I couldn’t believe myself when I got my acceptance letter from one of the top universities miles and miles away from home, away from my comfort zone. I couldn’t wait to finally be independent, to have no obligation to answer the interrogating questions of my parents: where are you? When are you coming home? What did you spend your money on? I was ready to move on, to start a new life, meet new friends, control my own budget and be accountable to no one but myself. But I was wrong. Yes, I will no longer be held accountable by my parents but I was still going to be held accountable by Allah . I also found out that there was a huge responsibility waiting for me.
This experience challenged me on both spiritual and social levels.
The Spiritual/Emotional Challenges
On a spiritual/emotional level, I remember the first time I was homesick and made countless phone calls to my mom and friends from high school who tried to make me feel comfortable. I remember spending many sleepless nights thinking and thinking about ways to adapt to my new life, but nothing soothed me. It wasn’t until one day when I came back to my dorm room that I realized that I do not need help from dunya but from something outside of this world. I needed strength and persistence to be extended to me from a transcending source of power. I needed help and guidance from Allah . I needed Him to comfort me when I was in doubt or scared. I needed Him to guide me. I needed Him to keep my feet stable on the right path.
When I decided to ask no one for help but Allah , The Tremendous (Al-Mutakabir), The Supreme One (Al-Mutaal), The Creator of All Power (Al-Muqtad), The Possessor of All Strength (Al-Qawiy), I decided to do several things. I decided to do things that were not only proactive but also steps that became my religious threshold.
The Social Challenges
On a social level, I found that I had a bigger responsibility; I had to represent Islam in every step I take, every decision I make and every word I say. That’s because people did not just look at me as an individual who can make mistakes. Rather, they were mostly looking at me as a representative of Islam. Problems occur when opinions and personal statements get mixed up with facts about Islam, thus forming misconceptions.
Through experience, I learned how to effectively communicate whether what I do or say was a matter of personal opinion or a religious stance.
In this article, we will discuss a few tips on how to grow closer to Allah during such complex periods. We will also discuss some social situations and address how we can attempt to handle them, In sha Allah.
First, let us discuss how to strengthen oneself spiritually.
Tips for Spiritual Growth
1. Wake up for fajr and pray on time
Our religion is a proactive one. We cannot simply wish to stay on the right path and ask Allah for guidance without doing any work. We cannot argue or ask our professors to give us an “A” when we do not do our assignments or go to class on time and have a high absence rate. Allah has a higher priority and we cannot be slacking in our duties and then ask for His blessings. Regardless of the deadlines, temptations or anything that occupies your time, take a few minutes to stand before your Lord and preform all your prayers on time always, and make sure you learn how to wake up for fajr.
2. Read Qur’an regularly
Make reading the Qur’an part of your daily routine. Read at least one page a day. Reading Qur’an is not only rewarding in the afterlife, but is rewarding in worldly life as well. It gives you the sense of reassurance you need. You will always find a soothing ayah or story of one of our beloved prophets that you can relate to, which will make you feel at ease. This is not something that I learned through experience only, but also something that Allah stated over 1400 years ago in the Noble Qur’an:
3. Read your morning and evening adhkar
Make reading the morning and evening adhkar a part of your daily routine. This protects you from the harm you can do to yourself (when following your desires that will make you go astray), from people who intend to do you harm and from the shaytan. Morning remembrance will also soothe you and make you feel at ease when you start your day, knowing that Allah has control over everything. When you know that Allah has direct control over the tiniest details in your daily life, you become assured that whatever happens to you is nothing other than Allah’s perfect plan in action.
4. Make dua
The power of making dua is inexplicable. No matter what worldly issue you face, you can always make dua and be sure that Allah is hearing you. With a proper level of certainty, faith, and trust in Allah when you make the dua, you can be sure that your worldly problem will be solved, In sha Allah. Talk to Allah . Tell Him what is hurting you, tell Him what is scaring you, tell Him what is making you angry or furious and ask Him for guidance. Ask Him to solve whichever issue is making you unable to sleep at night. Ask Him to protect you from things you are not certain of. Ask Him to guide you towards what is best for you. Be sure He will answer. Be sure He is listening. Be sure He is taking care of you.
5. Make it a goal to wake up for tahajjud
There is nothing greater than feeling that the Lord you worship is close to you.
Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger as saying: “Our Lord, the Blessed and the Exalted, descends every night to the lowest heaven when one-third of the latter part of the night is left, and says: Who supplicates Me so that I may answer him? Who asks Me so that I may give to him? Who asks Me forgiveness so that I may forgive him?” [Sahih Muslim]
What more do we want? What more does a worshipper want from his Lord? What more does a believer want? If you have a problem, go talk to your Lord. When you have an exam, ask your Lord to make things easy for you. If you committed a sin, go ask your Lord for forgiveness and mercy. When you miss Him and feel you are far away from being on the right track, go tell Him that you want Him. Tell Him you want to be closer to Him and that you want to feel at ease and reassured when remembering Him. Tell Him to protect you from your fears, from people who may harm you, from yourself and from these worldly temptations that are pulling your soul down and preventing it from elevating and connecting to the transcendent power, i.e. Him .
6. Sense Allah’s ma’iya (closeness) in every step you take
Being in Allah’s ma’iya means being under His protection, blessing and mercy. It means you sense His protection in every step you take. It means you think about Allah and what will make Him pleased with you before taking any action. It means you feel that He is with you everywhere, in every step, in every word you say. It is watching yourself and what you do or say. It is not to do or say anything that will not please Him . It is you enjoying the company of Allah. It is you wanting to be close to Him, a position that makes you feel at ease and fills you with joy. It is only when you get to this point, that you will fight to not move away.
Tips for Social Intelligence
Now, here are some reminders to help you deal with common social situations that could be perplexing.
7. Carry yourself patiently and wisely to combat media-fed misconceptions
When walking down the aisles of the supermarket, on the subway, in class or even in your dormitory, you may notice somebody somewhere staring at you…as if watching a suspect. The problem such people have is that they do it out of ignorance, not proper understanding or an informed opinion about Islam.
Media today has become many people’s primary source of information. Many people have limited access to proper resources and they rely entirely on media to learn about different people and events around the globe. This becomes dangerous and creates misconceptions when people only have the subjective media lens to understand the world around them.
I personally had an encounter with a saleswoman in one of the department stores. She asked me a series of questions starting from where I came from, whether that place was next to Afghanistan or Iraq, whether they abuse women back home, whether we drive or ride camels and whether we are civilized or barbaric.
She was shocked to know that I speak the way she does, share the same interests and joke around just like she does. I remember her literally telling me:
“I don’t know anything about the Middle East. We didn’t learn much about it in school. All I know is what I see on TV”.
This lady was rather nice and actually wanted to learn more. My friends on the other hand, have had more aggressive encounters, which -again- turned out to be the result of nothing other than the misconceptions they get from the media.
When faced with these situations, don’t lose your patience and try to put on your best attitude. Put on a smile (this is the sunnah of our Prophet ) and show them that you are not different from them. Show them that you share similar interests and concerns (if possible, in class discussions). Remember that no matter what distorted image media represents about Islam, YOU are the living, walking example of Islam. It is within you to either reinforce stereotypes or refute them and show the real manners of our noble Prophet . Remember that it is through the way we carry ourselves and how we interact with people that we can warmly invite people to Islam and let them see the incredible beauty within it.
8. Refrain from arguing with those who don’t wish to learn
You will find a lot of them. They will keep asking you controversial questions, doubt your beliefs and try to question your faith. Before talking to anyone about anything related to Islam, make sure you do your homework: read and ask those who know better. Ask our scholars about the best way to answer questions and concerns of non-Muslims.
Remember that not every battle is worth fighting. From the way the conversation is carried, you can easily tell what the speaker’s true intention is. You can easily identify whether he/she really wants to learn or just waste your time. When you find yourself in the latter situation, remember the words of Allah :
“And the servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth easily, and when the ignorant address them [harshly], they say [words of] peace” [Qur’an: Chapter 25, Verse 63]
Remember that our beloved Prophet went through hardships like the ones we go through today. Spreading the words of Allah and Islam was not an easy journey for him and neither will it be for us. Remember that Allah said:
“We have certainly created man into hardship” [Qur’an: Chapter 90, Verse 4].
How else shall we prove to Him that we deserve a certain level of jannah and that we strive to be in Al-Firdaws? It is through such hardships that we learn and grow, wipe our sins and reach higher levels of jannah, In sha Allah.
9. Do not compromise your religious values to fit in
There is definitely no problem in hanging out and grabbing lunch or coffee with your friends who do not share similar beliefs as you, as long as you do not get involved in acts that are against your teachings and values.
Enjoy spending quality time with your friends; go for a jog, play basket, tennis, soccer or even swim together. Your friends will learn by time that you don’t drink, eat pork or get involved in certain activities they might be doing. You will find many non-Muslims who share similar values and cherish them. Not clubbing or drinking won’t make you a loser; on the contrary, people will respect you even more for cherishing your values and upholding them.
