This is a piece I have sat on for two months — it started with emails and questions that resonated so deeply with me (and I’ve tried to include) but were things I’d always felt scared to address or speak about. This term too, I ended up having so many conversations like this. Now, this is also one of those pieces I don’t feel is completely done, maybe because everything I write about is related to faith in someway — or is rooted in faith — but also because there is so much more fear and responsibility here and because there are so many perspectives and differing experiences. I write in the hope that it will be helpful and answer some things and I write with a big-small disclaimer that I know nothing and only write from a personal experience. This can change, stumble and be tested at any moment, to Him and to all of you, reading.
I. Culture shocks + fear of change
A fear in our communities is that moving away from home means we forget ourselves, stumble in faith and change our values… that with distance from visible symbols and spaces of faith, our internal faith diminishes. This does happen and faith can be lost anywhere, here I am addressing surviving this place, these institutions and environments without compromising faith, without feeling like faith is something that will easily be lost. Being aware and having fear should not translate to creating a fear ridden expectation for a space that is meant for growth and progression, it undermines the strength and sincerity of our faith to begin with too. It neglects that faith comes from our internal selves first. Faith is the beliefs we feel and hold in our souls and hearts, that which often cannot be measured by distance, shown or symbolised…that which, even without symbols and spaces, is held deeply in our hearts.
We must first believe this internal part of faith cannot diminish rather than to begin with an expectation of fear. Surely as people of faith we always have some fear of losing or weakening in faith derived from how much we value it, rather than because it is something that with change, can easily be lost. I guess it is scarier because it becomes completely up to you, even more so, to check in with yourself and Allah five times at the least, to maintain your practises – but we’ll get onto that, there has to be a shift in our mindset, expectations and narrative first.
How do we rephrase this conversation that is one of fear and fitnah – to be one aligned with becoming stronger by remembering and renewing your intention – to ensuring faith is a foundation? How do we reframe the changes and thoughts that take place in moments of ‘culture shock’; in institutions such as Cambridge. In places that seem distant – away from home – render you a minority? How do we mentally reframe these culture shock moments into spaces for introspection and spiritual growth? How in these spaces – these moments of unrootedness, do we reach to faith as a source of strength – as what helps us thrive?
Carla Power writes, of Shaykh Akram Nadwi: ‘his faith had anchored him even when propelling him out into the world’.
This line speaks to me on so many levels, but here I am thinking of University. Moving out, Cambridge, to be one of these big changes ‘out into the world’, moments where we are pushed out of the visibility and comfort of what we have always known, into new, alien spaces of change and growth. While we fear losing our values in the midst of the new and unknown, is it not that as a person of faith, what helps us thrive, is not even the new, world renowned institution itself, the three, five or six years… is it not our faith that helps us thrive? Is it not rooted in our intention, what we are doing here anyway, the answer to our duas, that we are here because it is the best thing for us?
To thrive then in faith and in dunya, we have to consider these distant places – distant because they are away from home and maybe away from parts of faith and practise as we know it, to be places where faith can strengthen. It is to view faith as what helps us thrive, as a foundation not an obstacle. It is to return to God and remember God in all that we do. Especially, in all that we do, as we go forward, as we are ‘propelled’ out into the world. To remember God placed us in these positions and it is with His will that we continue.
To thrive is to remember that faith is the constant, the foundation, the ‘anchor’. We can move miles away, change, become ‘different’ and unlike ourselves in every way, without letting go of the rope of Allah, never losing faith. For me that is a part of what it means to thrive, to be successful. To do all of these things; to move around, travel, change in every way for the better, progress always, with faith at the core. It is our faith that has brought us this far and keeps us going. It is the guiding compass. It grounds us and reminds us of the core of our being as spiritual beings. I believed I was there and I am here because it is best for me, Allah willed it and I needed Him to get through it. Having belief in myself to be okay anywhere, to do well, was having tawakkul and trusting in Allah’s plan. The conscious affirmation and choice to come back to faith as we navigate the world outside of what we know, is another level of faith, another part of your journey in faith. Being able to experience that with a move to University – a time that can be so testing in other ways, is one we should be grateful for, one we should use to get closer to Allah.
I know this sounds optimistic and may not be the cautionary tale of fitnas at University. I don’t mean to gloss over or suggest faith does not weaken – it does for many, it is lost for many, and Allah guides whom he wills.
Faith is not static, we stumble and we increase. To be constantly aware, to desire to gain consciousness (I am thinking of the term Taqwa here) means being aware of faith as something in some movement and change. Surely, we should aspire to change in the sense that we are not complacent and always want to progress in our faith — and surely, we can and should view moments of stumbling and low imaan – as moments we can reflect on.
In my first few weeks as a very homesick fresher not making the most effort to make friends and fully immersed in the environment, to my final year – where I worry about how I will ensure I leave here thriving and grateful, remembering Allah reminded me and continues to, of what I am doing here. It kept me going then and is often the only thing that continues to. For me, maintaining, and strengthening faith in the unknown and culturally alien, is to use moments of despair, unrootedness, confusion and doubt, to remind myself of what it is I am doing here. Here meaning, this room, time and day but also this world. It follows on from Part I if we are here to develop and pursue knowledge, everything you do becomes and is related to that intention. Being here, or anywhere, is a amaanah fro Allah. It is wholly spiritual. It is related to my ultimate and higher purpose in this world. With that in mind, everything falls to place and becomes part of a bigger picture.
