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Shaykh Jamal Zarabozo

by Nadim Sohail (audio transcribed by Adnan Khan)

Shaykh Jamal Zarabozo is a rare breed - a self-taught scholar of Islam who has achieved a profound command of the original sciences of our religion.

Sh. Jamal converted over thirty years ago in California, and taught himself Arabic in order to better access classical works. This led him to a fascination with the topic of hadith and its sciences, which he dedicated the next few years of his life studying. He moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he had access to a group of du'aat who graduated from Imam Muhammad University in Riyadh and were pursuing graduate degrees at the University of Boulder. Additionally, he studied with Dr. Mustafa Azami, a world-renown scholar of hadith, who was living in Boulder for a few years. With all of their help and tutorship, along with his perseverance and dedication, he managed to achieve a level of scholarship that is rare to find in North America. He translated many works (including Fiqh al-Sunnah of Syed Sabiq) and wrote some of his own. He also founded and edited al-Basheer Magazine, which, at the time of its publication, was the leading and most academic journal of classical Islamic sciences.

I first met Sh. Jamal in 1991, when he came down to teach a hadith course in Houston, Texas. I was so inspired by such an academic figure that it literally changed the course of my life. I had never met anyone like him (even though, like most teenagers at the time, I had attended quite a few lectures of leading Islamic figures in North America). I could not believe the amount of knowledge he seemed to exude - hardly a question was asked except that he was aware of scriptural references related to it, and the opinions of various classical scholars about the issue.

I established a very good relationship with him over the course of the next few years, invited him down to Houston a number of time, and traveled up to Boulder, Colorado, three summers in a row, to study with him and other leading du'aat of the time. In something that was a pre-IlmSummit experience (although back in the day we lived in a masjid instead of the Sheraton!), we would immerse ourselves for ten full days of academic scholarship.

I can honestly say that it was a great blessing of Allah upon me that I met a figure like Sh. Jamal, for he was my main source of inspiration to go study Islam and dedicate my life to it. He was a role model for me at that stage, and even though Allah willed that I later on study with classically-trained ulama and spend ten years in Madinah (and this, unfortunatley, also precluded continuing the relationship that I had with Sh. Jamal, as he rarely answers his phone and still refuses to get internet access!), I will never forget the debt that I owe him.

It always inspires me to think of the good that he has accrued by spreading knowledge to so many people in his career; I pray that I can follow in that tradition and inspire others to love knowledge just as he inspired me to do so. And every time I see someone whom Allah has willed that I effect a positive change in, it reminds me of myself almost two decades ago and the effect that Sh. Jamal had on me.

May Allah bless him for all that he has done, and make us all servants of His Cause. Ameen

1. Sh. Jamaal, jazakAllah Kheir for giving us the oppourtunity to talk to you. You recently moved from Colorado to the Bay Area, and already started teaching different courses (checkwww.jamaalzarabozo.com). What do you want to achieve here?

I felt I had done what I could in Boulder. It was a small community and I was able to complete a few courses with them, over the period I lived there. I decided to move to a place where I could offer my services to a larger community.

2. You are not new to California, since you have studied Economics at the University of California in Berkley and in Davis. What happened to your PHD studies?

I was doing my Ph.D. in UC Davis and I had finished all my course work and also part of my dissertation on Economic Development in an Islamic Social Framework. My advisor was a Palestinian Christian. He went to Egypt for 1 year and things went downhill after that. He was very upset with the Muslims in Egypt and took it out on me. When he was gone for that year I actually started to get into many other things and started reflecting on the importance of that dissertation with respect to some of the other things I preferred to do. I was afraid of getting my degree and ending up teaching or working in a place that I felt would not be very good. I lost the desire to complete and added to that was my advisor's attitude, so Subhanallah, things just turned out differently. I did not regret the decision, because I could have gone back easily & finished the degree if it had been necessary. Alhamdulillah, I had plenty of other things to do.

3. You converted to Islam when you were 16. How did you become Muslim?

I come from a Spanish Catholic family, which means we were 'non-practicing' Catholics. I never went to church or anything of that nature. My mother was the only one in our family who used to go to church. However, a non-Catholic friend of mine from school, invited me to go to his church, which was a non-Catholic one. That was when I first started to read the bible and get interested in religion. So, it reached the point where I got baptized into that new church. It was at that stage that I felt that I needed to look around, and do some studies to see what I was getting into. So I studied Christianity first, its history etc., which led me pretty quickly to decide that I did not want to be a Christian.

Then I started studying Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.

