I converted to Islam 3 years ago while living in the UK, which is also my home country. In the case of my conversion, I was drawn to Islam largely as a result of experiential rather than intellectual reasons. Leading up to my conversion, I had certain experiences that I could not explain, leading to questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of our life here on earth. At first, I looked for answers to these questions in intellectual philosophies and theories which seemed to lead to more questions than answers, more confusion than certainty. It took some time before I began to ask the big question, whether or not God was real. It was this question that led me to Islam.
It was the clarity with which Islam addressed these questions that was most appealing to me. By simply testifying that Allah was the only God worthy of worship and that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was his messenger, I had a profound experience. It was an affirmation of the truth that I had been unable to comprehend through my intellect. It was not only an abstract truth, but a truth that I was experiencing in that moment when saying the Shahada. This was a level of certainty that reached not only my mind and my senses, but my heart, leaving little doubt as to the reality of Allah.
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After entering Islam however, I began to face the challenges many Muslims across the globe face – both those born into the religion and those who convert – the challenge of how after I have recognised the reality of Allah do I live my life in harmony with that reality and how can I draw closer to Allah. The main obstacle facing me was a lack of knowledge, specifically knowledge of the deen and the Arabic language in which it was revealed.
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While the early period of my life as a Muslim has been a struggle to learn the basics of the religion, how to pray, fast, make wudhu and more, recently I have tried my best to improve my Arabic. However, this has always been something I have done on the side of my university studies and day to day life. Having just graduated, me and my wife decided that the best way to make real progress was to dedicate a period of time to focus solely on improving our Arabic. This was a large part of our motivation to travel and Fes was the first step on this journey.
A snapshot of life in Fez
Fes is a city that has many dimensions to it, which would be impossible to cover in a short article such as this. Me and my wife lived in the old part of the city, which is the side of Fes most seen by tourists visiting the city. The old city is like a living museum in that it has preserved many of the traditional architecture, industry and day to day living that would have been observed for millennia.
Fes’s unique status as a World Heritage Site and one of the oldest continuously habituated cities in the world makes it one of the most unique cities I have ever lived in. Everywhere you look you are reminded of a way of life that is alien to much of Europe today. Many trades have been preserved throughout the old city and Fes’s artisans continue to produce handmade textiles, leather, metal works and carpets that are sent across the world. Tourists walking the city streets will often have the chance to observe these artisans applying their trade first hand.
Fes’s famous leatherworks in action – Credit: Anthony G. Reyes on Flickr
Tourists can also enjoy some of the old city’s stunning architecture, which has been developed of thousands of years. There are many other beautiful structures that can be found throughout the old city, including old Madrasa’s and the Tdjani Zawaya which me and my wife lived next door to. The saying don’t judge a book by its cover is especially true in Morocco, where on the outside a building may seem abandoned, the interior may turn out to be exquisite.
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Moroccans are undoubtedly masters of interior design, which has clearly been inspired by intricate Islamic architecture of the highest order. This is another side of the old city that takes time to get to know as you have to explore parts of the city off the tourist trails, to see these buildings. This is difficult to do due to the size of Fes, which is home to close to 10,000 pedestrian streets (there are no vehicles allowed in the old city, except for horses and donkeys!).
Credit: Mike Prince on Flickr
These streets are interlinked in a way that defies any form of logic or Google maps! Meaning in a short space of time you are unlikely to encounter parts of the city that lay off the beaten track. Having time to get to know the intricacies of some of the city’s neighbourhoods was a real adventure, and even after two months in Fes I’d take a turn I’d never been down before and find myself in a completely new self-contained neighbourhood, which seemed like a city in itself. This is part of the charm of Fes that can only be appreciated with time.
Credit: James Merhebi on Flickr
The Beauty of Fes
While tourists are free to enter many of the city’s beautiful madrasas, only Muslims are granted access to its mosques. This is another dimension of the city that only Muslims can really experience, this is the spiritual dimension of Fes. This is best preserved in many of the cities beautiful mosques, the gem of these being the University of Al-Qarouine, home to one of the world’s first universities. Al-Qarouine continues to hold circles of knowledge to this day, teaching through a methodology that has been preserved for over a thousand years.
