On the Passing of the Young Abdullah Abdullatif Alkadi* and a Postscript on Charlie Hebdo

*Abdullah Abdullatif Alkadi was the cousin of the noble scholar, Shaykh Abdullah Alkadi.

For several years, I was fortunate to spend Ramadan in Mecca and Medina and to celebrate Eid in Dammam and Al-Ahsa in eastern Saudia Arabia. I came to know that latter city and its notable families well, and they had grown so accustomed to my celebrating Eid with them that some joked that if I didn’t come for Eid, they would keep fasting thinking my absence must mean Ramadan had not ended yet.

I spent so many Eids in Dammam and Al-Ahsa because it meant I could be with the Islamic scholar and world-class city planner, Shaykh Abdullah Alkadi, whom I was introduced to about twenty years ago by a mutual Irish friend, Muhammad Abdal Bari. That introduction took place when Muhammad, whom I knew from my earliest days as a convert to Islam in Great Britain, had moved to Portland, Oregon, where Shaykh Abdullah Alkadi was completing his Ph.D. in city planning at Oregon State University. (Portland is a testimony to excellent city planning, and the university boasts one of the best programs in the world.) When Muhammad visited me in the Bay Area, he told me about an “amazing Saudi” whom he insisted I should meet. He also told Shaykh Abdullah about his American convert friend and said that he should meet me. Eventually, Shaykh Abdullah visited the Bay Area, and we met at the home of a Syrian friend, Basil Dayyani. We had a memorable Syrian breakfast among friends who all emanated love and respect for one another. I will always be grateful that Muhammad insisted that I meet Shaykh Abdullah: Our encounter was for me the beginning of a deeply spiritual love for a man whose character and comportment have affected me profoundly over the years.

Shaykh Abdullah hails from a noble family whose lineage traces back to ‘Aqil bin Abi Talib, a cousin of the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings upon him, and the brother of Sayyidina ‘Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law as well as cousin. Shaykh Abdullah is a product of the school of the late Shaykh Ahmad Dughan, the Eastern sun of Arabia, who revived the traditional sciences in Al-Ahsa and had a lasting influence on the character of many of its residents. He was well over ninety years of age when he passed away last year, leaving behind three sons, each one a scholar. He also trained countless other scholars, including Shaykh Abdullah, who have spread all over the world.

Shaykh Abdullah had studied several sciences with Shaykh Ahmad Dughan, including Shafi’i jurisprudence. He mastered the science of inheritance laws under Shaykh Ahmad’s tutelage, as Shaykh Ahmad especially emphasized this subject because it is the first of the Shariah sciences to be lost according to a hadith. Shaykh Abdullah also memorized the Qur’an and studied Arabic, hadith, Qur’anic exegesis, Prophetic biography, and the other traditional sciences. Instead of assuming the life of a traditional scholar, he set out to master Western knowledge, as he felt too many traditional scholars were ignorant of the age in which they lived. He excelled in science and math and pursued higher studies in architecture and city planning, which led to his studies in Portland.

It speaks to his humility that most of his colleagues are unaware of his competence in the sacred sciences as well as his expertise in Prophetic biography, Qur’an, and Shafi’i jurisprudence. They know only of his Western education and think of him as a city planner and college administrator since he works at the University of Dammam. I was once with a Sudanese professor in West Africa, and upon hearing that he taught in Dammam, I asked if he knew Shaykh Abdullah Alkadi. When he replied that he did, I said his university was fortunate to have such a learned Muslim scholar. He shook his head in confusion and asked if we were referring to the same person, as he had no idea that in addition to his Western education, Shaykh Abdullah was a master of Islamic scholarship.

Over the years, Shaykh Abdullah has taught at Deen Intensives and other programs. His modesty, genuine humility, and impeccable prophetic character always made him a favorite teacher amongst the students. At closing sessions, when he made his final remarks and bid farewell, rarely a dry eye was left in the audience. We taught programs together in the U.S., Canada, Spain, Turkey, England, and, most memorably, in Medina and Mecca. In all the time I spent with him, I never once saw him lose his temper, speak unkindly, or mistreat anyone. He was always positive and made people love the religion simply because of the character he embodied.

An anecdote that reveals his endearing nature was related to me by Muhammad Abdal Bari, who first introduced me to Shaykh Abdullah: When he lived in Portland, Shaykh Abdullah led night prayers at a masjid during Ramadan, and after prayers, at around nine-thirty, he visited a nearby coffee shop with friends. He established a wonderful rapport with the young baristas there. One night, the prayer went on longer than usual, and afterward his friends noted that it was too late to make their usual stop, as the coffee shop would be closed. Shaykh Abdullah, however, decided to stop by anyway to see if the workers were still there. When the group arrived, they found that the employees had kept the shop open after closing time, waiting for Shaykh Abdullah, hoping he would come by as was his wont.

