A Time to Speak: Where is Our Compassion?

Published January 12, 2011

By Yahiya Emerick

I always knew there would come a day when I would finally succeed in getting almost everyone mad at me. This may be that day because I’m going to be unusually candid and open about a certain, often suppressed, issue. As one sister pointed out, people only get mad because the truth hurts. If that’s true, then there should be a lot of self-reflection from a lot of angry people.

There are multitudes of thoughts floating around in my mind all the time. You know how it is: you’ll see something and it will make you think for a moment. Perhaps you’ll use that as an example one day, you say to yourself, and you hope you remember it during an opportune time. But have you ever reached the point where so many little thoughts piled up inside your head that you felt you had better dump them out on the table before they crush your mind under their weight? I’ve reached that point, and it’s time to unload.
A strange paradox: When you read about how the Blessed Prophet (pbuh) and the Sahaba treated poor people, what image do you get? Basically, poor people were the majority in the masaajid all over early Islamic Arabia. Poor Muslim converts used to even sleep in the Prophet’s own Masjid at night because they had nowhere else to go. (Hence the nick-name “Bayt as Saff.”)

So many Quranic verses and ahadith extol the virtue of the poor and the feeding and welcoming of the poor. The less-fortunate were welcomed and encouraged by the community of believers. Almost all the Muhajireen experienced bitter poverty in the early Madinan period. But the Ansar came to the rescue, as they were able, and shared half of their wealth with the refugees from Makkah. It was just a great time of caring and inclusion.

Fast forward to today: I’m walking to one of those “culturally-oriented” masaajid in a major American city. The majority of the people who attend there are from a country I will not name. Standing in front of the gates to the large, spacious masjid is a young woman on crutches; her feet are gnarled, and it’s obvious that one leg is skinnier than the other. She’s a cripple. She stands there, holding a cup in her hand and pathetically tries to keep her hijab, (which is white though a little stained,) from blowing across her face. She begs for money in a soft, weak voice, from the Muslim men as they enter the masjid for Jumu’ah salah. As I near the front of the building myself, I notice that the throngs are entering without even looking at her or hearing her say, “Salam” in her lilting, low voice.
As a Muslim, and a person who tries to feel sympathy with others, I give her some money. She smiles with the grateful smile of a person who received something that will affect her life in a much bigger way than it would ever affect mine. Then I go inside. Every week it continues like that. Then, one day, the leader in the masjid makes an announcement. He tells the hundreds of Muslims present that we had better not give money to any “beggars” who hang out in front of the Masjid. He warns that if we do that, then we’ll have “beggars all over the place” like “we” do “back home.”

Giving in charity to the poor, whether Muslim or not, is an Islamic duty highly recommended by Allah and His Messenger

A little thought came to my mind: Why not invite the beggars in and show them Islam? Why not help them and thereby increase the size of our “community.” (After all, these masjid-going immigrants were losing their children to kufr at an alarming rate and the masjid might be deserted after these righteous parents died!) Why not help that poor, crippled woman in and treat her with kindness and give her good instruction and support? I, of course, could not obey the order of this hired “leader” because giving in charity to the poor, whether Muslim or not, is an Islamic duty highly recommended by Allah and His Messenger.

A few months later, a group of sisters wanted to hold a conference in that masjid. Because this city is a rough place, they wanted to hire some Muslim brothers to act as security guards to protect the masjid from outside intruders while their conference was going on. When the leadership of the masjid found out that the brothers in question were from a different ethnic group, the leadership refused to endorse the idea and forbade the presence of such “dangerous, low class” people.

Because of a change in my job situation, I had to switch masaajid for Friday prayer. This new masjid was established by another immigrant group from a different country that I will not name. Let me tell you, until you get around, you really cannot appreciate how much ignorance there is in the world. All the backward things you can ever imagine exist in this place, and I sit there watching everything and get more frustrated. If you put all the good intentions aside, there are some really ignorant Muslims running around; people who know nothing about Islam- or anything else for that matter!

