Reflections on Studying at the Islamic University of Medinah

From the academics to more deep questions about the university's legacy, here are my thoughts all in one place.

 

Note: I lived in Medinah during the academic terms from August 2007 until June 2013, spending half a summer each year in Peoria Illinois. My last week in Saudi Arabia coincided with the week they chose to change their weekend from Thursday/Friday to Friday/Saturday. Any description of the university and the country is strictly limited to that time and place and do not reflect conditions before or after that time period, or the experiences of other individuals during that time period.

Why did I choose to study Islam?

I don’t know what motivates other Muslims to apply to the University of Medinah or to study Islam. But for me, at the risk of sounding cliché, it was a calling. I wrote about the moment here. When I felt certain I wanted to study Islam, I left Knox College. Bill Clinton ended up giving the commencement speech for the 2007 class I was temporarily a part of; Obama for the year before (as a senator), and Stephen Colbert the year after.

Sometimes, for a moment, like 5 or 6 seconds, I feel a little regret not continuing my secular degree, but I remember that at that time in my life, I was far too spiritually starving, and mentally and emotionally unstable to be able to focus on anything else or develop any other passions. Alhamdulillah.

 

What happened after I decided to study Islam?

I did not know how to “study Islam” or become a scholar of the religion, whatever that meant. From a mentor’s suggestion, I started at the American Open University, where many immigrant imams in America taught, like Ibrahim Dremali and Omar Shaheen, among others. But I did not feel very motivated or challenged by the correspondence learning method, so I did not progress too far.

My next plan was to follow in the footsteps of another central Illinois convert, and go to Yemen. I established contact with a brother from Baltimore who was studying in Damaaj, and based on his counsel, planned how I too could go.

دار الحديث دماج Dammaj House Of Hadeeth - panoramio

Dar al Hadeeth aka “Damaaj” of Yemen. The school was founded by Shaykh Muqbil ibn Haadi al-Waadi’i who was also a graduate of the Islamic University of Medina.

After saving up a decent amount of money, I sought the advice of my friends—should I get married, move to the east coast where there were more Salafis presumably, or go abroad now and put my trust in Allah. One brother said, “why don’t you make hajj?” And so I did, at 22 years old, and went with a group of brothers, mostly from Newark and Philadelphia.

When we were in Medinah before going to Mecca, I briefly met Shaykh Tahir Wyatt, and saw some other scholars, Tarheeb al-Dosary, Ali al-Tuwaijiri and Ubaid al-Jabiri. I was highly impressed by them and the relationship that students had with them. Some fellow pilgrims encouraged me to apply, so I prayed istikhaarah, felt good about it, and then trekked to find an internet café, getting lost in Medinah in the process, to message my family and friends in Peoria to gather and send some documents over within my short stay in Medinah. My hajj guides, Abu Muhammad al-Maghribi and Ashraf al-Bayoumi wrote my letters of recommendation. Alhamdulillah, my application was completed in time, during the last weekday we had in Medinah, and a fellow hajj companion helped me apply, submit my documents and translate during an interview with me. My “interview” consisted of reciting Quran, and answering what the pillars of iman are and the age of the Prophet Muhammad upon death.

Prior to that I had no plans to apply to Medina or any university while I was in Saudi Arabia for hajj. I had heard of the Islamic University of Medina, but it seemed like it was an automatic track to fame, and that was something I was trying to avoid, to preserve my niyyah.

It was late December 2006 that I performed Hajj. I still remember the open-air night at Muzdalifah when rumor spread that Saddam Hussein had been executed.

 

Getting Accepted and Arriving in Medinah

The more I think about it, the more I feel the process of applying felt miraculous, like every moment was the last possible, on the edge of my seat, and that it all clicked for me. Nonetheless, I took the advice of Musa Richardson of Bakkah.net, who advised to apply but move on with your life. I took that advice to heart. I started learning to weld at a local community college. I bought a car. I left Target in March, after nearly a year, and moved out of my parents’ house and in with some friends. Then, one summer day, I emailed shaykh Tahir to ask if there was any news, and he wrote me saying the acceptance list came out that day, and I was one of 9 Americans accepted. My life was about to be turned right-side-up. I thanked Allah, first and foremost for saving me from the drudges of what I thought was a meaningless career binding pieces of metal together.

The IU emblem and logo. It reads: The Islamic University of the Illuminated City

The Islamic University of Medinah bachelor’s program accepts foreign students on complete scholarship. The tuition is free. The room and board are free. Even the airline tickets there and back, during the summers, are free and arranged for us whatever dates we request. On top of all that, to ensure we can survive without having to beg, since students come from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances, they give us a monthly financial stipend, of 840 riyals, a little less than $250 equivalent, which is enough to cover meals and taxi rides and little else.

The university also had school buses that would drop students off every day at the Prophet’s Masjid after `asr, and return after isha. In August of 2007, it was all “the big cheese” yellow buses, but by the time I graduated, they were all replaced with air conditioned coaches.

The university cafeteria served a boiled egg, jelly packet and piece of toast for breakfast, but a large pile of rice with some meat for lunch and dinner. My first years it was a dump. But like everything else, by the time I graduated, I was told it was totally revamped.

 

Learning Arabic

Learning Arabic in Medinah was only easier because I had the pressure of a deadline, and a few friends who had done it before and offered some tips. But otherwise, being in an Arab country, and especially Medinah, did not necessarily help. The languages spoken on the streets are strong colloquial dialects of Arabic, and the language of foreign workers from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India, etc. And as for fellow western students, they’re no help, usually speaking English among themselves. I did however have a close Pakistani friend, Muhsin, who was raised in Jizan, great for practicing classical Arabic with, along with a few Bahraini guys—Khalid of the Quran college and Yahya who went on to do his masters in history.

But the Arabic learning institute [معهد تعليم اللغة العربية لغير الناطقين بها] was an old building—like most of the rest of the university—and full of memories, for me and all who attended. We didn’t have much of a roster. I don’t even remember how we learned which class rooms were ours. And we were never told our teachers’ names(!) We had to ask them. One teacher specifically refused to tell us, a ta`beer teacher who was infamous for his hatred of cellphones. And he would often say in his remarkable accent—we think he may have been Berber or Turkish—we don’t know, since one of the students heard him say he wasn’t Arab.

والذين هم دائماً يتأخرون

وعلى الجوالات يتكلمون

وفي الأسواق يتجولون

على الصفر سوف يحصلون!

During my time in the ma`had, I forged friendships. Those of us with good grades and few absences were taken to Rais, near Yanbu’ for a weekend beach retreat. On our way there, our buses stopped at a small village with several huge warehouses. We were taken to a large sitting room to relax, and then one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Several old men entered and handed us our food. We were all in our 20s, and being served by elderly men. We didn’t deserve that. It turned out those warehouses were all full of charity material for poor Muslims to make hajj with proper food and supplies, and also da’wah material that would be sent all over the world, and then a girls hifz school. The center was all administered by a former graduate of the hadeeth college of Medinah. And when we reached our destination, of about 70 students in the water, a couple dolphins came up to me, Musa the New Zealander and AbdulMajeed of Britain, so that we could almost touch them. The weekend seemed magical, if not sleep deprived; and then, when watching other students compete in acrobatics on the beach, I learned that my grandmother passed away in Peoria.

But my first semester, of four in the Arabic school, was hard. I didn’t understand my teachers. There was the grammar teacher Saeed, with a white beard and a very strong body, whose father or grandfather, of over 100 years old, was still living and strong as an ox. Then there was AbdulHadi, the reading comprehension teacher with a sense of humor and called students bird names and helped me start my car once a few years later—he sold cars as a hobby—and a decent English speaker. And Abdullah the hifz teacher, whose strictness was only outdone by his wit. I remember them all fondly now, although I just barely passed my first semester.

