Our madrasah was situated on the edge of our local graveyard shaded by large mango and coconut trees in an affluent neighborhood.
Being situated here gave us a constant reminder of life and death, of now and the hereafter. The madrasah was a humble building, built on land donated by humble man for a graveyard, a mosque and one of the largest hospitals in the country.
The man’s family lived in a modest dwelling on the same land, which was surrounded by an opulent and affluent leafy streets with villas tucked amidst the remnants of an era past.
Our journeys to and from madrasah were always filled with adventures. As we walked through leafy and gated neighborhoods, we dipped in and out of numerous embassies along the way just for the sake of childishness.
We shamelessly always had a fib or two as to why we were late. The trusting, gentle Maalim Yusuf would just nod as if to say, “It’s okay, you’re here now.”
A Bully’s Reward
There was never a dull moment going to or at madrasah. One time my brother was brought in by my father because he had been skipping weekend school. We gathered around him reciting Ash-Shams as we pinched him.
I know! It sounds horrific, but lessons were to be learned. I have no idea why Al-Shams. I assume we liked the rhythm, and for some of us, thrilling was the payback as my brother was a little bully in his own way. No worries, he has grown up to be a fine and just man.
One of the things I loved about madrasah was the stories. I was a child who loved books and lived mostly within the worlds the texts created in my mind. An introvert; my internal conversations were more real than imaginable.
I loved participating in the telling of the seerah of Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him). The story of Miraj will always be my favorite as I got to read it to my peers over and over. But there were also stories about the hell fire.
The Tortured Tongues
I specifically remember our teacher (May Allah have mercy on him and grant him Jannat al Firdaws) would tell us the punishment of the tongue.
He told us in detail and demonstrated how the tongue would be pulled and pulled until it stretched and stretched, then nailed down with a hot nails in Jahannam.
This vivid image stuck firm in our young minds. We tried pulling our tongues as to see the possibility only to be reminded that the ability of Allah was unimaginable! I remember being horrified at the thought of being punished for backbiting.
The stories of Jahannam were meant to scare us, reminding us in the hopes of shaping our behavior.
Alas! The young and the fleeting of life, as we grew and were now away from the weekly reminders at madrasah our focus was more on exciting issues of growing up.
Finishing school, finding a job, finding a mate, travel – all grown up stuff. We became absent-minded of the lessons taught under the mango trees.
Years later, with all my knowledge and all my experiences I had an issue with someone. I felt wronged by this person. I hadn’t realized how deeply my ego was wounded and how I had carried resentment in our daily encounters.
Until a fateful evening when a mutual friend called and before I knew it I poured out the venom from my veins. For hours in a conversation, I unfurled about the person I was upset with. I spoke with much anger, pain and hurt.
I laid my soul bare, putting my supposed hurt into every word I uttered until the end of the conversation. I hung up the phone. I was shaken, something had shifted within.
I wasn’t myself.
It was Isha time, so ritualistically I went ahead and prepared myself for the prayer. I was still rattled, unsettled within. Stepping on the prayer mat always brought immediate calmness, but not on this night.
Trying to persist with my prayers, I just couldn’t. I was frozen. All I could see was myself shrinking smaller, smaller and smaller on the prayer mat. I was smaller than an ant.
Tears started running down my face, my body trembling with sobs. Out of nowhere I felt this overwhelming sense of guilt, remorse and regret, but mostly it was shame.
I felt ashamed.
As I presented myself to honor Allah, I also felt that I was standing trial. I had brought myself to the court of the Almighty.
I was guilty.
I knew I was in trouble. I knew I was wrong, having wronged not only the person I was spoke ill of, I had wronged myself and in the process. I had angered Allah.
For a long while, I stood there in my tiny self state, as I had grown smaller than an ant, trembling with sobs as I carried on with my prayers.
As soon as I finished, I called the friend I was talking to earlier and apologized for dragging her down with me. We promised each other anytime one of us steps on the wrong path in our conversations it is our duty to remind each other.
I have since spoken to the friend I was upset about. We have forgiven one another. Today, I don’t even remember what got me so upset anyway!
Allah forbids the acts of backbiting and gossiping as they are the most vilest and despicable of things; yet many of us casually commit this heinous crime against humanity.
May Allah protect us from our own egos and ourselves. Alhumdulillah for the childhood lessons that took root in my soul. Their reminders remain with me always.