Not Giving Up On Humanity

Beautiful roadBy Wael Abdelgawad | IslamicSunrays.com

I’m not ready to give up on humanity. The world is torn by war, and billions are crushed by poverty and hunger. Torturers practice their dark arts in the prisons of the world. Raveners consume the rainforests. The oceans fill with garbage…

But I’m not ready to give up on this world, or on the human experiment. We were not created in vain. God said to the angels, “‘Verily, I will place humankind generations after generations on earth.’ They (the angels) said: ‘Will You place therein those who will make mischief and shed blood, while we glorify You with praises and thanks and sanctify You?’ God said: ‘I know that which you do not know.’” (Quran 2:30)

Notice that God did not say, “No, they will not make mischief and shed blood.” Rather He said, “I know that which you do not know.”

Could it be that He saw our potential for greatness? That He saw within us the seeds of compassion and transformation? They say that a man must hit rock bottom before he can change. Could that be true for us as a species? Could it be that we must explore these disgraceful depths before we can turn around and evolve? One thing is certain: this must be our final century, or our first. We will continue to a hurricane of self-destruction, or we will begin a new way of living.

We must find a way to solve our problems without war. We must stop burning fossil fuels. We must abandon the culture of disposal goods and begin to live sustainably. We must redistribute resources more equitably. We know what we have to do. It’s not a mystery. We simply have to find the moral courage to do it. And we need better leaders. We must remove the reins of power from men who serve the gods of greed and selfishness.

Martin Luther King Jr., in one of his last speeches (“Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam”), said:

“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid because the words of the Lord have spoken it. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all over the world we will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!” With this faith, we’ll sing it as we’re getting ready to sing it now. Men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And nations will not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore.”

Sadly, the global trend at the time of this writing is toward division and hatred. We are seeing the rise of nationalist sentiment and so-called leaders who call upon the worst instincts of their people, fanning the flames of racial division.

Still, I insist on having faith. I insist on believing in the future. Because, after all, what is the alternative?

Men will beat their swords into plowshares… Is that possible? Yes, why not? It’s within our power to choose a better way to live.

Will we? I don’t know. But I suspect that the human story contains a few surprises yet to be seen.

A People of Hope

Cloud and birds

We (Muslims) are not a people of despair. We are a people of hope and redemption and transformation. The wind will always come. Fall in prostration during the storm and you will be safe. Like all things of this world, it will pass. Healing will come. Change will come. Victory will come.
It always does.

– Yasmin Mogahed, January 30, 2017

Advice from a Cloud (If a Cloud Could Speak)

Cloud and birds

Advice from a cloud

By Wael Abdelgawad, with contributions by Arif Kabir | IslamicSunrays.com

Everyone deserves water to drink, so shower your kindness on sinners and saints alike.

People will see different things in you:  relief, comfort, or a fearsome sign of a storm. Pay no mind, and go about your life peacefully.

It’s a beautiful thing to provide shade on a hot day (to comfort those in distress).

You sometimes drift aimlessly, but by the will of God, and following your heart, you eventually find the clear current and resume your journey.

Oppose evil with thunder and lightning, but with others be soft as cotton.

Not everything is as it seems:  the darker the cloud, and the heavier the storm, the more water it brings to cleanse the earth and support new life.

Never forget, you are mainly made of water. Make sure to always replenish yourself with pure sustenance.

There’s a rainbow right behind the storm.

Can you think of any other advice a cloud might give? Please share.

If Allah brings you to it, He will bring you through it

If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it

If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it

By Wael Abdelgawad | IslamicSunrays.com

If Allah brings you to it, He will bring you through it. Whatever misfortune you have experienced, let Allah show you the way out.

Has your heart been broken? Have you experienced disappointment and loss? Trying to figure out how to be happy again? You need only three things: faith, hope and time. Keep the faith alive in your heart, even if it’s just a spark. Hold on to your hope for the future, even by the tips of your fingers. And let time pass… In time your faith will blaze again, your hope will soar.

So be patient, trust Him, thank Him, and look for the light at the end of the tunnel. Hang in there. He will bring you through.

“Attach your heart to God and you will never be let down.” – Imam Zaid Shakir

“When I cry or lose or bruise, so long as I am still alive, nothing is ultimate. So long as there is still a tomorrow, a next moment, there is hope, there is change, there is redemption. What is lost, is not lost forever.” – Yasmin Mogahed

Ask Allah, He WILL Help You

Beautiful sky at sunrise

By Wael Abdelgawad | IslamicSunrays.com

If you ask Allah for guidance sincerely, believing in Him and trusting in Him, he WILL guide you. If you approach Him with humility and faith and ask Him for help, He WILL help you. “And your Lord says: “Call on Me; I will answer you.” (Quran 40:60). I personally have experienced this in my life again and again. Allah is real and miracles do happen.