What helped me learn Arabic the most, probably as an answer to much du’a, was giving up practicing with others, but practicing a lot by myself. Also reading childrens’ books out loud. But the greatest help was the 80% Quranic Words study aids, which opened up my mind to sarf understanding. I attended duroos and listened to tapes of al-Albani and al-Fawzan, since they each spoke slowly, and I could write down all the words I recognized but didn’t understand. I’d look them up in the Hans Wehr and put them on flash cards and review them multiple times a day, creating new sentences. Flash cards didn’t help much but having self-conversations did.

A teacher’s chair in the Prophet’s Masjid. Up until my final year, all the duroos were in Arabic. Then, King Abdullah authorized several foreign language speakers to teach Islam for visitors and unacquainted.

With all those aids, and only minimal local benefit outside of class, I think I could have learned Arabic just as easily in China. Starting from the second semester, I was an A student and among the top in each class, alhamdulillah.

Apart from grammar subjects like syntax and morphology, the Arabic institute also had a literate class where we would read from Stories of the Prophets and also Stories of the Sahabah – not any of the versions that English speakers are familiar with. Stories of the Prophets in particular was brilliantly designed for new Arabic learners, as the vocabulary throughout the book became progressively harder. We had a couple of writing and dictation classes. There was also a seerah class and a khulafa class, in addition to aqeedah classes—taught by Dr Khalid al-Raddaadi–and hadeeth classes, and fiqh classes.

The teachers here varied. Most were very pleasant and some were genuinely caring or gave their duroos like brilliant and motivational presentations that would soften the hearts of the students and energize them. Mansur was one of them whose name I heard often but I never had him unfortunately. My favorite teacher was Muhammad al-Mekki the Seerah teacher, a graduate of hadeeth college.

 

Ramadan in Medina

The most amazing thing about Ramadan in Medina is how the society completely transforms to accommodate it. Everyone stays up all night and sleeps from fajr to thuhr and then from thuhr to asr. Work hours change. Even summer school became night school, and I remember hearing that students’ summer finals were schedules for 2 am!

It’s almost hard to believe I used to regularly attend prayers here, especially during my first 3-4 years in Medinah. Alhamdulillah for the opportunity. May Allah protect this masjid for evil.

If you have the opportunity to spend Ramadan or a portion of it in Medinah, with righteous friends and family, do so. I spent my first year’s Ramadan (in August and September) there and that was when I first met a few of the American brothers and bonded with them—especially the new incoming class. And after Eid a lot of the American expats got together for a fun family event. But that never happened again. Smh. Some brothers are just allergic to brotherhood.

From then on, I spent my Ramadans in Peoria, except for one season with my wife in Medinah (summer of 2012). We had a great schedule for Quran, sleep and prayer, and we were able to perform ‘umrah with a rental car, but when Eid came it was just another day—without any other community, friends or family around to celebrate with. Since it was summer, the rest of the Americans were in America, indeed most of the students were gone.

 

How did people react when they learned I was white American?

I always tried to avoid drawing attention to my nationality and race. Because of my accent, they would ask where I was from. Oh America? Where are your parents from? Or Where are you ORIGINALLY from? My natural tan and dark hair suggested Arab or Turkish roots, and I was always called Moroccan or Algerian by the Saudis. Ya Jazaa’iri! Whereas north Africans would think I was Syrian or Bahraini. The only people who thought I was one of them were some Turks I’d met. So after explaining that I was a convert, I almost always received very warm greetings, or even hugs. The only time I met anyone upset was a driver who just assumed that all Americans support George W Bush’s crusades and upsetting of Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Obama was elected president, some people asked us Americans if he was Muslim or not, because of his name and appearance. Of course, we rejected that, he was never a Muslim for a day in his life as far as we knew. But immediately after the election, people congratulated us, because Obama was a symbol of hope after several years of war against the Muslim world.

The Arab Spring, when it happened, did not affect our lives in Medinah at all. However, a common topic of debate was: are public protests against government injustice allowed in Islam? Most of the local scholars forbade it, but not all.

Why the Da’wah college? 

Perhaps the most stressful decision students face when studying in the Arabic school is which college they will ultimately go to: Da’wah, Sharia, Hadeeth, Quran or Arabic. For the vast majority, it really boiled down to Da’wah, Sharia or Hadeeth.1)Retrospectively, it reminds of the question of how a Hogwarts student might wander which hall they’ll go into—Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or whatever the fourth one was. Some students knew what they wanted, based on peer pressure, being a part of a clique or what “made sense”. So when I told my teacher Muhammad al-Mekki that I wanted to go into the hadeeth college he immediately said, “Don’t do what your friends tell you…” and offered some valuable advice.

We had our interviews during the fourth and final semester of the Arabic institute, and although no one was ever denied their first choice, even if they gained nothing from the Ma’had, the interrogators always asked for second choice unless your first was Da’wah.

The front steps to the College of Da’wah and Usul al-Deen — Propagation & Theology

The college of da’wah had a reputation of being for slackers. However, our college had four specialties: theology (which included heresiology and comparative religion), history, education and propagation. The Quran, and Hadeeth colleges each only had two specialties. Sharia had fiqh, usul and qada’. 

I chose the da’wah college based solely on istikhaarah. Its subjects were the most familiar, so it was easy to excel in and be among the top of the class of about 150 students. Because of that, it was easy to accelerate my understanding of those subjects, so I could read as much as I could about them, and essentially not have to study them again. And I considered ‘aqeedah and history to be prerequisites to reading anything and everything else—so you understand the historical and theological context of each author. Even for such mundane subjects as grammar and theory, as even those subjects have not been unscathed by aqeedah debates. Aqeedah affects everything, especially tafseer and hadeeth commentary. Aqeedah and history I found were the forgotten prerequisites of studying Islam.

Most other students went to the Sharia college, since it offered the most immediate prospects upon graduation.

 

What is the curriculum philosophy of the university?

The curriculum of the Islamic university was designed with a certain student in mind. Keep in mind that some students were veritable scholars of the deen before coming to Medinah, except their training was more traditional, and so they had no degrees, and that is why they came to Medinah, for degrees that would give them access to positions and other recognition in their home countries. This was especially true of some African students who may have learned Quran from the mother, for example, and fiqh from a father, uncle or grandfather, if Islamic scholarship was a family tradition. A few were much more knowledgeable than their teachers. One neighbor, Ahmad al-Sanusi was well-known, and apparently when he took the test to enter the master’s program, they ripped it up and said he was accepted automatically. Other students, especially the Saudis and some who came from countries without Muslim scholars—like South America for example—came with hardly even a basic understanding of Islam. Many others from Muslim countries may have memorized a large portion of the Quran and studied Islam in masajid and from books and media, so they had a very robust novice prep and were ready to tackle intermediate studies. That was the intended audience. Sadly though, most students were either below or above that level.

So the da’wah college was designed to give intermediate students a semi-advanced understanding of ‘aqeedah, and prepare them potentially for expert-level studies in the masters and doctorate programs if they wanted. Likewise, the other colleges with their intended subjects.

As for the non-specialty subjects we had, where we would, for example, have a hadeeth teacher from the hadeeth college give us a class on one of each of the six books, and similar for tafseer, fiqh, usul, grammar, etc., then the curriculum was more spotty. The official curriculum was the exact same for the other colleges. So in the da’wah college, our one single semester of Usul al-Fiqh was a list of issues from Rawdah al-Nadhir, the same book studied over four years in the Sharia college! That was a very advanced book with fairly difficult language. Same story with the other subjects, like fiqh and grammar.

