Your years at university go by at break-neck speed. For that brief period in life, the world cuts you some slack while you meander through the meadows of your mind and make something of yourself. As a vicegerent placed by Allāh on this Earth, Allāh has given you, the Muslim student, an even higher purpose than to become a breadwinner or careerist. As Muslims, we are charged with developing ourselves to the greatest extent that we can in order to carry out the work of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) on this Earth. This means becoming intellectual and spiritual forces to be reckoned with by nurturing the talents and creativity we have chosen to develop and using them for something beyond ourselves – for something that really matters.
You may be exposed for the first time to ideas and ‘isms’ that challenge your worldview and seek to discombobulate you as a believer. More importantly, you are now entirely responsible for staying disciplined, such as waking yourself up for Fajr, especially if you are living away from home.
The Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) is reported to have said, “A time will come to people in which patiently adhering to one’s religion will be like holding on to a hot coal.” So how do you as a student safeguard your dīn during these years of self-discovery? How do you emerge successfully and relatively unscathed, with an even stronger sense of identity?
1. Be mindful of Allāh
Keep in mind the advice of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) to his young cousin Abdullah ibn Abbās: “Be mindful of Allāh and you will find Him in front of you. Get to know Allāh in times of ease and He will know you in times of hardship. Know that anything that passes you by was never meant to come to you, and anything that happens to you was never going to miss you. Know that victory comes through patience, relief comes with suffering, and that with hardship comes ease.”
Being mindful of Allāh (murāqabah), means knowing that although your parents are not watching you 24/7, Allāh your Creator is. It means doing your best not to compromise on Allāh’s commands and boundaries. It means doing the right thing in any given situation. You can and you must call on Him, speak to Him, cry to Him, complain to Him, and start your day by making mention of Him. Tell Him your dreams and heart’s desires.
2. Be proud to worship Allāh
When you pray your prayers, fast Ramadan, or observe the Hijab, you are doing so in worship and obedience to Allāh. When the time for prayer comes, pray. Carry a prayer mat with you everywhere and be proud to pray in any safe place, even if people can see you (and even if you don’t have a mat!). You are a believer! It is precisely because you put that forehead to the ground in worshipping your Creator that you have the God-given right to hold your head up high before the Creation! Never imagine that people are looking down on you. On the contrary, you are piquing their fitrah. They are secretly admiring you and wishing they had the conviction and connection you have with your Lord.
3. Keep your guard up
Having a crush feels real (and can be very painful). Some day you will, in shā Allāh, be happily married to someone you love, who is good for your dīn and worthy of building a family with. Until then, protect yourself and your heart from the pain of harām relationships and everything that can lead to them. This is done by actively avoiding situations that ignite your desires. This means, for example, not freely mixing with the opposite sex, not being in seclusion with your professor (of the opposite sex), not listening to lewd lyrics, and lowering your gaze. Our dīn gave us these guidelines for our own protection.
4. Find an Islamic mentor
The scholars of Islam are the heirs of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam). We need to stay connected to them in these times of confusion and delusion. Find a qualified scholar who you trust and attend their regular classes. Alternatively, find a trustworthy Islamic mentor who you can turn to for advice and guidance with regards to matters of spirituality – this should be someone who won’t sugar-coat things and can answer your questions. Seek knowledge of the dīn, study the Qur’ān, and don’t allow the knowledge of the world to be your only knowledge. It is usually because we lack knowledge and connection to the people of knowledge that the various ideologies and ‘isms’ are able to affect us and sow seeds of doubt.
5. Keep good company
The Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “A man follows the religion of his friend, so each one of you should consider (carefully) whom he makes his friend.” Surround yourself with a core group of fellow believers who have good character and get involved with your Islamic Society (ISoc). I will never forget how, when I was a young student and was in danger of falling into some questionable behaviour, my dear friend Soraya pulled me to the side and said, “Fatima, if I have dirt on my back, how will I know if you don’t tell me? And if you have dirt on your back, how will you know if I don’t tell you? I am your mirror and you are my mirror.” A good friend will help you stay on the straight path.
6. Know why you are here
You are not at university to mess around. These years are precious, but by all means enjoy them. Explore and experience life to the full. Have fun with your friends and get involved in extracurricular activities. However, don’t forget that you will probably never have the same level of free time again. As you get older, your responsibilities will increase, so value this opportunity and do the very best you can. The effort you put in will be reflected in your results. The boxer Muhammad Ali said: “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” You will thank yourself later. Keep in mind your specific aims for being here and keep in mind your greater purpose in life, which is that you were created to worship and serve Allāh.
