Friday, October 28, 2016

Inspired By Isymam: A Talaqqi Story

Six years after I'd retired, I received two academic certificates.

One conferred by Masjid Sultan Salahudin Abdul Aziz Shah in Shah Alam for completing its one-year Talaqqi/Tajwid Course. The other one for attending a four-month Tajwid class at Rehal Islamic Studies Centre.

No, no, these are not fake PhD's. Hahaha.

The Shah Alam certificate was a sheer beauty. It's inscribed 100% in Jawi calligraphy, including my name. When was the last time I'd my name written in Jawi? Standard Six, 1965. That long ago. So I'll keep this certificate for the rest of my natural life, for both its intrinsic and extrinsic value.

Everybody knows the blue-hue Masjid Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah. But not many have heard of Rehal. It's a small, privately-run Talaqqi centre in Kota Damansara. The owner and teacher-in-chief is one Dr Surur Shihabudin, a two-time PhD who also lectures at UIA. Dr Surur has written a widely read text entitled  "Ilmu Tajwid" (pink hard cover, 342 pages). The book is about, hold your breath, Tajwid. What do you expect?

Religious gurus are never known for marketing craft and guile. Their books all look drab and dreary. And the titles leave very little to imagination. They should take a leaf out of literary frauds with funky titles like Blue Ocean or Freakonomics that have sold millions. "Talk Tajwid And Get A Second Wife In Two Weeks" would have been a runaway bestseller. Anyway I'd been using Dr Surur's "Ilmu Tajwid" for some time now and I've to admit that I was motivated to attend the course on the weight of this book and its author. Nothing beats the horse's mouth.

Frankly I'm proud to receive these certificates, even at the tender age of 62. I've lost count of all the certificates I'd received for all kinds of courses I attended when I was with Petronas. Lateral Thinking, High-Impact Speaking, Finance For Finance Haters, Business Leadership, 7 Habits, 5 Asses, you name it. But none really compares with these two humble certificates.
I'm writing this not to show off my religious fixation and credentials. I'm in fact exposing my failure and frailty. Children as young as six now learn the Quran and know all the finer points of Tajwid.  At my age, I'm supposed to teach.

So what's the point? In short, I want to share my late-life learning joys and trials. And if I can get  one more person to just think about learning Tajwid, I'd consider this blog entry a major triumph.

Tajwid is, admittedly, a very dry subject matter. Think theoretical Physics. Or Cost Accounting. It's highly technical and more potent than sleeping pills. Some of the charts and pictographs used are suspiciously similar to the periodic table.  You can't compare Tajwid with, say, Sirah, where you get to learn and turned on by our Prophet's love life with wife Aisyah, or marvel at the bravery of Khalid Al Walid and awe at the exploits of my favourite all-conquering warrior-archer-wanderer Saad Abi Waqqas.

One of my friends knows an awful lot about Syiah and Wahabbi, which, I think, are both juicier than Tajwid. He can expound on Nikah Mutaah, or temporary marriage, in the way that E Channel explains the premise behind the much-celebrated gender migration from Bruce to Caitlyn.

When I completed early Quran reading classes in standard six, I thought I'd mastered Quran reading. Mom could just pick any page and I'd read it aloud. I grew up with this mistaken belief that Tajwid was just an option, something for those who want to win the international Quran reading competition. So it was left on the back burner for fifty years. When I began to learn Tajwid,  I  rudely discovered that, for fifty years, I hadn't been reading the Quran the right way. I'd been reading the Quran not in Arabic, but in Kelantanese.

How did I "discover" Tajwid? It wasn't exactly Fleming and penicillin, but it was similarly fortuitous. Or serendipitous, if you don't mind. The story is screenplay stuff and wrote itself.

It was in 2002 when about 20 of us, close classmates who went to Tiger Lane in 1966, descended for a reunion and Iftar. We had a brief tazkirah, where, by default, the most qualified of us led the session. He reminded us of the intrigues and intricacies of Quran reading, and, to prove his point, he picked out Isymam, a Tajwid rule applied at Ayat 11 Surah Yusuf. We've to purse (muncung) our lips when we recite ta'- man-n-na.  Man, this is something, I thought. I'd been missing lots of fun !

From then on, I began to sniff around for basic Tajwid books. "For my son" I told the bookseller. He'd heard this routine before, so he just nodded. Reading the books was uphill. Tolstoy's two-volume War and Peace was easier and faster.

I finally retired in 2009, but it wasn't until two years later that I began to make some inroads by attending formal and informal Tajwid classes, including our monthly Tiger Lane usrah sessions led by, yes, the Isymam Imam. Every lesson was a sobering self-discovery.

I found out that learning at my age is extremely challenging for three reasons. One, I'd lost most of my thinking skills (not a lot to begin with). So it took me longer than forever to get the hang of the strange concepts and to memorize new names. Two, I was among the oldest, if not the oldest, in class. My Shah Alam and Rehal classmates were mostly half my age, mentally sharper and, worst, they all had more hair. Three, most Tajwid teachers had very little talent in the complex art of teaching. The Rehal program, in particular, was stressful not only because the classroom felt like a Cambodian sweatshop but also because the teacher (Dr Surur) used a teaching technique made popular by the Japanese army during their brief occupation of the old Malaya. He didn't believe in soft sell. He'd drill and grill, regardless of your age. If you're the sensitive sort, you'd drop out and become a "syahid" before the third week.

But after the initial scares and jitters, I began to enjoy the Tajwid classes. Even Dr Surur's hard-hitting military style didn't scare me. With age advantage, I could ask any question I like, like why huruf "Dhod" is Rokhowah and not Syiddah? I always believe everything has its soft and sweet side. In a class of 20 students, you'll listen to 20 different ways of reading. High notes, low notes, poor pitch, terrible tone. I can tell you it's more fun than Akademi Fantasia audition.

We learned from our teachers and from each other, driven by one common and singular ambition: to read the Quran the way our beloved Prophet read it 1400 years ago. What's not to like?

The test of Tajwid is not in the terms and theories, but in putting it to practice. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, remember? Not the prettiest of parallels, but you get my point. Mastering the Makhraj, Mad and the stuff is only the starting point. It's how I apply it when I get down to actually doing it. It was mentally and physically draining, tougher than treadmill. But once I get in the groove, it's hard to stop. You could even get high. Try the graceful Surah Maryam, and you'd soon find yourself doped and drowned in the rhyming verses. Reading the Quran would never be the same.

So I've mastered Tajwid. No, no, no. Not even close. Never. There's still a lot left to learn. Dr Surur kept reminding us "Bergurulah walaupun kita seorang guru".  It's not possible to unlearn and relearn 50 years of work in six short years. The trick is to train. Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slams and she still trains with a coach, six hours a day. Now you're excited.

I'll never be a champion. But I'll keep on learning: twisting and turning my tongue, tweaking my speed and breath, and even trying out a new tune. The divine virtues and rewards of reading the Quran are never in question. But I can promise you one immediate payoff when you read the Quran the right way: your wife loves you a lot more.  

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