For fiqh, the main book was Bidaayah al-Mujtahid by ibn Rushd the grandson, of the Maliki school, a scholar accused of heresy. That was an amazing comparative fiqh book. His style was “here’s what the scholars agreed on, and they differed on this point for this reason. Next issue…” So debating the issue of difference was up to the teacher, since ibn Rushd did not provide any opinion. He aimed to teach critical thinking. Let me spell it out for you: a “Wahhabi” university used a fiqh book from an Andalusian Maliki philosopher scholar to specifically encourage the student to think critically. So don’t let anyone tell you students are brainwashed. The professors of course provide their opinions, but allow students to challenge and think of their own with proper reasoning. That approach was great and really beneficial for students, I hope, in not becoming partisan in their fiqh, for better or worse. However, it may not have been appropriate for beginning fiqh students in the Da’wah college for example, who may have benefited more from a structured contemporary book. Allah knows best.

So it was not uncommon for visiting teachers to say “this is what you’re supposed to study, but let me teach you guys this book instead, since it is contemporary and meant for students your level”. Other teachers were more like, “the scholars made great ijtihad to lay out this curriculum, and it would be a betrayal of the trust to change it, so we will stick with it!”

Having these advanced curricula weren’t a big issue in hadeeth or tafseer, but some of the tafseer teachers did in fact “take matters into their own hands” and teach instead from more packed books of tafseer, like al-Shawkani, or a personal booklet. The curriculum was Tafseer ibn Katheer, the unabridged version.

It might make sense for the various committees to change the curriculum to accommodate students better, but they love their traditions, and want to keep the university standard high, and not continually dumb down the academics, but rather challenge the students to rise to the occasion.

 

A word about the Mudeer (Rector/President) Muhammad Ali al-Uqla

The university presidents were appointed by the king. Before I came, it was a well-known scholar Saleh al-Ubood who taught in the Prophet’s masjid, although he had a sour reputation among the students, concerning their relations with their families abroad. The rector during my time was very charismatic, and previously in charge of Umm al-Quraa of Mecca, and his era saw tremendous development for the university.

When I first arrived, more than half of the university property was barren undeveloped land. By the time I finished, it was all under construction and being turned into colleges, residential halls, even homes for staff and faculty, and other necessary facilities. A new large clinic was built, multi-level parking garages, a swimming pool, another masjid, a large banquet hall, and new beautiful entrances. The university added a school of engineering, computer science and pharmacy, if I recall correctly. Prior to that, the same old buildings were being used for housing, college, masjid and clinic. The university was completely modernized. I came as it was beginning and I left just to have an idea of what it would look like near completion.

A famous landmark within the university, the water tower with the new sharia college in the background

I saw him personally take his coat off and free up more area for the students in the small theater that was used for visiting scholars’ presentations. That theater was always a joke. The theater had about 400 seats. The first several rows were reserved for scholars and faculty. When a big shaykh would visit the city, like Salih al-Fawzan or Abdul-Rahman al-Sudais or the Grand Mufti or others, students would pray in the masjid nearby, and as soon as the imam began to say al-Salaamu Alaykum after the isha prayer, before the visiting scholar’s arrival and talk, the students would jump up in a mad rush—a thousand of them running from the masjid in a sprint to get into the theater hall and seize any of the few seats that were allotted to them. Some of the Bengali university workers would film this mad dash on their phones. I can imagine it on YouTube now, “Islamic University students running for …” and fill in the blank with something silly. And it was a good laugh. I still remember being among the latter half and seeing AbdulRahman from Lodi California say in English to the rest of the students running with us, “Deoderant ya shabaab!”

Although I didn’t know that mudeer personally, I had great respect for him. He would also make announcements for the university via Facebook.

 

The entrance to Masjid ibn Baaz, the first and main masjid for the university. This masjid has a lot of history, with many famous and infamous individuals having prayed in it. The attached bathrooms were absolutely atrocious.

Bibliophilic a bit much?

I spent more time preparing for the future rather than seizing the moment and the opportunities that lay before me. My mentality was that I would return to America and continue my studies forever. I spent a lot of time learning about seeking knowledge—engrossed in the forums of ahlhadeeth dot com. That was something that I could do anywhere on earth, but my mentality was, I need to know how to seek knowledge and solve my own problems for when I am no longer in Medinah and have these immense resources around me. And so I did. I essentially became something of an expert on books, publications, prints, editions, etc., and about the different ways of learning Islamic knowledge. I knew that I was there to ultimately fulfill a fardh kifayah of teaching Islam in America and helping American Muslims learn their faith. I didn’t let myself get bogged down sitting with a lot of scholars on the side, studying certain texts because usually those programs would take years to complete, and would often start at a very introductory level, and maybe I would graduate before then, and feel bad for studying half or a third of a book with a scholar. In my mind, that was the purpose of the university. There may have been a different kind of barakah from studying in the masjid, but I found much greater benefit from the university studies.

 

Being a married student

 

Marriage was a semi-controversial topic for students. Was it better to marry or not? If you couldn’t sleep at night, and sleep is important(!), then get married to someone who is righteous and emotionally supportive of seeking knowledge if possible—and with a good flexible career if possible as well. Props to one Egyptian-American brother who married a Indian-British physician who came to Medina and was able to practice while he studied.

I was focused on marriage ever since I came and realized that most of the students were married. Few, if any, waiting until graduation. And my observation, and that of many others, was that those who waited seemed to be a few cans shy of a six pack. Does living alone in Medinah drive a student to insanity? I’ll hold my thoughts on that. 

The dilemm most students faced was, after getting married in the US before studying or during a summer, how to bring their wife over and stay in the kingdom. The university did not accommodate families, not even their visas. Some students brought their families over on an Umrah visa and they would over stay or try to renew it frequently. This would essentially put them at the mercy of the Saudi administration which may or may not be having a good and generous day, whether renewing or giving them an exit stamp during the summer travel. It was risky, and a classmate from the Maldives was imprisoned a week or two because of it. The university could only do so much, since it was against their policy.

Eventually, the university “lightened up” and issued family visas for students who could provide a refundable 10,000 SAR security deposit. That was  a year’s worth of rent living outside.

It was because of this strict stance from the country and from the university that my parents were not able to attend my wedding or ever meet my in-laws or even my future wife until almost a year later when we returned to America together for the summer of ‘09.

I met my wife on singleMuslim.com. No shame there. What’s a convert from a small town supposed to do? My wife’s family had an account for her on there and she was the first to message me. She was an advanced Quran teacher, born in America but living in Jeddah, originally Pakistani. So there was no worry, alhamdulillah, about getting a green card nor trying to evade the law, alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah.

The university had some living quarters for married students in another part of the city, but post-grads had priority, and so undergrads had to wait around 3 or 4 years before reaching the top, and they would have graduated by then.

Students wanting to live with their families had to find a place outside and hope to make ends meet otherwise. Many students struggled, teaching English themselves and or their wives teaching. Those who taught in the summer in other cities ultimately became affluent students, may Allah bless them. As for me, alhamdulillah, many different people helped me out, my father, Muslims of Peoria, and my wife, may Allah bless all of them and reward them immensely and guide them to khair in this life and the Next.

The city of Medinah has 3 ring roads. The first encircles the Prophet’s masjid and a few nearby hotels. Old Medinah, or “Yathrib” was almost entirely within that innermost ring. The main “daa’iri” is the 2nd ring road which goes around most of the city. The third ring road goes around all the greater area and is not encompassed here. The yellow tack is my former home. To the mid-upper left you see the university. The large black blobs on the right are volcanic rock that is untraversable by any means.

