Abdulla is a second year historian at King’s. When not desperately catching up on his weekly essay, he can be found attempting to maintain what he has left of his not-very-exciting social life.
Abdulla (left), not to be confused with his good friend Moeen Ali (right).
It’s that time again: the long wait between results day and fresher’s week. Some soon-to-be freshers will be counting the days till October, others will be joining students Facebook groups to get an idea what university will be like. Looking back at last year, I was pretty much doing both. While there is so much content on college and course life, there is less so on the experience of being a Muslim student at Cambridge. After all, it is quite a unique position to be in. So, in hope of opening up the topic, I’ve recollected my own memories from first year to give an account of how it feels like to ‘Cambridge while Muslim’*.
As I said, I had little idea of what Cambridge would be like as a Muslim student. While various people from my school had managed to get in over the years, I didn’t actually know any Muslims studying there. Most from my own community were studying in London universities, which is altogether a different environment. Hence, I was given a lot of interesting opinions by people who had never studied there. I was warned by many that I’d have to justify my beliefs and that everywhere I go I’d have to defend religion from ‘scientific rationalists’. (To be honest, I don’t even know if that’s a thing.)
When I finally did arrive, I realised that a lot of these were urban myths. Yes people over here think very critically about everything and anything. But that doesn’t mean that everything about your identity will be challenged and questioned from the go. Of course, there are times when conversations are had or where things are said that are pretty attacking and unpleasant. But from my knowledge, these occurrences are not the norm. Most of the time, when topical discussions take place, people do have the sensitivity to speak about them thoughtfully.
At Cambridge you get to make good friends, inside and outside of Isoc.
But there are certain challenges unique to Cambridge. The college system separates the Muslim population, that is small as it is. Student life is already so college-centric, so at the start it can feel like there are much less Muslims in the University than there are. If you’re lucky, you may have other Muslim freshers in your own colleges but it doesn’t always work like this: in my year some colleges only had one. At the end of the day, it really is a lucky draw.
It also varied on the subjects you study. Medical students, engineers, or Natscis were never short of finding the company of Muslim students. But as a Historian, things were a bit harder for me. Though significantly less than science students, there were still a handful of Muslim students in the art’s subjects so I wasn’t completely isolated.
In terms of socialising, this did shake things up a bit for me, in comparison to the average fresher. Firstly, I had to venture beyond my own college socials to find fellow Muslims. The Islamic society and other cultural societies (i.e Paksoc, Banglasoc etc) were good places to look. Secondly, I would continuously meet new Muslims that I have never seen before throughout the year. The Muslim community is quite tight-knit because of its size but there will always be a few people you miss. Thirdly, it sometimes felt that pursuing friendship with Muslims from other colleges sacrificed my chances in making true college friends. The workload and time constraints of a Cambridge student means that sometimes you will have to chose one over the other. Nonetheless, it is important to have friendship groups in both spheres. Your friends outside of college won’t always be there when you’re free and won’t be able to relate to you as a college friend can. The inverse is equally true: there is nothing like meeting people from the same faith or background to make Cambridge feel closer to home. In the end, I was able to make friends in both areas so it isn’t impossible!
Cambridge is a pretty special environment and it’s easy to forget that sometimes.
In terms of practicing faith, I found Cambridge spiritually enriching. The Islamic Society is particularly active in creating a community for Muslim students. It holds talks and discussions for students to take advantage of, some of them were student-led. I attended a circle where last year’s president gave a very personal account about why he believes in Islam. Others are led by students of the faith or by prestigious scholars themselves. Cambridge is actually very lucky to have its own Islamic scholar, Shaykh Abdul Hakeem Murad (Timothy Winters), who is part of the Divinity faculty. He sometimes gives talks and leads the Jummuah Khutbah. He also runs the Cambridge Muslim College, a higher education institution attracting various people to study Islam. The Isoc has a good partnership with CMC, as its students also mingle with us. Other universities do not have such access to scholars or students of faith. This, and the fact that the ISoc does create an environment for free discussion contemporary religious issues, meant that I learnt so much more about my own faith. I have benefited so much from the conversations I had there.
Lastly, it took me a while to adjust my diet after I got there. I grew up with easy access to Halal food (it doesn’t help that I spent half of my childhood in the Middle East). It was a bit of a shock to go vegetarian for more than 3 days. Some colleges do provide halal food occasionally (in formals and in normal dinners) but mine did not. Even if you can cook, making halal food might be a bit difficult since you have to go quite far to get it and it takes time, which you don’t always have as a student. Eventually I got used to it. When I needed to breakout, I would go eat in the various restaurants nearby that served halal food (there are quite a few). On the plus side, it really made me really appreciate home food!
Cambridge is something very different so it’s not surprising if you feel out of place. But once you’re set, it’s hard not to see it as a second home. So don’t be put off, there are many ways to make yourself comfortable over here. After a while, you realise that it’s not too bad to ‘Cambridge while Muslim’.
*I recognise that ‘Cambridge’ isn’t a verb.