New Semester, Same Old Struggles Written By: Anonymous
There's a sort of dread that fills my lungs as I prepare myself for the start of a new semester that already feels like it began eons ago. We are two weeks into a semester that I have no idea how to wrap my head around nor how to prepare for, given everything happening in the world and in the microcosm of the worlds we have created in our own minds.
I packed my bags with fresh notebooks and a fully charged laptop, filled my pencil case with new pens of hope and faith that this semester would be different; that I would keep an open, optimistic mind to the endless possibilities of learning that a fresh semester brings with it. I remember, wistfully now, but with great joy looking at the prospect of a blank agenda with pages that I had the permission to draw on in whatever colours, fonts, and styles that I wanted. For a brief moment, I almost believed in the illusion of tabula rasa.
We do not however begin with a blank slate just because the digit at the end of the year changed or because the semester has a whole set of new professors, new classmates and new courses on a completely new schedule. I have been struggling with this for a while because I believed in the magic and miracles of starting things afresh until I realized that we are all creatures of habits. The day, year or semester changing does not indicate true change until we decide to transform ourselves. The thing with self-transformation is though, it is the slowest and most challenging process because even when we are unhappy with our states of affairs, the energy required to change our lives around simply does not exist.
It got me thinking then how someone like me, who has felt like they are ashes scattered to the wind after the emotional, physical and existential burnout of the last semester, needs to evolve their patterns slowly until I build a healthier lifestyle. I am now working to understand myself better, understand my capacities better and also show myself grace and compassion to allow myself to make mistakes. This has been extremely challenging for me because I have often turned to others to show me empathy when I myself fall into a self-deploring cycle of anger and exhaustion.
A video I watched a while ago helped me remember that I am responsible for replacing new, desirable habits with old, unhelpful habits to build new patterns. Habits essentially are decisions that I no longer have to manually make, because the patterns leading up to those behaviours have become automatic through practice. I began to make a list of habits I want to include in my life and habits that were detrimental to me and started making an intention to work on what I could. Intention has been at the heart of my evolution because it connects me to Allah SWT and centers me in the accountability that Allah SWT cares and He is watching over me as Ar-Raqeeb (The All-Observing).
I am scaling an upwards Everest in this pursuit but reframing has been pivotal to my experience of the semester. I am realizing that the change I have been miraculously hoping for has to come from within and as a function of the changes I intentionally make in my own life and mindset. This is not an easy journey but I hold onto the faith that it is worthwhile and necessary if we hope to have sustainability in our own lives as we brace ourselves against the violence we see happening in the world. It is not an easy feat to carry on with normalcy when there is no such thing as 'normal' in the current sociopolitical climate. I pray that everyone has a fruitful and successful semester and that the troubles of the world, both on a personal and global level evaporate by His infinite mercy, Ameen!
All my childhood, I sat on my prayer mat with tears in my eyes pleading Allah SWT for a best friend that truly understood me. A best friend that was similar to me in faith. I asked Allah SWT for an Iraqi Shia girl, just like me, in the hopes that I would never have to over-explain myself again. A girl that I could call sister and have sleepovers with. A friendship that would last in this life and the next. My heart desired a community, and Allah SWT brought me an abundance of love and faith through the beautiful people He has put in my life.
The majority of my childhood was spent in waiting for the right moment my parents would send me to Camp Taha—a Muslim camp in Michigan. The anticipation burned inside of me seeing my cousins and brothers attend each summer. Their stories and transformations made me yearn for a place I had not seen for more than a few minutes. I remember, in times where my family would drive down to visit my brother, the camp felt so large because my frame was so small.
The summer after the fifth grade I gladly informed my class I would be attending Camp Taha. My parents simply agreed because my eldest cousin said she would take care of me. At this time, my cousins were old enough to be camp counselors. Other than her, I knew no one else attending, and so the woods would offer me the challenge of making new friends.
