In some ways, as a Muslim in Oxford one might feel a bit out-of-place. In a student community that (for the most part) adheres to its self-proclaimed slogan ‘Work Hard, Play Hard’, it is hard to swim against the tide and maintain the conviction, for example, that not all forms of ‘play’ and ‘fun’ are created equal. Despite the university’s focus on rational thought and independent enquiry, and our common self-perception that we are amongst the brightest and most intelligent young people, it is surprising how few of us employ their rational capacity not only in the context of academia, but also as part of their private life. After all, education is not just about gaining technical skills and knowledge, but (arguably more importantly) about developing as an individual, building one’s character, and forming a vision of how one can use one’s abilities to improve the world.
In other ways, as a Muslim in Oxford one might be more inclined than others to truly appreciate the possibilities that this place has to offer. When learning about the world and sharpening one’s mind becomes a comprehensive experience that is not restricted to writing essays and passing exams, then an Oxford education not only boosts one’s career prospects, but above all creates reflective, responsible and wise individuals.
If intelligence and rationality are used as tools not only for achieving good grades, but also for leading a ‘good’ life (in the normative sense), then it becomes a habit to make up one’s mind about what is beneficial (spreading good mood, volunteering, character development) and what is harmful (late-night partying, backbiting, wasting time), and then to act according to one’s newly-acquired convictions.
When I started to realise this, and began to reflect upon the way I study, behave, and live, I found myself changing my lifestyle – not primarily because the religion that I grew up with “told me that I must do X”, but simply because it became clear to me that adopting X will help me improve my character and live a balanced life. To the extent that I have managed to overcome social pressure and exercise self-discipline with regards to these matters and that I have been content and managed to deal much better with all the stress and difficulties of my hectic student life.
As a slightly trivial (but nonetheless relevant) example, take my sleep rhythm: Praying the first of five daily prayers before the sun rises practically forces one to go to bed early – but as a side-effect, one sleeps much better, is more productive during the early hours of the day, and potentially even witnesses the beauty of a misty sunrise on a Sunday morning in spring (speaking from experience here). Other examples include my increased propensity to donate charitably, care for the environment, and make an effort to deal with those around me in the best way I can.
Islam, for me, thus offers a way of life that appeals to human nature both on an emotional and rational basis, creates the preconditions for successful character development, and generally helps to get one’s priorities in life right. Once one has engaged oneself with it, it is easy to uncover the intellectual, spiritual, and social treasures that is has to offer. One will get mesmerized by the Qur’an, the deepness of its meanings, and the beauty of its recitation in Arabic (trust me, just check it out on YouTube). One will begin to feel intense love for the man who was the embodiment of its teachings, and whose mercy, humbleness, strength, and piety inspire humans around the world. One will understand that modern perversions of this religion are instances of human malignancy rather than examples of its backwardness and savagery.
But am I cherry-picking? Am I simply telling you all the great stuff while not mentioning the theory of evolution, the supposed irrationality of following scripture, the alleged patriarchy? In other words, am I buried in dogmatism and ideology? I have not devoted this article to rationality in the private sphere for no reason – the more I study and learn about Islam, the more I realise how baseless the accusations are which are commonly levelled against it, and how coherent a system of thought it is. Feel free to disagree on certain points, but don’t use this as a reason to categorically reject everything ‘Islamic’. Rather, approach it with an open mind and extract all that which, upon reflection, you deem beneficial for you. I did exactly that, and ended up as a believing, practicing Muslim.
*The author is a Muslim living in author who prefers to remain anonymous