March 20, 2017 1:30pm | River City Roasters Coffee Shop in Wheaton, IL
The past ten years have been incredibly important in my life journey. It’s hard to even conceive how productive these years have been in terms of wayfaring; it’s even harder to explain how difficult these years have been—but, as the aphorism goes
A smooth sea never made for skilled sailors
A little over a decade ago I made the most defining decision of my life, to tread the path of Knowledge, Devotion, and Virtue through the prism of the prophetic teachings of Islām. My own wrangling with the validity of truth and knowing started about two years prior to that decision; a long spiritual brooding set in that was finally resolved through this decision, only to create an even deeper period of positive contemplation that, likely, has no end.
This sets the stage for this blog-project.
Thereafter I plunged deeper into my studies as a student of Sociology at the University of Houston before becoming unsatisfied with my classes and teachers; concurrently my community-life was falling apart as my closest friends were moving on, both geographically and in terms of their life-phases. At this point I decided that I needed to make something of a pilgrimage in order to continue to grow. I began to look at various universities across the country to transfer into while I grappled with what I “wanted to do” as an undergraduate student.
I finally decided upon DePaul University in Chicago, IL; as a private Vincentian Catholic school, it had a reputation for being a socially responsible campus in a large city with much to provide me in terms of intellectual, social, and political argumentation, activism, and growth. I transferred in as a Sociology major because they had a 4+1 program that offered a Masters of Arts in Sociology after just 5 years (3 of which I had theretofore completed). I visited Chicago before moving, secured a tiny studio-apartment on my own (despite being less than 300 square feet, this is my favourite apartment to date), and moved in the Summer of 2009 with my best friend from high school accompanying me during the cross-country trek in a U-Haul.
School life was active; I excelled in my classes and was active in a few student organizations while making many new friends. I organized and ran a bi-weekly book club that focused on philosophical and social concerns, screened films, and participated in various protests on campus.
Chicago is a cosmopolitan city with diverse scenes for food, the arts, and cultural activities, two top-tier universities and a number of mid-level schools, as well as a long history of reform-movements in terms of social and political justice. Living in the city itself broadened my horizons as I engaged with everyone from political anarchists who wanted to reform the city’s perverse approach to policing to Catholic friars who were interested in ecology and the life of contemplation; from missionary-minded Protestants from Moody Bible Institute to my critically-minded African-American Muslim professor who treated me like a nephew of her own.
I made many friends who I spent many hours with in the evenings after my classes were finished each day or during weekend evenings while I typically took Friday, Saturday, and Sunday day-time hours for myself and for work. I’ve always run in a variety of circles and bridged friends from different backgrounds together; social life was never dry and helped keep me sane while in a city without family. Of course, I travelled home at least twice a year to see Mom and Dad and visit the mountains which I’ve always considered something of a retreat for myself.
In this time I also took an interest in food, both in terms of learning how to cook a little (I’m still a terrible cook!) and in the ideas around ethical farming and consumption, and in environmental ethics more broadly. I also became a bit of a coffee and tea snob, the essential lubricants of life!
Despite all of this I was still pretty unsatisfied intellectually and spiritually. I had changed from my Sociology Major to a student of the Islamic World Studies program, edging toward my internal desire to study theological ideas more systematically; however, many of my classes were populated with students without relevant pre-requisites in Religious Studies more broadly or Islamic Studies in particular; due to this I supplemented my education with independent studies classes with a few professors, listened to other lectures available on-line by various scholars who taught at the Ph.D. level, and engaged in long, late-night discussions with one of my good friends who was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago (the Midwest’s Ivy-League school).
I graduated in the summer of 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in Islamic World Studies which is an interdisciplinary degree—Religious Studies, Anthropology, Sociology, History—that promised no good monetary return on my investment—too much of an idealist for my own good!
In the months prior to graduating I had applied to and been accepted to a handful of schools for pursuing a Master of Arts in Religious and Islamic Studies. I planned to move just outside of Los Angeles to pursue my education at Claremont Graduate University; however, after many emails exchanged between a few top-professors in the field, like James Morris (Boston College), and a trusted teacher and mentor I decided to decline their offer and pursue language studies overseas—immersion in culture and language was suggested as the most efficient way to acquire the difficult skills needed for a working knowledge in Arabic, the primary language required for the field. They suggested that, with the requisite language studies, I would be able to enter a Ph.D. program in the future should I decide to go that route without the financial burden of the M.A., or I’d have the flexibility to study traditionally if I so chose.
