Random life stories: The day I could have died

My instinct – borne out of years of hiding from my older brother when we’d fight – was to duck down between the front passenger seat and my own seat. Having been one of the smallest in my class for most of my life, I’m grateful that I was still small enough to fit in that little space. I didn’t know if that position was going to save me from what might follow. I didn’t think at all. It just kicked in – that reaction. I curled up to hide. Continue reading

Rebirth

First life
I was a latecomer to Islam. No – I didn’t convert into the religion. I was born a Muslim, but for most of my life growing up, I wasn’t really one – not the way I should have been, at least. I lacked the proper understanding, knowledge, and, most of all, commitment to the religion. As a result, much of my life was spent without real attachment to Islam – confined to merely ritualistic acts of worship I was expected to do, and not much interest beyond that.

As a child, I learnt Islam’s basics in madrassah, and my family acted as a good moral compass in guiding me through the racially and culturally diverse society that was South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. I had plenty of exposure to other religions – Hindu family friends, where I’d see their prayer lamps and idols; a Christian junior school, where every morning’s assembly included the Lord’s prayer; and my Jewish high school, where Jewish Studies was a compulsory subject for a couple of years.

I always had a conscience about Islam, and what my Creator expected of me as a Muslim. But without practical action, conscience can’t lead you very far. In school holidays, for Friday prayers, and on other religious occasions, I’d attend Islamic religious services, and hear the religious advice given by the imams and moulanas. I’d sometimes be inspired to want to be a better Muslim, but the feeling would fade a few hours later, and I’d continue as normal – not really thinking about my purpose in life or how I could be better to my fellow human beings.

Turnaround
That changed ten years ago, when I reached a turning point – a ‘spiritual awakening’ that changed my entire focus and orientation in life. Such events are common in any religion – not just Islam. Anything could act as a catalyst – from a near death experience, loss of a loved one, a period of desperation, or any other event. Different people have different experiences, yet all end with the same result: a movement from a state of heedlessness to one of consciousness.

Over time, I came to learn more about Islam, and firmly believe in its truth – understanding the wisdom behind its acts of worship and social values, and its timeless message of pure monotheism, which was the message of every prophet, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad (peace be upon them all). I came to understand how, as a comprehensive belief system, it links an individual to their Creator, without any intermediaries; guiding them to live in the way that would bring true happiness, inner peace, and success – both in life and in the realm beyond death.

Journey of a lifetime
A few weeks ago, I was honoured to perform the Islamic pilgrimage to Makkah – the Hajj. As far as mandatory religious activities go, it’s one of the most important acts in Islam. It’s a journey that re-enacts the life of Prophet Abraham and his family, and draws millions each year – promising great reward from the Creator; and immense liberation, such that the pilgrim returns from the journey completely forgiven from every sin – spiritually, like a newborn baby.

It’s a journey of sacrifice, self-purification, and great humility. Pilgrims leave their families and comfortable homes to go all the way to the Holy Land, spending days and nights in a simple, unflattering tent – where the only physical comforts are a mattress, blanket, and pillow. They leave behind the ease of cars for a journey involving walking for miles and miles on dirty, congested roads, in huge crowds that they’d normally run away from. They shed the adornments of plush clothing to wear nothing but two white, unstitched pieces of cloth – wherein they’ll look exactly like everyone else, with nothing to distinguish between a king and a beggar. They go out to a flat, empty plain – in the middle of a desert – to stand in the scorching sun for a few hours, reciting a few words, pleading with their Creator, and crying their hearts out. And they walk around an ancient building, the first house of worship dedicated to the Creator, praising Him and supplicating for all that they desire.

Second chance
The experiences and lessons of Hajj are numerous, but for me, the most important result was the liberation I spoke of earlier – a second chance at life. A person who survives a near-fatal accident may relate, as could a reformed convict who leaves prison as a ‘new’ person.

After repentance on Hajj, the feeling of being completely forgiven – for every single sin you’ve ever committed – is truly amazing, and beyond words. It’s like a lightness of the soul – like there’s no longer this burden on your shoulders, and you literally feel pure and clean. Your mind feels more free, your spirit feels light, and you feel so much closer to your Creator. It’s really the most awesome feeling imaginable.

