This past Tuesday, Muslims celebrated ‘Id al-Fitr, one of Islam’s two great festivals. For me, it was a beautiful day that began with a truly warm and vibrant ‘Id gathering at the Zaytuna Institute. God afforded me a wonderful opportunity to see friends who had been “missing in action,” to meet enthusiastic new converts to the Islam, and to kiss so many babies I felt like a politician. During that time, I was also able to break away from the gathering to visit the graves of some distinguished Muslims buried in a nearby cemetery. Visiting the local Muslim cemetery on ‘Id day is a practice I have been able to maintain since my earliest years in Islam. They serve as a solemn reminder that all of us have an appointment with the Angel of Death.
I was blessed to stay at Zaytuna until the early afternoon when I departed to attend a meeting at a local school, a reminder that we are in America and sometimes, despite our best efforts to clear our schedules on the day of our festivals, the requisites of our everyday duties intervene. After that meeting, I was able to visit some of the Muslim families in the area. All of those visits filled my heart with awe at the simple dignity of ordinary Muslims, many of whom are struggling valiantly to survive in this sometimes cruel, always challenging and complicated society.
The last of those visits was to the family of Alia Ansari, the Afghani-American mother of six who was gunned down in central Fremont last Thursday as she walked to pick up her children from school. The Ansari family are everyday people—and, they are proud people. As I talked with Alia’s husband, brothers, and cousins who were gathered in the family’s humble apartment, it became clear to me that, most of all, they were proud to be Ansaris, descendants of the companion of the Prophet Muhammad, peace upon him, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, and the great Muslim mystical sage, Khawaja Abdullah Ansari. In Afghan society, they are people who are identified with piety and they endeavor to live up to that identification, in their various ways.
Alia Ansari migrated from war-torn Afghanistan at the age of 17. When her father died shortly thereafter, she became a second parent to her younger siblings. A life of hardship could not suppress her inner beauty, expressed most readily in an irrepressible smile. Her husband, Ahmadullah Ansari, an auto mechanic struggling to make ends meet for a family that includes six young children, five of them girls, spoke glowingly of Alia’s martyrdom and the place God has reserved for her in Heaven. Her story impressed on me the truth embodied in the words of a poet who said, “Be yourself beautiful, and you will find the world full of beauty.”
Her husband, contrary to the caricature of the vindictive, hateful, enraged Muslim, mentioned how the family did not wish her martyrdom be treated as a hate crime, because he did not want her death to be a source of agitation in the area’s large Muslim community. He also mentioned that the family would not want the murderer executed, because that would not bring his wife back. His wife was a martyr, her place in Paradise secure—for him that was enough.
His gentle voice was most emphatic when he mentioned that he did not want his wife’s death to be politicized. Rather, he wanted her spirit of love and reconciliation to prevail after her passing as it had during her life. He spoke of his desire that her funeral be a solemn service, where people of all faiths could gather to remind each other just how important it is to work to remove the pernicious stain of racial and religious hatred from this society lest it lead to ever deepening spirals of senseless violence.
As we sat on the floor of their sparsely furnished living room to eat a meal of traditional Afghan food, our gathering was overseen by four walls decorated with only an unframed picture of the Ka’aba, and a tapestry with Ayatu Kursi, the Qur’anic Verse of the Throne (2:255), printed on it. Husband, brothers, and cousins gathered around to tell me more about just who Alia Ansari was. They spoke proudly of a deeply religious individual who embodied the true spirit of the “Ansar,” the Helpers. The original Ansar were those Muslims in Medina who welcomed into their city and homes the faithful believers who had migrated from Mecca, fleeing the persecution of that city’s population. The Qur’an mentions the spirit the Ansar exhibited in the following terms:
As for those who had previously established homes [in Medina], having adopted the faith; they show their love and affection to those who migrated to them [seeking refuge]. You will not find their hearts harboring any desire for that given to those migrants; rather they give preference to them over themselves, even though they are themselves afflicted with grinding poverty. (59:9)
Alia was indeed a helper. In addition to her tireless and faithful service to her immediate family, she was constantly helping relatives and neighbors, many of whom themselves had recently migrated to this country from their native Afghanistan. Her brother, Humayun, remarked that she did the work of six people and never complained. A typical day might find her preparing meals for the family, dropping the children to school, taking a neighbor shopping, shuttling a newly-arrived relative to the immigration department, watching a neighbor’s child, nursing a sick relative, or numerous other tasks demanding the sacrifice of her time and energy.
Although never formally educated in Islam, she was a deeply devout and spiritual individual. Her husband noted that she never missed a prayer. He quietly added that she would stand for voluntary prayer every night until she wept beseeching God to save her daughters from the ravages of the lewd, violent, promiscuous youth culture of this country. Her deep spirituality is illustrated by the following incident. A few days before her demise, she told her husband that she had seen her deceased grandfather, an individual well known for his righteousness, in a dream. The learned sage indicated that the end of her worldly struggles was near, and a resting place in Paradise would soon be hers.
As a pious Muslim woman, she never left home without her hijab, the traditional head scarf worn by Muslim women. She was proud of her hijab. In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, some of her friends and relatives, afraid of reprisal attacks, took off their hijabs. Alia encouraged them not to compromise their religion, especially when they had nothing to do with those crimes. As for herself, she told them that she would never take off her hijab, even if someone put a gun to her head demanding that she do so. Alia said that her hijab was her flag. She could not have known as she began the fateful walk to her children’s school last Thursday that her path would cross that of a lone gunman who in a single act of mindless violence would bring a close to a life of dedication and service. She could not have known that her grandfather’s words were so close to fulfillment. She could not have known that she would soon die defending her flag.
Among the believers are those who have been true to their covenant to God. Among them are those who have given their lives, others patiently wait their turn, having never weakened in their resolve. (33:23)
Imam Zaid Shakir
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