Ustaz Saif-ur-Rahman
Founder of Alchemy of Hippieness

Assalamualaikum! It’s interesting to note that you have changed your career multiple times. You were a lawyer who became an imam. You worked as a civil servant in the Syariah Court. You are a scholar and an academic. Now, you are an Ustaz. Why are you on this particular path now?

When I switched careers from one to another, there are two ways in which I look at it. First, to be in a position where I can inspire others is not merely a job or a career per se; it is a calling. I am grateful to be privileged enough to be chosen as Allah’s instrument to assist in bringing people back to the path, and to make those already on the path be more intimate with Him. I view this as my responsibility. Second, when I look back at my life, I realised that nothing that I dabbled in could exclusively be defined by a singular category. They are all linked to each other. It is as if all my past experiences were beautifully planned to prepare me for my current vocation. For instance, when I changed jobs from being a lawyer to an imam, everybody inevitably asked, “Why did you leave such a lucrative and esteemed profession?” However, this line of questioning missed a significant point. There are many important lessons that life offers for every experience you encounter. When you move on to your next experience, you are meant to bring these lessons forward. They are intended to add value to what you do. The important thing is that we must all try our very best in all that we do, bearing in mind that we must always stay relevant and beneficial to our communities. With that, I always leave it to Allah to place me where He would find me most useful to Him. As a result, most of these seemingly big transitions, have been smooth, Alhamdulillah.

You say that being an inspiration to others is a calling. How did this come about?

As I travelled all over the world and saw youths in other societies, I realised that beyond the superficial celebrations of happiness, there is a great thirst for meaning and significance, the finding of inner peace, to have a sense of belonging and the need to find beauty in living and completeness of purpose. At its core, most manifestations of happiness and fulfilment are, unfortunately hollow. Happiness and fulfilment are reduced to the brands of clothes we wear, the cafes we visit or the glamorous holiday destinations we travel to. I knew then that I don’t want our families and future generations to go on living without a sense of real hope.

While hope has always been there, we need to invite others to think about happiness or success beyond a single definition. We need to open up ways of thinking. For example in my classes, I encourage students to question the usual narratives and to go beyond the literal to ascertain the meanings behind the obvious. This is how we can attain a deeper appreciation of our faith and as a result, produce a holistic person and a convincing believer.

What are the greatest challenges that you faced getting to where you are now?

There will always be challenges especially if you are doing something new or if you have developed differently from others. For example, I did not embark on the typical route of starting from a full-time madrasah and ending up in Al-Azhar. In my personal experience, the best way to manage these challenges is for me to go back to the drawing board and ask, “why am I doing this? Who am I doing this for?” When we redirect our purpose to and for Allah, we must expect challenges and obstacles. However, the mark of faith is that you get up and you get stronger, despite each time you fall. With the lessons that you learned, you tweak yourself to become better than who you were before.

What makes you stand out from the rest?

I grew up convinced that there was always more than what I was learning. Thus, in my adult learning, both through the western education system and the traditional methods of instruction, I learned that there was always a profound reason or meaning behind why we do what we do. It is not enough to just do as we’ve been told. That is why I came to doing this. I want to provide a platform for Muslims to think beyond the usual narrative, beyond the obvious. I want us to be able to question and come to answers that can provide a sense of peace with ourselves and with God. I would like to think my approach to faith is a very practical and holistic one. Faith is neither theoretical nor is it perceived and constructed from an ivory tower.

I try to create a platform to provide and encourage fellow Muslims to have a way of thinking about things. Once they have reached a stage when they are able to understand and engage, they will get to the point where they will be more intimate with themselves and with God. With a better understanding of their faith, it gives them a stronger conviction. They will know that any challenge that comes in the path centered on Allah only serves to bring them back to Him.

Personally, I would say that I am a bit unique. I like to pay attention to developing myself – spiritually and physically. In the spirit of healthy living, I do rigorous boxing 3 to 4 times a week. I do night runs after my classes on alternate days. I used to be an avid skier when I was overseas. I play multiple instruments and was part of various orchestras performing in operas and broadways. I like dabbling in lots of things. As a result, when I approach my faith, it is from these multiple experiences and perspectives.

Why do you seek knowledge in so many different things? Isn’t it better to specialise in one?

We have grown up with a very myopic and highly categorised view of things because we want to simplify and understand ourselves and the world that we live in. While we may become more specialised in a certain area because we work consistently on it, we sometimes fail to see the big picture. But this is not new. The prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) came with Islam as a holistic, complete way of life. However, as we became more scientific, we began to develop categories such as tawhid, fiqh, seerah and so on. Slowly but surely, over generations, we begin to lose the ability to tie things up together. We take everything in a piecemeal manner. This gives rise to another problem. As we become more and more specialised, we get better at what we are doing. Then, we will come to a point where we think we are already the best. When we start to think in this way, we begin to sever our dependence on the One who gave us those very abilities we are proud of.

If we look at the scholars and inventors of the past like al-Ghazali, al-Jazari or al-Haytham, we notice that they were not just scientists and mathematicians. While being scientists and mathematicians, they were also theologians, engineers, poets and musicians – all in the same person. It is just so amazing to have so many abilities in one person. They were able to achieve this because they looked at life from a holistic point of view, and each of those skills led them closer to their faith.

What is the most memorable experience that motivates you to keep teaching?

Personally, as a teacher and motivator, what works best for me is to have the mindset that no one will thank you. You just have to do your best, and hope that Allah will look mercifully upon you and your efforts. The rewards are not adoration or popularity. In fact, these are the things that bring you further away from God – and that defeats the purpose of doing what you do.