And it’s also empowering, because you now have this ‘clean slate’ – this second chance to start your life again, from a state of purity. And with that feeling, you’re more sensitive to every wrong you do. You can recognize it more easily, and you feel the need to repent or make up for it immediately – because now that you’re ‘clean’, you want to stay that way, and never let any spiritual ‘dirt’ pollute your heart again.

Naturally, it isn’t possible to remain on such a high for a sustained period. And in the few weeks since Hajj, such feelings of spiritual euphoria have decreased. But the effects of those feelings, and that experience, remain with me, and have hopefully benefitted me as I returned to my normal environment and responsibilities.

In Muslim circles, it’s a common cliché to say that Hajj really begins once you get home – meaning that Hajj itself is not the main challenge. The main challenge is what becomes your life’s mission after Hajj: to ‘live’ that Hajj by taking forward what you’ve learnt, and being that better person you were inspired to be.

I thank you for allowing me to share this account with you, and I hope that – regardless of your religious persuasion or belief system – you can take some benefit from these words, and that you yourself will have an experience of such magnitude in your life, if you haven’t already.

Note: This piece is a deviation from the current Hajj Chronicles series (part 2 of which is due this weekend insha-Allah). This one is a separate article, written for a non-muslim audience, which I hope to publish elsewhere at the appropriate time. As always, comments are welcome.

Image source: http://stevelummer.wordpress.com/2010/02/27/life-cycles/

A little piece of heaven

I know I’d planned to not post anything while I’m away, but the opportunity came up, so I’d like to share some of the experience so far.

We’ve been in Madinah for about 24 hours now, and just this first day has made me feel like this is a piece of Jannah. Of course, quite literally, there is a piece of Jannah on the earth here – the rhodatul jannah – which is a piece of land, from this earth, that will be in Jannah.

But beyond that, there’s so much else that makes it feel like an other-worldly experience. People always talk about the calm, peace and tranquillity here, and I’ve definitely felt it – alhamdullilah. To be fair, we haven’t ventured far at all yet – just Masjid un-Nabawi (the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.’s mosque), the hotel, and a few streets around the area. But in this limited time and geographical range so far, what strikes me most is that this place in such an environment of Islam. The atmosphere is unlike anywhere I’ve been.

The radio station we heard in the bus, and the shops so far, contain no music. Just Quran and narrations of hadiths. It’s a contrast to other Arab countries, like Egypt, where the cultural influence means that music is just a normal part of life – be it Arab / eastern music, or other. It’s refreshing for me, because living in South Africa, and having been to other Western countries, music is ubiquitous. You can never escape it.

It seems like almost everyone here is geared towards worship – the visiting pilgrims, I mean; as well as the locals in the masjid. As I write this, it’s after maghrib in the masjid, and there are Quran classes going on for kids. Teachers and students sitting together in some places, with kids taking notes as the teacher teaches. Others are reading Quran. There are study circles – halaqahs – of adult men. Other people are making tasbeeh. Some make dua. Others are sleeping. Some are just talking to each other.

This is the ultimate environment of deen. It’s so perfect, and something that I think the heart yearns for. Like it’s so natural. Like this is home.

Since I’m in the male section, I can’t speak for the ladies section – so I don’t know what the experience is like there. But here, there are old men, young men, boys, and just a mix of all different ages. And different nationalities. It’s like the Ummah is here – so many different people. A lot of Turks; some Indians; many Malaysians and Indonesians. On the flight in, we had a large group from Thailand. And in the coming days, apparently, many more will be arriving.

It’s interesting to see how different nationalities identify themselves. The Turks all wear khakis. The Malaysian women – or some other country (not sure) – were wearing bright pink hjabs. Some Indonesians had bright markings on their clothing. And not a group of them are walking past – wearing what seems to be their traditional cultural clothing, which is very colourful.

I imagine Jannah is something like this. All different types of people in one place – all united by Islam – and all worshipping Allah in the various ways available. Alhamdullilah.