The ideal place to study, it was told to me, was Syria; their history of high Arabic culture and universities would provide a full engagement with the language. However, soon after graduation and soon after I declined my M.A. offer, the revolt in Syria began and the bloody civil war that rages to this day developed—I pray for the end of the tragedy of the destruction of human life and history.
This left me in a bind. Fresh out of university without a clear plan forward. I accepted a temporary job-offer that came out of the blue just a few weeks after I graduated from the very Islamic Studies Department that I had just graduated from; a few weeks into my job the professor I was working with, Dr. Aminah McCloud, asked me if I would be willing to be a research assistant, office manager, and teaching assistant for her for a year’s time. All of this developed quickly and was an offer of much-needed financial stability for a year; I accepted.
Dr. McCloud gave me a lot of flexibility in terms of hours and work and gave me demanding projects that stretched my mind. At the same time the Occupy Wall Street movement was developing in New York and in Chicago; I participated and was part of the Religious Council for a time; however, due to differences in outlook from the organizers and a few botched decisions on the part of the leadership I bowed out, though I was thankful for the experiences with the people I met from all walks of life: from the stereotypical “smelly hippy” that the Media focused on, to professionals, nurses, and clergy who joined the movement in hopes of a more community-minded and compassionate society.
In the Winter of 2011, six-months after graduating, I travelled once-again to Iran (the first trip was during the winter of 2007) to see if it could be an alternative to Syria for studying Arabic, Farsi, and a systematic curriculum of Islamic theology. This trip had a strong effect on me on multiple levels; it convinced me that I can confidently live in a country other than my own and grow from that experience—but I also concluded that if I were going to do that deep-dive it’d be imperative to have a strong cohort of friends or a life-partner who understood my American-ness well to keep me sane—not exactly an epiphany, but sometimes the obvious is overlooked. The trip was beautiful and allowed me to visit many historically important sites, beautiful architecture, and re-invigorated my desire for a contemplative life after spending the previous 2 years in non-stop educational and activist-centered activities. Immediately after my trip I spent the next two months or so avoiding friends after work to spend time working on myself and planning for my future; I had decided to commit to studying traditionally and then, after developing that foundation, to potentially pursue a graduate degree.
The Move from Chicago
After finishing up my year-long commitment working at DePaul I packed my little apartment into a U-Haul with the help of many friends, attended a few moving-away parties my friends put on, and trekked across to Conifer; Mom and Dad graciously said I could store my books and belongings at home—I planned to move to Iran for a few years to begin my studies. I was promised a student visa in the summer of 2012, thus the move. After several months, it became clear that the diplomatic situation was creating a difficult time for the school I planned to attend to secure a visa for me.
Life throws curveballs. I had spent most of my money, moved all of my belongings, and planned for a 5-year stint overseas; and now it was impossible. However, one of my teachers in Chicago had told me, prior to my departure from Chicago but after my commitment to move to Iran, of a project he was working on—a seminary in the States that would provide the first five years of traditional studies. He himself has studied traditionally for 15 or 20 years and is currently writing his thesis for his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. I called him and told him the situation; he told me that if I wanted he’d be happy to have me as a student in his school, but that his school wouldn’t open for a year or so—he warned me that, as a new project, whoever populated the first-class of students would be guinea pigs and would need to be willing to be flexible. I decided to stay in Conifer with the family, work, and plan for a return to Chicago in the Autumn of 2013.
I received a small scholarship and went to Jordan in the Summer of 2013 to freshen my Arabic skills (I took a few semesters during my undergraduate years). Jordan is a mess of a country; built upon Western city-planning of the 60’s, Amman is a city built for the automobile for a population that is heavily-pedestrian; no culture or tradition due to miming Western conceptions of community and society (fast-food everywhere!), I didn’t enjoy my time there—or, it didn’t meet my expectations. I made a few friends though, and am thankful for the experience.
The Move Back to Chicago
A few weeks upon returning back to Conifer from Jordan I purchased my first car, a 2013 Mazda 3 Hatchback; then I packed it to the brim and headed back east. I had already flown to Chicago and found a vintage rehabbed apartment in Oak Park, a nice neighborhood on the West side of town where Ernest Hemingway lived and home to a few homes by the famous Frank Lloyd Wright.
And again, life throws curveballs—a lot of them. A long-term courtship I had with a young lady moved very close to marriage and then fell apart. Due to separate organizational issues, school was delayed a year.
But God also pads these moments; I deepened several friendships over this period between the Autumn of 2013 and the Autumn of 2014 and was afforded the time to clarify my study-goals through reflection and further reading. Since school hadn’t started I spent another year exploring Chicago, this time by car (in the years prior I didn’t own a car, I moved by way of public transportation, my feet, and my bicycle). All-in-all that year was productive despite another year lost of formal education.