I remember one time when I was deeply confused about something that mattered very much to me. I prayed to Allah late at night, and began crying. After my prayer, I laid down right there on the musalla (prayer rug), and fell asleep, and BAM, here comes one of the most powerful dreams I have ever had, with a very clear answer to my problem. Then the next night I’m outside and feeling some doubts again, and all of a sudden I see a tremendous meteor go flaming across the sky right in front of me. I was amazed and I laughed out loud because Allah could not have made it any clearer.

I’m not promising you a dream and a meteor (smile). But Allah’s promise is true. He WILL answer you, maybe in ways that you see clearly, or in ways that you don’t. The answer might be to protect you from harm, or to give you something better than what you requested. Or the answer might only be a feeling of faith and tranquility in your heart that allows you to move forward confidently. He WILL help you.

Life is hard, but the sun still shines

Desert plant with water drops on the leaves

By Wael Abdelgawad | IslamicSunrays.com

How is life treating you?

People never answer this question honestly, do they? You ask them, “What’s up?” and they never say, “Oh brother, let me tell you,” and start pouring out their troubles. Because people don’t want to burden others.

But the reality is that many people are suffering in some way. They are dealing with:

  • Job stresses

  • Financial worries and debt

  • Illness, either their own or a family member’s

  • Family problems

  • Loneliness

Life can be hard sometimes. It can be lonely, frustrating, confusing and painful.

But Alhamdulillah, although life has its challenges, it’s still precious isn’t it? Every moment is a chance to get closer to Allah, to express the talents He has given us, and to feel the sunshine on our faces.

If life is hard, hang in there. Ask yourself what steps you can take to make things better. Even if they are tiny steps – so small that they seem insignificant to you – have faith, they will make a difference in time.

In the meantime, count the blessings you’ve been given. In Surat Ar-Rahman, Allah asks us over and over again, “Fa bi ayyi aalaai rabbikumaa tukathibaan.” “Then which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?”

Breathe deeply and feel your chest rise. Hold your head up. Bite into a grape or strawberry and taste the pure goodness of it. Step outside and feel the breeze or the sun on your face. Go the park, sit down with your back against a tree, and praise Allah. Life is hard, but it’s precious.

I’m not dismissing anyone’s problems. They are real. But don’t lose sight of the other side of the equation. When I look at my daughter, I see that Alhamdulillah she is healthy, bright, and she loves me. So how can I ever feel despair, or be ungrateful to Allah? I cannot.

We should also notice the goodness of others around us. I teach a martial arts class, and I have one student who always shows up early, sets up the mats and the fans, and brings some equipment. I’m very grateful for him. The world is full of people like that, positive people who, no matter what they’re doing in life, bring positivity.

Also, the world is full of heroism.

I just read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a woman in China who caught a falling baby. This is true, it happened in a city called Hangzhou a few days ago. The baby is a two year old girl named Zhang Fangyu, but known by the nickname Niu Niu. She was in her grandmother’s care.

Well, the grandmother went out to the store and left the girl alone in the apartment. The apartment was on the 10th floor. Apparently Niu Niu managed to get out on the balcony and climbed up the railing, then fell over. The child grabbed on to the railing out of pure instinct and held on for a moment. Well, this other woman, a 31 year old mother, was passing by and she saw what was happening. Just as she saw it, the baby let go and began to fall. The woman kicked off her high heels, ran, and held out her arms, and SubhanAllah, she caught the baby. The woman was knocked unconscious, and her arm was broken. The baby suffered some internal injury but Alhamdulillah she’s alive, and recovering.

The woman told state TV that when she saw the dangling baby, she thought of her own 7-month old son, who had recently fallen out of his high chair and cut his mouth. She said, “I thought to myself, I should stretch my arms to her. Because I am right here, I must get her. Then I made it. I caught her.”

Real life heroes are ordinary people who do extraordinary things.

If you watch the TV news, you might think that the world is nothing but crime, robbery and war. It’s important to remember that the TV news gives us a skewed perspective. Their motto is, “If it leads, it bleeds.” The truth is that while we human beings are far from perfect, there are heroes everywhere, and the world is full of compassion, and life is brimming with small joys and pleasures from day to day.