Our first year together was in a regular city apartment, which was a mulhaq small bedroom on the roof of a regular apartment building. Succeeding years I was accepted into a cheap housing plan for married students provided by a charity organization run by a former Student Affairs administrator, hadeeth and history professor, Shaykh Dr Yahya al-Yahya, who was an ayah. My apartment building was literally 10 feet away from our local masjid. There was a large yellow jumu’ah masjid 10 minutes walk away that was very beautiful and was a good place for amazing Friday khutbahs. We often preferred that place over the Haram, since the khutbahs in Medinah were universal khutbahs meant to appeal to the diverse range of attendees.

 

Quirks of Medinah

There were no storm drains in the streets. If it rained, even just a little, the rain would collect and flood the lowest parts of the street. Work and school would be canceled with a light drizzle. Rain was rare in Medinah, so when it came, even for a few minutes, people would take any excuse not to come in.

I was sick most of my first two years in Medinah, with a myriad of different sicknesses. I went to the Prophet’s masjid as much as I could, but there are lots of foreign pilgrims there most of the year, and many of them are elderly and have no concept of hygiene or germ theory. They might think nothing of sneezing or coughing on you or in your face as they walk by.

The summers were hot, but dry, so if you weren’t accustomed, and opened your mouth, you might feel the moisture sucked out. If you were driving and rolled down the window, you would be greeted by a gust of hot air. Medinah is not a “windows up or down?” city. The winters were alternating weeks of cool weather and bitter cold weather that, while well above freezing, seemed to penetrate and render useless any layers you prepared. And when most of the water tanks are on the roofs, showering in the mornings could be a grueling experience if your water heater wasn’t working. And in the summers, there was no cold water, only warm or scalding.

A fun place locals went camping was a region called al-baidaa’. There was a famous spot in the road on the way there that, if you stopped your car there, put it in neutral, it would appear to go uphill. They call it Wadi al-Jinn, or the Valley of the Jinn.

Like any old university, Medinah had jinn ghost stories. Some of them have been mentioned online elsewhere, by Yasir Qadhi I believe. A couple incidents that took place when I was there were also interesting. A Bosnian student, who apparently did not show up to class for weeks, and stayed in bed almost the entire time, decided to attend the masjid one night. After ‘isha prayers, he flipped out, started speaking in tongues, people had to hold him down and students tried reciting Quran to him. The devil in him would mock their recitations, claim to be sent from the Pope, and say he was afraid of no one except al-Shanqiti. Another incident happened during my first summer there. AbdulMajeed of Manchester and I were chilling in the masjid and someone started reciting Quran loudly right next to us and glaring at us and reciting at us. I said to my friend, “that guy has some jinn inside him”. A few days later, again after isha, he punched the worshiper next to him, prompting Josiah, a large south-westerner, to wrestle him to the ground before police took him away.

My Knox College ghost stories are juicier. But make no mistake, I wholeheartedly believe that Iblees pays more concern to deviating students of knowledge than other Muslims. 

Medinah may be the best city, or one of the best cities in the world for a single Muslim man, or at least when I was there. There were no women in the university. The women on the street—whenever you saw them, which was rare—were covered in black, from head to toe. However, that lack of exposure could make a man extra sensitive when pilgrims come with a different standard of dress, or if you accidentally caught glimpse of an ankle, or especially when returning to the US, feeling hit by a ton of bricks upon landing. That’s besides the fact that most Saudi women remove their black abayas during the flight and assume Western dress upon landing elsewhere.

Saudi Arabia has these Western compounds for foreign workers and employees of certain companies, like Aramco in the Eastern Province and Saudi Airlines in Jeddah. My wife had to meet a friend once inside the Jeddah compound known as “Saudia City”. The security was tight. The neighborhood inside had a baseball diamond, movie theater and other western amenities. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were churches or at least multipurpose worship centers inside as well. I saw a woman jogging down the street in typical western fitness attire. Outside the compound walls were of course a different world. Inside was suburban America, outside was Saudi.

One of the sights of Medinah: Uhud mountain range in the background, Jabal Rumat (Archers’ Hill) in the foreground.

 

Performing Hajj

I performed hajj in 2006, which was when I first applied at the university. The next years I was usually busy with something or other each time. In 2007 I visited my parents during hajj, which coincided with Christmas, and also to meet a family I might marry into. In 2008 during hajj break I actually did get married. In subsequent years I stayed in Medinah, observing Eid at a different masjid each time, and eating from Qarmooshi ma`soob afterwards. Since we married students were mostly poor, the university arranged for us to benefit from some of the lamb meat that was slaughtered in Mecca each year. Sometimes we’d be given a huge bag of meat, other times an entire carcass.

To reduce congestion, the country limited its residents to hajj once every 5 years. While many American students performed hajj annually through tour group loopholes and other foreign students went annually, sneaking passed checkpoints, I personally did not want to break the law, but instead follow the advice of local scholars who cautioned against contributing to hajj congestion, and respecting quota guidelines, and making the best out of hajj whenever the opportunity came.

My wife and I performed hajj one time together during our final year in Medinah, 2012. We went with the only group we could afford, and while it was enjoyable and worthwhile, hajj is always a test. Their busses broke down both ways. A flat tire on the way to Mecca, and engine trouble on the way back.

 

What I miss most about Medinah and Saudi Arabia

The ability to get in a bus with your ihram and go to Mecca for 50 riyals and perform ‘umrah. College students could make the trip paying for only one way—so the ride back to Medinah was free. Some brothers made umrah every weekend. Most students went every month.

One thing that’s funny is that whenever I start a new phase in life, the last phase seems to fade into a distant memory, almost a dream. Sometimes I get caught up in what I’m working on here, so when I am asked about Medinah, it’s a reminder oh, wow, yeah, I [can’t believe I] spent six years there, I guess I did, didn’t I. As much as I enjoyed and benefited from my time in Medinah, I was anxious to move on—as much as I hate to say it, because of how bad it sounds. Six years is a long time. I needed to pursue other goals that Medinah could not help me with any more. I came to learn, and the best way of learning and increasing your knowledge is teaching. Nonetheless, I would love to go back and visit the Prophet’s masjid and recite Quran in it again, for a day, and to see how the city has changed since when I was there, but I think I would feel miserable, like I was wasting away or being unutilized if I lived there much longer.

 

How does the Medinah University differ from other Islamic learning institutions?

Medinah University, as I’m told, was founded when Saudi scholars were requested to send scholars abroad, but they thought it would be best to educate foreign students and send them back–after all, a native will know more about the people than a Saudi foreigner. So the Islamic University idea was born with the agreement of scholars from around the world, and it became a reality in 1961. Thus, it was founded to be an international Islamic university. Other Saudi universities may have started with Islamic subjects, like Umm al-Quraa in Mecca or Imam University in Riyadh, but they were Saudi national Universities. The vast majority of their students were Saudi, and they only accepted 2-3 students each year from America, and a similar number from other foreign countries. So I imagine the Western students in those universities may have been closer to each other, seeing as to how few they were.

As an international university, Medinah has about 25% Saudi admission, but the overwhelming majority were from all over the world—Arab countries, African countries, central Asia and south Asia, and of course Europe and the Americas. Cliques were thus more common. For example, the very small number of Northeast US “Salafi” students would clique with each other, all go to the hadeeth college, study from the same small number of scholars, and almost never associate with other students during their time except when necessary for summer travel arrangements and passport distribution–at least back when it was done that way.

