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Adjusting to University - an Islamic Perspective

Nida'ul Islam magazine, Waleed Kadous, Vice President and Secretary of the Islamic Society of UNSW

University... The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship "Education". Our continuing mission: To learn about the world, to improve our Islam and, possibly, get a job.

Seriously, though, congratulations upon getting into university. This is quite an achievement. If you didn't get in, then my comisserations; but do not forget that as Allah says: "It may be that you do not like something but it is good for you; and it may be that you like something but it is bad for you." So trust in Allah and you will never go astray.

An important thing to consider is what is different about university, and what being a Muslim at a university means and involves. For those who haven't been to University, it's a great place, but probably different to what you're used to. It is about as similar to school as a tricycle is to a tractor.

Differences from school

The most obvious difference is size in every way. It's not only physically much larger (a bonus for those who like to walk), but also has many, many more students; a typical school might have one thousand students, a typical university might have twenty thousand.

The second obvious difference is in the teaching style. At school, you are usually spoon-fed knowledge in small groups and they mark the roll in each class. Not at University. Most lecturers don't care if you attend their lectures or not; and they don't say "Copy this from the board into your exercise books", it's more likely that they will put up a slide and you can copy it if you feel it is relevant. As for class sizes, certain lectures in popular courses can be attended by as many as 1500 people. Don't expect a lot of personal attention.

The third obvious difference is in the student body. While school may be an environment which emphasises making everyone behave in a similar manner (for example by making everyone wear the same uniform); university is almost the opposite, where being different is the norm (as contradictory as it sounds!!). There are no uniforms, and provided you act within the bounds of common sense and common courtesy, people do not really care that much about what you do. Or perhaps they do care, but they're probably not going to harass you for being different; they're more likely to support you.

So what impact do these differences have?

What are the implications of the above, especially in the context of a Muslim going to University?

Because Universities are much larger, this means that they typically support a wider range of interest groups, hobbies and so on. There are usually a huge variety of clubs and societies on campus - from those related to political parties, to religious groups, to sports clubs and food clubs (one of my favourites would have to be "SpockSoc" at UNSW.

This means it is a lot easier to find people with the same interests as you. Hopefully one of your "interests" is Islam. All the large Universities have Muslims student associations. Some even have a room for prayer; perhaps even a library or an office. They vary in size, from as little as 10 to as many as 400. All are dedicated to Islam. More on Muslim student associations (MSAs) later.

Because nobody's looking over your shoulder, checking that you've been doing your homework and attending lectures, it means that you have to depend on yourself a lot more. It's no longer good enough to coast along. You need to motivate yourself. This sounds like it is trivial, but I've seen many first years make a pretty big mess of it because of this. People who used to be the top of their schools get marks in the low 50's and in some cases, fail. So, be aware of this; don't get caught out!

Finally, because of the wide variety of different ideas at University, it is easier to be an individual. This has its pros and cons as you would expect; it means you have the opportunity to be a better person and get involved in a variety of beneficial activities, but at the same time, it may mean you waste your time. There are so many things that you can do that at the beginning you just want to do it all! Also, it can lead to you being caught in the activities of groups that may lead you to things that you might later regret. Put it this way: Give it a second thought before joining BeerSoc.

Muslim Student Association

I would recommend that you get in contact with your local Muslim student association (MSA) as soon as you can (phone numbers of contact people can be found at the end of this article). They can help you in many ways.

A great place to start is Friday congregational prayer. Most MSAs hold Friday prayer on campus. Since attending Friday prayer is considered compulsory from an Islamic point of view (all prayers are compulsory, but Friday prayer in particular must be made as part of the congregation), you will not only be fulfilling your Islamic duty, but it will provide an opportunity for you to get to know your Muslim brothers. ou'll easily spot the people who run MSAs. Explain to them that you're new at the University. They'll be happy to tell you about their activities; in fact, they probably look forward to meeting new Muslims. Most of the MSAs also have some sort of membership. Becoming a member helps them in several ways: it helps them financially a little bit (most associations charge a small membership fee), it provides them with information about people who want to help with Islamic activities and it gives them leverage with the University's administration - the more members a student body has, the more it can get from the University in terms of funding and facilities for Muslims.