And the zam-zam water! It’s here – so abundantly. Anytime you want, you just go and get. It’s not only a thirst quencher, but also – as one of the sheikhs here said – ‘magic water’, in that it’s a cure for every sickness, and something that every person – each and every unique person – can drink with the intention of Allah using it to cure them of whatever they need cure from. As the hadith goes, it is what you intend it to be. Which is why it’s good to make specific  intentions / duas each time you drink. If you can get it back home, do so.

The other great thing is that you have to be early for salaah, or else you may not get a spot in the masjid. And coming so early is filled with blessings. Every moment in the masjid, while waiting for athaan, is an act of worship – even if you do nothing at all. There’s time to make extra salaahs, read Quran, make thikr, or just anything you want. And at salaah times, the imam takes his time to read – no rushing. And after salaah, the imam doesn’t make a congregational dua. You’re free to read whatever you want to – it’s not like home (and other places, probably), where the imam makes his thikr and dua over the speaker system, which means that you either follow along, or you go and do your own thing while still hearing him (which isn’t so easy if you need to concentrate). Here, you’re totally free to do whatever thikrs, or make whatever duas, you want.

Alhamdullilah – this has been an amazing journey so far – even without siteseeing, and even despite some difficulties of travel. It’s a journey that I wish for each and every person; and one that is possible for everyone – no matter what their circumstance; since Allah can grant it to whoever He wants.

May Allah take each and every one of us on this journey, and to this blessed city of Madinah – over and over again.

The Final Goodbye

The end.

It’s been a long time coming, but it only hit me now – and it’s given me much to think about; with sadness and longing – because I’ve always been very sentimental about the past.

Let me explain: For the last 12 or so years, I’ve lived in Cape Town. But I was born and raised in Durban. It’s my home city – the place I grew up in, and where I got my education. The place of my childhood memories – those sunny Durban days where everything was so relaxed, and there was no responsibility and no worry. Just innocence…play….childhood.

But over the last 12 years, we’ve still had a family home in Durban. There was always a place to stay – a home of our own – when we went back. We never had to stay at our relatives’ homes, or live in hotels. We always had our own home there. A home filled with our furniture and belongings; old photographs; wall hangings; even our own atmosphere. It was home. It was my other home. And my heart was – and still is – so dearly attached to it.

Now that home is about to become history. We’ve sold it.

And while that doesn’t technically sever my ties with Durban (since I have so much family there still), to me, it is the end. Because if I go back now, it’ll be as a visitor. It won’t be to my home – my family home.

My memories of that particular home – which was in reality the fourth home I’d had in Durban in my life – begin when I finished university. We moved in at the end of that year, amidst boxes and boxes of stuff, lots of stress, and my personal sadness at saying goodbye to my previous home – the house I’d spent my teenage years and parts of early adult life in.

It was one of the saddest periods of my life, both for personal reasons, as well as the uncertainty of my future (I’d just graduated, but had no idea what I’d be doing the next year – for no job offers had come by that time).

And the sadness did continue for some years after that; although it was mixed with enjoyment – because that home was a place I’d go on holiday, and have no work to do. I loved that aspect of it. The feeling of being there in the festive season each December – when things were relaxed, people were on holiday, and there was usually a cricket Test match being played at Kingsmead (where, very often, bad light would stop play early).

The days and nights were hot and humid, and the nights often brought multitudes of lightning flashes – which I had never really noticed in my teenage years; but did notice now that I had an expansive view of part of the area.

I’d get to eat the foods I loved from Durban; I’d get to frequent the neighborhood I spent so many years in; I’d spend time with family; I’d get to go to Jumuah in the masjid I knew from my teenage years – but now being so much more spiritually mature compared to back then.

I’d get this awesome view from that home – looking out over the city and Indian Ocean; being able to see the golden lights of the harbor at night; the Bluff; and the hills on one side that concealed the area where I used to go to High School.

At night, the experience was both exhilarating and scary – looking out into the dark night at the city and ocean, and sky above – sometimes cloudy and overcast. I felt like I was up in those clouds – far from earth. If I closed my eyes, tilted my head up, then opened my eyes again, it was like there was no Earth below – there was only sky. Wide open, cold, vast, immense sky. It was at times like those when I felt so tremendously close to my Creator. Being physically removed from my usual home and life in Cape Town, I’d be in that place – at that window – able to reflect on so many things; and able to speak to my Lord in ways that were so unconstrained by the mental chains that would often drag me down in other environments.

