Stand firm: Lessons From Omar

Tear after tear, I was constantly trying to pace my breathing. Hot flushes, trembling, a wave of uncontrollable palpitations and my entire body was shaking – just rock, rock rocking out of control. Screaming internally, but not a single word was uttered. I was breathing faster, while watching the rest of the world moving so slowly. I felt trapped within four walls, every blank one being a replica of the state of my mind – the same colour, texture and design.

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Constantly on the go with a thousand things to do, a head full of thoughts and such little energy to harbour them, I spent so much time stuck in my head that eventually, I became mentally exhausted. I just couldn’t breathe anymore.

Cambridge. Foreign, yet known.

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What do I mean by this? Cambridge is known for breeding generations of alumni that are at the forefront of their fields and home to endless developments in the academic sphere. It’s the city where the atom was first split, the structure of DNA was discovered, where Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution, where Newton developed his theory of gravity and where the electron and neutron were discovered – to say the least. Yet, simultaneously the city is foreign to the world below the title of elite, privileged and well-established.

Often when you ask students about their experience at Cambridge University so far, they emphasise the difficulty of being away from home, how the workload can overwhelm you (often at the expense of your social life), and how homesickness never truly fades away. While aspects of each topic are true, the main struggle has been missed out, or even overlooked. The truth is, this place will challenge you. Not just your ability to be articulate, to think outside the box or to be a high performing student, a soon-to-be pioneer in their industry. But it will test your faith, break every wall of comfort you stand behind and force you to be versatile, or otherwise collapse.

For me, I was doing fine. I was “getting by”, doing me- surviving. But, week 5 came around and it all changed. University students call it “Week 5 Blues” because it anticipates a week full of challenges to your mental wellbeing, your motivation and often your physical strength to continue as the term reaches its end. By Wednesday of that week, every single bone in my body was refusing to get up out of bed to see the light of day. It felt like the world was going at 100mph and I was struggling to keep up. Insomnia got the best of me, so I was sleeping at awkward times and randomly waking up in the middle of the night from restlessness.

All I recall constantly feeling was a dark pit in my stomach. My eyes were dripping with tears. My walls, the walls that hold me up, keep me going just… collapsed. Moment by moment, they fell. The world turned into a blur, and so did all the sounds. The taste. The smell. Everything was gone. It just kept happening, over, and over again.

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Everywhere I went, be it to the town centre, to the Law faculty or even my room, I constantly felt suffocated. Living in University makes it feel as if you’re always reminded of academia – I walk in to town and see colleges, I walk out of my room and see classmates, I walk across the road and I see my lecture theatre. I live in Cambridge, I study in Cambridge and I breathe Cambridge. I grew to be stuck in a limbo of negative thoughts and a lack of motivation to continue. I woke up every morning dreading the next day before that one even commenced. I could barely look at my room without my stomach churning. I felt sick at the thought of being here for two more years.

I was fed up – fed up of having to tackle imposter syndrome. I’ve had countless moments where I’ve felt like I just wasn’t as intelligent as every other person to comprehend the content I study as well, I didn’t have it in me to respond to questions eloquently or make hypothetical situations to refute academic views. And, irrespective of the amount of times my supervisors were spelling out “the obvious”, I just didn’t get it. I was there physically but not mentally.

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Additionally, being here constantly reinforced this emerging feeling of “the fear of the unknown”, or even “the token brown girl”. Walking in to town, I could see people take one glance at me, and instantly look away. They saw a Muslim girl and instantly it rang alarm bells. Some would rush away, holding their purse just that little bit tighter. Some would look me up and down, roll their eyes or look at me funny. Some would barge their way past, without an apology or even recognising me as a human with feelings.

It’s hard to constantly be reminded of your ethnicity, every negative connotation attached your socio-economic background and the stigmatised view of your faith, simply by the way you look. I found that some people will subconsciously, or consciously go out of their way to remind you of your societal stereotype and impose it on you, irrespective of how “deserving” you are to be here. The way you dress/sound/behave is enough to make you feel like the odd one out. And, while it’s natural to feel hurt or think perhaps it’s all in your head, that’s not what I felt. Rather, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something wrong with me. It’s not to say that everyone here is like that, neither that they are to blame for their blessed/humble upbringing, but I simply don’t fit in.

