The American Muslim Journey – Reflections By A Former Student of Knowledge

isa-dixonThe 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!

18 Replies to “The American Muslim Journey – Reflections By A Former Student of Knowledge”

  1. Going overseas is not about just gaining book knowledge which can technically happen anywhere. Going overseas is is about being in the company of great men, not being distracted by your environment, being immersed in the language, and strengthening your iman by being among the Muslims. Azan, halal food and all the other benefits of the society should affect you. In addition it’s scientifically proven that when people travel they learn more because they are not distracted and because they are in a new environment. I see much benefit to go overseas. I’m sorry you’re not able to find a job. Sometimes I think about starting a company that will help scholars market themselves properly and connect them to Masjids. One possible solution is to come to Hartford seminary and get yourself a degree in Islamic chaplaincy. I did the opposite of what you did I started the secular route first but I hope to get traditional studies next. Thank you for your insights please make dua for me. I come to Philadelphia often and I hope to meet you soon.

  2. Salaams, Sami. I’m not sure if you understood the brother’s post. He has a job. He was merely expressing the fact that by going overseas one may find oneself in hardship upon return. This was true in light of the change in the American economy where a good job was not as easy to find. Secondly, Isa was pointing out a fact seldom discussed and that is the lack of support many indigenous, particularly African-American Muslims have, when going abroad, and especially upon returning.

    All of the above items you listed can be had in America: “language, strengthening your iman by being among the Muslims, Azan, halal food.” In fact, I find it amusing that you would list halal food (which simply means food that is permissible to eat) as a reason to travel thousands of miles away. If you can’t find a “permissible meal” to eat in America, there’s something seriously wrong with how and where you’re looking to eat.

    I agree with the “scientifically proven” remark. However, one can travel hundreds, if not thousands of miles in America to learn Islam (and still be in continental America!). I myself learned sufficient mastery over the Arabic language completely in America. While my story may be somewhat unique, I do believe it is repeatable.

    Our iman is strengthened by being with the Muslims: American Muslims! I have a deep cosmopolitan sense of belonging and commitment to the Ummah of Muhammad (PBUH), but I don’t need to go to a special place in order to feel that.

    The Azan is probably the most of what I do miss about the Muslim world. I’ll give you that one, but again, not enough of a reason to travel.

    Halal food: no need to repeat myself here. The world is one’s proverbial halal oyster.

    But the meat and bones of what Isa is talking about is dispelling the myth of going overseas. It is not that he is suggesting there is no benefit (per his remark: In truth it wasn’t all bad because I was actually afforded the opportunity to study with some great ‘ulama’.) but that a person, particularly indigenous Americans, need to do a cost-benefit analysis before setting sail. Yes, please look me (or us!) up when you next visit Philadelphia.

  3. Al-Hamdullilah, the world is getting smaller due to technology so Americans don’t have to pack their families up and move them to Yemen or Egypt. Many people I know who did this are very bitter about this experienced as it either cost them their spouse or dignity. It’s not easy being called “‘abd, qird, bandar” (slave/monkey) on a daily basis to sit with shuyukh who may harbor the same feelings as the racist people in these places.

    Without the protection of my Yemeni wife’s tribe, I wouldn’t go there because it’s a dangerous place for foreigners. At the end of the day, the same knowledge can be learned with some of the initiatives by sheikh Kutty, Nouman Ali Khan, Imam Zaid Shakir, or Hamza Yusuf Hanson, Muhammad alShareef or even my teacher, Imam Safi Khan, etc. in North America.

    Studying in the US may not be as glamorous and there maybe no adventures to brag about but this saves a lot of heartache and protects the wife and kids who get abused in foreign environments.

  4. Many I have seen go overseas to seek validation instead of seeking Allah. There are teachers and men of Allah that can teach from basic aqeedah to usool ul fiqh and tafsir right here in the States. They just have to be sought out and benefitted from.