I remember when all the girls on my floor in the dorms asked me to go clubbing with them and I politely rejected their invitation. When they insisted on knowing why, I told them that my religion forbids me from being in a place where every act done is impure or unlawful. Then they were puzzled: they asked me why I wasn’t going yet another Muslim girl was. They wondered if that meant our religion was contradictory. I had to explain that our Islamic principles are constant and whether Muslims decide to follow them or not is a matter of choice.
10. Highlight the difference between Islamic teachings and your personal opinion/behavior
There is a huge difference between Islam and Muslims. We know this well, but we need to communicate it to people. Islamic principles are constant and they do not change or fluctuate whether you as a Muslim decide to follow them or not. Muslims who follow Islamic rules and regulations poorly do not affect the principles in any way. Just like any other religion, there are believers who decide to abide by the religious principles or breach them. Poor practices do not represent Islam in any way; make sure to communicate that effectively.
11. Answer repeated questions calmly and with a smile
No matter how many times you have been asked why you don’t eat pork, go clubbing, drink or why are you veiled, make sure to answer calmly and with a smile. There is nothing that touches people’s hearts like a genuine act of kindness, a smile or lenient words. No matter how bad your day was or how tired you are, make sure to smile to your fellow brothers and sisters. Smiling in itself is a sadaqah (an act of charity) [Jami` at-Tirmidhi]. The Almighty rewards you when you smile despite your tiredness or boredom from hearing the same questions regarding your religion over and over, yet keep an open mind and heart to help people and clear their concerns.
How do you think people in the times of jahiliyya (pre-Islamic era) converted to Islam? Allah says to our beloved prophet:
“So by mercy from Allah, [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah . Indeed, Allah loves those who rely [upon Him].” [Qur’an: Chapter 3, Verse 159]
The power of words is incredible. Even when you are to give advice to your Muslim brother or sister, it is always recommended that you use lenient words that are not harsh or strict or else you will drive people away and this is not how the ummah is to be united.
I remember the very first time I was asked what this thing I had on my head covering my hair was and why I wore it. I also remember how happy I was to spread the message of this religion and the words of Allah by answering those questions.
12. When your tongue fails you, remember that God defends you
There will be times when you will have no clue how to respond to unjust accusations or baseless claims. You will experience anger and frustration hours after the discussion is over and think, “why didn’t I say this or why didn’t I tell them that”. What will frustrate you even more is that you will have the perfect argument to refute the accusations but you weren’t able to say it then. This is when you should remember that it happened for a reason and that God will prepare you to have a better argument next time.
He with His undefeated power can turn the odds to your side or make a person with authority be on your side or any other means of support that you hadn’t thought of. He is always there, He knows what you’re going through.
13. Do not compare yourself to social standards or expectations
Living in the West or outside your comfort zone might not only be challenging but might make you compromise values and morals you have believed in and cherished for as long as you can remember. It can be the small day-to-day interactions with others that make you question your morals, values and beliefs. It can be questions people ask you, like why you don’t shake hands with a member of the opposite gender or why you do not share house chores with your husband/wife or what is a mahram and why you don’t go anywhere without him and so on. Most of us tend to give up on beliefs or values just because people start to bombard us with questions. This becomes annoying after a certain period of time and we no longer want to explain ourselves or our practices.
Do not give up your values because you feel left out or because you feel you need to fit in. Do stand up for what you believe in and for your norms, even if it means you will stand alone. Ask Allah for strength and perseverance that will help you stand alone if need be.
14. Compare yourself to where you should be in relation to Allah and your religious commitments
As I stated earlier, do not compare yourself to someone else other than the person you wish to be. Do not let your social fears of not fitting in and adapting be the motivating factor behind you going astray. Be your own meter and compare yourself to religious standards and not the man-made standards that change every now and then. Rather, compare yourself and where you are to religious and divine standards. Compare yourself to something that is constant and never changes and you will be at ease. Compare yourself to where you want to be in relation with Allah .
Remember that as long as your new life gives you opportunities that don’t go against your religious beliefs, then embrace those experiences and enjoy them. I ask Allah to provide us all with the strength and guidance to stay on the right path; may He protect us from external and internal harm; may we find joy in His company and may He bless and protect every single Muslim who lives miles away from his/her support group and good companions. May He (swt) help you find your way back to the right path and find righteous companions wherever you are.
If you faced similar issues as university students, what other tips worked best for you? What other challenges did you encounter and how did you overcome them?