Surely, we will test you with something of fear, hunger, and loss of wealth, lives, and fruits. Give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere. Al-Qur’an 2:155
Two weeks ago, I was preparing to board a shuttle bus for a five minute ride from my hotel to the International Terminal at JFK Airport in New York. All of the preparations had been made to fly to Saudi Arabia to participate in the annual Rihla program. All of the books I needed for the various lessons I was to teach had been selected and placed in my large briefcase. Other books for personal readings had been added to the load. My computer was ready, programmed to record the various sessions. Most importantly, my passport and tickets, delivered a day earlier had been hastily crammed into one of the briefcase’s many pockets and compartments.
As my wife and I began loading our bags unto the shuttle, I suddenly noticed that the briefcase was missing. But how could that be? I had been watching over the small mountain of luggage, except for a brief jaunt to the hotel’s gift shop to purchase a few items for a makeshift breakfast. During that time my wife had been diligently standing guard. Still there was no sign of the bag. Bewildered, I sent my wife on to the terminal along with the remaining bags and began a futile search to find the missing article. After two hours of fervent searching, backtracking, and inquiries nothing had materialized.
As we sat despondently in the lobby of the hotel, we realized that the bag was gone, as was our opportunity to join the other teachers and students for the start of the Rihla program, as the flight we were to catch had already departed. Slowly a great sense of loss began to siege me. The computer contained many articles and other writings, some of which had not been saved elsewhere, along with almost two years of recorded lectures and sermons. A couple of the books were rare. One, an Arabic grammar text I had inherited from a recently deceased Afghani scholar, would probably be irreplaceable.
The gravity of the situation started to make me feel a little down. However, my little depression was short-lived. It dawned on me that my loss was very minor in reality. Other people, both here and abroad, were suffering far greater losses than mine. I thought about the many people in Iraq who have been forced to flee their homes, oftentimes in the dead of night, leaving behind not only personal possessions, of the type I had lost, but in many instances precious family mementos, clothing and other personal items. Due to the brutalities of the occupation and the ongoing sectarian violence, many of them will be unable to return home any time soon. I also though of the many Iraqis whose homes had been destroyed by one of the growing number of American air strikes (an unreported facet of the ongoing conflict)—in many instances their losses total, with no chance for any recovery or compensation.
I also thought of the people whose homes were recently flooded in parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, the irrepressible waters not only sweeping away their precious possessions, but in many cases their long-held dreams. One day they were living normal lives enjoying the fruits of their hard work, the next day everything was gone.
I saw that what I had loss in reality had been quite small, and what remained with me priceless. I still had my health, I had a home to return to, and I also had the necessary financial resources to begin the process of replacing most of what I had lost. May God be praised!
I came to see that my little tribulation was also a cause for pause and reflection. The losses we experience in this world, be they great or small, are reminders to us that one day both ourselves and everyone we know will depart this world, and we will lose everything in it. Not only will we lose books and computers, but we will also lose houses, apartments, clothes, cars, families, relatives, friends, neighbors, everything.
Awareness of this inescapable reality is only meaningful if it is translated into active preparation for that loss. The following prophetic tradition is related by Anas b. Malik:
A man asked the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him: “When will Doomsday occur, O Messenger of God!?” He replied: “What have you done to prepare for it?” The man responded: “I have neither prayed, nor fasted, nor given charity excessively. However, I do love God and His Messenger.” He said: “You will be with those you love.” Related by Bukhari (6171) and Muslim (2679)
Hopefully, my little loss will help me to get on with the preparation for the meeting with God. If it does then it was something good. Most of what we lose in this world can eventually be replaced, in one way or another. However, if we lose Paradise, and our opportunity to be in the company of the Prophets, peace upon them, the great supporters of truth, the true martyrs, and the righteous, then that is a great, irreplaceable loss. By adequately preparing ourselves for death, the great loss will become the great gain.
Amongst people is one who worships God with hesitancy and skepticism. If good befalls him he is content. However, if he is afflicted with tribulation he turns away disappointed [in God]. He loses this world and the next. That is truly the great loss. Al-Qur’an 22:11
P.S. Today, Wednesday, July 18, 2007, having belated obtained a new passport, I will fly over to Saudi Arabia for the last week of the Rihla. On the flight from Oakland to New York, I penned the following poem, which is the first I have ever written in iambic pentameter.
Her smile reflects the beauty of the sky.
Her benefits are there for passersby.
Her hair adorned sometimes with colors: gold,
and red, yellow, so splendid to behold.
Her life is spent measured as seasons pass.
The world adorned. Her gift? Her grace, her class.
The poet thought that he would never see,
a poem as lovely as a natural tree.