Lessons From a Year at Cambridge

lessons from my first year at cambridge university

Eid unlike so many celebrations in many faiths – Christmas, Easter, Passover, Diwali – does not commemorate a historic event. Instead, it’s a celebration of the efforts and perseverance we’ve put in through the month of Ramadan, and how (hopefully) we’ve formed new and better habits that we’ll be able to take forward into our lives.

Now that I’ve come to the end of my first year at university, I’ve also been thinking about what new and better habits I’ve formed from the past nine months.

Unsurprisingly, after spending thirteen years at the same school, moving away from home into the incredibly weird and intense environment that is Cambridge has been a huge change. And so I thought I’d talk a little bit about my experience as a Muslim in the overwhelmingly white, Christian institution that Cambridge is, and what I’ve learned.

Being Muslim in a non-diverse institution

Cambridge University is a notoriously un-diverse institution: there have been countless studies and newspaper reports, I’m sure you’ve all heard something about it at one time or another. And one major consequence of that, combined with the fact that the whole city is steeped in so much jargon and seemingly random traditions that it feels like another world altogether, is a general unconcern about any religion other than Christianity.

I challenge you to walk more than 300m in the city centre without passing at least one church; church bells seem to ring at completely arbitrary times; Grace is read in Latin before formal dinners. All of which means that, even more than Britain as a whole, you can’t shake the feeling that the University often forgets that other religions exist.

Plus, perhaps surprisingly for an institution that supposedly values curiosity and learning, almost no one asks me any questions at Cambridge. No one has once asked me about my headscarf, or why I fast. I haven’t been able to work out why this is – I’m certain it’s not because they’re all super knowledgeable about Islam! – especially when I think back to school, where I lost count years ago of the number of times I explained that, no, I don’t even drink water while fasting, and yes, I do take my scarf off at home. I can’t believe it’s because school encourages inquisitiveness more than Cambridge does, so I really don’t have a reason as to why this is, but somehow here we are.

And since no one is asking any questions, they’re not learning about other faiths either, which makes is all the easier to ignore people of faith and forget that they have needs which someone else might not. There was an article published in the student newspaper a couple of months ago detailing the general lack of non-Christian prayer spaces in University buildings, leading to situations like one girl having to pray in the stairwell.

This was actually an issue I had at school too, and one, sadly, I imagine I’ll continue to have for a good long while. At least at school there was nominally a room that can be used for praying, even if the space wasn’t the most appropriate, or you could usually find an empty classroom to use – again not a fantastic option, but at least it’s there. Whereas the spaces in University buildings easily accessible by a busy student are few and usually occupied; only once, once, in all 24 weeks of the academic year have I actually found an empty room in my department to pray in at lunchtime.

Meanwhile in the colleges, chaplains send out regular emails inviting students for tea and cake, or offering a sympathetic ear for anyone who’s struggling, insisting that the chaplains are available for pastoral care for all. The University official line insists that college chapels are ‘available to students of all faiths and none’. Even through the most generous lens, assuming they genuinely think they mean that, at the very least they clearly haven’t thought it through; I can’t imagine anyone would be overly pleased if I walked into a CofE chapel and started praying on the floor between the pews. Saying the University ‘provides a number of prayer and reflection spaces across the city, which are available for non-Christian worship.’ is all very well, but unfortunately that doesn’t make it true.

Equally, I and many others had exams on Eid day just a couple of weeks ago, but then that’s just par for the course at this point; university students certainly aren’t the only ones with this problem. It does make me laugh slightly though, when I hear people insist that no one should have to work on Christmas Day, or protesting when I say I have classes on Easter Monday… If I have to work on my own holy days, working on Christmas is the least of my issues.

 Finding my tribe

On the other hand, despite – or, perhaps, because of – how much of a minority Muslims are, the community in Cambridge is amazing, far beyond anything I ever even hoped to experience at school. The ISOC – just its existence, for a start, as compared to at school – but also the number of events they put on and the number of people who actually show up to each one, gives such a strong sense of community. My college, Newnham (the best one, though I am biased), is girls-only and so attracts quite a lot of Muslims; I went from school, where three out of some 900 girls wore a headscarf, to one of about fifteen hijabis in a college of around 350 undergraduates, which still may not seem like a lot in absolute terms, but proportionally is a huge jump, and you can feel the difference. Just the solidarity of smiling at someone in the corridor and being able to say ‘salam’, is so affirming, and something I never quite realised I was missing at school.

I’ve never really had Muslim friends before. My friend group at school was made up of girls from a variety of faiths, which, yes, is fantastic and really important for building tolerance and understanding, but at the same time means you’re ultimately coming from different places in terms of beliefs and fundamental values. I love my friends and wouldn’t trade them for the world, but no matter how well-meaning they are there will always be questions, and things they can’t understand about the ways I choose to do certain things. But at college, having that group of girls who share my most basic beliefs and understand me implicitly is strengthening and supportive in a way I didn’t know I needed.

