Archive for August, 2011
There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?
– Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Salem Saif al-Mazrui grew up in Ra’s al-Khaimah, a beautiful part of the Arabian Peninsula, boasting some of the most tranquil desert scenes juxtaposed with majestic seascapes and mountains. It is an irenic place. It is also one of the most religiously conservative of the seven Emirates in the UAE. Though it does not have the natural resources of its sister Emirates, it maintains a profound connection to its religious and national identity, and has a warm and welcoming tourist industry.
Salem comes from the clan known as al-Mazari; they trace their lineage back to the most ancient Arab tribes of the peninsula. His name, Salem Saif, means “peaceful sword” and aptly reflects the archetypal character found in Arabia. The desert is a harsh place, and one must be tough to survive, but survival itself depends on others. Hence, the Arabs developed a code of ethics regarding guests whom they may not know well or at all. A stranger is always honored, but if he presents a threat, the desert Arab can quickly thrust aside his natural generosity, hospitality, and congeniality, and become the fiercest of opponents.
Salem was a 28-year-old military officer from a small village. His father was stricken with cancer and needed treatment. Since the United States has some of the most advanced treatment centers in the world, it was the natural choice for the family. Many Emiratis have studied in Texas and know the area, but more importantly, it has a world famous cancer institute that received a $150 million donation from the president of the UAE. One would also expect that, given the UAE’s largesse, the center treat their Emirati patients with heightened Southern hospitality.
So the dutiful son Salem brought his father to America in hopes of a healing. Little did they know how tragic things would turn out.
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Unlike some Muslims from abroad who come to America and gravitate to the glitz and glitter of nightlife, Salem was a committed Muslim who arrived on a mission – to serve his father in his hour of need, providing the emotional and familial support vital during arduous cancer treatments. They rented an apartment in a gated community, which for many people engenders a false sense of security in an increasingly fearful and desperate America.
A week into Ramadan, Salem and his father were on their way back from the tarawih prayers at the local mosque, and stopped by their apartment to pick up some sweets before heading on to dinner at a friend’s house nearby. Salem left the car idling and walked to the apartment with his father, both dressed in their national robes. At this point, two armed men accosted them at gunpoint, blocked their doorway inside the apartment, and demanded money. The bandits locked the two men in a room and began to rummage for valuables. But the desert men, with their profound sense of honor and natural courage, broke free and found themselves face to face with the two desperate and armed robbers.
Salem moved to defend his father; shots rang out; bullets pierced his chest. The men grabbed Salem’s wallet, fled the scene, and drove off in their victim’s Toyota Avalon, leaving behind a brave, young, Arab military officer, with a new wife and two-month-old child in his village back home, dead in a pool of his own blood. After police found the abandoned car and identified the fingerprints, an arrest warrant was issued for Corey Trevon Perry, 17, and his 18-year-old accomplice Detone Lewayne Price, both African-Americans. While the two were charged with perpetrating a heinous crime, they are also victims of another crime, that of a derelict America.
Police initially suspected it may have been a hate crime, given the rising anti-Muslim sentiments in America, but once the culprits were identified as African-American teens with prior criminal records, the theory was discarded, and the tragedy was relegated to a crime of armed invasion gone violently wrong.
Salem’s death came while he was in a good state, ready and prepared. He had come home from night prayers, was in the service of his father and family, and was planning to leave for the home of a fellow Muslim to share in a fraternal meal, even bringing a gift of sweets that he had stopped to pick up. He is no doubt, in my mind at least, a martyr. Our Prophet, peace and blessings of God be upon him, said, “Anyone who dies defending his property is a martyr.” Unlike Detone and Corey, both Salem and his wife grew up in a society where the family is still central, where the community is still close-knit, and where caring and compassion are values that bind people together. Though the Emirates are not free of problems, basic communal bonds are still strong.
Salem’s murder should serve as a cautionary tale for both Americans and Emiratis. On the surface, it can simply be reduced to a random crime. But for those who believe in fate, there are much deeper implications. For the Emiratis (and other Arabs), it’s a reminder that America is no longer the land where many Arabs came to study in the 1960s and 1970s.
While crime has always been around and during some periods and places in America quite high, violent crime is becoming commonplace, and murder, which once made the front page nationwide for weeks, is now relegated to a back page story, if even that. And while violent crimes committed by the older population are down, teenage violence is higher than ever before. The recent riots in England and the sports violence in America are signs of societies that have lost their bearings. It isn’t that the moral compass is just not working – in some cases, it has been discarded all together.
Sociability is the essence of a society, what Ibn Khaldun referred to as ‘asabiyyah. When that social solidarity and common purpose get lost, people no longer feel a sense of camaraderie with their fellow citizens. We live in a virtual society, a society of ghosts haunting a once inhabited house; many text and twitter, but they no longer commune in prayer or pleasure.
