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Meeting the Minds: An Exclusive IlmGate Interview with Shaykh Junaid Kharsany

Q: Can you please state your full name, date of birth, and place of birth.

A: My name is Junaid Muhammad Kharsany. I was born in Durban, South Africa, on August 7, 1975, which corresponds with the 28th of Rajab 1395 of Hijrah.

Q: Could you tell us a little about your family background, where you’re from, and what your childhood was like?

A: I am technically fourth-generation Gujurati Surti Indian, born in South Africa. My father was born in India, but my grandfather was born in South Africa and went to India to get married and, as result, my father and his elder brother were born in India and came to South Africa at a young age.

My mother is technically fifth-generation Indian with a similar background. My educational background is that I went to regular public elementary school in South Africa. I completed regular elementary high school in South Africa. I did my hifz while in high school, and upon the termination of my high school at age seventeen, I went to do the Alim course at Darul Uloom Arabia Islamiyyah, Azaadville, South Africa. I enrolled in 1990 and terminated that course in December of 1996 before Ramadan of 1997.

Q: How long did it take you to complete your hifz?

A: With the demands of school, stopping for exams, and the regular challenges of doing it on the side, it took me about 6 years.

Q: What advice would you give to one who feels that doing full-time hifz will cause one to lack in their secular education?

A: Hifz actually augments the mind of a person. It is a mental exercise. One not only learns the Qur’an, but develops his reflexes and focus and thought. So my advice to them is not to be concerned that they will lose out in any way. What will likely happen is that it will compliment their studies.

Q: What motivated you to study Islam?

A: Toward the end of my high school, I started getting more involved in jama’ah and tabligh activities and spent forty days with an alim. He encouraged me to go and pursue the Alim course along with one or two more students. One of them went to pursue his Alim course and did not end up making it, but he was successful in convincing the younger members of his jamaat to pursue Islamic studies. I was one of them, and in that way I am indebted to him.

Q: Where did you attain your Islamic Education? What did you study?

A: I studied in Madrassa Arabia Islamiyyah, which is more commonly known is Darul Uloom, Azadville, from 1990 to 1996. I studied Arabic grammar, tafseer, hadtih, usool al-tafseer, usool al-hadith, and hadith criticism. I have studied different languages such as Farsi and Urdu. I have studied fatawa, fiqh, usul al-fiqh, and books on hadith, to mention a few.

Q: While you were studying, which teacher(s) had the biggest impact on you? Why?

A: If I had to take their names, there would be a handful of them. Starting from the top, my Shaykh al-Hadith, Mawlana Fadl al-Rahman al-A’zami, who comes from a long line of scholars. He is probably the single greatest influence because of his piety, his diligence of teaching the hadith of Allah’s Messenger (upon him be blessings and peace), his etiquette with the hadith, and the flair he had for the subject which few can attain. In every discipline of knowledge, somehow you tend to gauge whether the person has a flair for it. Immediately, you could gauge that he had it for hadtih and that drew us to him like a magnet. We learned many points from the hadith that could only be taught and explained by a select few people. Then there was Mawlana Hassan Dockrat, who wrote the famous book on Arabic grammar. We learned from him good discipline, keeping of time, keeping of a good dress code, keeping of an academic nature, and keeping discipline inside the classroom. There was Mawlana Musa Patel, from whose diligence and regularity—he would never miss a day—we learned a great deal. So these are a few things that I took from a few teachers. Of course I took a lot from all of my teachers. I must have had over 30 teachers over the course of my studies, but these few stand out in my mind right now.

Q: What are some of the most important lessons of life that you learned as a student?

A: Respect for your teachers, respect for your fellow students, respect for the institute where you are studying, and the value of hard work. There is no such a thing as a clock, no such thing as a timetable, no such thing as a schedule. These things are there to make life easier for other people, but not for you. You are in the institute to work, and you are done when the work is done. Also, we learned the keeping of time. We learned to watch what we say. In a communal environment, if you do not watch what you say, it leads to unnecessary altercations with all types of people. We also learned the skill of saying the right things at the right time or just keeping silent.

Q: Would you mind sharing any interesting stories from your student life?

A: There are the hair-raising stories. Many people used to come to our Shaykh al-Hadith with jinn cases, one of which I’ll share here. There was a person who required a jinn to be exorcized, so he came one day to the class and the Shaykh al-Hadith assisted him in doing do. That was a hair-raising experience for all of us.

A spiritual experience as a student was the janazah of Shaykh Mufti Mahmud al-Hasan, the Grand Mufti of India and the Grand Mufti of Deoband. We were there at the janazah when he passed away in South Africa. The senior students in the madrasah, of which I was one at that time, had the opportunity of giving his ghusl and burying him and being at the forefront of his janazah. We had started Sahih Muslim with him and I had the honor of being the last person to recite Sahih Muslim for him. I was the reciter at that time and on behalf of my class.

We completed Sahih Bukhari from marhum Mawlana Hasan Jan. It was also a very great experience sitting in his lesson of Sahih Bukhari.

Other good experiences that we had were, being at the janazah of foreign students who passed away after falling sick. The didn’t have any family there, so we were responsible for burying them. Their families could have been all around Kenya, Tanzania, or any one of the islands, and were too poor to afford a ticket to bury their own child. So we were given the opportunity to bury the guest of Allah’s Messenger, which I the status of every student. These were experiences I would never trade for the whole world.

Q: You mentioned that it was a blessing to wash the body of Mawlana Mufti Mahmud al-Hasan. Some people might view this as a burden. Why did you view this is a blessing?

A: Those people who view this as a task need to answer this very important question: Say that person whose ghusl you are giving happened to be your father. Would you consider that a burden or an honor? I think every sane Muslim, if they had to do the ghusl of their father, would consider it not a task but an honor. We have to understand what a great spiritual father Shaykh Mufti Mahmud al-Hasan was for the entire world. So I was honored to be part of the ghusl of a great spiritual father for the entire world, so it was not a task but rather a great honor.

Q: What advice do you have for the youth who are studying in high school or college and want to study Islam?

A: Ideally if they feel it in them with the consultation of the elders and they have the capability, I advise them to make an intention that, upon the termination of their high school studies when they are free, they pursue the Alim course on a full-time basis and become a scholar. If they are not able to do so immediately, they should hook up with one of the leading scholars in their area and remain connected to them at least on a weekly basis. Join tabligh activities so that your connection with studying and Islam maintains. On a grand scale, those people who have been able to support scholars from around the world are those who remain connected with tabligh because it is people who know about tabligh that have viewed and respected who the scholars are or were. So my advice to them is that, should this be your pursuit in life, do not isolate yourself from the work of tabligh, but remain very close to it and at the same time build a connection with a local scholar to achieve basic Islamic education while maintaining the intention to pursue full-time Islamic education.

Q: When did you come to the United States? What sort of activities were you engaged in between graduation from Islamic studies and your migration to the U.S.

A: Upon graduation at the end of 1996, I went for a year in jamaat. Then in 1998, upon my return, I was involved in teaching in a institute called Islahul Muslimeen, which offers high school, regular school, as well as teaching certain books for boys and girls. My wife and I were in the girls’ department, where I taught in the beginning basic Arabic books. I remained at that institute for six years and finished off there in 2004, and from 2002 until 2004, I taught a book of Hadith called Mishkat for three years. I did this from 7 am to 12 noon, and in the afternoon I was an inspector for the Jamiyat Ulama, which in South Africa is a big organization that runs after-school programs numbering in the hundreds. They hire and recruit a number of inspectors that go to the maktabs, collect records, talk to parents, take surveys, troubleshoot issues that happen, rent out premises, sign report cards, take exams. That was my afternoon job from 3 p.m. till 5:30. In addition to that, I have travelled to a number of countries, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, local African countries, in the path of Allah. So, al-Hamd lillah, I have been involved in jama’at quite extensively. I also have bay‘ah to a shaykh, Shaykh Mawlana Fadl al-Rahman al-A’zami, who was my Hadith teacher, and this is my connection with tasawwuf. I initially came to the United States invited for the taraweeh prayer in 2002 in Englewood, California, and after which they invited me to come permanently. From the time I submitted my resignation to the institute where I was teaching, and by the time they had found a replacement, it was 2004. So I actively came and joined in 2004 as an imam in Englewood, California, where, till today, I run an after-school hifz program, serve as imam of the daily prayers, and deliver the Friday sermon. I also free up a lot of my time to travel in the United States for the purpose of lectures and interaction with different communities.