  5. Could it be that immigrants coming from overseas are ruining the possibilities for American workers to make a decent living in our own country? Did immigrants benefit more from the Civil Rights movement thatn African-Americans, since as a result of the movement, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act was lifted, therefore, opening the floodgates for Muslims immigrants to come to America. This “knowledge” that we hope to acquire from overseas, is it helping us to combat violence in our inner cities, drug abuse, and educational disparities in low income communites?

  6. I agree with all the basic points, and would just add that each individual needs to do their research, prayer and proper preparations before coming to the decision to travel for knowledge. Realize that you can do the basic sciences pretty much anywhere and then, if you want to, go further and specialize you can travel elsewhere if need be. But keep in mind that you must cultivate that knowledge and good habits at home – otherwise if it’s all done overseas, you will probably struggle to keep it up when you return home, so I have heard. It’s important to never lose touch with who YOU are, your culture, and your people – after all, they are the best people you can serve and offer da’wah to. But going overseas can be good to meet amazing people, teachers, learn a great deal – if you are already a proven diligent student with good study habits – and it can actually be easier to pay your way or make a living while studying, if you live where the cost of living is low… In sha’Allah 🙂 and Allah knows best!

  7. Going overseas can be a spiritual awakening of sorts. Some Muslims have the view that if they go “there” they will practice “true” Islam: Looking for men in white thawbs; sitting under a tree delivering daily sermons. Just to go and find although the facilities and transportation maybe somewhat antiquated, the people are dealing with same issues we are here. The difference being masjids instead of churches. No one is there to hold your hand or to guide you into obedience. That’s an effort one must make where ever he is. This realization may deepen ones understanding that if you are going to practice you have to practice where ever you are. Furthermore, if one doesn’t have the correct intention it really doesn’t matter where he is. His deed maybe rendered baseless. May Allah give us the correct intention and rectify our affairs. Ameen good article brother. 😉

  8. Really agree with this post. You can gain a lot just being in the West. Going abroad should only be the icing on the cake. Traditionally, a person would gain what they had within their own locality before moving off to other lands. Plus, usually it’s students of knowledge who are the best teachers in the earlier part of the journey because the basics are the same for everyone (you don’t need to learn from scholars in the initial stages). Once you’ve gained a firm grounding going abroad makes sense, because by then you will have the knowledge and background to benefit from the eminent scholars. It’s time we take benefit from those who are around us, irrespective of their popularity.

  9. My humble advice: If you hope to study overseas, specify a goal for yourself. To memorize the Qur’an with proper tajwid, or become fluent in Arabic, or cover a set of texts with a teacher, or simply rejuvenate your iman, etc. Without this goal in mind, it is like asking a college student about his major, and he responds: “I’m just here to learn – no degree, no major, no post-college plans.” Very honorable, but not very practical – and I wonder how beneficial.

  10. Many of us converts leave the States and other countries to find what we believe to be our ideal of the Muslim world only to find out that we don’t really fit in, and most likely will never fit in. At the end of the day, we are American, Canadian, British etc… We have a real opportunity not realized by the modern Muslim community in the East, we are more similar to the Sahaba, branching out into non-Muslim lands, and spreading Islam through our beliefs, service, good character and ethics. As mentioned above, we have scholars and institutions rising, Zaytuna, Seeker’s Guidance (free by the way) to help us gain knowledge right in the Middle of North America; no need to leave our borders.

  11. I am an American raised, Mexican born convert to Islam. Four years ago I met and married my Arab wife. I always wanted to marry an Arab because I felt it would allow me to truly discover my deen through language, tarbiya etc. Five years in and two sons later I can tell you that I love my wife and her parents and siblings and they HAVE made me a better Muslim. But not as I thought they would. I have discovered that my wife’s family, like many Arabs both here in the US and in the Arab World are culturally Muslim but aware often time just aping what “they found their parents doing”. I am an orphan monotheist. I don’t come from a religious tradition that is syncopated with my culture. I’ve had to scrape and work for every bit of knowledge about my deen. The result, and all comes from God, is that I believe I follow a more informed and transparent understanding of Islam than my in-laws. While the Muslim countries have their ‘ulama’, I don’t think there is anything that is worth traveling over seas to learn that cannot be learned here on American soil. Everyone loves to ooohh and aaahhhh over Hamza Yusuf’s stories about Murabit Al Hajj, but nobody wants to buckle down, weather in a suburb in Texas or a housing project in New Jersey and do the spiritual scrubbing to become Murabit Al Hajj. I respect everyone who has gone out to foreign places to seek knowledge, but I think more often then not, coming from an American context, it is time wasted.

