About once every few weeks, I get at least one email from sisters asking for advice regarding travelling to the Khalīj for Ṭalab al-ʿilm, so I felt it pertinent to address this issue with my thoughts on the matter.
Our blessed Messenger (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said in a ḥadīth that when Allāh intends good for a believer He grants him (or her) understanding of the Dīn.
There is no greater good than one who is sincere in seeking sacred knowledge. It is a liberating experience which brings with it an incomparable increase in one’s īmān. Living in the time that we do, there is no a better way to battle the different tribulations that strike this Ummah at large and Muslims on an individual level than to learn about the Dīn as knowledge brings with it light and certainty, and removes the vulnerability that ignorance and doubt create.
In addition to this, now, more than ever, we are in great need of women scholars who have studied the classical sciences at the hands of reputable scholars, and are capable of teaching and guiding other women. But, before anyone reaches the level that qualifies them to impart knowledge of the Dīn, they need, first, to spend many years seeking knowledge. This brings us to the concern at hand: Ṭalab al-ʿilm.
Most people who “wish to seek knowledge” have little to no idea of the demands and requirements of setting out on the path of gaining knowledge. Ṭalab al-ʿilm has, somehow, become glamourised. Most people who want to seek knowledge have only just tasted the breeze of īmān after having attended a weekend retreat or a single motivational Islāmic lecture where they learnt a few “gems” which left them wanting more.
My first question to anyone who brings up this topic is: how much of the Qurʾān have you memorised in the place you are currently residing in? Chances are it is probably a very small amount. What guarantee do you have that in the months you plan on spending abroad you will be able to memorise more? What guarantee do you have that you will find a teacher who is able to help; who can understand your weaknesses and can work with your strengths?
It is true that there are a select few who are able to benefit a great amount by travelling to certain countries to memorise and study. However, there are a great many more we do not hear about it; those who return home with a meagre achievement. These individuals return home having spent an incredible amount of money to gain very little when it could have gone to much better use.
It is important to understand that seeking knowledge is a privilege and an honour. We will not get the best or most prolific opportunities immediately. We need to prove to Allāh—though He is the All-Knowing—that we are worthy of this ʿilm. I have spoken to sisters who consider local teachers or online classes beneath them, not realising that Allāh tests us with smaller opportunities to see how passionate we are about this. Those who dismiss opportunities at hand because they are not good enough are, in effect, proving themselves unworthy of all other opportunities. They are proving themselves unworthy of this precious knowledge. There are sisters who have refused to seek knowledge in their home country because they wanted to get married and move to Madīnah to study instead. Years go by and they are still waiting while their peers have advanced.
Sisters often address me with a slight accusatory tone suggesting that I have it easy seeking knowledge living where I do. Ṭalab al-ʿilm is never easy, no matter where you are. It requires hard work, it takes a lot of sacrifice and it demands dedication. If a person cannot bring themselves to meet these demands in the West, they will not be able to do so here either. That is why the first piece of advice I share with sisters who ask me about travelling to a ‘Muslim country’ to seek knowledge is: Stay where you are and finish ḥifḏh al-Qurʾān. If you can do it in your own country then it proves that you are capable of progressing to the next level. Moving to a Muslim country will not suddenly make you a better student. A teacher can only guide your ḥifdh and studies, they cannot pour knowledge into you. If you were inconsistent before, chances are you will be even more so now that you are on your own with more responsibilities.
Ṭalab al-ʿilm is also a lonely occupation—no matter where you live. Living in a Muslim country does not mean you will find likeminded Ṭālibāt ʿilm to motivate you. In the length of time I have been doing this, I have yet to meet a serious female student of knowledge in my country.
It has only been in the past two years that more sisters have started attending but, even then, many bring coffee pitchers and sit in groups to chitchat. If you are serious about the knowledge you seek, then be prepared for a life of friendlessness. Be prepared to be your own source of motivation. Be prepared to spend a lot of time on your own repeating a few sentences until your throat is sore and your voice is hoarse.
The most important thing that we need to internalise and then live by is that knowledge is from Allāh. It can never come from having certain friends, or marrying a certain person, or living in a certain place, or even having a certain teacher. A mistake many people make is to attach their ability to seek ʿilm to things other than Allāh. However, as we learn in our Dīn, whoever trusts anything other than Allāh, Allāh will leave him to that thing resulting in their facing nothing but disappointment.
Knowledge is from Allāh and He has made means to attain this knowledge. If one means is not available to you, then we do not rely upon the means rather we go to the source, Allāh, and ask Him to equip us with a better means.
How many have memorised the Qurʾān and learnt classical Arabic from scratch, having never spent more than a few weeks in a Muslim country? The only thing preventing you at present from being this person is your own self. Not your parents, not your husband, not your job, not your studies, and most definitely not the country that you live in.
I have local teachers who have the best qualifications, however the teacher from whom I have benefited most in terms of recitation is a Sheikha I have never met. I have recited to her consistently for more than four years. Whenever a local teacher hears my recitation, they ask me the same question: Where did you learn to recite like that? Followed by disbelief when I tell them it is through practicing with the Sheikha online.
Remember: Knowledge is from Allāh, and He has given us many means to attain this knowledge. Enlist as many as you can, but do not depend on them; do not think that only by travelling to a Muslim country will you increase in knowledge.
Another important point to consider is that I would never encourage a girl to leave her parents or her husband and travel to live alone. The negative impact of this alone would surpass any positives that may come from living in a Muslim country. The pleasure of Allāh is far superior to anything else and, generally, the pleasure of Allāh lies in a girl staying wherever her family is. This is better for her chastity, īmān, Dīn and even Dunya.
If you make pleasing Allāh your utmost concern, He will reward you with gifts, and the best of these gifts is knowledge. If you are sincere in what you seek and are hardworking, Allāh will drive the scholars to your doorstep if you are unable to go to them.
So stay where you are and start today. Not tomorrow, not next week. Today. Work hard, stick to what concerns you, be consistent and tell me in a year’s time that you haven’t progressed.
May Allāh grant us the best of His favours.