WHEN I FIRST became interested in Islam (I mean when I actually conceived trying to live by it, understand it, when it had become clear to me that the Quran really was a Revelation, the Revelation, and that Islam really was the divine way laid down for all human beings till the end of time), I used to love to read the stories of the Prophet’s Companions, may Allah be so pleased with them.
I wasn’t alone in this. So many of us back then, in the 70s and 80s, in our young days as fresh—or, as in my case, refreshed—believers, were like iron shards magnetically snapping to these lodestone people, by which I mean the Companions.
It was all emotion of the best kind—that feeling of pure, utter tenderness that on a rare occasion of selfless honesty suffuses through the hard human heart.
Things were different then with Islam and Muslims in the world, especially in the West, if I can use that passé term. We were, then, to our great chagrin, “invisible” to the society around us. No one took our notice, though we longed for this, none but the people we ourselves were coming in contact with at school and at work, who were hearing us firsthand with our passion for Islam as the divine, universal promise for which man had been longing.
We felt as if we had suddenly discovered truth for the first time, lying right there, like the diamond of the world, in the sand. Can you imagine, to suddenly be holding the key that would unlock the perpetual societal puzzles of poverty, segregation, ennui, alienation, and international strife? To finally see it, through the blinding matrices of materialism, the numinous algorithm of Oneness that would solve for any x-factor in life?
When the Light Hits the Mirrors Just Right
It was like all your life you had seen the world as if through the dazzling, swirling, abstract color-patterns of a kaleidoscope. Then all at once the light hit the mirrors just right and the colored glass pieces abruptly fell perfectly into place. And there they were, in full relief, the leitmotifs of transcendence of the Beautiful Divinity and His beautiful human creation.
If only we could just explain it to our friends and colleagues. If we could but show it to them, then they would see it, and be at last free to embrace it, transfigure themselves, and change the world—until it became the place it was supposed to be: Not a utopia, but a planet of earth pivoting concentrically through the universe on an axis of justice, spinning into balance, circumambulating to the cadence hymned by the cosmos, labayk Allahumma labayk, ever at your service, O Allah, ever at your service.
Loss of Identity
The impulse of Muslims, it seems to me, has changed in these times. I am not saying Muslims were better, or better off, thirty years ago. But I am saying the ethos and idealism has changed, and not for the better.
Muslims now may have far more numbers, visibility, and social organization (although this last point is debatable), as well as “activism” (though, truth unveiled, activism is mostly a sham to keep people within narrowly defined spaces of “protest” or within anointed traditions of “internal” reform that threaten to shift no paradigm or break no mold).
But Muslims today suffer a much greater loss of identity. Islam and Muslims are increasingly indistinct from the people around us. And if our communal organization seems to be growing, our cohesion is certainly weakened and giving way to diffusion.
The cancerous corruptions of expressed modernity’s two core values have metastasized within the Muslim body. Corporatism and capitalism, and their attendant notions of “development,” now throng in our veins.
There is also a strong and, I would say, cowardly tendency among us to baptize Islam’s values in the dirtied waters of the nationalisms and the au courant jingoisms in which men now frenzy. The purpose of this patriotic whirling is to draw people tight with one another in a secular sacrament calculated to conjure to the tribe a rabid power.
There is, moreover, a growing attempt by Muslims to legitimize their mottled strivings within the false histories of these chauvinisms through bankrupt borrowings of the ruined pop art forms of music, poetry, and film.
All of which, Suhayb has brought to my mind.
The son of Sinân ibn Mâlik of the Arab tribe of Banî Al-Nimr (Sons of the Tiger), Suhayb was not known as “the Arab,” but as “the Roman,” Al-Rûmî.
His father had been appointed by the Persians as the governor of Iraq in the generation before the advent of the Prophet ﷺ and Islam. Suhayb was born there, in Mosul, three decades before the Hijrah.
The Romans invaded Iraq when Suhayb was a young boy and took him prisoner. Arab merchants later bought him as a slave, brought him back to Arabia, and sold him to ʿAbdullah ibn Jadʿân in Makkah, who set him free.
Suhayb became a wealthy merchant, and when the Prophet ﷺ began his call to Islam, Suhayb would affirm it. Said ʿUmar ibn Al-Kha ṭ ṭâb of Suhayb: “What a good man is Suhayb! Were he not to fear Allah, even then he would not commit a sin,” meaning he would not disobey Allah even if he did not know to fear Him, for he had a disposition to goodness and purity. But once he knew Allah and had fear of Him, one can scarcely conceive of the depth of his taqwa, his fearful reverence of God, and how the intensity of his awe and love for Allah kept him away from all sin.
Thirteen years later, the crucial migration of Islam to Madinah transpired, and Suhayb, set to leave with the other Muslims, was as good as ʿUmar’s judgment of him.
“You came here destitute and shall not leave us wealthy,” the Makkans threatened Suhayb, to dissuade him from migrating to the Prophet ﷺ. Suhayb laughed, only too happy to trade his paltry riches of dunya, of this world, to the Makkans for his opulent âkhirah, forever Hereafter, to be with the Ummah gathering in Madinah. He left Makkah penniless for Madinah.
What a bargain!
“Suhayb has profited! Suhayb has profited!” exclaimed a joyous Muhammad, Messenger of God, ﷺ when Suhayb arrived in Madinah.
He died 38 years later, a mujâhid of Badr, and all subsequent battles with the Prophet ﷺ, a top-flight archer and narrator of 307 a ḥadîth, reports from the Prophet ﷺ.
Oh for the bargain of Suhayb, O Allah! and for the blessing of his insight, his commitment, his courage, for all of us Muslims today.