See the Story Index for a chronological guide to all the stories.
Jamil and a stocky African-American brother came to my cell hardly ten minutes after I was released from the hole and admitted back into the general population.
Jamil had a stack of magazines that he set down on the writing desk in my cell. As soon as Tuna – my Samoan cellie – saw that, he stood up and walked out, saying, “Ia manuia,” which means “good luck” in Samoan.
Jamil nodded to the stocky brother, who was short and barrel chested, but had a baby face. “This is Rashid,” Jamil said. “Some folks call him Big Wheel.”
Rashid nodded at me and said salam, and this time I responded in kind.
“Take your shirt off,” Jamil said. “We’re going to armor you.”
“Excuse me?” I was incredulous. “I told you before I don’t need your help.”
“Akhi, we’re way past that now. We’ve been battling the AB for the last six months over what they did to you. We have one dead on our side and three on theirs.”
“La ilaha il-Allah!” I exclaimed. “I never asked anyone to do that.”
“We didn’t do it, brotha,” Rashid said. His voice was incongruously deep for his size. “AB decided that if they couldn’t get to you, they’d come after us. Half the Muslim brothers been transferred out, and a mess o’ the AB too, but it’s still on. We tried parylayin’ a truce but the AB ain’t havin’ it. We down to twenty men, and they thirty strong. But they used to have sixty. After you clowned ‘em, they had a bunch of walkouts. It’s wild. They hate you, Hassan. Plus, we in talks with the BGF. They might come in on our side. They got thirty men.”
The BGF, I later learned, was the Black Guerilla Family – another powerful prison gang.
I was stunned. A Muslim had died because of me! Laa hawla wa laa quwwata il-la billah. I felt numb. Jamil pulled up my shirt and I cooperated passively. He held a magazine against my chest and Rashid used a large roll of duct tape to secure the magazine in place by wrapping the tape all the way around my body. They repeated the process with the other magazines, covering my entire torso.
“It may not seem like much,” Jamil said. “But it’s effective.”
“Who was the brother who died?” I asked.
“Older brotha from New York,” Rashid said. “Khalid. They bum rushed him in the shower.”
“It’s not your fault, akhi,” Jamil said. “It’s the nature of the beast. He’s a shaheed and he’s alive with Allah. Wa la tahsab annal-latheena qutiloo fee sabeel-illahi amwaata.”
And do not think that those who are killed in the way of Allah are dead. I’d heard the ayah before, but somehow it was like I was understanding it for the first time. What was I so afraid of? Why had I feared Sarkis and Mr. Black? Why had I allowed Cutter to intimidate me? And do not think that those who are killed in the way of Allah are dead.
I completed the ayah. “Bal ahya’un ‘enda Rabbihim yurzaqoon. No, they are alive with their Lord, enjoying His provision.”
Jamil nodded at me and spoke to Rashid. “The brother has some knowledge.”
“What about you?” I said, pointing to Jamil’s stomach. He lifted his shirt, revealing one plastic dinner tray taped to his flat stomach and another to his back. Taped to the front tray was a long, sharp piece of steel wrapped with duct tape at the base. A shank, as these homemade weapons were called.
Rashid took something from his pocket and extended it toward me. Another shank.
“I can’t… I don’t believe in killing,” I said.
“That was you that waxed Cutter out by the gap, right?” Rashid said. “And the other three the day after?”
“Yes, but I didn’t kill them.”
“A’aight,” Rashid said. “Just throw down like you do. They probly gon’ come at us on the mainline, so keep yo’ back to the wall. When it go off, don’ half step.”
I looked at Jamil, who grinned. “He means don’t hold back.”
Rashid slid the blade up into his shirtsleeve, and we moved out. Just three ordinary inmates, going to breakfast. Except that all the inmates in El Reno seemed to know what was going down. Everyone gave us a wide berth.
I wondered how it was that the Muslims had suffered only one casualty, while the AB, with their greater numbers, had lost three men. I was to learn the answer before long.
We made our way out of the cellblock wing and onto the mainline, which is a wide corridor down the middle of the cellblock on the way to the chow hall. Jamil walked in front of me and Rashid to my side. The tension in the air was palpable. There was a heavy guard presence in the hallway, Was all this because of me? It was unreal.
“Stay close to the wall,” Jamil said.
There was a commotion at the far end of the hall, behind us. A white con was scuffling with a Mexican. The prison guards on duty hustled in that direction, while the many prisoners in the hall seemed to vanish. Suddenly the three of us were alone, still moving toward the chow hall.
“This is it,” Jamil said.
A door opened in front of us – a maintenance closet – and twelve members of the Aryan Brotherhood streamed out of the room, not even bothering to hide the shanks, clubs and other assorted weapons in their hands. I recognized the bald man from the first attack a year ago – the one whose elbow I had broken – and two of the men from the second attack. Among them was a one-eyed man with a tattoo of a spider on his face. I later learned that he was the leader of the AB in El Reno and was known as – naturally – Spider. Cutter was not among them. It turned out he’d been in a wheelchair ever since I whiplashed him.
Viking was also not among them. I’ll tell you more about him later. I think you’ll be surprised.
A chaotic melee ensued. Rashid shouted, “Allahu Akbar!” in a booming voice that rang off the walls and seemed to freeze everyone in their places for a split second. For an instant it seemed that his shout alone would drive the ABs back. Then one of them let out a wordless yell and hurled himself at Rashid, swinging a short steel pipe. Rashid moved into the attack, slipped inside the radius of the pipe’s arc, and drove his own shank into the man’s chest. I heard the distinctive sound of breaking bone and knew that Rashid’s knife had either pierced the man’s sternum or broken a rib. I’d heard that sound many times in war.
The ABs mobbed us, weapons slashing and swinging everywhere. I threw a man into the wall head first and his teeth snapped shut on his tongue, severing the tip, which flew through the air like a bit of sausage. Then I launched a kick into the knee of an AB who was about to stab Rashid in the back. Men grunted, cursed and screamed. The metallic tang of blood filled the air. I almost slipped on the blood and that might have saved my life, as a skinny white con swung a knife through the empty air where my neck had been. I recovered my footing, ducked low and snaked an arm between the man’s legs, then lifted him onto my shoulders and threw him into the other ABs.
I shot a look at Jamil and saw something that stunned me. He was ghosting. That was the name I had given to the elusive style of movement that I had seen Mr. Black perform, and had spent years learning to emulate. It was not the typical bob and weave you saw in boxing, or the irimi-style movement of Aikido and Jujitsu. A man would come at him and he would seem to disappear, reappearing behind the man. It was unmistakable, and in all my martial arts and combat experience, I had never seen anyone do it except Mr. Black, in the Tel-Az-Zaytoon camp the night he’d murdered Daniel.
Where could Jamil have learned it? No wonder the AB had lost so many men.
