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9. Community as Education

Community as Education

Community as Education

Good morning…. Bismillah

A small preamble:

I am still a little surprised that I got to be asked to talk today. The work that MFAS does, although sometimes difficult to follow, is exactly what is needed. It follows a long tradition of Muslim scholarship, of intellectual openness; translating and preserving the most important of texts and making them accessible (well, more or less) through fine commentaries. This event is just that and represents one arm of a long reaching effort at da’wa that goes back a long way. I should know, because I am the recipient of it. Indeed, I still have the transliterated version of the fatiha written out for me in a notebook by Hajj AbdasSamad after I said the shahada. That I am still alongside him means a lot. If I can bring any weight to bear on the cause, then I am honoured. 

When I met them - by whom I mean the group of migrants who made hijrah to Norfolk from London under direction from their, and now, my Shaykh, Shaykh Abdal Qadir as Sufi (May Allah bless him for that and all the work he has done fisabilillah. I recommend you see Ahmed Peerbux and CMedia’s film ‘A Strange Affair’ which charts that move), I had recently returned after a year or more doing a village study among a potter community in South India. I was ostensibly doing an MPhil in Anthropology - but had gone native as far as I could. When I got this invitation to speak, an old muscle started to twitch as I contemplated the hugely diverse meanings of community and momentarily considered doing a treatise on groups and communities in the academic way that I now teach would-be Master’s students to write. But that muscle is not very fit anymore and besides that I have never worked in the state sector. I could never be objective. So l rather shamelessly tell you that I am going to speak about my pedagogic experience as  both learner and teacher which became - yes, I can say it now - my calling (or call up) - two years after I became Muslim. I have been teaching in one form or another for 35 years. You’ll have to read between the lines.


I’m going to use a couple of ancient texts and a modern one to enframe this talk. The modern one is a recent article in the Guardian by Pankaj Mishrah that cleverly encapsulates the enframement through which we see the world today. His focus is on the ISIS phenomenon and is called ‘Plato’s Guns’ ( It’s something I think all of us are thinking about. I have deliberately chosen non-Islamic sources (Mishrah is a Hindu, I imagine). This is because as mentioned earlier, tagging Islamic to things is usually counter-productive. I’d say it’s putting the cart before the horse. I’ll come back to that.

Shaykh Abdal Qadir was 50 when I met him.

No classroom based learning there. It was a case of being there, in his circle, if you could. I was a potter myself,  with rather muddy thoughts and somewhat tied to the heavy equipment that that trade demanded. I made careful, tentative visits to his corner in the zawiyya in Wood Dalling Hall, more than half afraid of the commitments that I imagined he would ask me to make. One afternoon, quite early on, he flipped me on my head when, in a friendly manner, he confided to me; “The clay is the mother. The intellect is the father. You need to internalise the mother and externalise the father.”

Only now, well passed the age he was when he said that, can I truly appreciate the way he thought out that piece of life-changing wisdom; the way he looked at me and the people who came to his side. It was the first appreciation of what ‘ilm an Nafs’ was, and that he was passing it on. My fears of submission scarcely let me recognise that then. He saw my scepticism - just as I can see the same in so many of the young people who come to my lessons  (since his advice led me to becoming a teacher), it’s a normal reaction to institutions, ones where we are stuffed by learning. The Shaykh slowly but surely disarmed me.  

If I may I’ll tell you the story of he three fish from  the Panchatantra - written  in Sanskrit in the C4th BC and translated into Arabic as Kalila and Dimna around the time of the prophet SAW coming from an oral tradition well over 3,000 years old:

The Three Fish (see Tales of Bidpai: Trans. Ramsey Wood 1980)


A Teaching Story retold by AR

From Kalilah and Dimna  (2,500 yrs old +)

It’s a still, summer’s morning. Three fish - who of course, this being a fable, have names - so, Wise fish, Clever fish and Stupid fish are lazily basking in their favourite pool under the spreading branches of a huge oak tree. The pool is connected to a river by a small channel. The sun slants through the early morning mist. All is well with the world.

Not for long however; Clever fish is the first to notice a shadow fall across the pond…not one but two! 


Recognising them and the signs of the men getting ready, he swims over to the other two to warn them;

“Fisherme…..!” But before he can finish, Wise fish spins round and swims off with great force, beating his tail - across the pool - through the channel - into the river and away.

“What was that all about?” said Stupid fish.

“Fishermen,” said Clever Fish, “we’ve got to get out of here.”  He was aware that the men were getting their nets ready.

