Monday, January 31, 2005

Untitled Short Story

This short story was adapted from Islamic's Children's Page. The original version can be found here under the title "Charity Never Decreases a Person's Wealth."

Fareed stepped out of the mosque and recited the remembrance of departure: "O Lord, I ask You for Your favor, O Lord, guard me from Satan the Outcast," a century and a half-old tradition of the faithful.

As he put on his sandles, he saw a beggar by his car, badgering passers-by. The beggar was bald and sported a lengthy beard. He was clad in haggard and dirty attire, and Fareed wondered for a moment how he could wear such unseemly clothes. From his face, Fareed could tell the man was no more than 40, yet he was hunched over and quivering. "A professional," he thought to himself.

As he approached the car, the beggar intercepted him. "Please, my son. For the sake of God!" the beggar recited with a quivering voice. Fareed walked past without flinching, and the beggar matched him stride for stride despite his hunch and quiver.

Fareed unlocked the car and paused for a moment. As though restraining himself, with a stiff jaw he said the first thing that came into his mind: "God will provide."

On hearing this, the beggar stopped shaking. Fareed got into the car and pulled down the window for a breath of air.

The beggar frowned, his eyes downcast. He spoke softly, almost to himself: "I did not take you as my Provider. I have never denied God..." His voice trailed off.

Fareed looked at the beggar through the windshield as he backed off. The man's quivering had stopped, and from what Fareed could see, his eyes seemed dark, as deep pools of red. Fareed quickly changed gears and drove away.

The beggar stood there, motionless on the sidewalk. For many years he went about his business, but never once did he think of how his actions reflected on himself. He never questioned his faith for he never dug that deep, but upon having to assert his faith in defense, he felt a sickly sense of dishonesty in his soul, as a layer of oil on a clear pool of water. His words of defense came as mere prattling of his tongue; his heart did not resonate, and he felt an aching emptiness within. He realized then, that all his life he had taken as Lord those who were slaves. He could not honestly say that he hadn't denied God.

As the beggar stood there thinking, a little girl, minding her father's biscuit shop by the parking lot saw what happened. Digging into her pocket, she took out a dirham coin and handed it to the beggar as he passed by, walking stiffly. The beggar held the money and paused for a moment. Hints of a smile crossed his face as he put his hand on her head.

"You pay me, yet I did not ask," he said. The little girl smiled up at him. The beggar was too ashamed for prayer, but he cast concern for himself aside for once, and made a most private and hearty supplication for the girl as he turned the corner. It was his sincerest request in years.

As Fareed was about to turn into the main road, he was introspective. "I did not pay the man," he thought to himself, "because he was a professional beggar. He is young, yet he shivers with age. What hypocrisy!" He was trying to reconcile what he thought to be an awful thing to do, to refuse a beggar.

Fareed made it a point never to pay professional beggars, and he maintained this with great difficulty. He was a very sentimental and charitable young man, but he decided not to as a matter of principle, for to patronize their trade is to encourage it, and they are a hindrance and an unseemly sight, feeding on the pity of others.

Despite the cold, hard facts, he could not forget the man's eyes now, and he knew he would have trouble coming to terms with ignoring him like that. "Oh, just this once,"he thought to himself. He parked the car in front of a house by the road, and walked back to the parking lot a short distance away as he pulled out a ten-dirham note from his wallet.

When he got there, the lot was empty. The mosque too was abandoned, for prayer time was over. Soft melodies of recitations of the Qur'an emanated from within the mosque, but from without, it was desolate. His eyes came upon a little girl minding a small biscuit shop on the sidewalk.

Not willing to put the money back in his pocket once he had decided on giving it to charity, he gave the ten-dirham note to the little girl who had just paid the beggar one dirham, and quietly walked away.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

An Encounter with Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad

The following is a retelling of an incident that happened in Singapore, circa August, 2003.

Everything felt different. The sites and sounds were different. The smells were different. People looked different. They dressed different, they talked different. I had an embarrassing time conversing with them, for their English was mutilated almost to a point of incomprehension.