In that moment of distraction I felt an impact to my back. I launched a back kick without looking and heard a grunt. I spun into the man behind me, palming his face and digging my fingers into his eyes. He fell and I moved closer to Rashid, putting my back to his and fighting like a machine.
It was over in seconds. Nine men lay around us, three dead and the rest badly injured. Three of the ABs were limping away, one being supported by the other two. Rashid had a cut somewhere in his scalp and the blood poured down his face. Jamil clutched his throat. “Not a stab,” he said hoarsely. “I got punched in the throat is all.”
As for me, I was gasping for breath and felt light headed. I felt like I was about to pass out. I fell to one knee, fighting for consciousness. I couldn’t understand why I was so out of breath.
Jamil and Rashid wiped their weapons clean and dropped them, then helped me to my feet. We began to walk toward the chow hall, but I stumbled. Rashid caught me, then looked me over and said, “SubhanAllah.” He indicated my back. Only then did I see that I had two weapons embedded in my body. A screwdriver had somehow slipped between the magazines and was stuck in my upper back, and a shank made from a sharpened toothbrush was buried in my hip. I later learned that the screwdriver had punctured my lung.”
Inspector Katrina Sanchez sat in her car, sipping coffee. It was one in the morning. No doubt her husband had given up waiting for her hours ago, and gone to sleep. She hoped they would not have an argument the next day.
She looked over the flyer the young Indian man had given her. Silvertip Hapkido, it said. Hassan Amir, head instructor. She had actually heard of this instructor. One of the inspectors in her division attended his class.
She studied the image of Mr. Amir throwing another man over his hip. He was a handsome man. Broad shouldered and strong, though his hair was a tad long for her taste. Men should be men. That was one of the problems with the world today. Too many effeminate man, metrosexuals, and hipsters in skinny jeans… and the masculine men were either self-centered or irresponsible.
She thought of her husband Roberto. He was a blessing. Tall, a good earner, willing to lead, but also willing to let Katrina follow her passion. Yes, he complained about her hours, but who could blame him? She hoped fervently that she would never have to choose between her husband and the job. Doing work that made a difference in the world was vital. But her husband was her rock. Es cosa de dos, her mother would say. It’s a matter for two. Meaning life itself.
She brought her mind back to the case and considered the facts. One: Alice claimed she was stabbed by a man named Mr. Saleh, father of her co-worker Muhammad Saleh. Two: Muhammad Saleh was absent from his home. Three: he was possibly staying with his friend, Hassan Amir.
Sanchez turned on her dashboard computer and keyed in Hassan Amir’s name, checking for felony arrests or convictions in the last five years. Nothing came up. She accessed the DMV database and checked his license. The address given was down on Third Street, in an area that she could have sworn was entirely commercial. She ran a reverse check on the address, and learned that it belonged to Hammerhead Courier, the same messenger company that Muhammad Saleh worked for.
She had Muhammad’s telephone number, but if he were harboring his father then calling him would alert him and send him fleeing.
Returning to the SFPD database, she broadened her search to include misdemeanors, and got two hits. Hassan Amir had played a role in catching a purse snatcher four years ago. And last year he’d called 911 to report a woman screaming in an apartment on his floor. It had turned out to be a case of domestic abuse.
So Hassan Amir was a do-gooder. Perhaps the kind of man who would take in a friend in need, and his father as well?
The address given in the domestic abuse complaint was 640 Mission. The Palisade. Well. Someone was living in style. A martial arts instructor living in one of the priciest luxury towers in town? Another mystery. And it just so happened that solving mysteries was her forte.
Katrina Sanchez set her coffee in the cup holder, and started the car.
“Before we could make another move,” Hassan said, “the hall was filled with the sound of pounding boots. We were surrounded by the Special Tactics Squad, looking like futuristic soldiers in their body armor, helmets and shields.
“Lay down on your stomachs and put your hands on your head!” one of them shouted.
Jamil said, “We’re not resisting.” He laid down, and Rashid and I followed suit. We were all handcuffed, searched, and led away. The officers who took me away had to hold me up, as I couldn’t walk on my own.
I was taken by ambulance to Parkview Hospital in El Reno, Oklahoma. The wound in my hip was not serious, but the collapsed lung required surgery. I spent only two days at the hospital recovering, handcuffed to the bed with an officer outside my door as usual, then was transported back to El Reno and put in the hole. My back wound wasn’t healed and it bled through the bandages. I spent the first two weeks in the hole resting on my bunk, trying to ignore the pain. I used t-shirts as bandages. I’d wash them in my little steel sink and hang them on my bunk to dry.
I was sentenced to a year in the hole that time. Every day I thought about Khalid, the older brother who had been killed fighting my battle. I would not let his sacrifice be in vain. I would not wallow in self-pity and despair. I repeated Jamil’s words like verses of poetry: “Allah is still with you. He cares. You are here for a reason.”
Solitary confinement can be brutal. The federal government has tens of thousands of prisoners living in solitary confinement and many of them become permanently psychologically disabled. They become paranoid, they hallucinate and they harm themselves.
The ironic thing is that the guys who survive employ strategies that seen insane. I knew one guy who used his own blood to write complex math problems on the walls and solve them. Another guy composed plays in his head and acted out all the parts.
In my case, it was the Quran and martial arts that kept me sane. I memorized five Juz in that one year, and I developed many new fighting techniques, just practicing on my own on the cement floor, shuffling around barefoot so as not to make any noise, imagining my opponents and their reactions.
Also, Chaplain AbdulQadeer came to see me from time to time, and he was a lifeline. Those brothers who work in the prisons, they are my heroes forever, I’m telling you.
I will admit, however, that in the last three months I developed a habit of talking to a cricket.
Kadija laughed, then covered her mouth with her hand. “I’m sorry brother,” she said. “Your story is serious. The bit about the cricket caught me by surprise.”
“You mean an imaginary cricket?” Muhammad said. “Like Pinocchio’s cricket?”
“Pinocchio’s cricket was real, not imaginary,” Jamilah corrected automatically, then wondered why she was participating in such a ridiculous conversation.
“But he was Pinocchio’s conscience,” Muhammad pointed out.
Layth spoke up. “Actually he was a Christ metaphor. Jiminy Cricket – Jesus Christ. Get it?”
Kadija shook her head. “The Prophet Isa depicted as a cricket. Astaghfirullah. American pop culture trivializes everything. But how do you even know that about the metaphor, honey?”
“I do a lot of reading in the cab, between fares,” Layth said. “Oh, no I remember now. I got that bit of trivia from a Disney writer that I drove once. Sorry, Hassan. Please go on. What about your cricket friend?”
Everyone laughed and Hassan rolled his eyes. “I never said he was my friend.”
“Oh, it was a boy cricket?” Muhammad said, grinning.