“Nah, I’ll just go down to the bottom and sleep till they’ve gone,” said Stupid fish.

“No, no, they have ways of catching you there too!”

But Stupid fish is not interested and swims to the depths of the pond.

Clever fish turns towards the channel as the fishermen start to cast their nets

They crash into the water and he has to swerve to avoid them as he approaches the channel….

But the men saw the first fish escape too, and had quickly put a net across the mouth of the channel.

When Clever fish swims up to it and finds his way blocked, his heart almost stops with shock..

Stunned he ponders his fate…

But you know how when you are in the toughest circumstances, you’re stuck in a glitch, your brain races to find a solution… well, 

Clever fish suddenly has an idea. 

He starts to sink down, slowly, towards the bottom.

In the distance he can see Stupid fish sleeping … no use talking to him.

Down he drops, into the murky cold, towards the black mud and shit at the bottom.

Once there, he opens his mouth and starts to eat the black sludge.


Then, very slowly ….. Clever fish starts to float back up towards the surface…. up, up and at the very last moment he turns upside down as he surfaces.

“Look there’s one!” cried a fisherman.

He grabbed a pole  and pulled the fish over to the bank. 

He knelt down and picked the fish up

“Look at the size of this one!”

Then he looked towards the head of the fish and saw the mud and gunge trickling out. 

“What’s this?”

He leant forward and smelt the fish’s mouth.

“Aw, this one’s bad!”

He threw the fish onto the ground in disgust.

Clever fish comes to life and ‘flip’ ‘flap’, he flips and twists and tosses his body and…. into the river and away

So…… Stupid fish….(zzzs coming out of his mouth)

Well, the fishermen had counted three and now furiously threw the nets until finally…. one entwined around him and Stupid fish woke into his worst nightmare.

The fishermen cheered. This time they weren’t going to make a mistake. 

They pulled the struggling fish up onto the bank, still in the net. 

(The fisherman brings down a rock on the head of the fish)  mimic

WHACK (I usually hit the desk really loudly)

Satisfied at last, they pack up and take the fish home where it is cooked (by the wife) for a delicious evening meal.

And what do you think they talked about as they ate the fish?

(the two big ones that got away!)

(and of course the story is not really about fish, is it?!)

we all know stupid people … and we know clever people … but wise?


What is the difference between ‘wise’ and ‘clever’?

(“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” { Rumi })

Punning, Shaykh Abdal Qadir once called himself  - again for my benefit, I believe - ‘a cracked pot’. He had indeed put paid to many of my early conceptions - just like a master potter will smash a malformed pot growing out of his hands on the wheel. Much less encumbered by this time, I learned to run with buckets to catch the ‘light’ that spilled out of this ‘crackpot’. 

Education comes from the word  dux; leader or commander (duce - our duke); ducere ‘to lead’ - lead out, lead on.

Trying to follow his lead, it became easier for me to lead the young people of the community that I have done at different times ever since.  The Shaykh tried to wake us all up. In particular he left us the puzzle of how to understand the directive, attributed to the Sufis; ‘Die before you die’. (probably derived from the hadith that when we die, we wake up)

When I tell the story of the three fish, I usually crash my fist down on the table to mark the end of stupid fish and as a warning of death by stupidity. From the moment we have children we have to raise them with the reality of death - not in a morbid way - but as a scenario; an anthropologist would say, ‘the ultimate rite of passage’. They have to cross roads, rivers, mountains, chasms on their journey through life. The recognition of it quickens or galvanises living. Cautionary tales are everywhere at hand; the closer, the more thought provoking. 

The girl who died bungee jumping off Lanjaron Bridge in July 2015 had said the shahada just 2 months before. 

We don’t live in Gaza or Aleppo.  

Instead we see today, largely over-protected kids who later act without caution, or cease to act; the ‘nothing to do’ generation. 

In Norwich, I usually introduce my students to one Thomas Gooding - a contemporary of Shakespeare’s - sometimes sending them to the cathedral to find the message he’s left for us. 

Entombed in the south wall, a skeleton etched out in stone - with an almost detectable smile - and with the following written on a plaque on his chest:

‘All you that do this place pass bye

Remember death for you must dye.

As you are now even so was I

And as I am so shall you be.’

And at his feet;

Thomas Gooding here do staye

Wayting for God's judgement day.’