Muslims must feel grateful that our Prophet, peace and blessings of God be upon him, put into place so many ways in which people are bonded. Just praying five times a day with a group binds us in social and spiritual solidarity. Ramadan, that great feast of friendship and family, is a time in which the community in its entirety is directed inwardly for a month, united during the day by hunger and joined at night by food and prayer.
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The breakdown of the family is the breakdown of society. The African-American family was the first casualty of an inherently racist system that too often punished black males, which led in turn to dysfunctional, impoverished, and deteriorating social conditions in black communities. The Black Church mitigated the breakdown but eventually proved incapable of stemming the tide. It was left to overwhelmed black mothers who did their best to hold together fracturing families in a rapidly collapsing social system that in many places today resembles war zones – Detroit is perhaps the most blatant example.
Minority communities are the canaries in the coal mine of American culture. The dominant culture consistently follows the trends that first show up in minority communities. In certain areas, great strides have been made, but the reality of inner cities today is far worse than before the civil rights movement. While we have elected an African-American president, the Congressional Black Caucus says little or nothing is being done by this administration to address the chronically high unemployment among African-Americans. Thus, socio-economic disparities between the races and the concomitant trauma are a long way from over. Wounds have not only failed to heal, they continue to fester, and communities far from being restored are deteriorating – think Katrina. Thus, it could be argued that the election of President Barack Obama has given many in white America the false impression that we have crossed an imagined threshold and are now magically a color-less society.
Far from it. The African-Americans of East Oakland, the South Side of Chicago, South Central L.A., and so many other ghettos have the entire deck stacked against them just coming into this world. It is a testimony to the human spirit that so many do so well. To blame the victim is to play the trump card of the oppressor.
When African-Americans are given the same opportunities as that of mainstream America, they do just as well if not better than their culturally dominant counterparts. But criminal and destitute environments breed crime, and statistically speaking, as highlighted by studies mentioned in Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics, it was only a matter of time before Detone and Corey would have a run-in with the law. Instead of beating a path to becoming president of the United States, or a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or mechanic, their nihilistic environments insured for them a tragic date with destiny on that balmy Houston night in the blessed month of Ramadan. The teenagers’ crime exposed everything that is wrong with America and revealed everything that is right with the Emirates.
Unlike the desert heat of Salem’s homeland, which makes people more inter-dependent and brings them closer, the urban heat of America’s inner cities alienates the youth and destroys their sense of community.
While the murder of Salem Saif al-Mazrui was merely a media blip in Houston and almost entirely ignored by the national news media, his death nevertheless traumatized an entire society in the Emirates. His community turned up in large numbers to pray in solidarity at his funeral, including the ruler of Ra’s al-Khaimah. While I was in the UAE recently, Salem’s murder made headlines in all the newspapers for several days, just as a murder would have been covered here in America when our country was comprised of tightly-knit communities with real families, not T.V. families, local churches, not mega-churches, real friends, not Facebook friends. Life revolved around neighborhoods without hoodlums, not “hoods” without neighbors, and there was social solidarity in both its black and white communities, despite their parities, differences, and inequalities. My ninety-year-old mother told me that when she was young, any murder, even that of a hobo, would have been front page news for days in San Francisco. Now it is a daily occurrence in most places that barely gets noticed. While many Americans think Muslims have no qualms about taking a life, the truth is that murder – political violence in a few destabilized places notwithstanding – is still quite rare in most Muslim countries. It is for this reason that I’ve always felt safe in Muslim towns, villages, and cities at any time, day or night.
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May God bless Salem and reward him for his filial piety, and for his fasting and night prayers; may He grant the young man a place among the martyrs of our faith. May God strengthen his wife and raise his child in faith and love, and give ease in the hearts of the family; and may He heal his father from his cancer by the blessing of the good deeds of the son.
As for the perpetrators, I am reminded of a Muslim brother who used to write me from prison. He was incarcerated because he was involved in a murder when he was just 18-years-old. He was a star athlete but happened to be in the wrong company that night, and for it he spent ten years in prison. After a lengthy period of correspondence with him, in which he acquired a great deal of Islamic knowledge, I wrote a letter to his parole board encouraging them to release him. He is now a thriving member of society, with a good job and a family, responsible and still pursuing sacred knowledge. After his conversion to Islam and the opening of his eyes, he could no longer recognize his former self: that fated boy in the car ten years earlier on that ill-omened night. The inner cities and many of the young who are disenfranchised, alienated, lost, and angry need Islam – not just any “Islam” but a sound understanding of our rich tradition and certainly not the disenfranchised, alienated, and angry identity politics posing as religion that is tearing apart Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and too many other places.