Your intention only strengthens once it expands to spaces outside of what you know. Being in a space that is different ensures you recentre everything back to faith. During the moments of feeling overwhelmed, panicky, burnt out and even homesick, alien and distant – the constant of faith became comfort, a kind of home. It is a reminder of why we are where we are and the reminder that we are meant to be here.
II. Questions, critical thinking, being inquisitive, being questioned + rationalising faith
At University and all around us, having faith is becoming stranger. The media is obsessed with demonising Muslims and denying Islamophobia. The past few months especially, we have seen Islamophobia manifesting all around us…there’s not much I can say other than that my heart hurts and I pray we find solace and strength in unity despite it. ❤
Watching this election unfold, in some ways I think people at University are far more accepting of difference, of perceived strangeness. Despite this, just as Islamophobia is used as a tool to gain mandates, to govern, it exists too, within the structure of academic discourse. Its institutional existence is felt despite the social acceptance I feel in the city or in my college. As a humanities student who chooses to write about Islamic history and consider the representation of Islam and Muslims in Literature, for a long time it felt like I had to prove my perspective was a valid academic one.
The things I’d choose to write on felt like a hassle, something that could not be easily accommodated and often met with hostility. I would hold back saying the interesting thing because it pointed to my Muslimness in some way, or avoid referencing certain academics and writers because of their names and associations. I wish I had more to say about the way I dealt with some of these interactions, but I don’t, I had supervisions that ended in tears, and ended up without a supervisor for my part I dissertation. It is incredibly tough to your academic and sense of being to be here, to discuss and write and debate what you think. And it took a while, but now, in my final year, I know the value and importance of my arguments and interests — but not every space or academic, even at Cambridge, is listening to you, or is at all ready to hear what you have to say. It will and does take a while, I never felt like anything I was saying was revolutionary or new, there were far more revolutionaries and academics on my twitter feed — but what I read about on my social media feeds does not reach the academics and some students in this institution that I interact with. For them, you may be the person who is the the only Muslim, the only one wearing an Abaya or a headscarf, or the person who does not want to go to the pub. It is frustrating, and I had to ask myself was it worth the hassle, when I just wanted to do well? But as we persist, gradually, our voices, ideas and interests will take up space and demand that more academics engage with us. The past few years have been devastating at points and not at all what I imagined University to be like, but they have also been full of hope and I truly feel like I’ve watched and felt change around me. And also within me as I’ve come back to ideas and situations I’d encountered in first year with so much more understanding and growth.
It doesn’t help that as Muslim students, academics, and critics, I think we often carry this feeling that we must be prepared to answer every question the inquisitive minds around us have — or respond to them as if we are to newspapers and fascists. We think and be with what the world is saying about us at all times… we overcompensate in trying to answer and fulfil others when our purpose and existence is tied to pleasing God, when our living is preparing and hoping to meet Him. I think we fear seeming as less critical, less academic or rational because of our being Muslim. I am not talking about theological discussions and the ‘Islam and science’ posters, I am speaking to you; the person of faith who feels watched, attacked, and worried they will be asked a question and they need to be prepared. Prospective students thinking of applying or moving out for University worry about this too,
‘‘how prepared do I need to be to answer people’s questions, they will have questions won’t they?’’
Ask yourself, who are you preparing for? Who do you question for? Whose answers do you seek when your chest and heart are empty? How are you preparing for the questions your Lord will ask you? Because your faith is yours. Question, search and seek, for yourself, not to feed an audience, or someone else’s ‘critical’ ‘liberal’ ‘logical’ mind. Your personal practise of faith, the core of your being as a spiritual being, is not an assessed, academic topic. It is not up for debate, it does not make you a spokesperson. Despite my turning to writing as a form of expression, as one of the highest forms even — everything cannot be answered in words or articulated in a way that seems poetically or academically apt — nor apt for my Lord. Nor does it bring me peace to search for other people’s answers when my soul seeks its own. And to respond when my preferred form of searching and response is in prayer.
I have seen it in myself and the language we use to discuss faith sometimes – why is it one of justifications? Who are we justifying for or feel like we should justify for? But when I’ve had questions from others about covering my hair, why have I responded justifying it was a choice, when it began with and is solely for the purpose of pleasing God? That is enough for me. My answers from my prayers, my belief — how I came to it and see it manifest daily — is not an academically apt piece of text and I am okay with that.
and maybe this is what our fear comes down to: ”How do you maintain your identity and not get caught up in portraying something that you’re truly not (i.e. changing your values in order to be accepted)?”
The awareness you have, the acceptance you seek and have sought as a person of faith has always been different, the identity you seek to maintain is too — because it is tied to a Being whose acceptance is our only endeavour. Change is testing, distance from what you have always known is testing. Things I had always struggled with (including health concerns, questions about faith and academic weaknesses) became more apparent, the effect, heightened. At the same time, things that were not new for me, that I had always taken for granted — my prayers, observing hijab, jummah — had renewed meaning, became more valuable and pivotal to my faith than before, they became places where I sought answers and guidance.
I also cannot look past the enormous privilege of being at university and the time you have with your thoughts, your academic ideas, ideas about the world and yourself. This should not be one where we fear change, it can be one, with the right intention, where we change as in progress, while holding onto the beliefs and parts of ourselves that we value.