Issue 105 / May - June 2015
Four Cups of Tea
A visit to a mosque and a simple gesture of kindness remind the author that, despite what the news might report, people of different faiths have far more similarities than differences.
Be kind, for wherever kindness becomes a part of something, it beautifies it; wherever it is taken from something, it leaves it tarnished. (Bukhari, Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad)
As part of a course on the Religions of Abraham that I teach at St. Joseph's College, I regularly require students to visit a mosque. This past fall we visited Masjid Umar Bin Khattaab in Shirley, NY, which is in close proximity to our Patchogue campus. The students were welcomed by Imam Mehdad Islam, a friend and also a student at St. Joseph's. We all sat in a circle on the masjid floor for an informal question and answer session. As we did so, a gentleman was praying alone in a corner of the mosque. After he finished praying, he joined the circle and then proceeded to ask if anyone in the group wanted some tea. It was a cold and rainy November afternoon, and although tea would have been welcomed by many, no one wanted to ask. Finally, not wanting to offend the kind gentleman, I said yes. Immediately several other students also said they would love some. We all thought that there was a kitchen in the back where he would prepare the tea. Much to our surprise, he said that he was going across the street to a local 7-11 and that he would be back shortly. Ten minutes later, he returned soaking wet with eight cups of hot tea! While students gained a lot of valuable information from their conversation with the imam, by far the greatest lesson they learned that day was from the kind deed of this unnamed man. It left a lasting impression of kindness, simply through serving us tea.
This experience has stayed with me, especially as the media's constant bombardment has made us all too familiar with the examples of hatred and cruelty that human beings are capable of perpetrating against one another, often in the name of religion. Such actions support the negative stereotypes of religion held by many. The religion of Islam in particular is often maligned by many of these negative stereotypes. Sadly, the many examples of goodness and kindness extended by Muslims in the name of their faith often go untold. In this article, I would like to share the story of four examples of genuine kindness among everyday Muslims who are true examples of the "beautiful souls" written about by Eyal Press in his book of the same title. I offer them as four cups of tea that are reminders of the many deeds of kindness and courage that often go unnoticed in the daily barrage of negative publicity we are all exposed to.
The practice of kindness and generosity is central to Islam and goes back to the hadith and sunnah of the Prophet (reports of his traditions, sayings, and things that he approved). One little known example is the so called "Ashtiname of Muhammad." High atop Mt. Sinai in the Sinai desert there stands, as it has for centuries, the Monastery of St. Catherine. It was built on the site where Christians believe God gave the tablets of the law to the Prophet Moses (pbuh). In a gesture of true kindness and brotherhood Muhammad (pbuh) is believed to have issued a decree that the monks of this monastery would enjoy the protection of Muslims for all time. The decree, known as the Ashtiname, reads in part:
If any monk or pilgrim entrench himself in mountain, valley, cave, township, level, sand or church, I shall be behind them defending them from any that shall envy them, by myself, my helpers, my people, my sect, and my followers, inasmuch as they are my subjects and the people of my covenant.
To this day, visitors to the monastery can read firsthand what is believed to be the original decree. It is powerful reminder of the kindness of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to the monks of the monastery and the surrounding region.
More recently, the kindness of many "righteous Muslims," has been recognized by the Israeli government at the Holocaust Memorial of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It is a little known fact that among the 20,000 men and women who have been recognized by the Israeli government as "Righteous Among the Nations" because of their heroic deeds of kindness in helping Jews during the Holocaust, 70 are Muslims. Their names are preserved along The Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem. Echoing the words of the Qur'an, 5:32 ÔÇô "and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the whole humanity" ÔÇô there is a verse from the Jewish mishnah inscribed at Yad Vashem that states, "Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe." (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, found on the Yad Vashem website. The stories of many of these courageous men and women can be found at the Yad Vashem website and also in Robert Saloff's book, Among the Righteous: Lost Stories From the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands.)
Another remarkable and little known act of kindness and understanding can be found in the work of Khaled Kasab Mahameed, who in 2005 built a Holocaust museum in the city of Nazareth on the West Bank. Mahameed's story was reported by Tim McGirk in a Time Magazine story on July 8, 2008. The article tells of an Israeli-Arab lawyer named Khaled Kasab Mahameed, who in an effort to try and explain the Israeli wall along the borders of the West Bank by taking his children, took them to the Yad Vashem memorial. He explained that he did this because he realized that his children were not taught about the Holocaust in their history books. In his view, Palestinians can only be successful in achieving their goals if they are able to understand the reality of the Holocaust and the "place that it holds in the Israeli psyche." To fill this gap in his fellow Arabs' understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust, Mahameed set up the Arab Institute for Holocaust Research and Education in his hometown of Nazareth. Strongly influenced by the teaching of Mohandas Gandhi, Mahmeed has dedicated his life, often in the face of criticism from his detractors, to achieving peace through the understanding fostered by education.
One final "cup of tea" comes again from a little known incident that occurred in Egypt on January 11, 2011, when a group of Muslims formed a human chain around a Coptic Church as Christians gathered to celebrate Midnight Mass. According to the story, as reported in Egypt's Al Ahram newspaper, thousands of Muslims gathered to protect the church on Christmas Eve to avoid an attack by extremists on Christians who were attending Mass. They gathered to offer their bodies as "human shields," and to prevent further atrocities. Such actions are not isolated, but have been emulated on other occasions and in other countries. For example on October 8, 2013, The Huffington Post, as well as other media outlets, reported that on Oct. 6, 200-300 Pakistani Muslims formed a human chain outside a Catholic Church in Lahore to show their solidarity with the victims of a church attack by extremists two weeks earlier.
All of these stories bear an amazing resemblance to the Ashtiname of the Prophet Muhammad fourteen hundred years earlier where he pledged protection to the monks of the Monastery of St. Catherine. They demonstrate in a very powerful and convincing way the lesson my students learned on a rainy November afternoon while visiting a local mosque. The practice of kindness, as simple as sharing a cup of tea, or as dangerous as risking one's life to protect another, is central to the practice of Islam. As Hamid Vesili, one of the Righteous Muslims honored at Yad Vashem, said in describing the motive for his heroic and courageous action in protecting Jews in Albania: "Our parents were devout Muslims and believed, as we do, that 'every knock on the door is a blessing from God.' We never took any money from our Jewish guests. All persons are from God." Tea anyone?