Friday, 15 October 2010

Saints & Sinners

My late maternal grandfather had several brothers. They were a typical dynamic close-knit family with strong French roots and Jewish ancestry, growing up in the 40’s and 50’s as Catholics in Apartheid South Africa. The brothers themselves were like a fraternity made up of strong bonds and allegiances to each other… each with his name and place in the group, much like the Mafia but without the organised crime bit. At that time (before he met my grandmother and converted to Islam) my grandfather was Cecil Patrick aka “Popeye” and one of his brothers, Daniel, was known as “Hawk”.

They were an interesting bunch them brothers… rejecting societal norms and conventions in much the same vein as most of my ancestors did on either side of both families.

One day, in a drunken stupor, Uncle Dan had an argument with his wife and he subsequently killed her with a knife to her heart. It wasn’t something he intended to do, it just happened in the heat of the moment. My grandfather had to testify in court, where Uncle Dan pleaded “guilty” or “no contest” and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for murder.

What was particularly intriguing about Uncle Dan’s case was that he wasn’t a malicious person, nor was he aggressive, violent or hostile in his temperament. He genuinely loved his wife and spent the rest of his life filled with regret and remorse for his mistake. When he was released from prison, he accepted Islam and eventually got re-married.

I was talking about murder once… how things can happen (as in Uncle Dan’s case) without your intention or without you even realizing what’s been done before it’s too late. I can specifically recall a woman telling me that she’d “never commit such a heinous act” and that she can’t “understand how someone could take someone else’s life”.

My response to her was that she, like the rest of humanity, is more than capable of murder or even worse crimes. She looked at me defiantly and somewhat perplexed before stating quite indignantly “I could never kill a man”; to which I replied “You will if you catch him raping your daughter, or your son. Believe me you will kill him, or at least want to, because a Mother’s primal instinct is to protect her child.” She then said “That’s different” and I replied “Really? How different? Murder is Murder, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it… just like Stealing is Stealing, whether one stole 5 cents or 5 million, it’s still the same sin. Our sins are not weighed or measured in quantitative terms.”

The biggest fallacy in human nature (& especially amongst many Muslims today) is that we believe and convince ourselves that we’re immune to the spectrum of human emotion and those actions that may arise from those emotions. We’re quick to judge and point fingers at those who temporarily succumb to their weaknesses… when in reality, we are no different from each other and the only thing that separates us is CIRCUMSTANCE.

For instance, do we not all have desires? Is that not a part of our primal instincts? I’m vehemently against adultery and advocate celibacy until marriage but… and it’s a very big BUT… I’m very well aware of the fact that very little stands in the way of making that decision. After all, what distinguishes me from an adulterer? My circumstances. Who can dare say that they wouldn’t give in if they were desperately looking for love, lonely, hopeless, vulnerable, miserable and looking for a way out? No one can claim that they’re immune from their desire to be wanted, loved and appreciated.

I’ve had other experiences where, due to my lack of head scarf, I’ve been looked down upon by those donning it… as if a piece of cloth placed strategically on their heads makes them more “Muslim” than I ever could be. Now I re-iterate, I will never negate the fact that it is incumbent for every Muslim woman to don the scarf for her own protection and because The Almighty said so, but me not adhering to that law (yet) is MY sin… something I will answer for, no one else.

I can recall specific incidents at University where those arrogant female-head-scarf wearing individuals would bunker in their self-righteous, condescending corners judging the rest of us. And if I chose to go to Mosque or the Jamaat Khanna to offer compulsory prayers, there were the customary nuances… the *SHOCK*… oh the *HORROR*… how can someone who doesn’t wear a scarf pray or even be Muslim?!?

And my amused mind would question… “What makes you think that you’re better than me? Do you honestly think that sitting there, gossiping and chomping on rotten flesh the entire day, judging everyone else makes you a better Muslim? Do you think your scarf is a free pass to heaven? Or that it will cover a black heart? Or is it that you’re afraid that without it, you’d be forced to have an open mind and question those vile cultural precepts ingrained in your DNA that you hold so dear, the same tenets that ordain segregation of the populace in terms of status and rank, as opposed to being tolerant and accepting of others as equals according to the true dictates of Islam?”.

I had a confrontation with a particularly self-righteous woman once, who happened to be an Aalima and supposedly quite learned in the ways and laws of Islam. But for all her knowledge… knowledge that I have a deep respect and admiration for… she still could not escape her close-mindedness. We share a mutual friend and unfortunately, this friend hasn’t always made the best choices in life but one day she woke up and decided to change her life for the better. At a gathering, the Aalima casually mentioned her disapproval of our friend’s past choices, quite scornfully, before adding that she was pleased that she decided to make a positive change.