Hassan gave him a mock glare. “Yes. His name was Napoleon. Can I go on now? Somehow the cricket got into the walls of my cell. At first it drove me crazy, chirping all night when I was trying to sleep. At the same time it was comforting to have a living thing keeping me company. I began talking to it. I’d carry on a conversation, pretending that the cricket was answering. Then I began to worry that I was going insane, so I stopped. Then I felt guilty that i was ignoring the cricket and hurting its feelings, so I began making up haikus for it. I’m not much of a poet but I studied haikus in third grade. Five syllables, seven syllables, five.
Cricket in my cell:
On whom do you call? I know
you praise in your way.
I composed them in my mind and memorized them, one after another. Until one day the chirping stopped and I cried. I worried that he had died of starvation, or maybe had deserted me. All that was after only nine months in the hole. Imagine spending years in there.”
“I can’t imagine,” Kadija said, shaking her head.
“I know,” Hassan said. “I can’t either, and I’ve been there.”
“I came out of the hole to find that the war was over. The Aryan Brotherhood in El Reno was virtually finished. That battle on the mainline had been the final straw. Some members had been transferred out, and others had abandoned the organization. Meanwhile, the Muslims had received several converts. Most surprising of all was that Viking had become Muslim. SubhanAllah. Allah guides whom He wills. Viking actually became quite devoted. I learned years later that after his release he went to Mauritania to learn Arabic and study Islam. He’s quite well known now. His name is Lars AbdulHadi.”
“SubhanAllah!” Layth said. “I know him. He’s an Imam in Minneapolis. I watch his lectures on Youtube. That’s incredible, akhi. Why did he become Muslim? ”
“You’d have to ask him. But your story is no less amazing, Layth. So yes, that was good news. And Jamil was fine. He was actually the Amir or leader of the Muslim jama’ah in El Reno, as I learned. The one bit of sad news was that Big Wheel – Rashid – had been transferred to the new supermax facility in Colorado. The BOP knew that we Muslims didn’t start the conflict, but there were seven men dead and someone had to be blamed. Cutter and Spider were charged with first degree murder, and Rashid with second degree.
The evening I was released from the hole I sat on the outdoor bandstand with Jamil. We had just prayed Maghreb in a jama’at of thirty brothers. The wind was blowing as usual, but a few hardy mosquitos braved the breeze to try to bite me through my army greens.
I swatted at them. “Where did you learn to move like that?” I asked Jamil, echoing a question that I had been asked many times.
He looked away. “Like what?”
“You know what I mean. I call it ghosting.”
He nodded. “I learned that from an African-American brother in the Leavenworth pen,” he said. “He said he learned it from a Chechen named Abu Kareem. But I don’t know anything about him.”
This is not an important part of the story, but in the years since then I’ve met two other men – both Muslims – who could ghost. One in prison, and one out. Their stories were identical to Jamil’s. They learned it from someone who learned it from Abu Kareem the Chechen. But none of them ever met Abu Kareem in person. So, just a little mystery there.
Jamil was a practitioner of a style of Jujitsu called Danzan-Ryu. I would say that Jamil knew a lot that I didn’t know, but what I knew, I knew better than him. So he became my Sensei, and I became his. It’s not allowed to practice martial arts in prison, but I put in a request to share a cell with Jamil, and it was granted. So Jamil and I would practice in the cell after lockdown. He also taught me to breathe zazen – to meditate, basically – in order to calm my mind before battle.
I’m sure Tuna was glad to see me transferred out. I had nightmares almost every night, and sometimes woke up screaming. He’d complained about it more than once, but what could I do?
A side effect of my sharing a cell with Jamil was that he too became aware of my nightmares.
“What is it you’re afraid of?” he asked me one day.
I thought about it. I usually didn’t remember the nightmares in the morning. But I knew what I feared. I began to tell Jamil about my past, and how everyone I loved had been killed. I spoke of my shame at being unable to protect them, as well as my confusion as to the reasons for their deaths. I told him about the slaughter I had witnessed in Tel-Az-Zaytoon. Was I being punished? Were they? If Allah loved us – the Muslims I mean – and we were His people, then why did we suffer this way? I told him about the horrors of Karanlik, which I have never discussed with anyone else, before or since, and about the despair that had led me to become a drug mule.
Worst of all was Lena’s death, and the fact that she had died in fear, murdered in cold blood. Did she call out for me in her final moments? Did she wonder why I wasn’t there to protect her? And where had I been, in fact? I’d gone out because we had an argument. I had abandoned her, just as she always accused me of doing.
Jamil was a good listener. He let me get it all out of my system, then he put his arm around my shoulders.
“You have a lot of questions, Hassan, and they’re good questions. And I’m not a scholar. But I have a question for you in return: Do you believe that Allah is the Most Just, and the Most Wise, and the Most Merciful?”
I nodded my head. “Sure.”
“Then you have to trust Him. You have to trust that His choices for us are not arbitrary or capricious. If you look at these issues through the narrow, periscopic view of this dunya, then the answers are elusive. But Allah’s view is vast and incomprehensible to us. His view includes Al-Ghayb and the aakhirah. His view includes not only what happened, but what would have happened and could have happened. You have to trust that Allah will give everyone perfect justice in the end. Not only Charlie, Gala, Daniel and Lena, and all those victims in the camp, but you as well. No one will be cheated or wronged. And on the other side of the scale, your uncle, your cousin, Mr. Black, and that drug dealer, what was his name?”
“Right. They will receive justice as well. They won’t get away with anything. Allah sees and counts everything. Nothing slips through the cracks. Allah’s reward is huge, and His punishment is terrible.”
“Tell me,” Jamil continued, “What happened to the son of Nuh?”
“He refused to follow his father and was drowned,” I replied.
“How do you think Nuh felt about that?”
“I’m sure he grieved,” I said.
“Yes, but do you think he despaired? Do you think he doubted Allah?”
“No… Of course not.”
“What about Khadija, the beloved wife of the Prophet, peace be upon him? The woman who he loved above all others, and who believed in him and supported him when others stood against him, and shared everything with him? How did she die?”
I thought to what I had read of the Seerah. “She died of illness or malnutrition as a result of the boycott against the Muslims.”
“Uh huh. Do you think that was a punishment?”
“No, not at all. She was a shaheedah.”
“And what about Ibrahim, the Prophet’s son? Do you think that either the Prophet or Ibrahim himself were being punished through his death?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then why did he die? He was even younger than your brother Charlie.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“He died because it was the decree of Allah, for reasons that we can’t understand. Some things are beyond our ken. Everyone dies, Hassan. Some young, some old, some peacefully, some violently, but that’s only part of the story. We live on beyond the veil, and Allah gives us perfect justice and reward in the aakhirah.”
“Okay… but Lena was not Muslim. How can I accept that she’s being punished in the aakhirah, when she was a kind soul? And that she died in fear?”
