Update (June 1, 2019): I have decided to release my complete notes for many of the courses I studied at the university in hopes that it will bring benefit to the readers and a more enlightened ummah. These are the very notes I used to study for my exams at the university. In fact, they are the only thing I used. You can download them all here.
After five years of studying, reviewing, memorizing, and stressing out, I am proud to say that I finally graduated from International Open University’s Bachelor of Arts in Islamic Studies (BAIS) program. It was quite a journey and I’ve learned so much. In this post, I want to give a review of my experience with the university for those who may be thinking of joining an online based Islamic university but haven’t really made up their minds yet.
I have divided my review into three sections.
I got what I wanted out of the program:
- Solid understanding of the fundamentals of the religion
- A deeper understanding and connection with the religion
- Enough basic Arabic down to be able to figure out the Qur’an and read basic Arabic texts
- Increase in taqwa
The program is not designed to produce scholars but just very well informed Muslims and beginner to intermediate level students of knowledge. The program gives you tools to be able to research religious concepts and figure things out for yourself but not at an advanced level.
I was very impressed by their consistency with sticking to the schedule and having full staff of teachers as well as teacher’s assistants (TAs). The assistants themselves are also highly qualified. Many of them are either graduates of an Islamic university or currently enrolled in a Masters program.
Everything is online based so it does require lots of discipline. I have heard of students dropping out because they do not have the discipline to do self-paced courses in a timely manner. One student who dropped out told me that he needs to be in the same classroom as the teacher and be able to interact, otherwise, he cannot remain attentive. Studying online successfully also means not being busy by opening other screens while the lecture is playing. You have to be focused.
In aqeeda, the university follows Athari (أثري) creed and in fiqh it is mainly Hanbali influenced. Dr. Bilal Phillips only teaches the aqeedah courses, first two semesters of Arabic, and the evolution of fiqh course, which discusses how the four schools of thought in jurisprudence came to be.
If you are looking to have a deeper connection with your faith and want an affordable program that will solidify fundamentals of the religion for you and give you the tools to be able to figure things out at a basic to intermediate level, then this is the course for you.
Next, I will discuss some pros and cons in the program insha’Allah:
Complete Syllabus – I was very impressed the way they had already planned out the curriculum for each class and as to what to expect throughout the course on a weekly basis. It felt much like a professional university and made it easy for me to mentally prepare and know what to expect. They’ve already marked out which pages to read in the assigned text and which lectures to listen to each week. They give you the syllabus immediately after you are enrolled. I have taken classes in some online universities where every week is a surprise as to what you will learn.
Video Lectures Pre-Recorded – All of the lectures are pre-recorded and you have the option to either watch it in video format or download as mp3. For some of the easier classes, I would often download the assigned lecture as mp3 and take it with me to listen to it in the car, gym, or even at work at times as background noise.
Live Sessions w/ TAs – This is a very helpful feature. Ever week you have a chance to attend a live session with a Teacher’s Assistant (TA) who can answer any of your questions or clarify lessons. He/she usually starts off by going over the weekly lesson and then afterwards takes questions. They used to require live attendance with the TA and it used to be about 5% of your final grade but I’m not sure if that is still the case. Additionally, they record all live sessions every week so you can view them later on if you miss it.
The TAs are not just fellow students but also qualified. Some of them are in masters programs at universities like Medina.
Books in PDFs – For me this was very helpful because I could download them on to my digital devices and read the weekly assignment while on the metro or on the go.
Courses are Thorough – The courses are very informative and detailed and you get a lot out of it on a fundamental level. It’s very well planned and starts off with basics and delves into more and more advanced topics.
Assignments (Reading and Essays) – Every week you are assigned a pre-recorded lecture and reading assignment from the text. You are also required to write one essay per class on a given topic. This essay requirement especially is very helpful because you learn writing and research skills. It also helps you delve deeper into the topic and be creative by sharing your own input and is a good indication whether you’ve understood the topic or not. The essays are graded by TAs and are about 10% of your final grade.
You are also required to take a research assignment course during your senior semester. The requirement is to write a 30 page paper on a given topic. So you get to further your research skills and delve deeper into the topic and learn how to formulate your arguments using evidences.
Quizzes – The lessons are called modules. Each course can have anywhere from 20-32 modules or lessons. After every module, there is a five question multiple choice quiz for which you are not allowed to use your notes or books. The questions are drawn out of the lecture as well as reading assignments. This helps you measure your comprehension and make sure that you pay attention and not skip anything. The quizzes are graded and about 10-15% of your final grade. So if a course has 30 modules, this means you will have 30 quizzes.
In addition, there is also a 50-question multiple choice midterm and final exam. The midterm is about 30% of the final grade and the final is about 40%.
Price – One of the visions of IOU is to provide free Islamic education but obviously they have to cover their administrative costs. When I first began studying, it used to be $50/semester for U.S. students. Yes, you read that right. $50 per semester not per credit or class. They would allow you to take up to 9 courses with $50. That’s a great deal. But because they have grown a lot over the years, their administrative costs have gone up. During my last semester, I was paying close to $300 per semester. That’s still a great deal.