Because the Medinah university tries to cater to students of all backgrounds, they teach comparative fiqh from Bidayah al-Mujtahid 2)This is an amazing book. The author simply says, “scholars agreed on this point, but disagreed on this other point, here’s why. Next issue…” Without telling what’s “right” or why. Rather, he leaves it to YOU to decide whose argument is stronger and to research further evidences. I don’t know any other book of comparative fiqh like that. The Kuwaiti Fiqh Encyclopedia is the only one that comes close, as it doesn’t say who is “right” or not, but it tells the opinions of the four schools, and some of the Salaf, along with their evidences, but without argumentation or tarjeeh. without any precursor. This makes the Sharia college left with something to desire.

Al-Azhar is a model traditional fiqh university, since students choose a school of law, like Shāfi’ī for example, study the relied upon opinions within that school, and then study its branches, and then study comparative fiqh. In Medinah, the advantage to studying comparative fiqh in the beginning is that for beginning students, they learn no partisanship to any madhab. Although the disadvantage to that is that when there are many opinions, on many issues, there is no opinion to call home or default when the evidences from each side all have merit. The teachers present their preference, and may assume that your “home opinion” is based on your country of origin, however Westerners, especially converts like myself, tend to look at all the four schools equally at first. But another advantage to that, which I found supreme, was fostering great respect for the way that scholars of the past tried to discover the truth, and respecting all their opinions.

Also, the Arabic institute. The author of the “Medina book series” said that the grammar-heavy book series is inappropriate for IU students, but the university has thus far refused to teach any other books. Umm al-Quraa teaches the more modern “Arabic between your hands” series.

One question I frequently got was, “so you did an alim program or mufti program?” The brothers from India and Pakistan often have a different scholarly training program. As for the University of Medinah, it is more equivalent to the British college system. This is your major, this is your minor, these are all the classes you will take and don’t have a choice in, between now and graduation. In America however, you need classes and electives and core requirements, but all are fairly flexible, for better or worse, which makes each person’s academic background relatively unique, depending on what interests them most. A dozen people could have each gotten a psychology degree from the same university during the same period, but each have taken a different combination of classes to complete their major. Not so with the British system I’m told, or with Medinah. You had to take these classes to complete your major. There weren’t any more nor any less. There were no optional electives unless you were in the master’s program and wandered into a kulliyah you didn’t originally graduate from. Islam on the other hand is difficult to completely isolate one subject from another, so thankfully, no matter our college and thus major and minor, we have a number of forced electives that serve to give us a nice rounded education on other subjects. But it is still a university, and the degree is called a Bachelor of Arts in the end. So it is not an “alim program” and they don’t claim to turn anyone into a scholar, as that is based on your own effort, and the recognition of your output.

As for traditional learning that is institutionalized in some places, like Markaz Takween al-Ulama’ in Mauritania, or other well-known places like Damaaj or Amman or Kuwait or some individuals in Egypt with robust teaching schedules, with or without certificates, degrees or ijazahs, then there are of course pluses and minuses to their programs. It is often in a masjid, which has more barakah than a classroom, but because of the shaykh-centered atmosphere, there is usually less academic inquiry—asking a question consists of scribbling on a piece of torn off paper and passing it to the front, rather than simply raising your hand—and less challenging of the shaykh, because you’re in a masjid and there are probably also several laity visiting and sitting in as well. It’s also harder to follow along, and keep one’s attention span, seriously; and sitting in the masjid in one position for an hour is extraordinarily uncomfortable without proper back support.

But like everything, it is how you see it, what you make of it, and what you put into it. There are tons of opportunities within the city to study any subject you wish, more traditionally. And if earning a certificate is important, there are numerous opportunities in different masājid as part of frequent summer, winter and spring break seminars. And many scholars, if asked, may write some ijazahs for you.

 

Quran memorization at the Islamic University?

Medina U has no official requirement for applicants as far as Quran memorization is concerned, unless you want to enter the Quran recital college. In the Arabic institute, you are tasked with learning Juz’ `amma over the two-year period. During the regular four-year college, you learn 10 rub’ each semester, totaling the first 10 juz’ of the Quran—from al-Baqarah through al-Tawbah.

The University masjid along with the Prophet’s masjid of course have tons of Quran memorization circles, and there are also individuals that facilitate receiving ijazah in the Quran. Imam Ali al-Hudhaify was a favorite among students, as he was considered a little more lenient in critique.

I personally sat down with multiple Quran teachers my first year. The first was a student named Muhammad Rafeeqi from Burma, and then an Indian brother, with some Saudis and Egyptians in between. And then I married my wife. Everyone I sat down with erred in correcting me. They would tell me my tongue was doing this and it needed to do that. But my tongue wasn’t doing what they claimed. My wife was the only one I ever recited Quran to who accurately told me exactly what I was doing, and how I needed to improve, in order to hit each letter properly. Alhamdulillah

Shaykh Muhammad Ayoub (rahimahullah) taught my tafseer class for Surah al-Nisa as well as my Quran hifz class for Surah al-A’raaf. Alhamdulillah during our end of the year finals, he listened to everyone and when he heard me he paused to make du’a for me. May Allah have mercy upon him and admit him to Paradise.

As for memorization, I chose not to follow the traditional method of memorizing a section, like a juz’, and then reviewing everything; repeat. Instead I chose to mimic a halaqah I knew of, where each participant would memorize a page wajh at a time, recite it to their partner, and then move on to the next without reviewing. Upon finishing the Quran, they would repeat, only next time, memorizing a longer portion, like a rub’ quarter per session. And so on. The advantages of this method are the constant feeling of making progress, and the familiarity yet novelty of every bit you learn. The main disadvantage of course is that you have little to show for yourself at any given moment. The first time I completed the Quran, during my second year in the Arabic ma’had, I felt sad, because there was no more of the journey left, and also because I completed the Quran, but had little to show for it. The advantage though, as a student was that whenever I prayed behind any imam, even if I didn’t know precisely what he was reciting, I knew what chapter and page he was on in the Quran.

 

Any regrets about my time at the University and in Medinah?

Yes. Not too many, but I wish I was in more touch with the brothers and that I took a personal shaykh, like Khalid al-Afifi, or anyone, to stay in contact with throughout the journey and afterwards. I guess I was always a little cautious and very self-aware of my abilities, needs and goals and did not want anyone to pressure me into studying any manner I wasn’t comfortable with, especially the excessive memorization of mutoon—I was more of a reader and summarizer—I preferred to create my own mutoon so to speak.

Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve kept more to myself, especially after marriage. I’m a family man. I felt so alone much of my life, and after accepting Islam, for seven years, my greatest desire was to come home to a Muslim family and Muslim wife I could give salaams to, and have a teammate in faith. I guess I’m making up for all the life I wish I had, in Islam. But I do wish I hung out with brothers a little more, just a little, to do more networking, learn people more and benefit from them and increase our iman together. My closest friends were mostly foreigners, maybe from Canada, Australia or New Zealand, and a couple Americans that didn’t fit into cliques.

Also, I wish I traveled more in Medinah and the Kingdom, although I really didn’t have the means. I had a lemon car and that severely restricted us. It always had air conditioning problems – which is bad in Medinah! And it had severe overheating problems. Nothing fixed it, not even replacing the head gasket. My final year in Medinah we probably only prayed in the Prophet’s Masjid a handful of times, because my car was so bad. Most of the time I took rides from others or borrowed my mechanic’s car. It was very difficult to sell because it had to pass certain emission inspections. Being on a severe budget, and being too shy to ask others for assistance has always held me back. I spent most of my time either at the university or at home, especially my last year when my car was completely useless.

