Professor Irfan Ahmad Khan: My Nana

Muslim Matters

Professor Irfan Ahmad Khan: My Nana

By Hafsa Ahsan

On April 3rd, I lost my grandfather, Dr. Irfan Ahmad Khan; April 7th would have been his 87th birthday. In this moment of stillness, following the flurry of the funeral and the sad reunion of our family, my heart is heavy with sorrow and regret. I miss him a lot.

With that grief comes the questions, the never ending circuit of doubt. Now I am contemplating things that I could’ve done differently. Things that would have granted me one more precious moment with him before he lost consciousness. Things that I could have said so that there would be no wavering doubt about my love for him before he moved on from us. Or maybe, I would have just talked to him.
But here I am, without those options, with truly nothing to offer him, but to hope that I can carry on his mission, InshaAllah.
I was his eldest grandchild and because of this I was blessed with unique opportunities. At 15, he helped me attend the Council for a Parliament of World Religions Summit in Cape Town, South Africa. It was one of the most amazing and formative experiences in my life – especially being only 15! I remember attending all kinds of programs on various religions striving for a way to live peacefully together. It was a truly inspiring event in my life that fueled my desire to contribute to the field of interfaith peace.
One of my most vivid memories of my Nana, and one that impacted my life was when he visited us in Malaysia when I was a teen. I remember that we were over at our family friend’s home, Zeenat auntie and Mumtaz uncle’s and Nana was translating Surah Al-Ma’un. As I sat there listening to him discuss the importance of supporting those who are vulnerable and in need of help, I vowed to myself that I would always do my part and contribute. His words, and the values that he embodied and lived out, eventually lead me towards a career in social work.
 I spent a summer during college working for him. I remember him sending me a very formal offer to work for him – with the letterhead from his organization AQU (Association for Qur’anic Understanding). Me thinking that it was official business wrote just as formally – without a letterhead as I had no organization of my own. I agreed. And so I spent that summer before I graduated with my grandparents. And I saw how they were struggling to be on their own. I wrote to my parents promising that I would move to Chicago to be with them after I graduated. While I was tempted to deviate from that when I did graduate – I kept my promise.
That was the year I was mostly Nana’s assistant – and Nani’s too. It was not an easy place to be and I was pretty lonely as I didn’t know anyone outside of nani nana. But I got to be with my grandparents in a way I know no one else has. Nani became my best friend. And I learned about some fascinating work that Nana did – and met some interesting people too, even visiting a Zoroastrian Temple for an event where Nana spoke.
He had recently published his Reflections on the Qur’an book then, and he was determined to get that book to everyone possible. I was pulling up lists of all the mosques and libraries in the country that we were going to mail it out to. So we were at the Post Office a lot. Everyone he met got that book for free. Even the clerk at the post office! And mailman! And the people at the cell phone store. Where the money would come from to pay for these books – he never worried about. And those books were almost $40 each. He always had this seemingly blind Faith that resources would appear from thin air. I remember being concerned as to how nana would get money for things. But he did, SubhanAllah.
He was constantly springing up some new amazing project he was planning on starting or about a previous one he accomplished that would make my jaw drop. Working with the Dalai Lama, meeting world leaders. Promoting love and peace between religions and trying to solve the issues through advocacy.
I think of his laugh, the one he did when he would get excited or when he knew he was making some ridiculous request. I loved hearing it. He would get away with doing things that would have made anyone else look outrageous or crazy – but somehow when Nana did it, he would laugh along with everyone else.
I also think of his anger and not so infrequent outbursts of impatience. But you could never get too upset with him for it, and when I think about it now, it makes me laugh. He was always so deep in thought, that if someone came and messed with his thought process he would get disoriented – and hence – so upset.
I once was sitting by him eating breakfast and thought of a question I wanted to ask on Sufism. He got so upset that I interrupted his thoughts that he accused me of not loving him and told me that next time I had to ask permission before I could ask him another question.
I think of his sweet little quirks where his chai had to be absolutely perfect – piping hot but not too hot. He was always sending us to warm up his chai in the microwave, so one day I thought of warming it a few extra seconds so that it wouldn’t get too cold too soon. Then with his first sip he got so mad at me and blamed me for burning his tongue.
Despite his anger, he truly was one of the sweetest people I know. His loved everyone. His determination to bring the world together was steadfast. He was this little old man with so much feist and energy, he put teenagers to shame. He always kept his little bags of chai close, in case sleep ever dared to interrupt him! He was an elderly man, yet nothing seemed to stop him. If he thought someone ever needed help, he was ready to be there. He would always call me, even after I was married and moved away offering help.. And I would think to myself –  I need to be doing that for him! He would even call after I had kids – which was rare mostly because even taking a call was a task for me. He would hear crying in the back, then say – ‘ok I know you are very busy’ and hang up. That was one of the last conversations I had with him.