As Ramadan moves along, we realize the rapidity with which the month travels. The word “month,” derived from “moon,” essentially measures one lunar cycle: the roughly 29.5 days it takes the moon to circle the earth. A lag time is involved due to the earth’s spin and its own movement around the sun. The Qur’an tells us that fasting is prescribed so we may learn to ward off evil, and then reminds us of the “limited days” (ayyaman m’adudat) before fasting comes to an end (2:183-184). The plural form used for “days” is known in Arabic morphology as a “plural of paucity,” meaning the number is not large. In other words, Ramadan is a limited time of spiritually powerful days.
During Ramadan, one can achieve spiritually what would take far longer during other times of the year. But restraining our zest for food is a prerequisite. In his book Hujjat Allah al-Balighah, Imam Shah Wali Allah al-Dahlawi explains that our faith provides special times of blessing that have enhanced spiritual power, and only a receptive soul will experience great openings during such times. To prevent the openings from blockage, he recommends, among other things, ensuring that the stomach is not sated. This advice is in the prophetic tradition. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The worst vessel the son [or daughter] of Adam ever fills is his [or her] stomach.” He also said, “It is enough for the son of Adam to eat a few morsels that will maintain his back’s uprightness. But if he must add more to his stomach, then let it be one third for food, one third for water, and one third for air.” The Persian scholar Sahl al-Tustari was asked about a man who ate once a day, and he replied, “This is the way of the prophets.” Asked about someone who eats twice a day, he said, “This is the way of the righteous.” Finally, he was asked about someone who eats three meals a day, and he replied, “Build for him a trough!” Abu Madyan al-Ghawth, who laid the foundations along with Imam al-Ghazali for the way of Shaykh Abd Allah al-Haddad of Hadhramaut, remarked that his own path was one of hunger.
Ramadan is an especially opportune time to reflect on the blessings of food and satiety. When we eat less, our stomachs shrink, and we feel full after a few bites at the end of the day. Fasting allows us to experience once a year what many throughout the world experience almost daily. Hunger, for them, is not a choice; it is simply a fact of life. Currently, Somalia and other parts of East Africa are gripped by a devastating drought, and the lives of millions of men and women — and sinless children — hang in the balance. Such tragedies make some people ask, “Where is God?” But God may very well answer with a question: “Where are you?!” After all, these catastrophes are avoidable. A recent study of global food wastage indicates that we waste millions of tons of food each year. Even a portion of that would ward off any potential famine.
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Somalia has gone through great tragedies of late. We should not forget that in the not too distant past, Somalia was a wonderful pastoral society of profoundly spiritual people. The occasional clashes of clan and feuds over water were usually resolved by the elders without bloodshed. Somalis had an irenic culture largely bilingual due to their love of Arabic and immersion in a classical training in the Yemeni tradition of islam, iman, and ihsan. They were people who would wake before dawn to call on their Lord before setting out for a rural day’s work. I know this both from my own elderly Somali friends whom I cherish, and also from my time in a very similar society in West Africa. In fact, the Somali of Mauritania are descendants of Somali migrants from East Africa. Some of the most brilliant scholars I met in Mauritania are from the Somali people. In the San Francisco Bay Area, our own dear Shaykh Abdar Rahman Tahir, a brilliant scholar of Arabic from Somalia, was a student of the great master of Arabic, Muhyiddin Abdul Hamid.
Somalia’s recent history has unfortunately been one of political upheaval and the collapse of civil society and functional government. As it emerged from the weight of colonialism, it fell victim to Cold War politics and international intrigue due to its important strategic spot in the Horn of Africa. Now the persistent poverty has been compounded by drought and famine, even as internal violence makes everything far worse. Yet Africans in general are always low on the so-called world community’s list for help. Higher up on the list are the bailouts of Wall Street firms or the financial institutions of Greece or Italy or Spain because those have consequences for people in the West. But when it comes to starving Africans, one hears the refrain, “When are they going to help themselves?” That is the thinking of Iblis. The Qur’an quotes the mentality of such people; they say, “Shall we feed those whom had God could have fed if He willed?” (36:47). The Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, said, “You are aided by aiding the weak among you.”
Somalia deserves to have the aid of all of us.
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It is Ramadan, a time when our own self-induced hunger should bring us a bit closer to those whose hunger is caused by circumstance, not choice. I am in the Emirates now and have seen the generosity of the government and its people here in coming to the aid of Somalia; they have sent about 900 tons of food and have begun well-drilling operations. But much more needs to be done. The Red Crescent is extremely active there, as are other charitable organizations.
Charity conquers the greed of our souls and actualizes the solidarity of humanity, as those who have reach out to those who have not with love, compassion, and faith. Let us all remember them tonight at iftar as we break our fasts and pray for them. Let each of us find it in our hearts to do something, no matter how small, to address the problem. And let us not forget to pray for our brothers and sisters in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, whose Ramadan is filled with trials and tribulations, while most of ours are filled with relative ease and comfort.
In this blessed month of Ramadan, let us do what we are able for those in need, whose hunger and pain is likely to outlast this brief month.