NOUMAN ALI KHAN: ABOUT FAME, A PERSONAL LIFE, AND RESPONSIBILITY
By: Nouman Ali Khan
Assalamu Alaikum. My name is Nouman. I am 36 years old, a father of six and very grateful for having a career that allows me to spend my time doing what I love.
Earlier in my life I developed a passion for the study of the Qur’an and, as a result, of the Arabic language. Now I am running an institute whose sole objective is to spread awareness and appreciation of the Qur’an. This passion has kept me busy in one way or another for the last fourteen years. Somewhere along this road, without my conscious realization, I became famous in some circles, notorious in others. I’ve been teaching and giving lectures a long time, but now, suddenly, there are people jumping over each other after a lecture to shake my hand, take a picture or tell me how I’ve changed their life. It’s almost an out-of-body experience and, quite honestly, most of the time I feel like they’re talking about someone else. This enhanced and continually growing public profile has forced me to think about the origins of my work and where it stands now. Actually, I should say it has made me think A LOT about the position in which I find myself. The thoughts I’m about to share with you are personal reflections and are only a commentary from me about me. They are purposely not applicable to any other public speaker, scholar, activist or leader.
Fame is Not a Curse
Nothing in life is; it’s all a test. I happen to think fame in my circumstance is also a part of my sustenance from Allah. I may not deserve this position, but I am in it, and should thus figure out the best way to leverage it to serve a good cause. That is what any of us must do with whatever gifts, circumstances and challenges Allah bestows upon us.
Fame has been a true blessing in some ways. For starters, it has allowed me access to incredible scholars and researchers the world over. Additionally, there are people doing remarkable work in the field of Qur’anic and Arabic studies but are virtually unknown, and they simply approach me with their research contributions. Some of this work is so unique and so incredibly valuable that I can’t think of what I would do without it, yet there is no way I would have even known of its existence had these researchers and scholars not approached me. It is my fame that motivated them to use me as a vehicle to bring their work to light, and I am deeply indebted to them for their consideration. Fame has also allowed me the opportunity to serve as a link between people who are doing complementary work and are unaware of each other. Thus, great collaborations and synergy in this field are happening. This would not have happened through me, if not for my public profile.
Fame Can Be an Exercise in Humility, Especially Selfies
It’s really a matter of perspective. I consider myself socially dyslexic. Whether I’m talking to fifteen people or fifty thousand, it doesn’t really matter to me. But since this explosion in popularity (relative to my own little world), I’ve had to learn the hard way that I can’t just be conscious of my own perspective, but need to understand that of others as well.
When I first came across people who wanted an autograph or asked to take a picture I was (a) shocked and (b) disgusted. What rock star nonsense was this? Here I am trying to share a message that is the most serious endeavor of my entire life, and trying to help you appreciate its seriousness, and you’re treating me like a performer? This is not the way of the students of knowledge. The great teachers and students of our noble past did not take selfies.
That was my perspective and it was wrong, self-righteous and insensitive. It had to change. It took me some time to internalize that I’m actually not reaching out to ‘students of knowledge’. I’m reaching out to the public, a huge chunk of which is slowly finding its way back to the faith. They, for some reason only Allah truly knows, find it easy to relate to me and appreciate that they can connect with the Qur’an in a personal way through some of my talks. They haven’t been brought up in a traditional environment where they’ve sat at the feet of a shaikh in a masjid. These are average people, much like me as a matter of fact. Before my own rediscovery of Islam, I, too, would have lined up to take a picture or grab an autograph of someone famous.
If I don’t respect where people are coming from, I can come across as highly condescending and judgmental. Somebody who asks for a picture may be someone who will appreciate the gesture and, as a result, might share some of my work with family and friends. Maybe this selfie business can actually lead to a good word spreading. You never know. People may have listened to me for hundreds of hours and feel an emotional bond with me. They may even feel like Allah brought a transformation in their life through my talks. If that is the case, and they come up to me and ask for a picture, this small request might mean a huge deal to them. It may be a gesture of love and appreciation. Turning them down will do nothing to me, but could be extremely hurtful and disappointing to them. I’ve had to learn to think of this problem from the other side. Regardless, there will always be people who feel this entire endeavor is an exercise in narcissism. To them I say, “Whatever dude.”
