Hashem Ghazzawi was born to a Palestinian family in Saudi Arabia. He came to the UK after finishing high school to pursue a degree in control and systems engineering (medical) in Sheffield University. He is now in his final year reading an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) in York University in computer science.
1) Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us what motivated you to read Systems Engineering and eventually, Computer Science at university?
It all started from my childhood, subhan-Allah. Whenever I watched movies showing machines interacting together in a systematic way, I’d wonder how these pieces of metal can understand what is going on around them. Those scenes were stuck in my memories and, over time, made me more eager to study automation (engineering). My favourite cartoon show was Sanshiro; the fact that the little boy built a robot that can follow his commands amazed me a great deal. I look back at those memories now and smile, subhan-Allah, nowadays I understand how these things work.
Applying Systems Engineering and particularly Control Theory in Computer Science has been a popular research field in the scientific (and industrial) community for the past 2 decades. For that reason I’m pursuing a PhD at York University, looking at control-theoretic approaches for real-time scheduling, which is a branch of computer science. Airbus is my PhD sponsor.
2) What were some of the best highlights of this journey?
I’ll start with patience. During my foundation year in Kent University, when I applied to Sheffield and other universities to study systems and control engineering, almost all of those universities requested high grades if not distinctions. It is important to keep being productive so that you remain on course to your ultimate goal; good grades and improved social status.
You’re bound to meet people who solely focus on their studies, but miss a great deal on social interactions. This is not productive at all. Even companies are eager to recruit people that have good technical skills and yet possess good teamwork and transferable skills. Such skills aren’t taught in universities; rather, they are acquired from personal interactions/experiences.
Thus, it’s important to bear in mind Allah’s teachings and the Prophet’s tradition – for you to stay productive. Getting good, or rather high, grades is plausible, and it comes with hard work after Allah bestows ‘tawfiq’. Acquiring good transferable skills and social status comes, after ‘tawfiq’, through being involved in various productive activities. You can make friends in your local gym and/or university societies varying from sports, political, scientific, to theological. I’m sure universities have freshers’ weeks where societies bombard students with leaflets showing what their activities involve.
I made sure I got involved in as many as I could, mainly for the sake of opening my mind into some of the different realms of this life. Also, word-of-mouth is an effective marketing strategy. You might find yourself being involved in, say, the climbing society because your course-mate or gym partner got you in it. Isn’t this a beautiful way of leveraging your social status?
Linking productivity to gaining high grades is almost critical. Why? As the Prophet advised us – Allah loves it when a believer does his job well. The tool for excellence is productivity. Regular physical exercises, even during examination days, and hanging out with productive people were the trick for me. This, surely, comes after a believer’s secret weapon of supplication and sincerity in hard work. All of that requires patience, doesn’t it?
My degree in Sheffield consisted of four years because it was an alternative route instead of doing a Bachelor’s then a Master’s degree afterwards. Apparently this is desired in industry, and I’ve come to learn this, Alhamdullilah, throughout my industrial internships during my undergraduate days.
Having those industrial placements really benefited me on many levels. First, seeing what you studied being implemented right before you will make you more eager to study your degree well. Second, having experience gives you that extra edge when submitting your resume after graduation. Third, it increases your productivity by making you appreciate your time, job description, money you earn etc. I really enjoyed the industrial placements during my Sheffield days, Alhamdulillah.
3) What are some of the challenges you faced when studying to become an engineer and how/what can a Productive Muslim learn from these challenges?
The language was first barrier. Coming from Saudi Arabia where I learnt mathematics and science in Arabic, it was challenging for me to read my degree in English. There were a number of effective ways that aided me in overcoming this obstacle, Alhamdulillah. Reading is essential, and I don’t mean here lecture notes, but anything that can be useful and enlightening. Interacting with local people helped me learn how to speak English like the British do. Listening to the radio has helped me learn how the British explain their issues etc.
Peer pressure is an underestimated factor for students’ productivity. One day you think you’re doing good in your studies etc., and next thing you’re copying someone else’s “swag” for you to be “cool”. Limiting yourself to hanging out with Muslims only isn’t completely advisable. I found this true because it’s important to seek other people’s opinions before forming your own on them.
We read that the Prophet interacted with various people and sects for the sake of being enlightened on how they converse and live their lives so he can live with them and give them da’wa in a more productive way. I refer here to practising empathy. Subhan-Allah, his biography is full of examples. We also need to bear in mind that compromising your faith for any reason will turn you into a very unproductive person.
During my industrial placements I learnt that you shouldn’t expect anybody to appreciate where you come from (academically). It’s you who should put the effort to communicate well with others to get the job done. The jargon of people with different backgrounds was the main challenge in my industrial experience. I remember during my placement year with Corus/Tata Steel, I had to deal with the marketing people as they were clients of the IT system I was working on. I realised we misunderstood each other all along; they were explaining to me what they needed from the IT system in their own marketing language while I was using my IT jargon. Eventually, with the help of Allah , my supervisor showed me how to explain technical topics using simple English only. It’s a skill by itself, and make sure you acquire it if you become an engineer/scientist. It makes you more professional. Once you build confidence in yourself, work becomes a joyful part of your day.
