Growing Pains: Father and Son
One of the prime accusations raised by the polytheists of Makkah against Muhammad, the last Prophet of Islam, was that his message divided once-united families, separated one blood-relative from the other, pitted one friend against the next, and the father against the son. Inasmuch as the message of Islam enforced in its believers the real criterion with which human relationships are to be maintained – loving for Allah and hating for Allah – the Makkan polytheists were, indeed, not incorrect in the assessment of the end results of this policy. Ever since, the commitment to Islam, or the lack of it, has engendered many a rift in the other wise most harmonious of familial bonds. Indeed, much before Muhammad, in the case of many messengers of God – whether it be the case of the Prophet Noah and his son, the Prophet Lot and his wife or Abraham and his father – this tragic aspect of their commitment to the Divine cause has been tellingly revealed to us through the instructive case studies that the Qur’an puts before its readers.
The story-essay presented hereunder informs us of the inner turmoil of a son who struggles to come to terms with the reality of his own father living a life that is based in ignorance of the true meaning of Islam. The agony of Max – himself a self-confessed believer in Islam – is created by his heart-wrenching existence between two worlds: one to which he is already dead, and the other into which is powerless to be born. Max’s story – set in the twenty-first century after the disappearance of Christ – shows that this painful severing of ties for the sake of Islam is very much a reality in the modern age as well; that Islam and its manifestations are very much alive in the hearts of its believers even in the neo-Jahiliyyah of the disturbing times through which we pass today.
He wasn’t fully the type that his son would have wanted to see as a father.
But was the poor man solely to be blamed? Max wondered. He was, after all that can be said about him, the quintessential family man. Loyal to immediate family bonds almost to the exclusion of all others in society. Perhaps, unknown to his own self, a materialist even.
More of an introvert.
Quick to anger.
Strict and tough with his only son.
Lenient and gentle with his two daughters.
That was Max’s summing up of his father even as the memory of his childhood presented itself to him. But then childhood is, like all things, a passing phase and one soon gets to grow out of it; to reassess impressions; to reassign priorities as one moves forward in life. For Max, however, despite the many years that passed out through his childhood and teenage years, few things had remained as constant – as rigidly as his earliest impression – as the image of his father’s peculiar attachment to his religion. Most other things about his father had undergone at least a marginal change over the years: he had become more outgoing, he could now hold back his temper occasionally, he had realized that his only son was not a child anymore and so he had to deal with him man to man, but, of course, he still loved his daughters and was still lenient and gentle with them. Even if they were both married now and had settled down with their families in distant cities across the seas.
But the way that he related to his religion throughout all these years had undergone little change. He still believed that he was a far better ‘Muslim’ than those Arabs in the Gulf states amongst whom he had worked for more than a quarter of a century.
“What is the meaning in saying that the Arabs are ‘religious’ when their religiosity does not help them in living their lives as proper Muslims?” Max recalled his father asking his friends.
And they would nod in solemn agreement.
It was a strange thing to Max, even back in those days when he attended primary school, that his father was rarely amongst the hundreds of worshippers who thronged to the mosques of the city every Friday. With the advantage of his maturing years, however, Max now realized that those were mostly worshippers who probably never bothered themselves with any of the other mandatory prayers save that one weekly congregation.
He now knew that there were people who considered it sufficient, for their religious pretensions, to have met each other and performed the rituals of a Friday congregation together in that one assembly and then to be done with their religion for another week, even as they immersed themselves in the concrete realities of the world.
Their life that was to be lived for, without end, in the here rather than the hereafter.
Friday, then, was such a tragedy. To Max, it represented in a cruel, ironic sense the pathetic failure of the Muslim world. The general relegation of worship and brotherhood to one day in a week, when Islam gave a vision of mosques full with worshippers five times a day.