“You don’t know any of that, akhi. Maybe she died courageously. She understood Islam, right? Maybe Allah opened her heart in that final moment and she went to Allah believing in him.”
“But tawbah at the time of death is not accepted. Fir’awn – “
“Fir’awn was insincere. He would have returned to corruption if he had lived, because he was taghoot, a false god. Do you know about the Jewish boy who used to serve the Prophet, sal-Allahu alayhi wa sallam? He became ill, and the Prophet went to visit him on his deathbed, and told him to accept Islam. The boy looked to his father who said, ‘Listen to Abul-Qasim.’ That was the Prophet’s kunya. So the boy accepted Islam and died, and the Prophet said, ‘Praise be to Allah who has saved him from the Hellfire.’… That was a deathbed conversion. It’s a matter of sincerity.
“The thing is brother,” Jamil continued, “You’re making negative assumptions:- Allah is punishing me. Allah is punishing them. I’ve lost everyone. She died a disbeliever. She died in fear. It’s unfair…
“Instead, you need to make positive assumptions, because we begin from the understanding that Allah wants good for us, and that He is Merciful and Just. So we say, Allah is strengthening me. Allah is testing me.
“As for the Palestinians, Allah took shuhadaa from among them, in order to honor them. Allah is purifying them in the dunya, in order to reward them in the aakhirah. And they have a role to play. If you help Allah He will help you, and make your feet firm. Events play out, until circumstances are right for Allah to bring about a change. And He will. Allah will not allow transgressors to continue forever. The Palestinians will have their homeland one day, Insha’Allah.
“About Lena,” Jamil continued, “she died bravely. She died with faith on her tongue. Positive assumptions. And if not, Allah will take into account the fact that she was a good soul, with a kind heart. The fact that such an unlikely match as you and her fell in love during a war, and that you found each other years later and thousands of miles away, that’s a miracle, akh. Allah doesn’t hand out miracles blithely. You have to believe there was a purpose behind it – one that transcends death itself.”
“What kind of purpose?” I asked. “She’s gone.”
“I don’t know, akhi,” Jamil said. “Allah knows. Maybe the purpose was to transform you. To soften your heart, to make your spirit strong, to bring you to your knees so that you’d be in a position to serve Allah. Or maybe for Lena, to take her out of that terrible state she was in when you found her in Turkey. Yes, she died, but there are things worse than death.
“Make positive assumptions about yourself, your loved ones, and Allah the Most High. It’s the only way to be a believer, and the only way to survive this darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight. That’s how Matthew Arnold described this world.”
“SubhanAllah, brother,” I said. I was stunned by Jamil’s eloquence, and by the truth that he was shining on me like a solar flare. “You’re very articulate.”
Jamil grinned. “Thank you. But I wasn’t always. I’ve been locked up since I was nineteen, and now I’m thirty five. I got my GED in here, then a bachelor’s degree in comparative religion and a master’s degree in anthropology. All by correspondence.”
“Wow. Ma-sha-Allah. What are you going to do with it?”
Jamil shrugged. “I don’t know. Write a book, maybe.”
I looked at him. “it’s not right that you’re still locked up.”
Jamil shook his head. “Tell me,” he said. “Who would you say is more successful in the sight of Allah, me or your uncle? Your uncle is rich and powerful, right? I’m not saying I’m any great believer, but what would you say?”
“Obviously you,” I acknowledged. “My uncle is corrupt and evil. I get it. I have to alter the way I measure failure and success, in life and in death.”
There were other incidents of violence down the road, but there’s no need to describe them here. Men killed and men died, but I stayed true to my intention never to kill again, and I never did, even when a few of the Muslim brothers accused me of being weak as a result. Jamil always supported me.
We had some good news a year later when we heard that the charges against Rashid were dropped for lack of evidence.
I lifted weights, practiced martial arts, memorized Quran, and began reading the books in the library. My English reading ability was rusty, but I improved. I taught an Arabic class for the Muslim brothers. Jamil and I had many long conversations about Allah, Islam, the suffering of the Muslim Ummah, and the hardships of life itself, and my understanding of Islam deepened and matured.
I grew into the name Hassan Amir. It was as if all my previous identities and masks fell away, and I discovered that Hassan Amir was who I truly was. I became myself, this man who inhabits my skin, who knows himself, who is still burdened by regrets – I think that’s obvious – but is at least real. There’s no despair in me now. I know that Allah is on my side. I know that He nurtures us, and I know that whatever befalls us or the people we love, Allah is just. He oppresses no one. Every man, woman and child is given his due, in the dunya or the aakhirah. These are things that I only came to understand when I became Hassan Amir.
With good time credits – and I know that might seem comical considering the battles I was in, but in the federal system up to sixty days of good time are awarded on an annual basis and cannot be revoked – and I was awarded ten months good time total – so I served just over seven years. I was released from prison on March 1st, 2002. I was twenty six years old. I was given a plane ticket back to San Francisco – they always release you to your sentencing district – and nothing else. I had a hundred and fifty dollars that I had saved up in my commissary account from my eleven cents per hour prison salary.
I’d been thinking a lot about what my father might have hidden for me, and that was foremost in my mind. I couldn’t imagine what it might be. An unpublished book? Maybe an autobiography or book of poetry? A letter for me, like a message from beyond? Some information about our family? Maybe even something about Boulos? Family photos? Whatever it was, I wanted to find out.
Somehow I had to get to Los Angeles, find my old house – which was undoubtedly inhabited by strangers – and dig up the cement floor in the garage. How I would accomplish that, I did not know.
Of Dreams and Shadows
A short story
By Saulat Pervez
Tears streaming down her face and her lips moving fervently in supplication, the lady’s terrified face spoke volumes. Watching the lady, she realized how closely this woman was viewing death. She herself always considered someone passing away as a reminder, casting a shadow on her consciousness, making her hyperaware of the transience of life, but the darkness would dissipate as the hours passed by, overtaken by the urgent demands of the mundane. For this woman, however, death was no longer an abstract concept: she stood mesmerized by the fear gripping the woman who could see herself being carried off in a coffin very soon.
That night, she wrote in her journal,
We often ask one another what we want to do with our lives, but rarely think about our own deaths. Perhaps it’s time for us to work backwards. Let death be the starting point and then find purpose in our lives – knowing that no matter how old/young we are, or whether we have a prognosis hanging over our heads or not, death is right around the corner. In our zeal to accomplish everything we want, are we cognizant of the fact that anytime our life can come to an end? Too often, there’s a disconnect and death – despite its certainty – comes as a surprise. Instead, I want to think about the person I want to be at the time of my death and then figure out everything I need to do to be that person.
“So, how were the latest test results?”
“Not good. Her kidneys are getting worse, and now the liver is affected too.”