The idea of Tawheed appealed to me first of all - as it does to many converts to Islam - as this was one of the main problems I had with Christianity. The combination of the idea of Tawheed and the preservation of the text of the Qur'an were the aspects that affected me the most. I believed that if a Prophet was sent and needed to be followed, then we have to be able to say what that Prophet brought, and I could not find any people, other than the Muslims, who could say that ... so, I decided to become a Muslim. I was 16 years old at the time. I assumed there were no Muslims around, so I told my friends that I was Muslim. I started praying - I had a book which was written by a Christian missionary who had been to India in the 1800s. The book was called the 'Dictionary of Islam' and it describes the prayer. That's where I first learned how to pray (laughter).

That was an interesting time. Then, one day I was walking on campus and I saw a little card which said 'Muslim Students Association', so I called the number on the card and it turned out to be some Kuwaiti brothers who lived very close to my parents house. I told them I was Muslim, so they asked me if I knew the Salaat - I was not familiar with the word, so I told them I did not, but that I did know how to pray! (laughter). They were very nice brothers Masha Allah, they helped me a lot. It was a small community, so it was very nice, Masha Allah.

4. What Challenges did you face after embracing Islam?

I would say I faced many of the same challenges faced by converts. As an individual, I had family, friends etc, but at around the same time that I met the Muslim community, I was also changing schools, as I only went to High School for one year, before going to college. As a result, many of the new people I encountered met me as a Muslim. I left behind in High School, many of my friends whom I knew before embracing Islam, as they continued there, while I moved on to college. My opportunities to meet with them kept decreasing as time passed. So, I did not have many of the issues that many converts have with respect to friends and acquaintances.

As far as the new people that I was meeting were concerned, I was meeting them as Muslim, as previously mentioned. I don't know what that meant to them, at that time, but I do think a difference between then and now is that, while people were completely ignorant of Islam earlier, they might now react with complete hatred perhaps. They have an 'attitude' towards Islam - they think they know about Islam, something that was not present in people earlier. So, the earlier 'complete ignorance' was better than the sort of ignorance that they have now.

And obviously, the institutions and the literature available now for those becoming Muslims are totally different from what was available when I became Muslim.

My father was secular in his outlook. He had travelled a fair bit and I guess he had encountered Muslims before. He did not bother too much about me becoming Muslim and in fact, he helped me in some things, such as if I needed to go to a conference etc. However, he died not too long after I became Muslim. I think my mother to this day, is still hoping that I will become Catholic again. She is still the only one with whom I experience some friction. The rest of my brothers and sisters are all pretty secular so to some extent, it is easier to get along with them. Actually, one of my brothers did embrace Islam after me.

5. What was your path towards knowledge?

Alhamdulillah, from the time I became Muslim, I was around brothers who possessed good knowledge. Especially when I first became Muslim, since it was a very small Muslim community, I was able to get very close to some very knowledgeable brothers. Alhamdulillah, throughout all the stages that I have passed through, I have been close to many brothers, some of whom who are now known as Shuyukh. When I went to Boulder, we had a large number of graduates from Islamic Universities, so it was a good atmosphere for me to debate, discuss and grow.

6. Did you get the opportunity to travel overseas to acquire 'Ilm?

Actually I did not travel overseas to acquire knowledge. I did try a couple of times, but it did not work out, so I did not travel. My studies were mostly a combination of reading and meeting with people here.

7. What are the qualities required to become a student of knowledge?

The most important factor is for one to be serious about their studies. Someone can have 2 careers or 2 specialties in their lives, but each one must be given the time they deserve. This is a point that some people lack - Islamic studies are not given the time and effort that is required for a serious study of the same. Time, dedication, sacrifice are of course all required in the pursuit of knowledge, as well the willingness to spend money for the sake of studies.

8. How difficult was it to study Islamic concepts such as Shariah or Aqeedah?

I don't remember having any major issues with anything in the Islamic creed or the Shari'ah because I had done a lot of reading before I took the final decision to say the Shahaadah.

9. What mistakes have you made that others can benefit from when acquiring knowledge?

The only thing I would like to say is that the earliest brothers I was acquainted with, did not stress the need for me to learn Arabic early on. As a result, there was quite a lag before I started getting into the Arabic language, and I think the earlier you can get into Arabic the better because not only does it help you read and understand the Qur'an properly, but all the literature that is out there becomes accessible. So, that was a lag that I would rather not have had, and sometimes feel the effects of it, to this day.

