Advice For Muslim Graduates
By Shaikh Omer Bajwa
[Omer Bajwa is the “Director of Muslim Life” in the Chaplain’s Office at Yale University. He earned his Graduate Certificate in Islamic Chaplaincy from Hartford Seminary]
I have had the privilege of working with intelligent, talented and ambitious university students for over a decade, and over the years, I have developed some advice and then shared it with students as they graduate before entering the next phases of their lives. In this season of transitions and life moments, I wanted to share this advice and some action items:
Studying at and receiving accolades from prestigious institutions can easily inflate the Nafs, especially if it’s not regularly monitored. Graduations literally feature ‘pomp and circumstance’ as commencement addresses laud students' accomplishments and families shower effusive praise on their children.
Indeed, you’ve likely worked diligently for many years, but don’t be distracted by the power, status, and privilege that you have accumulated. Indeed, these are both blessings and tests from Allah.
Were it not for Allah facilitating the path to your college education, you wouldn’t be there. Your loving and supportive parents, and their financial sacrifices, as well as your helpful teachers helped make you who you are. Our Islamic Tradition is replete with timeless wisdom about not claiming ownership for our worldly successes, be they coveted positions or prestigious professional school admissions.
Do not mistake worldly success for Allah being pleased with you because, remember, there are many successful people whom Allah is displeased with; Pharaoh was one of the most successful people in his time. If you want to know your standing with Allah, look at His standing with you.
Therefore, we must reassess and recalibrate our common definitions of success. True success (falah) consists of consistent commitment in worshipping Allah (ibadah) and selfless service to others (khidmah).
Thus, success is the realization we must use His divine blessings of our faculties and opportunities to seek His pleasure to serve His creation as we work for His paradise. Allah encourages us to, “Seek the life to come by means of what Allah has granted you, but do not neglect your rightful share in this world. Do good to others as Allah has done good to you.”1
Ask yourself: what does success mean to me? What do I want my life to look like? How did I get to where I am? Where do I want to go from here? Every time you feel self-impressed, say Alhamdulilah, thank Allah, and recall one of your shortcomings. This will discipline your Nafs.
No one accomplishes anything by themselves; surely, there are parents, friends, teachers and mentors who facilitated your work and impacted your trajectory. You should identify these people, from your past and present, and you should express sincere gratitude to them, for their patience and encouragement as well as their exhortation and admonition.
Their involvement in your life has likely had an immeasurable effect, all of which is from Allah who reminds us: “And whatever of blessings and good things you have, it is from Allah.”2
To express and inculcate genuine gratitude, our Prophet ﷺ taught us that, “Whoever does not thank people has not thanked Allah.”3
Thus, be more grateful to the people in your life and you will in turn be more grateful to Allah.
Gratitude is a state of being that you must actively choose, integrate and embody; thereafter, it will transform your terrestrial and celestial relationships. Gratitude is connected to humility because if you’re grateful, you’re ascribing agency to another, which demonstrates humility.
Much of our dominant culture’s malaise and ennui stem from deep spiritual ingratitude which leads to perpetual dissatisfaction and condemnation in the world. Our Prophet ﷺ cautioned us to, “Look at those who are lower than you and do not look at those who are higher than you. That is more likely to prevent you underestimating the blessing of Allah on you.”4 Perhaps no verse illustrates this consciousness better then ar-Rahman’s interrogative: “So which of Lord’s favors do you deny?”5 At the same time, Allah reassures us, “Remember that He promised, ‘If you are thankful, I will give you more.”6
Honestly ask yourself: who and what are you grateful for? Why? Have you actively expressed your gratitude? If not, why?You should thank at least five people who helped you get to where you are. Write them a sincere letter of gratitude and then read it to them.
Develop Heartfelt Connection to Allah
We live in age of superficial “friendships” yet we restlessly seek notions of “authenticity” in our relationships, conversations and institutions.
Essentially, what we are all seeking, and in need of, is love. If we want Islam to be a vibrant and transformative force in our lives, we must understand that our core religious emotion needs to be love.7
We will never succeed, in this life or the next, without love being indelibly rooted in our hearts. It is said that the Qur'an is the only book in which the ‘author’ is in love with the ‘reader’ and so Allah reminds us throughout the Qur'an about his love, mercy and compassion for us. These powerful states are engendered by His remembrance: “...It is in the remembrance of Allah that hearts find tranquility.”8 And know with conviction that He says if you, “Remember Me, I will remember you”9 and that “He is with you wherever you are.”10 Thus, the most powerful and meaningful relationship that you will ever experience will be with your Lord because your soul was created to know and love Him.
Graduations can be turbulent transitions because when you graduate you move away from friends and you may move away, again, from family for work. But the one constant is Allah. Therefore, building a connection with Allah will anchor you in the midst of all this movement. Your family and friends may be distant, but Allah promises “if My servant asks about Me, verily I am close.”11
Ask yourself: how often do I think of Him? Who do I long to share my hopes and dreams, or fears and anxieties with? When was the last time I unburdened my soul’s yearning or weariness unto Him?
