Surviving at University – By a University student
There were beer mats everywhere. The whole corridor was covered in an intriguing pattern of small cardboard squares called Carlsberg. There were eight rooms in the corridor but only one kitchen, one toilet and one shower. I had expected the place to be a bit more lively but my friend explained to me that it was always quiet on Friday and Saturday nights. ‘They invite me along with them as well,’ he said with a sigh, ‘but all I can do is laugh and politely decline.’
Welcome to the world of the university campus, the place where a significant number of Muslim students will spend at least the first year of their university life. Away from home and away from family and friends, the three years on average spent by most students pursuing a degree is a crucial time for the development or deterioration of one’s Imãn. All students whether they choose to remain at home or stay elsewhere experience the onslaught of ‘Fresher’s Week’ before they even begin their studies. Fresher’s Week is supposedly a week full of events designed to allow those beginning their university career to acquaint themselves with their new surroundings as well as with their fellow students. In reality Fresher’s Week is a hedonistic 7 days which the pubs and nightclubs utilise to attract their prospective clientele for the following year. Flyers and posters advertising nightclubs, bank loans, mobile phones and a whole host of other organisations, societies and clubs bombard students during these first few days. Even though the Islamic Societies of most universities make a determined effort to attract Muslim students away from such temptation, it is sad to say that for many Muslims the Islamic Society stall is last on their list of places to visit. Fresher’s Week is a severe trial and only those come through unscathed that have a strong bond and connection with Allah Ta’ala.
When I initially applied to university I remember being told at college that university was a place of experimentation, of experience and of widening one’s views of the world. For a Muslim this experience can be extremely difficult as many of the activities used for this social experimentation are either makrooh or harãm and illegal. Social experimentation and finding the ‘real you’ seem to be prime goals for many students. For Muslims, university can be quite a lonely time as many of the events and functions organised by their peers involve activities which are albeit legal under the laws of this country but illegal i.e. harãm from an Islamic perspective. Promiscuous relationships, ‘pub crawls’ (whereby a number of pubs are visited in one outing) and a whole host of other unbelievable activities are the order of the day. And all this is practiced by those who the rest of society deems as being ‘the leaders of tomorrow’.
I remember my disgust when I initially visited my university at the lack of scope in the lecturer’s jokes. Alcohol and the price of alcohol were the only two topics discussed. It was quite a disturbing experience to be the only sombre person in a room full of 400 laughing 18 year olds. It was not that I did not understand the jokes, it was the fact that drinking and in reality alcoholism were deemed to be an acceptable part of the student lifestyle regardless of a person’s belief. In my opinion, this is the crux of the difficulty for Muslims studying at university; the question of maintaining and retaining a distinct Muslim identity. This is the point where many of us fail as we try to reconcile our faith with the demands and pressures of the environment surrounding us. Do you pray Zuhr Salãh during your lunch hour or do you make it Qadhã and attend that lunchtime optional seminar which might look good on your CV? It is in such matters that students should turn to the ‘Ulamã in order to find out how to reconcile these differences.
And it is during these times that one realises the true advantages of having a spiritual mentor. Having a spiritual mentor or Shaykh to which one can turn to for guidance and encouragement can make all the difference when confronted with a dilemma.
However, many students are unable to do this, mainly because of the fact that the only contact they had with the ‘Ulamã was during their pre-teens when attending the evening maktab. No contact or relationship was maintained with the ‘Ulamã and in many cases with the Deen of Islãm after these initial few years. But, alhamdulillah there are still a significant number of students who do maintain contact, right until and after the time they enter university. Their knowledge and zeal for Islãm can prove to be a boon for others searching for the truth – and there are many searching for and returning to the truth. The number of student reverts and Muslims whose interest in Islãm is reignited while attending university and the existence of student Islamic Societies bears testimony to this.
