721 miles west of Sydney Australia lies a small town called Broken Hill where lie buried the aching heart of an Afghan Muslim father and grandfather. This is their story. As a muslim immigrant to a western country it will hit you between the eyes.
I am in the mosque and a visiting Maulana is going to give a talk, I am eager to listen to the words of wisdom, but never in my wildest imagination did I conceive the import of the story that I heard and am going to relate it to you from the perspective of the Maulana.
The events and places are true, the names and some nuances have been changed to maintain the confidentiality of the people in the story.
The Maulana speaker said he wanted us to be aware of three things. After relating the first and second he illustrated the third with this story:
He was visiting Sydney and was asked by his companions if he would accompany them to visit the oldest Muslim settlers in Australia dating back to the 1800s.
He agreed unaware of the punishing distance and the arid land that lay in between Sydney and their destination called Broken Hill in New South Wales.
It was almost midnight when they reached the home of the Muslim settler in Broken Hill.
The door opened and this white Australian man greeted them and introduced himself, as Rob and his wife as Jean They were effusive and hospitable and generous to a fault. Their genuine welcoming manner reminiscent of the tradition of the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh).
He sat down to listen to Robs story and this is how it goes:
In the 19th and early 20th century Broken Hill was home to a community of Afghans. Afghans worked as camel drivers in many parts of outback Australia, and they made a significant contribution to economic growth at a time when transport options were limited. The camel drivers formed the first sizeable Muslim communities in Australia, and in Broken Hill they left their mark in the form of the first mosque in NSW (1891).
Rob was the son of the first group of Muslim immigrants to Australia from Afghanistan in the 1800s, The Afghans were excellent in camel driving and could go long distances with them over the bush delivering the precious metal which was mined in Broken Hill. It was delivered for export to the British Isle who owned Australia as a prison colony.
Robs wife Jean went in and brought out an antique chest and reverently opening it displayed the obviously treasured contents. In the depths of this chest lay a copy of the Quran old and yellowed with time, a string of tasbeeh beads, some books in Arabic or a foreign language, a Muslim tughra, some letters with Muslim names on it and the names of the father, grandfather and great grandfather of Rob written in various places identified by Rob as his ancestors. He said his Muslim name was A Khan but he was now Rob.
This was a treasure chest whose treasure had not been touched in sixty years and in it the light (the Quran) had been imprisoned given no opportunity to benefit the owners of the chest.
Robs wife was enthusiastic in her explanations of the family the Afghan lineage and the Muslim background.
It turns out that Robs grandfather whose name was Maulana F Khan taught Quran, and tilawat in the Jamiah masjed in town, He died in 1960 and with him the books of the Quran had closed and slowly the masjed closed and locked up, opened only as a tourist visit stop, but never used.
Thus for fifty years no one had ever prayed in this mosque leave alone have a Quran lesson.
He was listening in astonishment, sixty years the lifespan of an average Indo Pakistani had been enough to wipe out the teachings and practice of Islam from this obviously devout group of Muslim settlers in the Australian outback.
They had obviously kept the faith alive for 160 years. He mulled on it, but came to no conclusions. The night was winging towards the golden hour of Tahajjud thus the guests parted, with an invitation from the hosts to meet in the masjed mentioned, for Dhuhr prayer the next day.
Goodbyes were said and again the ghosts of the past were reminiscent in the sincerity and warmth of the good byes from Rob both in the handshakes and the hand on the heart at parting.
The next after noon he and his colleagues met Rob and his wife at the Masjed.
It was in good condition but locked up and, opened only for tourists or interested visitors like him. The adhaan was silent but the Muslims of the past had left their mark in the outback of Australia in the small town of Broken Hill.
It was a strange feeling to see first hand the first mosque ever built in New South Wales in 1891 flanked by palm trees with an idle camel cart standing in the yard as if the owner had just gone in to pray.
The outside door was locked, as was the inner courtyard, which led to a room with books, which from its condition said that it had not been used in a long time. Opening in from the book room was the Musallah.
The sudden hush in the group came from the intense feeling of being in a sacred place where someone has called upon Allah, leaving the imprint of their foreheads upon the ground with countless sajdahs in the past. The mosque was silent as if in waiting.
A man from the group stepped forward and asked permission to call Adhaan. As the sound of the adhaan rose to the ceiling of the Musallah and swirled around, the walls greeted it like an old friend, long absent but not forgotten.
The haunting call of prayer left an indelible impression in every person in the room, impelling the desire to call upon their Lord in prayer and to hear the murmur of the musallis in prayer once again in this ghost mosque
As the visitors lined up for iqama, Rob in a sudden feeling of being left out wanted to pray but did not know how to. He discovered that Allah is multilingual and knows the language of the heart and understands the intent of the musalli as his limbs bow to Him Subhanawataala. He joined them in the line, the genetic imprint on his limbs coercing him to bow before Allah, his heart touched in places that had been asleep.
Dhuhr salat in Jamaat proceeded in the walls of the Jamia masjed whose walls had become bereft of the sound of Salah and had waited for fifty years for someone to come and reclaim the traditions of our Prophet pbuh.
Rob was visibly shaken after the salah and recited the Kalima Shahada. Time and circumstances had distanced him from the faith of his ancestors and he wanted to reclaim it he said.
The company then sat down and loudly recited the kalima for almost thirty minutes at the end of which the happiness on Robs face said that he could recite it without help.
In the evening the visitors were invited back to Robs house and his brother came to visit Robby seemed to remember numerous stories from his parents and their Muslim Afghan community ………..and it was apparent that these ancestors were buried in a Muslim cemetery. Rob and Robby took the visitors to the cemetery.
In the large Mohammaden section of the cemetery in this remote Outback in Australia he saw the Muslim names on the headstones in Arabic………names like Maryam Bibi, Zohra Khatoon, and others, and suddenly this isolated community struggling to retain their faith and not knowing how to in this remote area without contact with others, became evident in each of the headstones with dates and names that spoke a story.
Rob shamefacedly revealed that all those buried here after 1960 were buried without a burial prayer (Namaz e Janaza)
Why? The perplexed visitors asked him. The Arabic inscriptions on the headstones spoke another story. “Because no one knew how to pray Namaaz e Janaza” said Robby. The full impact of this revelation did not hit him till later and his mind began to cull the facts for an answer to this perplexing question that had been bothering him from the start.
Why did the book close on Muslims in 1960 after 160 years of practicing Islam in the Outback? Why………………..?
He expected a dramatic answer but none came. On researching the subject, very subtly two obvious scenarios unfolded, the pages of the Quran had closed from two ends; the women and the children while the men were away delivering in the Outback……….
To be continued……