as salaamu alaykum,
(This is the first of a series of posts, insha’Allah, which will talk about studying Arabic & Islam abroad, and about my own experiences studying here in Damascus. Note that these are simply my reflections, thoughts, and experiences (see the title of the blog above :)) and I’m not claiming any expertise or absolutes here, so please keep that in mind.)
To my dear brother or sister from the West,
Escaping from the rat-race, the materialism and the emptiness of a fast-food culture, to a traditional land of Islam, exotic and different, steeped in history, where mosques stand firm in every neighborhood, where eman is the lingua franca among the people, and where prophets, scholars, and awliyaa have walked… On a spiritual quest for a pure heart and an enlightened mind, at the feet of scholars, pouring out your old self and drinking up knowledge that will make you new, until its noor fills your heart and soul, emanates through your every cell, and shines on your face…
It’s a beautiful, noble, and alluring picture, and if this is something you seek then I ask that Allah allow for that desire to be fulfilled, and give you the opportunity to travel and study.
but dear bro/sis, let me tell you some things that you probably didn’t know about taking that path…. not as someone who is treading it, but as someone who, in living in Shaam, has learned a little bit about it and has seen it up close…
1. this path is a hard one, and you need to give it its due.
Seeking sacred knowledge is not really fun. It’s fulfilling, it’s meaningful, it’s beautiful… but it’s hard work, commitment, discipline, seriousness, and it takes a sharp mind and intelligence too. Just like you don’t appreciate your mom’s tireless efforts in raising you until you yourself become a parent, you don’t realize how much respect and honor our scholars deserve until you try to seek out this path. The first lesson you will learn is one of humility. But don’t belittle that lesson, because it’s one many others have not yet mastered.
For example: Imam Zaid Shakir is a well known American scholar who studied here in Shaam. My husband was told a little bit about his schedule from a few brothers who knew him in his time here, which included teaching, going to the university full time, private lessons, memorizing Quran, and riding his bike to different durus in different parts of the city. And this is along with taking care of and spending time with his family.
Now, comparing his schedule to mine…
3:30pm: Check my Email.
4:15pm: Pepsi Break.
… and you will see why some people come back truly learned and some don’t 🙂
2. this path takes time to traverse.
You can’t go to Syria, Egypt, or Saudi for two or three years and come back a scholar. This deen is so vast, and there is just so much to learn. Think about someone you would consider a scholar or an expert in the field of history, or engineering, or medicine, and then consider how many years it took them to achieve that state. In the same way it takes years to reach a level of scholarship in Islam.
Western Muslims tend to come to places like Shaam for six months, or a year, or two, and then return home, with some of them thinking that they are now qualified to join the arena of Islamic scholarly discourse in the West… and this is a mistake. I would argue that a person like this is actually more harmful to us as a developing community in the West than someone who hasn’t studied at all. Being deluded into thinking that you’re knowledgeable is much more dangerous than someone who admits that they don’t know, and steps back from forming opinions and calling people to them.
In this state (of studying for just a few years but without reaching a level of expertise), you’re like a half baked cake; you haven’t really reached a state of completion, so that people can eat and benefit from you, but you’ve already been set in the mold… so it may be difficult to become something else, and you might think that you’re a cake :).
Keep this in mind when you think about studying abroad, and have realistic expectations of the time you will need to reach an acceptable level for that which you wish to do.
(Note: If you want to go abroad for a few months or a year or two with the desire to learn Arabic, to memorize Quran, to get an intro/overview of the Islamic sciences, or just to rejuvenate yourself spiritually in a Muslim land, etc, that’s good, but if you desire to be a “shaykh” or “shaykha”, ie a learned person who can teach others, write scholarly books, etc then that’s just not enough time.)
2. change takes struggle.
