"Why don't you study here instead of leaving?"
"It might not be safe for you."
"You are pausing your life. What about marriage?"
These are some of the genuine concerns I heard from people when I announced to everyone that I was leaving the country to study Arabic in Sudan for 1 year. A Muslimah travelling alone in a completely foreign place is not very common in my community. Hence why I lacked present examples to guide me in the process but one thing I did know is that it had to be done. I had to be my own example and I did whatever it took to achieve my goals no matter what. And through this crazy journey, I learned so many unforgettable lessons about myself, life, and the world.
Growing up as a Muslim in Canada I struggled with my identity and understanding my faith. My parents did their best to instill Islamic values into me. They put my siblings and I in Sunday school and made sure to teach us at home. However, outside influence was significant and I wasn't exactly "religious" throughout my youth. I lacked positive religious role models and wasn't connected to the Muslim community. By the mercy of Allah I turned to Allah SWT when I was 19 at the same time as my eldest sister. It was a very turbulent time for me mentally. A family left Islam and was constantly challenging my beliefs. I had a friend who was a convert who went into psychosis and was hospitalized. He had one of the most difficult lives but purest hearts and was so passionate about Islam that I felt embarrassed. I started to develop anxiety and have panic attacks. Once I sought professional help I felt inspired to reach out to Allah. Soon after, my elder sister started wearing hijab and practicing, which gave me hope and inspired me to make the decision to seek Allah's forgiveness and submit my life to Him. I realized through my hardships that my only purpose in life was to worship Him.
When I decided to seek knowledge in Islam, it was very sudden. My older sister and I lived together on our own. We were very excited newly practicing Muslims! We attended every halaqat and conference, but after a while, we ended up getting frustrated at the lack of scholars in our city. We couldn't learn our faith in depth through conferences and halaqat. We felt stuck. One day my sister randomly called me while I was chilling in my room after work and told me she wanted us to leave and study Islam together. Whoa! What! My automatic response was "Yes!" However, we were not prepared externally. We didn't have the money, we had an apartment which we just found and started renting, full-time jobs and we were committed to an online business with my best friend. How in the world were we going to do this? Where do we even start? Where do we go?
Our first thought was Toronto because that is basically the Islamic hub in Canada. When we shared our intentions with our parents they were very happy and supportive. My dad had connections and found out that Shaykh Muhammad bin Yahya Ninowy was opening an Islamic studies institute and the first year was going to start exactly in 2 months in Atlanta, Georgia. Whoa, it was an amazing coincidence. We started raising money and selling our stuff. Furniture, watches, gold, you name it, to fly to Toronto to meet the person helping us raise funds before we even applied. I was able to transfer my current job in the Toronto office. So I worked for 3 weeks to save more money while we stayed at our Aunt's house. In that time we applied for the 1 Year Usul program and booked a Greyhound from Toronto, Ontario to Atlanta, Georgia because we didn't want to risk wasting money on flights at that point. You could only imagine how crazy our 22-hour trip was through the United States.
In the end, we made it and we completed the program together! We met and learned from amazing scholars and made lifelong best friends. The memories we made are unforgettable. We learned so much about the basics of our faith and Allah SWT. I was able to get so many of my questions and doubts answered. I was able to learn about Allah SWT by studying Aqeedah through multiple texts. I was able to gain confidence as a Muslimah through my teachers who constantly encouraged me and told me I can do great things for the Ummah. In addition to learning so much about myself and our faith, so many other doors opened, SubhanAllah! I started writing again during my studies, not knowing it would lead me to my career path. I started performing my poetry publicly at events and recording videos when I returned home from Madina Institute. And lastly, I got the opportunity to learn Arabic in Sudan.
One of my teachers-Shaykh Muhammad Safar- during one of our classes at the end of the year, offered an opportunity to study Arabic in Khartoum, Sudan. He told us to talk to him after class if we were interested. My interest immediately peaked. My Arabic needed so much work and I knew that the one major thing holding me back in my life was not knowing Arabic. I wanted to understand the Quran and conversate with Allah. I wanted to see and know the Prophet directly through his words in Ahadith. I wanted to be able to spread the knowledge of Allah and his Rasul to my family and my community. I witnessed the negative effects of ignorance within myself and our ummah and knew something needed to be done.
After I graduated from Madina Institute I returned home still keeping the opportunity of Sudan in mind. I returned back to work and started doing halaqat in my community. However, an eager feeling started to poke at me. Something inside was telling me that my mission was not complete. I had a new found confidence that was untapped while I was in Canada. My gut kept telling me I needed to learn Arabic. The advice of Shaykh Muhammad Ninowy kept replaying in my head, “you need Arabic under your belt if you want to go further.” So I followed it. I raised money in Ramadan and booked my ticket to Khartoum, Sudan.
As I write this I am in my final month here in Sudan. It has been a crazy, life-changing experience. It is the first time I am living in and experiencing a Muslim society. I had to learn to adapt to a whole new culture and learn a whole new language. Basic things like food, water and electricity became a luxury. At first, I struggled with going to places alone like the grocery store because of the language barrier. Thankfully Allah graced me with an amazing roommate from Somalia who has helped me and been my friend throughout my whole journey. I slowly learned to be independent and confident in myself in this new environment.
I faced certain trials being a foreign woman such as harassment but I have definitely come out stronger because of it. I was faced with witnessing extreme poverty and child beggars on the streets. It taught me humility and the responsibility I have with my privilege. I was faced with questioning my identity on a whole new level. Here, people consider me "white" and often times assume I am not Muslim because I am from Canada. This really disturbed me at first. In Canada I am “brown” and people usually assume I am foreign because of my Hijab. It made me realize that only I can decide who I am and no one else has that say, no matter where Allah places me on this Earth and that's all that really matters. I can travel the world in search of somewhere to belong, but true belonging is not in the hands of the people but in your heart and where you place it.
Going to class 5 days a week and learning the language of Allah’s Book has been surreal. I learned that this journey to understand the Kalaam of Allah is much longer than one year but the fact that I can understand most of what I am reading and actually speak Arabic blows my mind. What is amazing is when you seek knowledge for Allah SWT, it's not really a sacrifice. It's easy to see it that way if your top priorities in this life revolve around the Dunya. But Allah SWT opened so many doors for me through this journey. He helped me find my voice through poetry. I even published my first poetry book on Amazon “Sumi Speaks” while in Sudan. Some of this poetry, I wrote during my time in the US at Madina Institute.
I feel so blessed and so much more confident in myself as a Muslimah. I feel as if I found my true calling as a poet, activist, writer, and Dai’ah. I plan on doing big things for the community and making a real difference by the Will of Allah and I feel so grateful to Allah SWT for answering my prayers- the prayers I made in all those nights begging Him to guide me and help me accomplish my goals. If Allah SWT put that intention to seek Him in your heart-hold on to it. Ask Allah to facilitate it for you. Of course there are fears, of course, there are doubts! But the mission is greater than all of your fears. It's greater than the opinions of others. If we want to see a change in our society we must start with ourselves. And that's the real struggle. Having faith in yourself. It's not the traveling or being alone or the money. But don't worry, all you need is faith that with Him, anything is possible and that is all that matters.