Hollywood paints a great picture of college: ground-shaking music so loud you can hear the bass a mile away, with crowds of attractive girls dressed like cats and bunnies, and red cups filled to the brim with an endless supply of booze. Students in high school cannot wait to escape the confines of their homes, to be independent of the restrictions placed on them by parents or teachers – to be free – and I was no different.
I grew up in a religious household and practicing Islam was the first priority for my family and for myself. Living in a Muslim country like the United Arab Emirates, I had the luxury of having mosques at almost every street corner, prayer rooms in schools and malls, and the call to prayer being heard almost anywhere I was. There was no situation in which it was hardship for me to pray on time, 5 times a day or to fast during the month of Ramadan – practicing Islam was easy.
Naturally, coming to the US was a totally different experience. Like any high school student, I had been exposed to a party culture, and I was always able to enjoy myself whilst staying away from what was prohibited by my religion of Islam: sex, drugs and alcohol. I arrived on the campus of a small liberal arts college in Claremont (a small suburb of LA) – a college of less than 1,300 students, most of who were white Americans – looking forward to meeting new friends, excited for the journey ahead, and expecting never to be tempted by sex, drugs or alcohol. I felt that I was prepared for college social life.
After only a few months away from my family and the luxuries of living in a Muslim country, I had pretty much stopped praying (except for the once a week Friday prayers offered at a makeshift prayer hall on campus), I stopped reading the Qur’an, and I started experimenting with marijuana. I went from being a practicing Muslim who prayed 5 times a day and stayed away from what was ‘haram’, to one of those people who I sometimes judged – those who didn’t pray, who drank alcohol and did drugs and who weren’t vigilant about practicing the religion.
Now I have finished with my freshman year of college and as I sit on the plane flying back home to Dubai I reflect on my first year away from home. Am I proud of the way I lived this year, do I have any regrets, and have I learned anything?
I have now seen and experienced both sides of the spectrum. I have been the practicing Muslim who prayed, stayed away from alcohol and judged those who didn’t. But, I have also been the one who stopped praying regularly, who experimented with drugs, and who did a lot that is prohibited by Islam. I cannot say that I am proud of what I did – I abused the freedom I had and went against my religious principles. However, I cannot say that I entirely regret what I did. Using this year to explore beyond what I had been exposed to in the past has helped me to learn more about myself, about my religion and arguably has brought me closer to Islam.
I learnt that despite the fact that I sinned in the eyes of my religion, I was still a Muslim. I never lost the belief that there was only one God and that the Prophet Mohammed was his last messenger. I never once doubted the word of the Qur’an and I never contemplated not following the religion of Islam. This experience helped me to understand that there is more to Islam than simply praying five times a day and staying away from partying, drugs and sex, and it has taught me that I am in no position to judge anyone. Religion – no matter what religion – is practiced in many ways, and judging, condemning and criticizing the way in which people practice their religion is simply wrong.
For some people, it is easy for them to believe and abstain from what their religion prohibits: for others it is a difficult feat: and for some, like myself, it is a learning experience full of trials and a few failures.