In that sense, Ramadan – the Muslim month of fasting – too was a tragedy to Max’s peculiar way of thinking from behind, or to, what he would come to define later, his way of thinking laterally. It represented a month of devotion amongst the general Muslim world, which he now began to hold in contempt. For, if, to some, Ramadan meant a month of great self-restraint and devotion, to Max, Ramadan was the herald of the next eleven months when the mosques would be emptied of worshippers, all restraints kept aside, and the sense of brotherhood and fraternity all but forgotten until the approach of the next Ramadan.
The world had not changed much since then, those childhood years, Max sadly knew. You still had a majority of people who still thought in those terms. And it was infinitely sadder to Max that his own father should be amongst an even more select band of followers who cared little for such pretensions as Friday worship. To them such pretentious acts amounted to nothing less than hypocrisy, pure and simple.
Of course, Max himself was not totally averse to such a judgement. But the problem lay more with the judges than with the judgement itself. To these people who would judge others, matters of faith were exactly just that: a matter of faith.
Faith, to his father, was what you believed and not how you believed. It was essential to him that we believed in one God and in His messengers but his indifference to the question of how that belief should affect one’s life was near total.
And that was precisely where the son shifted away from the father.
For, to Max, faith that was based in true knowledge meant nothing if that knowledge was not put to good use. One of the arguments for his position which he suggested to himself as a teenager was one which he was always going to present his father with.
He would plan endlessly of the way in which he was going to put it forward, the only problem being that he just could not get himself to ask and argue. That, then, was how some children were brought up: intimidated by the father’s very presence; unable to ask, or say, something unless it was through the medium of a caring mother who was not there always to be the communication link between father and son. In such instances where the mother was absent, there would remain that unbridgeable gap between the two, marked by a world of silent company and imaginative assumptions of what went on in the mind of the other.
Max’s argument, however, remained unarticulated, undescribed and lodged within his own being with a force that would resemble the stored up energy of water contained across the barrier of a dam in a river.
“When, O God, will this dam give way?” Max had pleaded in his prayers. “When will one ever come out of the inhibitions with which one is surrounded, to declare to the world, to those whom one cared for the most, the real meaning of faith? The message to which they must pay heed as to nothing else?”
The dam of course gave way in time, but not within his family.
It burst open elsewhere.
In that campus atop a hill.
At that town by the Arabian Sea.
At the place of his father’s greatest expectations for his son and for the dignity of his own standing in society.
At that temple of the modern world where the devotees turned up in droves for the blessings of the god of applied science for their children.
At the high altar of an institution, indeed, a philosophy of life, that was dedicated, in the main, to the routine production of minds caught young and acculturated to a one-eyed ethic of life and employment that gave primacy of place to a purely materialistic orientation.
To the basics of making money through your profession. Of ‘outdoing the Joneses.’
At the new home of the Demon’s revolution.
The dam gave way not within Max’s family. It burst forth while he was in university. Not a university that promoted theology or metaphysics, but a university dedicated to the applied sciences like engineering: the stream through which his father had wanted him to swim through to dignity and status in society.
Max did swim through the stream however, although he never swam with the stream. He swam against it. And, in the process, caught a few other lives that were going downstream and turned their course upwards.
Against the tide.
University completed, he returned home and for all his experiences at the campus, home was still unchanged. The dam was still here. His convictions and frustration at being unable to convince his father continued to remain in the reservoir of his being.
Home, then, was not a place.
It was where you found contentment, where you flowed freely without obstructions.
Home is where you find it.
The argument – Max’s argument – nevertheless, remained: What is believing in the imminent collapse of the building you have climbed into if that belief did not help you to realize, and act upon, the urgency with which you must back out of the building to save yourself?
Is not the true believer in this collapse the one who tries to save himself, or herself, before that disaster struck?
Was it not the fool who said he believed and yet stayed within the building until it collapsed over him?
Max wished that his father would realize that believing in God and His warnings – repeated over and over in His message – actually meant that he was to obey Him in each of His commandments. If God existed, then surely He didn’t exist just so that His highest creation would merely acknowledge His existence. For that would be just a passive existence. And that was a concept repugnant to an understanding of any higher manifestation of God.
