A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be part of an Arabic immersion program offered by Bayyinah Institute called Bayyinah Dream. It was one of the greatly transformative periods of my life that I have many fond memories of, but what I want to focus on is what an immersion program like it can do for you. If you’re looking for gossip about on-campus hijinks, you can go right ahead and skip this one! Also I know that changes have been made in the program since then (we were the guinea pigs that were experimented on, so go on and thank us for our sacrifice 🙂 ), but it worked for me and a bunch of others, so I’m going to go ahead and share what I experienced.
No magic pill
The thing to know is that like just like with anything else, mastering Arabic is a journey. Months and months of reading, writing, listening, writing (and occasionally even dreaming) in Arabic is definitely a game changer, but think of it as a booster shot that is going to give you rapid growth in your knowledge of the language. What really matters is what you do after a program like that to maintain it and keep it growing. So go into it with an expectation of where it should take you and where you want to go from there. Some of the guys knew 80% of the grammar and morphology and saw it as an opportunity to perfect them and gain fluency of the language. Their expectation after the program was to go on and formally study the Islamic sciences as taught in Arabic. Others had no knowledge of it and then went on to become teachers after the program. The point is not to think that you have “arrived”, because that means your journey is over and you are done.
Undoubtedly, spending an extended amount of time with an experienced teacher is going to foster a relationship between you. Just by virtue of being around them, you will pick up so much. Of course, Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan was not a scholar of Islamic studies, but it just made sense to go to him for Arabic because it was obvious that he had created something special that works. I still don’t agree with how he has explained some things, but what totally gets me is how his persistent dedication to his mission and his style of presentation allowed him to gain prominence over those who might know more or better than him.
No one will pretend that he’s the world’s highest authority in the Arabic language (and if you think that, he’ll be the first one to disabuse you of that notion!). What he is, however, is the English-speaking world’s most prominent figure in the field. Why is that? Because he found out what gets results for people and brought it to them. That is one of the key things that I took with me, that being a teacher is not about merely regurgitating what you know, but making it work for people. It is a very powerful sunnah to explain things to people in a way that they can understand, and he’s applied it very well. To that end, he not only taught me how to learn, but also how to teach. I’m still reaping the benefits daily, and barely a day goes by that I don’t remember him and the other teachers in the program and make du’a for them.
What I didn’t anticipate was that the bond you make with your classmates is also going to have a huge impact on you for the rest of your life. In fact, it’s probably even more closer than with the teacher. The teacher may move on to other groups and have other students (even though we are still in denial that he could have a favorite batch after us), but this is really the one group that you all have together. You become a family, and just like any other family you come to know each other intimately, warts and all. These are people you can count on to keep you real when your head starts to get too big and pull you back up when you’re falling off the tracks. So many of my classmates have gone on to become movers and shakers, including teachers, students of knowledge, doctors, and entrepreneurs, and that has inspired me further in my own efforts. We came from different backgrounds and levels of religious practice, but we were determined to learn the language of the last great miracle that is still with us, and that is what kept us together despite our differences. Even now we’re constantly in contact with each other, another blessing from Allah.
Structure of the program
The program itself was divided into 7 modules.
- Quranic Grammar – taught using notes prepared by Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan
- Quranic Grammar – using classical texts written in Arabic
To me, I don’t see how any truly “immersive” program can get away without all of these, otherwise it won’t be much more than an aggressive self-study program.
We were all English speakers at the beginning; some of us could not even say one sentence properly. About 1/3 of the way in, we were told that we were not to talk in English anymore on campus and that we’d be penalized.
We studied classical Arabic, but for the reading and writing section, we spent at least 100 hours going through MSA textbooks after studying the grammar of the Quran for 6 weeks and some 300 verbs.
For conversational practice we would split into small groups and converse with native Arabic speaking teachers about random topics.
As for listening and writing composition, they brought in Ustadh Bashir Ansari, a correspondent for Al Jazeera. He went through media clips and articles with us and then would assign us topics to write on. I know it doesn’t sound very “Quranic”, but the true test of your ability in the language is to be able to express yourself fluently and in a powerful way in it.