10. How did you start writing books?

I started translating before I started writing books. The story of my first translation is pretty humorous. The publishers of Fiqh us Sunnah had advertised for years that the book was going to be published. At the time there were very few Islamic books and publishers, so I would try to keep up with the latest books. I used to call the publishers of Fiqh us Sunnah periodically to inquire about the release of the book. Eventually, they called me up one day and asked me if I would like to work on the translation of the book. That was how I became involved in my first translation project. I don't remember the name of the first book I wrote, though.

11. You had a magazine for a long period of time called Al Basheer. What was it about?

I had my own company called Basheer Publications, through which I used to publish a journal every alternate month. This went on for about 8 years. But the journal was admittedly not directed to a mass audience. It tended to be more scholarly. It did not have for example, cartoons and articles for kids etc. But it lasted for 8 years, and in the end it became a bit too much for me, as I got involved in other projects.

Shortly after that, another brother decided to start a company to publish some of my works. He named the company, Al Basheer.

12. You have translated numbers of books from Arabic to English. What challenges did you face during the translation of Islamic texts?

The biggest problem with translations, especially if you are dealing with texts of Hadith and early scholarly works, is that you can come across some passages that are difficult to understand even for Arabs and for people who have undertaken Islamic studies, to the extent that you could end up spending a week on a single sentence. While translating, I try to be as close to the original as I can. Sometimes, challenges during the translation of passages bog me down for days, and also, if you get paid after a week's worth of effort, for a single sentence, that's not very good (laughter).

So, the translation of difficult texts has been my biggest challenge, for example, working on ahadith from a work such as Tabarani, for example, that scholars have not discussed as much as some of the other works of Hadith.

As far as the Qur'an is concerned ... well, of course it cannot be translated, but it is very difficult to even try to capture some of its eloquence. While there are some very strange translations, for the most part, I think the people who have translated the Qur'an, have insha Allah, done their best. They have conveyed the general meanings of the Qur'an, and may Allah reward them for that. No matter how much you try to improve on their works, you will still have a lot of shortcomings.

I did begin an effort to translate the Quran with Shaykh Ja'far Idrees, but we did not get as far as we should have. I am now concentrating more on the Tafseer of the Qur'an because I think translations reach a sort of dead-end, because you cannot really capture all that the Qur'an is conveying through a translation. It is required to explain the meanings in greater detail and that I what I have been focusing on lately.However, due the manner in which I am producing the tafseer, it has been taking a long time and it is probably too large for people to be interested in, from a business perspective, so it is difficult to see what the outcome of the effort is going to be.

13. What should be the role of people of knowledge?

I believe the primary obligation of Islamic teachers is to their own communities, rather than spending time travelling to other communities to such an extent that they neglect the former. I made a decision to offer classes and work in my own community. Also, I am not sure how much benefit short weekend programs and lectures provide.

14. How do you see the Muslim youth today?

The youth that I knew earlier are different from the youth that I encounter now. Earlier, the youth were, to a greater or lesser degree, brought up in an Islamic environment and more aware of Islam. The youth nowadays are largely second generation Muslims who are very different from the earlier generation of youth, and so the challenges are very much different.

Education has to be the primary factor in facing the challenges we encounter with our youth. Additionally some way to impart manners and etiquette is also very important. We need to emphasize to them what it means to be Muslim, and what their value is to the community, as Muslims.

15. What are the projects you are working on?

As usual, I am working on a number of things and I do not know if they will come to a complete fruition. One of the things that I have started after moving to the Bay Area is the offering of courses. Though I used to offer courses in Colorado, these courses are being made available online as well, so this is a new experience for me. There is also the Tafseer project that I am pursuing. In addition, there are a few other projects that I am working on, but they have not reached a state of completion, as I need to find a publisher for those works.

******************************

Sh. Jamaal is now teaching classes at MCA, Santa Clara with live streaming. Starting Jan. 10 2009, topics covered are: Purification of the soul, Principles of Quranic Tafseer, Preservation of the Sunnah and Commentary on Fiqh al Sunnah.

Sh. Jamaal Zarabozo is an internationally known writer and speaker who has lectured in North America, Europe, Australia and the Middle East.

He is the author, translator, and co-author of many books, including:

  • Commentary on the Forty Hadith of Al-Nawawi (3 Vol. Set)
  • How to Approach and Understand the Quran
  • A Guide for the New Muslim
  • The Fiqh of Marriage in the Light of the Quran and Sunnah
  • The Friday Prayer
  • Al Fatiha in Depth (CD Set)

http://muslimmatters.org/2009/01/09/interview-with-sh-jamaal-zarabozo/#

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