Fame in the Muslim Community Comes With Unrealistic Expectations
At least it does in my experience. I am the same person I was 14 years ago, when no one knew me. Sure, I have more experience now and understand some things better, but I’m not some elevated spiritual being just because I have half a million followers on Facebook. My work, my contribution, my area of expertise and my continued interest is overwhelmingly in one space. And even within this space, I’m more a liaison between real scholarship and the larger public, rather than a scholar myself. That is just the fact of the matter, but I’ve learned that for a huge segment of our ummah, attitudes towards public figures manifest in a number of extremes. Here are some of those extremes as they apply to me personally.
On the extreme positives, I get:
a. “Ustadh Nouman! You are the only speaker I listen to! I don’t need anyone else!”
What? Dude! I ain’t gonna teach ya how to pray, how to do hajj, the history of Islam, manners, fiqh, aqeedah, hadith and a WHOLE bunch of other stuff that you NEED to know. I appreciate the love but you’ve got to broaden your perspective homey!
b. “Ustadh Nouman! How do I fix my marriage/ family life/ depression/drug addiction/suicidal tendencies/some other really serious issues?”
My beloved brother and sister, I am a teacher and a Qur’an student. Your personal problems are very serious and you need someone truly qualified in matters of counseling to help you with the situation. You might be convinced I will do you good, but I might end up doing more damage without either of us realizing it.
However, I do want to know about some of the troubles, problems and challenges you face because I want to address these issues to bring about awareness of the problems, and at least give some general counsel to benefit you and others. That has actually been my stance on this issue for some time now. I read your emails and take note of issues that would be pertinent to a larger audience, and try to highlight them in my talks through the Qur’an. I get over a thousand emails a day. If I started answering each email, even if allotting a minute per email….you do the math. I wouldn’t be doing anything else in my life.
c. “Ustadh, only you can help me. No one else can answer this question.”
Again, my dear brother and sister, help comes from Allah, not from me. I can assure you I want to help, but I may not be able to. Recently I’ve done my best to pass specific types of concerns to other qualified individuals I consider good resources.
On the extreme negatives, I get:
a. “Why don’t you talk about Iraq or Palestine you sellout?”
b. “Why don’t you talk about Hadith you Hadith rejector?”
c. “Why don’t you talk about Aqeedah you deviant?”
d. “Why don’t you talk about Riba and Halal meet, you liberal?”
e. “Why don’t you talk about women’s rights you male chauvinist?”
f. “Why don’t you talk about husbands’ rights you feminist?”
g. “Since you didn’t answer my email or acknowledge my speaking request, it is absolutely evident, without a shadow of doubt, you are a person of dunya who doesn’t care about the ummah and its problems.”
h. “Why don’t you visit our community? Because we are small? You only like big crowds right? I wish you cared about all Muslims, but I guess you don’t.”
There aren’t enough letters of the alphabet for the negatives, but I think you get the picture. I have come to learn that most Muslims either absolutely love their public figures or absolutely hate them. There is no in between.
Once you hear something in one of my talks that disappoints you, I may be written off for life. This, by the way, is a very unrealistic policy towards any relationship. Imagine if you were written off by friends or family because of one thing you said. We can disagree. It’s okay. I still like you. I can be wrong. That is okay too. It doesn’t make me Shaitaan. Chill OUT. Perfection in human beings ended with Rasulullah .
On another note, no one person can deal with all the issues pertinent to the ummah and to Islam. That is unrealistic, unreasonable and even unhealthy. Allah’s messenger carried every burden of this ummah single-handedly. What he carried alone is now distributed amongst an entire ummah. There will always be something important I didn’t talk about. There will always be a community I didn’t get a chance to visit.
I was never asked to elaborate my position on every issue when I was teaching a small class of fifteen in a masjid in Queens, New York, because the people sitting in front of me didn’t expect guidance from me as a mufti, political activist or theologian. I was just an Arabic and Qur’an teacher to them. With this new fame, the expectations seem to have changed. I realize that and feel compelled to at least try to explain why I don’t speak on certain issues.
The truth is, the world used to be a lot more black and white when I was younger. I’ve learned, through the years, that a lot of my thoughts, opinions and conclusions about various Islamic sciences and international politics were over-simplistic and immature. I’ve learned to take a step back, be honest with myself and comfortably say I just don’t know enough. It would be irresponsible of me to casually express my opinions, using this platform, especially on issues I don’t fully comprehend.
