I graduated from the ʿalim program in 2006. I spent the first few years making all kinds of crazy mistakes. Although I’ve learned from my mistakes over time, I have noticed a trend. In general, a lot of ‘fresh graduates’ make the same mistakes as I did, or even worse mistakes. (Fresh graduate here includes anybody who recently graduated from any ʿalim program or BA in Islamic Studies)
I am writing this to help you avoid repeating my mistakes. The wise person is the one who learns from the mistakes of others, so they don’t have to go through the same experiences. Some of what I write here may be uncomfortable or difficult for you to digest, but it is all equally important. If you want to truly make a difference in your community, please heed the following advice:
Avoid The Popularity Game
It is very tempting to jump straight into social media and start building your following. Over the past two decades, the position of Islamic teachers in communities has rapidly changed. When I started studying Islam, Islamic studies graduates were considered lower class members of society who lived simple lives and were usually poor.
Nowadays, many Islamic Studies graduates are celebrities. They have millions of followers on social media, earn very well, and are generally looked up by their communities. I believe this is a good social change, as Islamic Studies graduates should be respected, paid well and be considered the role models of their communities.
But it does come with one major problem; a lot more youngsters are studying Islam for the wrong reason now (fame). This is a major problem and can have a negative impact on your life and Afterlife.
My advice: avoid the spotlight for the first five years after graduating. Focus instead on all the things mentioned below. A spotlight is a dangerous place where intentions can be corrupted, and mistakes made permanent. If you had to deliver a lecture full of mistakes to a private audience of 30 locals, it will be much easier to correct, than if you made the same mistake on YouTube and it went viral. Stay away until your teachers feel you are ready.
Get to know your community
If you have been away studying Islam in a foreign country for several years, you may be out of touch with your community. Coming straight back and lecturing your community on issues that may not even be relevant to them is a big mistake. Before you start writing or lecturing, spend some time getting to know your community again.
Find out their problems and struggles. Learn what the common beliefs and schools of thought in your community are. Understand their needs and hopes. Develop close relationships with them. Become a beneficial member of your society. Do all of this, and your da’wa will have a lot more impact in later years, as it will be laser-focused on the things that really matter.
Spend time with the elders
Your elders are your fortress. It is from them that you will gain access to decades of experience, wisdom, and knowledge. They have been working in your community longer than you have. They also probably understand the community and its needs much better than you do. Every moment spent in their company is blessed and beneficial. Spend quality time with time and seek their counsel in all your projects.
When you are spending time with them, take time to especially learn from their mistakes and experiences. Ask them about Fiqh positions they have changed over the years and the reasons for the change. Ask them how to engage with the community in the most beneficial manner. Consult them regarding controversial topics, and when/where to discuss them. Their experience in these areas will save you from years of crucial mistakes.
Engage with other types of Muslims
Most likely, you graduated in a specific version of Islam. You may have graduated as a Hanafī Maulana, Salafī Ṭālib al-ʿIlm, or a Mālikī Shaykh. Whatever it is, you would have learned a lot of bad things about the ‘other Muslims’. I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t believe what you learned, but at least take the time to learn for yourself from experience.
Visit the local Islamic centers of other groups, and get to know them. Learn their beliefs, practices, and ideas first hand, then make an informed decision on whether you are willing to work with them or not. Do not rely entirely on what you learned in university, because it is often inaccurate or misrepresentation of the beliefs of the ‘others’.
Many ‘fresh graduates’ assume that what they learned is the ‘haqq‘ (truth). They also believe that they are the ones who are going to purify their communities of deviants and innovations. This unrealistic way of thinking leads to community problems, unnecessary clashes, breaking off ties, and irreparable harm.
Calm down. These differences existed before you were born, and may continue to exist centuries after you have passed away. At least take the time you learn about others through personal experience before judging and condemning them. After that, make an informed decision with advice from your elders on how you are going to interact with them.
Build your experience
While you should avoid the spotlight, you shouldn’t avoid doing daʿwa (propagation) either. Instead, build your experience with grassroots level daʿwa. Teach at your local Islamic center, serve as an Imam at the Masjid, or teach at a local Muslim school. Take up a low key role similar to these and build your experience in the field of Islamic work. At least this way, any mistakes you make will affect fewer people and could be repaired.
Utilize at least the first five years after graduation to build your experience in the field. It may be better to avoid social media or public platforms altogether unless your mentors feel you are ready. However, if an opportunity pops up during this time to serve the community on the bigger scale, take it but do so with humility, sincerity and the consultation of your elders. Just remember that the bigger the platform, the harder it is to recover from your blunders.
Always have someone to keep you in your place
As you grow in knowledge, influence and maybe even fame, your Nafs (ego) will become your biggest enemy. You will find yourself constantly battling desires, arrogance, wrong intentions, and other spiritual problems. This doesn’t go away, it will remain a test for life. This is why it is very important to have sincere teachers, mentors, and friends who have your back.
Surround yourself with people who care about you, are not afraid to correct you, and who will humble you when you start developing arrogance. We all need such people in our lives to keep us grounded, and to protect us from our own selves.
Upon graduating, a lot of us are full of zeal and excitement. We can’t wait to share with our communities what we have learned, and ‘fix them’. Take a step back, breath, and give yourself space to develop. Get to know your community, understanding their needs and problems, seek advice from your elders, and stay grounded. Do this and you will accomplish far more, and your efforts will have a lot more barakah (blessings) and impact.
Oh yes, one more thing; Please get married! A young single good-looking celebrity speaker is a huge fitna (trial) in any community. 🙂