In the late 1980’s a classmate of mine shared with me a number of American magazines (Time, Newsweek…), and one day he said : "Look !" At that age I was shocked. I still had a beautiful image of such American big cities as New York, Los Angelos… Several years before that an American tutor had said to me : "Don’t think America is Paradise !" But what my classmate wanted to show me in that American magazine was shocking, to say the least. Otherwise he wouldn’t even have thought of showing it me. And it was in an American magazine ! It’s serious. Waste –all imaginable waste– covering the ground between sky-scarpers on the streets of New York. As if that was not shocking enough, my classmate showed me in another American magazine pictures of American citizens sleeping in cardboard boxes on the streets of Washington, DC, the Capital of the United States of America. It was just unbelievable. Now, in hindsight, I would say : So what ? The neighbourhood where I grew up until age 22 was bordered with two small landfills. The whole neighbourhood has now disappeared, making way for a new residential area. The two landfills have disappeared too, and the two streets that lined that old neighbourhood are now as clean as most of the streets in the city. I don’t think that what I saw in the magazine would be seen today by passersby on that NY City street. Maybe a new skyscraper has arisen in that place. So, today, I would rather look at the minds and the hands and the arms that can raise these buildings as high as the sky. I would rather look at the epic American volunteerism, I would rather look at those millions of anonymous American citizens who donate (for love) to help not only fellow citizens but many people around the world as well. I would rather look at American civil society, at American freedom of speech, without which I may have never seen such shocking images. The problem is, it takes a lot of time (and good faith) to change one’s point of view. You have to be an eagle-eyed observer to see what many other people don’t. But what would you say when you hear or read a report on women from a Muslim or Arab country who serve as prostitutes in other countries ? Is that more important for people to know than the increasing numbers of youths living in these Arab and Muslim countries who become doctors, engineers, highly specialized technicians, experts in all fields, designers and inventors, successful buisnessmen and women…. ? Should I look at the beautiful waterfalls as they were freshly made in "the Switzerland of Morocco", (see Chapter Two) or at those parts of the resort which have been littered by young Moroccan visitors with all kinds of empty cans and bottles or at the filth left behind by country people on their way to their fields ? Should I look at the wood seats as they were placed in there by a Moroccan association, for future visitors to sit at, or at the food waste left by careless picnickers ? Should I look at the hut beside the palace or at the palace beside the hut ? If you (man) were sitting at a café in N.Y. City, would you sit out there and look at women’s legs and breasts, or at the amazing diversity of the city dwellers ?
I recently heard an interesting radio show on China Radio International. A French journalist was telling a Chinese journalist about his trip to the Chinese Xinjiang Uyghur Region. He told her, among other things, about an oasis. As soon as the Chinese journalist heard the name, she said : "Ah, it’s known for its apples !" The French journalist agreed and said how amazed he was to see that in that small oasis, surrounded by an immense forbidding desert, people grew apples, grapes and all sorts of fruits ! He then talked of another place in which, he said, temperatures would reach 50°C, explaining that by the fact that the place lay below sea-level. The Chinese journalist recongnized the place at once and agreed that it was the hottest place in China. But then she was greatly surprised, as I was, when the French journalist said that no farther than 100 km away from this hellish place…it SNOWED ! (By the way, I saw some of these Xinjiang places on Chinese TV.) What can this teach us about us humans ? First, we can’t always know what’s beyond the hellish place or what’s beyond the place where it snows –just as we don’t know whether this woman was once a prostitute or may become a prostitute in the future. Not all famines are God-made : many famines are man-made. And even when we know that this famine was man-made we should not sit idly by and wait for people to die. Why did those people settle in that Uyghur oasis, in the middle of the desert, and did not go to a place with milder weather ? Nay, they settled in there and turned the place into a garden of apples and grapes… It’s like they turned hell into heaven. They chose to be positive people. They chose to be civilized people. They chose to be good citizens, who fed themselves and produced good fruits for their fellow citizens. That’s what God wants us to do. That’s what I have learned from my religion. "He brought you forth from the earth and hath made you husband it." (11 : 61) If man was placed as a viceroy in the earth, how about me who am not only a man, but on top of that a believer? I have, if I can, to turn hell into heaven. Those things in this world I think are not so perfect, I should try to make them perfect. I should be positive ; I should be a good citizen. I should do better than those who came before. "Then We appointed you viceroys in the