The other old text that I would like to quote is the Tao De Jing - usually attributed to Lao Tsu - a collection of 5,000 pictographs said to have been left by Lao Tsu in about 700 BC with a frontier guard at the top of a mountain pass as he was leaving the Imperial court (and Confucianism) ‘when political conditions had deteriorated so far that there was no longer any hope for a restoration of order’. I think these aphorisms -translated by the sinologist Richard Wilhelm early last century- provide an echo for our time;

An example on the topic I’ve started with:

When the people go hungry,

this comes from too much tax

being devoured by the high and mighty:

therefore people go hungry.

When the people are hard to lead,

this comes from too much meddling 

by the high and mighty;

therefore they are difficult to lead,

this comes from life’s abundance being sought too greedily

by the high and mighty;

therefore they take death too lightly.

However, he who does not act for the sake of life,

he is better than the other to whom life is precious.

(Tao De Jing 75)

to repeat:

‘When the people are hard to lead,

this comes from too much meddling 

by the high and mighty;

therefore they are difficult to lead.’ 

in the context of education.…

There are possibly some fates worse than death…

Possibly one where in a society over protected children - who thereby lose caution - are incarcerated in one institution or another for many years . Their lives subject to people who are - I heard the expression recently - ‘carried away with orthodoxy’ - under the heavy hand of government policies that produce unnecessary strata of management, fruitless targets and noisome paperwork. (the failure of the secondary school system of education)

That would be a frivolous statement though in Gaza or in the refugee camps of Turkey and Lebanon, where the kids want nothing more than to go back to school. Any schooling would be good. 

The Tao again:

‘In leading Men and in the service of heaven 

there is nothing better than ‘Limitation’

For only through limitation

can one deal with things early on.

Through dealing with things early on

one redoubles the forces of life

one rises to every occasion

So raising the question of the difference between institutionalisation and an environment around which certain limits have been placed. In the first, the aura of freedom, with kids coming to school pretty much as they please, dressing up or down and spending hours on gelling hair and make up before the day; ‘an hour and a half’ a boy in my class recently told me. Early sexualisation, being forced to grow up too quickly, egged on by peers and the social media, it can be a confusing time and as my daughters have revealed, with gangs and bullying among boys and girls equally - stressful. Eating disorders, having to deal with drugs, exclusions etc. 

I have found in my travels that schools with uniforms and codes of conduct agreed upon with the parents - while probably earning the label ‘paternalistic’ - protect the children more and allow more time for play. The kids in these schools will probably eat together on a regular basis and have to take on duties regarding the serving of others. That has certainly been the emphasis in any schools that ‘we’ as a community have tried. Having the support and input of the parents is crucial - the natural meaning of paternal/maternal. How can one address diet, activity and personal or study habits without their involvement. Of course this can be seen as quite intrusive to some families, and is, the more bureaucratic it becomes - utterly offensive when ‘British Values’ are set to be enforced by way of indoctrination.

I’ve come to the conclusion that in every generation the parents of a locality must decide anew what they want for their children. The period as young parents should not be characterised by work absenteeism but by high involvement in the upbringing. 

But let’s look at the limits of the School as a Community itself

Once Muslim, I became involved in schools quickly; on the one hand in EFL under my other great vocational teacher, Sidi Mustafa McDermott, in a school whose acronym ironically was ISES/ISEAS. 

He influenced a whole bunch of young Gulf and Kuwaiti Arabs and was merciless with any who tried to take what he called “a holiday from Islam”  (cite Sidi Mustafa’s funeral 2002, Rahim Allah). I taught and trained at that school; his strap line ringing in my ears: “The day you stop learning, that’s the day you stop being a teacher”. 

At the same time I started teaching the young people of the community and have done so at different times ever since. With limited funds, the educational activities that I got involved with would best be described as ‘barefoot education’ - literally at times - one memorable occasion playing Kabadi (‘cup-of-tea’ … in English!) barefoot in snow. In Spain, the whole school camped and climbed over the Sierra Nevadas. In England we formed a bicycle club and took the learning out of the city (something important for urbanised kids), into the woods and out onto the hills. In Turkey, camping for weeks on the Black Sea. These things can’t easily be measured, but when I meet the now grown-up students, I’m really surprised how deep these ‘hits’ went in. Last year, invited to a reassembled year group in Istanbul, the class of ’86, I think, I was treated to a rendition of ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsies’; something that stuck in some strange lesson.

Sometimes we flew

And indeed, from here on I will have to wing it… which seems a derogative term, but after one such accusation levelled at me, I realised that someone has to lead the flock formation on the migratory ways etc…. the more experienced individual, the wiser one.

