Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My Interest in Islamic Studies - Part I: the beginning

Ever since I entered Islamic Studies, I have been having the hardest time with Muslims ever. And no one seems to understand completely--because they are not in my exact situation, because every Muslim who is pursuing Islamic Studies in the West has different experiences with it, because everyone practices and understands Islam differently, because everyone’s families are different, because everyone deals with the same situations differently. And few really understand what "Islamic Studies" means (I myself am still exploring this, so that's not to imply that I know and no one else knows), and there are many, many misconceptions about the field, as is the case with many other fields. I have therefore decided to discuss the matter here on my blog in an effort to dispel some of the misunderstandings and  to initiate a dialogue with those who cannot understand why a Pashtun Muslim female would be interested in Islamic Studies and strive to pursue it in the U.S.-- or anywhere in the West.

I thank you in advance for your readership! Please feel free to post any questions and express any feelings about it, even after I have finished with the series (a series of about three blog posts or so); you may pose your questions/comments anonymously if you'd feel more comfortable doing that.

This first blog post will be on how I got started. Part II will be on why I have decided to pursue Islamic Studies in the U.S. and not in any Muslim country like Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc. Although I do intend to study certain Islamic Studies courses in traditional Islamic institutions as well (e.g., Al-Azhar in Egypt or the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia), I have learned that a traditionally Islamic institution will not be the better option for me (again, to be explained in the next post). In Part III, I will discuss the consequences of my entering Islamic Studies, how my family/relatives/friends and many other Muslims have reacted to my decision, and how I continue to struggle with it as I explain to others what exactly I am doing and why and how either they simply refuse to understand or I am unable to explain it clearly. You see, when people ask me what I am studying and I tell them I'm doing Islamic Studies and Gender Studies, they ask why I would want to pursue Islamic Studies in the west (and many often even dare to claim to "know" my intentions). In the third post, then, I will share with my readers the struggles and consequences I continue to face, especially from Muslims who, even after I explain to them what I'm doing and why, don't seem to tire from asking, rather unpleasantly, "But why in America? Why not in Saudi Arabia?" or "What - you don't think Zakir Naik is the most brilliant, most knowledgeable Islamic scholar of our time????? You must not be studying the correct Islam, that's why." Or "WHAT?!! You mean you don't believe Shi's are not Muslims??? What kind of Islam are they teaching you?" And, my favorite one: "Are your teachers Muslims? ... Hey, do your female teachers wear hijab [cover their heads]?"
Yeah, that kinda stuff.

To put it very simply, I was aware of the consequences of my decision to pursue Islamic Studies when I decided to go for it in the beginning, but I was honestly not prepared for what it has come to: it's simply too difficult to understand myself let alone to explain to anyone else. I entered the field hoping to liberate myself intellectually and spiritually, but instead, I seem to have smothered myself.

Now, let us proceed.
I come from a traditionally conservative Pashtun Muslim family from Swat, Pakistan, who taught me the Sunni orthodox practices of Islam--or at least one understanding of it. Like many other Muslims, I was carefully sheltered from other variations of the Islamic ideology. During the last couple of years of my undergraduate study, I studied Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies, with a concentration on Islamic studies. From my own studies and from my interactions with the faculty of Islamic Studies, I  learned that there is no single interpretation of Islam, despite my initial insistence that that was so. My undergraduate and now my graduated studies have thus far granted me an enviable perspective of analyzing and interpreting the belief and behavior of different Muslims cultures and factions.  Rather than casting judgment, I have come to respect and appreciate differing viewpoints on Islam (and other religions). I decided during my last year of undergraduate that I will pursue Islamic Studies with emphasis on gender studies and Quranic exegesis, to continue appreciating my exposure to different viewpoints in this field. I can confidently say that nothing has personally liberated me more than this path, and I am both content and happy with it. In my friends' words, I glow when I talk about my field of study. :)

Making the decision to enter Islamic Studies took me several years. Until my last two years of my bachelor's, I had plans to become a medical doctor, as per my parents' wishes. Initially upon matriculating into college, I declared myself a pre-medical student with a biology major--like many other Pakistani students. However, even three years into the degree, I never experienced the passion that is essential in pursuing any field of interest. I slowly realized that entering the healthcare sector was not my dream. I then explored my interests in English, Women’s Studies, and Philosophy; yet my study of these fields, too, did not cultivate a passion within me, and I remained restive about my future objectives. During this period, I by chance took courses in Middle Eastern Studies with an Islamic Studies professor who, during our study of Islam, briefly mentioned something about the Shi'-Sunni split that sparked my interest. We discussed it further, and I decided not long after that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.  I need not remind myself or anyone else that I am deeply satisfied with the trajectory of my college education, because I have not only explored many of my own interests but I have also discovered a passion that I can pursue for a lifetime. 

