KISSAH AND DAWAT: Bismillah: A Muslim Alumnus’s Reflection on Excellence and Commitment

[Speech by Noor Mohammad D. Saada, WMSU College of Nursing Class of 1993, during the College’s baccalaureate program on 15 May 2023.]


As a Muslim, we learned from our Islamic theology to begin an action or activity with the formula, by saying, Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim, In the God Most Gracious Most Merciful. Salutation of peace, and blessings be upon His Noble and Final Prophet and Messenger, Sayyidina Muhammad, his family, his companions and those followers of his teachings; in the way the Almighty God extended His peace and blessings upon the father of prophets Abraham (or as we say in Islam, Nabi Ibrahim).

Hadith is a collection of Prophet Muhammad’s sayings. In one hadith, Prophet Muhammad SAW said, “He who does not thank people, does not thank Allah” (Narrated by Ahmad and Tirmidhi). Therefore, I would like to express my gratitude to Western Mindanao State University (WMSU), led by Dr. Maria Carla Altea Ochotorena, the university president, and the entire WMSU family. This includes the members of the Board of Regents, administrative and academic officials, center heads, and most importantly, the faculty and students. I am grateful for being invited to be a part of this year’s baccalaureate ceremony.

Graduation Theme

This year’s graduation theme is “WMSU Graduates 2023: A Testament to Academic Excellence and a Commitment for World-Class Professionals and Quality Service.” We are expected to embody excellence, commitment, become world-class professionals, and provide quality service. As graduates of WMSU, how can we meet these expectations?

Thirty years ago, I was in this very building for my own baccalaureate and graduation. Like all of you here today, I was also trying to comprehend and find significance in the graduation theme. What does this theme mean to me?

Early on, I mention WMSU as a family because everything important in life is accompanied by a family. As an alumnus logging into our university website, which serves as our means of staying connected with our alma mater, we are reminded by a Chabacano phrase, “un universidad, un familia, un amor” (one university, one family, one love). Thus, with that phrase in mind, let us not forget that we gather here this morning as a family. I stand before you as a son of WMSU returning to his family, forever grateful and filled with love for what the university has done for me. It has prepared me well to become a professional and has empowered me, along with all the other graduates, to pursue our individual dreams and shared aspirations for our society. The confidence that WMSU has instilled in all of us can be immensely powerful and transformative. We enter WMSU as novices and inexperienced individuals, described in Tausug as “musingan” (to depict our youthful innocence), bringing our own identities while embracing new ones. Then, upon leaving WMSU, we are prepared to spread our wings and venture across the country and the world, wherever our destinies call us to be.

I was invited to today’s baccalaureate program to share snippets of my thirty-year journey. One elder son telling a story to the younger sons and daughters of WMSU. It feels as if WMSU, the grand old lady of knowledge, is urging me to tell them how it prepared me to fight my own battles and to fight for others when they are unable to do so, and in fighting how you transformed to be the better version of yourself.

As a Muslim alumnus

I stand here today not only as a WMSU alumnus, but also as a Muslim alumnus. As such, I would like to share some lessons and guidance from my Islamic background that I have learned, applied, and used as my compass throughout my time here and after graduating from WMSU in 1993.

For my fellow Muslims in this gathering, this year’s theme should not be unfamiliar to us. The pursuit of excellence, commitment, becoming world-class professionals, and serving with quality are fundamental values deeply rooted in our faith. Islamic theology encompasses a Hadith, known as the Hadith of the Archangel Gabriel (or Jibril AS, as we say in Arabic), which succinctly encapsulates the essence of Islam. Allow me to recount this story:

The Prophet Muhammad and his companions were gathered together when a man, dressed in white with black hair and showing no signs of travel, appeared before them. He sat down, rested his knees, and placed his hands on the Prophet’s thighs.

He asked, “O Muhammad, tell me about Islam.” The Prophet replied, “Islam is to testify that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, to establish prayer, give charity, fast during the month of Ramadan, and perform the pilgrimage to the House if possible.”

The man responded, “You have spoken truthfully.” This surprised the Prophet’s companions.

The man asked again, “Tell me about faith.” The Prophet answered, “Faith is to believe in Allah, His angels, His Books, His Messengers, the Last Day, and to believe in providence, both its good and its harm.”

The man replied, “You have spoken truthfully. Tell me about excellence.” The Prophet said, “Excellence is to worship Allah as if you see Him, for even if you do not see Him, He surely sees you.”

For the fourth time, the man asked, “Tell me about the final hour.” The Prophet replied, “The one being asked knows no more than the one asking.”

Let me stop there. After this conversation, the man left. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) revealed that this man was the archangel Gabriel (or as we say, Jibril AS). He did what he did to instruct Muslims about Islam concisely. Is this event during the time of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) relevant to your graduation theme?

Islam: Submission of a Muslim student

The first inquiry was about the fundamentals of submission. Islam, which means submission, defines a Muslim as someone who submits and obeys God. The Archangel Gabriel taught us about the five pillars of Islam, which include declaring the two testimonies (shahadatayn), performing the five daily prayers (salat), giving mandatory charity (zakat), fasting (sawm), and performing the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) if able.

What lessons can we learn from the fundamentals of submission? We can apply these principles to becoming students at WMSU. This involves promising to follow university rules, attending daily classes, complying with requirements, being patient throughout, and interacting with teachers and fellow students in a civil and productive manner. Hence, one can argue that a Muslim who observes the five pillars of Islam should serve as a model student of learning.