It’s moments like those that I treasure so much. Moments that no material thing in the world could ever come close to. Moments that, nowadays, have become so few and far between.

And in one of those moments, I made a dua for the next time I’d be there: that, the next time I come to this home, I wanted to be married. Alhamdullilah – sure enough, the next time I went (2 years later), I was married, and my daughter was tucked safely in the womb, still in the early stages of her development.

But life has moved on so much since then, and things are so different. I have my own family now; and a whole life that’s so far away from Durban – both in time and physical space.

Still, though, my heart is tremendously attached to Durban. I love it dearly, and it’s always been – and always will be – a big part of me.

And it’s sad to say goodbye; but goodbyes are a part of life. I’m grateful to have had the life – the experiences – I had in Durban. And I hope those will be memories that I hang on to and treasure forever.


An updated version of this piece appears in my book – Let it Flow – available via Amazon Kindle, Google Play Books, Apple Books, Kobo, and more.

Taxi memories

Though it wasn’t always comfortable – being cramped like a sardine into a minibus – I miss travelling by taxi. It was a great way to see a cross-section of society, and experience the constant risk of being pulled over by a traffic cop. That happened a few times. Once, the driver was arrested, so we all had to get out and wait for another taxi to come rescue us.

Travelling like that is also a front row seat in how to navigate traffic as if you own the road. It’s a talent that not many law-abiding drivers appreciate. But hey – as long as you arrive at your destination safely, you don’t dwell on your driver’s recklessness too long.

So if you get the opportunity – and it’s safe – take that ride. (Unless, of course, the taxis are on strike 😉 )

Indulgence impulse

The following is a true story:

I pigged out last night – and I’m ashamed. After supper, I had a piece of Cadbury Fudge chocolate. The taste wasn’t what I was craving, so I had a marshmallow. That should have been enough – but it wasn’t.

The baby was being put to sleep, and there was still time before Esha.

A whisper came to my mind: ‘You hardly ever get time to just relax and read your book. Why don’t you do that now, and have a nice chocolate with it?’

I gave in.

I had a TV Bar while reading my book.

But still, the taste was not what I was looking for. Something was not being satisfied.

Another whisper: ‘Have something  else, and maybe you’ll get what you’re after.’

Then my wife came downstairs, and had her own TV Bar.

Another impulse came – telling me maybe her chocolate was what I was craving.

I tried to take some – but she didn’t let me have it. (She’s territorial about her chocolate – as am I.)

We talked a bit, and then she pulled out a lamington from her handbag (which doesn’t happen often). Our old neighbour had given it to her earlier that day.

Not wanting it to go to waste (or, really, not wanting her to have all of it) – I had some.

And I don’t think it satisfied me either.

Now, at that point, I’d eaten so much crap that I couldn’t possibly have more.

So then I went to the masjid for Esha, and there was a janazah. One thought that ran through my mind was:

“One day / night, that’s going to be me in that coffin. My soul will be leaving this world. And on the final Day, I’ll have to explain myself. As trivial as this indulgence seemed – how will I explain it? How can I justify having 4 different sweets in one night?”

The answer is simple: greed. I have an impulse to indulge – particularly in junk food.

Combine that with the whispers which come from those unseen (you know, the folks that have recently been released from their month-long incarceration) – and you have a solid trap to catch me.

So I resolved to be better the next day, insha-Allah.

I know not to give in to these desires. Actually, the desire for the taste – the craving – isn’t even strong at this point. (It gets stronger the further away I get from Ramadan). Yet I give in and indulge – out of habit.

And so, when I came home that night – right when I walked in – I again wanted something. My first instinct was to give in – until I remembered my intention to restrain myself.

The struggle has resumed. And I’m starting off from a point of weakness.

I really need to break this indulgence impulse. Perhaps I should brush my teeth right after supper?

Any other ideas?