Life is hard, and the world is full of troubles, but the sun still shines, and Allah’s blessings are everywhere in our lives.

Allah and His Messenger are the lights in the darkness of this world

The sun bursting from behind the clouds

By Wael Abdelgawad | IslamicSunrays.com

Matthew Arnold, the English poet, wrote:

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

In this poem, Arnold envisioned the world as a place of darkness, conflict and confusion, with no light to show the way out. To him the beauty of the world was just an illusion, a dream; and the reality of life was one of struggle and pain.

Indeed, the world seems to become a more dangerous and hopeless every day. The news is filled with dire stories about war and starvation, the inexorable destruction of the natural environment, pollution of the oceans, terrorism, and crime. Most recently we have been reading about the “Arab Spring”, in which the people of several nations have risen up against their dictators. As inspiring as these events are, in the midst lie acts of horrific cruelty. In Libya it is rumored that 100 officers who refused to order soldiers to fire on protesters, were burned alive. La hawla wa la quwwata il-laa billah. How horrendous.

Wouldn’t a sane person be afraid of such a world? Wouldn’t an intelligent person be consumed with anxiety, and wouldn’t a very intelligent person be plunged into despair?

The thing about fear, anxiety and despair is that they flourish in spiritual darkness, just as some species of mushrooms can only grow in the dark. They might be represented by the image of a monster hiding in the corner of a dark room.

What do you do when you’re afraid there’s a monster in the closet, or creeping quietly toward you? You turn on the light.

The Light is Allah

For us, the light is Allah, and the Quran through which He communicates with us. Our guiding light is the natural bond we have with Allah, and our instinctive yearning to know our Creator. Let’s cherish that bond and strengthen it, and it will fill us with light.

Allah’s light is our salvation from fear of the unknown; fear of failure; fear of loss and pain; fear of poverty, illness and injury; fear of enemies who want to hurt us; fear of strange things; fear of death.

“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things.” – Quran, Surat An-Nur, 24:35

An Illuminating Lamp

And what about the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him)?

Allah says in the Quran, Surat Al-Ahzab, 33:45-46,

“O Prophet, indeed We have sent you as a witness and a bringer of good tidings and a warner, And one who invites to Allah, by His permission, and an illuminating lamp.”

The Messenger too is a source of light. He is an illuminating lamp, which is what you hold up so you can see the way ahead. His Sunnah gives us a brilliant path to walk. It shows us the way past all the evils that lurk in the darkness, including the evils of racism, nationalism, anger, selfishness, dishonesty, hypocrisy, and greed.

I’m not saying that all we must do is read the Quran and pray, and those dire problems that I mentioned earlier will evaporate. Not at all.

But the solutions to those problems lie within the Quran if we look. The Quran is the light that shows us the way out out of the gloom that we have created for ourselves, and example of the Messenger (peace be upon him) is a beacon that lights the way forward.

Light in Our Hearts

The verse I quoted above, from Surat an-Nur, mentions the example or similitude of Allah’s light. The Sahabi (companion of the Prophet) Ubayy ibn Ka`b said, ‘The similitude of His light [takes place in] the Muslim’s heart.’ [Ibn Kathir, 3:464]  Faith, dhikr, love of Allah and compassion toward all creatures, cause that light to grow in our hearts, until it spreads and appears on our faces, our hands, in our eyes, on our tongues, and even in our homes. As Allah says, “Or is one who was dead, and whom We gave life and made for him a light by which to walk among people, like one who is in a darkness from which he cannot emerge?” [6:122]

Other people can sense this light, and some will be guided by it, while others reject it. Those who reject it might even be angered by it, because it represents a refutation of a lifestyle based on narrow material concerns.

Ibn `Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, said: “When the Messenger of Allah got up to pray at night, he would say:

(O Allah, to You be praise, You are the Sustainer of heaven and earth and whoever is in them. To You be praise, You are the Light of the heavens and the earth and whoever is in them.)

When life starts to feel like a burden, and your vision contracts so that all you see is darkness, don’t give up. Don’t despair. Remember that there is a light to show you the way. The light is Allah. His light is expressed through the Quran and through His Messenger. Turn to it, and it will grow in your heart and bring you peace. It will give you strength and joy, and will transform you and all those around you.