In September of 2014 the Ahl al-Bayt Islamic Seminary formally opened its doors with an inauguration and an introduction of its first class of 8 students. I moved to Chicago’s northwest suburbs to be closer to school; the box-store speckled landscape is not my cup of tea, but there are many forest preserves in the area that make life more bearable
A typical day looks like this:
From 6 to 9 in the morning I go to class – 3 classes a day, 5 days a week. Then I go home, make a bit of a breakfast, and begin reviewing my texts from the previous’ days classes in preparation for my group-study sessions later in the day. These group-study sessions are the backbone of my studies—they force me to absorb the content, reteach the class to my partner according to my own understanding (or re-learn if he is teaching that day), pose critical questions toward the text and identify holes in the author’s argumentation or in my own understanding, struggle through reading of the Arabic text (Arabic grammar is expressed through unmarked vowels that the reader pronounces onto the text to identify the parts of speech— for example, the word will end with an “u” sound to indicate the nominative form), and then translate the text. I’m typically finished with the bulk of this work by mid-afternoon; I use the rest of the day to do some mix of work, reading other books of interest, continuing work on community projects, hanging out with friends, catching an NBA game, and preparing dinner. Before I sleep, if I have time, I’ll read ahead for the next day’s classes.
Our first year of classes focused primarily on Arabic grammar and morphology (Arabic is related to Hebrew in that it is Semitic and revolves primarily around tri-lateral roots from which various shades of meaning are expressed by manipulating regular forms of verbs and their nounal origins) with some lighter, introductory classes in law and theology as well as a class in introductory religious etiquette/virtues.
Our second year of classes finished off the primary study of Arabic grammar and began the bulk of our classes in formal logic, and an introductory text of classical law.
I am currently in the tail end of the third year of classes which has been much more intellectually stimulating. We finished up our courses on formal logic, continued our work on theology, began a formal reading of a difficult exegesis of the Qurʾān, began the major work of intermediate argumentative law, and have recently begun a text on hermeneutics and the philosophy of law.
I’ve been blessed to have several friends that I’ve known for many years—including a friend who lived with me while I lived in Houston—join the seminary at the same time as I joined; so the difficulties of struggling student life—financial difficulties, intellectual burnout and frustration with a foreign language—have been much easier to deal with. We all come from very different backgrounds and have different conceptions of how religion operates in the world, what knowledge means, and other philosophical questions, but we all coalesce on a firm desire to learn and become more whole people; these relationships along with our sharp and patient teachers (one a University of Chicago Ph.D. candidate and another a graduate of Princeton), who challenge us to be better people and challenge our individual conceptions of the good, provide the holistic environment that make the seminary experience special.
Last year I moved into free-housing on campus and now all of the students live within 5-10 minutes of each other. Our seminary is a sister-organization to an established mosque that has a healthy, thoughtful, intellectually active community; this has attracted many other friends I’ve known from around the country who have finished up school in different states to the area, strengthening our community dynamics. There is never a weekend without someone to have dinner or see a movie with, or a group to have a get-together of 20-30 people. My most immediate community is made up of people, many couples, between 25-35 years of age; we’ve had a few births in the last few years, so we have some little-ones running around in all of our gatherings.
I’ve recently been hired as a Youth Director for a mosque in a local suburb about forty minutes from home; thankfully, now my income comes from work that is related to my studies. I focus primarily on helping the kids create strong relationships among themselves, navigate the confusing periods of junior-high, high-school, and college life, and begin a healthy development with their religious and ethical outlook. I’m hoping to convince the community to let me build a community garden on their property for the kids this spring!
In addition to my studies and employment, the Seminary also hosts various educational seminars and summer intensives that I help prepare, organize, and run. We also have partnerships with local churches, interfaith groups, and a local wing of Habitat for Humanity that I participate in.
I’m extremely thankful for the last three years here; I have two more to go before completing the program. In many ways the Chicagoland area has become home for me; I’ve spent the better part of eight years here now and have a strong set of friends from various communities and backgrounds who I learn from at every turn. Where I will turn after 2 years is an open question, but I trust that some doors will be open at some point in the near future.
I wrote this post to update you all on my personal place in life and in hope that it will create a coherent narrative in which to place my subsequent thoughts in future blog-posts. Obviously this won’t fully capture the totality of my experiences, but I hope it offers a starting point and fills you in on aspects of my life that I have been negligent in sharing.