It often feels like the public expects me to be vocal about all things related to Islam and this ummah, and that I don’t have the right to remain silent on what I don’t fully understand. I am here to let you know that will not happen. Sorry to disappoint you, but I cannot use this position of great influence to speak on issues I truly don’t know enough about. I will donate to a cause in my personal life without telling you, be convinced of a position in fiqh without telling you and have a particular political inclination without telling you. I don’t want to tell you because I don’t want any of you to ever think my stances on these issues have anything to do with my study of the Qur’an. They may not. Religious leaders can have political opinions. That doesn’t mean their opinion is a religious position. This is why I feel responsible, and either choose to remain silent on these issues or relegate them to someone I consider a scholarly and sincere authority on the subject. My opinions on certain matters were personal and not worth any Islamic weight 14 years ago, and half a million Facebook followers later, I’m glad to say, that hasn’t changed.
Fame is not an Indication of Worth
I feel very blessed to be surrounded by friends and family who know me well, and knew me much before my days of fame. These people are my rizq as they do not see me as a Youtube personality, or even a religious figure for that matter. I’m just Nouman to them. There are no formalities and no massively exaggerated impressions of what I am. Thank Allah for them.
Being around them constantly is really all the reality check I need. They know all too well I am no miracle worker, that my talking to someone’s fifteen-year-old isn’t going to solve his issues or their family problems. I give them advice when asked, but mostly I am on the receiving end of their counsel. The awesome thing is they will put me in my place and advise me for the better whether I ask for it or not, and whether I like hearing it or not! Thank Allah for them.
I’ve come to learn the truest impression of who I am will not come from conferences, speeches or Youtube comments, but from that inner circle of genuine friends and loved ones who just tell it like it is. Thank Allah for them.
Fame is Directly Proportional to Exaggeration, but I Don’t Care
Allow me to explain a bit. There are people who love me so much they attribute levels of iman and Ihsan to me in ways that are just out right ridiculous. Then there are people who deem my intentions so sinister I am likened to the Dajjal. Both of these have in common the flawed assumption that any human being has the ability to look inside the heart of another and tell where they stand in terms of sincerity.
In this beautiful faith, we give benefit of the doubt and assume the best about people without turning them into saints. We don’t entertain assumptions about corrupt intentions as our judgments of people are relegated entirely to the realm of actions. In other words, you and I can criticize each other’s words or actions, but intentions are off limits. This, to me, is a principle that applies, regardless of public status, to all Muslims. It is for this reason both of these exaggerations have no significance to me.
I don’t google myself trying to find out what new allegations are being made about me, and I don’t find validation in compliments and overly flowery words of praise. I just have to do my best, strive to constantly improve and keep it real with the REAL people in my life (see above). Let the trollosphere say what it will. I’ve got better things to do than pay mind to it. Our dignity is protected by Allah and He grants us dignity so long as we dignify His deen. If I am sincere in my work, my Lord will be enough to defend my integrity, so I don’t have to worry about what isn’t mine to protect.
Fame or No Fame, I am Honored to Serve
The fact that I get to spend my life studying and teaching whatever I can of Allah’s book is a tremendous honor. The fact that so many have benefited from whatever little I have done isn’t my own doing, but Allah’s gift. I am not superior to the people I try to benefit. Rather, I see myself as their servant. I feel a sense of love and loyalty to our youth all over the world that is hard to put in words. You are my people, my family.
Even those who find me a deplorable existence are, at the end of the day, Muslims, and I pray Allah softens our hearts towards each other here and in the hereafter. You disagreeing with me makes you no less of a Muslim in my eyes, and I am no one to judge your worth before our Master. I just pray Allah overlooks my many flaws while trying to serve His flawless deen, and that He does the same for you.
What Will I Use My Fame For, Insha‘Allah?
I believe Allah guides people in unique and beautiful ways with His Qur’an. Much like the same rain sprouts every color of flower and every flavor of fruit on this earth, the same revelation inspires every manner of good across different individuals. I will use whatever public profile I have to help spread an appreciation of this beautiful revelation, and expect Allah to reward me for the unique ways in which He will make you bloom. What you will do with this message is up to you, but I can tell you, even though I don’t know who you are, I am excited at the beautiful things Allah will bring into existence through you, as you become inspired and driven by His powerful words.
Posted on August 1, 2014, in ARTICLES and tagged activist, ali, Allah, blessing, challenges, collaborations, curse, Education, english, fame, God, humility, islam, khan, knowledge, leader, learn, life, muslim, muslim community, muslimmatters, muslims, nouman, nouman ali khan, personal, personal reflections, position, prophet muhammad, public speaker, read, reflections, Religion, scholar, share, site, soul, speaker, thoughts, true, website, wisdom, worldwide. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.