By Aatifa Shareef
It started in high school. I took the 10-day Classical Arabic grammar intensive taught by Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan. I didn’t know who he was back then – my family was attending the class so I went. Ten days later, as dramatic as it sounds, my life was changed. For the first time, Arabic was something I could learn, and the Qur’an could impact me beyond the beauty of its sound.
He would teach grammar for three hours, and then at the end of the evening, show us why the few simple things we were learning were so amazing, how these grammar superpowers activated in the Qur’an, affecting the meaning in a way that would affect my life
I remember the example very clearly:
وَأَصْبَحَ فُؤَادُ أُمِّ مُوسَىٰ فَارِغًا ۖ إِن كَادَتْ لَتُبْدِي بِهِ لَوْلَا أَن رَّبَطْنَا عَلَىٰ قَلْبِهَا لِتَكُونَ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ١٠
He prefaced this example by asking if anyone in the room had studied psychology. With only one hand shooting up, my brother’s, in the primarily Desi/Arab community, he continued by saying that anyone who is interested in the subject should look up the words for heart, soul, mind, body, etc. in the Qur’an as the study of psychology in the Qur’an is mind-blowing. He went on to explain how the ayah uses two different words for the heart based on the changing of its condition.
My mind was already blown. Look to the Qur’an? For psychology? It was the first time it really hit: the Qur’an has something to say about everything, we just have to look. If I truly believe that it is guidance for all mankind, then it does have the solutions to all our problems. It’s our job to understand what it’s saying and apply it to whatever beneficial “secular” interests we have.
From that point on, I knew I had to study psychology, I knew I had to study the Qur’an, and I knew that I had to work to put these together, be like the Prophet Muhammad , and live the Qur’an. Over time, these things I “knew” developed. Majoring in psychology was not enough. As humans, we’re meant to do more than whatever strikes our fancy; we have to work to benefit ourselves and the people around us. If I want to study psychology, I better use it for that goal and a bachelor’s degree wasn’t enough. In addition, studying the Qur’an requires studying Arabic, and when I had finally made headway in that regard, I realized that it requires studying every other Islamic science as well. I had taken weekend seminars before, but if I were to dedicate my life to this endeavor, I needed to be on more firm ground. Thirdly, putting the two subjects together is not something one can do without any guidance. I needed a mentor who knew where I was coming from, where I wanted to go, and what I needed to do to get there. Finally, outside of my intellectual goals, I realized that to be a truly beneficial human being, I first needed to be comfortable with myself, socially, emotionally, and spiritually, requiring me to be in a good environment around like-minded individuals who shared my passion for educated activism.
But I had no idea where to go.
I could go to any university to continue my education in psychology, but the imbalance between men and women in the field of Islamic sciences is phenomenal. Too many programs only accept men, and when a program does exist for women, it’s over flooded despite its sub-par status. We’re desperate for knowledge so we’ll take whatever we can get, even if there’s a wall between us and the teacher. We’re expected to interact with what we’re learning without interacting with whom we’re learning from. We’re told this is normal; this is the way things should be.
The cycle of ignorance continues as we hide our women and teach our men that women aren’t to be included in their circles of knowledge. Maybe the women educated in that system do have a proper Islamic grounding, but I wouldn’t know because I never see them. So we’re stuck, with generations and generations of girls, our sisters, mothers, wives, daughters, believing that that we’re meant to stay in the dark, that Islam is not for them. If it were, then wouldn’t institutions exist to facilitate our education, our piety, our understanding of the religion, our work for the sake of Allah? Wouldn’t they exist to teach that modesty is more than clothing, dignity is more than silence, and intelligence is more than emotion?
We were back in school from winter break during the year I was studying Arabic at the Bayyinah Dream program. I had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology the summer before, and I was still trying to figure out how I could go about actualizing the goals I had set for myself. Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan stands at his desk and says, “I have a surprise for you guys, it’s supposed to be a secret though!” And he lays out the information for the first school year of the Qalam Seminary program: one year long, Islamic Studies, small tight-knit class accepting both males and females, practical training focused on benefiting the American Ummah, with direct mentorship from Shaykh Abdul Nasir Jangda.
Like the فؤاد of the mother of Musa , my heart was on fire: I was sitting in the Dream program as my dreams were coming true.
I had the honor of being a part of the Qalam Seminary’s first graduating class. For the first time in my life, I went through a full-time curriculum of Qur’anic sciences, Hadith sciences, fiqh, the principles of each, a study of the life of the Prophet Muhammad , and topics related to being a leader in the Muslim community in America today. My textbooks were the original sources, written in Classical Arabic, but in classic Qalam style, the focus didn’t waver from practical spirituality.
I learned that though I am judged by my role as a woman in relation to people – as a wife, mother, daughter, sister – I am only defined by my role as a slave in relation to Allah. I learned that the only difference between people in the sight of Allah is their level of piety (49:13), that piety lies in the heart (Hadith in Sahih Muslim) and the ones who are the most God-fearing are those who are educated, male and female (35:28).
At the Qalam Seminary, there are almost double the number of women in the class as men. With no barrier between teacher and student, equal opportunity to schedule personal meetings with Shaykh Abdul Nasir Jangda, and a weekly sisters-only question and answer session with Shaykh, the too-well-known model of sisters not having the chance to spend time with scholars dismantles. Shaykh Abdul Nasir is every student’s teacher, trainer, and mentor, fulfilling the three-pronged mission of the Qalam Seminary for males and females equally.
Maybe if Ustadh Nouman had used an example related to politics or economics or the medical field, my bachelor’s degree would have been very different. But the other things on my to-do list still required Qalam – there is no other place in the world, in my eyes, that provides the holistic education I experienced here in a way that makes me feel respected as a woman.
Now having graduated from a psychology program, an Arabic program, and now a full-time Islamic Studies program, I’m using all that I’ve learned to work as an instructor for Qalam. I teach and mentor the men and women who will insha’Allah be the mentors for others, becoming the solution for problems that have existed for far too long. My classmates have all gone to do the same in their own spheres. Whether it be in their university MSAs, in their workplace, in their families, or in their masajid and community centers, each one of us has used our Seminary experience as a launchpad for further Islamic education and community work.
Imam Ghazali wrote in a letter to his student after graduating:
العلم بلا عمل جنون, و العمل بغير علم لا يكون
“Knowledge without action is insanity, and action without knowledge has no reality.” Those of you who notice problems in our community, be it gender inequality, the lack of good role models, or the dearth of practical Islamic education, know that there are solutions, we just have to be them.
Aaitfah Shareef is an instructor at the Qalam Seminary. She also conducts the Sisters Public Speaking Workshop at Qalam Insitiute. She graduated with a degree in Psychology from Northwestern University.