The Ways of Our Fathers
By Yahiya Emerick
What are we? We see the world around us, its people, its landscape and then we see our lives within it. Isn’t it true that for most of our lives we don’t even imagine that we’re just temporary guests here? Has the thought ever crossed your mind that one day the world will go on without you, and that that day will come sooner than you might think. Could you imagine your family living without you, during a time when you’re nothing more than a memory of someone who once was? When they, themselves, die, even your memory will be lost. So what were you? Did you ever let life fool you into thinking you were somehow important, or essential, to this world? By Allah, we’re nothing more than waves of locusts rushing over this world, consuming and then dying, giving way to a new swarm, a new generation who eat with abandon and then pass away themselves in a never ending cycle until the Day of Judgment. Who remembers the individual locust from five hundred years ago? Would it even matter if anyone did?
The big questions. The really big questions. Who has time to think about them when there’s work and school and family and fun to take care. “Eat and enjoy now,” says the Qur’an, “but soon you’ll know the reality.” Is it wrong to say that most people are so oblivious that it would be comical, if it wasn’t so sad? Why is the Qur’an so harsh with ignorant and unconcerned people? “They refuse to feed the poor,” the Qur’an says, while a fellow human being is suffering. Don’t they realize how easy it would be for them to be in that position – starving and in desperate need? “People should have a choice,” is the common refrain about just about everything these days, but what if people chose to ignore suffering, or chose to overindulge at the expense of the less fortunate, or worse yet, make choices that result in others being harmed?
Does it matter, though, on a larger scale, if people harm each other? Five hundred years from now will anyone know or care if you hit someone, stole something or did worse? Even the current American president will get less than a paragraph in some future history textbook, assuming there will still be people who know how to read, which isn’t a very bright prospect given how video/music and visual entertainment is turning our young peoples’ brains into jelly. The Western view of humanity, which used to be on a more noble footing, has descended into a raw, and unashamed survival of the fittest and might makes right philosophy. Why else would one nation have its armed forces in over one hundred other countries on the globe? And the list could grow from there.
Events in the world today seem so real. Our senses are assaulted, numbed and assaulted again by images, stories, reports and protests. Were you alive when the barbarians sacked Rome? Were you there when the Mongols burnt Baghdad to the ground. So many heady events. Who remembers them? No one will remember how you felt. I’m reminded of that ayah in which Allah describes a person as only looking down at their feet, and never looking above them. Too many people take the short view, and so few look ahead to the horizon. When we go to the movies we see previews of future movies first and decide what we want to go and see in the coming months. When we walk outside our front door, we often don’t even know what we’ll be doing in the evening. What do we expect from this world? What do we think we’ll accomplish? All we’re doing is building sandcastles by the shore. The next wave will destroy whatever we built.
When the Umayyad Governor of Egypt, ‘Abdul-Aziz ibn Marwan, was near death, he said to his assistants, “Bring the burial shroud that I will be covered in to me so I can inspect it.” When it was brought before him, he looked at it and said, “Is this all that I’m going to have from this life?” He then turned his back and cried while saying, “Damn you, life! Your abundance is meager, your meagerness is short lived, and you tricked us.”
As I passed by a graveyard the other day, I found myself looking at the headstones as I whizzed by at sixty miles an hour. Ironic, really. But I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on the irony of the world and how so few people ever ‘get it’. I’ve taught in Muslim schools nearly fifteen years and I see the parents. They’re just like any non-Muslim parents. Some think ahead and in broad terms for their children’s futures, while others are like a bunch of bumblers who can barely conceive of the notion of packing their kid a decent lunch. Most are somewhere in between. I’m probably right in the middle, myself.
What are you supposed to teach your children? What will live on after you when nothing you build or acquire will remain? We already read frequently in the Qur’an that only taqwa and morally upright deeds live on to our credit in the Afterlife, and we’ve heard from the Prophet that three things can continue in the world after our deaths (useful knowledge we uncovered, a charity that keeps on giving, and the prayers of a righteous child,) but how do we conduct ourselves, knowing these things? How are most of us structuring our lives, given that nothing we establish will outlast us or preserve us? You know the answer. Just look at your own life. Until you can accuse yourself honestly, and find yourself guilty, you’ll never make any progress.
When we look at our children, how are we preparing them for the future? Shouldn’t we first recognize that they have no future – at least in this life? Shouldn’t we realize that they, too, will be in our predicament? They’re only alive for a while, just as we, and then they’ll have to confront the reality. No one ever, ever, ever wants to contemplate losing a child. Some people do lose their children and they are filled with sorrow. Could you imagine your child ever passing away. The thought horrifies you, repels you, and you don’t even want to think about it. But your child will die, just most likely after you have. Have you wept over the death of your child, who will die one day? Is the fact that you won’t be around to see it somehow making it less painful for you to think about. The truly loving parent weeps for their child’s death whether they die before or after them.