7. Know where you are going
Formulate a vision for your life. How will you serve the cause of Allāh? Where will you be when you are 40 and 60 years old? Beginning with the end in mind helps you to take the right steps today. You don’t have to know how you will get there yet, because you can (and will) figure that out as you go along. Your vision may also change, and it may seem impossible, but nothing is impossible if you have Allāh on your side.
8. Become a force to be reckoned with
The process of writing an essay well can teach you to research and think in a structured and methodical manner. Learning to think and express yourself are powerful skills for you to become a force to be reckoned with in this world. But you must develop these skills, which will take time, effort, and tawfīq from Allāh. It also means taking the metaphysical means to success and barakah in your life, which comes through pleasing Allāh. Get into the habit of giving charity from now – charity never decreases your wealth. Call up your mum ‘just because’. Buy groceries for your parents. Help out and volunteer. You will see that the good deeds you do are recompensed manifold. Show Allāh what you are willing to do for His sake and He will grant you success.
9. Be patient as you formulate new thoughts
Everything seems so black and white when you start out, then you begin to see the shades of grey; the nuances and hidden aspects. Hold your judgment, take your time, and read between the lines. If you start to have questions about some aspect of Islam, or you feel unhappy with something, go seek knowledge about it properly from real-life, knowledgeable, learned Muslims, not from Sheikh Google and Mufti YouTube. Realise that you may have only been given part of the picture, or a biased version of something. Hold your judgement, be humble, and have faith that Allāh will show you the way if you are patient and sincere.
10. Speak up when you should
Ask questions in class to make sure you understand things properly. Be willing to challenge ideas, as this is the perfect practicing ground for you to build your confidence. If something inaccurate is said in class, don’t be afraid to respectfully speak up. You can politely email your professor and give him or her evidence to back up your perspective. There are two types of people who cannot seek knowledge properly: the arrogant and the shy. The arrogant one thinks he knows everything already. The shy one is too shy to ask questions for fear of looking bad.
11. Beware of becoming an ideologue
The university space is notoriously filled with isms and schisms. Whether it’s orientalism, Marxism, or feminism, such isms tend to be ideologies: systems of ideas and ideals with their own architects, ideologues, and loaded language. Islam is the complete way of life revealed by our Creator. It is the source of our ideals and values. Remember that Islam contains its own framework for addressing issues surrounding oppression, the economy, women’s rights, politics, philosophy, and more. Worldly ‘isms’ were formulated in the minds of fallible human beings and, at times, charlatans. Even academia itself cannot escape its internal conventions, biases, assumptions, and poor scholarship. Be careful before you innocently adopt trends such as ‘cancel culture’ or use the latest loaded buzzword. You could be sucked in to an ideology that is antithetical to Islam, which could lead to greater problems in your dīn.
12. Seek excellence in all you do
The Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) told us, “Verily, Allāh has prescribed excellence in everything…” Excellence is an iterative process; you get better over time. By putting in the hours, studying smart, attending workshops that teach you how to write well, receiving feedback on your essays, and reading widely and around your subject, you will attain excellence. Go beyond the call of duty to add the X-factor to everything you do.
I leave you with the prayer of our brother El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbaz, also known as Malcolm X:
“I pray that God will bless everything that you do. I pray that you will grow intellectually so that you can understand the problems of the world and where you fit into that world picture and I pray that all the fear that has ever been in your heart will be taken out…”
 Sunan al-Tirmidhī, 2260. Grade: Sahih (authentic) according to Al-Albāni
 40 Hadith of Imam an-Nawawi. https://sunnah.com/nawawi40/19
 Fitrah is the inherent and natural inclination towards Islam that Allāh has placed within all human beings.
 Authentic hadith from Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2378
 This is habit number 2 in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. https://www.franklincovey.com/the-7-habits/habit-2.html
 How to Achieve What Seems Impossible by Fatima Barkatulla. https://youtu.be/mQz150Hi7zE
 The ability and opportunity to succeed
 An adherent of an ideology, especially one who is uncompromising and dogmatic.
 Sahih Muslim 1955
 How to Become a Straight A Student by Cal Newport. https://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Become-Straight-Student-Unconventional/dp/0767922719
 The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a book you must add to your reading list.