“And, how old did you say she was?”
“Oh, so she’s old,” she casually said, shifting her eyes to the computer screen.
He realized it was the end of that conversation and looked at his notes for the tasks to be accomplished for the day, pushing his ill aunt in a faraway country from his thoughts. Lurking in his mind, though, was the question: Can we decide when it’s okay for someone to die? To say that they have spent enough time in this world?
“Anything new today?” she asked.
He lay there, staring into space. A grandchild sat some distance away, a coffee cup next to her. From the window, he could see the hospital next door. Somehow, it looked really flimsy in his slanted gaze, as if the slightest jolt would crumble it into a miserable heap. His glance returned to the coffee cup for a fleeting second. He could taste the mocha latte in his mouth, but felt no appetite for it at that moment. His granddaughter looked up from her phone and caught his eye. “Would you like anything, Nana?” she asked, leaning forward.
He shook his head quietly and felt his son’s hand slip into his with a squeeze. He looked around the room and saw his family spread out before him, standing, sitting on the sofa handle, slouching on a couch, reading, whispering, praying. He felt a sudden burst of love. He closed his eyes and saw the words that he was thinking: Am I ready to leave all this? He winced before sleep mercifully overtook him.
Her husband had been in a coma for only two days but the doctors were already recommending that he should be taken off the ventilator. His brain had been damaged – his heart had stopped beating for a couple of minutes before the paramedics had managed to revive it. His organs had started failing soon after the heart attack.
She was horrified. How could she take such a huge decision? Wouldn’t she be ending his life if she agreed to pull the plug? What if he woke up in the next minute, day, week…? Taking his life was not a decision for her. She would refuse.
The doctors told her that she was only prolonging his pain. Let him go. But, to her, he didn’t look like he was in pain. And she wondered if they had ulterior motives – did they want to give his bed to someone else? Was he costing the insurance provider a fortune? Did they want to salvage whatever organs that remained intact? All sorts of thoughts kept plaguing her. Oh God, why are you putting me through this? She held her head in her hands.
She sat next to him. His heart was beating, he was breathing. She knew that if they removed him from the respirator, he would deteriorate very quickly. To her, the machine was keeping him alive and they wanted to take it away. But, then, a thought crept up to her: Had his soul already left his body? Was he even alive?
She remembered reading somewhere that a baby’s heart starts beating within the first few weeks in the womb. But her faith taught her that the soul isn’t breathed into the baby until the 12th week. So, technically, the heart could be beating without any soul. She let this sink in. The conflicting thoughts in her mind gradually grew quiet.
She looked at her husband and decided to listen to the doctors. I will let his life take its course. If he is meant to live, then he will survive, somehow.
Their house had an eerie silence, casting long shadows on everything it touched. Unless they were fighting, which happened quite a lot lately. It always began with whispered fury, as if their son was still living in the next room, but would escalate inevitably into a crescendo that would topple the silence into smithereens. Followed by a lot of sobbing and slammed doors. It was their way of mourning their only child, who had left them as suddenly as he had entered their lives.
She didn’t think she had any maternal skills, but she knew how much he wanted a baby, and she had eventually given in. She would always remember the day she birthed him as the day a mother was born. He soon became their sun, their world revolving around his every need and want, years passing by. Of course, in her eyes, her husband was never as careful as he should be around him. And, to him, she was too overprotective and needed to lighten up. As he became a young man, though, the three had formed an endearing friendship and life seemed perfect.
It would’ve been an ordinary day in their mundane lives had tragedy not struck and snatched their grown child away senselessly. In the aftermath, they both found themselves standing on the edge of a precipice, their bodies weighed down by grief and blame. And then the letter arrived, yanking them back onto safe space.
It began with, “In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Exalted is He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things; who created death and life to test you [people] and reveal which of you does best––He is the Mighty, the Forgiving; who created the seven heavens, one above the other. You will not see any flaw in what the Lord of Mercy creates. Look again! Can you see any flaw? Look again! And again! Your sight will turn back to you, weak and defeated” (Qur’an, 67:1-4).
Written by a mutual friend who was thousands of miles away, it amazingly acknowledged their pain and anger while reminding them that neither could’ve changed the fate of their son. It exposed their raw feelings towards each other and demanded that they not let this tragedy cause further damage by pulling away from each other. That, in this time of unspeakable loss, they need each other the most. It spoke of life and death as something far larger than them, and nothing they could’ve done would’ve saved their son. At the same time, it encouraged them to invest their energies into causes that would prevent others from suffering like they were. And, it ended with, “Say, ‘Only what God has decreed will happen to us. He is our Master: let the believers put their trust in God’” (9:51).
They didn’t know how many times they read the letter and when they curled their arms around each other, tears flowing. And that’s when their long, torturous journey toward healing finally began. Together.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon, to God we belong and to Him we return. She couldn’t believe the news: Was he really gone? As much as she wanted to deny it, she had to accept the reality. A sudden gloom settled in her. The distance killed her. She knew she wouldn’t be able to go for the funeral. Worse, she felt guilty for not visiting. She should’ve known, she should’ve gone.
She went about her day like a zombie. She was physically present, but mentally and emotionally, she felt completely numb. Flashes from her childhood kept distracting her. He had always loved her like his daughter. As she began imagining family and friends gathering to console the immediate family and prepare for the funeral, she felt lonely – tinged with poignant nostalgia, the detachment made the loss more pronounced, compounding her sorrow. She lost her appetite and everything around her became dull. Instead, she hungrily sought every detail around his death. She messaged ten people at once and waited anxiously for the responses. As they began pouring in, she began to cry, utterly desolate.
Through the layers of grief and loss, a voice managed to speak: Is this about him or you? She was caught off guard. She realized that she was so self-absorbed that she hadn’t even prayed for him. She started murmuring supplications, asking for his forgiveness and peace. She reached for the Qur’an and opened it to Surah Ya-Sin and began reciting. The lyrical verses gradually soothed her. Her mind began to fill with his smiling face and the happy moments they had spent together. She suddenly understood that what mattered most was the time they had shared when he was alive – the ways in which she was there for him, the things he had done for her.
It isn’t about him or me. It’s about us.
“What is the procedure for inducing here? How long after the due date do you wait?”
“We don’t wait. If you aren’t in labor by your due date, we schedule you.”
“Oh. My other two babies arrived late—”
“Why can’t we find the baby’s heartbeat?” The doctor said to herself as she walked over and took the device from the nurse, pressing and moving it firmly on her swollen belly.
She woke up in a sweat. This is how the dream always ended. Except each time the setting was different. Tonight, they were in a massive kitchen with the doctor and the nurse in crisp, white aprons; the device was a shiny spatula and she was lying flat on a counter.