At both my undergraduate and my graduate institutions, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from and work with several erudite professors, intellectuals, and scholars, all of whom are renowned experts of Islamic Studies, published authors, and internationally recognized for their contributions to the Muslim world and to academia. These personalities have taken--and continue to take-- much time to discuss and debate with me various issues in Islamic Studies and Gender Studies and have thus carefully nurtured my intellectual curiosity and encouraged me to explore, without inhibition, important questions such as gender in Islam or the clash of culture with the Islamic dogma. I owe them lifetimes of gratitude.

I am deeply unsettled by the small percentage of Muslim female scholars within Islamic studies despite remarkable progress within the field. I want to explore disparities in the notion of authority in Islam and study exactly the influence of the low participation of female Muslim scholars on both the current situation and future directions of Islam and Muslims. One way we can encourage large involvement by all in the field of Islamic studies is by studying Islam from various possible viewpoints. Towards this objective, I want to study the essence of Muslimhood and its evolution throughout time and the development of various branches of Islam developed with their unique interpretations as well as to understand their theological justifications. I am convinced that if more Muslims studied Islam from a different perspective, the Muslim world will be able to achieve the long-awaited unity and, perhaps, even peace. (I have discussed this in another piece, entitled "On the Intellectual Mutilation of Today's Muslims.")

Exploring in-depth topics in Islamic Studies has opened various avenues for me and the field is as intriguing as it is massive.  I look forward to research on Pashtuns and other Muslims, expanding the projects I have already initiated [discussed in the larger version of this piece as well as throughout this blog]. I am confident that I have more to offer to Islamic Studies than to any other field, something that gives me a reason to be enthusiastic about not only my own future but the future of Islamic Studies as well.


  1. Bibi Ayesha was one of the most respected and most knowledgeable scholars of our faith. Too often I see women with strong opinions on superficial crap and sheep like opinions on religion and politics.

    There will be naysayers with every thing you do. Keep chugging along and do your thannng.

    1. Indeed! Thank you :) That was good to hear!

    2. Hey,I came across your blog whilst searching for some random Islamic studies unis .I know it's been years since this post but would U mind sharing your experience on studying this course? I'm thinking of pursuing Islamic studies degree but not sure where to study etc, do U have any advice to give? 😊😊

  2. Bravo!! I'm proud of you! always been :P but I didn't know you wanted to be a doc too :) my story is similar to yours, just that when I found I was passionate about this than that or any other thing I was told "Studying Islam and Qur'an? honey you still got time for it, you can do it even after marriage (like really.) at home (at home? why not at a university?)." and what can a girl do with a degree in Islamic Studies, oh, wait, there's a degree? :O sigh. And of course I was going to study in UAE, I love the place that's all :) and people would have less stuff to complain about.

    You go girl! :D complete your PhD and keep going. I'll have to wait till I graduate and become a "doctor" to study what I always wanted to study. Don't listen to'em stupid people around you :/ they're the same everywhere. Gets worse if they're strict sunnis ;) oh, learning Qur'an at home or neighborhood or females only colleges and classes are fine btw :P :(

    I do not know of any Muslim female scholar from here :S

    1. Faffu meri jaan! If you don't open this blog of yours, I will be totally hurt! #BIGsadFACE

      Yeah, I did pre-med courses and all and I was sooo sure I'd become a doctor like no doubt about it and all. And then I met Islamic Studies and I found real love! :D Gender Studies alone couldn't satisfy me (neither could Islamic Studies alone), so combining the two was just the perfect idea.

      I wanna study in the UAE one day, tooo!! Hopefully soon, ya.

      You're right - there are very few Muslim female scholars (of Islam) -- wait, you mean from the UAE/Middle East/South Asia? I agree. And the ones we have around the world aren't usually credited as scholars of Islam because--you guessed it!--they don't say/preach what Zakir Naik preaches! haaa haaaa. (No, it's not funny, though.)