By the end of the week, I was done. I tried to tell myself not to complain, to keep calm, collected and connected to Allah, and life will slowly but surely fall in to place. But, how do I even see in colour when my life is in black and white? How do I keep going when I have a gaping hole in my heart- please just tell me, how do I fill it?

Imagine gasping for air, but all you’re doing is breathing. Imagine screaming up into the heavens, but not a single word has left your mouth. Imagine feeling dead inside, but your heart is still beating. Imagine looking your parents in the eyes and crying out:

“I can’t do it anymore. I can’t live in my head. I can’t rationalise these thought processes alone. I can’t explain why that even though I’ve never been a crier, I can’t stop – it’s an open floodgate and I just can’t close it. I know I was supposed to be a fighter, I know you raised me to be fearless in all that I do, but I’m not that. I’m losing myself- please find me. Please make me sane again. Please help me.”

 

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I needed a solution, a way out. So, I left my room and decided to attend an event ISOC was holding in collaboration with Omar Salha (CEO of the Ramadan Tent Project). The event was supposed to last for an hour and a half at most, but it ran over to the point where we had to move from our designated room to the main lobby because no other rooms were available to use. But I wasn’t complaining. Something in me had clicked and I didn’t want to leave. I was so drawn to the concepts he was explaining and the questions he was asking – it was exactly what I needed.

 

There are three lessons I took away from Omar’s talk:

 

1. Faith

“We need to reintroduce this conversation about faith in the public space; many people draw their values and beliefs from it. It’s about understanding how people are inspired by certain value systems.”

Islam is a way of life, a reminder of the purpose of your sole existence and a source of hope. It constantly influences day to day activities, yet it doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves. It is not seen as enough of a viable reason for justifying the way individuals live, rather, often it is misunderstood, mistreated or simply forgotten. Not only is the aim to ensure that Islamic values are respected and accordingly allowed to be expressed in an open environment, but too that there is a constant support system within the community, of the same faith, to ensure that its members are never left alone. To ensure that everyone is able to continue treading their path of life, with respect to faith, and not be afraid of losing their way.

Why? Because this level of faith is never steady, it dips, and without a fraction of doubt, it’s frightening. Living here feels like my heart is constantly uneasy. Imagine living in isolation from the constant reminder of Allah from your environment, from the masaajid (mosques) in walking distance and the encouragement to pray salah (the prayer) on time gone. Question your imaan (faith). Will it sustain? Will you continue to serve that single purpose of ibaadah (worship), or will you turn a blind eye and begin to excuse your actions? Will you go out of your way to get out of bed to pray your Fajr salah, when there’s no one else to follow, or will you sleep throughout the night with the objective of needing to “wake up early in the morning for lectures”?

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But he reminded me that it is in times like these where you need to take a step back. Re-evaluate your values. Ground yourself. Hold onto your morals with your two hands. Stand firm, be vocal about the importance of your faith to you, find that ease within you, and understand that you must carry tawakkul (trusting in God’s plan) and imaan (faith) throughout this Dunya (world).

Anas ibn Maalik (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessing be upon him) said: “There will come upon the people a time when holding onto the religion will be like holding onto hot coal”.

Hold on to that hot coal. It will burn you. But you will heal. You will grow stronger, thicker skin.

Don’t forget these values and beliefs you hold. Don’t feel forced to conform to be accepted. Embrace your faith and let it continue to give you meaning in all that you do. You believe that when something breaks, for example a plate, that there will always be some broken parts that cannot be retrieved because they are small and veiled. So factually, there is a slim to none chance of putting the plate back together to be whole again because that tiny fragment will always be missing. But remember that He is Al-Jabbar. He fixes that which you don’t even know of, so what makes you think that the slightest err in your life doesn’t have a solution greater than your mind could fathom? Ask yourself, would Al-Wadud put you in a situation in bad faith? Does Al-Alim not know how much you can handle? Does Ar-Razzaq not provide for you, irrespective of your circumstances? Will Al-Mui’zz not honour you, raise you in status and keep you among the righteous?