I might have over-reacted but I was absolutely livid at this disclosure. I proceeded to explain to her, as calm and composed as possible, that we all haven’t had the life that she’s currently living. That some of us weren’t privileged enough to live in a home with two functional parents, a good steady income and a stable environment. That unlike her, our path of righteousness wasn’t handed to us on a silver platter. I pointed out that she never lost both her parents or was forced to make adult decisions from a young age… that she had the “benefit” of growing up so sheltered that she never had to choose between good and evil… those choices where made for her when her parents decided to remove her from school mid-adolescence and place her in an environment that did not encourage, condone or allow vices or transgressions of any kind.

And unlike some of us, she never had to dwell in the pits of hell-on-earth that were circumstances beyond our control… or spit in the face of pure evil and crawl her way back to the straight path. She never had to fight for anything in her entire life… she never had to CHOOSE or repent for those choices. She was handed the “good life” from the beginning, that was her fortune. So how dare she sit in her ivory tower, looking down on others as they battle their way to the bitter end with no armor and nothing but courage and hope to get into God’s good graces. I asked her point blank if, in a cruel twist of fate, who she thought would win in a war against evil and who would be “better” off… our friend who’s been to hell and back and has triumphed over adversity under the most trying circumstances… or her – someone who hasn’t had to face any real trial or tribulation and doesn’t even know the kind of strength that’s required to turn your back on something that your heart desperately wants, but your head knows isn’t good for you. She remained silent for a long time after that, unable to respond to my argument.

So yes, mankind’s biggest downfall is that we think that we are different, that we are immune from making the same mistakes as others… often forgetting that if our circumstances were different, if we were in the same situation and the same position, we would in all likelihood make those very same choices and decisions, or worse.

I find myself guilty on one particular charge. When I was very young, my parents spent a lot of time with family friends… one family in particular. The couple had a daughter who was about 7 or 8 years older than I was, and being the only child she was spoilt rotten. She received everything she ever wanted and consequently became rude, lazy, unmotivated, entitled and eventually dropped out of school. But from a young age, she would draw and she loved drawing and creating things and continued doing so well into adulthood, often buying colours and clay and materials for amateur art pieces.

To her family; parents, aunts and uncles alike; her behavior and inclinations seemed very childish and immature and was often attributed to her being a spoilt brat, because it never occurred to them that she was a creative spirit, since “art” and its derivatives weren’t really prominent aspects of their culture. She was ridiculed constantly… for years on end… accused of being stupid, a “big baby”, having no drive or ambition. And as such, her skills were never harnessed to their full potential and with no encouragement her creativity was somewhat dwarfed, stunted in its growth.

Ashamedly, I was on that bandwagon because I grew up, from childhood to adolescence, ridiculing her too… utterly bewildered by her decisions and unable to understand what drove her. I thought that maybe she was so used to getting what she wanted all the time and never having to work for it, that she had somehow became addicted to acquiring and purchasing “junk” for no particular purpose.

It was only years later, while rummaging through a studio belonging to one of my best friends… and watching her make pieces of avant garde jewelry from the strangest objects that it hit me. What my friend was doing in the name of art was no different to what the supposed “spoilt brat” had been doing for years! But instead of being applauded for her work and encouraged to further develop her abilities, she was the subject of endless derision and disparagement.

I never felt more ashamed in my life. I had judged her by default… riding on the wave of everyone else’s comments and assumptions without fully comprehending (or lacking the intellect & capacity to understand at that time) the situation at hand. Yes she was spoilt in many ways, but even at her worst, she was never ever malicious. She was always a free spirit, it’s just that no one could see it or fathom what it meant.

And to this day, I feel utterly wretched about it… about my part in whatever pain she suffered through the years because of our judgments, assumptions and ignorance. I want to find her and tell her how truly sorry I am and express my regret and remorse from the depths of my soul. I want to tell her how I was never more wrong about anyone in my entire life, to beg her forgiveness because I was too young to understand and simply followed in flawed footsteps and that it took that much time to finally get it. I pray that I am never that blind again and that I continue to learn and grow and see the truth with the help of The Almighty.

Every now and then, I think of my late grandfather and how every single one of his brothers and sister eventually converted to Islam in the years following Uncle Dan’s imprisonment. Had his incarceration motivated his conversion, which in turn inspired theirs… were the events that occurred necessary to get him to that turning point in his life? We’ll never really know.

None of us know our end really, or what hand will guide us there. A King may move a man, a father may claim a son. That man can also move himself. And only then does that man truly begin his own game. Remember that howsoever you are played, or by whom, your soul is in your keeping alone. Even though those who presume to play you be kings or men of power. When you stand before God, you cannot say "but I was told by others to do thus" or that "virtue was not convenient at the time." This will not suffice. Remember that. ~ King Baldwin IV, Kingdom of Heaven


  1. Billy Joel:

    ...well, They showed you a statue, told you to pray
    They built you a temple and locked you away
    Aw, but they never told you the price that you pay
    For things that you might have done--
    Only the good die young

    ...hey say there's a heaven for those who will wait
    Some say it's better but I say it ain't
    I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
    the sinners are much more fun--
    you know that only the good die young

  2. Well that's true.. only the good die young :P