To my dear brother or sister from the West,
You dream of escaping from the rat race and empty materialism of our modern, fast-food culture and traveling to a traditional land of Islam – a land that is exotic and different, steeped in history, where mosques stand firm in every neighborhood and faith is the lingua franca among the people, and where prophets, scholars, and saints have walked. On a spiritual quest for a pure heart and an enlightened mind, you would sit at the feet of scholars, pouring out your old self and drinking up knowledge that would make you new, until its radiant light filled your heart and soul, emanated through your every cell, and shone brilliantly on your face.
It’s a beautiful, noble, and alluring picture, and if this is something you seek then I ask Allah Most High to allow this desire to be fulfilled, and to give you the opportunity to travel abroad and study. However, I would also like to share with you some things that you probably didn’t know about taking this path, speaking not as someone who has necessarily tread it, but as someone who has learned a little bit about it and has seen it up close. I ask Allah to allow us and those around us to benefit from the experiences He has given us.
1. This path is a hard one, and you need to give it its due.
Seeking sacred knowledge is fulfilling, meaningful, and beautiful, but it also takes hard work, commitment, discipline, seriousness, and a sharp mind and intelligence too. It is said that, “`Ilm [beneficial knowledge] is jealous: when you give some of yourself to it, it does not give you much in return, but when you give all of yourself to it, it reveals the best of itself to you.” Giving all of yourself means excelling to your utmost ability in your studies, by having the best of focus and discipline, and by giving life to the information you learn by feeling it deeply with the heart and then implementing it with your limbs. It is only then that that one can fully internalize the knowledge one has attained, and build on it and grow.
2. This path takes time to traverse.
Think about someone you would consider a scholar or expert in the fields of history, engineering or medicine, and then consider how many years it took them to achieve that state. In the same way, it takes many years of study and dedication to reach a level of expertise and scholarship in Islam.
Some people go abroad to study for a number of months or a year or two and then return home with the mistaken impression that they are now fully qualified to join the arena of Islamic scholarly discourse in the West. I would argue that a person like this is actually more harmful to us as a developing community than someone who hasn’t studied at all. Being deluded into thinking that one is 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.
Keep this in mind when you consider studying abroad, and have realistic expectations of the time you will need to reach an appropriate level of proficiency for what you wish to do. While a relatively short amount of time may be appropriate for someone who wishes to learn Arabic, memorize Qur’an, get an introduction or overview to some of the Islamic sciences, study a particular specialized topic or issue, or just to rejuvenate one’s self spiritually in a Muslim land, such a length of time may be insufficient for the one who desires to be a shaykh or shaykha, a scholar and learned person who can teach others and discuss a myriad of Islamic issues at an advanced level, write scholarly books, etc.
3. Personal 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 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 takes on the mantle of a student of sacred 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.
4. 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 or Yemen, you will find a lot of emphasis put on taqleed, the Ash`ari school of aqeedah, the mawlid, and defense and promotion of these ideas, while if you studied in Saudi Arabia, you would find quite the opposite.
Often, students who study abroad return to the West with this baggage of impassioned, unyielding opinions on these issues, transferring these vitriolic debates to the West and centering their classes and programs on them. This is actually quite nonsensical when the average Muslim in the West may be struggling with much more practical elements of their religion such as raising their children with an attachment and love for Islam, worrying about the acceptability of their business dealings or rulings related to their marriage or divorce, dealing with the challenge of wearing Islamic attire or avoiding alcohol in the workplace, and so on, and for whom Ibn Taymiyyah or Ibn al-Arabi have little relevance to their everyday practice of faith.
Nowadays, we have many young Muslims from the West studying overseas: Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Pakistan, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere. In a short number of 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. Allah alone knows what will happen at that point: it can either be a time of a 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 – or it will be a time of fractioning, division, and argumentation much worse than we have seen. I ask Allah to help us and make things easy for us.
What’s critical for a student studying abroad is to always seek to relate what one is learning back to the context in which one will implement and practice it, i.e., 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 is us and it is 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 paradigm [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.”
5. We are in need of creative thinkers.
In many places in the Muslim world you can find scholars with incredible knowledge of classical texts, who have mastered many of the sciences of Islam, who can give you a deep connection to the Qur’an or help you in you personal development and spiritual growth. But what may be more difficult to find is someone who can help you learn how to translate the knowledge you attain into something you can apply when you return to the West. We are in need of 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 Qur’an in detail, and another had become an expert on the fiqh (jurisprudence) of minorities and the modern day issues dealing with that, another in counseling and psychology from a spiritual and Islamic perspective, 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 ﷺ (peace be upon him) 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 ﷺ saw merit in the idea and forged ahead with it. While they were digging, a miracle of the Prophet ﷺ was that he foresaw that the lands of Shaam, Persia, and Yemen would be opened to the Muslims. This shows us the beauty of thinking of unique and creative ways to serve our community and to fulfill their needs, and the beauty of looking ahead and contemplating what the results and benefits of one’s efforts will be.
6. You will miss home.
You will never realize how truly American, Canadian or British 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, un-enforced traffic laws, the obsession of the upper class with everything Western even if it’s something ridiculous, the nosiness of some 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 cannot 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 caused you to grow up where and how you did for a reason, and through your travels, He may gift you with experiences that help you appreciate the good and the positives of your homeland that you may have often overlooked.
7. You will find imperfect institutions, teachers, and students.
Frankly speaking, many Islamic institutions in the Muslim world are disorganized, and may be 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. Similarly, you may find instructors or students not living up to the ideals you had assumed were the standard for those in this field, which may lead you to disappointment, anger or frustration. In short, you cannot depend on a particular institute or person to make you a scholar, but you have to be active and determined in seeking out knowledge, and finding opportunities to study and learn and make the most of your time and experience.
I hope these words have not taken away from your aspirations to study abroad, but have given you an insightful view into the reality of the experience. Nothing of true value comes easily, and it’s often in the deepest depths of the sea that the most beautiful pearls are found. Remembering your purpose, renewing your sincere intentions, and having high himmah – a strong resolve, determination and passion for what you are doing – will get you a long way, by Allah’s grace.
One of my teachers once said, “If your himmah [aspirations] remain on the coastline, you will never see beyond the sea.”
May Allah Most High grant us heavenly aspirations that take us to new shores, beautiful sincerity in our studies, and deep understanding of His religion, an understanding that benefits us and those around us. May He grant our studies His blessings and facilitation, and make any knowledge we attain a means of reaching His nearness.
Allah knows best.
Wasalaamu `alaykum (Peace be upon upon you)