Freedom! Many young people live for the day when they can move out of the house and go to university and finally be free. Freedom from their parents, from restrictions on their lifestyle, from everyone telling them what to do. This is why in university you find a whole generation that does what they want. "Life’s short," they say, "let’s enjoy ourselves while we can!”
Welcome to life on campus, the place where a significant number of Muslim students will spend at least the first year of their university life. Away from home and away from family and friends, the three years on average spent by most students pursuing a degree is a crucial time for the development of one’s Iman!
As a newcomer to campus, it's vital that you understand what is different about university, and what being a Muslim at a university means. Varsity's a great place, but probably different to what you're used to. It is about as similar to school as a tricycle is to a tractor.
Differences from school
The most obvious difference is size in every way. University is a much bigger place with many more students; a typical school might have one thousand students, a typical university might have twenty thousand.
The second obvious difference is in the teaching style. At school, you are usually spoon-fed information in small groups and rollcall is taken in each class. Not at University. Most lecturers don't care if you attend their lectures or not; and they don't say "Copy this from the board into your exercise books", it's more likely that they will put up a slide and you can copy it if you feel it is relevant. As for class sizes, certain lectures in popular courses can be attended by as many as 1500 people. Don't expect a lot of personal attention!
The third obvious difference is in the student body. While school may be an environment which emphasises making everyone behave in a similar manner (for example by making everyone wear the same uniform); university is almost the opposite, where being different is the norm (as contradictory as it sounds!!). There are no uniforms, and provided you act within the bounds of common sense and common courtesy, people do not really care that much about what you do. Nobody is going to harass you for being different; they're more likely to support you. Seize the opportunity to don the Sunnah attire!
Because nobody's looking over your shoulder, checking that you've been doing your homework and attending lectures, it means that you have to depend on yourself a lot more. It's no longer good enough to coast along. You need to motivate yourself. This sounds like it is trivial, but I've seen many first years make a pretty big mess of it because of this. People who used to be the top of their schools get marks in the low 50's and in some cases, fail. So, be aware of this; don't get caught out!
Finally, the freedom of university life comes with great responsibilities. You are no longer in the comfort of your home, nor in the company of loved ones who are willing to cater to your needs. You are in a new environment, where not only are you ‘free’ to do as you please without anyone giving you a second look, but in fact ‘encouraged’ to do all it takes to fit in with the crowd. As a Muslim, you should know better than that. Many of the people you will meet do not have the same priorities and principles as yourself. You will hear the word ‘fun’ a lot, which will be used to justify almost anything imaginable and sometimes beyond! You will face situations where, all that is between you and the greatest Fitna (trial & tribulation) is your Muslim identity and conscience!
How Should I Act as a Muslim on Campus?
We've so far discussed how you may have to adjust to university, but there is more to being a student on campus. As a Muslim, you have a unique opportunity to benefit humanity. These are very simple things to do, and they don't take much time. More than anything else, they're really about an Islamic attitude, rather than a prescriptive list of dos and don'ts.
First of all, it is important to be proud of being Muslim. So many Muslims I know hide their Islam, as if it is something to be embarrassed about. This is understandable to a certain extent, given the bad rap that Muslims get in the media today, but it doesn't make it right. There is a lot to be proud of about being Muslim: historically, the activities of the Muslims as scientists and scholars formed the basis for the European Renaissance (a fact which many historians "forget" about), as well as creating a stable, just society for more than 800 years; and morally, being Muslims means that you adhere to a set of beliefs and forms of behaviour that elevate you above those who do not adhere to these beliefs.
Put it this way: If homosexuals can go on about "gay pride", and the thing that they are proud of is something that Islam considers an abomination; then how proud should we be, knowing that we are on the right path?
What does this imply practically? It means that I should not be ashamed to let people know of my Islamic heritage; whether it be through what I say, what I wear, what I eat, what I spend my time on or whatever. If you're going for Salah, say, "Excuse me for a moment, I need to pray" instead of some made-up excuse, like "Excuse me - I need to meet someone" or the like. Be up front about it when doing your Islamic duties!
Surprisingly, this is not as difficult as it sounds. People usually approach universities with an open mind; and it is likely that they will not mind at all. It may even evoke some curiosity in some people. When I told one person the above, he said, "Gee, do you mind if I watch?" If people see you doing things diligently and with sincerity, they develop a respect for you and your religion, even if they do not believe in it.
The effects of Muslim brotherhood/sisterhood are beneficial in a number of ways. Firstly, it "backs up" other Muslims on campus who, no longer feel isolated about being Muslims. Seeing someone else who is proud to be Muslim lifts another Muslim's spirit incredibly - when I see someone wearing a Kurta, or a sister wearing Hijab, it still has this effect on me, and I feel like going up to them and congratulating them. Secondly, when people see Muslims practicing their faith, it invokes curiosity, and interest in them, which may be the door for Allah guiding them to the correct path. You will be surprised how many times you will be asked questions about Islam, without having to do anything "active".
When such opportunities do arise, inform them about Islam; in this way you will be fulfilling your obligation for Da'wah. Don't be too forceful. The Qur'an says: "Invite to the Way of your Lord with wisdom, and good advice and discuss with them in the best way possible.” [16:125] In this way, you may affect their perception of Islam. While they may not become Muslim (although these things are in the hands of Allah, and Allah guides whom He wills to the straight path), they will at least know a little more about Islam, from an authentic source.
But there is a caveat to all of this, which is: what is the point of being proud of Islam if its effects are not perceived in your actions? Muslim pride should be backed up every step of the way by the corresponding actions. There is no point talking to people about the importance of good manners in Islam if you do not follow it up with your own actions. As clichéd as it is, "actions speak louder than words" apply particularly in this situation.
Remember that you are a walking example of Islam, and that almost everything you do in public will not only reflect on you, but also to some extent on Islam itself. You should reflect all the attributes that make you proud to be Muslim: honesty, sincerity, trustworthiness, cleanliness, politeness and so on. When people see these characteristics in you, they will not only like you as a person (which they inevitably will, unless it is a group of people the likes of whom you shouldn't be associating with in the first place), they will also be curious as to its origin; and seeing you are Muslim will now have a somewhat more positive image of Islam than they may have had before.
This also means that you should fulfil your Islamic obligations in other ways as well. For example, there is no excuse for you not to pray on campus. As mentioned, there are Salah facilities at most universities, and even if there aren't, there are many quiet places to be found that can serve as a place to pray. There is no reason not to dress Islamically, since there are no rules about dress (other than those of the general community).
May Allah help you adjust to university life, and not to squander this opportunity. University, like many things, is not in itself good or bad; it is what you do there that makes all the difference. May Allah guide us!