    Lastly, if anyone wants a solid Islamic education from, for free, and master Arabic, Usul and a host of other subjects from an ijaza-holding scholar who is also a corn-fed, Mid-westerner, then you need not travel any farther than Houston, Texas, and enroll yourself in the Sunna Institute. Classes are taught for free (also free room and board) by my own teacher, Shaykh Naeem Abdulwali.

  12. Thank you, Marc. I really appreciate your blog. We have yet to have an accredited seminary that teaches orthodox sunni Islam in the U.S. partly because most of the teachers do not have PhDs in this context so they can’t easily get accreditation from WASC. It’s not credible to say: “I took a few classes from Seeker’s Guidance, or al-Maghrib institute, or I memorized a few juz’ with my Skype teacher. Will you as a masjid employ me as your Imam?” You can’t even get an honest job as a professor in any college without a degree from an accredited institution.

    We – Muslims – have to bite the bullet and get degrees from institutions that are “too liberal” or “too Western” (I hate that word but you get my point) or not 100% in accordance with orthodox Islam if we want to build institutions. There is no other way. You need to have one foot in each door to make an impact. Once the knowledge is easily accessible and the route is clear, the students will come in flocks within the U.S. We will get there, but until then I personally find it hard to criticize people who still travel overseas. They are still the first employed.

  13. Thoughtful post and good of you to share it with all of us. I only take shape with the characterization of African Americans as poor and inept by the writer. I’m sure he didnt quite mean it that way but it did come across as such. 20 to 25% of African Americans are middle class. Among African American Muslims I know, the vast majority are well education and professional. This may be my own subjective experience but the “Dr” section of my phone contacts is pretty extensive not to mention other professionals. Dr Akbar Muhammad, a faqi who studied at Azhar, advised us vigorously to study Islam in places that we would implement the knowledge. Makes sense to me. To quote Dr Umar Faruq Abd-Allah “Islam is like a crystal clear river. Its waters are pure, sweet, and life-giving but have no color of their own – reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow.”

  14. Same song, same tune, different station… This really isn’t that complex. Preschool, elementary school, junior high, high school, university, post graduate, and PhDs can’t be learned in the same place. If you are an adult it is quite unrealistic and totally naive to thing you can be a full time student anywhere. Real qualities of patience brotherhood steadfastness etc are only learned when confronted with difficulty and as such while I agree knowledge can be obtained here there are so few institutions for doing so this just like going to study to find yourself is way too reactionary and misplaced.

  15. SubhanAllah I am a revert and an African American sister and I used to think you had to travel over seas to learn “true” Islam but Alhamdullilah I met sister Reima Yosif and have been her student for many years now right here in the states. Allah SWT wouldn’t leave us without giving us beautiful teachers wherever we may be. The middle east is not the only place to aquire knowledge….

  16. This reflection is right on time. My husband is a product of studying abroad. He spent 5 or 6 years memorizing the entire Qur’an in Senegal, West Africa. His experience left him with the desire for our children to follow in his footsteps. If he had gone to a country where the majority of the people don’t look like him (i.e., pale skin/arab features) his experience might have been marred by discrimination and racism. Aside from becoming a hafidh, he believes the greatest benefit of his time there was learning proper adab and contentment. That is what is lacking in our American communities for sure. Of course there are exceptions, but the majority of our children, whether African American or other wise have a deficit in this department. Our intention, inshallah, is to allow our children the cultural experience of living overseas while learning Qur’an, but not with the outlook that they have to travel abroad in order to learn “proper/real” Islam.

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