Winging it, because as a teacher I see it as my job as attempting to translate what’s happening around us into a language that young people can understand, and because gathering the substance of the ‘uncoordinated mayhem’ we find ourselves in (using a phrase from Mishra) is beyond me… ‘the general perplexity, … among political elites who do not seem to know what they are doing and what they are bringing about.’ I definitely don’t know where I am. I know where I’m going inshallah.

Let me give a few terse examples, from Mishra, of what needs to be unpacked;

Mass education and economic crisis have long created a fertile soil for cults of violence: The advent of the global economy in the 19th century, and its empowerment of a small island, caused an explosion of mimetic desire from western Europe to Japan. Since then, a sense of impotence and compensatory cultural pride has routinely driven the weak and marginalised to attack those that seem stronger than them while secretly desiring to possess their advantages. Humiliated rage and furtive envy characterise Muslim insurrectionaries and Hindu fanatics today as much as they did the militarist Japanese insisting on their unique spiritual quintessence. It is certainly not some esoteric 13th-century Hadith that makes Isis so eager to adopt the modern west’s technologies of war, revolution and propaganda – especially, (so much) as the homicidal dandyism of Jihadi John reveals, its mediatised shock-and-awe violence.

The Way Forward?

I think it’s about recognition.

Recognising people/talent/heroes….. leaders

The media have a lot to answer for - as the leading figures in our much overrated democracy have to bend to the dominant discourse that is largely decided by the press.

Politicians are for ever being drawn into ‘short-term thinking strategies’ and soundbites in order to satisfy ‘tomorrow’s headlines’. The trivialising of huge problems. Two days ago, during the first wave of thousands of migrants attempting to get on trains to England from Calais, David Cameron, away on an overseas mission himself to further British financial interests, responded with this fatuous appeal to middle England; “Everything that can be done will be done to make Britain’s borders secure and make sure the people can go on their holidays.”

Few are able to engage with the media. 

Mishra again; “a sensationalist and scruple-free press seems eager to collude in the “noble lie” of the British politicians, that of; ‘we will degrade and ultimately destroy’ terrorists pure and simple …”

This, ten years after “the Anglo American assault on Iraq and the ‘systematic devastation - the murder and displacement of millions’ after an earlier decade of brutalisation by sanctions and embargoes.”

In relation to the subject matter of this talk, Mishra highlights the wasted pool of the educated; ‘the mass educated youth, let down by unfeeling governments and economic crisis.’

Like Shaykh Abdal Qadir, he quotes Dostoevsky and Pushkin in his attempt to get to the root of the resentiment ; the bewilderment and bitterness of people coming late into the modern world….

“the ‘superfluous’ man in a semi-westernised society: educated into a sense of hope and entitlement, but rendered adrift by his limited circumstances and exposed to feelings of weakness, inferiority and envy. It is the mimetic nature of moments like ISIS or hindu fundamentalists that stand out.

Many of us here have been fortunate to have had all these years such a guide in Shaykh Abdal Qadir… through whose emulation… we have been able to witness the fate of the heroes and villains of our time.

Each here will have their own figures who maybe inspired for a time - maybe still do. 

(Talk for a moment about the figures (let’s say three) who meant a lot to you in an earlier period)

 In my case, to name just three; J. Lennon, whose primal and honest screams for the truth, led him to be one of the first of the post-war celebrities to  ‘come out’ and deny the existence of God - in the song of that name (brilliant) ‘God is a concept by which we measure our pain’ …… (adding a long list of idols -isms and gods he forsook - ending with…. ’I just believe in me…’ (Ibrahim Lawson, this morning virtually quoted him)

…..Following him, following him… then ‘Bang! He’s dead’. 

Steven Hawking who not only denies the existence of God also claimed he would be able to read His mind. (He made a bet on it with a colleague - the prize being a copy of Playboy) "What I meant by, 'we would know the mind of God' is,” Hawking says, that “we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t.” For a believer, his predicament in every sense is a powerful sign.

The third and best of villains, for me, is Muhammed Ali - ex Cassius Clay - whose change of name during his meteoric career mattered not a whit as his boast of ‘I am the greatest’ rang and rang in the ear, setting off the first portent that the institutions I was in were hollow. Allah who blessed him with beauty and wit; “At home I’m a nice guy but I don’t want the world to know”, of course got him to change his tune and he remains to this day humble, grateful and quivering like a leaf.

There is no intent in these comments to pass judgement on these people. That is Allah’s prerogative alone. 