After you’ve learned to weep over what could be and what will be, so then what are you left with? What are you doing with your life? Are you trying real hard to make sure your child will get rich when they’re an adult? Is this dominating your every thought? Have you taught your five year old to say, “ophthalmologist” or “Surgeon”? Do you set the example of how to live by buying not just a good car, but the “best” car? Do you do what the “successful” people do, so you can pat yourselves on the back and say, “I’ve made it”? Have you really made it? Has your success been assured? Are you now in a secure place, from which you will never come down, or be kicked out?
My God how life has fooled us! My God how foolish we are! We’re nothing more than waves of locusts – waves of consumers, eating our way over the globe and then dying off. The Master of the World has sent signposts all throughout the world. He says we can be more than just a ravager of resources, that He will extract our essence after death and give us permanent success someplace else. All we have to do is follow the rules He sets for us and be better than the common masses who eat and eat and give no thought to the harm that they’re doing. Those poor souls will not be successful, but we don’t need to be among them.
So many are called yet so few answer! And the greatest negligence of all is from those who have been exposed to this call, like all the Muslims you meet around you in the masjid or the school or in the family, and yet they say, “Let us eat more. Let us burn resources faster. Let us be foremost among the locusts in our generation and teach our children to be so.”
The Nightmare. Oh my Allah the Nightmare. You may be in the line to heaven, yet you see your child in the line to Hell, and you feel the greatest remorse. You may in the line to Hell, and you see your parents in the line to Heaven, and you become that scared little child again, wanting to run to your parents to save you, but you can’t come out of line, and you look at them and ask, “Why didn’t you save me?” I cannot keep myself from weeping when I consider this. When I sit down and really look ahead and see this as a distinct possibility. Have you thought about it? My God, what have you done? What sunnah are you passing on to your children? What fate are you arranging for yourself? Are Muslims so blind that we’ve come to rely upon God’s forgiveness so much so that we feel no Muslim will ever be in Hellfire, even as the Bani Isra’il came to rely on being God’s “Chosen” ones?
I see people racing with each other into destruction, laughing all the way. They sacrifice their children and they all jump together into the Fire. They’re like the man who was given the choice to live like a king for a year and be hanged, or live as a simple man and die after a natural lifespan, though most of them choose luxury with a known penalty, over simplicity and more time.
So what would I want to leave behind me? Given that no material accomplishment will survive, what can I do to make my mark on life and also be successful in the Afterlife promised by the One Who created life to begin with? Since I can’t rule the world, and even if I tried death would put an end to my reign, and since materialism is the great deceiver, and anything I grabbed and put in my pile of stuff will decay away, anyway, what other options are there?
Look at yourself and your children. Strip away the titles, the clothes, the fame, the money, the fortune and the goodies and treasures. You are you, alone and no other. You have the power to be good or evil. You have the power to share and be kind or to be mean and greedy. Whatever you do, others around you will copy. You can be noble, and they will be inspired to be noble. You can be longsuffering and expectant of God, and others will be so, as well. You can slow down the eating of the locusts around you so there is more food and resources to go around, or you can become ravenous and greedy and others will do so, as well, resulting in a legacy of hunger and injustice. Then look at your children and realize how you raise them will have impact on what choices they make in their lives in this regard.
The Prophet cursed the slave of the dollar and the coin. Look at your life. What are you living for? Have you really thought about it? You do what you do in life, but what is its purpose? What do you expect at the end of the day? Some baubles and trinkets made in a factory in China, or the good pleasure of God, a tranquil outlook on life, and the ultimate reward of Paradise? If you continued on your present course and lived your life as you’re doing now, and then passed on those values to your children, what would be the end result at the end of the day? Would you die a rich person, but be destined for Hellfire? What kind of intelligent investment was that! Would you die a poor person, and also be destined for Hell, because you lived as a hustler and a user? Where are the brains of such a person? Or would you die, either rich or poor, but having lived righteously and not showing off. Would you have passed on this legacy to your children, so by your actions you influence the world for the better, through the generations? Remember, no one will remember your name, no matter what you do, but how will your anonymous contribution change the world, for the good or the better? Regardless, God is keeping score and will pay back people according to what they did. Don’t be the victim of the Double nightmare: both you and your children in the line to Hellfire. If that isn’t enough to scare you and make you reassess what you’re doing and where it will ultimately get you, then what will?