Instinctively, her hand stroked her stomach, now flattened. In the bleak light, she looked at the empty corner where the crib had stood not too long ago and she wept, consumed with longing. For the umpteenth time, she asked herself, When was the last time I felt the baby kick? She could honestly not remember. The night before, she had been up late, worrying and waiting for her husband to come home from work. During the day, her toddler kids had kept her occupied until it was time to rush for the doctor’s appointment. She had just started her ninth month.
The truth of the matter was that she had never thought anything would go wrong. After all, her other pregnancies had been entirely normal and natural. She had stayed active and agile until it was time to go to the hospital. So, what happened? No one knew. There was a heartbeat, and then there wasn’t. If only I had sensed that something was wrong. What kind of mother am I?
Flashbacks, flashbacks, and yet more flashbacks. She was riddled with flashbacks lately. It’s incredible how suddenly the entire stage can be reset. One moment you have something and the next, it’s gone – and you’re left looking at your emptiness shocked with wonder: how did it happen? Just like that, life ends or a catastrophe strikes, and colors everything a different shade.
As she wallowed in her sorrow, she was yanked out yet again by the same verse: Not a leaf moves without His knowledge. She shook her head, amazed by the simple phrase that sprinkled her conversations so casually: insha’Allah, if God wills. She would say it and yet expect certain outcomes. This time, when He had other plans, it hit her with such force that she felt completely dwarfed.
She sighed. She whispered quietly, inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon.
She got up and went to check on her kids. As she kissed them and sat by them, she reminded herself: You are an amanah, a trust, from God. I do not own you. And I am ever so grateful that He has given you to me. I promise to take care of you. But, ultimately, we all return to Him, for every soul must taste death.
She returned to bed, taking refuge in this moment of comfort, knowing full well how elusive it was. But it’s what kept her afloat and she held on to it dearly.
Saulat Pervez has come of age, both as a child and an adult, between Pakistan and the United States. She has taught English Literature in Karachi, worked remotely for Why Islam, a project of the Islamic Circle of North America, and is currently an Associate Researcher at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, Virginia.
As a result of her diverse encounters here and abroad, and grounded in her experiences in teaching, writing, and research, she is committed to investigating ways to cultivate reading, writing, and thinking cultures both locally and globally, especially in multilingual contexts.
Saulat has been writing stories since she was a newly arrived immigrant and middle schooler in Central Jersey. Most of her adult life, however, was spent writing journalistic pieces and website content, with a few children’s books published in Pakistan. She has also mentored six teenagers in the writing of a collaborative murder mystery, Shades of Prey, which is available on Amazon.com.
This particular short story — made up of discrete yet connected pieces — has been a labor of love which she hopes the reader will find intriguing and thought-provoking. Much like her life, it has been written between places, with snatches of time both at home and during travel.
To Decorate Or Not To Decorate – Is That The Ramadan Question?
As Ramadan approaches and we prepare our hearts and homes, decor brings meaningful reflection.
As a Muslim born and raised in America, I strongly believe in making my religious holidays feel as special and magical as non-Islamic mainstream American holidays. The broader American culture and society that I grew up in definitely informs this conviction as well as my love of crafting and decorating.
However, I have noticed a troubling trend on my social media that reminds me of some of my favorite scenes from the year 2000 film How the Grinch Stole Christmas (when Martha May’s light-affixing gun and Cindy Lou Hoo’s mom causing a traffic accident after stealing a traffic light for her home’s Christmas decorating). All the Facebook groups with a bunch of strangers posting about their decorating and activities has really led me to ask–to decorate or not to decorate for Ramadan and Eid?
Well, that’s not really the question! It’s a lot more nuanced than that, which leads me to the real questions I want to ask myself and all of us–why to decorate or not, how to decorate or not, and what are the ramifications of decorating or not.
Why Decorate or not to Decorate
There is a complex cultural issue here for Muslims living in America. What are the many cultures we identify with and how do they interact with each other? I identify as a Pakistani-American Muslim and I also feel a strong pull towards the other hyphenated-American and international Muslim communities and the histories of the Ummah around the world. Which cultures do we identify with and how and why do they signify and mark upcoming festivities and holidays? These two questions are essential for us to ask ourselves when we consider why we choose to decorate, or not, during a special time like Ramadan or a holiday like Eid.
But one reason a person should never decorate is that they feel pressured into it because of those around them or other social or cultural factors. Just because our social media feeds are blowing up with cute and amazing Ramadan decor or the local halal meat store has some Eid decor for sale does NOT mean that we should feel like we need to decorate ourselves. It is so easy for us to feel pressured into doing things because we “see” (or think we see from others’ projections of their lives on social media) all of these people we know doing them. Truthfully it sounds so simple when we talk about teenagers feeling peer pressure at school or with friends, but do we actually consider the types of peer pressure we experience as adults in our cyber-lives? (And we have not even talked about advertising posts from different companies or small business owners, and these can sometimes be from friends who are affiliated with certain companies or products.)
Yes, it’s great to share ideas and get inspired from many different sources, but when it crosses the line from inspiration to feelings of guilt or compulsion or from fun to serious jealous competition it is dangerous and compromises our happiness, mental and emotional health, and spirituality. These decor posts are so decontextualized because we really don’t know the details of everyone’s lives, but we still get intimate glimpses into their personal spaces. It doesn’t matter that every Muslim mom is making an advent calendar for their kids or that the one Instagram posting-enthusiast built a miniature masjid in their living room. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that people generally engage in hanging up wreaths or sprinkling confetti on the dinner table as a cultural norm if we don’t understand the use of it, are uninterested in doing so, or have some sort of convictions against it.
The other issue I have with feeling compelled to decorate is when it seems like a piece of Ramadan or Eid worship that is mandatory or given a higher priority than other mandatory acts of worship. What other people do in their spiritual lives or their worship regiment is none of our business and nothing we should be concerned about generally speaking. There could be a friend or two we have a close mentoring relationship with, and in that special case, we might share details of our spiritual lives with them. But now let’s think about something as trivial as decorating the home for Ramadan–is it really something any of us should take so seriously in a comparative way? If the whole point of decorating for Ramadan is getting ourselves and our families in the “Ramadan spirit” or to be excited about celebrating Eid, then isn’t it an act of worship with the right intentionality? So if we go around comparing our acts of worship to others,’ is that something our Prophet or scholars have advised us to do in any way?
Sure, it is very easy to compare my decor with someone else’s because it is something with an obvious outward manifestation (just like I can compare my modest clothing practices to another woman’s.) But is it healthy or good in any way? And just as a final note–if our decorating is causing us to commit sins, like missing prayers or being rude or unkind to family members, or overshadows other Ramadan preparations for mandatory worship, like getting in some practice fasts or seeking medical attention for health issues related to fasting, we really have our priorities wrong.