earth after them, that We might see how ye behave." (10 : 14) "and be thou kind even as Allah hath been kind to thee, and seek not corruption in the earth." (28 : 77) "so give full measure and full weight and wrong not mankind in their goods, and work not confusion in the earth after the fair ordering thereof. That will be better for you, if ye are believers." (7 : 85) The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said : “To judge justly between two people is a charity. To help a man with his mount, lifting him onto it or hoisting up his belongings onto it, is a charity. And the good word is a charity. And every step that you take towards the prayer is a charity, and removing a harmful object from the road is a charity.” A companion asked the Prophet (pbuh) which action was best. Then asked : ‘If I cannot afford (it)?’ The Prophet (pbuh) said, "Then help a labourer or work for one who is disabled". I asked: "If I cannot do (it)?" He said, "You should restrain yourself from doing wrong to people, because it (serves as) charity which you bestow upon yourself". If I can’t do good, for one reason or another, I should at least keep my evil to myself. If I can’t clean those dirty places in the city, at least I cleanse my heart and mind. At least I try to be one the "men who love to purify themselves. Allah loveth the purifiers." (9 : 108) "Truly Allah loveth those who turn unto Him, and loveth those who have a care for cleanness." (2 : 222) Generation after generation, God gives us a chance to show our humanity. As in an exam, in a workshop, or on stage, we are tested. We are in a prize competition. The aim is to improve our conduct. The aim is (for us) to make the world a better place. The criteria are the same : genuine faith, plus good deeds. They may be hard competitions at times, but that’s how gold is made. It must go through fire to be usable gold, to become tempting jewels. Hence golden education. It’s fire, but it’s good fire. Think of cooking.
I once saw TV images of the Australian forest. I wished I could go there and see the forest with my own eyes. But then a huge blaze swallowed up the beautiful forest. I said to myself you’re lucky you weren’t there ! And then the forest started to grow again, much more beautiful than before. The commentator in the film said that it’s this natural destruction by fire that made the soil richer and the next vegetation more luxurious than the one before. The little "fire" meant for us, human believers, in the form of trials, hardships and loss, is not meant to destroy us. God says : "O ye who believe! Squander not your wealth among yourselves in vanity, except it be a trade by mutual consent, and kill not one another. Lo! Allah is ever Merciful unto you." (4 : 29) God is Merciful. God does not want us to kill ourselves or one another. "whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind." (8 : 24) God wants us to revive our souls and, if we can, the souls of our loved ones too. That little fire is meant for us to discover ourselves and to discover God through ourselves. Through our trials we learn steadfastness and trust. Besides, who can be patient without God’s help ? "Endure thou patiently (O Muhammad). Thine endurance is only by (the help of) Allah. (…) Lo! Allah is with those who keep their duty unto Him and those who are doers of good." (16 : 127-128) And yet, if I just try to be patient, if I have good intentions, if I trust God, God says to me : "Say: O My bondmen who believe! Observe your duty to your Lord. For those who do good in this world there is good, and Allah's earth is spacious. Verily the steadfast will be paid their wages without stint." (39 : 10) "Allah loveth the steadfast." (3 : 146) But what do we do, we humans ? Very often we are arrogant, pretentious. We think we know enough to solve our problems all by ourselves. God says no, "and of knowledge ye have been vouchsafed but little." (17 : 85) If man knew that much, no civilisation, no empire, no kingdom would have become past. If I am a good believer I should know that "every nation hath its term, and when its term cometh, they cannot put it off an hour nor yet advance (it)." (7 : 34) So I wouldn’t even rely on what my state or government could do for me. States do not fall overnight, so only those who reflect, those who meditate, would understand what God means by "He directeth the ordinance from the heaven unto the earth; then it ascendeth unto Him in a Day, whereof the measure is a thousand years of that ye reckon." (32 : 5) When I reflect I realize how weak man is. Everybody is vulnerable, sooner or later. Even if I were a lifetime ruler or a megabillionnaire, old age would make me vulnerable, illness would make me vulnerable. And yet, when I realize how weak I am, in the Kingdom of God, and I put myself in the hands of God, my vulnerability and precariousness become my strength. Because what I want to do God will do it for me –with His knowledge and His strength. "O mankind! A similitude is coined, so pay ye heed to it: Lo! those on whom ye call beside Allah will never create a fly though they combine together for the purpose. And if the fly took something from them, they could not rescue it from it. So weak are (both) the seeker and the sought! They measure not Allah His rightful measure. Lo! Allah is Strong, Almighty." (22 : 73-74) Those "on whom ye call beside Allah" may be the state, the people I vote for, the worker union representatives, the insurance company, my family, my friends…. What could those do that God can’t ? Or could any of them change my fate ? If God "cometh in between the man and his own heart," (8 : 24) and "Unto Him belongeth whosoever is in the heavens and the earth" (30 : 26) , how can my will prevail over His will ? If I don’t believe in this, time will prove it to me. "Say: Have ye thought, if Allah made night everlasting for you till the Day of Resurrection, who is a God beside Allah who could bring you light? Will ye not then hear? Say: Have ye thought, if Allah made day everlasting for you till the Day of Resurrection, who is a God beside Allah who could bring you night wherein ye rest? Will ye not then see?" (28 : 71-72)