I merely state that these figures, all who astound, were earlier signposts for someone looking for the truth. Everyone needs those. Who can’t remember just one teacher who made a difference.

Do you want to share that? We can hope (and sense we have on occasion been that teacher)

As we get on, the need for signs becomes less. Yet most of us made it into the Din by significant events.

Shaykh Abdal Haqq, in trying to explain how it was that we all came to the Din has said on occasion that it was probably ‘a reward for sincerity in the search’ or words to that effect.

Once founded and truly taken on, there was a sifting of all previous values and the best of our original cultural inheritance stayed at the top. 

We remain in that culture - not alien to it as some would have - maybe detached - better so.

In most countries of the world you cannot enter a classroom in an institution without seeing a picture of ‘the great leader’ on the wall. You only have to know a Turk - of almost any description - to see how deep it goes - no offence intended. It applies to almost everybody. Perhaps, like the Queen here for some of us. Does anyone have a picture of Prince Charles on their wall?! 

In my ‘barefoot educative path’ I have always made Fitra the goal - and the starting point for learning. 

Paraphrasing Heidegger, I/we would take the young to a prepared and safe place - ‘the place of learning’. The way would be full of microscopic observations, of place, correctness of behaviour (Tarkovski’s ‘Stalker’ if anyone’s seen it) - adab in a word - but done mostly without words - as best as possible by example - finding in oneself the sense of wonder natural to any child. Stealth, humour (at the bumblings or misfortunes of members of the party), reflection, breaking a taboo or two, looking at the stars and satellites at night, silence, adventure. The list could go on. The boast was to teach the kids how to light fires - then put them out - and then leave no traces. When we got the ‘that place’; stories - like the one I used. But theirs as well. 

If you could describe it in terms of pedagogic objectives; it would be to let them believe in the end that it was by their efforts alone that they met with success - however it was measured - according to the trip. They would go home with that. Of course there is/was teacher artifice - but since the believing teacher turns to Allah in all he/she does, and especially on such trips, then there comes - quite often - a pure moment of ‘communion’. Victor Turner, my favourite anthropologist used the word ‘Communitas’:

Communitas refers to an unstructured state in which all members of a community are equal, allowing them to share a common experience, usually through a rite of passage. Communitas is characteristic of people experiencing liminality together. This term is used to distinguish the modality of social relationship from an area of common living. There is more than one distinction between structure and communitas. The most familiar is the difference of secular and sacred. Every social position has something sacred about it. This sacred component is acquired during rites of passages, through the changing of positions. Part of this sacredness is achieved through the transient humility learned in these phases, this allows people to reach a higher position. etc etc.

(Anthropology was fun in a way).

These exercises were designed to help the young to find their own way. The hope being that their ‘being led’ would allow them in time to recognise their leaders and commanders (synonymous with the meaning of Amirs as Hajj AbdasSamad said in a recent khutba - more precisely the commander commanded (the doer done fa’il/maf’ul))

Our Prophet a is the best of those.

I’ll finish with a possible rendering of ummi as in nabi-al ummi - the unlettered - in conversation with Haj Abdassamad on the way down to London: 

ummi, as (he explained), as in fresh from the mother… not instructed in the sciences, philosophies or religions taught by the father.

We left Lao Tsu crossing the border after leaving the Royal Court (of Confucious); Wilhelm interpolated his turning away saying;  “The meaning of the good gifts of Heaven and Earth is not based on their usefulness for human purposes”. 

But Lao Tsu spells it out in 71

To know non-knowledge

is the highest good.

Not to know what knowledge is 

is a kind of suffering.

(Only if one suffers from this suffering

does one become free of suffering.

If the Man of calling does not suffer

it is because he suffers of this suffering

therefore he does not suffer)

And again:(64)

“the Man of Calling:

desires desirelessness.

He does  not desire goods that are hard to attain.

He learns non-learning.

He turns back to that which the multitude passes by.

thereby he furthers the natural course of things

and does not dare to act”


Unless we step outside the league tables and institutionalised illusions of endless growth

And swim upstream

(and not be carried away with orthodoxy)

Forsaking shopping as the zenith of human project. Goodness me!

Taking on projects for the highest good (unum bonum verum)

Finding the ‘field of learning’/the safe place.

Paradoxically, letting go ….


the management of affairs

La hawla wa la quwata ila bil ‘aliul Adheem

Then the adventure begins

And the community is what is left in its wake

Richard Abdarrazzak Goodall August 2015