Arabian lamp shining

The Transformative Power of a Child’s Love

Salma smiling

My daughter Salma

By Wael Abdelgawad | IslamicSunrays.com

I’m going to share something highly personal, something I would not normally share, but I see now that my writing on this blog is changing people’s lives, and that’s possible only because I am honest. The most vital lessons in life come from suffering. If we don’t share the pain then the message learned will not pass undiminished from heart to heart.

I have always been a loyal friend. I am the kind who believes in friendship as an enduring and meaningful bond. I am a trusting person, someone with a passionate love for the Ummah, a sense of outrage for the oppressed, and a deep faith in Allah and in humanity itself, even after all I have been through.

A Difficult Youth

My teen years were very difficult. I isolated myself from my own family, emotionally and geographically. For a while I slept in my car or in an ice cream truck that I owned, sometimes went hungry, even as I devoted countless hours to tutoring two disadvantaged children, teaching them to read and write. I would sometimes visit friends just so I could raid the fridge and get a bite to eat. I remember once digging some old egg salad out of the back of a friend’s fridge, then becoming badly sick. I collapsed in the street and was hospitalized for food poisoning.

My parents tried hard to reach out to me and help me during that time, but I was lost in my own confusion and determined to estrange myself.

Later I paid for a bedroom in an apartment that was shared among 11 people, mostly college students. I was often confused. I was expelled from the university three times, until something clicked in my final year when I discovered poetry and I suddenly began getting straight A’s.

Still, my life continued to be a mess until my mid to late twenties (I am now 45). I lived in difficult environments. I saw terrible things. I was attacked or robbed more than once and I was sometimes afraid. I experienced despair at times, and yet I became so strong, like a mountain, or a grizzly bear. When I was 27 I got a steady job and worked hard, trying to save money to start a business, until one day my roommate stole all my money and disappeared. After that I lived for six months in the YMCA, in a room so narrow that I could reach out with my arms and touch the opposite walls.

I say all this so that you know that I am not naive. I’m quite aware of the evil of which human beings are capable.

Those frightening years are behind me. I have been a working professional for many years now. I was married for almost ten years, and I have a lovely daughter Alhamdulillah. I own a beautiful home, thanks to Allah’s blessings and bounty.

As far as human relationships, I have made a conscious choice to trust people, to be open to other people’s hearts, because I never want my soul to become pinched and dark with suspicion and fear.

A Broken Heart

My divorce and the time following it was difficult. As it turned out, however, I yet had one more painful experience to go through. A few years ago I became engaged to a Muslim woman who I thought was perfect for me. Truth be told, she was someone whose family I had known most of my life, and I had always harbored some hidden feelings for her. Like me she had been through hard times in her youth but had come through loving Allah, loving the deen, wanting to better herself in every way and change the world.

I felt she was very special and I was so excited that we would be married. We spoke about sharing our lives, raising good Muslim children, and one day sitting on a porch watching our grandchildren play. We spent time together in halal ways, getting to know each other better. It was a wonderful time.

Sure, we occasionally had arguments. I sometimes said or did the wrong thing, and there were aspects of her behavior that troubled me, but I understood that no one is perfect. I felt that Allah was giving me a great gift, a reward for all my years of hardship. I was so grateful for that.

Then something happened, I don’t know what. I could speculate, but I will not. About one month before we were to be married, she changed her mind. We tried to work through it and even went to see a counselor, but the sister’s attitude became cold, sarcastic at times, even hostile. She seemed like a completely different person. It was a tremendous shock to me. After a few final humiliations, I walked away. I felt used and betrayed as never before in my life.

A Terrible Depression

The end of that dream, that beautiful future that I had seen not only for myself but for my daughter and the sister’s children as well, was a tremendous blow. I was shaken to the core. I questioned my own judgment and perspective. How could I have been so wrong? I doubted Allah’s guidance to me. Why had Allah done this to me? I felt like a shambling wreck of a human being. I could not even believe in friendship any more. At Iftar dinners in Ramadan I didn’t try to talk to the people around me. My friendly, trusting nature had been shattered. There was some piece of me, some vital component of the organic, spiritual being that was “Wael”, that was busted. It had been smashed as surely as if she had taken a hammer to my head.

For a few months I was more deeply depressed than ever in my life. I have my daughter Salma with me from Wednesday to Saturday each week, then she goes to her mother. My depression was worst after I dropped off Salma each week. On the way back, on highway 152, I would sometimes think about accelerating to 100 mph and then veering into a tree, just so that the sense of loss and betrayal would end. Yes, I’m a Muslim, and I fear Allah. And I have a commitment to my daughter. But when you are intensely depressed your thinking changes. I remember thinking that Allah would forgive me because He would understand my suffering. And that Salma would be better off, because I was not a good father to her.

