A few years ago, in a private school in my hometown, I used to be a Qur’an teacher. I did not have my own classroom; rather I had a cart with a projector on it that would hook up to my laptop, so that I could show the kids the nifty slides we made that helped them understand the new verses. I would push this cart from class to class, day to day. I was the teacher of one of the levels of Qur’anic memorization for the first through the fifth grade. I taught A LOT of kids. Looking back on my time at that school, what sticks out most in my memory is not all the ayat (verses) I taught them, nor the meanings that I helped them to understand. Rather, it is all those moments when I learned something from them; when they would say something that made me think, “I need to apply this in my own life,” or when they would ask a question that made me wonder, “Why did I never think of this before?” and so many more eureka moments that they gave me through our interaction.
In our Islamic history, we have a similar, yet far greater story, which is mentioned in our Holy Scripture and even referenced in the title of one of the 114 chapters within the Qur’an. The story is that of one the greatest teachers of all time: the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself. He, beyond all doubt, was a teacher of the masses. He not only brought knowledge to the people from the Heavens, but he also listened to the questions of the people, be they major problems or seemingly small inquiries, and helped them to answer these questions productively.
One day, this amazing teacher was standing and talking with one of the men of Quraysh, a man of great worldly honor, and one that the Prophet ﷺ really wished to accept Islam. At that same moment, another man, Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum, came walking up to the gathering, wanting to speak to the Prophet about something as well, and he interrupted them. It was not that Abdullah was being rude or arrogant, thinking his needs were better than others or that he had the most right to speak to the Prophet. But Abdullah was blind, and he had not realized that there was something important taking place and that he should wait for another time to bring up his concerns. Take a moment and put yourself in the Prophet’s shoes . To be interrupted during a conversation so important to him! With an upset expression (although Abdullah could not see it), the Prophet turned away from Abdullah and continued his conversation. Based on this interaction, Allah, subhanahu wa ta`ala – exhalted is He, revealed the following frequently read verses, in the beginning of Surat al-`Abasa:
The Prophet frowned and turned away, because there came to him the blind man, [interrupting]. But what would make you perceive, [O Muhammad], that perhaps he might be purified, or be reminded and the remembrance would benefit him? As for he who thinks himself without need, To him you give attention. But as for he who came to you striving [for knowledge], While he fears [Allah], from him you are distracted. No! Indeed, these verses are a reminder; so whoever wills may remember it. (Qur’an 80:1-12)
There are so many different wisdoms that can be taken from this revelation, lessons for the Prophet and, even more so, lessons for us in our everyday lives. We can see that worldly status does not make one more worthy of attention. We can see that we should be careful with our facial expressions, even with a person who can not see us or is not near us, as in this story where Abdullah did not see that the Prophet ﷺ had frowned. But my purpose of bringing up this story right now is not to explore these wisdoms and see how we can implement them in our lives today (although this is a goal worth pursuing). Rather, it is to see an interesting dynamic that is present in this story. Abdullah went to the Prophet as a person seeking a teacher, seeking to be taught. The Prophet was in the position of a teacher, being sought after and asked questions. Through this interaction and through the revelation that came after, the Prophet (the teacher) was the one who learned from God (swt) the lesson, through his student Abdullah.
To bring this idea together, I will share a wisdom that someone once shared with me. Two years ago I was sitting on a sofa in a hotel lobby with a friend of mine. We were on a conference call with a poet who goes by the name Baraka Blue. We had been blessed with the opportunity to discuss with him some of his works and have him recite a couple of them to us. Near the end of the call, he mentioned something that I have since carried with me. He said that when you meet people, always deal with them as if you can learn something from them. Every person has a secret from God that you do not have, and you will only learn it if you open your heart and mind to this idea.
Every person in our lives serves as teacher to us in some way, form or fashion. From every interaction we have with people, there is something we can learn. This person’s worldly status may seem less than ours, or it might also be that we seem less than they are. All of this does not matter. We have all been placed on this earth to not only co-inhabit the same planet, but more importantly to help complete each other: to learn from one another. So the next time you are talking with someone, meeting someone new, or even interacting with someone at the supermarket: open your heart, open your mind and do not miss the lesson that lies within that encounter.