There had always been signs that my father’s faith was extraordinary. When I was younger, I internalized this fact through smaller, pettier things. For instance, if we were out of the house when prayer time came upon us, it didn’t matter if we were shopping or in Disney World, my dad would find a spot to fall to his knees and prostrate in prayer. The Muslim prayer involves both spiritual and physical elements, and the movements, especially the sajdah, can seem strange to the foreign observer. My father appeared not only oblivious to his seeming strangeness, but also proud of his religious obligations. For him, his actions were dawaah in and of themselves. He was indifferent to judgment other than that of God’s.
As I grew older, I began to notice his greater spiritual feats. It was customary for community members to come seeking help from him, most of the time financial. One such time, a group of men came lamenting the impending bankruptcy of their business. I wasn’t privy to their meeting, but I remember seeing them sitting in the den on many a night. Often, they looked distraught, imploring my father to help them. My father, unable to turn away those truly in need, succumbed to their pleas and ultimately ended up investing – and losing – half a million dollars in the venture.
I remember the night he learned for certain just how much he had lost. The news was frightening for me, because as a young Muslim just coming to learn the more complicated dimensions of her faith, I was worried about the ramifications of such a huge financial loss. My fears had me agitated, the uneasiness keeping me up that night. I remember giving up on trying to sleep and going to check on my dad to see how he was doing; I expected to find him similarly restless. But when I peeked through the bedroom door, I found him sleeping soundly.
To say the least, the sight of him sleeping peacefully was surprising, if not shocking. My father embraced his role as provider in a strong, confident manner, and so I thought such a loss for a man who worked hard for his money would have some sort of tangible, physical effect. Of course, there were probably frustrations lurking beneath his steady snore, and at some point after learning of his loss, he had probably felt a bit disheartened. He was, after all, human, with human hopes and expectations. But what I came to learn from that incident was that even half a million dollars in losses wasn’t enough to faze his belief that if he did what pleased God, God would reward him three-fold. As the Qur’an intimates, giving in the way of God is the best investment one can make. For those who haven’t unlocked the secrets of the Unseen, losses are seen as losses; for those who have interacted more deeply with God, “loss” and “gain” are defined in more other-worldly terms.
It was this same mental framework that guided my father in all levels of interaction. Despite his selflessness, he sometimes found himself in situations where his trust had been betrayed or his integrity questioned. I was occasionally witness to these occurrences and I asked my dad why he even bothered helping people who just turned on him later. Why didn’t he just lash back at them, give them a piece of his mind? I was only in grade school when I posed this question to him, and he replied simply, “Because if you’re good to them, it’ll help them realize one day that what they did is wrong.” His purpose in life, it seemed, was to sacrifice his own pride in order to help people better their own selves.
It is believed by Muslims and perhaps by most if not all religions that individuals of the strongest faith are tested more frequently and more severely by God. The most pious people in the past, most notably the prophets, went through endless tribulations. Their struggles refined and strengthened their faith. In the calculus of faith, God tries those whom He loves, helping them along the way to their ultimate reward in the Hereafter. If the purpose of life is to submit to God, then anything that helps us accomplish that purpose is an aid rather than an obstacle. Perhaps for those who sail through this life, their tribulations await them in the next world.
For the atheist, this may seem like a counterintuitive, illogical, and perhaps even a bit demented outlook on life. After all, for those who conceive of life as relevant in and of itself, rather than as a stepping stone to something greater, a life of hardships is unnecessarily troublesome, except perhaps for the purpose of character development. But when faced with a tribulation that essentially signals the end of one’s life, an atheist surely finds nothing worthy in it, since there is nothing redeeming about something that ends one’s only state of existence.
In contrast, for a spiritual man tested time and again throughout his life, it seems almost natural that the greatest obstacle would await him at the end of his life. At the threshold between the worldly state of existence and the final return to God, God’s servant embraces the moment for its spiritual capital. Indeed, my father’s most heroic spiritual feat occurred in those four months between his diagnosis and death. As the physical pain became increasingly excruciating, he could no longer deny that he would soon leave his family, friends, community, charities, and the endless list of things that he still had to contribute to the world. Faced with the end, my father did not despair. He didn’t become visibly depressed, and he rarely even cried. In fact, his only instances of crying coincided with his seeing my younger brother, who had turned 17 the same day my father had been diagnosed. The sight of my brother would often remind my father about his unfulfilled duties, about the years he had so wanted to experience so that he could see his youngest child, and his only son, to independence. Tears and sentimentality are part of faith, proof that my father knew the essential relevance of what was about to happen. It was those tears, as symbols of my father’s understanding, which made his stoicism the rest of the time even more impressive. He was sad for us, sad that he wouldn’t be there much longer to help, guide, and protect us. But in turning to God, welcoming his meeting with Him, and in accepting His will, my father knew – in that way of certainty, or yaqin, that only people of faith know how to know — that God would take care of us.
Read the first entry to Traditions: A Series: My father’s traditions
Read the second entry: The tradition of work