A Letter to the Aspiring Western Student of Islam


As salaamu `alaykum (Peace be upon you all),

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)

 

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24 Comments

  1. Yasmin says:

    Mashallah, I really love this article because I was seeking something about the exact subject! I think that the author made some very valid points. I love how she was super realistic by pointing out all the pros and cons of studying in a Muslim country.

  2. Amatullah says:

    This is amazing. jazakillahu khayran Shazia.

  3. mariam says:

    great reminder! great insights!!

  4. Ibrahim says:

    Jazak Allah khair for sharing your concern and advice, it really went directly to my heart. May Allah make all of our journeys sincere, easy and fruitful for ourselves and others. There were also many gems to reflect upon on how best to engage our present situation, like choosing an area of focus that is in need. Part of the reason I chose to study Islam in North America is due to the impression I had of those who studied overseas who returned home still unable to address the issues that we are battling everyday, and sometimes (if not all too often) they would even make issues more difficult (or stir up issues that were not there before).

    However an education here (in the US) does not necessarily prepare you for all the issues as well, so I humbly recommend more students to have a balance of the two (here and overseas). This is also the way of many of our great contemporary scholars. Though, by no means is this journey easy, rather one must have the himmah to proceed along what may feel like two separate roads (in two separate worlds) simultaneously; and the journey is long. May Allah make it easy for those who are travelling it.

    Maybe at some point I will write a companion to this on studying Islam at Western academic institutions (unless an article of this kind already exists).

    God bless.

    • Shazia Ahmad says:

      As Salaamu Alaykum,

      Jazak Allahu khayran for your comments. A companion piece on the realities of studying Islam in North America would be excellent, especially as we are seeing more and more opportunities to do so (through academia, as well as newly established institutes and programs for serious study.)

      salaam,
      Shazia

      • Young Sheikh says:

        ASA Shaykha Shazia,
        I would like to know what are some of the requirements for admission to Abu Noor Universtiy and are they still closed off to foreign students.

        • Shazia Ahmad says:

          as salaamu alaykum Young Sheikh,

          From what I’ve heard, at the present time Abu Nour is not open to foreign students. (There is another state-run school for Shari’ah that is open to foreign students).

          I would caution people from going to Syria at this time considering the tense political situation. It would be best to try to get in touch with some students who are currently there or have traveled there recently to get more information about the feasibility of studying at this time.

          Take care,
          salaam
          Shazia

  5. Rami says:

    Jazakallah Khair for this article! I just had a question but I don’t really know if anyone can answer it… I would like to study medicine, as would my family, but my heart is really attached to studying Islamic knowledge. I find myself always longing to open a good fiqh or tafsir book even when I have school work to do. Here is my question: am I able to do both? Can I become a doctor and a student of Islamic knowledge or is that not realistic? Because I know both fields require a lot of time so I don’t know if it makes sense to do both, rather than focus on one.

    Jazakallahu kahiran again!

    • Diane says:

      Yes, insh Allah you can do both, yet I recommend that you do only Quran while you are studying medicine. First, be sure that all answers are in Quran for those who give it its due. Start by allowing an hour a day for repetition in Arabic behind an online shaykh, and see how that goes. Of course you must read the English translation to understand what you are saying. Memorization is even better if you can manage it. If you cannot give Quran at least an hour a day(preferably at fajr), you will not be on the path to scholarship, which is truly long and trying. May Allah make it easy. Darayn.com is a great site for you, as the Quran lessons are well laid out on the screen.

    • Shazia Ahmad says:

      as salaamu alaykum Rami,

      I think you should consider whether you are interested in a career in teaching Islam in some capacity (as an imam, chaplain, teacher, etc). If you’re not really interested in doing that, and desire to study more for personal benefit and practice, then I think it would be more pragmatic to continue your studies in another field and study Islam part-time. At the same time, realize that medicine is a very demanding field of study and one that will occupy much of your time, and require you to sacrifice when it comes to other things – so it is a huge commitment and one should consider that seriously.

      There are many wonderful du’aat who have studied Islam and work in other fields, so it is possible (though I would think extremely challenging). Someone I think of immediately is Sh. Husain Abdul Sattar, who studied medicine and also teaches quite extensively in Chicago.