How to Decorate or not to Decorate
It’s common sense that we should have a set of considerations for anything we do, and I want to bring a high level of intentionality to this issue, even though it may seem trivial. Now is a great time to air these considerations out as the American Muslim community (and generally Muslims living in the West) is embracing the practice of decorating for Ramadan and Eid at the moment.
The crux of this issue is simple to me: if we are treating decorating for Ramadan as a voluntary act of worship, what are the conditions that should be met for God to accept this deed? Basic religious principles such as prioritizing obligatory acts of worship over voluntary or simply permissible ones, not violating anyone’s rights or hurting others, etc. should be part of the considerations, as well as practical logistical issues.
The reason why I think it’s important to be mindful about decorating is because I fear this phenomenon will become shallow and meaningless very quickly in our lives, and if we want decorating to be part of our Ramadan/Eid worship we should be as thoughtful about it as other acts of worship.
- Budget. How much money do I have to put aside for a non-essential expense? Am I justified in spending money on a non-essential expense if I have debts, loans, or other financial obligations? Should I use the money for another cause, like donating to a charity? Am I going into debt to fund this project or engaging in a questionable activity religiously to finance any purchases? For my means and lifestyle, would any of these expenses be considered israf or unnecessary/over-the-top?
- Effort and Ability. How much effort and time do I want to spend myself or expect my family to invest in order to achieve the end result? Do I or others in my family enjoy doing stuff like this, or is it going to be a miserable task which will actually make me and others feel stressed out or have negative feelings about Eid or Ramadan? Am I taking too much time from obligations (mandatory prayer, mandatory fasting, spending time at work looking up decorating ideas instead of working, etc.) or from other good opportunities (taking care of family members, visiting the sick, exercising or getting healthy amounts of sleep, reading Quran, etc.)?
- Ethical Concerns. What types of items will I purchase to decorate with and what is the background of how they were manufactured (environmental impact, sweatshop factory, funding oppression, one-time use or going to be kept for decorating for multiple years, etc.)? Would God be happy with the purchase I made based on how it was created?
The Ramifications of Decorating or not Decorating
So, a family has decided to decorate! The next question is–how do we interact with our decorating after it’s been completed? There are two relevant areas here: inside the home/for the direct intended audience and outside the home/for a broader audience.
It is important to remember that these efforts were undertaken for the people inside the home who are in fact the ones meant to benefit from these decorations and festive atmosphere. I’m not sure how others interact with their decorating efforts, but limiting the engagement to simply passive or highly useful actions seems to make the most sense to me. For example,
- Useful: an item with the supplication for breaking the fast written on it and having one family member read the supplication out-loud before everyone breaks their fasts
- Not useful and cumbersome: setting an elaborate tablescape with decorations every night which make eating difficult
- Neutral: spending a minute turning on decorative lights near nightfall for a festive feel
- Passive: spending half an hour hanging up a sign and a few paper lanterns somewhere visible and just leaving them for the remainder or Ramadan and/or Eid.
I think knowing what will be useful or neutral or annoying falls into common sense and knowing which type of person you are–someone who needs to restrain themselves or someone who could push themselves a bit more to be more enthusiastic–will help us easily decide what to do.
Another thing to keep in mind is evaluating the effectiveness of your decor once or twice during Ramadan (or Eid). Is what we’ve done in our home distracting from or counterproductive to mandatory or highly recommended acts of worship? (Such as only turning on decorative lights and candles so that a family member who wants to read from the Quran does not have enough light to read.)
Are the efforts we’ve put together so demanding that they are squeezing us in detrimental ways? (Such as setting the table in a specific way causes us to delay our fast-breaking or a family member’s lack of willingness to participate is causing tension in the household.) We often evaluate how our diets or hydrating plans are working for our energy levels in Ramadan and how our commitment to prayers and other acts of worship are influencing our spirituality or sleep schedules, and I think extending an evaluation (maybe just a quick one) to our decorating set-up is worthwhile. Is what I’ve done to my home actually of any benefit to me and my loved ones at this sacred time? That’s a question we need to ask ourselves.
Divine Decor: Worshipping Through Decorating
The other area–the indirect audience outside of the home–is one that I think mostly has to do with the idea of publicizing our good deeds to each other and/or showing off. If we have all agreed to the underlying premise that decorating for Ramadan or Eid is an act of worship that we’d love to be rewarded for from God, then we can compare this action with other similar actions (such as praying or helping an injured animal). If I find a large stone in the middle of a walkway and decide to remove it, should I go around and tell people what I did for the rest of the day? If I generally am regular in my prayers and visit a mosque to perform one, should I make my prayer longer than normal to seem more pious or connected to God because I’m no longer alone? If I am feeling charitable, should I broadcast a live video on a social media platform and show those I know how much I am donating to a certain cause? No, of course not. We know that publicizing our good deeds can ruin our good intentions and compromise any act’s validity in the eyes of God. We also know that this can go a little further and compromise the integrity of our spiritual state by encouraging us to develop spiritual diseases, such as becoming arrogant or unnecessarily competitive for material things.
And this is exactly where I find a conundrum in showing off our decor for broader audiences outside of the home–is our act of worship still sincere, will our good deed still be accepted, and is our spiritual state still pure? I’m not even beginning to broach the topic of social media usage in general and what are healthy ways to interact with it–I’m simply concerned with keeping any good deed we might be engaging in a “good” deed after all.
The Prophet ﷺ said, “He who lets the people hear of his good deeds intentionally, to win their praise, Allah will let the people know his real intention (on the Day of Resurrection), and he who does good things in public to show off and win the praise of the people, Allah will disclose his real intention (and humiliate him).حَدَّثَنَا مُسَدَّدٌ، حَدَّثَنَا يَحْيَى، عَنْ سُفْيَانَ، حَدَّثَنِي سَلَمَةُ بْنُ كُهَيْلٍ،. وَحَدَّثَنَا أَبُو نُعَيْمٍ، حَدَّثَنَا سُفْيَانُ، عَنْ سَلَمَةَ، قَالَ سَمِعْتُ جُنْدَبًا، يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَلَمْ أَسْمَعْ أَحَدًا يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم غَيْرَهُ فَدَنَوْتُ مِنْهُ فَسَمِعْتُهُ يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم “ مَنْ سَمَّعَ سَمَّعَ اللَّهُ بِهِ، وَمَنْ يُرَائِي يُرَائِي اللَّهُ بِهِ ”.
We’re generally encouraged to keep our good deeds secret and private and inviting a non-intended audience into our homes with pictures and videos seems to go directly against that principle. There is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated our homes with others in an encouraging way to them that does not push us towards a culture of unhealthy peer pressure or competition, just like there is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated in a way that does not compromise the validity of our potentially good and rewardable deed. (We’ll leave decorating for Ramadan or Eid parties for another day.)
