Ever since I entered Islamic Studies, I have been having the hardest time with Muslims ever. And no one seems to understand completely--because they are not in my exact situation, because every Muslim who is pursuing Islamic Studies in the West has different experiences with it, because everyone practices and understands Islam differently, because everyone’s families are different, because everyone deals with the same situations differently. And few really understand what "Islamic Studies" means (I myself am still exploring this, so that's not to imply that I know and no one else knows), and there are many, many misconceptions about the field, as is the case with many other fields. I have therefore decided to discuss the matter here on my blog in an effort to dispel some of the misunderstandings and to initiate a dialogue with those who cannot understand why a Pashtun Muslim female would be interested in Islamic Studies and strive to pursue it in the U.S.-- or anywhere in the West.
I thank you in advance for your readership! Please feel free to post any questions and express any feelings about it, even after I have finished with the series (a series of about three blog posts or so); you may pose your questions/comments anonymously if you'd feel more comfortable doing that.
This first blog post will be on how I got started. Part II will be on why I have decided to pursue Islamic Studies in the U.S. and not in any Muslim country like Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc. Although I do intend to study certain Islamic Studies courses in traditional Islamic institutions as well (e.g., Al-Azhar in Egypt or the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia), I have learned that a traditionally Islamic institution will not be the better option for me (again, to be explained in the next post). In Part III, I will discuss the consequences of my entering Islamic Studies, how my family/relatives/friends and many other Muslims have reacted to my decision, and how I continue to struggle with it as I explain to others what exactly I am doing and why and how either they simply refuse to understand or I am unable to explain it clearly. You see, when people ask me what I am studying and I tell them I'm doing Islamic Studies and Gender Studies, they ask why I would want to pursue Islamic Studies in the west (and many often even dare to claim to "know" my intentions). In the third post, then, I will share with my readers the struggles and consequences I continue to face, especially from Muslims who, even after I explain to them what I'm doing and why, don't seem to tire from asking, rather unpleasantly, "But why in America? Why not in Saudi Arabia?" or "What - you don't think Zakir Naik is the most brilliant, most knowledgeable Islamic scholar of our time????? You must not be studying the correct Islam, that's why." Or "WHAT?!! You mean you don't believe Shi's are not Muslims??? What kind of Islam are they teaching you?" And, my favorite one: "Are your teachers Muslims? ... Hey, do your female teachers wear hijab [cover their heads]?"
Yeah, that kinda stuff.
To put it very simply, I was aware of the consequences of my decision to pursue Islamic Studies when I decided to go for it in the beginning, but I was honestly not prepared for what it has come to: it's simply too difficult to understand myself let alone to explain to anyone else. I entered the field hoping to liberate myself intellectually and spiritually, but instead, I seem to have smothered myself.
Now, let us proceed.
Making the decision to enter Islamic Studies took me several years. Until my last two years of my bachelor's, I had plans to become a medical doctor, as per my parents' wishes. Initially upon matriculating into college, I declared myself a pre-medical student with a biology major--like many other Pakistani students. However, even three years into the degree, I never experienced the passion that is essential in pursuing any field of interest. I slowly realized that entering the healthcare sector was not my dream. I then explored my interests in English, Women’s Studies, and Philosophy; yet my study of these fields, too, did not cultivate a passion within me, and I remained restive about my future objectives. During this period, I by chance took courses in Middle Eastern Studies with an Islamic Studies professor who, during our study of Islam, briefly mentioned something about the Shi'-Sunni split that sparked my interest. We discussed it further, and I decided not long after that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I need not remind myself or anyone else that I am deeply satisfied with the trajectory of my college education, because I have not only explored many of my own interests but I have also discovered a passion that I can pursue for a lifetime.
At both my undergraduate and my graduate institutions, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from and work with several erudite professors, intellectuals, and scholars, all of whom are renowned experts of Islamic Studies, published authors, and internationally recognized for their contributions to the Muslim world and to academia. These personalities have taken--and continue to take-- much time to discuss and debate with me various issues in Islamic Studies and Gender Studies and have thus carefully nurtured my intellectual curiosity and encouraged me to explore, without inhibition, important questions such as gender in Islam or the clash of culture with the Islamic dogma. I owe them lifetimes of gratitude.
I am deeply unsettled by the small percentage of Muslim female scholars within Islamic studies despite remarkable progress within the field. I want to explore disparities in the notion of authority in Islam and study exactly the influence of the low participation of female Muslim scholars on both the current situation and future directions of Islam and Muslims. One way we can encourage large involvement by all in the field of Islamic studies is by studying Islam from various possible viewpoints. Towards this objective, I want to study the essence of Muslimhood and its evolution throughout time and the development of various branches of Islam developed with their unique interpretations as well as to understand their theological justifications. I am convinced that if more Muslims studied Islam from a different perspective, the Muslim world will be able to achieve the long-awaited unity and, perhaps, even peace. (I have discussed this in another piece, entitled "On the Intellectual Mutilation of Today's Muslims.")
Exploring in-depth topics in Islamic Studies has opened various avenues for me and the field is as intriguing as it is massive. I look forward to research on Pashtuns and other Muslims, expanding the projects I have already initiated [discussed in the larger version of this piece as well as throughout this blog]. I am confident that I have more to offer to Islamic Studies than to any other field, something that gives me a reason to be enthusiastic about not only my own future but the future of Islamic Studies as well.