Around 2001, I "accidentally" listened to a lecture that started a series of events that flipped my whole life upside down. To be noted: I say "accidentally" because the story of how I came across this lecture is crazy but a story for another day and another time. And also, I put "accidentally" between quotes, because nothing is by accident. Allah decides everything. But trust me when I tell you, it was not my intention to listen to this lecture. So back to what I was saying before....
This lecture challenged my judgements, ignorance and prejudice about Islam - a religion I'd crossed off as backwards and "not for me". I heard what the shaykh was saying in this lecture and decided I was going on a path to find the truth. Either what I knew all my life is actually what Islam was....or....my newly found information was the accurate representation of what Islam was. (And yes, Muslims have prejudices about their religion too.)
I realized the only way I was going to learn about this religion is if I moved away from my family. I needed a new start, a blank page where I could process information based only on what I learned and experienced instead of letting anyone else's judgements cloud mine. In my internet searching, I discovered some colleges had something called an MSA.
MSA = Muslim Students' Association
To others known as a group of college kids who unite as Muslims on college campuses who represent Muslim students' interests, organize events, congregational prayers on campus, fundraisers and speak up for injustices done to other students (Muslim or not).
To me they are knows as so much more....
As a college kid,the idea of a MSA definitely appealed to me. I wanted to learn from places of worship, institutes, college classes and anything else Muslim-related that I could my hands on. And, I wanted to interact with other Muslims. So having a group that was right there on campus who were all Muslim sounded like a great start.
I narrowed my search to one university that met my needs that had a MSA. I called the number listed on the college website halfway expecting no one to answer. But a brother did. He was warm, helpful and respectful. Everything a brother should be. He put me on the phone with his sister and she offered to meet me up if I came. A few weeks later, I booked a plane ticket to visit the university. A few weeks later I started attending that university. I never told anyone about my search for knowledge. I didn't clue them in on my situation or ignorance. With my name being Fatima and my background being Arab, no one knew that I was so clueless and learning everything from zero (or possibly worse than zero with all the negative judgements I had).
We would attend lectures together, hang out between classes, pray together, laugh together, hold bridal showers for each other, and mostly eat together LOL. I became close with the sisters of the MSA. The brothers did most things from afar to respect Islamic manners. I respected them from a distance and watched how they were in meetings, interviews, or in classes. But both the brothers and the sisters, impacted me.
They opened my eyes to an Islam I had never seen. What was normal for them, was absolutely new to me. They showed me a diverse group of people with backgrounds from all over the world, who were smart, hip, beautiful and amazing Muslims. They chose this religion because of the relationship they wanted with their Creator. They infused Islam in everything they did. They were amazing humans AND amazing Muslims AND lived life fully within the boundaries of what pleased Allah. It was like someone removed a blindfold from my eyes and heart. I was seeing things for the first time.
Before I met them, I hated hijab. Salah was a chore, that I chose not to do. I hated so much-- all because I judged it from the outside, never understanding it from the inside.
To give you a peek into how ignorant I was: The first time someone wanted to become Muslim, I thought she was crazy. It was astonishing. Here I was thinking this religion is backwards and here she was choosing to be a part of it. "Why would anyone choose this?" I thought. I figured maybe she didn't know better. I remember as she was there to take her shahada, I asked her: "Do you know all the things you can't do anymore?" (and probably mentioned a thing or two knowing my crazy self) She chuckled. I couldn't believe she was laughing. I was dead serious, trying to save the girl from a "bad" choice and here she was... laughing. Looking back this makes me laugh so much. When I persisted, she said "yes, I know." and chuckled some more. I thought she was clueless. This girl and I became close friends as time passed, and let me tell you, it was me who was clueless. She knew more about Islam than most people I know 'til this day. I watched as she and other people became Muslim and were so happy about this decision. I learned right along with them as they were reading books between classes, going to lectures at different places and doing other things to increase their knowledge. I was also learning myself. They just never knew. I think most people thought I attended these lectures and did these things out of the intention of being surrounded by beneficial knowledge.
As the months passed and with every interaction with the MSA members, their friends, and families, I admired this religion more. It was like nothing I ever thought. The Islam in the lecture at the beginning of this story was the truth. I was very wrong and so ignorant. As I learned bit by bit, I became a better Muslimah. Seeing them live their daily lives, having dinner with their families, planning events with them and seeing their beautiful character even when they disagreed with people ---I was seeing Islam practiced first hand. All this erased everything I ever believed about Islam. It allowed me to have a deep relationship with my Lord. It gave me everything I ever wanted in life and more.
I have no doubt that I am a better human today because of these brothers and sisters. And it's not just because of the strong sisterhood/brotherhood we had. I was in a sorority before I met them. I'd experienced sisterhood before. This was deeper. It was witnessing a life lived out for the sake of Allah in everything they did, alone and together, as they were also living out their lives and goals here in this world....picking themselves up and striving to do better, even when they made mistakes.
Tomorrow 15 years later, the MSA girls (27 women to be exact) are planning a reunion. We've all gone our separate ways. Careers, kids, husbands, deaths of loved ones and so much more in between...yet we all still remember each other fondly. I wish I could have been there with them tomorrow. To thank them, hug them and be in their presence. In sha' Allah, they'll plan another reunion soon but whether we meet or not, they will always have a place in my heart and only Allah knows the reward they have for turning my life around....by simply being themselves and sharing knowledge.
To every Muslim Student's Association member:
What you're doing is important. It may look like attending meetings, talking, eating, praying, organizing events, discussing location of events, emails, calls and cleaning up afterwards. But it's so much more. And I know you have classes, homework, a job and possibly a husband or wife...and that the MSA adds more to your to-do list, but please know, what you're doing is valuable and needed.
Make it warm, welcoming, be yourselves, accepting of everyone regardless of where they are in their faith or what their faith is, and dedicate yourself to it for the sake of Allah, just like you do your studies. You don't know if there's a young woman among you whose soul is thirsty for truth and will forever be shaped by her tiny interactions with you.
To the current brothers and sisters of my MSA:
We, the former members, are no longer there. Please carry on the legacy of those who walked the same halls before you. Those before you made it amazing. You will too, in sha' Allah.