In retrospect I know that my perspective was abominably skewed, and I also know that I would never actually have harmed myself. I’m too much of a believer for that. But even the fact that the thought was there shows how horribly shaken and miserable I was at that time.

And it’s true, at that time I wasn’t the best father. I tried hard to hide my depression in front of Salma, but I did not always succeed. I remember one time I was having lunch with her in the kitchen and in spite of my internal pain I was trying to hard to smile and be cheerful for her. I never wanted to let her see how much I was hurting. And suddenly she said to me, “Are you sad, Baba? You seem sad.” Such words from a three year old girl. Her words touched me so deeply that I began to cry in front of her, and I said, “Yes baby, I am sad, but not because of you. You’re a good girl and I love you.”

That is still a terribly painful memory, and one that brings tears to my eyes.

Elements of Recovery

I got through it. I survived because of three things: Allah, my practice of martial arts, and my daughter.

Salma dancing

The first of those – Allah – should be obvious. Without Allah none of us could survive an instant on this crazy ball spinning through endless vacuum. And for a Muslim, Allah is the source of strength. He is the refuge, the bringer of peace, the One who heals hearts. Alhamdulillah.

The second – martial arts – is a lifelong passion. I plunged myself into my practice of the arts, teaching or studying classes six times a week, and practicing for hours at home. When I’m training, everything else leaves my mind. I immerse myself in the motion, the physical exertion. It leaves no time to think, to feel sorry for myself. Curiously, lifting weights (something else I enjoy) is the opposite. During the rest break between sets I have time to think, and I find that weight lifting brings out whatever I’m feeling and intensifies it. If I’m feeling good and confident, weight lifting makes me feel like a superman. If I’m depressed it spills out like acid and cripples me. So I gave up weight lifting. Martial arts, however, is a medicinal whirlwind, a kind of therapy in motion.

The third thing that helped me survive was my daughter. Here’s the thing about being a parent, and you mothers and fathers out there already know this, but I’ll try to articulate it anyway:  you can’t afford to sit around feeling sorry for yourself. You have this little person to whom you are the sun, moon and stars. This little person who, when she falls and scrapes her knee, wants only to be comforted in your arms. This person who can’t sleep at night without your voice reciting Quran, singing a nasheed or telling her a story. This person who cannot live without you because you feed her (with Allah’s bounty), clothe her, and care for her in every way.

This little person looks up to you and admires you. She loves you more than anyone else in the world. She needs you as a plant needs sunshine. With a relationship like that, there’s no time for debilitating self-pity. If you can’t be strong for yourself then you must find your backbone and courage for the sake of the child.

Beyond that, this awareness that another human being is completely dependent on you, and loves you utterly, transforms you, because you are no longer the center of the universe. Your child is. That’s the amazing thing. Every other relationship in life is one where, though we may feel love and caring for the other person, we still generally think of our own well being first. Even the best friendships have an element of competitiveness to them. With your parents, you may have the greatest respect for their accomplishments in life, but you still might hope to exceed them.

With a child it’s different. If there’s a choice between feeling pain yourself or letting your child be afflicted, every parent will choose himself. When my daughter was younger she couldn’t fall asleep unless I let her rest her head on my arm. My arm would go numb and sometimes ache, but I’d keep still as long as it took for Salma to sleep. This is how it is with a child. We will give up anything to protect our children. We worry about them far more than ourselves. We fret about their health, their upbringing as Muslims, about raising them as polite and successful human beings, about their futures…

holding Salma upWith children, we become truly unselfish for the first time in our lives. We live outside ourselves. Someone else becomes the axis of worldly existence. We love someone else more than we love ourselves. As Muslims we are told that we have not truly believed until we love the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) more than we love ourselves. In that case, our love is expressed through obedience and following the Prophet’s example.

With a child, the act of loving someone more than ourselves is constant, suffusing us from skin to soul. There is no other experience in life that allows us – or compels us – to transcend the limitations of self in this way. And in the process, the love of a child rescues us. People give up addictions, leave abusive relationships, change professions, move from one city or country to another, rediscover God, learn and study, all for the sake of a child.

Once again I find myself reaching out to form friendships, smiling, choosing to trust, to have faith in people, to see what is good in the world. I find myself living joyfully, laughing with my daughter, teaching her (among other things) about the brotherhood and sisterhood of Islam. I do this not out of naiveté but because I know that she is watching and learning. From me she takes her cue and learns how to approach the world.

