By Maha Ezzeddine from Detroit
Estimated Reading Time: 4 Minutes

(reposted from February 2017)

I’ve attended nine different usras* in four states, trudging through rain, rush hour, and snowstorms; high school, college, grad school, and motherhood; after fajr, after isha, and anytime in between. But for the last two years, I suffered an usra-less spell. The repercussions alarmed me and helped me appreciate how the usra has impacted me over the years.

Here are a few of the lessons I learned while being usra-less:

The usra is a weekly workout.

If lectures, classes, camps, and conferences are 5Ks and marathons, the usra is the regular workout where you build your strength over time and get to know yourself at a deep level. It’s where you flex the muscles of critical thinking, incremental self-improvement, listening to peers, and connecting with the Quran. Because you challenge those muscles on a weekly basis, they are strong when you need them. When you are put on the spot to give advice, to focus on worship, to be patient in a calamity, or to tell a child a story, the usra keeps you in shape, reflections at the tip of your tongue, skills ready at hand. When those muscles are not used on a regular basis, they wither.

Don’t discount slow learning.

During my usra-less spell, I tried taking some Islamic classes to fill the void. While I benefited greatly, it did not replace what the usra could give me. Our minds and hearts can only absorb so much in a sitting. With seminars, conferences, and workshops, we experience the adrenaline rush of learning a lot at once – but we may only retain a fraction. We take notes but may never look at them again. On the other hand, a weekly two-hour appointment to learn and reflect becomes hundreds of hours of incremental learning over the years. Even when material is repeated, it is usually with a different group of people, a different mentor, and a deeper examination. Studying the tafseer of Surah An-Noor as a college student is very different than studying it as a parent. Every time material is recalled, neural pathways are strengthened, terms are more readily remembered, new lessons surface, and broader themes slowly take shape in our minds.

Usras need backbones.

I tried during the usra-less spell to get a new one started. But an usra has to be more than just one person. The usra is not a service from which we can take breaks, skip meetings, come unprepared, and expect it to still be there when we are in the right mood. The best usras have at least two or three power members who are willing to trudge through snow, traffic, and the sludge of commitments to make the weekly meeting happen. They are the backbone and spirit of the usra, and they will be the ones who will gain the most benefit (and probably the most reward). An usra cannot survive without great commitment.

The usra provides a steady stream of creative material.

The other day, my daughter was home sick from school and asked me to tell her a story. My mind could have drawn a blank, but this particular week, the stories and Quran verses we had discussed in usra were fresh in my mind. I was able to spin a story and have a pleasant discussion with my child on the spur of the moment because the inspiration was close at hand. The usra provides a fresh stream of spiritual and practical ideas to share with family and friends  – it makes you interesting, it makes you wise, it helps you feed others when they are hungry for inspiration.

Usras teach special skills.

One of the great benefits of an usra lies not in the subjects covered, but the skills developed through preparation and discussion. The way the usra members read Quran, reflect on life events, extract lessons from history, think critically about community and current events, handle differences of opinion, support, advise and love each other – many of those skills can be learned over time in an usra. Few settings can teach such skills. They accumulate through first-hand experience, patience and slow learning – it’s only the dedicated usra member who will stick around long enough to gain them.

Connecting with the best people.

I am not particularly gifted at making new friends or finding people who share similar goals in the amorphous broader Muslim community. MAS, and the usra, has allowed me to have deep and meaningful partnerships with some of the best people around: people who strive in their character and worship, have a clear mission in life, keep the Quran alive in their hearts and tongues, use their time well, and serve others. When the usra is absent from my life, I no longer find those people around me. For this, I am eternally grateful and in debt.

(The author is now happily back in an usra, Alhamdulillah)

*A MAS usra is similar to a halaqa or study circle, in which committed members gather consistently on a weekly basis to learn, develop, and build bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood.