Somewhere in the heart of the deep south live a group of imperfect Muslims. They argue, yell at each other, go on a fast of silence, speak words that leave a wound in the heart of the other, and then get back together much like siblings.
One day when the soul departs the body of a Muslim in the community they are reminded of their mortality and they turn to the Divine in extreme humility and submission and come together like a symphony to make spiritual music.
She was always the smiling one, though time and circumstances tested her with everything hurtful possible.
“Call 911………… A patient has coded in room number…………….
This is not an usual call from a nursing home filled with the aged and or the ill, waiting to die or see their loved ones, which ever comes first.
She was young and not yet deemed in the age group that usually die of attrition. Yet prior experience tells me that the Angel of death is not particularly well versed in visiting someone based on the age of the person but goes by the Divinely fixed time ordained prior to birth.
Once upon a time when she came into this world as a first child, she was celebrated as “The Princess”, relatives stood in line to hold her, cooed over her and she was well loved by family and friends.
She partially grew up in Saudi Arabia where her parents were working and then went to England with her sister to complete high school and college.
I am at the rehab center visiting her after her first stroke that has baffled even the physicians due to her patchy recovery and a non specific focus.
She pulls out the scarf from the gift bag I brought her and gracefully wraps it around her neck over her hospital gown. It suddenly transforms her. I see the girl I knew of the sparkling soft honey colored eyes filled with intelligence that look at me with joy and she smiles her thanks.
I get a glimpse of the friend who partnered with me in teaching a controversial book titled “the struggle of Muslim women “ to the teens in the mosque school at a time when those concepts were inconceivable in the American Muslims.
The morning sun enters her room in the Rehab Center, She puts her hand into the gift bag once more and out comes the long necklace of pearly beads that I had selected for her for ease of wear. She puts it on over the scarf, looping it twice and suddenly I see the “ free spirit” in her. She was always free spirited in thought and action but well contained and understanding of the restrictions of the world she lived in.
The nurse knocks on the door, it is time for her bath. She falls back on her pillow and gone is the sparkling girl replaced with the woman with a stroke.
Each Muslim woman is a portrait in progress, thus when we meet someone once we only see a single brushstroke and that is what some of the Muslim community members saw in her.
There is something about asking and giving, that humans rebel against. They can give once but on asking again especially if there has been no obvious effort to change the situation by the asker, some give again but when asked a third time they become disdainful, rebellious and resistant to giving.
The Shaikh in our Islamic Studies class reminds us daily of the hadith: “ Never return an asking hand empty”
I deeply respect the Turkish way of giving where the giving hand is always placed below for they firmly believe that in giving they are receiving the ultimate gift of the privilege to give.
The women in the mosque have formed a group which goes and visits her in the nursing home every week. Most of them belong to cultures and backgrounds that she has nothing in common with. Yet the invisible thread of love and connection is tied by their mutual faith and the command from Allah Subhanawataala reminding each Muslim of the right of another i.e. to visit the sick and join the funeral.
This “princess” of her beloved kingdom has lost her followers due to illness, incapacitation and loss of income.
What warms my heart are the women and men from cultures far flung from those that she belongs to come together to provide the poultice of love and caring, knowing that it is a temporary panacea for her ills.
Death in this small community brings the people together like the players in a symphony. The Maestro whose baton leads the faithful is invisible.
She is dying……… or almost dead in the hospital. A slow trek to the hospital begins by those impelled not by personal grief but the reflected grief of her loved ones and the command of Allah.
It is a surreal moment for me as the hospital nurse enters the room and respectfully explains that “the body” will be transported to the funeral home, whenever the family is ready after their final goodbyes.
Her voice is filled with compassion and her eyes reflect apology.
“The body” I am startled. Suddenly this young woman who was a princess for her friends and relatives and then a sick individual in the community deserving of visits, has been relegated a new impersonal and generic name of “the body”
The name is apt, because now all that remains is the casing that held the spirit ( the ruh or the soul) which has flown out of the prison of the body and is celebrating its freedom, while “the body” watches it depart with glazed eyes and the face falls into a serene repose.
“The body” has been exhausted in trying to hold the spirit down to the earth while all it wants to do is to rise and fly into the upper echelons of mercy and beauty.
The symphony continues, the mahram accompanies the female “body” and sits in vigil all night at the nursing home, rising in the morning as the community and family women begin to arrive. They have come to give the body its final bath, perfume it, purify it and get it ready to meet its Lord and Creator.
The body is carefully and gently shrouded as instructed in our faith and placed in the casket. Men appear from nowhere to carry the casket into the hearse and onto the mosque. The side door is opened and the casket is wheeled in for the performance of the funeral prayer. The last prayer to be said over the body before it is consigned to the grave and as it came from dust it is is returned to dust.
The men and women many who never even had ever set eyes on her are present for the funeral prayer fulfilling the right of one Muslim on another. They are here to play their part in the Symphony as instructed by the Divine Maestro.
Women embrace the grieving women. of the family. embrace the father and brother. It is hard to let go of “the body” not only is it filial and maternal love that calls for its presence but regret that pours in with the “ What if I had done this or that…………….maybe the results would have been different”
“What if……………..?” is the door of pain and tribulation. It is a door that is held open to lure the bereaved by Shaytaan. Prophet Muhammad pbuh tells us that “What if….” opens the door to nothingness, where Shaitan promises to show us what could have happened had we followed him”
However we know that the past cannot be changed and thus it is essential at the onset of “what if…………” to imagine a door opening into the vast darkness of possibilities that can never happen and being lured by Shaytaan to enter the realm of regret, and to forcefully SHUT IT immediately before we are pulled through it and suffer the pangs of a past that cannot be changed.
The final procession to the cemetery brings tears to my eyes as I watch all those men and women from the mosque join the procession fulfill the last rites of their sister in Islam. Some who never knew her and yet feel impelled to fulfill what the Lord has commanded and fulfill it with humility and compassion.
As we drive to the Cemetery I have de’ja vu, times two. First of my mothers hearse being driven to the Cemetery in spring with the trees dripping with lavender wisteria, and then a few months later the hearse carrying my young son through the same streets to bury him in the red earth of Georgia. Then and now everything becomes a blur because of the tears in my eyes and the rain outside.
I watch cars pulled over on the other side of the road respectfully waiting for the funeral to pass. Only in the deep south are there still people of such deep spiritual conviction that all faiths merge into gentleness of compassion when a soul leaves the body.
Someone across the ocean sends a rose for her, I fling it into her grave and it lands on her heart………
“Inna lil lahi wa inna elayhe rajaeoon”