1. Al-hamdu lillah is an Arabic phrase that students in Arabic 101 classes all over the world learn on the first day of class. It means “Praise belongs to God” and the students learn that it can be used to answer the question “How are you?”. The response of “Praise belongs to God” is sort of a shorthand for “I’m fine, thanks be to God.” In other words, it is pretty much a throw away line said with as little thought as an American would give to answering the same question in English.
But in Islam God is to be praised for all things that happen to you, good or bad. Thus there are expressions in Arabic that mean “Praise belongs to God under all conditions” and then my personal favorite that even rhymes in Arabic “Al-hamdu lillah alladhi la yuhmadu ‘ala makruhin siwah” which in English just doesn’t sound the same at all. “Praise belongs to God who is the only one who can be praised for something bad.”
One thing that many Arabic 101 students are never taught, and this is especially sadly true of students trained in the US military since they kill more Muslims than the rest of us, is that the Quran actually begins with this very phrase. For in Islam a truly wise person is one who has faith and one who has faith has the wisdom to know that, as the Quran itself teaches, you may not like something at all but it could turn out that it is what is best for you. I’m sure that many Mantiq readers have their stories of blessings in disguise. Al-hamdu lillah.
2. It was Ramadhan some years ago. Cold, wet, foggy, typical English weather in the middle of winter. It was a Friday. The Shaykh had been invited to England to speak at various mosques in and around London and to lead the tarawih prayers said during Ramadhan at night in mosques throughout the world. He was especially sought after due to his melodious voice and his Egyptian sense of humor which he often used as an effective teaching device in his sermons.
It was late afternoon and the sun would soon begin to set. The Shaykh was sitting on the carpet leaning against the wall reading his Quran and waiting for the call to prayer so he, like the many others gathered at the mosque, could break the fast with some very simple light food, say the sunset prayer and then once again all gather together immediately afterwards for a proper Ramadhan meal and fellowship.
The Shaykh had given a particularly powerful sermon that day at the Friday noon prayer as a sort of guest Imam. His sermon was on the juxtaposition of faith and works in the Quran and it was meant to provoke discussion and reflection – something most sermons never do in any place of worship. But as the worshippers began to gather and chit chat as they too awaited the call to prayer ending the fasting for that day they began to talk about salvation and paradise and how to attain them. Many of the workers were immigrants from Pakistan and India, a few from various Arab countries and some from more distant Islamic lands. Then there were the white British converts whom everyone else – the real Muslims – liked to lord it over and “teach” about the “true” Islam.
There was lots of talk about Jihad as the only true way to salvation. The whites were listening hearing quotes (and misquotes) from the hadiths of the Prophet about the glories of Jihad and the status of martyrs. Others, less hell-bent on avoiding hell through violence, stressed the Quran’s great emphasis on helping the poor and needy and upon justice and building a just society. These things will earn you paradise.
The Shaykh sat in the corner looking at them. “Somebody reads one book and thinks he is Abu Hanifah” he said to himself. He was just 40, but looked older. Dealing with the Muslim communities in non-Muslim lands for the past few years had taken its toll on his otherwise sunny disposition. His neatly trimmed beard was starting to show serious grayness and up close you could see the lines around his deep almost black eyes.
One particularly annoying young Egyptian man in the crowd arose to speak shouting loudly that Jihad was the way to paradise in an age where all the Muslim lands were under siege. He quoted Surah 61 verses 10 and 11 – verses often quoted by Aiman al-Zawahiri whom the Shaykh had once known personally and whom he loathed.
That ye believe in God and His Messenger, and that ye engage in Jihad in the Cause of God, with your property and your persons: That will be best for you, if ye but knew!
The Shaykh then made a decision within himself that would change his life forever and in ways he could not then have imagined.
He slowly rose and walked to the center of the mosque where so many of the young men had gathered. He stood next to the young Egyptian firebrand and quoted from other verses in the same Sura:
O ye who believe! Why say ye that which ye do not?
The point was not lost on the young man who faded slowly back into the group.
The Shaykh now had the attention of everyone in the mosque. Even the women who had been bringing food for the breaking of the fast had stopped making preparations and stood almost at attention from the women’s section of the prayer area.
The Shaykh, who always kept in mind the Prophet’s exhortation to make one’s prayer long but one’s speeches short, spoke in his British-accented English.
If all you can do is say “al-hamdu lillah” it is enough.
Everyone remained quiet as the Shaykh walked through the crowd to the entrance to the mosque. He went out into the fog and the cold to pray and break his fast alone.