      And, by the way, a lot of my Muslim friends are ... disappointed (I guess this is the word) when they hear I'm getting a "PhD" in Islamic Studies. I knew this girl at college who asked me about a class I was taking on the Qur'an, and she said, "Yeah, I was once enrolled for that class, and then my mom said not to take it because, you know, I can learn about the Qur'an any time. But I should focus on real studies right now." :| Like, "WHAT? There's a DEGREE for it??! Why would you need that? Why not do something more productive with your life, like become a doctor and help people?"

      Aaaah, I wanna write on this whole "become a doctor" stuff too. I mean, every Pakistani/Indian (okay, every other one) you come across as a Biology major and wants to become a doctor. No questions to be asked, and don't you dare suggest anything else to them (but, yeah, most do change their mind near the last two years of their bachelor's). And they all wanna be doctors to help people (because, you know, that's the only way to help people--and, of course, have the respect of your South Asian community) and provide free service to the poor people of Pakistan/India (there's no harm in dreaming big after all, ya), yet no one realizes that to "help" these people, to be involved in medicine takes more than just doctors' service. What are you to do if you don't have enough hospitals to work in? Who's in charge of taking care of constructing and funding the hospitals? Who's in charge of making the medicine necessary to heal people? Who's in charge of designing (and funding) the equipment needed in hospitals? But God forbid we give any respect to these people, right? And God forbid our parents (generally speaking) encourage us to become any of those people.

      Then there's the reason why many (Pakistani/Indian) females become doctors or why they are pressured to become doctors. I've read and have heard from friends that they do it mostly to get good proposals for marriage! Most of them (and this may not be completely true) actually quit right after they find a good enough husband. Many even quit as soon as they find out that they got admission into a good medical college. Why? Well, now their parents can tell people, "Oh, yes, our daughter got admission into medical college X, but she decided she wanted to get married and have children and have her God-given role. Why waste her sweet, innocent youth, you know?"

      And stuff. AAhhh, I basically wrote my entire blog post on the issue :p

      Oh, wait, I must say that there are always those people who are sincerely interested in helping people and want to become doctor per their own wishes and interests even if it is also their parents' dream. So I'm not dismissing their intentions as purely selfish at all. I'm just speaking very generally, and you know that, Faffu meri dil ki dhadkan meri aankh ki chamak meri awaz meri nazar meri dil ki dua and much more :D

    2. Haha! I agree I agree. For us it is doctor and engineer, people can't think of or even imagine their kids doing something else in the future! "Your son's an engineer? Masha'Allah! Both my daughters are doctors, it's their dream to serve the poor, help the needy." "You want to do what? You should learn something from your elder bro. I'm sorry ma, I'm not as intelligent as bhaiyya but I like literature, can I not be a journalist or even teach?" - us South Asians! I feel bad for all the kids who were forced into becoming and studying something that they don't want to.
      Focusing on the minority Muslim part (we're minority in India :) ) of the society they don't really force their daughters into studying or becoming doctors or engineers (even if they do, they make it a point to get them engaged or married off. ultimately she is to be a good housewife/homemaker not a public servant)
      like you said of all (there are soooo many) the female doctors only few practise, others esp Muslims get married and live their silent life. (it aint easy to find a good husband for an educated, well 'highly' educated Muslim girl) Of course there are practising Muslim female docs and other professionals. In my biiiiig family there are none :D 2 of my second cousins, one is a dentist the other a software engineer are the only ones who completed their education (they're not workin hubby says no). Lemme stop its a sad sad saaaad life :)

      people gots problems mainly coz you're a Muslim female, you aint supposed to learn stuff, discover the truth and versions of it, you were brought up in such a way and taught that home is heaven the world outside is hell (esp the west the big bad baad wolfy west :D) and you're out there studying Islam? You kiddin' me?!! You have like group discussions, debates with male students and professors? WHAT! and what are you going to do with that degree (that won't get you better money, fame, or atleast a good husband) change the world? *deep sigh*

      i've found the perfect solution for all of their questions, they is never satisfied with the answers, now i give none. and that frustrates them - me likes it! :D

      And mere jigar ka tukda I'll do something about this blog for ya ;)

  3. interesting come have a read of ireminisces, latest bloglet is A Pious Mother, Father And Son

    1. Hello, Ireminisces, and welcome to my blog! Thank you for sharing your blog here. I'll be happy to read it and participate in any discussions you may have on there.


