The opportunity to travel overseas came through invitations fromIslamic scholars who have befriended Imam Warith Deen Muhammad ofChicago on his travels throughout the world.
In four years, 100 students from throughout the United States haveimmersed themselves in Islamic and Arabic studies at two Muslimuniversities overseas.
Many of the students, about 25 percent, are from Atlanta, which hasone of the only fully accredited Islamic high schools in the nation.
In 1997, the students began traveling to universities in Malaysiaand Syria through the Muslim American Society in Chicago. Other studentsfrom the Atlanta Muslim community, inspired by the MAS tours, have taken advantage ofstudy abroad programs at their colleges, going to Morocco, Egypt andDubai.
Although the overseas universities are renowned in the global arena,Syria's Abu Nour Institute does not have U.S. accreditation, which meansthose who study there do not get college credit.
Students who apply for the MAS Syrian study tour don't seem too putout by that factor. They go to submerge themselves in Muslim cultures.They go in search of a more intensive Quranic education.
The Quran is the book of scripture in Arabic considered holy byMuslims.
The first trip was to Morocco, followed by an invitation to Malaysiaduring the presidency of Anwar Ibrahim. The Malaysia program was put onhold when "political difficulties" arose.
"We didn't want our young people caught up in that," said El-Amin,of Atlanta, who directs area recruiting for the MAS program.
Syria was added to the itinerary after an invitation extended bythat country's foremost religious cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro.
Students pay for their own plane tickets, with the rest of the costof tuition, room and board picked up by MAS and the host country.
Overseas, students dive into Islamic, Asian and Middle Easternhistory, depending on the program. Criteria for going include goodgrades, intended course work, community service and a "balanced personality," said oneadministrator.
"We're not sending them to become another people. Islam is aninternational religion," El-Amin said. "You can keep your culture andethnicity and be Muslim."
Two Mohammed Schools alumni recently returned from studying abroad.
One difference Muhammad saw in Muslim culture in Damascus was thatpeople concentrated much more on daily cultural rituals of Islam than doAmerican Muslims, who focus more on practical application of the religion.
For instance, in Damascus you would never eat in public with yourleft hand, a rule of etiquette that dates back to the early days ofJudaism, Christianity and Islam.
And then there was the difference in academic expectations. Classesbegin at 7:30 a.m. and last till 1 p.m. every day except Friday. Afterclasses there is mandatory study hall from 4 till 7 p.m.
The discipline paid off.
"I barely recognized (Arabic) letters before," Muhammad said. "Now,I can read Quran and carry on a conversation" in Arabic.
Even with the rigorous schedule, the students celebratedThanksgiving and Eid, a holiday and feast celebrated twice a year, onceafter the fasting month of Ramadan and again as a part of Hajj, the annual pilgrimmage toMecca.
He says he was moved by the contradiction of looking across theMediterranean Sea on a tepid day to see snow-capped mountains.
But life is full of contradictions, as Mansoor Sabree, 20,discovered during his four-month stay in oil-rich Dubai, United ArabEmirates.
Mansoor, 20, is an international business major at AmericanIntercontinental University in Atlanta. Last semester, he was the onlystudent to take advantage of his college's study abroad program with its sister school,American University of Dubai. He arrived in Dubai, one of the world'srichest countries, in January to continue his sophomore course in math, science andArabic.
"There was very little culture shock," Mansoor said. "The Americaninfluence is there --- that Western way of dealing with things. That'sthe way they want to interact.""
Outside the dorms, another education awaited. "As a Muslim in Dubai,I was shocked. It was 97 percent Muslim, but it allowed drinking,prostitution," he said. "But still, it was a different experience from being in theU.S. where Muslims are a minority."
Sabree said his perspective has changed. "The world is open to us.Only a small minority of (Americans) even have passports," he said.
"What you sense," said El-Amin, "is the world is becoming one, whether you want it toor not. The connections are deeper."