The following essay is a reflection on the phenomenon of going abroad to study Islam by a close friend of mine, Isa Abdul Haqq Dixon. A Philadelphia native, Isa gives us some important food for thought on how and why many of us feel compelled to go abroad to study, as he puts it, “REAL Islam”. I hope his words will serve as both a wake-up call to those who feel it compulsory to study abroad in order to gain “authentic” knowledge. It is also my hope to spark a rejuvenated conversation that will provide inspiration to all of us to realize that Islam can be learned, and more importantly, lived!, right here in America. Enjoy,
By Isa Abdul Haqq Dixon
As an American Muslim, most of us have these desires to go and study Islam abroad in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the religion. I had those desires ten years ago and decided to pursue them by going to study in Damascus, Syria. Going to Syria opened up my eyes to the reality of being a black man in the world. I remember when I was talking to Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller and he said to me, “If you are patient then you will benefit tremendously”. This is a true statement, but one has to ask himself, is it really worth it. I never knew how hard we had it as black people living in the past until I went overseas to study. Sometimes people ask me, “How was it living in those countries?” My response to them is usually, “It was like being in Birmingham, Alabama in 1965”. In truth it wasn’t all bad because I was actually afforded the opportunity to study with some great ‘ulama’. I also met some really nice people, the majority being from the States or England. After experiencing this culture shock, I came back to the states only to begin contemplating those same desires once again. This time I thought to myself, “Maybe that was only Syria that made me feel that way. I am sure Egypt will not be like this”. So me being a so-called student of knowledge, I purchased my tickets and moved my family to Egypt to pursue REAL Islam! Or at least this is what I thought foolishly once again, only to experience the same type of behavior from the Muslim world. While it was not quite as racist as Syria, I have to be honest and say that religiously, it wasn’t as beneficial as Syria either.
As time went past I made the decision to return to the States for good. Upon returning I found it was not as easy to find a job as it was a couple of years ago when I left. The requirements were changing within my industry and in order to compete, I had to return to college and complete additional academic studies. Now as a man, who has matured and has taken the blinders off, I can sit back and ask myself the question honestly, “Was it really worth it”? I would have to be perfectly honest and say, “no”. Going overseas to study, I believe, can be a beautiful experience for someone who is young that has his or her parents supporting them along the way. But for someone who is older, and has some major responsibilities, it is not the best road to take. Ironically, I found that in going overseas ended up studying the same information that I already learned here in the States. The only difference was that I was hearing it in Arabic. I began to realize that many people only go overseas because they want to rack up names of shuyukh on their resumes or they just cannot financially hack it living in the States. I found that the same issues that we have here in America, Muslims also have over there. The problem is that many of us don’t speak Arabic well enough that we don’t even realize what is going on over there.
Living abroad as a student is not the same as living abroad as a working man or woman. One simply does not reap the same benefits. I feel it is time for us as American Muslims to stop these delusions of grandeur, especially for us men, on the need to validate ourselves by going overseas; those days are gone. Gone too are the days of people standing in line waiting to hear scholars talk about Islam in Madison Square Garden or when people would purchase Islamic lectures on tape at the store, blasting them out their car window, riding in their cars. It is time for us to grow up and realize that Islam can be learned anywhere. One does not need to go thousands of miles away from home to study about madhabs or tasawwuf. As American Muslims, particularly African-Americans, we don’t have much financially going for us and thus must constantly rely on immigrant Muslims to build our religious institutions and environments for us. In essence, we have excluded ourselves from the building process of Islam in America by spending our formative years either overseas or in dreams of doing so. We have to be honest with ourselves: ”If you are not a student of knowledge here, then you will not be one elsewhere”. To build a Muslim community requires Muslim scholars, doctors, sociologists, computer programmers, teachers, accountants, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, lawyers and a whole cadre of other skills and talents. Dr. Sherman Jackson put is best when he said,
“We need all professions to build a strong functional Muslim community”.
Let’s start practicing the religion and stop preaching it. If you cannot help build a community where you are, move somewhere else and help them do it there. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf advised us,
“Don’t wait for an event to change. You have to change now”.
The reality is either you are going to be part of the solution or part of the problem. You decide where you stand!