I dread having to write this post, or what I have called it in my mind as an open letter to the related persons. My dread is based on the fear that this post will compromise the sincerity in my heart to reach my goal. After all, I have always believed that you can never please everyone, and that you cannot control what others think of you. However, I am nudged to finally write this open letter after reading and listening to a few scholars and realizing the severity of the situation than I first comprehended.
A few months before I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, I went to meet a trusted professor of mine. We talked about my future plans, and the ways forward. I articulated my doubts of doing a PhD directly after my three years at Pitt and my ability to become an academician. Therefore, he advised me to do a Master for a year while I figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life. I did as advised, went to a prestigious university to obtain my Master’s degree while I contemplated my future. Being who I am, I have always put my trust in God. Bit by bit, God showed me while I was in London that opportunities for me in academic seem brighter. After praying for the best direction, my heart finally decides that I am ready for a life in academic.
That’s when it started.
I started getting comments on how I’m going to be a “lecturer je” (just a lecturer), from family members, no less. It went on for a while, getting the same comments from different people. But I make up excuses for them in my head. I told myself that their ignorance is not their fault. They grew up in a society that looks up to doctors, lawyers, accountants, and engineers, while failing to realize that before there were doctors or lawyers, there were university lecturers under the tutelage whom they studied under. It thus baffles me when they say I’m going to be just a lecturer. How can you admire the head without the neck or shoulder? I understand that I may not be teaching important courses, but knowledge is knowledge, regardless of our limited human appreciation of them.
The second excuse I make up for them may sound a bit arrogant, but it is nonetheless an excuse I can think of to wrap my head around their comment. Most of these people who said I’m going to be a “lecturer je” graduated from Malaysian universities, and I’m not even talking about University of Malaya or the National University of Malaysia. What is my point of bringing this up? If you went to a university where most of the lecturers only had a Master’s degree, and their job appears to revolve around teaching in class, you may put them on a lesser pedestal than they really deserve. But I have been to two amazing research universities. The professors that I’ve had are amazingly knowledgeable and are respected with awe by their students, including me. These are people who don’t only take what’s in the textbook and projected them on a wall, they are the ones who wrote the textbooks. They write books, articles, present at conferences, and many more.
How did I come to this seemingly spurious conclusion? The only direct support I have gotten from an extended family member is from an uncle whom himself graduated from a foreign university. He understands the value of committing your life to knowledge. When I first told him of my plan post-LSE, his was the only positive response I received. Not only was he supportive in the sense that stroke my ego, but he also shared with me ways to reach my full potential. He didn’t say I’m going to waste my time as just a lecturer; he actually encourages me to write books, and become a professor one day, inshAllah. He is someone who understands that besides revealed knowledge, the whole universe is open to discovery, and the people who make those discoveries deserve our utmost respect and gratitude, not because of some imaginary hierarchy, but because without these people we would still think that the atom is the smallest particle and that Communism is the future. Where do you think these people are? Do you think the Nobel laureates sit at home constantly working out some mathematics equation? No, their research is usually funded by a university!
When I met a few professors from the local universities here, discussing my future in the respective university, my first question was always, “How much research can I expect to do here?” In the end, that is what I aspire to do. I want to dedicate my life to learning. I want to become a social scientist. But most people don’t understand the value of that because the only value they see is money. The only measure of success to a modern man is how big his house is and how many cars he own. This is a very sad predicament for us. During a recent Islamic conference I attended, the speaker mentioned how when we ask our kids today their aspiration, their answer is usually the typical “doctor, lawyer, engineer” mix. Nothing wrong with that, except that we don’t hear our future generation says they aspire to become the best Muslims in order to enter Jannah.
Now this is the hardest part for my write. To those who actually care enough to sit with me and to talk to me, rather than talk of me, would know that my specialization has always been on political Islam. I pray to God that my work, how insignificant they are, may have a tiny impact on the general perception people have on Islam’s role in politics. It may not be a big deal to those who have to work 9-5 to provide for their family, but it is a passion I’ve had for a while. As a Muslim, I can’t stand the misconceptions (including by Muslims) on Islam and politics. I wish to be part of a group of academicians that would one day rectify this. My plan is bigger than success in this dunya. I don’t wish to work to accumulate as much wealth as possible; instead, I wish that my work would count for the progress of the ummah, and as my key to enter Jannah. On a separate note, the idea of just a lecturer is ludicrous to me because I have a few friends whose parents are lecturers, and they live in big mansions, travelling the whole world, every year. I can vouch that the same persons who said I will be a ”lecturer je” don’t even have half the assets of these professors, even though that is beside the point. Why is this difficult for me to write? Because I never want others to know my heart’s desire. I have always said that the reason I want to become a political scientist is to gain God’s grace. For me, it is good enough for God to know my intention. At the end of the day, I want my niyah to be that of fi-lil-Allah-i-taala.
Undeniably, it breaks my heart a little when they say I’m going to be just a lecturer. But they also brought up the point that I had big dreams when I was younger. The funny thing is, those dreams are still with me, but they never bother to ask me how I want to achieve those dreams. See, I am someone who believes it is important to walk the talk. What is the point of having dreams without a concrete plan to achieve them? You can’t just wish something and expect one day to find yourself owning a private island. If you want something bad enough, you work for it. And working for it is what I am doing right now. Believe me, all those wishes I had plastered on the walls of my childhood bedroom, they’re still plastered in my heart. The difference between the older and younger Syaza is that I now see my future clearer than ever. But the one thing that has stayed constant in my life is that when others doubt me, it drives me crazy to prove them wrong. Not because of some egoistic desire, but because I believe—I know—that the ummah would be better off if we change our perception and aspiration, just a little bit, inshAllah.