Our local musalla on the left and my apartment building on the right (so close!!!! those were the days!!!). And my old Accord in the foreground. Piece of…

Alhamdulillah I never got into an accident, especially in the country where the number one cause of death was car fatality. An English teacher friend of mine once asked his class if anyone had any relatives who died in a car crash. Every single one raised their hand. But keep in mind, they had big families, maybe ten siblings, and over a dozen aunts and uncles. Sometimes in Medinah, a student wouldn’t show up for class. Then we’d find out he died in a car crash. What was most amazing would be hearing about students who died after they finished their studies and had been performing a final `umrah, and about to leave the Kingdom for good. It was as if Allah loved them, and wanted to bring them to Him as martyrs after they completed so many tremendous good deeds of study, and forgiven them with a final umrah, and so they would be buried in Baqee’ with so many of the Prophet’s companions and other righteous throughout the centuries, prayed over by tens of thousands of muwahhideen—may Allah have mercy upon us and them.

 

Should YOU study in Medinah?

First of all, I don’t recommend it for anyone that does not want to make da’wah a serious part of their life, at least part-time, for the rest of their lives—whether as an imam, academic, chaplain, social worker, teacher or reliable volunteer. Otherwise would go against the whole purpose of the university, and would likely take the seat of someone more dedicated to its mission.

Second, whatever you want to do with the studies, look at it now. Want to be an imam like this person, or an academic like that person? Interview them, see how they got there and what it takes. I vastly underestimated how difficult it was to become an imam. That was my goal. Still is. Don’t count your eggs until the chickens hatch. Don’t assume any masjid or institution will hire you unless it is in a legally binding signed, notarized contract that you believe you can uphold—and even then, believe you won’t be hired. Otherwise, just assume you’ll be living in your parents’ basement for 6 months to a year after you graduate. 

Prepare now. Learn how to write a good resume, take advantage of opportunities to get diverse experience, qualifications, etc. If you want to enter academia, try to learn a third research language if you don’t know one already, like French, German, Turkish or Persian. If it’s a masjid imam, look at job descriptions. If it’s chaplaincy or social work, find out the necessary qualifications and do what’s necessary to meet or surpass those qualifications. Make tons of du’aa, give tons of sadaqah, pray tons in the night—get your parents to pray for you too—put your trust in Allah and inshaAllah the ways will open up for you.

 

About the legacy of the Islamic University of Medinah

I remember one of my professors in Medinah saying, “you cannot travel anywhere in the world and find a community of Muslims committed to their faith except that there is a graduate of the Islamic University among them.” Many of my professors had given da’wah across the world, especially in Africa. Medina University was founded as a da’wah institution. The number one goal, first and foremost, was to educate future preachers, teachers and scholars, so that they would educate and guide millions upon millions. Alhamdulillah, that goal continues to be fulfilled. If there is one single verse of the Quran that summarizes the mission of the Islamic University of Medinah, it is without any doubt:

{قُلْ هَـٰذِهِ سَبِيلِي أَدْعُو إِلَى اللَّـهِ ۚ عَلَىٰ بَصِيرَةٍ أَنَا وَمَنِ اتَّبَعَنِي ۖ وَسُبْحَانَ اللَّـهِ وَمَا أَنَا مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ} ﴿١٠٨﴾ سورة يوسف

Say (O Muhammad): This is my Path, I invite to Allah upon clear insight, I and those who follow me; and may Allah be glorified, for I am not of the polytheists.

Despite the noble goals of the university, it is not without its controversies. That is partially because of some past students and graduates. Tens of thousands have passed through its gates and earned their certificates and degrees, but the amount who truly benefited and reflected the University’s mission is no doubt short of that. As no university has a 100/100 success rate. And let’s not forget that Ted Kaczynski and Steve Bannon both went to Harvard.

Unfortunately for an Islamic University, whenever someone like Ted Kaczynski attends the university and becomes infamous for an evil act of terrorism, that puts pressure on the university, in spite of the thousands of other students who know better and that the university never played any hand in it.

Like any learning institution, no one is hooked up to a brainwashing machine. I remember learning of Sufi or Deobandi students who would attend the classes, but then have secret gatherings to refute what they learned in Tawheed class or the fiqh preferences of their teachers, to keep themselves firm upon their own scholastic roots. Anyone who was good at memorizing and parroting and had a good work ethic could graduate from the undergrad program with good grades. Anyone who slacked most of the year but worked their butt off in the “dead week” that preceded finals could pass with little doubt. The point is, the university and the faculty made efforts, like any school, but the graduates could represent quite a variety of thought schools. A lot of humble consumer advocates like Ralph Nader have come from Harvard, but also no doubt just as many pretentious slave drivers, crooked lawyers and malpracticing physicians. How does Harvard get a pass but IU Medina not? I digress…

Professor Shaykh Ibrahim al-Ruhailee (hafizahullah). I studied a bit with him outside of the university, the book Umdat al-Ahkam, and then he taught my Tauheed 8 class.

The most common accusation levied against the Uni by American Muslims is that it contributed to the creation of a cultish mentality of McCarthyism during the 90’s and early 2000’s—testing laymen regarding their beliefs, and ostracizing and boycotting other preachers on behalf of semantic improprieties or associating with anyone perceived as a carrier of heresy. No doubt, many of the individuals guilty of nurturing that movement passed through the halls of Medinah University. But the majority of its faculty strongly detested that movement, and I think even if the scholars who were most responsible for it actually realized how it had affected so many communities of Muslims abroad where they did not live or may never have even visited, they too would have retracted, and Allah knows best. Many of those students also promoted anti-intellectualism among American Muslims. And this was their greatest sin. They discouraged learning Islam, but sufficing with Arabic, to simply translate for Saudi scholars. They in fact did the exact opposite of what Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhaab outlined in the Six Principles, so they fell into the extreme of denying other people the possibility of achievement. They wanted to be the exclusive filters for knowledge to reach Americans, and were afraid of anyone in America to be labeled a scholar, so they declared it heresy to claim that there were any scholars in America. That’s a cult for ya. But students of that persuasion were a small minority. They were a minority, and a small minority at that, but unfortunately, loud-mouthed, and made it difficult for the rest to create a good reputation for the university. The vast majority of graduates have taught their communities humbly, as imams, teachers, counselors, academics, chaplains, social workers, or even volunteers while pursuing secular careers but because they’re not famous and loud-mouthed, they haven’t eclipsed the ill narrative that other charlatans created for the university.

Another false perception of Medinah students was the romanticized idea that their time there was like sunbathing in knowledge. There are people who attend the university and left just as they came. As it is said, “knowledge comes from learning/studying.” It takes hard work and dedication to learn and understand. But one thing most Westerners don’t realize is that this knowledge we learn is all in Arabic and is academic and dry. It’s not ready for the American audience. Many people expect us to, at the push of a button, deliver a life-changing dars. I remember being back one summer and wondering how do I teach? How do I develop a dars or a khutbah? Should I just translate an Arabic khutbah? These were questions we weren’t trained to answer. I even e-mailed friends asking for help. What was I even, Islamically, allowed or authorized to say, and on who’s behalf? I didn’t want to say anything inaccurate or overstep my bounds. I felt overwhelmed by the task. As an introvert who finds it difficult to say something without first having thought deeply about it or writing it out made things even more difficult. Alhamdulillah eventually I adopted several methods for teaching and preaching, but before then, it was difficult. It still is difficult and very time consuming.