  4. Asalam Aleikum, blessing on you and your family! :)
    You have chosen to pursue what interests you and you found your passion in it. You will never ever get bored and will always find yourself hungry for more in your pursuit of excellence in your field.
    I am sure you would have made an awesome doctor too!

    I am totally with you on studying Islamic Studies in the West. You get the outsider picture and a very clear picture and now as you go along, and may ALLAH grant you the power and will, you might just be able to fix things with your perspective.
    I have been a silent reader of your blog since day one, though I have commented here and there, but I see how you have matured in your writing and like many of your other readers, I can say this loud and clear. We are proud of you and carry on the awesome work.


    1. Why, Anonymous, what a pleasant comment! Thank you so much! You're very kind, and God reward you for your kindness! I'm glad to hear you've been a "silent" reader of my blog, and I'm happiest to hear your response to a post that's very personal and important to me!

      God bless you and your family, too, aameen!

  5. I think it's wonderful the way it all clicked for you, that's more than can be said for me and the troop of greedy (myself included) law students I'm going to graduate with. Although I enjoy public speaking, my true calling if such a thing exists is probably either as an author or a linguist BUT again I have to make my decisions with taking over the world in mind.

    You Must have heard of Muhammad Assad kana? (Polish Jewish convert, Pakistan's first minister to the UN, friend to Alama Iqbal) I enjoy his writings a great deal .

    Ironically PHD na pasta ba asey ham dactara shey, bya all you need is a lab coat and a stethoscope some jaaalii degrees and pekhawar ke ba clinic shuro ke.

    1. Thanks for your comment, POA :D Yaaaa, I know of Muhammad Asad. Have read his translation of the Qur'an, but haven't seen any of his other writings. Care to recommend specific ones?

      lol @ PhD na pas ba ase hum dactara sham :D A lab coat, true, will give me all the authority anyone could dream of in order to say any BS that comes outta their mouth. Yay!! And to pretend to be a medical doctor and all, true, true... I fear for my children's future :|

  6. Hiya Orbala! Now what is your name btw?

    You needn't have even mentioned it-all your posts and the subjects you touch upon reflect the underlying passion with which they are written :-) Surprising you wanted to become a doctor that bad! Ah well, we all had different dreams at 15!

    You know when you talk about finding liberation through your subjects, I can totally undersrtand!Passionate as I am about Islam and its interpretations (and my own subject of ongoing doctoral study of internal conflicts and the Indian state) I do find that rather than liberating myself, I get more and more enmeshed. Critical thinking has had the rather unnerving (albeit liberating, if that possible!) feeling of constantly thinking and questioning and challenging. Not to mention the (often futile) debates with people from opposite (mainstream orthodox Sunni for example) viewpoints. And because I am so personally involved, and have to debate with someone very close to me, I really dont know how you manage your peace of mind...Im sure you must be saddened/angered by people around you, at least the ones who mean something to you...no??

    Anyway, just wanted to give a thumbs up to this series of posts and to say hi! I cannot tell you how much of a relief discovering your blog has been :-)


    1. And I'm so, so grateful and so, so glad that we've been acquainted through this blog :) As always, thank you for your comment, Pri!

      Ohh, girl, it's so tough I've even decided to make this PhD path a Master's and pursue a PhD in another field! :S It's more family stuff than other Muslims, and it's a long and heartbreaking story, but ... it just may not be a great idea after all to do a PhD in Islamic Studies. Basically, I would have to "choose" (in a strange way) between my family (or certain family members) and Islamic Studies! I hate such choices, but I've figured out how to connect my Islamic Studies interest to my other academic interests so as to not lose my mind, inshaAllah :)

      You know, for many South Asian females, going into fields other than a science field (that, too, only medicine or, in some rare cases, engineering!), how does your family feel about your choice? I've now developed extra respect for women (or men!) who resist that pressure to "choose" only medicine or engineering. Not that I disrespect them if they're in engineering or medicine, but just that, knowing what hell they must have been put through for "defying" their family's dreams, I think they deserve a lotta respect and support! I'm sick of expectations. Sick of having to chase other people's dreams when I have yet to chase my own.

      Lotsa love back at ya!

      ~ the Q

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  8. Well, this is really a great post !

    A person is not a Muslim simply because he or she is born in a Muslim family, but because of the Islamic education that he or she receives. It is only by receiving a proper Islamic education that he or she can become a true Muslim. Hence knowledge is the only way by which a person becomes a true Muslim.


Dare to opine :)

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