When I spent Ramadan with him in Mecca and Medina, I noticed that Shaykh Abdullah devoted his time entirely to Qur’anic recitation and completed the recitation of the Qur’an several times during the month. He explained that Ramadan was his opportunity to make up for any neglect he had toward the Book of God during the rest of the year. We also had many wondrous adventures meeting people who loved God and the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings upon him. We visited great scholars, most of who have now passed on, and read sacred texts with them to gain their blessing.

During this time, I came to know Shaykh Ahmad Jabir Jibran, a man very similar to Shaykh Abdullah in his piety and humility. In Al-Ahsa, Shaykh Abdullah and I were invited to many different homes. Each home was emblematic of the entire culture: hospitality, warmth, deep piety, and family informed every gathering. During those years, I came to know and love the entire community, especially the families that make up what are called in Arabia al-a'yan (the notables). These families have excelled in learning and contributed the most to society. They have long-standing kinship ties, and although they generally marry within the clan, it is not unusual for them to marry from other notable clans. I was always the immediate guest of the Al-Kadi clan, but the Al-Dughan clan also showed immense hospitality to me during my stays.

I also felt a special connection to the al-Mubarak clan. One of their notable scholars, Shaykh Ahmad al-Mubarak, had moved decades ago to the U.A.E. to serve as the religious head of their court system. He welcomed me to the Emirates when I was a young student, and he allowed me to sit with the many great scholars he hosted throughout the year. The Al-Mubarak clan is the largest remaining Maliki family in Saudi Arabia. Though the majority of the peninsula followed the Maliki school for centuries, the traditional four schools began to die off due to the spread of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s reform movement, and now a loosely affiliated form of Hanbalism permeates the peninsula.

Given my close relationship with the city and its families, I felt immense pain upon learning that one of their sons was recently murdered here in my home state of California. The murdered young man was the son of someone who had welcomed me in his home and the cousin of my dear and beloved friend, Shaykh Abdullah Alkadi. Usually when I call to speak with Shaykh Abdullah, his voice is filled with joy and enthusiasm, so when I called to offer my condolences and prayers for his cousin, I was even more grief-stricken to hear the sadness in his voice. He simply said, “Qaddara Allah ma sha’” (God enables what He wills).

Violence permeates our world. We read of suicide bombings, military sorties, murders, and mayhem on a daily basis. The recent massacre in Gaza left many of us sleepless, knowing that bombs paid for by U.S. tax dollars were dropping on innocent women and children. But when violence is personal, when it hits home, it strikes us in our hearts in ways disembodied violence never can. In his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith, the Scottish moralist, points out that when we read of great loss of life in a distant place, we are troubled, yet we carry on; however, if we find out that our little finger will be amputated tomorrow, we cannot sleep out of worry. Though he finds this paradoxical, he also sees redemption in that many a man would willingly lose his finger in order to save millions that he does not even know.

I would give my right hand to see my friend’s cousin restored to life, and it pains me greatly that his life was stolen while he was studying in my country as a guest from a place that showed me such immense generosity and hospitality. The deceased, Abdullah Abdullatif Alkadi (who happened to share a similar name as my close friend, Shaykh Abdullah Alkadi), was a 23-year-old who had just earned a degree in electrical engineering and was selling his car before returning to his family, when a depraved and greedy man decided to murder him and abscond with the car. So many Westerners view Muslims as violent, but I know that someone who grew up in Al-Ahsa, Saudi Arabia, would never have even heard of a murder in his town or have thought to take precautions against such
a possibility. In a relatively recent book, Are Muslims Distinctive?: A Look at the Evidence, M. Steven Fish, a social scientist and professor at U.C. Berkeley who studied Muslim societies to see, among other things, if they were more prone to violence than other societies, reported that the evidence clearly shows that murder rates are far lower in Muslim societies than in other societies.

Another aspect of this tragedy that impacted me was the young man’s tweets: they were mostly prayers for various people and words of advice. In an age when so many youth are tweeting inane comments, he was tweeting prayers for his family, friends, and others and sharing words of wisdom. In one of his tweets, he asked God not to deprive him of being reunited with his father.

