Decolonizing Our Career Paths: An Exploration beyond Medicine and Engineering

In his book, A Faith for All Seasons: Islam and the Challenge of the Modern World, Dr. Shabbir Akhtar warns fellow Muslims of the consequences of ignoring the pressing dangers resulting from secularism and modernity: “By refusing to address the problems that plague the modern mind, by displaying its total inability to harness and assimilate modernity, Islam is gradually losing control, as did the Christian Church some time ago, over the daily life of secularized believers.” The ‘problems that plague the modern mind’, as Dr. Akhtar claims, are a result of a secular, humanist mindset that progressed during the Industrial Revolution. Advancements in modern science and the prevalence of individualistic thought have essentially buried religious influence. Islam’s deteriorating role in the daily lives of Muslims has resulted in Muslims inevitably valuing the perishable bounties of the material world as greater than the infinite bounty of a Supreme God.
In order to understand why this is happening, we must acknowledge the philosophical and cultural context of the times we have lived in over the past two hundred years or so. Dr. Israr Ahmed describes the power of Western influence that we have been living under: “The dominance of Western culture and philosophical thought is so pervasive and universal that even the point of view of such people as are struggling against it in some countries turns out on closer examination to be itself greatly influenced by the West.” This has normalized an approach in which we view knowledge through a western lens, neglecting the fact that the Western lens is simply one of many, and not one that is necessarily superior to others. We are so entrenched in western ideology that even when we try to counter it, our approach is unintentionally influence by it.
A common occurrence within Muslim families, especially those hailing from the Indo-subcontinent and the Arab world, is the incidence of parents pressuring children towards the study of medicine or engineering. This can be attributed to the hands of British colonialism, as it was monumental in eroding the traditional religious education systems in the Indo-subcontinent and replacing them with English-standard school systems that promised to prepare students for “good” jobs within the colonial administration. Many Indian families were lured by the perception that the English-standard schools were superior and therefore demand for the traditional schools dwindled, leading to the collapse of the traditional madrasa system. There have been some positive externalities that came about from this but overall, religious education, and the Muslim Ummah specifically, suffered immensely.
On the positive, this helped to launch the people of the indo-subcontinent to the forefront of studies in medicine and engineering, and our parents and grandparents successfully capitalized on this. Today, Muslims are among the wealthiest minorities in the United States. As of 2007 data, Muslims possess $170 billion in purchasing power which means we effectively control 1.6 percent of total disposable income in America while only comprising of approximately .6 to .9 percent of the total population. What is even more astonishing is that Muslims account for about roughly ten percent of physicians nationwide according to some estimates. We reap the rewards of this each time we step inside of a masjid in this country because more likely than not, the construction of the masjid was funded in part by at least one doctor or engineer.
That said, American Muslims possess a significant amount of wealth and we have successfully allocated much of it towards building more places of worship. During the ten-year-period from 2000 to 2010, the number of mosques in the United States increased by 74 percent. But, much noise has been made recently regarding the lack of human resources to help guide Muslims in religious and family related matters. This is especially the case for our children, who are in serious need of full-time youth directors to facilitate programs within our communities.
The Unmosqued documentary film captures some of these harsh realities. “Only 44% of Imams are full-time employees and paid. Half of all mosques have no full-time staff and program staff such as youth and outreach directors account for only five percent of full-time staff.” We continue to pour money into the construction of first-class facilities but we remain oblivious to a growing issue: we are not meeting the needs of mosque attendees, especially for those among the youth population.
The physical foundation for our religion is being established but if we do not develop a strategic plan to face the challenges posed by modernity, we risk building a hollow foundation, devoid of spirituality.
This leads to my main point: it is essential that we institute a paradigm shift in the way we approach our perspectives, living in the United States as American Muslims. What I mean by this specifically is that we must hone in on the spiritual void within our general community, rather than focusing on financial security. We must take necessary measures to ensure that we develop a long-term foundation for grounding our youth in the Islamic spiritual and intellectual tradition.
Hamza Yusuf emphatically says in one of his public lectures: “How many doctors do we have? How many engineers do we have? Who is going to learn this deen (religion) to give it to the people who come after? We have ‘Ulama (scholars) dying in many places. Why are we so obsessed with the dunya (material world)? We need fuqaha (Islamic legal scholars) we don’t need doctors that bad. I haven’t been to a doctor in 10 years. I need a faqih (legal scholar)! I talk to my Shaykh, (Islamic scholar/leader), on the phone. I need a faqih everyday. People ask me questions everyday. They don’t ask their doctors questions everyday. People call me everyday.”
Hamza Yusuf’s point is not necessarily an outright attack of those pursuing studies to be a doctor or engineer. Rather, I believe he is pleading with us on a grander scale. He is asking us to think strategically about the bigger picture. As we pursue various career paths, we must ask ourselves, how can I help this larger American Muslim community by doing career X or Y, etc.? And the answer to this question is going to be different for everyone. It is going to be personalized to the individual. It is imperative that American Muslims move away from a linear mindset, focusing on becoming a doctor or engineer, and towards imagining their role as establishing the identity and prosperity of the larger Muslim community in America.
