Two weeks ago, I attended the Muslim Student Association of Rutgers University’s annual Road to Revival day conference. This year’s conference was titled, “Heroes of Our Past” and highlighted a few sahaba, or companions, of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). By the end of the day the speakers had imparted to us lessons from the characters and lives of five companions, may God be pleased with them. There is so much wisdom for us in the lives of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), his companions, and all preceding Prophets and Messengers. Nowadays, it is so much easier to find young Muslims who know personal details about actors, musicians, and writers than ones who know equally as much or more about our tradition’s many examples of upstanding character and faith.
The day after the Heroes of Our Past conference, I found myself revisiting a question that has periodically crossed my mind in recent months: is our way of presenting role models to our communities, especially the youth, the most effective and transformative it can be?
When learning about the sahaba, we come to know that they were excellent examples of character and leadership. However, it’s my feeling that when we frame their lives as glorified stories they become just that- stories from a distant past that are just out of our reach, a generation of upstanding believers never to return. We tend to look to the past alone and ignore the many people in our midst who are trying to live their lives in the sunnah of our Prophet (peace be upon him). There are men and women who are living lives filled with service, gentleness, a passion for the truth and justice, excellence in the pursuit of knowledge, and kindness towards others. They exist. There are men and women who challenge systems of oppression daily. There are men and women in our communities who are serving God and living good lives for the duration of the time they are granted on this Earth. They are human and prone to faults, but they stand out among us as people of belief, character, and trust in God.
Given that the world in which we live is a very different one from the one in which our Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions traveled through- they were at the forefront of the spread of Islam and now we are in a world where Muslims are abound but we are still under attack- how can we inspire more people to transform their lives and follow the footsteps of our Prophets and the righteous who lived among and after them? We as youth face different challenges than did our predecessors, such as the internet and its many temptations (easy access to lewd material). However, they knew what it was like to work hard to suppress feelings of anger, jealousy, pride, lust, envy, and arrogance. They also struggled to find a balance between working for the dunya, this world, and the akira, the Hereafter. By reflecting on their lives, we find examples of how to treat others, how to constantly check our intentions, and to be mindful of God and His Mercy when we inevitably make mistakes.
What I’ve found to be quite helpful in making their characteristics seem much more attainable for me is to look at young people who are incorporating aspects of the sunnah into their lives in ordinary yet extraordinary ways, masha’Allah. Four such young American Muslims passed away in the past year, and the way people reflect on the lives they lead is a testament to their character.
In July 2014, in the final nights of Ramadan, Mostafa Khalifa, the brother of one of my friends and a very active and beloved brother in New Jersey, passed away. Although I did not personally interact with Brother Mostafa much, I had seen him around often and had heard much about him during his time on this Earth. He founded and became the Ameer of the NJ Chapter/Qabeelah Durbah of AlMaghrib Institute, was a mentor to youth in the area, was heavily involved in Rutgers University’s MSA, and was said to always have a smile on his face, masha’Allah. He was living in the 21st century just like you and me. He studied hard. He was a good son, brother, friend. Mostafa touched so many hearts.
I will never forget his janazah (funeral prayer). More than a thousand people showed up from around the area and others took last minute flights to New Jersey to be there. The masjid was overflowing. Even while standing up, the masjid was overflowing- one row melting into the next. Shoulder to shoulder, Mostafa’s brothers and sisters- the men, women, and children who had come to know and love his beautiful soul- stood and prayed, tears slipping out of every eye socket. There was so much love for this man, and seeing how many others cared for him shook every other person in attendance. With the life he lead for the sake of God, with so many souls, near and afar, praying for his forgiveness and entrance into Jannah, there is little doubt in my mind that he is among those in Paradise- wAllahu ‘Alam (and God knows best).
Like Brother Mostafa Khalifa, our young sister Yusor Abu-Salha, her sister Razan Abu-Salha, and her husband Deah Barakat were all known for their service, cheerful dispositions, and smiling faces. By now we all know about how their lives were ended less than two weeks ago in North Carolina. While the response in the aftermath of their murder has been mixed, one response echoed from our communities: that these were young Muslims trying their best to be good people by serving others and living according to the guidelines God has told us to. They were living in the West and holding onto their faith. Through their actions, they taught their friends and neighbors about the nature of Islam. They did not spend their entire lives in prayer. They interacted with and served others in need, both locally and far. They excelled in their studies and used their skills for good, just as Islam teaches us. Not everyone can become a scholar, and, in fact, we need to have a variety of skills present in our communities for them to be vibrant, healthy, sustainable ones.
Like Brother Mostafa, the janazah of Yusor, Deah, and Razan was attended by thousands. Their families’ response to their deaths is awe-inspiring and another example for us. Deah, Yusor, and Razan were raised in practicing Muslim households that instilled in them the belief that this life is brief, that our actions are all that will matter after we die. Knowing how their children lived, how well they were loved, their parents were both grieving and happy that their children were now with their Lord.
Mostafa, Deah, Yusor, and Razan lived with integrity, and the flood of love and testament to each of their characters is something that each of us should yearn for insha’Allah. Below are some sources from the Qur’an and sunnah that exemplify some of their behaviors and how they are derived from the way of life, sunnah, of our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him).
In verse 110 of Surat Ali-Imran (Chapter 3), God tells us:
كنتم خير أمة أخرجت للناس تأمرون بالمعروف و تنهون عن المنكر و تؤمنون بالله
“You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong and believing in God.”
Abdullah ibn Harith (may Allah be pleased with him) said:
“I never came across a person who smiled as much as Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). Prophet Muhammad regarded smiling to a brother as an act of charity.” (Tirmidhi)
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) also said, “God is kind and loves kindness and gives for gentleness what He does not give for harshness nor for anything else.”
According to a hadith, on the Day of Judgment, God will say to a person, “I was ill, but you did not come to nurse Me.” The person will reply, “God, You being the Lord of the universe how can You be ill?” God will answer, “Such and such servant of Mine was ill. Had you gone there, you would have found Me there with him.” Then God will say to another person, “I was hungry, but you did not feed Me.” The person will reply, “God, You are the Lord of the worlds, how could You go hungry?” God will say, “Such and such of my servants came to you, but you did not feed him. Had you done so, you would have found Me with him.” Then God will say to yet another man, “I was thirsty, and you did not give Me water to drink.” That person will also say, “God, You are the Lord of the worlds, how could You be thirsty?” God will say, “Such and such servant of Mine came to you, but you did not give him water to drink. Had you offered him water, you would have found Me there with him.”
May God accept Mostafa, Deah, Yusor, Razan, and every other one of our brothers and sisters who filled their lives with good deeds into the highest level of Jannah insha’Allah. May we all strive to serve others, approach each day with an optimistic attitude, and be aware that any breath may be our last and, as such, treat everyone with respect, care, and dignity- and one day soon join them in Paradise insha’Allah. Ameen.