Islamic Societies are voluntary organisations run by students to cater for the needs of Muslims who may be attending the university or living in its vicinity. They typically provide a prayer room with wudhoo facilities in most cases, and organise a variety of Da‘wah and educational events. Partly funded by money from the university’s student union and partly by private donations, Islamic Societies bring together Muslims from around the world. In my first Jumu‘ah prayer at university I was met with a scene which made me reminisce of how the times of the Prophet sallallahu alaiyhi wasallam must have been. The Imãm was an African, the mu’azzin an Arab, and the remaining rows a mixture of Muslims from almost every other country in the world.
This diversity however, can prove to have a weakness in the sense that it can provide an ideal cover for deviant sects bent on spoiling the Imãn as well as ideology of Muslims. Many students are unaware of these sects and are highly impressed by the seemingly knowledgeable and sincere words of their protagonists. Once again the lack of knowledge regarding our authentic scholars and their achievements causes quite a majority of us to feel inferior when faced with such people.
Another point which surprised me very much was the little effort that was being made on the Muslims at the University. It seemed like Da‘wah was to be practised on non-Muslims only. I attended one of the meetings held to discuss the organisation of the Islamic Awareness Week at the university. Even though I half expected the meeting to be mixed I had not anticipated what I saw. Many of the sisters wore scarves, but the way they and many of the brothers as well, were dressed, left little to the imagination. However most of these sisters were extremely sincere and it soon became obvious that they played a key role in the running of Islamic events at the university. On asking one of the brothers why this was the case he replied that most Muslim male students did not bother volunteering and consequently this void was filled by the sisters. In my opinion this was an extremely dangerous situation as many of the events that were being organised involved the free mixing of males and females albeit with a good intention. This is another point where most of us fail due to our lack of knowledge and correct guidance. We presume we are doing something acceptable in the Sharee‘ah based upon what little knowledge we may have of the Sharee‘ah ourselves.
The brother whom I quoted at the beginning of the article was a clean shaven youngster when he started university. He has since kept a beard. I asked him the reason for this and he replied, ‘I was looking for Muslims and I thought let me look for someone with a beard. The thought suddenly hit me that I myself do not have a beard, would anyone recognise me as a Muslim?’ There are many brothers and sisters who dress in full Islamic clothing when attending university and it can be honestly said that there is probably no greater form of giving Da‘wah to both Muslims and non-Muslims than this; the full adoption of Islãm. As many of us know Allah S has commanded us to enter into Islãm totally. This is what I think is needed for the regeneration of the student community. Rather than trying to unify with university culture Muslims need to be unique, unique both internally in manners and character and externally in dress and appearance, and be proud of this uniqueness. Simplicity coupled with the adoption of the teachings of the Qur’ãn and Sunnah and the ways of the Companions y, under the guidance of the ‘Ulamã, the experts in the field, seems to be the only way to achieve this uniqueness and in reality restore our confidence. Reliable organisations such as the Islãmic Da‘wah Academy and many others are already taking part in this regeneration by holding meetings with student leaders and trying to address their specific needs. More interaction such as this is needed at both school and college/university level.
For me university has proved to be quite a revealing experience in the sense that it has made me appreciate how little many non-Muslims and, in some unfortunate cases, Muslims themselves know about Islãm. For a significant number of non-Muslim students the only contact they have had with Muslims is via the TV or the newspapers i.e. they have never met a Muslim before. We, as Muslim students need to be trained and given the opportunity to learn how to practice and propagate Islãm adequately and to deal with situations which we may have not encountered before in our lives. Only recourse to the ‘Ulamã and the mashã’ikh can help to solve such dilemmas.
We need to take the opportunity to adopt the company of the pious, especially the ‘Ulamã and take part in reliable religious movements so that we gain the true understanding of Islãm. Only then will we become true individuals, independent and free from the shackles of a non-Islamic culture. And only then will we be able to, in the words of the Sahãbi Rib‘ee Ibne Ãmir t, work towards delivering mankind from ‘the slavery of man into the slavery of the Lord of man, and from the narrowness of this world to the vastness of the Hereafter.’
May Allah Ta’ala give the writer first and then the readers the ability and the inclination to practice what has been written. May Allah Ta’ala help all students whether studying in religious or secular institutes to achieve their goals and cause all of us to attain His pleasure and live and die as true Muslims upon Islãm. Ãmeen.