The answer for me, in the context of that day’s frustrations, became Allahu Akbar – God is great! We may be limited in our ability to help others, but God is the Infinitely Beneficent.It was last Monday that I found myself in a place I rarely ever get the chance to venture: looking the misfortunes of humanity-at-large dead in the face. A group of us, primarily youth from our center, had come together for a small protest rally on MLK Day, and the location chosen was near downtown Dallas’s MLK Boulevard: a roadway wedged between impoverished, primarily minority, and markedly disadvantaged neighborhoods. As lengthy speeches were delivered about the atrocities being perpetrated against the innocents of the Gaza Strip, and the essential little-known differences between Judaism and Zionism, many of the area’s inhabitants passed us by. Some were supportive, touched, and caring, but others still were inexplicably angry. They yelled at us to shut up and leave and professed hope that Israel might succeed at whatever it was doing.
As I heard these words, I knew enough about human suffering to not take them at face value, and as I reflected on the deeper sentiments behind their opposing shouts, I couldn’t help but understand exactly where these people were coming from. On an ordinary day, having fully understood both sides of the story and internalized the unparalleled suffering of the Palestinian people, I have no doubt in my heart that every one of those passerby, gathered there on the namesake road of one of modern history’s bravest crusaders against oppression, would stand next to us and express their solidarity and grief that our world is such a horrific place for some. But life for those people couldn’t possibly have ever been ordinary. They were living in one of the “worst” areas of the sprawling DFW metroplex and had probably known nothing but injustice from the moment they entered this world, dominated by power-hungry corporate powerhouses in a paradoxical nation that professes economic opportunity for all, but where the majority of the wealth lies in the hands of the wealthiest 1%. These weren’t a bunch of soulless barbarians who didn’t care about the hundreds of slaughtered children in the Gaza Strip… they themselves were simply downtrodden human beings who had probably suffered every day of their lives in lesser, but equally poignant measures.
There was no enduring shower of bombs or criminal phosphorous making the lives of these people a visible hell, and our momentary attention and solidarity must spiritually and ethically be with the most virulently oppressed, but they were still the victims of a different brand of war: the wars of the streets, of limited prospects, of class divisions, and gang fights and no escape but gunfire. As I reflected on the likely plights of these human beings who lived not an hour away from me, I suddenly felt completely overwhelmed. It didn’t kill me that I couldn’t directly reach a hand out to the victims in Gaza and nurse every one of them back to health; the unimaginable distances were enough to appease my heart. But there was nothing I could tell myself now, as I looked out into the city and saw the homeless wanderers, drug addicts, and other casualties of capitalism. I looked at the bleak community centers and the schools, whose deterioration seemed to attest that efforts to move forward are always made, but don’t always succeed.
It completely blew me away: there were so many people, as far as the eye could see and further, who needed help, quite possibly the kind of help that can only come with lifelong guidance and unfailing personal persistence. I was near enough to help some of those many, but what could I do alone? Was there anything I could say to help even one of these people, or ten? How could I chant in burning fervor for the souls of Gaza, behold the injustices all around me now, and commit myself to only one group of people? And even if I could fight the good fight for all of them, what about the three-fourth of the continent of Africa that is still perishing in poverty and malnutrition from the ill effects of colonialism and imperialism? If I were to take a survey of how many people in the world need help, would I run out of room to account for them all? Every second, isn’t there likely another human being born who will probably struggle to survive? I am a seventeen year old girl who can barely exit gym class unscathed. How could I even dream of taking on the infinite conflicts that ravage the human race?
Needless to say, when the protest ended, my heart felt like a ship anchored down by the weight of a thousand accounts of human tragedy. Mankind has existed on this earth for untold millennia, but no amount of time will ever be sufficient to eradicate the injustices that multiply as fast as creation itself. As different as today’s world is, as much as we pride ourselves for how far we have come, every starving child is a testament that things will never be different enough. 1982 has just replayed before our very eyes, when surely the world must have whispered “never again” as soon as the smoke over Sabra and Shatila cleared. So at the last, one question lingered in my heart… what answer do these people have? Who is going to help them if I can’t be the one?
It was then that it really struck me: that grand, beautiful realization that sometimes hits you when you stare at a gargantuan mountain peak and murmur Subhan’Allah, and other times steals your breath as you revel in the glow of a child’s smile. For a long time, my friends and peers, particularly the ones who have experimented with every belief system under the sun, have asked: why do we need religion? Amid all the wars that have been waged throughout history “in the name of God”, is there any central reason why human beings should logically submit themselves to a bunch of preset guidelines and dictates? If it is in man’s fundamental inclinations to be a free being, why should he willfully bind himself to a prescribed way of life?
The answer for me, in the context of that day’s frustrations, became Allahu Akbar – God is great! We may be limited in our ability to help others, but God is the Infinitely Beneficent, and He has given us a faith wherein there lies a collective solution to human suffering. In my walk near MLK Boulevard, that single notion became my answer: Islam – the flawless religion bestowed on creation by our beloved Creator – prescribes, dictates, and sanctions compassion, and if you have ever looked into the eyes of someone who has truly suffered, you cannot possibly find an insufficiency in such a perfect idea. There will never be enough “mes” or “yous” to ensure that “they” make it through life, and there is no assurance that “me” or “you” won’t someday, by an unexpected twist of fate or two, find ourselves in “their” position.
Therefore, in order to endure, we must become a “we”, and seek empowerment from an outside force so much greater than ourselves that we become always, at any given moment, capable of inwardly coming to terms with whatever life throws at us, and devote ourselves to helping those less able. And where else might this empowerment come from but the very God who has created us and comprehends our every weakness more intimately than we do, who is nearer to each person than his or her jugular vein? And where in this savage world is there ever an assurance that you will be helped merely because you need it; does starvation ebb its hold on a dying orphan merely because the child cries out and asks to live? There are not enough sets of ears in the world to hear every dying child, but when we come together and listen to the oppressed as an Ummah, when we incorporate into the very practice of our religion the necessity of helping those less fortunate than us, we combine the power of millions of souls united under the common goal of living Fi Sabeel Allah: in the way of God, who treasures acts of compassion almost more than any.
One of the uncountable beauties of our belief system is that it does not merely suggest that we make time to remember the oppressed ones and contribute from our excesses to help those in need; it unequivocally requires it. One of the biggest issues people have with organized religion is the strict finiteness of its rules, but isn’t it worth pondering that one such guideline in our faith is the charity – Khums – an assurance that a faithful Muslim cannot legitimately pass through this world without helping his fellow man? The Qur’an outlines it in a beautifully concise manner:
“Know that whatever of a thing you acquire, a fifth of it is for Allah, for the Messenger, for the near relative, and the orphans, the needy, and the wayfarer.” (8:41) I might not be able to do much in my idealistic hope to help others, but by the grace of Allah, Islam ensures that I will never be alone in whatever trite efforts I make.