Make your Dua a daily conversation with Allah. Start one small daily Zikr litany and be consistent. Excellent options include “The Book of Remembrances” [Kitab al-Adhkar] by Imam Nawawi and “The Accepted Whispers” [Munajat-e-Maqbul] by Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi.
Stay Connected to Community
We are witnessing a rise of spiritual rootlessness across society, especially as we live increasingly atomized lives, and emerging unmosqued voices are identifying genuine discontent, which must be acknowledged and addressed. But remember that community is your lifeline.
If we imagine the Prophet’s ﷺ Ummah as a beautiful, sturdy tree, then our communities are its branches and our people are its leaves.
Just as leaves that fall from a tree turn brown and die, so too can we as disconnected people wither away, especially from social and spiritual drought. Communities, like the tree branch, bring nourishment that would be impossible to obtain yourself.
Yes, our communities suffer from many problems, but do not let those problems drive you away from the community altogether. Rather, strive to create and nurture intentional communities that are committed to shared values and are still connected to the larger community.
Virtuous companionship (suhba) is essential for personal development and spiritual edification because hearts affect each other. The Prophet ﷺ counseled, “A man follows the religion of his friend, so everyone should consider whom he befriends.”12
Life will only get more complicated and distracting, and so you need to actively seek out people and places that spiritually nourish and sustain you.
At the heart of this is thinking well of your community. This must be rooted in love, which our Prophet ﷺ said is invaluable because “No man loves another for Allah’s sake without his Lord honoring him,”13 and “Verily, Allah would say on the Day of Resurrection: Where are those who have mutual love for My Glory's sake? Today I shall shelter them in My shadow when there is no other shadow but the shadow of Mine.”14
Ask yourself: do I think well of others in my community just as I want them to think well of me? What can I contribute to my community? How can I benefit and uplift those around me? Who do I sincerely love for the sake of Allah? Where do I find spiritual solace?
Find a community and offer your time, treasure or talent. Follow the community on social media. Invite two people from the community to a meal.
Find a Mentor
Every field has specialists and we are all in need of mentorship and guidance, especially in our religious and spiritual lives. This life is a journey and an intelligent traveler seeks out a guide, as both companion and teacher, to elucidate the path, highlight the pitfalls, and show the fastest and easiest way to get to the destination.
Even Olympic athletes who have reached the pinnacle of performance still seek out coaches, nutritionists and personal trainers.
Our spiritual and personal development also need a wise, trusted and experienced figure who can appropriately guide, counsel and educate. Indeed, Allah beautifully instructs us to, “Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know.”15
This is especially important in an age of autodidacticism and DIY-Islam. The purpose is to find an interlocutor for serious spiritual inquiries and trustworthy example of refined character (akhlaq). Undoubtedly, the Prophet ﷺ is our exemplar as he demonstrated this ancient arrangement of ‘teacher and student’ or ‘mentor and mentee’ with his Companions. He ﷺ taught us, “Verily, I have been sent only as a teacher,”16 and “the best amongst you are those who have the best manners and character.”17
Ask yourself: what am I struggling with? Who inspires me to become a better Muslim? What are the areas I want to grow in?
Make a plan to identify and contact a potential mentor.
Graduations are life moments infused with anxiety about the unknown future as well as with excitement about new possibilities. I hope these recommendations are beneficial as you forge your path of personal and professional development. The path ahead will likely be filled with joys and struggles, and so let us reflect on the prayer attributed to Sayyiduna Ali ibn Abi Talib (may Allah be pleased with him): “Oh Allah, when I lose my hopes and plans, help me remember that Your love for me is greater than my disappointments, and Your plans for me are better than my dreams.”
May Allah grant you the best of this world and the next; ameen!
1. Quran 28:77
2. Quran 16:53
3. Jami at-Tirmidhi
4. Agreed upon
5. Quran 55:13
6. Quran 14:7
7. Paraphrased from Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad in Introducing the Burda of al-Busiri documentary: “If religion is to survive and endure and to flourish, it’s no good imposing it on people. It’s no good trying to persuade people with abstract, doctrinal, theological, or philosophical arguments. What they need is to love it. They need to have that huge human capacity for a rich spectrum of emotions satisfied by the religion that seeks to sit at the core of their identity. And no amount of religion is going to succeed ultimately as a transformative, popular, vibrant force in society’s life, if it’s just about ideas or if it’s just about obedience. It has to be about emotion and the core of religious emotion always has to be love.”
8. Quran 13:28
9. Quran 2:152
10. Quran 57:4
11. Quran 2:186
12. Sunan Abu Dawud
13. Jami at-Tirmidhi
14. Sahih Muslim
15. Quran 16:43
16. Sunan Ibn Majah
17. Sahih al-Bukhari