What do I want her to learn? To be suspicious and cynical, not to trust or believe in people? Heaven forbid. I want her to be a person of Imaan (faith). The Prophet (pbuh) said that Imaan has over 70 parts, and among those are love for Allah, sincerity, gratitude for His favors, being merciful to all creatures, fulfilling promises, having no envy or malice toward anyone, being just, making peace, and caring for neighbors. This is how I want Salma to approach the world, so this is how I must be, no matter how I may have been hurt in the past. It’s a choice I must make.

By our love for the child, and the child’s love for us, we are utterly transformed.

***

Here’s a poem I wrote last year, after I got through the hardest part of that ordeal:

I Live

Like a summer storm,
like a caught breath
tasting of spice,
like the sudden blast of a train’s horn

when you’re daydreaming on the tracks,
love came. My diamond,
my redwood queen, my lioness,
came into her own and loved me

for a time… And then
My forest queen
cast down my sylvan dream,
and sneered at my passion…

So I lived without passion.
My heart’s wings shriveled
so I lived without flying.
My promises were met with lies,

so I lived without joy.
I was run through the back
with a tin spear
so I lived without loyalty.

Darkness fell on my eyes
so I lived without light.
Purpose deserted me
So I lived without direction.

But I lived! And I live. I go on,
knowing myself, lifting my head,
amazed at my power,
jealous of no one,

amazed by my ability to heal,
astounded by the way my love returns
like lava, the way my daughter
hugs me and kisses my nose,

believing in me, loving me,
sure that I am the most important person
in the world, the most capable.
For her, I will be.

I live! I awake at dawn
and go on, shaken but strong,
titanium lining my bones,
fire in my eyes, and Allah

leading me, calling me,
forgiving me, loving me,
never giving up on me,
coming to me walking as I crawl.

Wael Abdelgawad
Fresno, California – 2009

Agents of Hope, Agents of Despair

Rainbow over a road

By Wael Abdelgawad for IslamicSunrays.com

“Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth!” – Quran 24:35

The Quran is a guidance, and the Sunnah (way) of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) is a shining beacon. They are both agents of hope in the hearts of humanity. We too must be agents of hope in the lives of those around us.

We must never be agents of despair. Shaytan (Satan) is the ultimate agent of despair. That is his specialty. He strives to destroy our faith in Allah, our faith in ourselves, our faith in others.

Terrorists are agents of despair. They seek not to build, but to destroy by inducing fear, suffering and chaos.

We too can sometimes unwittingly become agents of despair.

If you ever find yourself telling someone that their dreams of achieving something great are unrealistic; if you find yourself cutting someone down verbally, pointing out their faults ruthlessly, mocking their failures, or teasing them in a hurtful way, stop! You are functioning as an agent of despair in that person’s life.

If you find yourself demeaning yourself in this way, focusing on your own failings, stop! You are acting as an agent of despair in your own soul.

When you make a mistake (and don’t we all make mistakes every day?), ask Allah for forgiveness, recover, and stand up straight. Resolve to do better next time. Never hate yourself, or if you do then don’t do it for more than a few seconds before you shake it off. Never wallow in self-pity or self-recrimination. The past is gone and you can never go back and change it, but you can learn from it, and become a stronger and wiser person.

Life is difficult. Life is painful at times. That is part of its nature. But it is also beautiful, profound and full of meaning. You too are beautiful and profound. Allah did not create humanity in vain, and that includes you. Your life has meaning and purpose. Seek that purpose. Hold on to your connection with Allah and strengthen it, follow it. Be an agent of hope in your own heart, and change your life for the better. Then act as an agent of hope to those around you, and you will affect their lives in positive and profound ways, even when you are not aware of it.

If you must criticize, do it with kindness. If you disagree, do it with sincerity. If you see good in someone, tell them. If you love someone in the cause of Allah, tell them. If you see pain, strive to be a balm, to provide relief. If you see someone hurting emotionally, give a kind word. Be a living example of truth. Be a walking agent of da’wah, showing the beauty of Islam through your actions. Stand up for what’s right.

Be an agent of hope in this world, and you will follow in the footsteps of the Prophets.

Never Despair: How a Dying Friend Inspired Me

The sun shining from behind a cloud

Sometimes when it's cloudy we forget that the sun is still shining behind the clouds, waiting to burst forth

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.

Never Despair

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.

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