I write this in the hope that you’ll understand some important points about deen at university. We’ve also been (western) British university students and experienced what it means and life after it. The purpose of elders is to help you understand things, a bit like a cheat sheet, so you can take the most efficient, productive way forward. So the following is important to keep in mind:
1. You are probably 18-23 years old. 99% of you do not know Classical Arabic. 99% of you have not studied the scriptures nor the Law of God. You have more knowledge of the subjects you studied at GCSEs than you do Islam, so logically your opinion on deen is severely underdeveloped. What you do have is inherited culture and the preachings of populists (which is little deen and more self-interest). The vast majority of yesteryears university students find that most of what they think they stand for as students, whether religious or political, they deeply question by the end of their 20s.
2. Subservience to God isn’t academic, it’s life. The Sahabah didn’t debate, they lived their imaan throughout the day. Not only are you young but very much inexperienced with life, some of you are living on your own for the first time in your lives (and even then cushioned by campus life or student loans). Others have still not ever had to take care of themselves as independent adults without the parental safety net. In the next two decades (and especially as your kids grow into teenagers) you will learn and experience much joy and pain that will shape you into very different human beings – you’ll hopefully growing in intelligence, sensibleness and maturity. Everything will change: your religious views, your political views, your social views. (If you are) Don’t be so sure about everything, in fact don’t be so sure about anything. Be open to growth and development, revising your views, primarily that which makes you a better and radiant human being. If what you’re doing/thinking/saying isn’t making you nicer, kinder, more polite, gracious and a deeper thinker, it’s not “truth”, it’s a problem. Your debates are not actual debates, they’re banter – uninformed competing opinions. This isn’t just you, we were very much the same! The greatest thing you can adopt at university is intellectual humility – it’ll help you to grow and be amazing.
3. Often you are being played by competing sectarian and political interests. Your salafism or sufism is meaningless and the entire conversation is superficial. What you think is an exhibition of profound shar’i knowledge really isn’t – it is a mishmash of a few verses or hadith, nothing wholesome nor a complete picture. But it works on you and you think it’s “truth” because you know little. It’s been this way for DECADES and has severely limited the experiences of many students before you, or shaped them in unproductive ways where they struggle later on in life.
4. Many ‘speakers’ who advise you on life have never lived yours. They didn’t go to British universities. They didn’t even grow up in your context or western environments (and still don’t!). They have no idea of your experiences, not the ones you live everyday nor those that you will face. They’ve never worked or competed in the environments you will have to. They have no idea how to competently and confidently negotiate tricky situations (so they teach you to run away!). Many of them have yet to grow up themselves – they operate in insular bubbles where juvenile debates take place that are absolutely irrelevant to actual life. They rope you into bizarre and useless feuds and arguments impeding your space and time to grow into highly decent, intelligent and emotionally resilient human beings. You have gone to university to learn – you don’t need ideologues, you need highly educated, informed and experienced cultivators. When you leave university your job is to take godliness into the world informed by divine guidance. Often what you get in university are a bunch of talking points: either practically useless, or progression impeding. Many of these speakers are simply looking to boost their social media profiles, they have no idea how to cultivate you for the future. Or they’re caught up in their own sectarian projects they impose on you. It’s about what YOU need for the future, not the superficial nonsense they’re caught up in today.
5. Focus on Quranic literacy and the skills that will develop your character. Pay attention to Quranic stories and parables. Leave legal debates to jurists. Aqidah will get you absolutely nowhere except probably make you a horrible person, and keep your fiqh differences to yourself – focus on perfecting practice of God’s Law rather than pontificating. Get to know the Quran like you’re meant to know your course texts. You have 3-4 years to be literate. Learn Arabic if you can. Only engage in positive conversation, and avoid negativity. Understand that social media will not help you grow as a human being – there’s a crisis looming: in the future people are going to find themselves emotionally and intellectually messed up in all sorts of ways because they developed on a staple of social media content. Yes, it’s great for entertainment but terrible for cultivating sound minds and hearts.
6. You don’t have to be contrary, behave weird, or express ethno-cultural difference to everyone else. Practice being tawhidic shar’i-minded westerners. University is a great diverse place, so whilst you will inevitably have differences to other non-believers, you can be a committed and stout believer and still fit in without forcing your difference or making it an identity point. It’s a great place to learn the art of diplomacy and negotiation. This way you can be confident about who you are, whilst being affable with your environment instead of abrasive.
7. University is not LIFE (even though it may feel like it lol). You’re only there for a few years – you’re not going to start some global revolution! And all the talking points today will immediately fade after graduation. Your concerns will turn to marriage, rent, career and social life. But you’ll make some great friends, possibly your future spouse, and carry your university experiences with you. Make them the type that positively launch you into actual life – not the myopic and narrow interests of those using you.
I wish you all the very best and hope you grow to be the intelligent and progress-oriented believers I know you can, that serve God and bring about the outcomes God wanted for all of us. The future will be yours and we’ll be gone – we want you to do far better than we could.
Sh Mohammed Nizami