It’s a common lament: we sit there in the mosque, week after week, uninspired and bored. There is nothing for us here, we sigh, listening to the unintelligible oration. But perhaps we are the lucky ones: we have attended the prayer elsewhere in other towns and listened to sermons in English so dreadful and lame that we can only leave in a state of perpetual irritation. Perhaps the sermon in a foreign tongue is a small mercy. Perhaps. This is the lamentable state we find ourselves in.
O people of the interwebs, tell me something positive!
What, pray, is the purpose of the daily trawl of the online press for tales of woe afflicting the Muslims, condensed and abbreviated into bite-sized chunks for readers to absorb in a fit of never ending misery? Will nobody stand up and say enough is enough? Why, kind sirs all inclusive, must we constantly record all that keeps us in a state of perpetual gloom? Is this, I have to ask, the way it was meant to be?
I fear a bout of seasonal melancholy is coming my way. If tales of joy do not arrive pretty swiftly, I shall blame my demise on this rampant morass of negativity. I have no time for this, but I am minded to start a blog entitled, People being awfully nice to one another Watch. I know it doesn’t have a very good ring to it, but I’m not sure bleakophobia is a word.
If anyone has any happy tales to share, please do forward them to me at the earliest opportunity. This is an urgent request, so please do not procrastinate. I look forward to being amazed by the sheer humanity of my fellow humans, for which I shall be eternally grateful. I thank you.
Often when I get to this point in the year I find myself looking back and reflecting on how quickly the past twelve months have seemed to have passed by. But this year quite the reverse is true: I’m not wondering where all the time went, but pondering how many memories seem to fill the past 300 days. The snow, the passing of a loved one, travels in Arabia, the hard slog in the garden, friends visiting-visiting, the adoption assessments, the family holiday, a month of fasting, visiting friends… It has been a busy year.
Where the garden is concerned, it appears to be a metaphor for my entire life. Keeping it under control and pulling it into shape requires hard work of the highest order. Whenever I neglect it, it is suddenly sprawling out of control until only another bout of hard slog will suffice. It can be a disheartening affair. In late spring the garden was a picture of beauty—and in some ways my heart was in reasonable shape too—but by the end of summer it was a mess once more, and so too was my soul. It could be that hard work on the land is some kind of treatment for my soul.
Transforming a garden path from this…
was backbreaking work. But it was worth it. In the solitude of the task, I was found conversing within, carrying me far from the lower calls of my self. And at the end of the day, there was no energy left to sin.
I remember the pride when I conquered the vegetable patch, eradicating every weed in the ground…
but alas, weeding is a constant task and within weeks the weeds were once more dominating the plot, my pride long forgotten, as in my heart.
But perhaps there is reason to be optimistic. We conquered that old, rotting out-house…
though sometimes anger was my fuel, not protein.
And though sometimes it seemed like a mountain too vast to climb…
…in time, with patience and perseverance, and hard work, the unconquerable became but a distant memory…
until at last we achieved our goal.
But more to the point was the realisation that the true beauty of the garden is from Allah.
We don’t make the flowers bloom or call upon the butterflies.
We try our best in life, of course, but true beauty comes from above. With this realisation comes immesaurable ease.
The old Pakistani uncle at the mosque is due his seventy excuses too.1 People like me are often found muttering taciturn complaints about the unfriendliness we perceive in our fellow travellers when we come together for prayer. In weeks and weeks it could be as if we are not even there, as if ghosts standing in line.
But to give your brother seventy excuses was the lesson I learned when I returned to the mosque after some months’ absence. There was a time—when I was doing better—that saw me hurry there for every prayer, until laziness got the better of me. My Lord would note my disappearance, I told myself, but no one else would miss me.
I was wrong. As I wandered into the mosque that afternoon, an old, white-haired man with weak English got up from his place and headed straight for me. ‘Where on earth have you been?’ he asked me, ‘We thought you’d fallen dead.’
A minute later another approached to ask after me. Had I been away? Had I been ill? Um, no, I muttered, I’ve just… ‘Well as long as you’re alive and well,’ he interjected, sensing my inability to account for the months that had passed.
It is difficult to prise many words from these old folk. Salam alaikum is usually all they will spare, or the occasional, ‘How are you brother?’ We don’t have conversations, but that afternoon encounter taught me much. Perhaps they’re shy. Perhaps English isn’t their strong point. Perhaps they’re waiting for me to strike up the discussion. Perhaps their mind is on the prayer. Perhaps they have problems at home on their mind. And for the literalist, this is only seven percent of the excuses due to them.
Nowadays I attend the midday prayer each working day in another town. The folk there don’t seem all that friendly either, but here I have learnt to give them their seventy excuses too. We may not sit and chat when we come together for prayer, but still we are brothers to one another, witnessed in random acts of kindness.
My office lies a fifteen minute walk from the mosque—a hurried march there beside main roads set apart from my leisurely saunter back along the cobbled streets of the old town. It is in this daily journey that I learned my lesson, for I have lost count of the number of times someone has stopped to give me a lift. Often I don’t even recognise them as they come to a halt beside me, tooting their horn, but it doesn’t seem to matter. ‘Salam alaikum,’ they say as I peer in at them, ‘Do you want a lift?’ Or, ‘You’re going to miss the jamat. Jump in.’
Most of the time we don’t strike up conversation. We exchange salams and I reiterate my gratitude, but that’s it. But it does not matter. These random acts of kindness serve to remind me that things are not always as they seem. When someone is silent it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t like you; they may just have nothing to say.
Sometimes I am too hard on people, jumping to conclusions and making assumptions about them. And sometimes I fail to give credit where it’s due. Bumping into a couple of friends from Arab lands after Friday prayer one week, conversation soon turned on our favourite bugbear: the incomprehensible Urdu speech followed by the hastily sung generic Arabic sermon. It’s a problem, I had to agree, but then another thought occurred to me. ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘were it not for these people, we wouldn’t have a place to pray at all.’
Beside me, my friend stopped and smiled. ‘That’s very true,’ he said, and soon we were considering our own shortcomings. And there were many.
- “If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.” — Hamdun al-Qassar, narrated by Imam Bayhaqi in his Shu`ab al-Iman 7.522. ↩
It is said that Moses—peace be upon him—was walking with his disciples when they came across a donkey’s corpse.
One of them said it smells so bad. The other said it looks so ugly. Moses, however, looked and said: ‘Mashallah, its teeth are so white.’
- The gratefulness of the ears is to hear goodness with them.
- The gratefulness of the eyes is to see goodness with them.
- The gratefulness of the tongue is to say goodness with it.
There is beauty around but it’s for the trained ear, eye and heart.