Lessons from my Father
There are people on this Earth who are shining lights, carrying in their minds bits of information and volumes of knowledge, and by nature share what they know everywhere they go. Three weeks ago the world lost one of its lights. He passed away, as life by nature sweeps us all down this same road, but in his case, he left much behind to benefit the world and make it a brighter place.
My father, OrfanAbdulhadi Rabbat, was like a fountain of information. If you sat with him for a little while he might tell you about the marvels down at the deepest part of the ocean, explain why Hanafis have different rulings than Shafi’is, or show you how to take apart a computer and make it faster and better. It is serendipitous that the name his parents chose for him,عِرْفَان, literally means knowledge.
I learned from my father that learning is not confined to a classroom or a textbook. He always boasted that in school his name was the last one on the list of passing students. He would laugh and say he was “the first from the bottom”, that for all intents and purposes he shouldn’t have passed but he somehow managed to anyway, much to the chagrin of the teacher reading out the names, who would have much rather preferred that Orfan Rabbat repeat the year or find another school. Nonetheless, he was able to pass through high school with minimal time or valuable energy put into irrelevant things like homework, and he also knew how to catch a rabbit, take apart a radio and put it back together, set up his own radio station, and talk his way out of any sticky situation he might happen to find himself in. He learned a lot of different things in his life, and not much of it was learned in a school building. If he wanted to, he could have been a brilliant chef, a dentist or a lawyer, a professor of philosophy or historian, and a great many other things.
I learned from my father that there is always something new and different to learn. As he grew, his knowledge expanded and so did his areas of interest. His library holds books about chess, the martial arts, programming, and comparative religion right alongside the major works of Uṣūl, Hadith, Tafsīr, and the other Islamic sciences. At the dinner table we discussed time, space, and the galaxy and each carries evidence that there is indeed a Creator and none of the miracles all around us could come about “by chance”. As we drove around town or walked around a mall, he would point out where the design, architecture and urban planning was flawed and where it was designed well. As teenagers, we never dared make an off-hand comment if it wasn’t supported by evidence, and we were taught the legal maxims as a way of life. “You think? Or you know? Certainty is not overruled by doubt!” When I came across these concepts in my Usul al-Fiqh course, I realized that my father had been teaching us the foundations of Islamic jurisprudence as soon as we could talk.
I learned from my father that there are no limits. You can do whatever you want to do, whatever you can figure out how to do. He never said this to me, and I don’t think it would have crossed his mind as a thought, but he lived it as an attitude. As a child, he would sneak into the guest room “salon” from the balcony to steal the fresh pistachios that were spread out there to dry. When we lived in Syria and there were no tortilla chips or nacho cheese, he learned to make them himself. When we lived in the USA, he learned to make the perfect grilled chicken sandwich with the perfect garlic sauce that he grew up eating in Beirut. His experiments in the kitchen defied the culinary world; some worked out brilliantly and others not so much, but he never stopped trying. He lived the word “finagle”, finagling his way in and out of everything he found interesting. To his last day he was a force of nature. Rules are not a thing. The world would have to mold itself around him if it wanted to exist. He spoke 3 languages fluently, without putting much thought into the learning of them, they just appeared to be a part of his being from the start. If you count programming languages, then he knew several more. When he was told in 1962 that computer programming was just a fad and not a viable area of study, he took the advice of his elders and got a respectable civil engineering degree instead. This did not stop him though, as programming became his hobby and he was writing computer programs in his free time as early as I can remember. One of these programs was a prayer times program that he built – as far as I know – before any other like it existed.
I learned from my father that we should make our knowledge accessible to the world. Throughout the 80s and 90s he created an Islamic search engine with “170+ of the most famous classic books of Islam”. Almost like magic, you could type a word, choose a book or group of books, and find all mentions of your search word in those books. It sounds so simple and commonplace now, but it was revolutionary at the time. This project started on floppy disks before search engines or the internet existed, and ended on a website available to the world. It needs some brushing up and some of the links are invalid, but you can check it out at www.muhaddith.org. His final project was about the miracles of the Quran. He was conducting research and creating informational videos about the numerical, linguistic, and scientific miracles in the Quran and had plan to publish books about the topic. You can access the videos at www.youtube.com/user/MuhaddithDotOrg. As of today, the project’s YouTube page has 10,000 subscribers and Facebook page has 32,000. His aim was never to gather followers or friends, but to educate the world, answer questions, and debunk incorrect statements and opinions (he called it “obfuscating”).
I learned from my father that life is fun! He loved life and he loved to enjoy himself and to have others enjoy themselves with him. Grief does not exist, sadness is just a state of mind, and emotions can be managed by sheer willpower. Life was an adventure for him and there was nothing that needed to be decided here and now. He would go with what made sense to him in the moment, see where life put him, and make decisions from there. For me this is the absolute definition of terrifying! Yet over the years I learned to be flexible and go with the flow when I needed to.
I learned so much from my father that I could sit here all day and keep writing. And if I were to interview his friends and family, they could each write this much and more. The biggest lesson I can take away from examining his life is that each and every one of us is a scholar. Allah (swt) tells us:
علّم الإنسان ما لم يعلم
We learn that Allah (swt) taught us what we did not know. Every one of us has unique knowledge about a huge range of topics. Don’t hesitate to be a light and share your knowledge, and don’t confine yourself. What you know about raising plants, teaching children, or seeding clouds, you can benefit this world from. Never hesitate to share a bit of knowledge with a young person, at a family gathering, or on your social media page. Some will tune out as you start to talk about this or that, but look for the ones whose eyes suddenly come into focus, ears perk up, and who are listening intently to soak up your words. Because you never know which boy hanging off the jungle gym, staring at a screen for hours, skipping class, or sneaking treats will become the beacon of knowledge for the world.