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One of the highlights of my time in Fes has undoubtedly been to sit in Al-Qaraouine and feel the peace that permeates its walls. Another unique feature of Fes and Morocco generally is their practice of reciting a Juz of Quran each day out loud. This has been particularly useful for my Quran recital and for my Arabic learning. The ritual nature of this practice makes reading the Quran a habitual aspect of everyday life and is one that even as a spectacle can enliven the soul.
Credit: @jaewalk on Instagram
Learning Arabic in Fes
My Arabic studies were not situated in the old city but in the new city and here lies another dimension to Fes. The new city is much like any city across the globe, with big city mall’s, McDonalds, Pizza Hut and the other fast food joints one would expect to adorn an American side walk. The new city can be a welcome break from the chaos and intensity of the old city, which is certainly an assault on all your senses, preserving the sounds, sights and smells of a traditional-medieval city.
My classes were held at the American Centre in Fes, which can be found online via the acronym ALIF. Classes are housed in a beautiful residence that looks like a French villa. The house has a lovely garden and café that students from both abroad and Morocco spend most their time in. The courses offered start at $800 for group classes over 6 weeks. For this price, students are given 4 hours class time a day and access to ALIF’s facilities, while textbooks have to be paid for separately.
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Studying Arabic in Morocco is neither cheap nor expensive as far as the costs go for studying Arabic abroad. In countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, you can find courses for lower prices, while the prices in Fes are cheaper than in countries such as Jordan or Lebanon. Studying in Morocco offers students a more comfortable living scenario than much of the rest of the Middle East as living standards are high. At the same time the cost of living in Morocco is cheap and you can live very comfortably spending as little as $50 a week.
Don’t expect especially cheap accommodation though, which is in line with European prices, our flat was around $300 a month. The political stability of Morocco may appeal to many students who are trying to convince their parents to allow them to study abroad in the Middle East; as may the relative calm of the Fes compared to other popular Arabic learning destinations such as Cairo or Beirut. Check out this article for a useful overview of studying Arabic in the Middle East!
Tips for those studying in Fes
As for the content of the course in Fes, ALIF uses the Al-Kitaab series which are a common textbook for learning Modern Standard Arabic. Those wishing to study Arabic for religious purposes may wish to find an alternative text book with more direct reference to the Quran and ALIF can opt for adifferent curriculum. ALIF places students in classes based on ability and a positive aspect of the centre is that class sizes are small, generally being around 5 students per class.
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A negative aspect of ALIF is that it is a centre that is largely attended by university students coming from England and America. Their motives for studying Arabic will not always be the same as Muslims travelling to better their Arabic for religious reasons. In my experience, there is not the same dedication for students on study abroad programs who are just hoping to obtain a certain grade to take back to their home universities. Therefore, outside of the classrooms, English is the main language used, which is a real shame for those hoping to immerse themselves in an Arabic speaking environment. That brings up another issue with learning Arabic in Morocco, the Moroccan dialect.
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My wife learned Arabic in Egypt, which is widely understood across the Arab world. While she was understood in Fes, she had real difficulty speaking to local Moroccans due to their accent, which is heavily influenced by French. For anyone coming from Europe or America, it is likely that as a tourist you will be spoken to in French even if you try and speak Arabic, though many people will do their best to accommodate you if you are persistent. A further for those who are already at an intermediate level of Arabic is to spend time sitting in on the circles of knowledge held in mosques such as Al Quaraouiyine.
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For beginners really wanting to progress with their Arabic, I would recommend private classes. The teachers at ALIF are excellent and happy to tailor a curriculum to the students wants and needs. I met a Canadian couple who had recommended their own textbooks and, from what I saw, had progressed far quicker than those who entered group classes. When we travel onto Cairo, I will do my best to find affordable private classes, which I have decided is a far more productive way to study Arabic if you have the funds.
Travelling in Morocco
If your focus is purely on learning Arabic, I would say that Morocco is not the best country to do so. The dialect spoken by most people is too far removed from either Modern Standard Arabic or the Arabic spoken in the rest of the Arab world to be applied in practice. Furthermore, as a tourist you will have to be vigilant and persistent if you want to speak classical Arabic to Moroccans, who will to their best to speak to you in the local dialect or in French.