The human being was created from haste. I will show you my signs so do not be hasty! Surat Al-Anbiya (21:37)
Allah (SWT) advises us in the Qur’an about the nature of the human being. As an engineer, whenever anything breaks, my first instinct is to go to the manual. The Qur'an is the manual of life, the manual for society and of all existence. Currently, the world feels like it’s falling apart. So, I did what my instincts demanded and I checked the manual, the Qur’an. So much of the current crisis in Palestine was put into perspective for me, and while it still pained me a great deal to see my brothers and sisters suffering, I understood why the Palestinians themselves haven't lost hope yet. To try and understand the tenacity of the Palestinians there is an obvious solution: we check the Qur'an and the Seerah (Biography of the Prophet).
The Prophet (SAW) and his companions faced a very dark time during the Meccan da'wah(invitation to Islam) period. When the Quraysh realized that the monotheism that the Prophet (SAW) was calling for would force them to reform their corrupt lifestyles, they lashed out and persecuted any who dared follow his message. To protect their privilege, they tortured the weak amongst the companions of the Prophet (SAW). The Sahabah(companions of the Prophet (SAW))were resilient and they were the best of humanity; however they were still human. Khabab Ibn Arat (RA) was a slave blacksmith, a valuable resource to any slave-owner. His owner was a cruel woman, and when he (RA) embraced Islam, she tortured him using his own tools. He (RA) was beaten with the metal bars that he would forge. Coals from the blast furnace would be pressed against his back to the point where his skin would melt off. When, understandably, Khabab (RA) eventually complained to the Prophet (SAW), the Prophet responded: "Among the nations before you a (believing) man would be put in a ditch that was dug for him, and a saw would be put over his head and he would be cut into two pieces; yet that (torture) would not make him give up his religion. His body would be combed with iron combs that would remove his flesh from the bones and nerves, yet that would not make him abandon his religion. By Allah, this religion (i.e. Islam) will prevail till a traveler from Sana (in Yemen) to Hadramaut will fear none but Allah, or a wolf as regards his sheep, but you (people) are hasty." (Sahih al-Bukhari 3612)
There is a lot to unpack in this hadith. First, the Prophet (SAW) is implying that in the suffering there is benefit. Certainly, with hardship there is ease (94:6). When a human is tried and tested over and over again, they learn and become stronger. Bad times create strong humans. If there is no reason to get stronger, the human will not expend energy to become stronger. It's evolutionarily unwise to do so. He (SAW) also gave hope to the companions by telling them that their efforts are not in vain. Their success will be so great there will be peace in the entirety of the Arab lands. To put this statement into context, consider the following: at that point, Islam probably had fewer than 20 adherents and the Arabian peninsula was ravaged by raiders, thieves and tribal disputes. The success he (SAW) describes is unprecedented and seems unattainable. Finally, the Prophet (SAW) inspires them through examples of people who lived in the previous nations; he (SAW) reminds them that although that man had his flesh separated from his bones, he did not give up his religion, and thus attained Jannah (paradise). He (SAW) reframes the situation for them, and he clarifies the reality of what they are seeking. Worldly success is worth striving for, but the reward in the next life is better and everlasting.
The Prophet (SAW) also mentions a key component of the human being. He (SAW) tells the companions (RA) "but you are hasty.” Allah in the Qur'an mentions the verse, "the human being was created from haste, I will show you my signs so do not be hasty." (21:37) Being hasty is an ingredient in the creation of the human being. As human beings, we are intrinsically hasty. Think about the common statements of a child: "Are we there yet?" or "But I don't want to do my homework, I want ice cream now!" As we grow up, we learn to tame that impatience and as we tame it, we become more mature. We become capable of delaying gratification and of self-sacrifice. Allah (SWT) has promised us that He will show us his miracles, in this world and the next; we should strive to stay in a state where we are able to delay and sacrifice for the sake of Allah (SWT).
