The following is an excerpt from the book And Then I Gave Up: Essays About Faith and Spiritual Crisis in Islam by Umm Zakiyyah:
Author’s Note: This was written when I lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and taught English at an international school.
It was one of those moments when you feel the tugging at your heart and the moisture behind your lids before you decide whether or not you want to…
The day started off as normally as one could hope. It was the weekend, a Friday, and I needed to run by a friend’s house to pick up some books I needed for school.
Weekends are usually a stress relief for me, time to take a deep breath and exhale slowly. And I wouldn’t have to hold my breath again until Saturday morning, when I’d return to work.
Before I go on, I think I should say that I’m a teacher—of high school girls. Anyone who’s had the wondrous experience of working full time in a classroom full of “kids” knows the endless rewards of imparting knowledge on the next generation. And the endless heartache of having them impart stress on you.
I’m no exception.
So I was having one of “those days” (If you’re a teacher, you know what I mean), when you wonder, What’s the point? I mean, the world is going in a drastically different direction than I’d ever imagined. And the kids aren’t too excited about an “old” woman standing in front of them, telling them that they should pray Salaah on time, wear hijab, and be “good Muslims.”
Anyway, I was stressed, to the point of heartache. I’d heard yet another story of a Muslim girl I’d once taught who was living a life wholly disconnected from Islam, and was sharing it with the world on Facebook. Sadly, today these stories seem endless. Someone’s at the mall meeting up with boys. Someone’s throwing his number into cars. Someone’s stopped saying their prayers…
I arrived at my friend’s house with a heavy heart, and was, as usual, wondering where my place was in all of this. After all, I have my own faults and my own soul to fend for. But still… There had to be something I could do. We’re all in this together, right? We’re here to help each other. You remind me; I remind you. That’s what it means to be Muslim. At least that’s what I’d been taught.
Who do you think you are? What gives you the right to tell others what to do? You need to mind your own business. You just think you’re better than everyone else. You’re so judgmental… These are just a few of the responses to seeking to help each other that believers hear each day. And it hurts. Oh, how it hurts.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I find these words so painful because not only do I not think I’m better than others: I know I’m not better than others, yet I still have the obligation to command the good and forbid the evil. And that’s no easy burden to bear.
In the end, I imagine that’s why believers like the Companions, who were able to command the good and forbid the evil without ever giving up—even as they had faults of their own—are so highly praised in Islam. Allah says of them, “You are the best people evolved for mankind. You command the good and forbid the evil, and believe in Allah” (3:110).
I’m no scholar, but I find the wording of this verse quite compelling. Often, when Allah mentions the traits of the righteous, belief is mentioned before the performance of good deeds, as in the oft-repeated verses about “those who believe and do righteous deeds.” But in this case, the good deed—commanding the good and forbidding the evil—is mentioned before even belief in Allah as the reason these believers are the best of all humankind. SubhaanAllah.
As I reflect on this, I take from it the lesson that true belief is not a private matter. It’s not a personal spiritual state that only the person himself benefits from. Rather, it is a personal spiritual reality that is manifested outwardly, so much so that everyone who as much as crosses this believer’s path benefits from him or her. This is what it means to have eemaan. This is what is means to believe in Allah.
These were the thoughts playing in the back of my mind when I, heavy-hearted, sat opposite my friend on her couch. The books I needed to borrow were stacked at my feet, and I was having a much-needed cup of tea. After that, I would return home to prepare for school the following week.
“I have to tell you something,” my friend said in a hushed tone that let me know that whatever she was about to share was something she didn’t want her children to hear. “It’s about Barakah.”
At her words, my heart grew heavier. Barakah was her eldest daughter and was fifteen years old. I told myself I could bear it, whatever it was. I sensed my friend wanted advice.
“But don’t let her know I told you,” she added. I nodded quietly, taking a sip of tea, wondering how my own daughter would be when she was Barakah’s age. “She wouldn’t like it if she knows I told anyone.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” I said quietly, my mind distant, reflective.
This is the world we live in, I thought, pensive. O Allah, help us, guide us, and give us strength, I silently prayed. In that moment I thought of all that my friend had gone through the past year, deaths of loved ones, family friends leaving Islam, financial troubles… And now this.
Once, earlier in the year, as she lamented the loss of someone close to her, I said, “Remember, ukhti, when Allah loves someone, He tests them more than others.” But right then, as I sat waiting to hear her struggles with Barakah, I didn’t know what to say. So I remained silent and listened, my heart heavy from my own troubles, and hers.
“Barakah said she wants to memorize the Qur’an.”
It took a moment for my friend’s words to register and take meaning. My eyes widened slightly and my spirits lifted. “What?” I whispered.
A broad smile spread on my friend’s face and tears gathered in her eyes. She nodded. “She told me yesterday. And she said, ‘Ummi, you should too.’”
At that, my eyes filled, and I opened my mouth to reply, but I found no words. So I just let my heavy heart speak for me…
And I cried.
That was yesterday.
Today, I smile. And my eyes are still wet with tears. Because I know Allah is my Lord. He is Ar-Rahmaan—The Most Gracious. And there is, in believing in Him, always hope for the believer.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. Join UZ University to learn how you too can find your writing voice and share inspirational stories with the world: UZuniversity.com
Copyright © 2010, 2015 by Al-Walaa Publications. All Rights Reserved.
Original version published via SaudiLife.net