This was Singapore. Yet among the chaos of contrast and novelty, there were glimmers of familiarity. An extremely helpful Malay Singaporean senior, and some supremely brilliant young Pakistani gentlemen, one of whom was from Sharjah; a common background at last!

So they told me a man came to Singapore. A scholar of particular eminence. It was but the second week of classes, and all the freshmen (except myself) were giddy from orientation and other such activities I chose not to partake in. I had nothing to do and was perfectly healthy, so I was game.

Rashid, a friend of my heart who hailed from Sharjah, gave me his wireless SBS transit card, which I still haven't returned. Him and Babar, a Lahore'i Pakistani senior, an astoundingly hospitable and friendly chap for whom I have only the utmost respect and praises, accompanied me. Rather, I accompanied them. We went, us merry band of Mawzlim fundamentalists to a talk at a place called Darul Arqam, somewhere in the depths of Singapore.

Darul Arqam is a place of shelter and education for Muslim converts in Singapore. It has been praised by Sheikh Nuh Keller himself, as he remarked, to the best of my memory:

"I have the utmost respect for this institution and anyone attached to it, because I can relate personally. When I became a Muslim, there was nothing like this in Los Angeles... and there still isn't."

Steps at the outer entrance lead to a glass door, revealing a grand, wooden entrance hall with a stairway at the centre leading to the second floor. Beyond the stairway were chairs and a projector screen set up at the far end; they had been anticipating a crowd of exceptional numbers. On both sides, fogged glass and wood decorated the walls.

We sat at the bottom of the stairs, us merry band. That lasted for about five minutes when we decided perhaps we could sit on the floor just ahead of the first row, not to disturb anyone else but still garner the best seats in the house. An up-close and impersonal view at a projector screen beaming a saturated, over-contrasted image, with a speaker that shrilled and shrieked.

An emaciated, tall man with a cream-colored shirt confronted us on the projector screen. I was a bit disappointed, since I thought this was going to be a "live" talk. I wanted to see a man, and it seemed I had come all this way to watch television.

He had a small goatee and was wearing a tie, along with a Muslim skull cap. It seemed a rather strange combination at first, but I thought let's give him a listen before judging his sense in fashion.

He spoke with a most refined British accent, but after getting the drift of his talk, his accent was the last thing I could pay attention to.

I have grown weary over the years of frothing-at-the-mouth scholars, their hearts riddled with hatred and bitterness, offering challenges to our "enemies" in all lands across the world, yelling into the microphone as if we were deaf, disrespecting our women and shielding their perversion behind Prophetic candidness by quoting Ahadith pertaining to matters more suited to private discussion, so I wasn't expecting much. I was, at first, reluctant to come at all, but something in me told me that I had nothing to do, so I might as well go.

My heart did not betray me that day. This man in his strange combination of skull cap, goatee and tie began speaking in Arabic. He quoted beautiful verses from the Qur'an, first in Arabic and then their on-the-spot translation. This man was learned; he knew what he was talking about, although he was clearly a white Englishman. But then he spoke Farsi. My ears shot up. He spoke of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi as insightful and intelligent. He spoke of love and of unity with the Divine. He spoke of a world I had long since forgotten, a world of both good and evil, but one of beauty and affection, amidst the sorrow and pain.

The talk ended, and my eyes were radiating with noor, such was the insight he offered. A young man with a thick Singaporean accent went on to mutilate/summarize the talk, and offer people a chance for Q&A.

"Thank you Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad..."

"What?" I said to myself. "That was Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad? The Abdul Hakim Murad? They have a videotape of him here?!"

I told Rashid that I knew of this man. I had read his writings for years now. But disctracted, Rashid lead me away. He wanted to get a better view. One of the wooden panels on the walls opened up to a very small hallway with an elevated recording studio, and then what seemed like an auditorium through a door on the right. I thought to myself, "Yet another projector, but they probably had better speakers than we did."