Iman: Belief and commitment as a Muslim student

The second inquiry of Archangel Gabriel pertained to the fundamentals of faith. As Muslims, we believe in Allah as God, His angels, His Books, His Messengers, the Last Day, and Divine Providence. These form the Six Pillars of Iman (Faith) in Islam.

The pillars of iman provide valuable lessons regardless of our chosen professions, such as agriculture, architecture, criminology, engineering, forestry, environmentalism, nutrition and dietetics, law, nursing, public administration, social work, development work, teaching, sports, computer science, scientific research, mathematics, Asian studies, or liberal arts. These professions require the acquisition of core knowledge, skills, and values. Without these foundational elements, one cannot be considered a true professional, and their practice would lack the necessary competence. Similarly, a follower of Islam cannot be recognized as a Mu’min or a believer without adhering to the six pillars of iman. Therefore, Muslim professionals are those who are devoted to both their faith and their chosen occupation.

Ihsan: The quest for excellence of a Muslim student

The third inquiry of the Archangel Gabriel focused on spiritual excellence, or ihsan, which entails worshipping Allah as if we can see Him, knowing that even if we cannot see Him, He sees us. Thus, Muslims observe their fast without succumbing to the temptation of consuming food or water, even in private. They perform their prayers with sincerity and tranquility, and they keep their acts of charity discreet. This understanding allows Muslims to recognize that Allah sees them, even when they are unaware, leading them to become Muhsin, individuals who embellish and enrich their intentions and actions for the sake of God.

From the pursuit of ihsan in Islam, we learn valuable lessons. It is insufficient to be satisfied with the basics, whether in our religious practices or our professional endeavors. As Muslims, we are obligated to strive for excellence, so that our faith (iman), worship (ibadah), and deeds (amal) synergize and elevate us to a higher level. Islam teaches us that true distinction among Muslims lies in piety, regardless of wealth, gender, physical abilities, age, race, or social status. Piety without ihsan is of inferior quality, whereas excellence represents the highest quality. Hence, a genuine Muslim is one who remains committed to the pursuit of excellence, continuously striving for it in both intention and deeds, in their relationship with Allah and their interactions with others. In this regard, Muslims are engaged in an ongoing struggle (jahada) to improve themselves and be the best they can be. Islam reminds us that the greatest battle (jihad akbar) is the internal struggle against the desires (nafs) that attempt to keep us content with mediocrity.

Mawt: Focus and best return for a Muslim student

Finally, the fourth inquiry of Archangel Gabriel pertained to death, serving as a reminder of life’s fleeting nature and our own mortality. In Islamic theology, we are reminded of the purpose behind the creation of all things. Our principles (Islam), beliefs (Iman), and pursuit of excellence (Ihsan) are all directed towards the act of submission and obedience to Allah SWT. In the Qur’an, love is associated with the belief in God, being one of His divine attributes. Allah is referred to as Al-Wadood, The Loving. Love is exemplified through selflessness, such as when individuals give of their wealth as an act of righteousness and obedience to God. Allah loves those who perform good deeds, which are a manifestation of Ihsan or excellence. Charity does not diminish one’s wealth, as it yields abundant spiritual rewards. God loves those who rely upon Him and those who consistently seek repentance and purification. We are reminded that the material wealth we so strongly desire or love is merely temporary enjoyment in worldly life, while the ultimate and most rewarding outcome (Husnul Maāb) lies with God.

These four points have been instrumental in my journey as a Muslim professional, and I hope they will also benefit you as you embark on your own path.

Closing Statement: A life of love

In mentioning love, I believe it holds significance on both personal and spiritual levels, making it a valuable pursuit. Our university, WMSU, is also founded on the principles of love, unity, and family. As I reflect upon my own journey and express gratitude for the university’s contributions, I extend my heartfelt wishes to all of you, the graduating class. As you step out into the world to pursue your individual destinies, it is crucial to remember the importance of cultivating a loving heart, especially in a world plagued by mental health issues and various challenges.

Prophet Muhammad SAW wisely reminds us of the significance of the heart in our spiritual growth. He narrates that within our bodies resides a piece of flesh that, if pure and virtuous, spreads goodness throughout our being. Conversely, if corrupted, it taints the entirety of our existence. As you embark on your professional journeys and strive to bring positive change to the world, do not overlook the state of this vital organ. Reformation and positive transformations begin within our hearts.

A loving heart also acknowledges its roots and appreciates those who contribute to its realization of commitment, quality, and excellence—the very essence of this year’s graduation theme. In Islamic teachings, we are guided on spiritual remedies to help us navigate challenging times, the darkest of days, and moments of solitude, demotivation, and uncertainty. According to a hadith, Allah SWT proclaims that whoever takes a step towards Him, He will take multiple steps towards them. Whoever approaches Him by an arm’s length, He will come closer by a fathom. Whoever comes to Him walking, He will rush to meet them. Even if one’s sins were to fill the earth, if they do not associate partners with Allah, He will meet them with an abundance of forgiveness.

And with that, I thank WMSU, our alma mater, and especially Dr. Maria Carla Altea Ochotorena, the university president, for trusting one of her students from CN Class 1993 and inviting me to be a part of your baccalaureate program. It feels good to be back home. As an alumnus, I eagerly anticipate more meaningful engagement in the near future.

Wa billahi tawfiq wal hidayah. May the Almighty Allah grant us wisdom and blessings. Was salamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullahi taala wa barakatuh. May peace, blessings, and the mercy of Allah be upon us all.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry—born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-Tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and is a member of an insider-mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue.)