One of the many questions sent my way (even from Malaysians) when word gets out that I am a Singaporean studying Communications in Malaysia is, “Why did you choose to study in Malaysia? Isn’t the education system better in Singapore?”
The truth is that my choice to pursue my degree in Malaysia had pretty much nothing to do with education systems, the ranking of universities, or future job prospects. Instead, it had everything to do with my intention to become a better Muslimah. I needed to get away from everything and start anew somewhere else.
So I packed my bags, and left. That was all to it.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I come from a broken family, or that I have terrible friends. My parents have always brought me up in an Islāmic environment, and my friends, even the non-Muslims, were supportive of my attempts to change. But no matter how hard I tried, I kept slipping back into old habits. Despite starting to attend religious classes, I still found it hard to avoid certain places, or doing certain things.
I was too comfortable in the environment I had created around me, and my habits were too attached to that environment.
So I did what was naturally the answer: I changed my environment altogether. IIUM was the only overseas Islāmic university I knew that taught in English and would allow me to minor in Islāmic Knowledge. So I applied, and got in. Alhamdulillah.
“If you want to change your own or someone else’s behaviour, the first thing you can often do is change the environment. If you can control the environment, you can typically predict or create a specific behaviour.” – Kevin Hogan
Amongst my friends, when we share good news of others making the change to be better Muslims, we use the term ‘hijrah’, meaning migration. The term, for me, is as metaphorical (from darkness to light) as it is literal. People who are serious in changing often make the conscious effort to change their environments, be it through moving to a different country, entering a new space (like a mosque, or a religious class), or even their social life (friends etc).
Making hijrah is not the easiest thing to do. In fact, nothing that requires you to come out of your comfort zone is an easy thing to do. There is always the aspect of fear, of perceived shame, of worries and doubts.
But we have to remember that progress can only happen when we learn to push our own boundaries.
I remember a sister from Tumblr reaching out to me several years ago that she wanted to go to the mosque but was afraid to do so as the customs of the mosque confused her; she was afraid of being exposed as ‘new’. We met up, did a crash course on Mosque customs, and today she’s a Muslimah I look up to and continuously learn from.
It must have not been easy for her initially to reach out for help from a total stranger. In fact, it must have been hard to swallow her fears, worries or even ego. But she did it. She pushed her boundaries and created a new environment for herself.
“From the standpoint of your self, this factor can help you determine whether you should remain in the same environment or intentional change it.” – Kevin Hogan
When we migrate to a new environment, we are doing two things: detaching ourselves from cues that trigger old habits, while making it easier on our brain to adopt and take on new habits.
It is the same for drug addicts wanting to start afresh, students wanting to score better grades, or Muslims generally wanting to be better Muslims – we need to start strategically placing ourselves in environments that will cultivate the change we want to see in ourselves, and the kind of person we aspire to be.
Simply put, changing our environment makes changing ourselves much easier.
“When a person is moved from one environment to another, especially when one is unfamiliar with the environment, the brain has to change; it enters into a stage of flux and typically becomes more suggestible.” – Kevin Hogan
Begin with a small step; you don’t have to pack your bags and leave the country (especially if you are responsible for your family). Find one person who has the qualities that you want to take on, who has habits you want to have, who will plant the first seed of environment that you need to change.
Stick to that person, grow with that person, and branch out consistently.
Over time, you will see, InsyaAllah, that your whole environment has changed and that it all started from that small moment you consciously decided to make hijrah.
May Allah SWT ease our affairs, insyaAllah! :)
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