By Wael Abdelgawad for IslamicSunrays.com
A Dedicated Da’iyy
The year was 1983. A few of my friends from the Fresno, California masjid were going to the hospital to visit a Muslim brother who was very ill. They invited me along and off we went in someone’s car. I was seventeen years old.
Along the way they told me that the brother, whose name was AbdulGhafoor*, was a tall, dreadlocked man in his mid-forties or so, originally from the Virgin Islands. He had several children. He made his living selling perfume oils at the various swap meets around California. He was a dedicated da’iyy, always talking to people about Islam, spreading the word. He was known for his ready laugh, and for always wearing Islamic clothes, typically a shalwar khamees-style shirt and loose pants.
Unfortunately he had developed an illness called Valley Fever.
Valley Fever, one brother explained to me, is a fungus that resides in the soil of California’s Central Valley. The fungus can be stirred into the air by anything that disrupts the soil, such as farming, construction and wind. The fungi can then be breathed into the lungs, causing fever, chest pain and coughing. Some people develop no symptoms, but individuals of Asian, Hispanic and African descent may develop a more serious and sometimes fatal form of infection.
One of my friends described how he had worked with AbdulGhafoor in the grape orchards some time back, picking grapes. He said that AbdulGhafoor was tireless and strong, and had a vibrant spirit that engaged people around him so that the work hours flew past. Another friend mentioned playing basketball with AbdulGhafoor, and how no one could beat him one-on-one.
So when we got to to the hospital and located AbdulGhafoor’s room, I was shocked to see a man who appeared to be on the edge of death. He lay prone in the hospital bed, with IVs running into his arm, barely able to move. I could see that he was tall and had a proud, distinctive face. But he was terribly thin, and his dark skin appeared to be turning white as chalk in places and flaking off.
I think my friends were stunned at AbdulGhafoor’s condition as well, and they haltingly uttered various sympathetic statements. AbdulGhafoor put up his hand and motioned us all closer. He spoke, and I could barely hear him as his voice was a hoarse whisper. He said, “The greatest sin is to despair of the mercy of Allah. Never despair. Trust in Allah.”
He smiled as he said it, as if to reassure us, so we would not feel bad. It amazed me that in his dire situation that was all he had to say.
We didn’t want to tire him too much and we left soon after, but that moment has always stayed in my mind and has affected the way I see the world. So many times in my life, when I have felt low, or been in desperate situations, have I heard AbdulGhafoor’s voice saying, “Never despair. Trust in Allah.”
AbdulGhafoor did not die. Yes, I know I called him a “dying friend” because that’s how he seemed to me in that first meeting. But he was a man with a vast reservoir of internal strength and he pulled through and returned to his family, his work at the swap meets, and his da’wah. He had a few recurring bouts of Valley Fever over the years, but he was strong and nothing ever stopped him.
I got to know AbdulGhafoor well over the following years. He became one of my closest friends. I was young and impressionable and AbdulGhafoor played a major role in shaping my way of thinking. Looking back with the perspective of advancing age, I can see that his advice to me was not always sound. But that same acquired perspective allows me to avoid judging him, because I know now that everyone makes mistakes, and the only way to avoid losing all your friends, and destroying your relationships, is to learn to forgive.
AbdulGhafoor was powerful, but humble and generous. I don’t know how many times I saw him take in travelers and feed them; or provide a room to new Muslim converts who were down on their luck; or help poor Muslims to get started in some sort of self-employment. These were people that no one else would even look at. Poor Latino brothers working in the fields with no education and no English… a rough-edged white brother fresh out of prison and newly converted, with a swastika tattoo still on his arm! AbdulGhafoor took them into his home, fed them, and taught them. SubhanAllah, ma-sha-Allah.
I remember a teenaged brother who lived on his own and had been a convert for a year or so. This young brother had little understanding of Islamic manners. He saw AbdulGhafoor in a leather coat and he said, “That’s a really nice coat.” AbdulGhafoor said, “Alhamdulillah.” And just like that the youngster said, “Can I have it?” AbdulGhafoor did not say a word. He took the coat off and handed it to the brother.
I have many good memories of time spent with AbdulGhafoor. I learned from him and admired him, but I could also be overconfident as some youth are, and at times I had to be brought down a notch. One time I was practicing Karate at the masjid by myself when AbdulGhafoor entered. He asked if I would like to spar a little. I was in my late teens at that point and had studied karate for some years, and AbdulGhafoor was maybe fifty years old, so I thought he would be a pushover. I thought I’d have to take it easy on him.