Another charge against the university, and perhaps the most outlandish, mostly from non-Muslims and some extreme Sufis, was that the university promoted takfeer, jihad and terrorism. Honestly, I don’t even know how that could be taught anywhere in the entire kingdom of Saudi Arabia. When hearing such allegations, one does not even know where to begin, except to say emphatically, no, it doesn’t. One could write volumes to refute these allegations. The entire university mission and curriculum are against that. Where to begin!! Where’s your proof other than vague wishful thinking and accusations? I don’t think any Islamic school or ideology is even more successful in refuting terrorists than Saudi scholars. Many of my teachers were in fact tasked with meeting arrested extremists and overseeing their ideological rehabilitation. After 9/11, jihad was removed from the fiqh curricula of the Sharia college, even though that study is what contains the rules that refute terrorist ideology and methodology. To claim Medina University promotes terrorism is an affront to Islam. Medina is an academic institution dedicated to educating future educators. There were multiple international anti-terrorism symposiums during my time there, compulsory to attend for many students. And as they say in the Arab world, the walls have ears, so it is sooo hard to even conceive how terrorism could be spread, even under the radar. I don’t believe any country on earth could be more severe against terrorism. Private gatherings or any strange gathering of young men, if not for playing soccer, was often met with police investigation or arrest. You could not teach or preach anywhere without the express approval of the ministry of Islamic affairs and the king, which were, for better or worse, also on the receiving end of some pressure from the US government. But the US government wasn’t any concern. The history of Islamic-branded revolutionist movements is enough to make any and every Muslim majority country fearful and protective of its country’s security. To claim any one of those countries is, in of itself a huge nation full of terrorists is absolutely absurd.

Many real extremists also allege that the university and the Kingdom in general, due to external pressures, teach a watered down version of iman and Sharia. Well which is it? Are we learning to become terrorists and takfeeris or ballerinas and compromisers? We do not read from books that go through any “kingdom filter”. In a class of 60 students, we may read from a book like Saheeh al-Bukhari, and each student could have a different edition or print of the book. There are no discrepancies between this copy or that copy, whether printed in Riyadh, Beirut or Cairo—except that such minute and rare discrepancies are based off manuscript differences that are noted in the margins or copy errors that are corrected with subsequent editions. To claim that we only had access and learning from limited sources and that “they only tell you half a hadeeth and neglect the rest” is a gross ignorant baseless slander. There are some books that are banned for commoners in the Kingdom, like the works of Sayyid Qutb, because his books are accused of being the brainchild of modern terrorism, but the first thousand years of Islamic scholarship—and what really mattered—was our playground. Even banned books are present in libraries for study. Even the legacy books we read from and see in bookstores and during the great famous annual book fairs are the subject to intense international competition to perfect the work and present it as the author intended based on all extent manuscripts, and challenge each other to the best and most accurate presentation. One can read more about that in my article on book buying. The point is: these are academic institutions, not monkey experiments. We studied from classical works and read hadeeth and had discussions about the most controversial issues during our class times. The main books for our curriculum were Sharh ibn Aqeel for grammar; ibn Rushd for fiqh, ibn Qudamah for Usul, ibn Katheer for tafseer, etc. These are all classical scholars. The only subjects with more recent works used were history and ‘aqeedah—but even with them, students were free to read from classical works and discuss or debate issues with their teachers. That was encouraged even, although not expected unless one was PG. Nearly all premodern history books are long detailed tomes that go through the events year-by-year—which I personally read on the side, whereas our studies were focused on general themes. As for ‘aqeedah, then of course primacy was given to the works of MiAW, and that was studied in light of the transmitted words of the Salaf and the earliest theological compilations, like Fiqh al-Akbar, al-Sharee’ah, Sharh Usul I’tiqad, etc. I remember even my Sahih al-Bukhari hadeeth teacher challenging a Bosnian student to a lunch-time debate to settle some issues. Even teachers themselves differed among each other regarding controversial issues and even made it known that they differed with another professor or author, but all based on their understanding of scholarly legacy. Within those walls, it was academia and study, far removed from political influence. We felt free and comfortable to ask deep questions, and many did, whether it was about the Saudi regime, or the “agenda” behind the curriculum.

With all that controversial history of the university and its image in the mind of Muslims, I am graciously welcomed wherever I go, but just as often treated with great suspicion and fear. I recall visiting a community recently for an interview, and during a town-hall meeting, I was sitting on the side and out of sight for a moment, one sister took the mic and blasted the masjid for inviting graduates of the University of Medinah. The masjid also received several e-mails during my stay, warning them, against hiring a graduate of the University of Medinah. To be honest though, that only motivated me more. Let me prove all your negative suspicions wrong, let me win your trust. I remember a friend of mine who graduated from a comparable Saudi Islamic program visiting a Southern community for a 6-month contract only. The first month he was there, people treated him coldly. The community’s old wounds were still fresh from internal politics when he entered the scene. During his last week of the contract and his last times in the masjid, many people were crying that he was leaving, and apologizing profusely at how they had misjudged him. He said it was a surreal scene he never experienced before. Most graduates, for better or worse, are humble agents of change within their communities, if they even dedicate their time to serving the Muslim community. A significant lot also complete their secular education and pursue secular careers, which I personally feel is just a tremendous waste, considering the university’s mission, and the many applicants who, if given the chance, might use such a great once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to affect more than their own selves, but to teach communities behind them, and help fill this fardh kifayah which no one is more qualified [and therefore responsible] to fill.

 

How do I feel about Saudi Arabia?

Criticizing Saudi Arabia, even to the point of criticizing acts of sheer charity and sharing negative fake news about them, has all become a common pastime for the Muslims—except those whom Allah has Mercy on and only concern themselves with what benefits them. I can think of no country on earth that is hated more. Not even North Korea, Iran, the US or Israel is hated more severely than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Say a neutral word, or, God forbid, a positive word about them and you’re met with rabid foaming-at-the-mouth outcry. Criticize the war on Yemen, labor rights and culturally ingrained racism, sure, but don’t forget that there are also many preachers and scholars who can also see clearly and criticize those same issues from the minbar as I’ve witnessed personally.

Criticize, to whom it matters and could help, what is universally wrong and you know about with undeniable proof, but be just and understand who is involved and who is not, so as not to generalize and backbite millions of innocents in the process. But when you criticize among a group of people who only agree and just add fuel to the fire, then what is your intention? How are you trying to change the situation? Are you making du’a for them or simply trying to justify your hatred and find people to say aye aye? I’ve seen many Muslims even go so far in their hatred as to say that all the Saudis or even all the Arabs are kuffaar! They’re offended if you call Christians and Jews kuffaar, but the Saudis on the other hand… laa hawla wa laa quwwatta illa billah! How great is their hatred! How imbalanced and drowned are they in their hatred! SubhanAllah. Declaring an entire society as disbelieving? So you’re agreeing with bin Laden and Sayyid Qutb and the terrorists you claim to hate so much that made takfeer of these societies?

When I lived there, I met some of the most generous people. One even offered to give me his car. I was too shy to accept. I witnessed many of them donate large sums of money to charity. A Burmese neighbor of mine, and classmate, told us that King Abdullah personally donated 50 million dollars to help the Rohingya, but the Buddhists of Myanmar and their military usurped that donation and took it for themselves. One of my classes, called al-Dawah fi al-Mamlakah, was a history of how the movement and teachings spread, especially during hajj times and through the halaqas of traveling scholars like Abdullah al-Qar’āwī and a lot of the charitable works the kingdom has done at home and abroad. What was most ironic, especially considering the horrible reputation that KSA has, was their refusal to take credit for a lot of the masajid, institutions, charity organizations, universities, academic centers within prominent universities, and even entire cities that they built for Islam and Muslims abroad, but instead giving credit to other nations that made only nominal contributions to efforts that the Saudis almost entirely initiated, lobbied for and shouldered. One that we studied in depth was what they called the Islamic City in Rome and Brazil3)In Wikipedia “Islam in Brazil” we read “As has been the case in many of the larger metropolitan mosques in South America, foreign assistance and individual effort have played major roles in the sustainability of the mosques in the greater São Paulo area. For example, the Imam of the Av. Do Estado Mosque is from the Middle East and often Imams are chosen jointly by the Mosques’ management committees and the Arab governments that pay for the Imam‘s services.”. Most of the Muslim world is instead extraordinarily ungrateful for these efforts, and call it meddling or spreading Wahhabi teachings and “foreign influenced Islam”.