May God shower him in His grace and grant him a martyr’s death. May God ease the pain of his family, the Alkadi family that I love so much: a humble, pious, and learned group of descendants of ‘Aqil bin Abi Talib Al-Qurayshi. I am sure the whole town of Al-Ahsa was devastated by the tragic news and undoubtedly spent the following days visiting the murdered young man’s family. Life there will eventually return to normal, as this tragedy becomes a memory, but for a time the people in Al-Ahsa will grieve collectively for their loss. Meanwhile, in America, the dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims is on the rise, fueled by many in the media who openly broadcast the notion that Muslim lives do not matter. Our military operations have killed hundreds of thousands of them and left many of their countries in total chaos. Yet our pundits focus only on the “violent and savage jihadi Muslims” and will never see the grace, hospitality, and beauty of a little town in eastern Arabia now grieving from the violence against one of their own. But God is generous and takes care of His own, sometimes with majesty, mystery, and pain: the 23-year-old Abdullah Alkadi’s prayer was answered; he was returned to his homeland and reunited with his father who, surrounded by mourning friends, family, and loved ones, buried his newly graduated son in the Prophet’s city, Medina, with ten thousand of the Prophet’s companions as his neighbors, on October 25th, 2014, after the dawn (fajr) prayer was offered. He will rest there until we all see the day of true retribution, reward, and restoration.

Some of Abdullah Alkadi’s Tweets (translated from his original Arabic):

O God, make me happy more than I have been in pain, and in more ease than I have been in difficulty, and don’t disappoint my hopes, for You suffice me and are a Beautiful Support.

6:38 PM - 14 Sep 2014 (his final tweet)

O Lord, whenever my dad and mom raise their hands to You, spread your treasures for them and make them happy and lengthen their lives – because I have no life without them.

5:19 PM - 23 Jul 2014

Be loving to your parents, supportive to your brother, a help to your sister, faithful to your friend, and beautiful to your neighbor – this life is perishing, and we are all journeying. 

3:47 AM - 7 Jun 2014

Postscript on Charlie Hebdo

An intriguing aspect of Muslim culture is that murders are rarely committed over wealth. While there may be theft in Muslim countries, theft that involves murder is almost unheard of. The idea of killing someone over something as ephemeral as a car or money or a cell phone is a rarity (except perhaps in war-torn countries where all civil society has broken down). Murder in Muslim societies tends to be motivated by political issues but more often by a misguided sense of honor. This was the case earlier this month in France, where clearly deluded and uneducated men from the ghettos of Paris, after rediscovering their faith, felt compelled to take their misperception of Islamic law into their own hands in order to “uphold the honor” of their prophet who, they believed, was being denigrated by the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. Without a doubt, such murders are criminal and wrong, but they can be rationally understood within the context of a society that holds the sanctity of prophets, those men of God, above all else.

In classical Muslim law, any willful and knowing denigration of a prophet is a capital offense. Blasphemy laws have always been the prerogative of the government, implemented only after trial and sentencing, and limited to Muslim lands where it was understood that this law was applicable. Historically, however, Muslim rulers were loathe to execute these laws without attempting to find excuses for the accused. In the case of the “Martyrs of Cordoba,” for example, when fanatical Christians, distraught at Christian conversion to Islam, attempted to revive Christian zeal by entering into mosques and denigrating the Prophet, the Muslim rulers, troubled by the deaths of their Christian subjects, used the ruling of insanity to exempt them from the offense. Such pre-modern laws, while also found in Christianity and Judaism, are no longer considered valid in the West due to a long and complicated process of secularization that has not occurred to the same degree or even in the same fashion in the Muslim world. Hence, many Muslims still feel strongly about the sanctity of all the prophets but specifically of the Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings upon him, and while the vast majority of Muslims would not think of killing anyone for doing so, they will not find it hard to understand why some would. The prophets, such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, and their lives and what they stood for represent the Muslim world’s highest values.

What then, in the West, do we hold above all else? It seems wealth has now become the highest value, and murders are often attempts to take that away from another. People kill others to take their money, their cars, their cellphones, or their drugs. Some even engage in meaningless violence, simply going into a public place and killing innocent people, not for any misguided political sensibilities, nor for wealth, but simply because they feel an urge to do so (perhaps acting out Grand Theft Auto or some other pathologically violent video game in order to experience the thrill of the real deal). Undeniably, like the West, the Muslim world also has mentally disturbed people, but they don’t go into schools and kill little children for the thrill of it. In fact, the horrific assault last December on the school in Pakistan was done in classic Jahili retaliation for murders of their own youth. There was a method to that madness, as they did not indiscriminately kill anyone in sight but spared the young children and targeted only those who had passed the age of puberty, as they were considered adults. While it was a brutal assault, it had a type of misguided rationality that can be understood in the context of vengeful tribal cultures in a way that Western school shootings cannot, irrespective of their context.