He had his moments where I felt that he didn’t have time for me as he was so focused on sharing his knowledge of the Qur’an but he always came through when it mattered. I remember when my first son was born, he drove all the way to come visit him and make du’a for him. He seemed so excited to have a great grandson! They also seemed to have a special bond – Sulayman loved being around him, was fascinated by him and best of all – Sulayman loved to eat with him. When my second son, Zakariya was born, he had a harder time driving, so he asked brother Khalifa to drive him to our home – an hour away from him. I saw how hard it was for him to get around, but he prioritized coming to visit his great-grandson and make du’a for him.
He was even a whimsical catalyst that pushed my husband and I to get to know each other and eventually marry. On our first meeting, Nana insisted that everyone exchange their contact information; including Nani, Nana and my sister in law so that there was no way out!
He always had such a sense of urgency and impatience. As though he knew something so dire, so important and essential but no one was getting it and there was not enough time. He seemed so keen on spreading his message, he never stayed in one place long. He didn’t seem to know how to communicate it. He didn’t seem to know how he could get his message across.
Till his last moments he was trying to teach us to actually read and love the Quran the way he did. Nana’s life’s mission was to get the Muslim community to stop blindly following so called Muslim leaders and for us to individually start reflecting on what Allah is telling us in the Quran. His frustration with the community was that people don’t think for themselves. Which is why there are so many misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the Qur’an. He dared to defy tradition. I remember taking him to visit someone several years ago, and he was talking to someone, another older, supposed Muslim clergy.  He seemed angry and would walk away from Nana. Nana made an effort to try and engage but the man refused, claiming that Nana was creating problems in the community. We left and Nana did not say anything on our ride back – no complaints or venting. Truly  he was hip and a hipster before it was cool.
He believed that this blind following was the cause of a lot of society’s problems. And that going back to the Qur’an would help us regain this confidence in ourselves and build a better community.
The last few weeks have been such a trying and teaching time for me. It has taught me that this time is truly a short in life. I’m sure Nani feels as though she had just gotten married, started a family, etc. With nana. Yet now she’s so much older, they have Masha Allah, great grandchildren, and he’s passed away.
Our lives are just moments that are about to pass, and we have those short moments to decide, or be whatever we are going to be. We need to stop letting the little things get in the way of our relationship because we don’t know when we will end.
I was watching nana after he passed, his lifeless body. I couldn’t stop looking at him. I just stood there in a state of shock, disbelief, and awe. I was overwhelmed. I was confused. There were so many emotions and I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel. Everyone to me to hold myself together, especially for Nani. As I stood there watching him, it occurred to me that the form that lay before me on the hospital bed now was only a body that was loaned to the man that was once my grandfather. That it was no longer nana. It was the vessel that nana once inhabited as it was what was granted to him. And he has gone elsewhere, that only Allah knows best where.
Since Nana passed away, I have been feeling as though I’m going through the motions. Part of me doesn’t comprehend that nana is really gone. Then again realization will hit and it occurs to me that I won’t be able to call him, talk to him, things I took for granted. Since I started having kids, I saw him less, and called him less. Spent less time. Had less conversations.
 I was on the way to the hospital, half way, when nana passed. I received the message while I was driving. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted to be there. I definitely didn’t want to be driving. I drove the rest of the way, wide eyed clutching the steering wheel tightly, sitting close to it. I got to the hospital and had to go in through the ER since the main hospital was closed and tried to get the directions to the ICU where nana had been. But I couldn’t hear anything and I broke down right there.
I have had so many regrets – why didn’t i go to the hospital on Thursday when he was still conscious? Why didn’t I go over to see him more often? Why didn’t I call more often? Why didn’t I help nana more? Learn more from him? Was he disappointed in me? Did he have hopes for me and did I let him down?
We are all so caught up with our lives: Things that have hurt us; Things that have wronged us. We feel angry, Hurt, Sad, Depressed, and much more. But what are they but merely distractions from where we are headed? It should teach us to start appreciating each and every moment that we have been blessed with. Love each person that we have and we know provides some value in our lives, and means so much to us. We don’t know who is going next. And our lives are so much more fragile than we like to admit or we let ourselves realize. I need to remind myself that this life is not about those who bring us down, or misunderstand us – as Nana showed me. I have to focus on my children, my parents. And especially myself because in the end, I have to answer Allah alone. And that is the scariest thing for me.

 

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