One of the best ways to get into the mindset of delaying our worldly pleasure for the hereafter is simply to remember the next world. Not a page of the Qur’an passes by without the mention of death or the next world. Ar-Rabee' Ibn Khuthaym was one of the Tabi'een, a member of the generation after the Sahabah. He was known to have dug a grave inside his own living room, and when he felt like he was too attached to the dunya (the world), he would sit in the grave in the dark and picture himself having just died. He would repeat the verse in the chapter of Surat al-Mu'iminoon, "My Lord take me back!" (23:99). This ayah(verse) describes the state of someone who dies in a state of heedlessness. What a chilling thought! To die without having prepared for the next life! It's the stomach churning feeling of walking into an exam completely unprepared, magnified a million times. How can we prefer the dunyawhen this is the reality? This is a test that we can't afford to procrastinate for.
Everything in this world is a test and every test is an opportunity to draw closer to Allah (SWT). Our brothers and sisters in Gaza are facing a grave trial and In Sha Allah, they are being accepted as martyrs and witnesses testifying that that there is no God but God. However, we always need to reflect on our own condition. Living our Western lifestyles, filled with decadence and luxuries, we are also being tested. Whilst our trial isn't as stark and brutal, it's insidious and has the ability to destroy us, both in this world and the next. When we are resurrected on the final day, we will be questioned, “why did you allow your brothers and sisters to be oppressed?” Can we truly say that we tried everything in our power to return safety and security back to the lands of the Muslims? Subhan’Allah, we go out on the streets, protest and yell for a few hours, then go home feeling that we have already liberated The Holy Land. We quickly forget that the occupation of Palestine isn't just a problem right now, it's been a problem that we have neglected as an Ummahfor decades. It's not enough to send thoughts and prayers. It's not enough to send relief and aid. It's not enough to advocate for our rights. All of these avenues should be taken, but they are not enough! If we are simply seeking to soothe our guilty conscience for living a life of luxury while our brothers and sisters suffer, then we can stop our action here. However, disciplined and consistent work needs to be done in our homes, communities and nations to develop ourselves and our institutions. In our current state, most Muslims study and work, and their highest aspiration is simply to fill their bellies. We need to be far more ambitious. We need to develop ourselves not just in religion, but in everything we do. As Muslims, we should be world leaders in science, politics, advocacy and business so as to claim our rights, not simply ask for them. Living in this land of freedom and security, we are given the opportunities to do that; we just need to overcome ourselves.
In the Qur'an, we see an example of how an oppressed nation was freed. The children of Israel had been enslaved by the Pharaoh. He kept them in humiliation and weakness, slaughtering their male newborns every second year to quell the demographic threat. Musa (AS) was not raised under the yoke of the Egyptian people, rather he was raised as a prince in the palace of the Pharaoh. He was educated, he was taught the arts of leadership, statecraft, and everything else that a prince might learn. Furthermore, he was raised by two amazing women: his biological mother, a woman who was so close to Allah (SWT) that she received inspiration from Him, and his adopted mother, the wife of the Pharaoh, a woman who was also divinely guided to the point where she is mentioned in the Qur'an (66:11). With this combination of worldly knowledge learned in the palace and spiritual knowledge acquired from his mothers, Musa (AS) challenged the Pharaoh. We as Muslims living in the West are like Musa (AS) living in the Pharaoh's palace. Musa (AS) understood that his luxurious lifestyle was built on the backs of his oppressed brothers and sisters. He (AS) always remained grateful and strove to give back to the community that enabled his success. He (AS) used the talents he developed in the Pharaoh's palace to eventually challenge the oppressor and free the oppressed.
It's natural to feel despair about what is happening in Palestine. However, we need to recognize that our despair comes from our hasty nature. There is hope even in this dark time, the narrative around the world is changing and the veil of propaganda is being pierced. As Muslims, we have the numbers, but we are weak because of our love of the dunya. This weakness allows foreign nations to help themselves to our nations the way people help themselves to food at a dinner table. To overcome this weakness, we must disconnect from worldly pleasures and constantly be in a state of remembrance of the Akhirah(afterlife). Always remember what is at stake; not just the land of Palestine, not just the lives and well-being of several million people, but our entire eternity in the hereafter. As Muslims, we need to follow the Qur'an and have a longer term vision for not just liberating Palestine, but for uplifting the entire Ummah. Every individual will be questioned according to their capacity and we need to get to a state where we are able to truly and sincerely tell Allah (SWT) on the last day "Yes Allah, I did everything I could."