While the “whole” world is mourning the cartoonists who made their livelihoods as equal opportunity denigrators, perceiving this as an attack on freedom of expression, there is an aspect of this that is disturbing. The West displayed no moral outrage over the countless lives of innocent and honorable people whose only crime was being at home when a drone, intentionally or not, bombed them out of existence. No one is shedding tears over the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians, and many others in the Muslim world who were killed due to Western misadventures in the region. The Brookings Institution has noted that for every drone strike that has occurred, ten or so civilians have died. More people, many of them civilians, have been killed by U.S. drone strikes than were killed on 9-11. Take a look at the Wikipedia page that lists the drone strikes on Pakistan alone since 2004; and keep in mind that drone strikes are also waged against people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Algeria, Iran, Libya, and Somalia.

The murders of Charlie Hebdo’s staff were a crime; they were wrong, plain and simple. But lest we forget, the people at Charlie Hebdo knew exactly what they were doing. They acted much like Steve Irwin, the Australian crocodile hunter, who went around poking wild animals only to provoke a response from them. Eventually, he decided that the countless land and river animals were not enough and chose to dive into the vast ocean in search of sea creatures to provoke until a stingray, in apparent solidarity with its fellow land and sea creatures suffering at the hands of humans like Irwin, poked back and killed him. But, like the Charlie Hebdo staff, Irwin well knew the risks he was facing when provoking these wild animals and fell victim to the consequences. The editor ofCharlie Hebdo knew the game he was playing and enlisted a guard to protect his staff given the many death threats they had received. He was cognizant of the real dangers of provoking those he deemed open game and sport for the paper’s “satire.”

Today, much of the Western world expresses its moral outrage in solidarity over the murder of twelve people who knew the risks of provoking angry extremists yet argued, “These people want to
frighten us into respecting their religion; therefore we will not be frightened”; and so they continued to poke fun at that which Muslims hold most sacred. This was not done in the long-standing Western tradition of satire, which takes aim at the powerful to empower the powerless; these cartoonists engaged in mockery for the sake of mockery and had no higher purpose. They suffered the fate of a man who gratuitously calls another man’s mother a whore and is surprised when that man stabs him. Pope Francis said it well: If a close friend “says a swear word against my mother, then a punch awaits him,” he explained. “One cannot provoke; one cannot insult other people’s faith; one cannot make fun of faith.” This is a man who believes in “turning the other cheek,” yet true to his Argentinian roots, he displays classic Latin attitude toward the dishonoring of one’s mother. For Muslims, the Prophet reminded us, “None of you truly believes until I am more beloved to him than his own parents.” Hence, to slander our Prophet is a greater injury than an attack on our mothers. If the Pope will punch someone, even his close friend, should he insult his mother, then what are we to expect from uneducated and volatile street urchins with the same sense of honor?

Retaliatory murders for honor or otherwise are clearly wrong under Islamic law, or any other reasonable system of law, as they should be. But even the cofounder of Charlie Hebdo, Henri Roussel, blamed the editor for knowingly endangering the lives of his employees. “What made him feel the need to drag the team into overdoing it?” Roussel wrote in Nouvel Observateur. “He shouldn’t have done it, but Charb did it again a year later, in September 2012.” Roussel continued, “I believe that we fools who took an unnecessary risk…. We think we are invulnerable. For years, decades even, it was a provocation, and then one day the provocation turns against us.” Addressing the slain editor, whom he referred to as a “blockhead,” Roussel said, “I really hold it against you.”

Just for a moment, let us imagine that this incident had been about twelve murdered black Nigerian cartoonists instead of white French ones: would world leaders have descended on Lagos to march lock-armed with President Goodluck Jonathan in solidarity? Can we imagine Netanyahu heading to the West Bank to hold hands with Abbas in solidarity for the dozens of Palestinian journalists who, in clear crimes against free speech, were targeted by Israeli forces for simply being witnesses to atrocities and reporting to the world about them? No, there will be no demonstrations or gathering of world leaders held for the untold numbers of innocent civilians, including women and children, who, without any provocation, have borne the brunt of bombings, drone strikes, and other nefarious means of modern warfare. It is at times like these when it seems as though we live in a cartoon world where millions are shedding tears or displaying moral outrage for twelve white people who, without denial, were brutally murdered, while too many of those same eyes remain blind and dry to the countless deaths and suffering of the world’s Muslims.