Don’t depend on some magical change that will overtake you once you leave the West and come to a Muslim country. Spiritual struggles are difficult no matter where you are, and getting rid of long-held, deeply ingrained habits will always be tough. Don’t use your intention to travel as an excuse to procrastinate in taking care of your soul. You don’t want to be in the arena of knowledge at some future date and still be wasting time, or being lazy, or doing things you know you shouldn’t be doing.
These habits or traits may be unattractive parts of your character now, but they will be even uglier in someone who calls himself or herself a student of knowledge. Start now, this day, this moment in purifying your heart and soul. This is also a way of showing Allah your sincerity and seriousness in wanting to take up this path.
3. you may get lost along the way.
It’s very easy to get caught up in a particular methodology or understanding of Islam when you study abroad, and it’s often difficult to get a more holistic, broad-based understanding of Islam in the Muslim world. For example, if you study in Syria, you will find a lot of emphasis put on Taqleed, Asha’ri Aqeedah, the Mawlid, etc and defense and promotion of these ideas; while if you studied in Saudi Arabia, you would find quite the opposite. Often, what happens is that students who study abroad return to the West with this baggage with them, transferring these vitriolic debates to the West and focusing their classes and programs on them, which is actually pretty silly when the average Muslim in the West is having a hard time practicing some of the very basic elements of Islam, such as praying regularly or wearing hijab, and has no idea who Ibn Taymiyyah or Ibn al-Arabi is.
Nowadays, we have many young Muslims from the West studying overseas, in Saudi, South Africa, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Egypt… and in a few years these students who have studied in such different cultures and with scholars of such different approaches and understanding will return to the West to teach. Allahu a’lam what will happen at that point; it can either be a time of a really beautiful flourishing of scholarship, a convergence of scholars who have taken the best from these different lands of Islam and brought that to the West for us to benefit from; OR it will be a time of fractioning, division, and argumentation like we’ve never seen. And I ask Allah to help us and make things easy for us.
So, what’s important for you as a student studying abroad is to always relate what you are studying back to the context in which you will implement and practice it, ie the West. If there was ever a time and a place in which we needed people to move beyond these continuously recycled contentious issues, to solving some of our more basic problems and fulfilling some of the urgent needs we have as a community, it’s us and it’s this time. We are in dire need of doctors, and not judges.
We need individuals who can move outside of this constant, consuming debate, and work towards constructive change.
Imam Zaid Shakir says on this issue, in the introduction to his book The Heirs of the Prophets:
“Unfortunately, in recent years this pardigm [of Sunni scholarship] has been attacked from within… Leveling vicious, largely uncritical polemics against the four juridical schools, Tasawwuf, and the validity of rational proofs and philosophical formulations in creedal matters, these reformers are wittingly or unwittingly threatening the historical unity of Ahl as-Sunnah wal-Jama’aa.
In many instances, these reformers situate their attacks within the historical context of the Hanbali school, relying on Ibn Taymiyya as their principal referent. This tendency has led in recent years to what could well be referred to as a neo-traditionalist backlash. Some defenders of the dominant Sunni paradigm respond to the vicious attacks of the reformers with equal or surpassing venom. In their zeal, some go as far as to attempt to exclude the Hanbali school from the ranks of Ahl as-Sunnah wal-Jama’aa. Others, while condemning the reformers who declare the likes of Shaykh Muhyiddin ibn al-Arabi a nonbeliever, themselves declare Ibn Taymiyya to be outside the pale of Islam. If this polarization continues, our heartland – physically and figuratively – will be torn and divided to such an extent that we will never again be able to attain to the ‘critical mass’ necessary to establish Islam as a dominant socio-political reality. Individuals blessed with cooler heads must prevail.”
4. we are in need of creative thinkers.
In places like Shaam you can find scholars whose knowledge of the classical texts is incredible, who have mastered many of the sciences of Islamic studies, who can give you a deep connection to the Quran, or help you in your personal tazkiya and tarbiyyah process. But what may be more difficult for you to find is someone who can help you learn how to translate much of the information you learn into something you can apply when you return to the West. We are in need of are people who are literate in the culture and needs of the West, and who are also literate in our scholarly tradition, and who can connect between the two.
