abide in your houses

From Jetset to Talibah: Walking Away from a Successful Career

By K. Balkhi

(This is the first in a series of articles.)

I must admit, when I woke up to the existence of madrasas (dedicated Islamic learning institutes) it was with a sense of pity.

A soaring business journalist in Saudi Arabia, I was covering the glitzy Jeddah Economic Forum. Having recently graduated from one of America’s leading liberal arts colleges, the world was my oyster.

At the Forum, a founding director of The Citizens Foundation (an education non-profit foundation) mentioned in passing that among its proofs of success was its citation in an British Parliament report: TCF was helping fill a gap to which until recently mainly  madrasas had catered, thereby giving poor children more options to be off the street and learning in classrooms.

This comment in 2004 was my first introduction to madaaris (correct plural for madrasa), with an immediate association to poverty— a fair gauge for the value I must have had for full-time Islamic learning.

My own Islamic studies had ranged from skipping quaida pages between my Ustani-jee’s (informal, and oft un-informed, teacher of Quranic reading for little girls) 15-minute afternoon visits to the meaningful Quranic and prophetic stories my elders shared, often leading by example.

The Catalyst

That was nine years ago; for seven of these years I’d been merrily oblivious to the 2,000 madaaris of Karachi, where we eventually re-located. I was too busy being a star with my own consultancy and journal, with multiple fancy titles and travels to match.

I also chaired my own non-profit— co-founded with friends after Pakistan’s devastating 2007 earthquake— which was dedicated to making an organized positive difference in underprivileged lives.

Combined with my professional specialization in sustainability, my life’s work was the perfect mix of meaningful, rewarding work, at least by secular worldly standards.

Skip to 2011: my sister introduced me to an intensive summer program geared towards helping young women re-align their lives in-sync with the divine purpose of human creation.

And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.

[Surat l-Dhariyat, 51:56]

A few weeks of gentle, consistent coaching and I started seeing the practical steps needed to carry me towards long-standing goals that had until then remained elusive.

. . . And my guidance {success} cannot come except from Allah.

[Surah Hud, 11:88][1]Step 1: Weeding Before Planting

Perhaps the single, most powerful change-catalyzer was that the program’s mentors gave me the courage to weed out contradictions within my life choices.  We don’t realize how such paradoxes stand as barriers between us and our Creator and prevent us from living a spiritual, holistically fulfilling life.

Step Uno

 At last I felt an urgent need to dig myself out of the corporate world, to distance myself from its material benchmarks of success and ita distorted definitions of meaningfulness, most of them generated by its rather un-halaal environment.

The relentless gender mixing, the increasingly “higher-profile” training and public-speaking engagements had put me more and more in the limelight. I now knew that these and the travel without maharem (close male relatives as defined by Shariah) were not among the honorable statuses Muslim women were created for. Our lives are empowered by privacy, not, as we often seem to think, by confidence in addressing large mixed crowds.

What are My Options?

Being my own boss helped. I slowly but surely announced sabbatical plans to various work partners. Within a few weeks, I was free.

Free to . . . ? Why, to manifest my very own purpose of creation, of course!

The next logical question was, where can I start filling in this gaping void of knowledge about my divinely-intended way of life?

The Present 

Now you’re looking at a second-year Madrasa student. A paradigm shift has been underway and much about my way of life has changed.

For instance, I have a deeper appreciation and respect for everything anchored around the home. The house in turn has adapted to facilitate my observance of Shariah-based hijab, which is not just the name of the clothing covering our bodies; it’s an entire lifestyle of modesty, a way of thinking and behaving that was totally alien to my former world!

My greatest joys now come not from swimming with sharks but from reveling in the interdisciplinary richness of my learning, from catching the sparkles that richly interlink the diverse subjects we’re studying to unearthing the syntactic structure of Arabic texts (airaab or tarkeeb), including the Quran. I admit it: I’m a nerd.

Moreover, deep contentment springs from genuinely practicing our deen. Our leaders and even junior professors lead by setting transparent examples, personifying elusive traits like sabr and shukar (patience and gratitude).

The company of the righteous and the intellectually unfettered nurtures an environment that makes the seemingly most difficult actions flow from one’s self like water down a mountain stream, with a purity of intention resulting in serenity and peace.

The Goal of an Education?

I’d like to leave you with this line from one of my mentors. As I was struggling with deciding to walk away from a sterling career— fame, fortune, respect and all— I discussed the matter with my mentor from the Summer 2011 Program again and again. Finally, the line that stuck with me:

This is not why God gave you your talents.

 (To be continued)

The author is a business journalist and writer with over 150 published pieces, including book chapters and strategic reports as part of her former consultancy. She is currently studying Islam at a leading Jamia, Islamic university, for women.


[1] For further, yet concise, reading on Tawfiq: Al-Tawfiq by Shaykh Muhammad Salih al-Munajjid. Also available at: http://www.kalamullah.com/Books/al-tawfiq.pdf

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