Rashid went in, but I stayed in the small hallway, choosing not to venture into the small auditorium, which sounded like it was packed. Someone asked a question, and Sheikh Murad answered satisfactorily, no doubt. By this point, I had totally forgotten the contents and subject matter of his talk and was trying to come to grips with the fact that the man I had been listening to for the last hour was Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, of Cambridge University!

Just as I began to realise what had just happened, I heard Rashid on the loudspeaker. "What?" I told myself. I peered into the auditorium, and there sitting on a table, a bottle of mineral water and a glass in front of him, sat Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, in the flesh, Rashid at the microphone, asking a really good question, no doubt.

I wouldn't know, of course, because I immediately withdrew, such was my astonishment. Biting my knuckles and suppressing a great yawp of childish fervor, I focused on coming to grips with the fact that I was almost in the same room with Sheikh Murad. Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad! I was breathing the same air he was breathing! By God in Heaven, what fate!

Fan-boy excitement coursed through me and I marveled at the experience while trying to come to grips with the facts that confronted me. "So this is what it's like to be in the presence of a celebrity!"

Viciously, I suppressed myself. "What are you doing, you pubescent fool! This is a Sheikh, not a movie star!" I stood there, in the small hallway with the adjacent recording centre, gasping for breath. I dared not look back into that auditorium and feast on the view that would be Sheikh Murad in the flesh. I did so a few times, however, while biting down on my knuckles after I withdrew, to control the fresh flow of energy that coursed through me.

He exited the auditorium into the entrance hall where we watched the video broadcast, and a bunch of Malay youth, trained in the refineries of Sufi reverence, shook and kissed his hand. I stood from a distance, shaking my friend Rashid at regular intervals when the reality of the situation dawned on me anew for the umpteenth time. He irked me to go and meet him, and offer my Salaam. But I did not, for I saw he was surrounded from every direction. I would give this brilliant man some respite from my fan fervor, which might well overwhelm all my senses of propriety should I stand in his presence, or perhaps cause my legs to give way.

Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, whose articles I read over and over for their genius, whose URLs I passed to friends and family, whose wisdom and linguistic prowess I couldn't aspire to if I studied ten lifetimes! I was in the same building as him! It took me the entirety of the bus ride back to campus to come to terms with what had just unfolded.

Skull cap, goatee and tie indeed. Sheikh Murad can wear whatever he likes!

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Education in the GCC Region

Most new states come from very humble beginnings, but they usually do have centres of learning that date back to colonial times. Whether good or bad, it does give an institute a foundation to work from, but the Middle East (i.e., GCC states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) doesn't seem to have many universities that date back to any time before the 70s.

One look at the Yahoo! Directory for colleges and universities in the GCC reveals a rather emaciated list of universities. All GCC states combined yield 50 entries in the Yahoo! Directory, of which 31 are in the United Arab Emirates. Bangladesh has more entries than Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia combined, and Pakistan has more than all of the GCC, source of almost half of the world's oil.

Most research today is pushed forward by funding, and most institutes make their presence felt in the form of publications. Although pioneers of centuries past of most modern sciences, the Arabs have fallen behind miserably when it comes to education and knowledge, there is no question.

The universities that span the Middle East nowadays are not only immature in their age, but the majority that have been established in the past decade are focused almost entirely on the secular science of engineering. Particular attention seems to have been given to petroleum and chemical engineering, their life force, and to computer engineering, the current educational "fad." A fad in which they've also fallen behind, because the "in" thing nowadays is biotechnology. They can't even keep up with fads in the undergraduate scientific community, it seems. Nothing is given, even to the pure sciences! Not to Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry or Biology.

The disturbing trend is that not only are they doing a poor job of studying the sciences, no attention whatsoever is given to philosophy, literature or art. What courses they have in language is for vernacular Arabic to English translation, and not for academic purposes. The hospitability the Arab has been famous for over the ages is now exclusively for the Western passport holder, while his brothers wallow in poverty across Asia, their talents squandered no less than his own oil wealth. Stories remain untold, artists live unappreciated, books lay unread and forgotten, as an entire people, whose contribution was so crucial in the development of the world, remain grossly misunderstood.