Divine existence, then, was to be a dynamic one in that our knowledge of that existence must prompt us to understand, and pay heed to, His ways and His commandments. This, of course, should be more so because it is ultimately tied up with our own salvation and contentment in the Hereafter.
Undoubtedly, however, the search for personal salvation, as represented in the yearning for safety from Hell, and personal contentment, as represented in the longing for paradise, within realms outside of space and time as we know it, are but two stations on the way to the highest goal: the pleasure of God; the countenance Divine, as it were.
But what of those who cannot see through to even those two stations?
How are they to be helped?
And that, too, before the coming of that Day when, in the words of the Qur’an, ‘every man will flee from his father and his mother; from his wife and from his children,’ in search of safety for none but himself.
A Day when every man would wish that his wife, his children and his parents could be given in ransom for his own safety from Divine wrath.
A Day that brings to end the validity of that sacred bond between father and child by which God swears one of His strongest oaths in the Qur’an: ‘By (the bond) between the begetter and that which he begot.’
And that, too, if the people that are to be helped are those like his own father. His father who was chiefly responsible, albeit in an indirect way, for having guided him into the light of true belief; who insisted on the best education and the best books in the English language for his only son as he grew past childhood and high school; who brought into the house literature on comparative religion, little knowing that his curious son would soon be seeking them out to satisfy the reading appetite that his father had so carefully nurtured in him.
To the father, Islam represented a fascinating aspect of his own identity; something which he saw could be very well defended against the feeble intellectual challenges posed by other religions. And this logical, rational foundation of Islam fascinated him no end. It gave him immense satisfaction to see the creed of his fathers being defended so successfully by the great TV debaters of the day, chief amongst whom was a certain Ahmed Deedat from South Africa.
If nothing else, Deedat was perhaps the first rational face of Islam which the father had seen in all his adult life. Sadly, to the son, however, there seemed to be nothing else for his father; there had been no further progress beyond that interest in comparative religion. There was just to be the sense of tribal affinity which was satiated with every successful projection of Islam against the contradictions of other religions.
A feeling of triumph that soon dissipated with the slightest thought of implementing Islam in one’s own life.
That was when Islam wouldn’t be allowed to percolate further into personal life.
That was when the ‘how’ of belief in God didn’t matter.
That was when the popular saint-worship of the day became non-problematic.
That was when rational thinking didn’t matter too much.
That was when the vilest innovations in religion become the norm, rather than the exception.
That was when strict obedience became a burden. An inconvinience.
To the son, however, such an attitude towards faith had come to represent the equivalent of reinstating idol worship back into Islam. For, God, of course, was believed in but not to the exclusion of the other objects of worship like current social norms and one’s own over-riding interests, one’s own likes and dislikes that came about in preference to God’s command.
These then were the old, yet new, idols within one’s heart. They were old in the sense that such selfish considerations have existed right from the beginning of man’s story; right from the time Cain murdered Abel so long ago. But they were new too in that they had become exclusive to this age by virtue of the ancient concept of idols and belief in idols becoming obsolete with the passage of the centuries.
Today, in the twenty-first century after the disappearance of Christ, nobody with a proper scientific education seriously believed in idol worship in the traditional sense.
Idol worship had to be reinvented: if there couldn’t be idols of clay and wood, there would always be the idols of the heart. And that, of course, was what the Demon always counted on.
In that sense, thought Max, was his own predicament similar to that of Abraham, the Haneef? Abraham who, according to the Qur’an, turned, with those with him, towards his father and people – all idol worshippers – and declared:
‘Today there has come about a wall (of separation) between us and you which will not be removed until you worship none but Allah.’
In that act of Abraham, said the Qur’an, there was an excellent example for those who truly believed.
But Max loved his father too dearly to want to relate to that ‘excellent example’ just yet. He hoped that occasion would not arrive so soon.
There still was hope.
After all, they were alive, both of them.
Both, father and son.
Both their hearts.
And every new dawn held a promise.
The promise of another day. Of another chance.
Before all chances came to an end with the tenure of life herein.
Before the Day finally arrived.