Your soul is fuelled by what you feed it. Nourish it with knowledge of the Lord you worship and feel free to align your priorities in line with faith. The sweetness of imaan (faith) will never burden your heart. Faith elevates you in ways you could never imagine, so hold on to its ropes, and don’t let go.

2. Purpose

The first question Omar began with is “what is your purpose?”. I gulped, perplexed at how to even form a sentence explaining my worth when I saw little value in myself. Of course, first and foremost, we were made to be عِبــَادَ اللهِ

وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ – And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me” [51.56]

But what makes me so unique? Why does anyone need me?

He asked us to distinguish ourselves from the plastic water bottle in his hand and then to the peers around us. Lost in my thoughts, I had no answer.

You may not have an answer too, and that’s fine. But, in due course you will. Let yourself continue to travel through your journey of life and the answers will soon prevail.

We all have a reason why we’re here – a very delicate, intricately designed one. To illustrate this, imagine a case where V was hit brutally by D who was driving recklessly on a country road at midnight, with no other cars around. X, a pedestrian who happened to be walking past witnessed this accident and called the ambulance. Y, the paramedic arrived in five minutes with a team of three to rescue V who seemed as though he was just about holding on to dear life. Upon arrival to the hospital, Z, a doctor, began treating V. In these sequences of events, every single person played a key role – be it for the better or worse of V. Without X, who else would have seen this accident and reported it immediately? Without Y at constant disposal for the general public, who else would intervene? Without Z, who else would have the professional skill and care to treat V at that moment in time?

7.7 billion people in this world, and yet every single one was created to be in one place, at a certain time, for a given, written purpose. You are part of that.

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Remember three things:

  1. Knowledge: Allah’s knowledge encompasses everything, irrespective of its size.
  2. Pre-recording: Everything is written for you and what is pre-destined by your Lord is greater than any desire you have
  3. The Will of Allah: The belief that nothing, whether related to Allah’s actions or actions taken by His slaves, can occur without His permission

Keep your heart firm upon Qadr (willing) of Allah – what is meant for you will never miss you, and what is bad for you will instantly be distanced from you. There is a greater plan in place- you serve a purpose in it.

3. Social action

في سبيل الله‎

Often, it satisfies us to have the thought of one day graduating, securing our dream job, getting married, buying a house and having children. While each is a justified achievement in of itself, why stop there? Why do we think we’ve now done enough to satisfy society and think very little about the influence we could have had had we dedicated our time and energy to use our skillset for the world at large?

“We can change the world!”

Perhaps it sounds too cliché and unconvincing. Let us even reduce the scope from the “world” to “our communities”- is impacting a single life for the better not just as great? We have the world at our fingertips from the growing use of social media platforms/technology so we can so easily influence with very little effort required on our part. So why be satisfied with comfortability?

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For me, while the main goal of studying at Cambridge University is to complete my degree, I too realised that being here is so much more than that. I am a living example of the capability of Muslimahs, and I mustn’t give up. I mustn’t cloud my judgement with negativity. I mustn’t despair in the plan of the Best of Planners. Nor must I forget that He knows what is best for me, whilst I do not know, because He wouldn’t burden my soul beyond that which it could bare. I must rather understand that I need to represent; I must remember my roots, where I came from and why I came here. I must take control of my narrative. I must use my intelligence, conduct and voice as a symbol of what I stand for. Cambridge is now my home- and I wouldn’t change that for the world.

A message for my ikhwaan (brothers), remember that our religion has produced the noblest men to ever walk the face of this Earth.

And, for my akhwaat (sisters), what makes you think our women weren’t just as successful? Our women paved a path of greatness, yet how many of us follow their footsteps? Did our women struggle and strive to be forgotten?

Your perspective of social action comes from what you make of it. You have skills unmatched. You possess a talent like no other, irrespective of what you think right now. So, pursue it with all that you have in you.

It’s time for us to touch the hearts and minds around us!

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