so hard to pronounce correctly.
Suddenly the upstairs mezannine is flooded with elderly Turkish women average age 75 or 80. They come carrying large Qurans with great reverence, two sit down next to me. Apparently the Imam is going to lead them in a whole juz for today. They have been doing this everyday in Ramadan.
I ask them which surah they are reading today in the Quran? They don’t speak English or Urdu and I don’t speak Turkish and yet we communicate in the language of the Ummah where you can always find common words…………Quran, safha, surah?
She opens her Quran and shows me the page and the ayah where they are going to begin. I am shocked the entire Quran is in Turkish, transliteration on one side, Turkish meaning on the top half page and explanation in the bottom half.
I look at her face creased with her 88 years of experiences and yet her eyes bright with intelligence and dancing with interest and wisdom as she looks at me.
“mumlikat?” she asks, I toy with the idea whether to say America or Pakistan and choose my birth country “Pakistan” I say
She beams at me “Pakistan Turkey kardes” Pakistan and Turkey are brothers. She says.
She looks at my page which is all Arabic and indicates with a nod “ can you read this?”
“Evet” I say yes in Turkish.
She says “read” I have done this before I think, I recite the Quran to her and she watches mesmerized and then she calls the other women who surround me as she tells them that I can actually read the Arabic Quran, she, touches my cheek, hugs me like a long lost daughter , kisses my forehead and says a string of duas………….
I thank Allah for my mother who insisted on teaching me how to read the Quran, my ustaniji who stuck with me and since then the numerous teachers who have tried to modulate my tongue to the tajweed of our Prophet pbuh. may Allah forgive me for any infractions of etiquette with them or the Quran.
May Allah bless them All with the Gardens of Jannah for ever and may I be in their company. Ameen