4) Can you tell us about the skills you’ve developed as an engineer and PhD candidate, as well as the knowledge you have gained, and how have they been useful in and outside your profession?
There were a number of things I benefited from, during my studies, and they are absolutely due to Allah’s ‘tawfiq’ before anything else. Systems engineering and mathematics teach us clarity in mind, as our great Muslim scholars, like Al-Khwarizmi, advised us to practise mathematics because it’s based on common sense. Practising, in the sense of applying it in our daily life – not necessarily going through mathematical examples in lecture notes. If a mathematical equation is wrong or proven to be unstable, then it would be a waste of time trying to dwell on fixing it. If we apply this approach in our life, maybe we can improve and become more productive. What I want to say here is systematic thinking is fruitful; why not make it our routine.
Part of my PhD is to read other people’s work with a “critical eye”, and just because someone published his work in a prestigious scientific journal it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s flawless. Although we believe that the Quran is flawless, but how would you, a Muslim, share this with a non-Muslim? I use this “critical eye” to the Quran and share my findings with my non-Muslim friends. Guess what? It works – not necessarily people embracing Islam, but at least having them reach a neutral state about Islam. People start appreciating you when you base your thoughts on scientific and sound theories, and of course common sense.
5) Do you have any pointers for those who are interested in pursuing your field of study?
I’ll start with quoting Einstein: he once said “I don’t remember everything but I know where to find them”. The reason I brought this up is because being involved in research requires you investing your energy in trying out different approaches/theories and examining which works best under what circumstances with trade-off analyses. Is this a scary job? Most certainly for someone who believes that he or she needs to know their theories at the back of their hands. However, this can be a relaxing, and yet more enjoyable, for someone who loves his or her field of research, and knows how to fetch information and where to implement them.
Patience is important. It might take you days or weeks to get your approach/experiment up and running, and just before getting it to work, you might be struck with a better idea that replaces all of the work you’ve done before. Nothing goes to waste. The fact that you went through a scientific experiment/exercise for the past weeks or months is a great experience by itself. Whether you obtain good publishable results out of it is a different story, but the experience is vital.
6) Balancing the demands of work life with that of family and social as well as spiritual life is a challenge. How have you managed to do this?
I use a little diary noting down my daily tasks like grocery, speak to “x”, e-mail “y”, etc.. Writing stuff down makes them stick more in my mind, but that’s a personal thing. Someone else might find it more productive using electronic diaries. One thing for sure, trying to remember everything is exhaustive; especially when your life becomes busier. Yet, if you’re certain that having all your daily tasks on your mind is more productive, by all means go for it. You have the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet .
You choose the approach. You can arrange your duties while you’re on the bus to university, or during your first coffee break, or after praying fajr. See what’s best for you and commit to it. The Prophet preferred regularity in little things more than discontinuity in large things. This can be applied to your physical exercises, committing to running twice a week and make a habit out of it is miles better than hitting the gym every day and giving up after a month or two.
I found refuge in exercising my body; I reflect on my life issues and short/long-term objectives while jogging. I mentioned sports as a tool for productivity not because it works for me, but rather because the Prophet recommended the stronger believer on top of the weak; strong in mentality and physique of course. I’m better at arranging my life in a daily basis and revise my life objectives when I’m physically satisfied.
7) Who is your role model in life and why?
It’s the last prophet of God who has been specially sent to all of mankind . Prophet Muhammad was the number one most influential figure in Michael Hart’s book. Allah testified in the Quran the great honour and manners Prophet Muhammad has been blessed with. Rationally speaking, he’s the most significantly productive person. Of course someone might disagree with me because he or she doesn’t buy the Quran being flawless or even precludes God from the whole equation. This becomes a different story now.
8) Do you have any message or values that you’d like to share with our readers?
Dear Productive Muslim readers, Allah didn’t leave us misguided. Make Him the closest to your soul, relate your life to His final revelation, get hooked to the literature His last prophet has provided us and his companions. Get used to hanging out with the good ‘ol humble people.
A believer’s greatest weapon is, indeed, his sincere supplication to Allah . This requires patience in regularity. Allah won’t give up on His slave until the slave gives up on his Master. Remember, He’s the only Master in this world, and we’ve enslaved ourselves to His will – nothing weird about this relationship, it’s ever so beautiful and does strengthen us as productive Muslims in our daily lives. If you slip, as you will many times, be assured that He awaits your return, albeit He doesn’t need you and you’re ever needy of Him.
Have no fears and become the one you’ve always wanted to be but bear in mind Allah ’s teachings and the tradition of his final prophet : this will turn you into a more productive Muslim, inshallah.