However, once in a while Alhamdulillah, you will find people writing in to express their gratitude. They thank you for how you have impacted them. For example, I have students whose children will eagerly wait for them to come back after class because they want their parents to share with them the stories and lessons they have learnt. They would stay up just because they cannot wait to listen to what their parents have to share with them. These are the things that push me to get out of the house. In my mind, I’d say “Okay, I still need to do this today.” Teaching does not only involve those who are present. There is a ripple effect and the benefits extend to those whom I don’t even get to see.

Another affirmation is to see students become more of a practicing Muslim, whatever their backgrounds. For example, you can see changes in their prayers or their dressing. Anything that is an improvement from before is a reward in itself. That is gratifying and an encouragement for me to keep going. These are the signs indicating that I am on the right track. That is the only kind of validation I need. If you expect anything more than that, you need to reassess your intentions.

What would you say to someone who tells you that she is lost and finds no meaning in her life?

It’d be very easy for me to give a very theoretical and didactic response to this question, using verses from the Quran, to tell the person to come back to the straight path. I’d rather not. I define Islam as a religion of hope. It came at a time when people were lost. Allah sent a prophet to give mankind a sense of hope. Somewhere along the way, I think Muslims, in whatever positions they occupy, have forgotten that. They have changed Islam to become a religion of rules and regulations. They have failed to see the attributes of Allah that He wants us to remember most – Ar-Rahman and Ar-Raheem, which means mercy and compassion. Thus, when someone comes to you telling you that she is lost, it is incumbent upon you to first and foremost give her hope. It is not by using a carrot and stick approach, by using hellfire and paradise. That’s not what the person needs. When someone comes to you for assistance, that in itself is a calling. The person is humble enough to share with you, and you must be wise enough to examine her condition and not be presumptuous. You must be patient enough to listen because there are usually more than one reason why someone is lost. You have to try to join the dots for her so that she knows what is missing. That is worthwhile. It is not helpful to simply tell the person to not lose hope and that losing hope will lead you to the hellfire. This kind of explanation is no longer productive to this generation. I don’t think that is the way in Islam anyway. If you look at the first few revelations, they were foremost about God. After that, you will find that subsequent revelations were about social justice. When Allah revealed these verses, they were meant to address the issues that were relevant. Islam came to give the underprivileged, the oppressed, the vulnerable what they all needed: hope.

Who has inspired you and helped mould you to be who you are today?

All of us need inspiration in order to inspire. We learn and we are inspired by ideas. These aspirations remain ideas until we see them being implemented by someone we respect. The transition from theory to practice should be as smooth as day and night.

Firstly, I will never be here if not for my parents. They worked hard and inspired noble values when bringing me up. I would also not be here if not for the many inspiring teachers who have guided me. It is truly inspiring and amazing to see my shaykhs and mursheeds whom despite their advanced years still remain so current, relevant and real in the way that they approach life and faith. Their nature inspires me to be that beacon for others. As much as I strive to be like them, I will never be them. But if I could be a fraction of who they are, I feel that I would have fulfilled my role in life. May Allah reward them and place them in the best places in Jannah, Amin.

It also inspires me to see my students striving their best and putting all their efforts to transform into a better person and believer. It is really not easy to come for classes day after day, despite a heavy and tiring work schedule in the day. I salute them for their efforts, and may Allah grant them success.

So these are the 3 groups of people who inspires me – parents, teachers and students. If you look at the cycles of life, you’d realise that you will also fall into one of these categories at any point in time. A teacher can become a student. A parent can become a teacher.

Most importantly, as Muslims, we cannot stop from being in a state of wonderment. Every creation and every incident in life are ways in which Allah tries to touch our hearts. He opens our hearts to those signs so that we are more guided, more grateful and more humbled by His Presence all around us.

Why do you think people are drawn to your classes?

I put a lot of effort in thinking about my classes. It is important for me not to regurgitate information that is widely available. I try to do things which others are not doing. For example, I started a book club to encourage in-depth study and openness in discussions with my students. This safe space allows us to exchange and appreciate others’ views. Having a book club also encourages people to read beforehand so that we can discuss bigger issues in greater detail.

I have done comparative study of the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is such a crucial course because we live in a multiracial, multi-religious society. However, it is not an easily-available course. Because of the success of this class, we continued with a comparative study of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Agnosticism and Atheism. I hope that these classes would give Muslims a better understanding when they are conversing with others. Doing dakwah is also about being able to strategise your response by knowing who is asking the question. By knowing the different belief systems that people come to you with, you are able to architect your response in a more productive and beneficial way for both parties.

Students of the Alchemy of Hippieness know that we treat everyone like family. We don’t only have classes. We have graduation ceremonies. We like to go out and eat. We go to the park and have picnics. We go for exhibitions at the Science Centre. Learning is not just in class. We have to learn how to apply beyond the classroom setting.

What is your hope for students of Alchemy of Hippieness?

One of my hopes is for my students to become more confident Muslims in this world. They should be partaking, engaging and be leaders in their communities. They should be proud of being Muslims, who have a responsibility to not only better the Muslim community but the whole society as a whole.

I hope that what they learn will be put into practice. I try to inculcate values that they have a role to play in the bigger picture. The concept of being a Khalifah is not limited to space and time. Over time, I pray that the students of Alchemy will be key players not only in our society but in the world. Islam teaches us universal values and Muslims must aspire to have a universal role in life.

“This is a gathering of Lovers.
In this gathering there is no high, no low,
no smart, no ignorant, no special assembly,
no grand discourse, no proper schooling required.
There is no master, no disciple”
~ Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi

If you’re looking for a teacher who can guide you on how to apply Islam, in a practical way, to daily life and can help you to think critically about topics that have not been expounded on before, check out Alchemy of Hippieness here.