Who can today say the earth is flat ? But we all forget that we’re sitting/walking on a small planet in a galaxy in a world of a billion (or more) galaxies. We all run from fire, from floods, from the gun… We all fear for our lives. But where do we run to when ordeal is marching on us like an invincible army, like a volcano, like a river bursting off its banks, like a tsunami ? God says : "Therefor flee unto Allah." (51 : 50) "If Allah touch thee with affliction, there is none that can relieve therefrom save Him, and if He touch thee with good fortune (there is none that can impair it); for He is Able to do all things." (6 : 17) "O mankind! Ye are the poor in your relation to Allah. And Allah! He is the Absolute, the Owner of Praise. If He will, He can be rid of you and bring (instead of you) some new creation." (35 : 15-16) God honoured me and preferred me (and all mankind) above many of those whom He created "with a marked preferment." (17 : 70) ; it’s up to me to accept or reject that honour. Shall I lecture you on strong drink and games of chance and the damage they do to man ? When God says : "O ye who believe! Strong drink and games of chance and idols and divining arrows are only an infamy of Satan's handiwork. Leave it aside in order that ye may succeed." (5 : 90) , it’s because He wants you and me to live a life of noble character, to be better than many people who live like cattle, as the Quran says. "Or deemest thou that most of them hear or understand? They are but as the cattle - nay, but they are farther astray". (28 : 44) When God says : "Wealth and children are an ornament of the life of the world. But the good deeds which endure are better in thy Lord's sight for reward, and better in respect of hope." (18 : 46), it’s because He wants you and me to earn our money and beget our children in a dignified way. If God says : "Lo! We have placed all that is in the earth as an ornament thereof that We may try them: which of them is best in conduct." (18 : 7) , it’s because He wants you and me to be sensible persons who enjoy life in a dignified way. We eat, we drink, we work, we play, we make love, we do whatever we do in a dignified way, as civilized persons.
Now, where does our arrogance come from? It comes from our desire to show off. We want to show people around us that we are self-independent, we are the best. We want the world to know that we got our job because, as they say, "one Scotsman's worth 3 Englishmen". Idem for one's spouse. Idem for one's children. Idem for one's fortune. It's all the fruit of our ambition. It's all a matter of merit.
The Quran speaks about Zachariah (pbuh) and Ibrahim (pbuh). Wasn't Zachariah (pbuh) an ambitious man? Wasn't Ibrahim (pbuh) an ambitious man? Well, the answer would depend on what we mean by ambition! If ambition means the desire to attain glory, power, social success, etc., I don't think Zachariah (pbuh) and Ibrahim (pbuh) were that kind of person to have such a desire. If ambition means pursuing noble goals, a strong will to please God (and save humanity from evil) with deeds that would continue even after one's death, then, definitely, there's no doubt Zachariah (pbuh) and Ibrahim (pbuh) were just that kind of men. And that's what God wants good Muslim men to be like.
Zachariah (pbuh) knew that getting married and begetting children were not personal achievements to pride oneself on, but rather a gift from God. That's why he said : "Oh, give me from Thy presence a successor..." (19 : 5) He knew that he could not force the hand of Fate. Ibrahim (pbuh) said : "Praise be to Allah Who hath given me, in my old age, Ishmael and Isaac! Lo! my Lord is indeed the Hearer of Prayer." (14 : 39)
Many people thought they chose the right partner. Then they divorced. See ? You turn and turn and then you go back to square one. We rely on our own data. We forget that God has all the DATA. Can anyone really know all the data about one’s partner living with one under the same roof ? Can we really know what our partner feels towards us or thinks about us or does behind our back ? If partners knew all that "data" about one another, would there be such a worrying number of divorces ? "O ye who believe! Lo! among your wives and your children there are enemies for you, therefor beware of them. And if ye efface and overlook and forgive, then lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. Your wealth and your children are only a temptation, whereas Allah! with Him is an immense reward. So keep your duty to Allah as best ye can, and listen, and obey, and spend; that is better for your souls. And whoso is saved from his own greed, such are the successful. If ye lend unto Allah a goodly loan, He will double it for you and will forgive you, for Allah is Responsive, Clement, Knower of the Invisible and the Visible, the Mighty, the Wise." (64 : 14-18)