In return, these associations offer a wide variety of services that far outweigh the small membership fee. It varies from society to society; but at the very least, you can expect things like social events, lectures, conferences, lessons and discussions. Find out what they offer in terms of events and so on... and check their notice-boards regularly. Also get to know if they have a regular place for prayer.

MSAs can also help in many other ways. MSAs contain people from all levels of all courses; some even have lecturers as members. This is a Really Good Thing (capitalisation intentional). It means that you can ask advice from people who have "been there before". Want help deciding which subjects to choose? Ask someone who has done the course before! You'll find this is a rare opportunity; most of the time, you'll only come into contact with people in the same year. The same applies for help. You'll get to know people who have done your subjects before, and they'll be able to help you work things out in assignments and the like. Most of these people will be happy to help you.

How Should I Act as a Muslim on Campus?

Personal Responsibilities:

We've so far discussed how you may have to adjust to University, and how MSAs can help you, but there is more to being a Muslim on campus. You have certain responsibilities to yourself and to the Muslim community in general, which, no doubt, Allah will reward you for. These are very simple things to do, and they don't take much time. More than anything else, they're really about an Islamic attitude, rather than a prescriptive list of dos and don'ts.

First of all, it is important to be proud of being Muslim. So many Muslims I know hide their Islam, as if it is something to be embarrassed about. This is understandable to a certain extent, given the bad rap that Muslims get in the media today, but it doesn't make it right. There is a lot to be proud of about being Muslim: historically, the activities of the Muslims as scientists and scholars formed the basis for the European Renaissance (a debt which many historians "forget" about), as well as creating a stable, just society for more than 800 years; and morally, being Muslims means that you adhere to a set of beliefs and forms of behaviour that elevate you above those who do not adhere to to these beliefs.

Put it this way: If homosexuals can go on about "gay pride", and the thing that they are proud of is something that Islam considers an abomination; then how proud should we be, knowing that we are on the right path?

What does this imply practically? It means that I should not be ashamed to let people know of my Islamic heritage; whether it be through what I say, what I wear, what I eat, what I spend my time on or whatever. If you're going to pray, say, "Excuse me for a moment, I need to go pray to my God," instead of some made-up excuse, like "Excuse me - I need to meet someone" or the like. Be up front about it when doing your Islamic duties!

Surprisingly, this is not as difficult as it sounds. People usually approach universities with an open mind; and it is likely that they will not mind at all. It may even evoke some curiosity in some people. When I told one person the above, he said, "Gee, do you mind if I watch?" If people see you doing things diligently and with sincerity, they develop a respect for you and your religion, even if they do not believe in it.

The effects of Muslim pride are beneficial in a number of ways. Firstly, it "backs up" other Muslims on campus, who no longer feel as isolated about being Muslims. Seeing someone else who is proud to be Muslim lifts another Muslim's spirit incredibly - when I see someone wearing an Islamic T-shirt, or a sister wearing Hijaab, it still has this effect on me, and I feel like going up to them and congratulating them. Secondly, when people see Muslims being so proud, it invokes curiosity, and interest in them, which may be the door for Allah guiding them to the correct path. You will be surprised how many times you will be asked questions about Islam, without having to do anything "active".

When the opportunities do arise, inform them about Islam; in this way you will be fulfilling your obligation for Da'wah. Don't be too forceful in this, however; as it says in the Qur'an [16:125] "Invite to the Way of your Lord with wisdom, and good, well behaved teaching, and discuss with them in the best way possible." In this way, you may affect their perception of Islam. While they may not become Muslim (although these things are in the hands of Allah, and Allah guides whom He wills to the straight path), they will at least know a little more about Islam, from an authentic source, rather than from some misinformed (or even worse, deliberately misinforming) journalist.