That said, the great advantage of studying Arabic in Morocco is the opportunities offered outside the classroom, as there are few countries that offer so many diverse travel opportunities. Since our time in Morocco was relatively short, my wife and I really took advantage of our weekends, travelling most the weekends we had off.
Morocco is a brilliant country to travel in. It has great transports links, accommodation and there are really diverse attractions for tourists. Trains and buses operate throughout the country at very affordable prices, being no more than $20 for a ticket. It is also home to stunning nature, and during our travels, we saw some amazing mountains, deserts and oceans, with each area being just as spectacular. A particular highlight was travelling to the Sahara Desert where we spent a night camping in the desert camping under the stars.
Morocco is also home to stunning mountain ranges and my biggest regret is not taking time to trek in the Atlas Mountains, which I will be sure to do should I return. Our final week in Morocco has been spent in Essaouira on the coast, which has been a welcome antidote from the hectic days we had in Marrakech. It is a beautiful port city with a lovely beach and has options to surf, kayak or just enjoy some time in the sun.
Credit: Rol247* on Flickr
[ P.S. Here’s 10 reasons why you won’t regret a once in a lifetime trip to Morocco! ]
The quest to learn and how it can change your life
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Fes has been our first stop on a year-long journey in search of knowledge, as well as the first stage of my marriage. These are both ways of life that are new to me and I am certainly conscious that I am no expert on these subjects, so please take my advice with a pinch of salt. I can say that both marriage and the pursuit of knowledge are means through which we can grow closer to Allah. As with all things that bring us closer to Allah, there are tests along the way that check our sincerity and whether we are really pursuing things for the sake of Allah or for ourselves. In this way, these tests also purify our intentions, as we begin to question ourselves and our goals.
If one is sincere, the goal of being bought closer to Allah will emerge in our hearts and minds as the only valid motivation worthy of our effort. Furthermore, you will recognise that the appropriate response to any struggles you face is to remain patient. Patience is a further virtue that is cultivated through the tests we face in our life, as Allah says in Surah Ash-Sharh, “For indeed, with hardship [will be] ease. Indeed, with hardship [will be] ease. (94: 5-6).
My short time in Morocco has also given me a much-needed dose of perspective. Learning a new language, or any new subject for that matter, is a humbling experience and as with anything that humbles the soul, it is incredibly valuable. It has allowed me to realise how much work I need to do in order to move closer to Allah and that it is only through His power, will and ultimately His mercy that I will begin to draw closer to Him.
Abu Huraira (RA) reported that the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said that Allah, the Exalted and Glorious said,
“I am near to the thought of My servant as he thinks about Me, and I am with him as he remembers Me. And if he remembers Me in his heart, I also remember him in My heart, and if he remembers Me in assembly I remember him in assembly, better than his (remembrance), and if he draws near Me by the span of a palm, I draw near him by the cubit, and if he draws near me by the cubit I draw near him by the space (covered by) two hands. And if he walks towards Me, I rush towards him.” (Sahih Muslim).
Credit: Geraint Rowland on Flickr
As this Hadith indicates, even the smallest effort made by a believer to draw closer to Allah will be rewarded. As we make small efforts, Allah facilitates us and it is by His power and will that we are able to make any modest achievements. This brings up the other side of hardship, which is that it is followed by ease. Tests also bring results, good or bad. Thus, as ideally, we respond to bad with patience, our response to good should be gratefulness.
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As the Prophet (peace be upon him) says in a beautiful hadith: “How amazing is the case of the believer; there is good for him in everything, and this characteristic is exclusively for him alone. If he experiences something pleasant, he is thankful, and that is good for him; and if he comes across some adversity, he is patient, and that is good for him.” (Muslim). Thus our final affair, so long as we are hoping to draw closer to Allah, is ultimately good and here lies the essence and beauty of belief! These small realisations and reflections have been part my journey in Morocco and they are lessons that, inshaAllah, I will be able take with me as I move onto Cairo to continue my studies.