For some, this means pursuing a religiously permissiblejob in engineering or medicine in order to make money to support their parents and family abroad, etc. Some of these individuals might find colleagues who also pursue the field of medicine but with the intention of developing a non-profit Muslim hospital that provides free healthcare for anyone in need, reviving the tradition set by the first hospital ever established, which was invented by Muslims in Iraq. For others it may be pursuing post-graduate education within Islamic studies and entering the field of academia to produce research that will enlighten the world on the beauties of our religious and intellectual tradition. Some may go on to study traditional Islamic sciences domestically and/or abroad in order to become religious mentors and community activists who strive to guide Muslims in their daily lives. Others might enter the field of Islamic finance and develop funds to financially support the endeavors of fellow Muslims so they can avoid riba (interest). The list is virtually endless.
The common thread among these examples is that the individual understands the purpose behind his or her actions. And that purpose directly ties back to a spiritual aspect. She or he does not undertake a profession because it was forced onto them. It does not necessarily matter what you actually end up doing per se, because it is the intention of how you will utilize your education and skills that ultimately determines whether you will be able to positively impact the greater community or not.
And the one prerequisite for achieving this is having a deep, sincere connection to our Islamic religious tradition. Possessing this connection ultimately allows us to understand the dimension of morals and purpose to life. This is what we must be striving to achieve, because the further we deviate from our religious tradition, the more secularized we become – divorcing us from moral relativity and greater purpose in our career life. It is this modern secular humanism worldview that severs our connection to the One who we ultimately will return to: God.
That said, there is a reality to our current situation and that is we are saturated with doctors and engineers while we severely lack in religious leaders, community leaders, and organizers who can fill the human resources void within the Muslim community. In order to rectify this we need to be creative and work towards to following: 1) Establishing long-term foundations, such as schools, universities, hospitals, banks, etc. to support Muslims and non-Muslims in academic and religious endeavors and 2) Developing and financially supporting Muslim American leaders who are spiritually grounded in the Islamic tradition and competent in the western culture – this includes creating full-time paid positions for religious leaders / facilitators within our communities.
Recently there has been an influx of Islamic educational programs in America that are striving to develop graduates who will work towards solving this crisis. It is vital that we support these institutions as they are producing individuals who have the tools, knowledge, and passion to dynamically impact the future of our American Muslim community in a positive way. Some of institutions include: our very own Zaytuna College; Bayyinah Institute; Qalam Institute; Institute of Knowledge; and the ALIM Program, among others.
Furthermore, there are a multitude of Islamic Studies programs at public and private 4-year universities around the country that are often times underrated by our communities. These programs are filled with some of the foremost scholars of Islam in the world, including the likes of: Seyyed Hossein Nasr at Georgetown University; Dr. Sherman Jackson at University of Southern California; Dr. Hina Azam at University of Texas; Dr. Wael Hallaq at Columbia University; Dr. Jonathan A.C. Brown at Georgetown University; Dr. Ahmed El Shamsy at University of Chicago, among many others.
But for some reason, we do not have an infrastructure for supporting students who want to take any of these routes in the path of studying Islamic Sciences.
The Mormon community has been successful in their initiative of sending students on two-year missions throughout the world – an intense spiritual grounding. The missions are subsidized and if students are in need, financial aid options are available. Another example, Birthright Israel, is a non-profit organization that sponsors 40,000 Jewish students per year for fully funded ten-day heritage trips to Israel. The organization runs on a $46.9 million annual budget. Within our own Muslim community in other parts of the world – India, Pakistan, and South Africa to list a few – local students can attend seven-year scholar programs to master Islamic Sciences at minimal to no cost at all. Some universities even pay students a monthly stipend for food and living expenses.
If an American-Muslim wants to study traditional Islamic Sciences are there any financial aid options available? Are there many programs available for our youth to become grounded in their religious tradition? How about scholarships for Muslim-Americans in general? A quick search on revealed over 20 organizations offering scholarships specifically for Jewish students. Many of the scholarships available cover full tuition. In comparison, there are only two such organizations for Muslims. One is the Islamic Scholarship Fund which awards scholarships from $1000-$10000 and the other is the Dr. Abdulmunim A. Shakir Scholarship which awards 20 scholarships of $1000 each.
It is time for us to seriously be concerned regarding the state of the society that we leave behind for future generations of Muslim Americans. This is especially important now as the torch is passed on from a generation of Muslims immigrants to a generation of mostly American-born (and raised) Muslims.
We must not delude ourselves into believing that we are infallible to falling prey to modernity’s lack of morals or purpose in pursuing careers. In order to strengthen our community, we must encourage the development of individuals within various career paths, including doctors and engineers, but also Islamic scholars, philosophers, and theologians.
The onus is on our Muslim community as a whole to renew our intentions and tailor our approach to one that is pleasurable to God Himself.
Source: Olea Press

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