      I would say make dua’ (specifically Salatul Istikhara) and consult with your family and people of knowledge that you trust and look up to, before making any big decisions.

      May Allah guide you to the best decisions, that are khayr for you in this life and in the Hereafter, Ameen.

      salaam,
      Shazia

  6. Salam
    Thanks for the article and I have been truly touched when the truth about what im always wondering was said and that’s , do you ever wonder how it feels to step upon the ground that especially our prophet Mohammed saw ,,the prophets sahabas ahl al elm etc I pray and hope dream of the day I would, to be at the first house of Allah swt inshallah…. Though it’s not for the reason to go to school there , yea I’m dying for ilm of everything that’s has to do with Allah swt, and bein in the west especially new York I see that it may be hard to get the same ilm here then you can get overseas , my situation is not that because whether you have good ilm teaching here or not my case is I don’t go to school anyway do to culture reasons and on the safe side I’m happy because I feel it was a barakah that Allah placed upon me alhamdulliha , what I say not goin to school was a blessing from Allah swt because if you only see how the Muslim community have fallen in to fitnah here it kolas me to hear what’s goin on and tell myself just don’t believe it because of the hurt it has caused me to see how it’s become Allah swt dosent deserve that he dosent it hurts.I have put it upon myself to be my own teacher in everyway possible seeking Allah swt guidance and soon as long as it may take little by little inshallah I have will do whatrver i can ti help them find thier way back to allah and may allah swt guide them .my life will be just for allah swt and is just for allah swt may he guide me to the best slave i possibly can and guide us all to be thebest slaves that he deserves ameen ameen

  7. With Allah swt guidance I feel anything can be done ..it dosent matter where you study if Allah swt wills for you it will happen , as said by him in the Quran he swt gives hikmah to whom he wills ,,I know it’s hard especially in my case of teaching my self though my reliance is on Allah swt to help me threw it . I dont know if the technology set forth today is enough to be a alem but I’m just seeking as much knoledge to be able to approach those who have bee lured by shaytan . And bein in the same pheromone I can relat to them an why they may do it I see what lures them to listening to shaytan alhamduulah Allah swt kept me away from that but I wish I can help them with allah swt will to help them reliZe what they are letting get away its not just Allah swt blessing in this world but the everlasting blessing in Jenna ..i ask u all to make dua for them and for all Muslims to be guided to become the worshippers that our Allah deserves ameen

  8. abu Abdullah Ibn Abdul Rahim says:

    Mash Allah, something very profound and laconic for every aspiring Tullab al Ilm. Alhamdulillah.

  9. جميل says:

    I laughed through this whole article; hit the nail on the head, and applies specifically to me. I came to Jordan back in July, and you are correct on all counts. However, there is much benefit here, as I live among ulema in this neighborhood, particularly Sheikh Nuh Keller, and get to interact with people of knowledge regularly. I agree with your article in that I too came here with that wistful, idealistic perception of Muslim countries – that had its reality check. The cost of living is significantly less than the West, and women are usually fully clothed at all times (despite incomplete hijab), but it definitely has major flaws. Having been here a few months, I’d recommend it for the experience especially for the reasons the author noted, but keep expectations low.

    **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!** – Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes…and yes.

  10. AsSalaamu Alaikum,

    Excellent Article!

  11. Abdullah Marouf says:

    MashaAllah, very beneficial! JazakumAllahu khayran for sharing it.

  12. abdulhaq says:

    assalaamu `alaykum
    I spent a year in Syria and I can attest – this is a great article maa shaa’ allah. I was not there primarily to gain knowledge (it was my secondary goal) but certainly I experienced much of what is mentioned.
    However, if you are a serious student and your intention is for Allah and not your own aggrandisement, then a long visit to the Middle East will benefit you (with the help of Allah), though probably in areas that you did not anticipate.

  13. Ahmed says:

    We need scholars who plant the seed of Islam and its rich tradition such that the thoughts produced by the student is authentic flavour of Islam. Rather than attempting to make Islam compatible to modern thought, we need to make Islamic thought compatible to modern.