They have ignored completely the broader sense of education, and have narrowed it down to a cash-machine; something in which you put money in, and after some time, it spits money back out. Everything has to be profitable in accounting terms, everything worth it's while on the calculator. Their desert frugality seems sorely misplaced.

Of Miracles and Corruption: The Indian Ocean Tsunami

Thanks to brother Pathawi, who offered his editorial insights to refine this article.

The massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean has shaken the world in more than one way. The tremendous loss of human life is literally incomprehensible. It is difficult to come to terms with one death. Extend the grief to ten, the size of a family and some close relatives. Extend it to 175,000, and the imagination is stretched to a point where it throws in the towel. The number no longer registers and media desensitization kicks in.

In these moments of grieving and sadness, shimmers of light shine upon the afflicted and the homeless. The vagaries and pettiness of politics are discarded for a brief moment, and billions in food and aid money has at least averted deaths from starvation.

And from among the rubble, fantastic tales of survival and hope emerge. From children holding on to palm trees to old men lying under rubble for days to be rescued at the eleventh hour. Though it is difficult to find consolation from these stories despite the thousands dead, these tales, marred as they are with tragedy and gloom, offer hope. It is in the apparent randomness and selectivity of fate that veterans of war, and survivors of calamities in the face of insurmountable odds, become superstitious or attribute their survival to higher forces.

But rationalism, although inadequate on its own, aids a lot in gleaning insights into the prevailing human condition during times of disaster. Consider, for example, that although ancient structures such as statues of Buddhas in Sri Lanka and mosques in Aceh remain standing, many modern structures have been swept away. Some here will argue that although some ancient structures remain, many were indeed destroyed, and although some modern structures were razed, many do stand.

That may be true, but one must pose the question: surely no ancient structure can outlast a modern structure in technical proficiency, yet there are cases where the exception in devastation is a single mosque, standing in the midst of rubble and desolation. Something is amiss.

The religious will attribute it to divine origin, and say that God is angry, and though sparing His own houses, has sent down destruction upon the astray, to teach them a lesson. But what does it all mean?

The systematic blasting of coral reefs in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal did not mitigate in the least the tsunami’s fury. They were effectively dynamited through to allow large ships to pass and allow for the trade of scrap and clothes on which the region survives. Coral reefs, apart from being cradles of life far greater in number than the entire human race combined, have been known to alleviate the effects of tsunamis and tidal waves. The damage of this natural force was further compounded by the destruction of mangroves that used to line the coastlines, now cleared for residential areas bearing the people that so tragically perished.

What is more tragic is that Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii could not warn the countries nearest to the tsunami because bureaucracies had not yet established proper protocols for the dissemination of such information. It did, however, warn the Pacific Islands, where disaster warning systems were in place, but those regions were barely affected. Had it been a cyclone instead of a tsunami the protocols were established for Indian Ocean nations to be warned, and a warning would have been sent out. Solely because it was a tsunami, the lines were silent, and the absurdity of bureaucracy bloomed in all its glory that fateful day. If God is truly angry, perhaps we can’t quite blame Him.

The red-tape and corruption in these countries, apart from preventing warnings to come through, also causes structures to be built on flimsy foundations, not in line with proper specifications. Turkey became infamous for this, when in August of 1999 in Izmit, an earthquake killed 17,000 people. Had construction guidelines been followed, many lives would have been saved, but corrupt construction practices killed people in the thousands.

So when statues of Buddha or mosques and temples stay standing, perhaps their builders knew more about their land than we do. Perhaps they didn’t skim off the top in building materials to make a quick buck. And despite two millennia of progress, here we are, numb with grief, mourning the death of so many we can no longer comprehend the loss.

Finally, after the worst tsunami in recorded history (topped not even by the tsunami of 1400 BC that historical texts say killed 100,000), the United Nations is finally putting its foot down on the corrupt, graft-ridden, red tape-laden governments of the Indian Ocean region. A proper warning system should be up and running by June of 2006.


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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)