After receiving early education at madrasa, I studied English literature at Dhaka and Portsmouth universities with a PhD from the latter. Previously I taught the subject at Dhaka University and currently, at International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM).
Having had this dual exposure, I often feel puzzled by the extent of misinformation about madrasas and Islamic universities. Many people associate them with backwardness, rigidity and anti-modernity.
Located in Kuala Lumpur, IIUM was established in 1983 to integrate Islam into mainstream education. It offers almost all subjects taught in conventional universities. However, mainly because of the term ‘Islamic’ in its name, some believe that it produces only imams and religious teachers to staff masjids and madrasas.
My Students’ Responses
Upon my requests to share their campus experiences at IIUM, some of my former students quoted the following Qur’anic verse:
Then which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?”
Their choice of this quotation suggests that their learning experiences at IIUM were rewarding and fulfilling. Their responses to me were one-to-one, so the choice of this quote from the Qur’an was coincidental and spontaneous. As they graduated years ago, their reminiscences were relatively objective, though nostalgic to an extent.
Nuur Faatihah Hassan began her recollections with another Qur’anic verse:
But it is possible that you dislike a thing which is good for you, and that you love a thing which is bad for you.”
As her memories began to unfold, her reason for citing this verse became clear to me.
Previously, she was “nervous of religious people” and had misgivings about sites of Islamic learning. She feared that if she studied at an Islamic university and adopted its usual dress code and habits, she might end up looking like “a ‘freak’ in society.” Therefore, IIUM ranked the lowest on the list of universities she would hope to attend.
Full of fears and apprehensions, Faatihah finally made her way to IIUM. Her coming to IIUM was like venturing into an unknown domain of darkness and danger. In short, she “was so scared.”
Faatihah’s inner self was shattered and completely different from her social self. She was feeling desolate after losing some very important people in life, including her father. Having nowhere to go, she felt constricted. She was questioning why God was afflicting her and allowing her to suffer such losses and miseries.
Faatihah was drifting away from God through a combination of doubt and a crisis of confidence. She was teeming with frustration, guilt and self-loathing over her own inadequacies. Standing on the brink of a nervous breakdown, she “was almost sure that there was no power on earth that could save” her.
Faatihah lost the ability to pray; or, she was actually not ready to repent and submit to God. She was not thinking of Him as the ultimate source of all healing, goodness and beneficence. As Claudius in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1609) says:
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Faatihah’s mind was spiritually stunted and emotionally overwrought. She was troubled by her capacity for negligence of Islamic teachings.
IIUM as a Panacea
Faatihah was in “dire need of guidance and inspiration” and IIUM proved a panacea for her ills. It was a remedy for her against frustration and the threat of scepticism. Finally, she appreciated “the power of God. He knew exactly what [she] was lacking in.”
Before coming to IIUM, Faatihah did not know many basics of Islam. Such ignorance limited her ability to blend in with other Muslims and hindered her social life.
Overcoming Teething Problems
In her early days at IIUM, Faatihah saw her peers recite Qur’anic verses and texts of supplication with relative ease. A black sheep among them, she kept quiet, felt isolated from the rest and looked ashamed. Her face burnt with shame and mortification. Sometimes she stared at her peers with a mixture of amazement, remorse and acute introspection.
Gradually, Faatihah became at ease with her peers. She felt empowered when at IIUM she finished reciting the Qur’an for the first time in her life. She could now read it with reasonable comprehension of God’s message.
Empowerment and Career Success
Faatihah majored in English Language and Literature and minored in Comparative Religion. This marked a higher degree of her empowerment as a woman. While at home in modern education and western literature, she felt a strong sense of belonging to Islam and Muslim society.
IIUM helped her look at life from a holistic and multidimensional perspective. She developed skills needed in today’s competitive job market. She now teaches at a prominent university in Malaysia.
Faatihah’s is not an isolated case. Since its inception, IIUM has been helping many Faatihahs know themselves and gather confidence. It gives them a sense of pride and helps them hone their abilities and reconnect with the divine in full harmony with their fitrah (the natural, original state in which God created humans). It is committed to producing ethically-grounded future leaders who will unleash their potential for self and others.