  14. umm zain says:

    Masha’Allah : ) I too was reading this article saying “yes, yes, yes & YES!” I am currently living abroad, and came here with intentions to do several things, among which were to study Arabic, Quran and other Islamic sciences. I certainly didn’t find exactly what I expected, but Allah has given me exactly what I need, without a doubt. As “AbdulHaq” put it, you’ll grow in many ways you did not anticipate…
    I am still just a wannabe student of the Students of Knowledge, and have many things to change about myself before I am truly ready for the Path…
    What you said about having focus, himma, dedication, creativity & specializing in a field was particularly poignant for me. It’s something I think about often, but am unsure about, especially as a mother with MANY other plans and things on her plate. Is there someone we can email for counsel or advice in these matters??
    And YES, I second the suggestion to have articles offering guidance for ppl who wish to study Islam in NA, both from “secular” institutions and Uni’s, and also from “home-grown” Muslim institutions, online or on the ground… Another thing we need to dispel is the notion that you actually HAVE TO go overseas to seek serious Islamic knowledge–in our day & time, we are seeing that notion being erased, alhamdu Lillah, and we are privy to see the budding of “organic, American” Islam, masha’Allah. Traveling for the culture, the language, the unique setting & teachers, and so on is good, but we don’t always utilize the great resources we have right there at home…

    Jazak Allahu khairan for this blessing, and may Allah spread these words of wisdom far & wide!

  15. Dwi says:

    salam, it is nice article :) . i born as a muslim and i still learn about being a good moslem. May Allah give HIS blessing for us. Amien.

  16. Aslamu alaykum,,,,question;;; I was wondering is it better to follow a madhab or not. I’m personally thinking isn’t it better just not to because it’s opinions from great scholars but at the same time human who are ordained to being wrong . I’m a beginner in seeking knowledge but I find myself under the salafi category which is just going back to the past shahbas and so on which started from Abu bakr r.a Omar Uthman ali r.a .basically directly from the Quran and sunnah from the greatest of teachers our prophet saw)) is that a better approach ? And I was wondering since all the madhabs Hanbali hannifa Maliki shafi’ee have agreed upon 70 percent though have disagreed upon 30 is there a place or can an article be done to show the agreed fiqh and the disagreed upon fiqh? One more question the sunnah I’ve read that there different categories though forgot where and to write it down is the an article or app. That may state sunnah Definite muakadah ,permissible ,forbidden ,makruh my apologize if I stated something wrong or dosent make sence please correct me jazkum allah khare

  17. Umm Anas says:

    Baarak Allahu Feeki.

  18. Your brother in Islam says:

    I really appreciate this sincere article you posted. As a young adult I do have a passion to study Islam abroad for the reasons of changing myself and become better spiritually. However, the points you made are points that I deeply reflect upon on a continuous basis. Now I have come to the point of even asking:

    Why do we need westerners to study abroad? I have lost sense as to why the Muslims need “great big scholars” especially in the west when the issues here are debt, moon-sighting, theology, etc. Which is why I always ask students who study Islam why are you studying “Uloom ul Hadeeth” before studying what purifies the heart, the lives of the companions and the Prophets. I mean you got institutes to teach Arabic, memorize Quran, people to teach tafseer along with online universities. What does abroad have to offer that we are not offered here. If people go abroad to learn 10 Qira’at then my question is, how is this beneficial? Not undermining the science of tajweed but all one needs here is to learn Hafs ‘an ‘Aasim and master that. You are not going to have Qaris recite in warsh at masaajids during Ramadan.

    Why do we need scholars from abroad, that is my question I like to ask. If there is a hole to be filled, then I would like to be amongst that fill it as Islamic studies and theology is one subject that interests me since I was young. But if what can be accomplished there can be accomplished here, then quite honestly it doesn’t make sense to go abroad unless it is for self-satisfaction.

    Note: These are just my thoughts but I would really enjoy your input on the questions I have raised as I am still confused whether I should seek knowledge abroad or not. It has been my passion since I was young teenager so to get rid of that desire is very tough despite hearing the negatives countless times.

    May Allah reward you immensely.
    As Salam Alaikum

  19. Kirana says:

    6 & 7 are what really hits people who have never really interacted with other cultures/are monolingual, because it will be the first time they are REALLY hit with a different system of life, a different system of worldview, a different structure of getting things done. prior to the travel, the mind is so, so narrow.

    I strongly advocate travel, especially for youth. Nothing is like actually leaving and going someplace else. abroad has to offer, the fact that it is abroad.

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