I admit that around the 9-month mark, some of us were getting a major case of “senioritis”, so empty chairs started appearing and grades started dipping. Yep, it was that advanced that a disease that normally takes three years to develop manifested after only 9 months! Between you and me, I’m pretty sure that’s why the program was shortened after that. Still, by the end of the program, those who initially knew nothing were able to stand in front of us and visiting professors and deliver fluent 5-10 minutes talks in Arabic that were flowing, properly constructed and impactful, all without notes. To me, that is the ultimate measure of the program’s success. Remember that Arabic, first and foremost is a spoken language, and that speech has a more powerful effect on the audiences’ hearts than written words. If you can take someone from zero to delivering a touching speech solely in Arabic, then you’ve done the job.
Materials we used in the program
Below is a list of some of the texts we used, in approximate order of usage. All of them are available online. There might have been more, but the fact that I remember these means that they were the most important. It covers everything you need to be self-sufficient in your journey.
- al-Ajurroomiyyah and Ibn Malik’s Alfiyyah, along with an English explanation – These covered grammar and morphology as detailed by the classical scholars. They are what really put the love of grammar in my heart. Some of my more experienced readers have already figured out that my Arabic Grammar series is really just an explanation of the Ajurroomiyyah!
- From the Treasures of Morphology by Maulana Ebrahim Muhammad – A very thorough breakdown of the rules of morphology. This work is indispensable for a serious student
- Elementary Modern Standard Arabic: Volume 2 (ISBN-13: 978-0521272964, ISBN-10: 0521272963 ) – Known famously on campus as “the orange book”, EMSA is brilliant, and I haven’t seen anything better than it for gaining fluency in contemporary Arabic. In fact, if you’re only interested in MSA, this is the textbook I recommend (even though you’re selling yourself short if you don’t decide to progress to classical, but that’s your call)
- العربية بين يديك (a.k.a. Arabic Between Your Hands) – This is a great 3-volume series for Arabic conversation with an Islamic bent. It has some grammar points in it, but its main benefit is the conversations and expressions in it. We only did the first two volumes, and I still regret not doing the final one. You’d need a teacher for this series, because the text is Arabic-only. I’ve successfully used this on students and after a year of weekly classes, they were able to roughly converse about the topics in Book 1
- al-Balaghah al-Waadhihah – A text in the sciences of balaghah, exploring the literary tools used in Arabic to achieve eloquence in speech
- The Connectors in Modern Standard Arabic by al-Warraki/Hassanein – Packed full of connectors and expressions that will take you from functional, yet clunky conversation to flowing speech
- Qasas al-Nabiyyeen – A series written by Sh. Abul Hasan al-Nadwi on the stories of the prophets. It’s great because it starts from really simple vocabulary and progresses as you move through the series. I only got up to the second volume during my time in the program, but I do eventually want to get through the 5th volume إن شاء الله
- Hans-Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic – Those of us who didn’t cheat in class using phone apps (you know who you are) relied on this heavily. If your mother tongue is English, there is no way around having this one in your library. I still use it several times a week
I’ve seen what immersion can do, in the middle of a non-Arab, non-Muslim country like America. Arabic goes from only being in the books and into the air around us. What’s already in the minds through hundreds of hours of reading and writing, but is now also being breathed. Pens and tongues start to flow with what is in our hearts. Stutters became full sentences, sentences became paragraphs, paragraphs became speeches, the miracle becomes alive.
Now, what if you can’t do an immersion program or go abroad (yet)? Well, don’t ever let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can do. See that list up there? It represents a pretty comprehensive syllabus for learning grammar, morphology, vocabulary and eloquence. I’m giving it to you, so take it and run with it. Find a teacher, sit them down and say “teach me”. If you can’t find a teacher, look online for one. It doesn’t matter what curriculum he did if it’s comprehensive enough. Don’t wait for that “Big Moment” to just come and magically make you a superstar. “Luck” has a funny way of happening to those who prepare for it and skipping over those who are just waiting for it arrive. Put in the work and you’ll get there, even if takes you a little longer (a few years is nothing in the courtyard of infinity).
The ball’s in your court, so now what’re you going to do?
Till next time, السلام عليكم
If you’ve been in Dream or any other intensive Arabic program and would like to share what texts or books you used, I’d like to hear what worked for you. Jazakumullahu khayran!