I also heard countless stories of people accepting Islam in Saudi Arabia, especially at the Jeddah Dawah Center, and during my time there, frequent news articles about the hundreds of Chinese railroad construction workers that accepted Islam, and their struggles to better understand and practice the faith. My wife and I also saw maids and servants in Quran halaqas and learning the faith, and knew some personally who wouldn’t trade their work for anything. Yes, it is very unfortunate and criminal that some maids are abused and treated worse than slaves, but many are also treated like respected extended family.

 

Saudia is more mountain than desert, except for the Empty Quarter of course.

This masjid is a favorite for those visiting Jeddah. I ate al-Baik there several times with my in-laws.

There were a couple dozen date types you could choose from. As for native food, I enjoyed Qarmooshi, Hummus Reefi, and any mathlootha/mansaf rice. During my last year a shawarma shop opened up next to our home and we’ve never had better. Tazij restaurant was meh, except for when they used to serve maqlouba.

Does Saudi Arabia have crime and do gold shops really just cover their wares with a tarp during prayer time and nothing else? No. There’s crime and there are pickpockets. People who sell cheap dresses and trinkets and prayer caps may cover their junky wares with a tarp between prayers, but the gold shops pull down a garage door and lock it.

Another mixed blessing of Saudi Arabia was the internet. Pornography sites and searches were entirely blocked, but so were some other websites containing useful information. Doing research and clicking a link to some teaching aids or following up an info lead but hitting a blocked site was frustrating.

But Saudia does establish the hudud, although most of it is fulfilled within prison walls. There was a police station on my way to the university. If its parking lot had police tape over the entrance and the cops parked across the street in the gravel, then there would be an execution that day in the parking lot at 10 am exactly for anyone to witness. People would congregate behind the tape. National guard would come and form a perimeter in front of the tape, making sure no one would cross and that no one would film. A water truck would come, and then a prisoner transport vehicle. The convict would be escorted out, wearing his native clothing but with a cover over his head, and then that would be removed, and his face would be covered in tape. He would be escorted gently and instructed to kneel. He would be very calm and sedated. The executioner, wearing a mask would choose between two swords and then decapitate the prisoner. A man with a boom phone would then recite a verse from the Quran (5:33 usually) and then state the man’s name, nationality, and what he was convicted for. It could be murder, rape, drug trafficking, married adultery or sorcery. In the case of murder, if the victim’s family pardoned the perpetrator before the sword fell and accepted their ransom or the king’s financial offer, then everyone would go home safe. Immediately after the beheading, the body would be placed on a stretcher and sewn together for proper burial and then the water truck operator would spray the spot with a firehose. It would all take place within a few seconds, and about a hundred yards away from spectators. Maybe about a thousand people would gather, hearts beating out of their chests and then let out an audible gasp the moment it happens, and then quickly depart, changed and affected. Any public flogging that would take place would be in crowded daytime areas like the vegetable market. A bus would swoop in, everyone would get out, administer the punishment, and quickly get back in and drive off. This would have the greatest affect on witnesses, people would cry and beg Allah for forgiveness. As for those flogged, their forgiveness was guaranteed.

Perhaps the one thing I miss the most about Saudi Arabia was the respect for families. Saudi Arabia is a great country for families. If my wife and I came to an elevator, and there were men waiting, they would immediately step aside, or even just take the stairs. Nearly every restaurant in Medinah had two entrances and two sections and two ordering counters—one for single men, and another for women and families. Most of those restaurants also had curtains or partitions around each and every table or booth. Going to Applebee’s in Medinah, or even McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, seemed like a romantic and intimate dining experience. The Chinese restaurants often had a button with the table, just like air plane seats, to call the waiter. My entire experience in Saudi Arabia was a honeymoon. I wish I could just fly back for that alone, another meal here or there. I’d love, if I had the money, to create a similar restaurant experience here in America, I’m sure it would be a hit for Muslims and non-Muslims alike who value intimacy.

Because of my education, I for one am forever indebted to the kingdom. The opportunity that Allah gave me through them has completely changed my life. I definitely had a unique experience that differs from the experiences of others. But I had it nonetheless, and because of that, when people blast the kingdom, whether it’s the indulgences of the royal family, puritanical Islam, construction methods taken to accommodate more pilgrims, or attitude and treatment of foreigners, we must remember the other great things that takes place there, and be just and limit our critique to those responsible and worthy of the condemnation and have the ability to change things for the better but do not and at the right time, place and company. The art of fair and just criticism is entirely lost among the Muslims.

Generally, when I meet brothers who praise Saudi Arabia as the “land of Tawheed” and think of it like a Utopia, I have nothing good to say, “just remember that there were hypocrites during the Prophet’s time… 1400 years later, not much has changed. Al-Dajjaal will call out to the people of Medinah and seventy-thousand hypocrites will leave and follow him. The population of the city isn’t much greater than that, so don’t get your hopes up.” And when I meet others who speak in the exact opposite manner, I have to educate. Saudi Arabia is far from perfect, but it is an amazing country nonetheless and has many great citizens and there is a tremendous amount of charity and good will that takes place within its borders.

For myself personally, going to Medina was a blessing from Allah and a true lifesaver, inshaAllah—the greatest blessing for me after Islam and Tawheed. I don’t know what opportunities I would have had in life, if I did not have this one. I had negligible non-existent savings, I dropped out of college for this—without even knowing it would come, I was a convert, from a small community with little opportunity. This has opened up a world for me and I ask Allah to bless my efforts, and to expand my opportunities and to make the knowledge and experience a source of good for me in this life and the Next, and not a source of ill for me in this life or the Next.

 

If you’re an Islamic studies student in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, feel free to comment and tell myself and other readers how your experience differed from mine, may you all be blessed.

References   [ + ]

1. Retrospectively, it reminds of the question of how a Hogwarts student might wander which hall they’ll go into—Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or whatever the fourth one was.
2. This is an amazing book. The author simply says, “scholars agreed on this point, but disagreed on this other point, here’s why. Next issue…” Without telling what’s “right” or why. Rather, he leaves it to YOU to decide whose argument is stronger and to research further evidences. I don’t know any other book of comparative fiqh like that. The Kuwaiti Fiqh Encyclopedia is the only one that comes close, as it doesn’t say who is “right” or not, but it tells the opinions of the four schools, and some of the Salaf, along with their evidences, but without argumentation or tarjeeh.
3. In Wikipedia “Islam in Brazil” we read “As has been the case in many of the larger metropolitan mosques in South America, foreign assistance and individual effort have played major roles in the sustainability of the mosques in the greater São Paulo area. For example, the Imam of the Av. Do Estado Mosque is from the Middle East and often Imams are chosen jointly by the Mosques’ management committees and the Arab governments that pay for the Imam‘s services.”
About Chris
Chris, aka AbdulHaqq, is from central Illinois and accepted Islam in 2001 at age 17. He studied Arabic and Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia from 2007-13 and most recently earned a master's in Islamic Law from Malaysia. He is married with children.

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