How to Teach Your Kids About Easter
Don’t tell my dad this, but growing up, I was sure I wanted to be a Christian. It had nothing to do with the theology though, it was – really and truly – all about the chocolate.
Don’t tell my dad this, but growing up, I was sure I wanted to be a Christian. It had nothing to do with the theology though, it was – really and truly – all about the chocolate.
Don’t get me wrong, I did not grow up in any sort of conservative, chocolate-deprived bubble. My mother was – and still is – a Christian. My father was – and still is – Muslim, and our home was a place where two faiths co-existed in unapologetic splendor.
My mother put up her Christmas tree every year. We children, though Muslim, received Easter baskets every year. The only reason why I wished I was Christian too, even though I had no less chocolate in my life than other children my age, was because of the confusing guilt that I felt around holiday time.
I knew that the holidays were my mother’s, and we participated to honor and respect her, not to honor and respect what she celebrated. As a child though, I really didn’t understand why we couldn’t celebrate them too, even if it was just for the chocolate.
As an adult I’ve learned that I’m not alone in this conflicted enthusiasm for the holidays of others. Really, who doesn’t like treats and parties and any excuse to celebrate? As a parent though, I’ve decided that the best policy to use with my children is respectful honesty about where we stand with regard to other religions.
That’s why when my children asked me about Easter, this is what I told them:
- The holidays of every religion are the right of the people who follow them. They are as precious to them as Eid and Ramadan are to us.
- Part of being a good Muslim is protecting the rights of everyone around us, no matter what their religion is. There is nothing wrong with non-Muslims celebrating their religious non-Muslim holidays.
- We don’t need to pretend they’re not happening. Respectful recognition of the rights of others is part of our religion and our history. We don’t have to accept what other people celebrate in order to be respectful of their celebrations.
- The problem with Muslims celebrating non-Muslim religious holidays is that we simply don’t believe them to be true.
So when it comes to Easter specifically, we break it down to its smaller elements.
There is nothing wrong with chocolate. There is nothing wrong with eggs. There is nothing wrong with rabbits, and no, they don’t lay eggs.
There is nothing wrong with Easter, but we do not celebrate it because:
Easter is a celebration based on the idea the Prophet Isa was Allah’s son, who Allah allowed to be killed for our sins. Easter is a celebration of him coming back to life again.
Depending on how old your child is, you may need to break it down further.
Allah Created the sun, Allah is not a person whose eyes can’t even look directly at the sun. Allah Created space, Allah is not a person who can’t survive in space. Allah Created fire, Allah is not a person who cannot even touch fire. Allah is not a person, He does not have children as people do. Prophet Jesus [alayis] was a messenger of Allah, not a child of Allah.
Allah is also the Most-Merciful, Most-Forgiving, and All-Powerful. When we make mistakes by ourselves, we say sorry to Allah and try our best to do better. If we make mistakes all together, we do not take the best-behaved person from among us and then punish him or her in our place.
Allah is Justice Himself. He is The Kindest, Most Merciful, Most Forgiving Being in the entire universe. He always was, and always will be capable of forgiving us. No one needed to die in order for Allah to forgive anyone.
If your teacher failed the best student in the class so that the rest of the students could pass, that would not be fair, even if that student had offered that. When people say that Allah sacrificed his own son so that we could be forgiven, they are accusing Allah of really unfair things, even if they seem to think it’s a good thing.
Even if they’re celebrating it with chocolate.
We simply do not believe what is celebrated on Easter. That is why we do not celebrate Easter.
So what do we believe?
Walk your child through Surah Ikhlas, there are four lines and you can use four of their fingers.
- Allah is One.
- Allah doesn’t need anything from anyone.
- He was not born, and nor was anyone born of Him. Allah is no one’s child, and no one is Allah’s child
- There is nothing like Allah in the universe
Focus on what we know about Allah, and then move on to other truths as well.
- Christians should absolutely celebrate Christian holidays. We are happy for them.
- We do not celebrate Christian holidays, because we do not accept what they’re celebrating.
- We are very happy for our neighbors and hope they have a nice time.
When your child asks you about things like Christmas, Easter, Valentines, and Halloween, they’re not asking you to change religions. They’re asking you for the chance to participate in the joy of treats, decorations, parties, and doing things with their peers.
You can provide them these things when you up your halal holiday game. Make Ramadan in your home a whole month of lights, people, and happy prayer. Make every Friday special. Make Eid amazing – buy gifts, give charity, decorate every decorat-able surface if you need to – because our children have no cause to feel deprived by being Muslim.
If your holidays tend to be boring, that’s a cultural limitation, not a religious one. And if you feel like it’s not fair because other religions just have more holidays than we do, remember this:
- Your child starting the Quran can be a celebration
- Your child finishing the Quran can be a celebration
- Your child’s first fast can be a celebration
- Your child wearing hijab can be a celebration
- Your child starting to pray salah can be a celebration
- Your children can sleep over for supervised qiyaam nights
- You can celebrate whatever you want, whenever you want, in ways that are fun and halal and pleasing to Allah.
We have a set number of religious celebrations, but there is no limit on how many personal celebrations we choose to have in our lives and families. Every cause we have for gratitude can be an opportunity to see family, eat together, dress up, and hang shiny things from other things, and I’m not talking about throwing money at the problem – I’m talking about making the effort for its solution.
It is easy to celebrate something when your friends, neighbors, and local grocery stores are doing it too. That’s probably why people of many religions – and even no religion – celebrate holidays they don’t believe in. That’s not actually an excuse for it though, and as parents, it’s our responsibility to set the right example for our children.
Making and upholding our own standards is how we live, not only in terms of our holidays, but in how we eat, what we wear, and the way we swim upstream for the sake of Allah. We don’t go with the flow, and teaching our children not to celebrate the religious holidays of other religions just to fit in is only one part of the lesson.
The other part is to extend the right to religious freedom – and religious celebration – to Muslims too. When you teach your children that everyone has a right to their religious holidays, include Muslims too. When you make a big deal out of Ramadan include your non-Muslim friends and neighbors too, not just because it’s good dawah, but because being able to share your joy with others helps make it feel more mainstream.
Your Muslim children can give their non-Muslim friends Eid gifts. You can take Eid cookies to your non-Muslim office, make Ramadan jars. You can have Iftar parties for people who don’t fast. Decorate your house for Ramadan, and send holiday cards out on your holidays.
You can enjoy the elements of celebration that are common to us all without compromising on your aqeedah, and by doing so, you can teach your children that they don’t have to hide their religious holidays from the people who don’t celebrate them. No one has to. And you can teach your children to respect the religions of others, even while disagreeing with them.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are bound by a common thread, and there is much we come together on. Where the threads separate though, is still a cause for celebration. Religious tolerance is part of our faith, and recognizing the rights of others to celebrate – or abstain from celebration – is how we celebrate our differences.
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