It’s not that being Muslim makes us automatically friends, or that we necessarily have more in common – in fact we’re all much different people as compared to how much I share with my non-Muslim friends – but just sharing those base line ideas about the world puts us in a place to just ‘get’ where each other are coming from, which is so special.

This was my first year observing the whole month of Ramadan away from home and without my family, and I was worried, I’ll be honest. Even at the best of times, making sure I leave my room and see other humans when I’m studying is difficult for me, let alone when I wasn’t even emerging for mealtimes! So having that community of Muslims around me was invaluable. Having people to break the fast, pray, and have dinner with, gave me a support network and surrogate family – crucial when I could have otherwise spent several weeks revising solidly and not seeing any other people.

Though, I do notice differences between myself and the girls who went to school with a large community of Muslims. I’ve grown up trying to fit in with girls for whom the Sixth Form Dress Code was Public Enemy #1, and consequently the way I dress, apart from obviously my scarf, is on the whole less conservative than most of the others. Or just little things like the way others are comfortable admitting when they’re having a difficult fast, where I’ve always made a point never, ever to complain about the slightest thing, lest people think of Islam as ‘that barbaric religion that starves its followers’. It does make me wonder sometimes what kind of person I would be had I grown up around more Muslims, and how much of a difference it would have ultimately made.

Adjusting my attitude to work

And then, this is sort of a separate thing, but one of the biggest things I’ve had to adjust to is that studying at Cambridge – the actual academic part – is (obviously) completely different to studying at school, and over the past nine months I’ve had to completely overhaul my attitude to work. In a regular week, most of my work consists of around four of what are essentially problem worksheets, except that they’re designed to take 4-5 hours to complete. That’s 16-20 hours of work at a minimum – not much less than the amount of actual lesson time you have here – on top of lectures and classes, and any projects or coursework I might have. So, there comes a point when you have to stop working. You have to say, ‘I’ve done as much as I can, the amount I’ll learn from struggling through this for two hours more isn’t worth it, compared to spending those hours sleeping, or running that laundry load I’ve been putting off, or just seeing a friend.’

I don’t know about any of you, but while I was at school, I would never, ever have considered handing in an unfinished piece of work. I dreaded showing up to a lesson and saying I hadn’t been able to do something; the fewer questions I ever had to ask, the better. And it’s taken me a long time to shed that mentality. It’s perfectly acceptable – encouraged, even – to come to a class not having understood any of the lectures and having only been able to do half the questions that were set. But knowing that is one thing, being able to implement it is quite another – to be honest I still struggle to be able to just stop when I know I’ve spent enough time on something, and to convince myself that I don’t need to be aiming for perfection.

It’s not about achieving perfection – it’s doing your best and knowing when to stop

And so I’ve been thinking a lot about perfection. Humans are inherently imperfect beings: the Quran says ‘and mankind was created weak’ [4:28]. So how much do you have a responsibility to work towards perfection, and at what point is it okay to say you’ve done your best, and stop? One of the three major principles that Muslims follow ‘ihsan’ or excellence – as in, being better than good. A lot of the teachings from the Quran and from the Prophet Muhammad* are about being intentional in everything you do and doing even seemingly trivial things to the best of your ability. So, does that mean that I’m never finished, that I have to spend hours and hours doing perfect work?

Well, in some respects, yes. Muslims believe that even though we can never be perfect, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be. You know, aim high. Our lives should be dedicated to being the best that we can – we should be continually trying to improve ourselves, so that we can be better for ourselves, and for the people around us. But plenty of commands have nuance and grey area. God is perfect, even if we can never be, and He knows that striving for perfection all the time maybe isn’t the most beneficial thing in the long run.

Muslims believe that God, in His infinite mercy, rewards good intentions as well as actions. I.e. if you truly intend to do something good but ultimately don’t do it, for whatever reason, God will still acknowledge that you wanted to. So, He knows that I would really love to be able to answer all the questions on the sheet, and that I really have tried my best to work through as many as I can. But I also have to be functioning human, and if that means going grocery shopping instead of struggling for another hour, He understands that too.

Finding balance in life

If I spent every hour working at my desk, my health – both physical and mental – would suffer and my life would be unbalanced. Another core tenet of Islam is balance in all things. Perfection in one thing shouldn’t come at the expense of other obligations. Yes, seeking knowledge is important – and is actually an obligation for Muslims to learn as much as they can and then use that knowledge for good – but it shouldn’t come at the expense of your health or relationships. Muslims aim to stay on the ‘straight path’ – i.e. in the middle of any extremes. The Prophet* said, ‘O people, remain straight upon the path and you will have taken a great lead, but if you swerve right or left then you will be led far astray.’ [Bukhari] The straight path is even mentioned in Surah Fatiha – the first chapter of the Quran and one that we recite many times a day: in all five prayers and plenty of other occasions.

Islam is a religion of balance. We need to make time to appreciate the world around us and enjoy the company of our friends. I could spend every hour of every day working, but ultimately it wouldn’t be beneficial to me or to anyone else.


*peace be upon him