I am an undergraduate student in Toronto and I will never forget the moment I got an email from the university declaring that classes are going to be delivered remotely starting next week. That same morning at 9 am, I was on campus attending a tutorial for one of my classes. I didn’t want to go because of the looming news about how quickly COVID19 was spreading the past few days, but I also thought that it can’t be a huge issue as the classroom is not always full, so I should be fine. Besides, tutorials are mandatory and I needed the mark.
I sat at the back, away from the other students, completed my quiz, and was picked up to go home. Later that day, I had a biology exam that I had spent the last week studying for. I was going home to do some more studying before returning to campus. Then, 2 hours before the exam was to start, right as I was leaving my house to go to campus, I see the email; “Exam has been postponed”. To say that I was upset is an understatement. I went on a furious rant with my friends about how hard I studied for this exam and how prepared I was - how was I going to remember the anatomy of a crocodilian heart or blood circulation of fetal mammalian hearts by the time they figure out the next appropriate exam date?
As I sulked in my room, Allah’s words popped into my head, “…But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.” (Quran 2:216)
My anger subsided and I reviewed my notes daily to keep things fresh. I grew accustomed to my new life in quarantine with my family and made witty remarks about how my introverted self can live her best life now that I can stay home all day long.
But two weeks later, I grew tired and bored of staying home. Netflix wasn’t as fun as it used to be and TikTok was just a mindless void I fell into whenever I was bored (which was quite often). I felt trapped and it was as if my country had grounded me for a month in my room. I felt like I had no freedom because I was being forced to stay home.
But suddenly, subhanallah, I focused my attention on how much freedom I did have. I realized how selfish I was being. I have access to warm, running water. I can eat or order whatever food I want. I have a roof over my head. I can trust my government and trust that I am safe in my own home. I have access to the internet so I can connect with my friends and family whenever I feel lonely. The reality is, I am so privileged and I never realized it until now.
The plight of the Kashmiris has been on my mind constantly. They live in fear of prosecution because of their religious beliefs. They have limited freedom of movement, of internet, of speech. It’s not just about the lack of entertainment, but of whole livelihoods being put on pause. According to NY Times, pharmacists couldn’t restock supplies and social media use was banned. Countries that are at war such as Syria fear for their lives, for their children, every single day. Going to school is as big of a risk as it can get and food insecurities are highest in war-torn parts of the country. But here I am on my comfy bed in Canada whining about the lack of freedom I have.
No one is perfect, we all fall into dark pits sometimes. We shouldn’t blame ourselves for having negative thoughts and for questioning ourselves once in a while. I personally take these moments and turn them into self-reflections, coming up with ways to better myself as a Muslim and citizen. We shouldn’t be scared to share our feelings with friends we trust because doing so allows us to dig deep within ourselves and uncover hidden thoughts that we keep even from ourselves. I learned to empathize with people who are in much worse situations than me and educated myself on their plight. I donated to causes which are fighting COVID19 and donated to rehabilitation efforts in war torn countries. It seems there always is light at the end of every tunnel.
I reflected on the ni’mah I do have from Allah and learned to stop taking what I have for granted. Now that we are in the midst of the Holy month of Ramadan, I urge us to give to those who have less and to take a few minutes out of our day to reflect on little blessings we enjoy every day – the ability to walk to the fridge and eat fresh fruit, the ability to learn from free courses online, the ability to say salaam to our family every day.
I completed an online course taught by Professor Steve Joordens of the University of Toronto and he remarked that during this time, we should be physical distancing, but becoming socially closer. In essence, this is part of our duty as Muslims, to check up on our neighbours, our friends, our family. And now more than ever, it is essential we practice social closeness. Quarantine, as bad as it seems, not only made me a better Muslim, but it made me an empathetic human being. This just goes to show that Allah truly is the best of planners. https://www.coursera.org/learn/manage-health-covid-19/home/welcome https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/technology/india-kashmir-internet.html https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/india-restores-internet-kashmir-7-months-blackout-200305053858356.html