By Shabina S. Khatri
Sunday, December 26th, 2004. That’s when my family and I finished our four-day whirlwind tour of the Taj Mahal and other touristy sites in India. Despite my proximity (relatively speaking) to the earthquake, it wasn’t until flying back to Gujarat and turning on the TV that I heard anything about it. I remember being impressed by the magnitude – 8.6 on the 9-point Richter scale. Then I kind of forgot about everything – until the reports of the tsunamis began.
Still, given my whereabouts, my reaction was strangely muted. Consider the numbers: I was less than 1,200 miles from the devastation. That’s closer than the distance between Detroit and Los Angeles. Yet I was reacting like someone who was observing the situation from home, which was more than 7,000 miles away…
Wednesday, December 29th, 2004. Death toll at 100,000, and rising. All the Indian papers contain huge photos of deadly tidal waves chasing terrified people. On the editorial page, Gujaratis are encouraged to forego New Year’s celebrations and instead donate money to the growing humanitarian crisis. Rationally, I understand the disaster’s titanic significance. Yet it’s as if my heart is wrapped in a fog. I feel pity, but little else.
Sunday, January 2nd, 2005. After the longest plane ride ever, we’re home. Everyone’s prayers are with the tsunami victims. Even Google contributes, adding a link to its normally barebones webpage outlining ways to help. I read everything, but with detached eyes. Nothing trembles inside. What’s wrong with me?
Wednesday, January 5th, 2005. News stories focus on the miserable task of identifying the piles and piles of corpses, which have begun to rot under the scorching sun. What kind of hell must this be, I wonder, for the workers who toil in the heat and stench, cutting away bloated body parts to match dental and medical records that have probably already been washed away? What kind of hell must this be, I marvel, for the families who are waiting for information on the whereabouts of their loved ones? These questions stay on my mind as I drift into a troubled sleep.
Friday, January 7th, 2005. Driving home from work, I turn my dial to AM Radio to see how I-75 is doing. The news is on. The hardest-hit nation was Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. The reporter describes the heartbreaking situation of an orphaned child. A sound clip of the adhan comes on. And that’s the moment that pierces my heart. The sudden juxtaposition of the tragedy and the call to prayer catches me off-guard, defenseless. Finally, nearly two weeks after the fact, I begin to cry. Hurry to prayer, hurry to success, the harmonious voice urges. I cry more. The report stops. The tears subside and my vision clears. I continue to drive, but with a different perspective…
Why did it take me so long to react to one of the worst natural disasters in history? It would be easy for me to blame my indifference on societal upbringing. Apathy comes naturally to my generation, I could assert. At my high school, we even developed a hand signal to demonstrate our “care factor,” which we’d always triumphantly declare to be zero. I could also deflect responsibility by saying the sheer magnitude of destitution and suffering I saw in India had already so overwhelmed me that my system simply couldn’t accept any more bad news.
But I’m not going to take the easy way out. I’m going to be honest with you, because quite frankly, my problem is your problem. Folks, my delayed reaction was the result of a hard heart, pure and simple. And what does our Creator say about such hearts? That they are worse than rocks. “Thenceforth were your hearts hardened: They became like a rock and even worse in hardness. For among rocks there are some from which rivers gush forth; others there are which when split asunder send forth water; and others which sink for fear of Allah. And Allah is not unmindful of what ye do (2:74).”
Hard hearts are particularly loathsome because they prevent us from feeling any sort of motivation to change or improve our current situations. The Prophet (SAW) says, “Beware, in the body there is a piece of flesh; if it is sound, the whole body is sound and if it is corrupt the whole body is corrupt, and that is the heart (Bukhari).”
Unfortunately, corrupt hearts have become almost commonplace in our communities. Why else would “Muslim” nations be amongst the last and least to contribute to the relief effort? And, closer to home, why else do racism and hypocrisy still thrive in our Masajids? Mustering up the strength to care has become a laborious task indeed. How can we fix this disheartening (pun intended) problem, identified by the Prophet (SAW) as a sign of weak faith?
Let’s start by identifying the causes of this disease, which can be traced to excessiveness (too much food, sleep, laughter) and waste (of time, health and intellect). Cutting back on our indulgences and using our resources more efficiently seem like the obvious first steps to countering the hardness.
To ward off this debilitating condition in the long term, however, we will have to spend more time fortifying our faith with remembrance of Allah (SWT) and His Messenger (SAW). This can be done by:
- Reciting Qur’an often – as well as reflecting on its meanings. It helps to remind yourself that Allah (SWT) is speaking directly to you. People are described in different categories in the Qur’an; which do you fall into?
- Doing something for somebody else. That’s the fastest way to get out of “the world revolves around me” mentality. But that doesn’t mean you have to come up with a cure for world hunger or donate all your wealth to charity. Taking on too much too fast will only lead to burnout, so it’s better to pick a small act and do it consistently.
- Seeking knowledge, even if it takes you to China. Make an effort to learn at least the basic practices of faith, such as performing wudu properly. Study the meanings behind Allah (SWT)’s names and attributes. If acquired with the right intentions, knowledge generates humility and God-consciousness.
- Remembering death constantly. This will change our perspective on dunya by reminding us of our final resting place. Visit cemeteries. Read obituaries. Spend time with the elderly – anything to help you remember your own mortality. If it helps, try to remember what it will be like to rest all alone in our graves, how we will handle the Day of Judgment and whether those scrolls will end up in our left or right hand.
- Making sincere du’a to Allah (SWT) to forgive us for our sins and grant us the strength to bear His challenges with dignity and patience. Understanding that everything happens for a reason will help you develop a bird’s eye view of the world, enabling you to get past the petty matters that block the road to bigger and better things.
These are just a few suggestions designed to help us crack the stubborn coating around our hearts. I don’t profess to have all the answers, and implore you to remember that such a disease
cannot be treated overnight. Faith is like a rollercoaster, and the sensitivity of your heart will vary depending on your imaan barometer.
Like a garden or relationship, our deen requires constant nurturing and maintenance to stay healthy. The key is to never give up; Allah (SWT) guides whom He wills and I pray that He blesses us all with softer hearts. I also pray that these hearts mobilize us into standing up and speaking up for those in our communities who do not have the ability to do so. Ameen.