I hear a loud and vibrant chant from the dining table where a group of 15 or more mid-teenagers congregate four times a week for their ‘Islamiat’ classes.
These kinds of students have been flocking for almost a decade at the residence where I stay in order to prepare for their final O-Level Examination. They are tutored, examined, and made to revise and practice every minute detail of the syllabus. They have to attempt questions from previous examinations as well as anticipated questions in the forthcoming test. The teaching goes beyond books, notes and lectures where the practicality and application of the beliefs are applied and proven. In some cases, individual counselling is provided for students and their parents who are seeking guidance.
This started off as a feeble attempt to better understand the religion. With time, patience, hard work and dedication, the tutor was able to capture and captivate the hearts, minds and souls of several hundred young adults, their parents and even their grandparents! And from the results that pour in, it shows.
Born into a minority sect of Islam, she struggled in accepting the beliefs and practices of those following it. She questioned, cross-questioned and cross-examined every ritual and ceremony that took place in their places of worship. She would spend endless hours in gaining answers from her father and then turning to Allah over and over again. She would pray and fast as the way of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) and his Companions and would make special efforts in gaining more knowledge of the Deen from practicing friends and their families.
The year she turned 18, her father gifted her a three-volume set of A. Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Holy Quran. She would reading this guidance for many years on, passing the inspiration to the generations following her.
I had always admired my mother from a young age. Being the eldest and only daughter for the first seven years, I would be the dog’s tail attached around my mother, especially when she would be working in the kitchen or managing and organizing the home for guests. I was there at her beck and call and learnt how she would be cleaning the meats before cooking, chopping vegetables and preparing the meal in the pot. Then there were the finer etiquettes that a young lady was required to have – laying the table, handling cutlery and crockery and serving the guests. After numerous rounds of serving friends and well-wishers through umpteen rounds of breaking and damaging fine china, my mother had declared me fit enough to handle the guests and kitchen on my own.
It was during those years and subsequently after that I learnt of a secret she had well-kept from me. In the hours that I was in the school, on the days my timetable did not have an ‘Islamic Studies’ class scheduled, my mother would slide my textbook off the shelf to read and gain knowledge from those enlightened pages. When my siblings and I would return from school, she would be eager to sit with us and learn what we had learnt that day by asking a million questions as a five-year old does! When we would have to learn some Ayats (Verses) from the Quran or a Dua (Prayer), she would make sure she kept herself free and would memorise them along with us.
Year upon year, she would be reading those ‘Islamic Studies’ textbooks and had almost a photographic memory by the end of the eighth level! I only got wind of this when I would question her on some issue and her response would be that I read it from a certain textbook. Many a times we would playfully argue regarding a matter and she would say: “Have you already forgotten? It is in YOUR textbook!”
It was a day in 1997 when my sister came complaining to my mother about the teacher discussing a certain topic in her ‘Islamiat’ class that was totally uncalled for. This angered my mother greatly and she had decided to visit the principal as soon as she could. The principal, of British origin, was a level-headed lady and was kind enough to listen to my mother’s point of view and thereby learn of the correct way of the religion. She immediately offered my mother to teach the same from the next academic year as she did receive a few other complaints regarding the current teacher and found my mother’s knowledge to be stronger and more practical.
My mother refused immediately and suggested that she should find someone who is more well-versed in the religion and more importantly, with the method of teaching and syllabus as she had no experience. The principal was firm in her belief and assured my mother that she would be willing to help her at any point in time and so would the other teachers, so she should go home, consult the family and return for the following academic year shortly.
The first year was the most difficult for her, I remember. She had about three to four grades to teach with a couple of sections that totalled to almost one hundred students. They were groups of girls and boys, anywhere from between 13 years of age to 17 with raging hormones and innumerable questions at the drop of a hat. The principal’s reassurances and the help from her colleagues is what kept her going. Late night assignment and homework checking was another factor that brought up her confidence and love for the subject. Her passion and drive to improve herself for her students grew further through the months and years she taught at the school.
Her health and the never-ending workload five years later, made her decide to tutor from home where she could manage fewer students whom she could pick and choose herself. The group was small initially – four to six in the first year to a double group of the same in the following year. Word got out amongst the students with whom she had coached and started spreading in the schools they studied and amongst their siblings. Mothers would be discussing when they would meet and would pass on her contact information. They too, felt comfortable enough to talk to her and would either call or visit her after her classes for their own counselling. In this way, their respective children had become more focused and better able to comprehend the lessons thereafter.
Sadly, in May 2011, she decided to close her tuitions with the batch that had just completed their term with her. She said she was “tired” and that she “had completed my (her) work”. She had asked her students to distribute the notes they had, as opposed to her recollecting them at the end of the year as was her practice. She wished for the other students to gain knowledge about Islam as much as all her other batches had, in years gone by.
It was two days after her birthday in August 2011 that she slept a peaceful sleep, only to never wake up.
As I sit in that same dining room receiving her former students and their parents who come to offer their condolences, I still feel her presence and can remember those lessons she would be preparing with me before teaching them.
That lady was my mother, Niamet Hashambhoy Khalid, more popularly known as Mrs. Niamet.