Another great thing they do is that they charge people based on which country they reside in. So if they live in a first world rich country, they charge more but if they live in a poor third world country, they charge less.
Access to Jstor – Jstor is a digital library of academic journals, primary sources, books and articles. Access to it is provided by universities and libraries around the world. It is used by students and researchers all over the world! They have some free material available to read as well, however, a far greater amount of reading material which is necessary for serious research into topics is only available via a university or a library. So being a student at IOU gives you access to Jstor for free (technically it’s covered under your semester fees)! I have used Jstor to do research for some of the essays at IOU because not sufficient resources were available online or my local library. In addition, you get to have access to tons of research in other topics not related to religion.
Nothing is perfect. Everything has some flaws that need to be worked on or improved. Following are what I consider some of the weak points in the IOU program.
Arabic Program – I did not take the reading course which was very basic since I could already read Arabic script so I cannot comment on that. If you are in the same situation, you can have it waived from your requirement and skip over it. As for the rest of the program, then I really enjoyed the first two semesters. They were phenomenal. I learned a lot on basic sentence structure and grammar! The second semester was amazing because the teacher only spoke Arabic and covered the entire text of the Al-Arabiya Bayna Yadayk volume 1. My basic comprehension was skyrocketing. I loved it.
After that semester, the program kind of falls apart, at least for me. For some reason, they don’t continue with the Bayna Yadayk books and instead delve right into Medina books 2 & 3 and the teacher is different too. I did not enjoy it very much. Also, I am not a fan of the Medina books. They’re not engaging as the Bayna Yadayk books and are mainly grammar focused. The whole lessons in the Medina books are structured around the teacher and student relationship, so it is very restrictive and can get boring after a while. Sure, I learned a few things but I had to do a lot of self-study, because the teacher wasn’t very engaging and just kind of gave monotone lectures. I was very disappointed by it all. It would have been a lot better to continue with the Bayna Yadayk books in Arabic or even in English with a gradual dominance of Arabic only.
The last 2-3 semesters of Arabic focus on Balagha (Arabic rhetoric) and is done mainly in English with reading of Arabic texts focusing on the Balagha of the Qur’an. This was fine as it gives you a different way of looking at the linguistic beauty of the Qur’an and helps you practice reading Arabic texts. However, if done properly, this would only be done in Arabic. You cannot learn or appreciate Balagha properly in English.
Cannot Interact Directly w/ the Professor – Unfortunately, you cannot interact with the lecturer at all. In many cases, the lectures were recorded maybe over a year or two ago so the professor probably has moved on to some other project. Your only way of removing some confusion over the lesson is to e-mail the TA or attend the weekly live session.
Customer Service – It’s kind of difficult to get in touch with the staff if you need something done related to cancellations, profile update, or other administrative functions. The main way to get in touch is via e-mail (I’ve never looked into or tried calling) and sometimes they can take up to a week or two to get back to you. Other times, you have to follow up to get a response. This can get frustrating especially if you urgently need something done. After I finished my courses, it took me many months to get my degree certificate. I kept getting passed around (and with me constantly requesting an update) until finally someone in Gambia responded and sent me the certificate.
Some Professors Just Read Things – I had at least one or two professors that just read directly from the text and didn’t add any value to the lesson. They literally read word for word. After a few modules, I just stopped listening to them and went directly to the text and just read it myself. I’m not going to waste time listening to something I can just do myself in less time.
Final Exam Locations – The university requires that you take your final exam at a registered exam location. They send them the password to the final exam. You cannot take the final exam except at a registered institution. This might be a mosque, Muslim community center, etc. If you don’t have one in your area, you can contact the university and make some other arrangement. You can also reach out to your local mosque or Muslim community center and ask them to register with IOU as a registered exam location.
I find this to be a con because though I understand they want to be professional about it, it just doesn’t make sense why this is required for an online university. It’s kind of frustrating because sometimes you contact a place that is listed on the IOU student portal as a registered location, but they don’t get back to you. You’re kind of left hanging. It can get stressful if the final exam is close and the places you have contacted still haven’t returned your messages or worse, they don’t show up on the day of the scheduled exam. Remember, these pre-registered exam locations are not paid by IOU, the process is entirely voluntary. So they are under no obligation to keep their word or get back to you. Some of them may charge the student some small fees to take the exam at their location so I assume they would be a bit more punctual and professional about it.
I don’t regret studying at IOU and overall really enjoyed it. As I stated earlier, it fulfilled what I was looking for and wanted out of it. I would do it again because it did give me insight into my faith that I didn’t have before. I have more confidence in my faith because of it and I certainly enjoy my faith more. Having the ability to understand Qur’an and basic Arabic texts alone is a remarkable achievement for an online Islamic university program. So before enrolling in any type of online university program, you need to ask yourself, what are your goals? What do you want to achieve out of the university? What are your expectations?
I’d love to hear your thoughts as well. Is there an online Islamic studies program that you really liked or hated? If so, why or why not? Let us know in the comments below!