(In part 1: By supplying a Bosnian refugee camp in Bashka Voda with food and detergents, relief workers Suleman and Abbas (with the help of Aida, their translator) have obtained permission to teach the refugees English and Islamic history, thus introducing to them the basics of Islam, their faith, which had been suppressed by the Communist regime. The turnout to the first class has exceeded their expectations.)
“Where should we start from?” I asked. This raised a few eyebrows, as according to the picture Aida had painted, they were not expecting much interaction. I was supposed to have lectured like the Khutbah of the Friday prayer and leave; they were to listen respectfully and quietly.
I encouraged them by asking questions like how they were instructed in schools about Islam and so on. Finally, a 14-year-old sister said shyly: “Can you, please, start from zero? We were told in schools that there is no God.”
I was dumbfounded. This was the least of what I expected. I glanced at the rest of the class and found people nodding their heads. She was not alone.
I took a deep breath and started slowly and deliberately, as it would have been a disaster, if Aida misunderstood this delicate topic. I pointed out to the wonders that surrounded us and the signs that the creations held. After introducing them to the microchip, I said: “The microchip is made of silicon, iron and other metals. The probability of these metals getting arranged in this order by random existed but would be one in a zillion.
“So, on seeing this chip, you would argue that there is no one behind its creation just because such a random possibility existed or would you accept that someone designed and manufactured it? So how about this Universe, which is so much more complex?”
I gently reasoned that not believing in Allah (swt) didn’t add up logically. “If we were told that a road has snipers, and there is a chance that we will be hit, as opposed to another road, which is completely safe, which road would you take? Why would you not like to be safer? Why not apply the same logic in believing in Allah (swt)? You only gain by believing in Allah (swt), while in not believing in Him (swt), you take a risk.
I asked them, if anyone had proof that Allah (swt) didn’t exist. No one had. “The absence of the proof of a thing’s existence cannot become a proof in itself of its non-existence. On the contrary, all creations are a clear proof of the existence of a Creator.”
I was crude. It was raw Dawah, for which I had no earlier experience. For most of the students, it was the first time this was being presented in this manner. Some nodded, some sat wondering and others were awestricken.
Towards the end, I was sweating.
I found relief in the cool sea breeze, as I drove that evening. Those drives became a source of strength, as I collected my thoughts before the class and reflected on my return. This was my first intellectual interaction with the Bosnians, of whom I had a good general sample. I had all age groups, except for men of fighting age; I had both country folk and city dwellers from practically all income levels and locations.
I was impressed. I found the Bosnians to be simple-minded. They were also highly impressionable and I couldn’t fathom whether it was intrinsic or due to the tragedy that had met them.
Next day, we discussed Tauhid. “If there is a Creator,” I said, “He must be one; otherwise, the Universe would be in chaos. Just as we can’t have two captains in a plane or two drivers in a car, we can’t have two gods in this Universe.”
That day they were relaxed, easily smiling at my jokes. I wanted them engaged, as the class was voluntary, and the last thing I wanted was to have them lose interest.
I noticed that the girls with the short skirts were not there, confirming my suspicion that they had meant to tease me. The problem had obviously taken care of itself, but I was proven wrong. The girls were there but were dressed differently.
After the class, the same girls approached me. “We are the ones who wore improper dresses yesterday,” one started, visibly embarrassed, “we were later told that it was not proper. We are extremely sorry. Why didn’t you ask us to leave?” With this, tears welled up in her eyes. At a loss of words, I tried to comfort them by saying that we all make mistakes and they didn’t have to worry about it.
As I drove back that evening, I was deep in thought. It was a blessing of Allah (swt) that I had not asked them to leave. They might never have returned. This became a lesson I will never forget.
The classes continued, and we started with the Seerah of the Prophet (sa) and along the way, the Kalima and the articles of faith.
Gradually, they accepted me as a part of their small tortured world; someone who would listen and empathize with them and, more than that, had come to help them. I wasn’t able to leave immediately after class, as people wanted to talk to me. They eventually ended up talking about loved ones dying violently at the hands of the Serbs, of destroyed towns and broken lives.
The children, who became very attracted to me, had interesting questions, and their laughter lit up this bleak world. There was hardly a Muslim child in the camp, who wasn’t attending. I realized that this course was the only good time they were having in their monotonous life as refugees.
As I was going through the hardships that Prophet Muhammad (sa) faced in Makkah, I said: “We should thank Allah (swt) for giving us the gift of Islam; look how difficult it was to be a Muslim at that time.”
On hearing this, a young boy spontaneously spoke and the class fell silent. Since he had spoken in Bosnian, all had understood, except me. Aida tried to ignore it. Others in the class waved, asking me to carry on. I refused. “Hold on!” I caught the sternness in my voice, as I asked Aida, “What did he say?”
“He has asked,” Aida was fighting tears, “if it was as difficult to be a Muslim at the time of the Prophet (sa), as it is for us today.”
Looking up, I saw tears streaming down faces.
The time for the first test arrived. I wanted to encourage them to work hard. “Look,” I requested them a day before, “I have to drive 50 miles each day to be with you so, please, reciprocate by doing well on the test.”
On hearing this, an elder lady pointed out to Ahmed, who was 12 years old with a quiet and serious face. “He lives 5 miles away,” she said. “While you drive, Ahmed walks to class each day.” Finding out through friends that this course was being offered, he had signed up. He was there every day and stayed till the end of the course.
A day before the test, some children came to me with a naughty look in their eyes. They wanted to know, if I would be kind enough to tip them off to the questions in the test. I told them that I might ask them to explain the Kalima and then, looking around carefully, I whispered: “Make sure that no one finds out.”
The next day the one answer everybody knew was about the Kalima. I put that question in the test, happy to have the participants testify in writing to the Tauhid of Allah (swt) and to the prophethood of Muhammad (sa).
That day, I sat back and relaxed, watching the seriousness with which they were taking the test. For an outsider, it could as well have been a chemistry test.
One young girl wrote a comment: “Before coming to this course, I used to believe that there is no God, but now I think there is one. For me that was progress. How stupid it would have been to enforce the dress code on her at that stage.
Another girl wrote: “I now find strength to face the hardships I am going through, knowing that my Prophet (sa) went through similar hardships in his life.”
I gave out writing assignments on different topics. I had them pool their Islamic books and also contributed some to set up a virtual library for doing their rudimentary research. These assignments would then be presented in class.
Adapted (with permission) from “The Embattled Innocence.” Compiled for Hiba by Laila Brence.