Holding riches is like holding water. It will slip through your fingers
until you come on Judgment Day holding nothing. Good deeds and charity are much better to pursue in this world

Back to the story. A few weeks after I began attending this new masjid, a lone, old woman in hijab began coming to beg from the worshippers before they entered the masjid for Jumu’ah. There was no room for any women in this “masjid,” so she couldn’t come in for prayers even if she wanted to. I remember walking to that masjid on one bitterly cold day—a day in which my skin felt like it was turning to brittle paper—and I saw her there with no gloves and a thin jacket on.

I, of course, gave what I could and was about to enter when I realized I was hurrying to get inside because I was very cold. The thought hit me that she couldn’t come inside because there was no provision for women in there, and the leadership there would probably throw her out anyway. I sat there feeling guilty the entire Jumu’ah service. When I left, she was still out there begging for a quarter or a dollar here and there from the departing “worshippers.” When I was almost back in the office, the thought hit me that I could have given her my gloves. I felt guilty the rest of the day for not doing it.

Every Friday, I would see her there, sitting on the stone steps and begging with obvious sorrow on her face. The masjid leaders must have seen her sitting on “their” steps one day because when I arrived to the masjid a few weeks later, the old woman in hijab was sitting on the cold dirt on the other side of the sidewalk in front of the masjid.

As I sat in that crowded, yet barren-seeming building, I listened to one of the leaders exhorting the worshippers to put money in the box being passed around so they could pay off the bank loan on the Masjid. I again felt weird inside. As the box got closer to me and I saw people dropping ones, tens, and twenties into it, I thought about the shame I would feel when the box came to me and everyone would see me pass it along without depositing anything in it.

I imagined someone whispering to me, “Brother, you should donate for the sake of Allah.” I had a response planned for that: “I gave everything I had to that old woman out in the cold for the sake of Allah!” I felt the righteous anger prepare itself for a leap. But no one said anything. No one even looked at me. Hey, what did I expect? After going to that masjid for over five months, not a single person there has ever said “Salam” to me or returned one when I offered it—even the “Imam” refused to say “Salam” to me when I said it to him one day. (I also gained the good lesson that I should not care what others see me do as only Allah knows what is in our hearts.)

A few weeks later, the big ‘Eid was coming up: ‘Eid ul Adha. One of the masjid leaders stood up and began to tell the people the significance of the “Qurbani” or sacrifice of animals and how the meat would be given to the poor to eat. I kid you not—the image of that sister outside smiling at me as I gave her something was frozen in my mind as the leader said that there weren’t really any poor people here in America so everyone should bring their meat to the Masjid so it could be sent to a cannery and sent overseas. It was that impetus that caused me to write this article two hours later. That was the thought that made my cup overflow in a flood!
What is it with us? Do you remember when the Mississippi river flooded a few years ago, causing wide-spread damage and homelessness in middle America? ICNA Relief did a really heroic thing by suggesting that some funds should be set aside and used to help the people affected by the floods. If you’ll also remember, donations to the Red Cross were in the untold millions; other relief groups also were distributing supplies and money to the grateful people as well.

Well, here was a Muslim group that wanted to step in and put in its small, but sincere contribution. You wouldn’t believe how certain individuals opposed this plan. They said that rather these funds should be sent overseas. Do you think that this is how the Blessed and noble Prophet (pbuh) would think? Is this the attitude that Islam teaches us to have. I don’t think so! The Blessed Prophet (pbuh) used charity towards non-Muslims to show them the mercy of Islam. I could list dozens of examples where he helped non-Muslims before they accepted Islam. What was the result? They often became Muslims themselves!

Why would the Prophet (pbuh) visit the evil Umm Jamil, the wife of Abu Lahab who used to curse him and throw thorns in his path, when she was sick? She wasn’t a Muslim. She was even an enemy to him. He could have said, “Oh, Allah is punishing her.” But he didn’t. He went to her and offered his condolences on her sickness. Even Allah says in the Quran that “…you don’t have to put them on the right path before you help them (the needy unbelievers).”