Specializing is also greatly needed. How much more beneficial would it be if ten people who went overseas to study Islam came back, and one had mastered Arabic syntax and grammar and could teach about the linguistic workings of the Quran in detail; and another had became an expert on the fiqh of minorities and the modern day issues dealing with that; and another in counseling and pyschology from a spiritual and Islamic perspective; and another in business law, and another in Islamic history, etc, instead of ten people coming back, all donning the title ‘shaykh’ or ‘shaykha’ but only having covered the introductory texts in each of these areas, and replicating the same activities and institutions we already have in place?
Before you leave home to begin your studies abroad, be a creative thinker and plan ahead. Think about what you want to do with the knowledge that you will attain, and how you can use it in a meaningful and effectual way when you return to the West. Perhaps you need to prepare yourself by doing some studying or research at the university or at home before leaving.
The Prophet, salAllahu alayhi wa salam, was a creative and visionary thinker. When Salman al-Faarisi suggested that the Muslim build a trench in defense of the city of Madina, something that the Arabs had never seen or heard of before, the Prophet, salAllahu alayhi wa salam, saw merit in the idea and forged ahead with it. While they were digging, a miracle of the Prophet, salAllahu alayhi wa salam, was that he foresaw that the lands of Shaam, Persia, and Yemen would be opened to the Muslims. This was a divinely inspired vision, but it also shows us the beauty in looking ahead, and in contemplating what the results and benefits of your efforts will be.
5. you will miss home.
And you will never realize how truly American/Canadian/British/etc you are until you live somewhere else, and you will start to appreciate many things about your home country that never even occurred to you before.
You will become sick of litter and pollution, disorganization, the rudeness of the common people, the staring problem many men in the Muslim world seem to have, food that is different than what you are accustomed to, cultural narrowness, political suppression, over-strictness and traditionalism in the schooling process, getting ripped off because you are a foreigner, unenforced traffic laws, the obsession of the upper class with everything Western even if it’s something silly or stupid, the nosiness of people, and how straight forward they are in expressing their opinions about you, your dress, or your manner!
You will miss people who understand you, being able to communicate with more sophistication than an eight year old, and not having to think ten times about the grammar of your sentence before opening your mouth. You will miss not knowing common etiquettes and customary manners. And you will of course miss your family and your friends, and many other things about your home.
Many of us who grew up in the West look to Muslim world with an enchanted eye, dreaming of lands of scholarship and beauty, free of the negatives which Western cultures possess. We fail to realize that Muslim lands are not what they once were, due to a number of reasons, both political and spiritual.
My point in mentioning all this is two-fold: One, Muslim lands are certainly not perfect, and they have their problems and cultural idiosyncrasies and things that will frustrate and sadden you and drive you crazy.
Two, you can not erase who you are, and where you grew up. Many of us have hidden away inside of us this strange sort of guilt, that living in the West is not right, or that it’s not really where we belong. You will, in your travels, see that Allah has put you where you are for a reason. You just have to embrace its good and distance yourself from its evils.
6. you will find imperfect institutions, teachers, and students.
Frankly speaking, for the most part, Islamic institutions in the Muslim world are disorganized, and are behind the times in terms of methods of instruction and learning. What you will often find is that these institutes have not maintained the traditional method of Islamic learning, nor have they attained a state of coherence and organization like the Western institutes they seek to imitate. You cannot depend on a particular institute to make you a scholar, but you have to be active and determined in seeking out knowledge, and finding opportunities to study and learn.
Having high himmah [strong resolve, determination and passion for what you are doing] will get you a long way.
w’Allahu a’lam. May Allah forgive us for our missteps and mistakes, increase us, and grant our studies baraka and tawfeeq,
wasalaamu alaykum wa rahmatullah.