Trial by Fire

It’s back to school for us, and that means being part of the cramped masses of tens of thousands of young people on four campuses on the Banks of the Ole Raritan. And being young people, there are inevitable challenges that we’ll face as these pleasant September days roll on, especially as Muslims.

Being back to school means being back to a culture dominated by youth, dominated by spirit and excitement, often channeled to the heedless pursuit of pleasure. That’s what the sociologists would call hedonism, boys and girls. The frats, the parties, the close contact with the opposite gender on a regular basis, all screaming out to the nafs of the unwary Muslim guy or girl to find pleasure in any way it can, and presenting several attractive options towards that end. They say college is a microcosm of life in society, a society we enter when we graduate and move on to our careers. But they never told us that the college experience is a Trial-by-Fire, that we could see some of the worst hedonistic excesses of humankind, all in the walk between our classroom and the library.

Muslims aren’t immune to the attraction the college atmosphere provides. Islam doesn’t claim that we will be, no matter how pious, righteous, or practicing we are. In fact, that’s really one of the things we differ with other religions on—our deen teaches us to find halal avenues for our desires, and gain the pleasure of Allah even as we engage in the human experience. Our deen does not condemn the desires Allah placed within us in the first place, as evil or impure.

And that’s where some Islamic schools go wrong at times. They maintain a closed environment where the deen is practiced without the reasoning or the spirituality behind it being taught, and forget that graduates will have to leave that environment for the real world where Islamic practice isn’t mandated as school policy. Parents that don’t have those awkward conversations about taboo subjects and desires with their kids have no one to blame when their kids explore those subjects on their own; they didn’t teach their kids, but Google and Reddit definitely taught them some things.

This is maybe understandable in a community where immigrant parents just tried to replicate the same upbringing they received. But our generation, that bridges cultures and societies and understands the circumstances in this, our land, has no excuse if we fail to develop a healthy relationship with our kids and communicate well with them about maintaining our deen while being pulled away from it.

And it begins with us. We need to be the generation that carries Islam forward, and we can’t well do that if we trip up and fail to resist the temptations that pull us away from the deen.  A friend and I were talking about a future he hoped to build with his fiancé, and how his example would serve for his kids some twenty years down the line. If he crossed some lines now with her, he could never with any moral authority or authenticity ever tell his kids to stay on the right side of those lines.

This article seems kind of abstract, so let me leave you with some solid advice: Lower your gaze. It seems almost cliché now, we’ve heard this advice so much from the minbar and from the conference stage, at halaqaat and at speeches. But it remains the best advice, and we can’t afford not to take it seriously.

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and we can’t leave those windows open to the world, for anyone to come in. That’s honestly the danger Allah tries to save us from with this command—we do not control our desires. We control our actions while we have certain desires, but whether or not we’re attracted to a certain person or people? That’s not our call. And should you develop feelings for someone, whether it’s your lab partner, or that person in your health professions club, or even someone at MSA—it’s a hell of a problem dealing with it in an appropriate manner. Marriage is the halal outlet, but not everyone can or is ready to get married, or even should get married—your feelings may be making you ignore deep incompatibilities with this person you’re looking at (instead of lowering the gaze). Ancient people compared this situation to being struck by an arrow (from a random winged naked baby, but that’s beside the point), heartache is no joke.

And lowering the gaze isn’t limited to just that one physical move. It’s a description of your entire manner when you deal with the opposite gender, a manner of modesty. It’s avoiding the frat house party when you know what the expected interaction between genders is there.  It’s keeping playfulness and flirtiness out of your conversation when you’re talking to that person you work with on the board of that club; it’s keeping the conversation to the point. Even if you believe yourself safe from growing attached to a person, you might be causing an attraction in them for you, and becoming a test for them. Don’t do that to them.

As college students, we are legally adults in the sight of the law and the sight of Allah. At school, we have the freedom to do as we please with our time. But with that great freedom comes great responsibility (yes, I just stole a Spiderman line). As we build our lives, let’s not sacrifice our hearts in this life, or our iman in the Hereafter, for a few cheap pleasures. We owe ourselves better than that, we owe our future spouses better than that, and we owe Allah better than that.

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