We both put our hands up, and before I even had a chance to feel him out – pow! – he smacked me on the nose with an open hand. It was so fast I didn’t see it coming. To my credit, I managed to keep my hands up even as my eyes watered. But I was embarrassed and I made an excuse: “I wasn’t ready for that,” I said. “You shouldn’t have been,” AbdulGhafoor said. “I shouldn’t have come at you like that.”
My teenage ego was mortified, but it makes me laugh now.
A Terrible Loss
Some years later I was in Arizona, living in a harsh environment, learning some valuable life lessons. I called one of my California friends, and I learned that AbdulGhafoor’s daughter Tahirah had died in a house fire. Their house had caught fire at night from incense or candles; Tahirah had run back into the house repeatedly to rescue her younger brothers and sisters. The last time she went in, she did not come out. She was a shaheedah, who died saving her family.
I remember Tahirah as a girl who was intelligent, articulate, and strong in a quiet way. A beautiful girl. Definitely her father’s daughter. May Allah have infinite mercy on her.
I called AbdulGhafoor. I told him I had heard about what happened to Tahirah. He said, “Yes?” His tone was distant, bordering on cold; I was tongue-tied and I stumbled my way through something like, “I’m so sorry, brother. I won’t even pretend to know what you’re feeling, but I want you to know that I am thinking of you and praying for you, and I know Tahirah is in a happy place now…”
There was a silence for a moment, then AbdulGhafoor burst into tears, and through his sobs he said, “You’ve always been a good friend. I love you.” I was moved by that. He knew that I was in a difficult environment and once again he was transcending his own tremendous pain to reach out to me – SubhanAllah, even now I cannot recall it without bringing tears to my eyes.
Some years later, when I returned to Fresno for a visit, I went to visit AbdulGhafoor, and I discovered that in my absence he had named his youngest son after me. It only occurs to me now that I never asked him why. It was a strange time for me. I was very emotionally bottled up, and Fresno seemed to me a place full of ghosts. Some of my friends had passed away – one of a heart attack in his 30’s – and others had moved away. Still others were now estranged. I felt disquieted in Fresno, and for the first time, I felt uneasy in AbdulGhafoor’s house. We chatted briefly, then I excused myself and left.
Even today, so many years later, I have not reconnected with that past.
I still see AbdulGhafoor at the Eids, and once at a mall where he owns a perfume oil shop. He is divorced now and only his youngest son – my namesake – still lives with him. He played a key role in establishing the downtown masjid, and he is still active there, but he no longer has the energy for the incessant da’wah-in-motion activity of his youth. We exchange salams and hugs, and move on. There seems to be an unwritten agreement between us not to discuss the past.
Allah quotes Prophet Yaqoob (alaiyhis-salam) in the Quran:
“Indeed, no one despairs of relief from Allah except the disbelieving people.” (Surah Yusuf 12:87)
And He says,
“Say: O My servants who have transgressed against their own souls, despair not of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Truly, He is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Surah az-Zumar 39:53)
Allah speaks of those who have committed great sins, breaking the laws of Allah and harming their own souls, and yet Allah extends to them the offer of mercy and forgiveness. How much more merciful and kind will Allah be to one who is ill, lying helpless in a hospital bed, unable to care for his family, relying only on Allah’s help? Would there be any limit to Allah’s mercy in such a case?
Allah stated in a Hadithi Qudsi, “I am with My servant as He expects of Me.” This means that Allah treats us as we expect Him to do. If we have faith in Allah, expecting His love, guidance and help at every moment of our lives, then we will indeed be loved, guided and helped. But if we imagine Allah to be an angry and unforgiving God, and if we expect harshness from Him, despairing of His mercy, then we commit a great sin and indeed we may not be forgiven.
In the case of illness and adversity, they are in fact a source of forgiveness from Allah, and an expiation for sins. In that sense, illness and adversity are blessings, because we suffer some pain in this life in exchange for forgiveness and comfort in the next. The next post will discuss in more detail this issue of how illness and hardship erase our sins, Insha’Allah.
AbdulGhafoor knew that pain is a source of mercy, and he knew that a Muslim should never despair, never lose faith in Allah, and never think badly of Allah or expect anything less from Allah than ultimate love and tenderness.
All these years later, I still see AbdulGhafoor clearly in my mind’s eye, weak as a baby bird in that hospital bed, his voice hoarse, whispering, “The greatest sin is to despair of the mercy of Allah. Never despair. Trust in Allah.” I think of that moment sometimes when I am tempted to feel sorry for myself because of financial troubles or personal difficulties. At other times, I remember that conversation with him when his daughter was martyred in the fire, and how even through his sobs I knew I was speaking to a man of faith. I never doubted that.
* Names were changed to protect the privacy of the people in the story.