What a recovering heroin addict taught me about Islam

*The names in this article have been changed for privacy purposes.

I recently received a disturbing call from a former client’s wife informing me that her husband had passed on a few months prior. My heart sank. While serving as Adam’s attorney, I had developed an unlikely friendship with this particular client. Although his documents gave no description of Adam other than “drug addict,” it did not take me long to discover that he was a floundering but pure soul whose shortcomings belied his innate goodness.
Adam, like all of us on some level, was a paradox—he struggled with substance abuse while trying doing his best to follow the Prophet Muhammad.

I first met Adam in prison in York, Pennsylvania at a time when he was facing deportation back to the Palestinian territories. Since the state court had convicted him of heroin possession, Adam had a slim chance of remaining in the U.S. He sadly told me that his wife, Ayesha, was too good to him and she deserved better; he had decided that if the immigration court did not deport him, he would seek help to become healthy and sober for his family’s sake. Interestingly, even while he was behind bars awaiting his fate, Ayesha defended Adam, describing him as a kind-hearted man who struggled with depression and addiction. Even during his worst episodes of addiction, he was gentle with her and the children, she said, but she worried about the harm he was doing to himself.

A kind heroin addict? The two descriptives seemed incongruous, but I quickly realized his wife was right. During one of our meetings, Adam sacrificed the precious time he had with me, his attorney, to talk instead about a fellow immigrant detainee. He begged me to take the asylum case of his Somali friend, Ali, who did not have the money to hire a lawyer. He insisted that he and his friends at the prison would pool together and pay Ali’s legal fees. Eventually, our firm took the case pro bono, but Adam’s willingness to pay for another man’s freedom while he, himself, languished in a cell, was telling.

I later learned that Adam considered Ali as inspiration, because Ali did not have any loved ones in the U.S., yet continued to have faith, hopeful that Allah would see him through. Adam watched Ali cleaning prison bathrooms and volunteering to perform other menial chores in order to buy small snacks that most detainees purchased using money their families gave them. Adam had compassion for his friend and asked his wife to send him extra money so he could share it with Ali and another indigent inmate–yet another small kindness.

The day of our final hearing remains etched in my mind. I met with Adam before the hearing and gave him the good news–there was a good chance the immigration judge would terminate proceedings against him since his criminal attorney had successfully convinced the state court to resentence Adam to a crime with less severe immigration consequences. Adam smiled and said he knew all along we would help him return to his family. He then stood up to walk to the court room and confidently said,“Ya Qawi” (O Possessor of Strength), invoking God by one of the most powerful of the Divine Names. Adam won his case and was released from immigration custody.

Adam always reminded me of a companion of the beloved Prophet who was very dear to the Messenger in spite of the man’s inability to give up drinking. Although the Prophet did not approve of the man’s behavior, he said that he knew the man loved Allah and His Messenger, and he admonished those who cursed the man as worthless because of this one sin. Through this alcoholic, the Prophet tried to teach his community that one’s outward deficiencies are not necessarily a measure of one’s inner goodness and closeness to Allah. Through Adam, Allah taught me this very same life lesson.

When Adam died, he had been clean of heroin for two years. He relapsed briefly before this time, but after entering rehab, overcame his demons. Despite turning his life around, many fellow Muslims refused to give him a second chance, treating him like an outcast. Ayesha told me she would sometimes find Adam alone in the bedroom, quietly weeping because of the cold, dismissive way the community shunned him.

His wife and children grieved deeply when Adam passed. Ayesha received some consolation when the Shaykh of the local mosque assured her that her husband died a noble death since he was shot while protecting his children from a dangerous situation. His family was also comforted by the fact that Adam lay smiling in death; Adam’s eldest daughter said she never saw her father as content and peaceful in life as he appeared to be in death. Perhaps this was because Adam died on the holiest day of the year, just hours after making a sincere supplication to God. As Adam watched live coverage from Mecca, his wife tells me she heard him say: “Ya Allah, when I was in prison I prayed all of my prayers and read Qur’an regularly, and now that I’m out with my family, I haven’t been doing everything I should, but today will be a new beginning for me in my relationship with you. Ya Allah, please forgive me.”

He did not know this, but Adam left an indelible imprint in my life. We often look down upon others we perceive as being sinners—perhaps they gamble, drink or even commit adultery. We sit in our self-righteousness, unaware that the arrogance we are displaying is often worse in Allah’s eyes than the other Muslim’s sin. Who are we to assume that we know the worth of a soul when only Allah is “Al-‘Aleem,” the All-Knowing? The beloved Prophet taught us that Allah forgave a prostitute, a drunkard, and an adulteress, all three social pariahs who had been tossed aside by their communities, but who carried repentance and an abiding love for Allah and His Messenger in their hearts that only their Creator could see. Until we emulate the Prophet’s mercy towards other humans like my dear friend, Adam, we will only stunt our own spiritual advancement.

Umar Abdul Rahman is an immigration and human rights lawyer based in Philadelphia, PA. Umar studied Arabic and Islamic Studies in Cairo, Egypt at the American University in Cairo and completed research in political science and religion as a Fulbright scholar in Sana’a, Yemen.

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