But there is a caveat to all of this, which is: what is the point of being proud of Islam if its effects are not perceived in your actions? Muslim pride should be backed up every step of the way by the corresponding actions. There is no point talking to people about the importance of good manners in Islam if you do not follow it up with your own actions. As clich'ed as it is, "actions speak louder than words" apply particularly in this situation.

Remember that you are a walking example of Islam, and that almost everything you do in public will not only reflect on you, but also to some extent on Islam itself. You should reflect all the attributes that make you proud to be Muslim: honesty, sincerity, trustworthiness, cleanliness, politeness and so on. When people see these characteristics in you, they will not only like you as a person (which they inevitably will, unless it is a group of people the likes of whom you shouldn't be associating with in the first place), they will also be curious as to its origin; and seeing you are Muslim will now have a somewhat more positive image of Islam than they may have had before.

This also means that you should fulfil your Islamic obligations in other ways as well. For example, there is no excuse for you not to pray on campus. As we've mentioned, there are prayer rooms at most universities, and even if there aren't there are many quiet places to be found that can serve as a place to pray. There is no reason not to dress Islamically, since there are no rules about dress (other than those of the general community).

Communal Responsibilities

As well as your responsibilities at a personal level, it is always good to participate in communal activities. As we've already mentioned, there are MSAs at almost all the Universities in Australia. These should be an important component of your student life.

These MSAs have a set of goals they try to achieve. This varies from university to university, but basically these are:

* Spreading the Message of Islam throughout campus and the wider community.

* Making it easier for Muslims to be Muslims on campus by providing facilities for Muslims and lobbying the university administration on Muslims' behalf.

* Educating Muslims about their own religion.

* Defending Islam when it is attacked.

MSAs are special in that they are very multicultural, with Muslims from different parts of the world. Also, most of the members are educated, which makes it a unique Islamic environment in many ways, since these are two of the problems which seem to plague the wider Muslim community.

These MSAs are run by volunteers who probably don't have much more free time than you, so don't expect a "professional service". They put a lot of energy just into keeping MSAs running, and even more effort is involved if special events, such as talks etc are to be held.

The very least you can do to support MSAs is to show up at these events. They are probably free, and you might just learn something useful. Showing up indicates to the organisers that there are people out there interested in Islam and its message. There are few things more disheartening than putting hours and hours of effort into an event (that may even have been requested by the members) and have nobody show up (not even the people who suggested it!!) - it creates a feeling of "why do we bother" in the minds of those who put the effort in.

But that is the bare minimum that Muslims should do. There is so much more that they can help with. Most MSAs are involved in the following to a lesser or greater extent: Da'wah, education, social events, sports, cleaning and maintenance, student tutoring, special committees for sisters, student politics, publications and many others. I'm sure you'll be able to find a niche in any MSA where you will apply your skills! People running MSAs will be more than happy to help you find some way you can contribute.

Feel free to speak your mind and make suggestions; but please don't use "hit and run" technique. By this I mean that you go up to someone working for the MSA and hit them with an idea saying: "This should be done," naming something that you feel is important and then run away expecting it to be done. What you should say is: "We should do this" or "I want to do this for the sake of Islam, how can you support me?" so that you not only make a suggestion but are a critical part of following up on it.

Remember that in any association with more than one person in it, that you are going to get differences of opinion about anything, and MSAs are no different; in fact, perhaps slightly more so because of the wide variety of cultures their members come from. But it is important to remember that these differences are about how we do things, not about the underlying reasons for doing them. The key is not to let these differences of opinion damage or divide Muslims, and to keep it above the personal level, remembering that we are Muslims and that one of the defining characteristics of Muslims is that they love their brothers (the Prophet (s.a.w.) said: "One of you does not truly believe until he likes for himself what he likes for his (Muslim) brother."). Provided that we remember this, differences of opinion are healthy.

May Allah help you adjust to university life, and not to squander the opportunities present there. University, like many things, is not in itself good or bad; it is what you do there that makes all the difference. May Allah guide us all to using us for what he sees best, and may he guide us all to the correct path of action.


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