I’m proud of ICNA for going ahead and setting up its small distribution table during that time of crisis in this country despite the internal opposition. The contribution was minuscule in the grand scheme of things, but the symbolism was weighty. Islam teaches us to have compassion on the poor, needy, and distraught and those people who discourage the feeding of the poor and needy from among the Muslim community (see Surah 107) might find themselves in big trouble on Judgment day.

What the heck do we fast in Ramadan for? What lessons are we supposed to learn? Let me publicly state that this past Ramadan is the first Ramadan in which I fully internalized the true importance of compassion towards the poor. I am a guy who makes barely more than the poverty level each year, but my faith moves me to give until it hurts.

The Prophet could have had mansions and palaces built for himself, but he slept in a small room made of bricks. He could have ridden on chariots or wagons pulled by the finest white stallions, but he rode donkeys or camels. His rightly guided successors, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali all followed the tradition of simple living. Even if they ever amassed a lot of money due to good business practices, they would reserve the bulk of the money for charitable purposes and just give it away. None of them lived in mansions or ate fine food or wore the most expensive clothes.

Today, our “community” competes with each other in wealth and status. The “pillars of our community” live mostly in costly mansions, drive the finest motor cars, and wear the most expensive clothes. They append their names with the titles of respect of the non-Muslim world such as “Dr.” or “M.D” or “Barrister” and go to great lengths to get other people to use those honorific titles when their glorified and sanctified names are mentioned.

Since when is a person judged by his titles? Sure, in man-made religions and cultures, you have a caste system and social structure based on the accident of one’s birth.

Then the poor, title-less Muslims become as subhuman and unworthy as the untouchables in India. We can pass by them and avoid eye-contact. We can shun them from our masaajid, homes, and parties. (“They would probably only soil the carpet anyway with their filth.”) All those Muslims, all that wealth, all that arrogance and false pride in the illusory world that they have built for themselves. “But when the earth is ground to powder…then they will know the reality…” (Quran).

The Blessed Prophet (pbuh) said he would be close to the poor people on the Day of Judgment. He said the poor will enter Paradise long before the rich. He said save yourself from the fire even with only half a date given in charity. Who knows the examples of Abu Dharr or Umar?

The Blessed Prophet (pbuh) once remarked that he was afraid for the future of the Ummah on account of all the wealth that would come in its possession. Someone asked him if it were possible for something good (wealth) to really be bad. The Prophet (pbuh) replied that he was afraid that so much wealth would come to Muslims that they would begin to love the world too much, even as former civilizations worshipped worldly wealth. Then he said he was afraid that love of the world would destroy Muslims even as it destroyed earlier civilizations.

Here I am, I accepted Islam and have given up my love for wealth, status, and honor. But all I see are fellow Muslims racing with each other, not towards goodness, but towards what I saw as false. In their mad chase after wealth, they fail to realize that holding riches is like holding water. It will slip through your fingers until you come on Judgment Day holding nothing. Good deeds and charity are much better to pursue in this world.

What do we feel towards the poor? Do we feel better than another human being just because of a few possessions that we cannot take with us when we die? The next time you see a poor person, try your best to gauge what your initial reaction is towards them. If you feel even the least bit of disgust inside, then you may have a seed of hypocrisy in you waiting to destroy you.

I know it is a lot to ask of our “community,” given the shabby and disorganized state we are in right now, but until we banish all distaste for the unfortunate, needy and hungry, we will never make real progress in ourselves, our family, or our movement.

Consider well and remember the ironies we see every day. Today’s action will determine tomorrow’s reaction. Live with the attitude of a real believer, and don’t be just a “Muslim.” Because believers go to Paradise, while people with just Muslim sounding names are on their own, even as they care for no one.

Yahiya EmerickAuthor Yahiya Emerick is President of the Islamic Foundation of North America, and an author with several published books.

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