Q: What do you see are some of the major differences between the community in South Africa and the community in the US?

A: The community in South Africa is very well established. They have been in South Africa for over 120 years. They are all generally from one part of the world, the western part of India, or from the Malay Peninsula, which have come many centuries ago. Because they are homogenous, they tend to think in the same way, their values are the same, and generally people who come from the western part of India are conscious of the need to build and maintain masjids. It is a culture that revolves around the masjid. Also, the party system in South Africa kept the people of one culture together isolated from other people, whereas here in America there are people from all parts of the world and they all come with their own values. Those values are good in their way but they are different, and a lot of people need a lot of time to adjust to those values. In South Africa, however, we could have been more productive. In South Africa we are generally a business community and wherever business communities are, they tend to be religiously minded. That is why the Quraysh were generally businessmen and Allah gave them the work of Islam first because few people think and plan ahead the way businessmen do. Fortunately, because they were business minded, they had long-term planning and strategy for that which was dear to them, and we benefitted from the business-minded strategy that our business-minded community came with to South Africa.

Q: What are some of the unique challenges that you think Muslims in the U.S. face and how should we face them?

A: Muslims in America face the challenge to develop and maintain an Islamic identity. This is an immediate challenge that every Muslim in America faces. How I see them overcoming this is for them to structure their lives around the masjid, for them to involve themselves in one of the more traditional aspects in Islam by going out in jama’at, sitting in the company of scholars, being part of general activities held in the masjid, and making sure that every child goes to some Islamic program after school where they benefit from learning how to read Qur’an, so that they can spiritually benefit from Qur’an and learn basic Islamic studies. If they revolve their lives around these three or four activities, it will become a much easier task to maintain their identity.

Q: What sort of activities are you currently involved in?

A: I am currently the imam in Englewood, California. I also deliver the Friday sermon. In addition to that, I run my own Qur’anic institute that offers Hifzul Qur’an as well as a homeschooling program in Torrance, California, that also offers an after-school program that runs from 3 p.m. to 7:30. And we have at least 100 students enrolled that come in at staggered times for 3 p.m until 7:30. It provides basic afternoon Qur’anic education along with basic Islamic education to kids who go to public school because nobody goes to an Islamic school. In addition to that I teach books twice a week at the institute of knowledge which is in Daimondburg. I teach Zad al-Talibin and Nur al-Idah to students who have already completed the memorization of the Qur’an and are starting their first year of Alim course. I have also taught the Alim course privately to a number of students who are all now in South Africa. I also have classes for adults on Saturdays at Lomita Masjid where I structure out a curriculum for adults. This is also open to the general public. Along with that, I have Arabic classes for girls which I would like to see as the start of the Alimah class.

Q: Do you have any advice for students of knowledge such as myself or for our readers in general?

A: My advice in general is to maintain a close contact with your local scholars, while at the same time respecting and valuing the diversity that America affords us. Consider everybody to be ours, don’t build up fictitious bridges between us and them—that we are this and they are that—because we are nothing in the end. Those bridges, those walls, are from Shaytan. If you are going to build those bridges, you are going to deprive people from benefitting from that which is true and from allowing other people see that which is Sunnah, and you are going to come across very stereotypical and unfriendly people. Other people may label you as savage, barbarian, or whatever because they don’t know you. Interact with them, putting up the correct approach of lowering the gaze and talking in a respectful way. Don’t shy away from positive interaction and don’t shy away from allowing people to benefit from you. Do it in a very systematic and nice way that doesn’t offend but at the same time doesn’t deprive. If somebody approaches you, give them your time, even though they may be inappropriate in your eyes. Their inappropriateness is usually not because of them, but because they were not taught the better way or do not know anything else. Know that those who do not behave according to the correct standards in America do not do so because they want to be funny, it is because of a lack of education and lack of understanding. It’s not because they are evil by nature or want to be full of animosity or vengefulness. It’s just that they don’t know. So instead of putting barriers between us and them, let us feel sympathy toward them. If they don’t hear it from us, who are they going to hear it from?

[Interview was conducted by Arif Kamal, student of Islamic studies at the Institute of Islamic Education. For more of Shaykh Junaid, you can follow these links: From Darkness to Light, The Muslim Community, Teaching Children Islamic Knowledge]

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